Review: 5 USB turntables convert LPs to MP3s

Want to move all those great old LP tracks to your media player? We look at 5 USB turntables that can make the process easier.

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Software for capturing and processing audio

Of course, the turntable hardware won't do you any good without software to capture the input stream to your hard drive and split each song into a separate file.

It's important to note that there's no inherent connection between a given USB turntable and whatever software you use. Any USB turntable can be used with any of the included -- or other -- software.

Similarly, you can use these USB turntables with Windows, Mac, Linux or any other computer/OS that has a USB port -- as long as the system has enough processing power for the software. At least one of the accompanying programs, Cakewalk's pyro Audio Creator, ran fine on my May 2008-vintage desktop (with an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400, 4GB RAM and Windows XP Pro SP3) but was too much for my four-year-old IBM ThinkPad notebook).

I tested two Windows programs bundled with the USB turntables: EZ Vinyl Converter 3 for Windows, which is included with the Ion and Numark turntables, and Cakewalk's pyro Audio Creator LE, included with the Audio-Technica and Stanton USB turntables. For Mac users, the Ion and Numark also included EZ Audio Converter for Mac, while Audio-Technica, Stanton and Pro-Ject recommended getting Audacity.

MixMeister's EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter

EZ Vinyl Converter and the upgrade EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter (which you can download free using your Ion or Numark turntable's serial number) are from MixMeister, a software company also owned by Numark Industries. The application was created to work with the Numark and Ion turntables, but it will work with others.

EZ Vinyl Converter identifies when one track stops and another starts, and then fetches ID tagging information -- artist, album, track name, etc. -- from the online Gracenote database. In theory, all you have to do is click the mouse one or two times per track, ending up with separated, tagged tracks under iTunes.

That's true -- as long as nothing goes wrong. However, the upgrade's automatic new-track detection (which you can turn off) is far from accurate. When I tried it, it split some tracks, such as "Girl With No Eyes" from the album It's a Beautiful Day, into three files and one song, from Judy Collins' In My Life, into two files.

This means you can end up with several files with the same song name -- and will need to manually splice the files together.

EZ Vinyl/Tape Creator does let you manually indicate that a new track is starting as you record, which avoids the split-track problem. But this means you have to be at your computer as you record, clicking the "New Track" button within the few-second break between each song.

The manual tagging process is also problematic, because there's no way to listen to a track to confirm it's what you think it is -- kind of like trying to give names to photos or videos without seeing the image on your screen. Similarly, while EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter can handshake with the online Gracenote music database, which automatically adds album, artist, and song information, if there are any errors or omissions, you have to use a separate tune-tagging utility to correct the problems.

Worse, if you abort a session, the files are not user-accessible. (So if you don't finish all the steps, you have to record the album all over again.)

If you know what you're doing, and pay careful attention, EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter can let you do what you need to -- record songs from records and turn them into tagged MP3 files. But if there are any problems in the recording activity, or you can't be at the computer to indicate that new tracks are starting, you're likely to need other software.

Cakewalk pyro Audio Creator LE

Cakewalk's pyro Audio Creator LE, included with the Audio-Technica and Stanton USB turntables, is the OEM version of pyro Audio Creator. Audio Creator LE lacks some features of the full $39.95 commercial product, notably the ability to save tracks in MP3 format (it just saves in WAV format), but you can download the upgrade and use it free for 30 days, and after that, buy it for $9.95. For this review, I worked with the full version.

To record an album, you use the Editor module; the Editor is also where you do track marking and splitting, and save your files to a variety of formats, such as MP3, WMA, WAV, FLAC and AIFF. If you've got more exotic format needs, you can use Cakewalk's Encoder module to convert tracks to other formats including AU, CAF, FLAC, RAW and SD2.

Audio Creator lacks the automatic handshaking with Gracenote and iTunes that EZ Vinyl Recorder includes, and it won't auto-split tracks. However, it does a great job of letting you mark track start locations. While you're recording/editing, you see the waveform, and once recorded, you can click on the waveform to listen to it, making it easy to distinguish quiet from end-of-track and taking all the guesswork out of track-splitting. Audio Creator conveniently lets you save a session as a "project" and come back to it later.

Once you've saved the tracks, you can use Audio Creator's Tagger utility to edit in artist, album, and track text, track number, and notes. This is where an interface to the Gracenote database, or another utility to access it, would come in handy.

However, all in all, Audio Creator is a useful application for converting your music files.

Daniel P. Dern was helped in this project by David Williams, a Boston-area field sound engineer.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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