Let 'Er Rip

Audio-Technica's USB turntable spins '70s vinyl albums into MP3 gold--and I don't even have to leave my desk

PHOTO: Audio-Technica

Goodbye to Paris, goodbye to the past, we live in shadows…” Oh, excuse me. I’m listening to my favorite vinyl album—Southside Johnny’s The Jukes—for the first time in decades, using the Audio-Technica USB stereo turntable, through my laptop speakers. Now Southside and Blondie and Dan Fogelberg are going into my iPod. And then maybe I can finally say good-bye to the vinyl of my past—and pick up a little closet space.

I could have done this ­conversion without the Audio-Technica ATâ''LP2D-USB LP-to-Digital Recording System, or any of the other USB turntables you can now find for between US $90 and $300. All I really needed was a $15 adapter—to convert two RCA jacks (standard for audio equipment) to a single miniplug—and some ­software. But going this route would have meant crawling behind the audio equipment in the family room, unplugging various cables, and sitting there the entire time with one hand on the speed switch of my old, failing turntable, which doesn’t always hold its position by itself. Way too much trouble. I was willing to tackle my pile of vinyl albums only if ­conversion was easy and mostly automatic.

The Audio-Technica system lists for more than $200 but is available at retail for about $100. It includes cables for connecting to powered speakers, traditional stereo systems, computer audio, and USB inputs. There was something thrilling about unpacking the USB turntable; it really was a trip down memory lane. Slip the rubber mat over the ­spindle, pull the safety cover off the needle, and remove a mysterious round black plastic gizmo. (It was, of course, the adapter for 45-rpm records. Now I just have to find my old 45s.)

It took me less than 15 minutes to unpack and assemble the turn­table, find the right cable, plug the USB cord into my Apple PowerBook G4, and get the included Audacity ­software loaded and set up. The instructions were clear, simple, and left little out; hats off to Audio-Technica for the best user manual I’ve read in ages. Within the hour I was back to ­reading eâ''mail, this time with Blondie ­blasting through my computer ­speakers. Unlike ­digital copying, vinyl ­ripping ­happens only in real time—plus another 45 ­seconds per track for me to chop up the file into tracks and save them in MP3 format. Fortunately, most of this happens in the background, so you can listen while you rip.

I’d used Audacity before—to ­handle voice files—so I knew a few shortcuts, like zooming way out on the sound wave image that represents the data. You want a bird’s-eye view that lets you see the breaks between tracks without a lot of scrolling.

All the track titles ended up with the same name, reflecting either a problem with Audacity or with the way I used the software. Renaming the tracks is easy. On the plus side, iTunes filled in most of the cover art automatically. Sound quality was fine; there was an occasional pop that reminded me that this was a vinyl track, but even through headphones it was more nostalgic than annoying. (I could have used Audacity to clean up the noise.)

Does Audio-Technica’s USB ­turntable make converting old LPs so easy that I’ll actually do it? Yes, it does, if only for financial ­reasons. On average, an album costs about $10 to download from iTunes, so the system can pay for itself in just 10 albums. Or 12 or 13 albums.

I’m going to hand the whole ­project off to my kids, who would probably rather rip vinyl than wash windows to earn a little extra spending money.

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