Importing Analog Audio to the PC the Easy Way (Part One)

An all-digital music library would be ideal, but most people have vast libraries of albums, cassettes, and other analog audio sources—not to mention other potential audio sources, such as concert DVD movies—that require analog copying. Wouldn't it be nice to get that content onto your PC?

The catch—and there's always a catch—is that recording analog audio requires that you hand-tune each recording. Cassette and album recordings, for example, generally contain a lot of background noise, such as hiss, so you probably want to fade in and out of each song. Then you need to consider hardware and software concerns: How do you physically connect the analog device to your PC, and which software should you use to edit the audio into acceptable clips?

Most users have sound cards on their PCs, but because the quality of these cards varies from machine to machine, you need to test your card before you commit to using it for recording analog audio. My desktop machine has Voyetra Turtle Beach's Santa Cruz sound card, and I found that the quality of the Line In port was much better than I had expected.

To test the sound-card Line In recording process, I searched for the most horrible-sounding analog recording I could find—a cassette tape of 1980s "power ballads" (and you thought I wouldn't take a bullet for the team), which I played back through a once-decent early-1990s Sony tape deck. To connect the stereo component to the PC, I purchased a $4 Recoton 6' Mini-to-RCA "Y" cable, which converts the RCA-based audio outs on the cassette player into one stereo minijack that fits the Line In port on my sound card. I also grabbed a 6' miniplug extension cable, just in case I couldn't get the cassette player close enough to the computer (also $4).

After dusting off the cassette player and making the physical connection, I had to figure out how to record the sound into the PC. All Windows versions come with a handy little tool called Sound Recorder, which lets you record through your sound card's microphone or Line In ports. Sound Recorder works strictly with the WAV (.wav) format, which is uncompressed (and thus creates large files), and it offers no real editing functionality (that is, you can't fade in or fade out—two crucial capabilities I needed). Thus, Sound Recorder is unsuitable for our work, although it would do in a pinch.

By searching the Internet, I found several tools that supply the features I wanted, and I ended up using E-Soft's $15 Audio Edit 3.3 shareware tool (see Resources below) that's easy to use and full-featured. But regardless of the tool you use, the process is the same. First, ensure that the Line In port is enabled in Windows (because it often isn't). To do so, double-click the speaker icon in your system tray (or, in Windows XP, select Start, Control Panel, Sounds, Speech and Audio Devices, Sound and Audio Devices, Advanced) and clear the Mute check box under Line In if it's selected. I left the volume level at its default, about 75 percent, but you might experiment with this setting based on the volume of the recordings you create.

Next, cue up the audio, which is generally a manual process on albums and cassettes, by pressing Play on the component stereo device, then clicking record in Audio Edit or your tool of choice; the tool will then prompt you to begin the recording. A couple of recommendations: First, before you begin, make sure the audio editor is set up to record from Line In (select File, Setup, Record Input Source in Audio Edit). Also, you should record songs individually, if you can, and leave room at the beginning and end of each song so that you have space for editing. You want a few seconds of lead-in and lead-out time so that you can create the appropriate fades.

After recording the song or selection, stop the analog playback. Then you can begin editing. For my tests, I chose a drecky Bad English power ballad called "When I See You Cry," which features a hissy, quiet piano introduction, making it the perfect candidate for a fade-in (not to mention the clearance bin at Sam Goody, but that's another story). Like most audio editors, Audio Edit presents a visual sound wave display that shows you the highs and lows of the recording you just made. A flat line represents silence. First, edit the beginning and end of each song so that, if possible, you have a second or two of silence. This process won't work with some recordings, such as live concert recordings, but it should be easy with most studio tracks. In Audio Edit, you can clip audio sections by selecting them in the sound-wave display area, just as you'd select text in a word processor. Then, select Edit and Cut. Do this both for the song's introduction and the ending, where appropriate.

Creating fades works the same way. Select a portion of the introduction, then select Command and Fade In to create a fade-in effect. You might need to test this process a few times to get it just right (you can undo from the Edit menu), but you should be able to remove any start of recording hiss. Ditto for the fade out. Audio Edit also includes other editing features that might be of interest, such as level adjustments, normalization, and silence insertion, which is why I opted to pay the shareware fee. For just $15, Audio Edit is a handy tool.

Like Sound Recorder, Audio Edit works only with uncompressed WAV format, so you'll probably want to convert the recording to MP3 or Windows Media Audio (WMA) format when you're finished editing. Select File, Save to save your recording in .wav format, then select your audio conversion tool of choice. As with the actual audio recording phase, several tools can do the job. If you're interested in using WMA format, I recommend the Plus! MP3 Audio Converter LE tool from the free Microsoft Windows Media Bonus Pack for Windows XP (it's also available in Microsoft Plus! for XP), which works with both MP3 and .wav input formats (see Resources below). To convert to MP3 format, I used Logipole's Konvertor shareware tool that works with numerous audio, video, and image formats. I converted the .wav file to 128Kbps MP3 format and tested it on several media players. You can also use Audio Edit to record directly to MP3 format and avoid the conversion step.

The resulting file sounds fine but is a bit lower volume than the other MP3 files in my media collection, and, of course, the quality isn't as high as my rips of professional audio CDs. But I did a quick test with an analog copy of a DVD concert recording to see how the sound quality stacked up compared with a typical CD rip of the same song. Surprisingly, they were virtually identical when I used 160Kbps MP3 format, which bodes well for this technique. Next week, I'll look at ways to improve quality for substandard audio sources, non-sound-card-based audio recording, and some Macintosh tools as well. If you've copied analog audio to the PC, please let me know if you have any tips or recommendations and I'll pass them along.

E-Soft's Audio Edit 3.3

Microsoft Windows Media Bonus Pack for Windows XP

Logipole's Konvertor
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