Convert your vinyl records to digital format on Linux

Is the vinyl LP an open music format?

Posted 12 Feb 2016 by 

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Is the vinyl LP an open music format?
Image credits : 

Rikki Endsley. CC BY-SA 4.0

This is my first article for a new column here on Opensource.com about music from an open point of view. Some things I won't be doing: I won't be concentrating solely on music released under an open license. I won't be writing (much) about making one's own music. I won't be writing (much) about music theory or professional matters, or probably really very much of anything of interest to professional musicians.

I will write about music I encounter that interests me for one reason or another. I'll tell you about how to enjoy music in an open environment, like on a Linux-based laptop, desktop, or server. I'll share hardware I've purchased or tried out that works well, and some that doesn't, in an open environment. I promise to write about good places to buy music that are Linux-friendly (that is, those that don't require installing downloaders that only run on other operating systems). And I will point out some other websites, and occasionally print media, that increases my enjoyment of music.

Besides that, who knows? I can think of two great science fiction novels in which music plays an important part. Maybe I'll write on that. Maybe I'll take an in-depth look at some open music playing software. Maybe I'll share some recipes (inherently open source, I've heard) that are particularly fun to cook or eat while blasting music in the kitchen. Who knows? When things are open, the sky is the limit!

And because this column is meant to be about music, one thing I will do without fail is recommend music.

The vinyl LP as open music

I dedicate this first article to my favorite open music format: the vinyl LP. For those of you who might not know, "LP" stands for Long Playing. Vinyl, according to a Wikipedia page that I highly recommend you read, refers to the chemical compound polyvinyl chloride, which is the main constituent of vinyl LPs.

One of the reasons I like the vinyl LP so much is because it is one of the few real working examples of steampunk technology. If I were to materialize onto an alternate Earth that had never invented the vinyl LP and I explained it to a physicist or engineer, I think it's safe to say that they'd be skeptical such a thing could work at all, and they would ridicule the idea that the material could reproduce music in a high fidelity fashion.

Why? Let's look at the various components in the reproduction chain for our answer. But first, how is the vinyl LP an open music format?

The vinyl LP was not always an open music format. The V-shaped groove mechanism was invented and patented by Alan Blumlein, who worked at EMI Group, in 1931. Today, that patent has long since expired. Similarly, the original designs for cartridges were patented in the early part of the 20th century. Nevertheless, busy inventors have continued to patent various improvements on the basic designs since then. Prior to Blumlein's work, there were other patent concerns tested in the courts. But these days it seems that the stereo vinyl LP is unencumbered by patent. Good!

The mechanics of the LP

Most music is distributed "in stereo" because it is meant to be reproduced through two speakers, either close (earbuds or headphones) or far away from our ears. Stereo music reproduction creates a sonic illusion of left-to-right and front-to-back space, which can be employed to arrange a virtual orchestra in front of us, or deliver the kinds of spatial effects people of my age found oh-so-cool when we first heard Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (this Wikipedia article includes excerpts from the album for the few people on the planet who haven't heard this recording). This type of sound is accomplished by providing to listener with two independent but related streams of music that are synchronized to one another. Then, our brains put that back together as a sonic experience.

A vinyl LP must play back two synchronized independent channels of music—one for the left speaker and one for the right. This is accomplished in an ingenious fashion by cutting a V-shaped spiral groove into the record surface and modulating the inner wall of that groove with the signal for the left channel, the outer wall with the right. The modulations are then read by a stereo pickup, which is most commonly a kind of magneto-electric generator, but there are piezoelectric and laser versions as well. There are three common versions of the magneto-electric generator, all involving one coil to detect the left channel modulations and another to detect the right:

  1. the moving magnet version is where a magnet moves between stationary coils; 
  2. the moving coil version is where coils move around stationary magnets;
  3. and the moving iron version is where both coils and magnets are stationary and a small piece of iron moves between them.

The moving part is particularly interesting. Movement is created by a suspended cantilever, one end of which rests in the spiral groove, the other is affixed to the moving bits. The whole thing—the "pickup" or "cartridge"—is suspended in a box typically about 1.5cm wide by 2.5cm long by 1.5cm tall and weighing 5 to 10 grams. This cartridge is attached to one end of a pickup arm, or "tonearm," a wand typically about 25cm long, with a counter weight on the other end that can be adjusted to force the cartridge to force the cantilever to stay in the spiral groove. The tonearm is in turn attached to the base of the turntable, which also supports a motor and platter on which the record is laid.

An article by a well-known US cartridge manufacturer, The Sound Smith, explains a number of interesting details about the interface between the cantilever and the record, which is most commonly a very small piece of diamond called the stylus. Here is where those physicists and engineers on the alternate Earth would really start to laugh out loud. The points of contact between that very small piece of diamond and the record are on the order of 5 micrometers by 70 micrometers—for a modern, high quality stylus—and the static pressure of the cartridge on the record is typically on the order of 2 grams. That is, 0.002 Kg / (2 * 0.000005m * 0.00007m) = 2,857 metric tons per square meter. That sounds like a lot of pressure, but let's think about something more familiar, like the family car. As far as I know, car tire pressure is typically specified as around 30lbs / square inch, which is plenty to keep the tires looking reasonably round. The wonderful Linux utility units tells me that this is equivalent to 21 metric tons per square meter.

Ok, so we just figured out that our stylus puts 136 times as much pressure on our records as our car puts on the pavement? That's crazy!!! Why doesn't the stylus completely destroy the record? Those alternate-Earth physicists and engineers are rolling on the floor now, clutching their bellies and gasping for breath... but here is the final straw. Despite the seemingly ridiculous or even impossible nature of the whole ensemble of components, a well-recorded vinyl LP played back with a decent turntable, tonearm, and cartridge sounds wonderful.

Which brings me back to Linux.

Convert your records to digital format on Linux

What do records have to do with Linux? Well, one thing we can do with our wonderful sounding and often rare records, with the help of Linux, is convert them into a digital format. We can do this because we want to listen to them when we're not around the record player, or because it's more convenient, or simply as a backup. And even a basic desktop computer with ho-hum audio components can be used to make pretty decent needle drops. Here's what you need:

  1. A computer running Linux that contains an audio card that provides line in

  2. A record and a record player

  3. An audio amplifier with a phono in and tape out, or some other device that will convert the low-level signal coming out of the cartridge to a higher level signal compatible with your audio card's line in (magneto-electric phono cartridge signals also require RIAA equalization, which is provided within the phono pre-amplifier)

  4. Cables to connect the record player, amplifier, and computer

  5. Audacity, open source audio program (which will be in your repository)

  6. This Audacity workflow

Give it a whirl! Grab a favorite record, clean it, and rip it (to 96/24 FLAC if you can). Then, congratulate yourself on your addition to your open format music collection.

Wait, I almost forgot...

Music recommendations

All of these are Linux-friendly, so there's no need to install goofy download bloatware for other operating systems.

A super cool label I've been watching lately is Erased Tapes. I am a huge fan of Nils Frahm (thanks to my wonderful daughters, who introduced me to his music), but right now I am captivated by Kiasmos. Go listen to these tracks, and if you buy them, get the 24-bit WAV files and use FLAC (free lossless audio codec) to turn them into FLAC files.

In another direction completely, I continue to marvel at the Tallis Scholars' Arvo Pãrt tribute album, Tintinabuli. I really appreciate the Tallis Scholar's visits to Vancouver and I would love to hear them perform some of Pärt's music live one day.

And, finally, who could not be saddened by David Bowie's recent passing? Bowie was there for so many of those formative moments for me that I am now far too embarrassed (or at least too old) to mention. Sufficient to say, I'm grateful that man fell to earth. So I just went to 7digital's Canadian website (where I live) and purchased the 96/24 FLAC (yes, hi-res music for Canucks who don't use other operating systems) and downloaded it as a .zip file. Thank you 7digital, and thanks again, David Bowie. May you rest in peace.

Disclaimer: In some cases, it is illegal to make copies of LPs.

Open Music

The Open Music column is written by Chris Hermansen and covers his thoughts on how to enjoy music in an open environment, how to tinker with music using open source tools, and much more.

16 Comments

robb_nl

Dont forget to use the woodglue cleaning of vynil records before digitizing the music. http://www.openculture.com/2014/11/how-to-clean-your-vinyl-records-with-...

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clhermansen

robb_nl, thanks for posting this interesting idea. I watched the video and then did some online searching. Seems a fair number of people have tried this and I was not able to find a post along the lines of "I did this and ruined all my records".

Still it strikes me as a bit of a risky business - not really knowing what's in the glue and how it might react with the vinyl over the longer term; not really knowing if there is a residue or microscopic bits of glue left; not really knowing if there are impurities in the glue itself that could be left behind.

So, thanks for the suggestion but I think I'll give it a pass and stick with my http://www.spincleanrecordwasher.com/ which is inexpensive and seems to work pretty well.

I see at least two lovely and very expensive ultrasonic cleaners made for records, which gives me the itch to buy a generic ultrasonic cleaner and fabricate a record holding superstructure from plastic or wood. Like this http://www.tnt-audio.com/clinica/diy_ultrasonic_cleaner_e.html for instance.

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bmaynard

I have been meaning to do some type of "backup" for my LP collection. This will help me get started. Thanks for the write up Chris!

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clhermansen

BJ Maynard, as always thanks for the comments!

My equipment, as far as the audio end of things, is fine for this purpose. I haven't yet invested in a better-quality sound card for my computer.

For people with no phono circuitry in their home stereo, there are quite a few reasonably-priced phono pre-amplifiers with built-in analog-digital converters and USB, like the NAD PP-4 or the Proj-Ject PhonoBox.

For people like me who need an upgrade to the sound card in the desktop computer, there are also sound cards that seem to be more oriented to high-quality music and that get decent reviews from the enthusiast press; for example the Juli@ or the ASUS Xonar models. Some of these require additional power to work (ie more than the bus provides) so make sure your computer case and power supply will support that before you buy. And of course the issue of Linux drivers... never hurts to look at the ALSA lists http://www.alsa-project.org/main/index.php/Mailing-lists

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Don Watkins

I wish I still had all my old vinyl LPs. Alas they're gone. Great read and food for thought.

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clhermansen

Don, you're breakin' my heart! Your LPs are gone? How do you get up in the morning??? Just the smell is better than coffee...

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Don Watkins

They didn't survive one of our moves. I wish I hadn't been convinced to do that. A lot of great vinyl was sacrificed needlessly. :(

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clhermansen

I'll share a dirty little secret with you... at one point in my past, I convinced myself to part with some of my LPs ("the ones I will never listen to"). Oh well. Worse things have happened.

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MartyMonroe

Although the LP format is in the public domain, what is recorded on there may not be and you might fall foul of the law. For example, here in the UK, private copying of copyrighted material is illegal.

I might be a bit odd, but I listen to my LPs on my hi-fi - always have, always will. I wouldn't trust any of my records to wood glue or Spin Clean. I've been buying records for over 50 years and many are (probably) irreplaceable. A nice soft lint free cloth does me.

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clhermansen

MartyMonroe, thanks for the comment!

I did some digging on the "private copying of copyrighted material" matter in the UK. An interesting article on the topic is http://www.twobirds.com/en/news/articles/2015/uk/copyright-private-copyi... which completely supports your comment. How sad!!

So let's be perfectly clear here: neither I nor anyone at www.opensource.com is suggesting that ANYONE break the law. Please please please everyone know the laws in your country and how they might apply to this matter. No one wants to see you going to jail because you have music ripped from your LPs on your mobile phone. If your executive and judiciary branches of government have determined that is unfair to artists to copy material on your CDs or LPs or cassette tapes or whatever, then you should abide by that determination.

Thanks very much for reminding us of this very important matter!

And on to your next topic - I'm competely with you; the best place to listen to records is on the home hi-fi.

And as for cleaning records... there I'm not going to give anyone any advice.

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shpurk

Looking forward to reading more from this column in the future.

I'm curious as to how you/anyone may recommend digitizing a large LP collection. My question in particular is in automating/speeding up recognizing the end of one track and beginning of the next. Was considering using MusicBrainz or a similar database but it does not have a lot of the music in this large collection. This digitizing process will probably take years but we're looking to speed up as much as we can.

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clhermansen

Ben, thanks very much for your kind comment!

Digitizing a large LP collection - I sympathize. I guess I have more than 1,000 LPs but for sure less than 5,000. I can't imagine digitizing a large number of them... maybe if I were still 20, but then I probably wouldn't have so many LPs!!!

Anyway, thinking of my LPs, I bet the average number of tracks per side is around 4-5 and I think it's worth considering the manual workflow in http://manual.audacityteam.org/o/man/sample_workflow_for_lp_digitization... to pick out the tracks, put in the names and maybe make the gap silent.

You said "we" so I'm thinking you could split the tasks - have one person make the edits while another is managing the physical aspects of ripping. Remember that each side of the LP is ripped in real time, so you have 10 - 20 minutes per side to get things setup up...

It seems to me that if you can't find the titles in MusicBrainz then the likelihood of being able to automate the splitting is probably pretty low.

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Jean-Marc Valin

Grab a favorite record, clean it, and rip it (to 96/24 FLAC if you can)

This is serious overkill. Neither the human ear nor the LPs even reach 20 kHz, so 48 kHz is plenty when it comes to sampling rate. As for dynamic range, LPs don't get anywhere near the 96+ dB you get from 16-bit recording. There's absolutely no reason to rip a vinyl at anything above 48 kHz/16-bit. In fact, even from a perfect source it's useless (see http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html)

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clhermansen

Jean-Marc, thanks for the comment. As to what humans hear, it seems you are incorrect. Please take a look at this article http://www.stereophile.com/content/simple-everything-appears-simple#2IFv..., which mentions a meta-analysis carried out by Professor Joshua Rice of Queen Mary University in the UK, that should soon be published in the AES journal, and which finds that trained listeners can distinguish higher-resolution music.

As to what's on LPs, the entire recording and playback chain (well, a decent playback chain, anyway) can easily reproduce frequencies well above 20Khz; and many instruments produce harmonics at well above 20Khz.

Anyway; if you prefer to rip your LPs at a lower frequency and bit rate, please feel free!

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deandownsouth

Interesting concept, that of vinyl being an "open" format. I grew up in the era of vinyl and the early days of 8 track and cassette tapes. It was a wonderful time when album art and album sleeves where something that was extra with the music. Even to this day, when listening to songs from that era, when there was a 'pop' or 'fuzzy' sound or even skip due to some scratch or other thing on the record, I *still* hear that even on a digital recording (not one that was converted but even on one from a ripped CD). It's interesting how the ear and brain retain those elements. The first thing I would do when I'd buy a new record would be to "copy" it to tape so I can listen on my portable player and then later, in my car. Those where the days. Vinyl records are one of the few types of playback medium that has a detrimental impact on the medium every time you play them. They wear out. Digital has the clear advantage that once it is digital, there's nothing that can change the sound (and I'm talking about lossless digital and not compressed formats like mp3-although for my phone (which is my portable player now) I use mp3 at 320kb/s). It is true that the quality of the D/A converters in the playback medium can have an impact as will the quality of the amplifier and speakers/ear buds but that's true no matter what. Once the signal is analog, it can be influenced for good or bad. Phonographs have always had a "bias" due to the nature of how it works. It's just like the difference between tube and transistor amplifiers (and I hope I just didn't start a war :-) ). That's why I'm a big fan of Neal Young's Pono player and his effort to bring higher quality source to digital music. I can't say I always hear a difference (my 55 year old ears spent too much time cranking Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Sabbath, etc.) but I like that the final piece of digital music is finally available and that if we want, we have access to the highest quality digital source available-and that the quality doesn't change as long as it is in the digital. Now, if you spend all that money on high end sources and use lossless formats and then use cheap speakers or ear buds, well then...But records are no longer really "h-fi" playback IMO. Don't get me wrong, every now and then I go out to my workbench where I still have my B&O turntable and Pacific Stereo amplifier hooked up, and will pull out an album from those days and enjoy the slight "pop" as the cartridge touches down. Then sit back and roll a...well you get the idea.

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clhermansen

Deandownsouth, thanks for your comments and reminiscences. Perhaps I should write an article on "8 track tapes as an open format". Heh heh. I don't have any of those left, though I still have my cassette deck ("stored" in the basement).

As to records being hi-fi or not, I guess that depends on the compromises one is willing to accept within the definition of hi-fi. But in any case, old records still in good shape can be a lot closer to what was on the master tape back then than recent re-releases... plus some stuff is just lost and gone forever. So hang onto those records!

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Engaged in computing since graduating from the University of British Columbia in 1978, I have been a full-time Linux user since 2005 and a full-time Solaris, SunOS and UNIX System V user before that.

On the technical side of things, I have spent a great deal of my career doing data analysis; especially spatial data analysis. I have a substantial amount of programming experience in relation to data analysis, using awk, Python, PostgreSQL, PostGIS and lately Groovy. I have also built