FAQs - Analog to Digital Media Transfers
Q. Why does transferring a record or tape to CD cost more than a regular, commercially purchased CD?
A. A commercial CD or tape is a mass duplicated product, just like LP records were in earlier times. A master recording is transferred mechanically to duplicates—stamped by a press for records or CDs, and magnetically transferred for tapes. This makes for low per-unit costs at the eventual retail level.
However, converting a record or tape that you currently own into a CD involves playing back the record or tape in real time into a computer, where hardware and software convert the original analog audio signal into a digital form. ‘Real time’ means that a 45 minute record take 45 minutes to convert to digital—the process can’t be speeded up. Then, after this stage is complete, there are yet other steps necessary before the finished CD is created.
Thus, it’s a labor-intensive process, and this makes the finished costs higher.
Q. What additional steps are involved? Once the original has been converted to digital, shouldn’t it just go directly to a recordable CD?
A. It could, but the results would not be acceptable to most people. The most important difference is that there would be no tracks, and therefore no way to easily cue to, or skip over songs on the CD. Also, in the case of LP, 45 or 78 records, processing software now exists that can reduce or remove the surface noise from the original. This means the finished CD will not have pops, crackles, or ticks that were recorded along with the music when the recording was converted to digital.
Q. Is this such a big deal? The records are just like that, aren’t they?
A. Yes, but over the past three decades people have become very used to the dead silent background that CDs and other digital formats provide. It now seems ‘normal’. If you play back a CD with these analog kind of noises on your car or portable player, or even on your home audio system, you brain tends to go “huh?” when it hears them, and it takes you out of the moment, reduces your emotional involvement in the musical experience.
Also, if you are taking the time and expense to convert parts of your music library, why not have your music sound better while you’re at it? The cost to do so is a small part of the total expense.
Q. OK, but I also didn’t follow the “tracks” statement. Why wouldn’t there be tracks on the digital copy if they were there on the original record or tape?
A. The basic process begins like this: A record or tape is physically set up on a turntable or tape deck, and a computer running recording software is placed into record mode. The record or tape playback begins, and the computer records the signal, converting it into digital form as it goes. The finished recording is a continuous one, and therefore there is nothing to tell the system that one song is making a transition to the next. On most recordings, there are silent spaces between the songs, but not always.
Q. Can’t the silent spaces be used to make track divisions? My cassette deck does this if I use the “music cue” feature, for example.
A. Yes, but as usual there are limitations. The silent space can be a real track division on the original recording, or it might just be a very quiet part of the music. How would the recorder know this for sure? It doesn’t. There are no standards for how quiet, or how long a silent space may be in any commercial recording. Also, suppose the songs are a medley, and the end of one runs directly into the next? There are no silent spaces at all.
Q. So how is it done?
A. If the recording has easily definable silent spaces that actually are song divisions, software can often automatically generate track markers. These markers are used to separate the single, long recording of the digital transfer into discrete tracks, or files on the computer’s hard drive. This collection of related files is then organized to produce the finished CD.
In the many cases where the silent spaces are ambiguous or not present at all, then the track markers must be inserted by hand with a digital audio editor. This takes time, and therefore must be considered in the end cost of the finished CD.
This same editor, or some other software program, is also used to apply the noise reduction to the files, as was mentioned earlier. All this must be done before the final recordable CD disc is ‘burned’. The technicians performing this work refer to the collective recording/ editing/ sound enhancement/ disc creation process as “Mastering”. Mastering makes up the vast bulk of the time you are paying for. The cost of the CD disc and packaging for same is usually very small by comparison—only a few dollars.
Q. I have a computer, and I’m reasonably handy with using it. Couldn’t I get the necessary software and do this process myself?
A. Absolutely, with a couple of caveats. The software isn’t necessarily expensive, and in fact there are freeware/shareware programs available to do the basic recording and editing. Decent, more versatile commercial software can be had for less than $100.00, although professional versions can go to the hundreds or even thousands. It’s rather unlikely you would ever need the feature set of the pro stuff, which is geared towards actual recording studios.
The other requirement is actually the one most people trip over nowadays, which is not owning the mechanical gear needed to play back the old recordings any longer. If you no longer own a record player or tape deck, there’s no way to transfer your music. Or maybe you do still own the gear, but it hasn’t been used for years, and may not even be in working order.
Q. Good point. My record player’s been in a box in the garage for the last 20 years. Could I get it fixed if it isn’t working? Do shops still repair record players?
A. Yes, you just have to look a bit harder to find one. The shop must have some special types of test gear to work on turntables, and technicians who are familiar with and understand the requirements of this now old-school technology. Look for local, independent audio shops that have been in business for over 30 years and who do their own service; they will often be able to help or can refer you to a phono-friendly servicer. Many of these stores still sell turntables, so you can obtain a new one if repairing yours is not practical.
Q. How much will repairs cost?
A. This varies widely, but if your turntable has not been used for an extended period it may need a few hours time on the bench to get it back in good shape. Rates vary depending on the shop, but expect a bare minimum of about $75 to $100, and it could get into several hundred if your player is mechanically complicated and needs complete refurbishing and/or a new phono cartridge, etc.
Q. My old turntable (or tape deck) is a goner, and I don’t want to spend several hundred dollars for a new machine that I won’t need once I make the transfers. I would still like to do the recording work myself—I have nearly a hundred records to transfer and that would mean thousands of dollars in transfer costs! Am I out of luck here?
A. No. Look for a transfer service that will do the analog to digital transfer without the final editing and cleanup work. This means they will give you a CD with the raw digital PCM data file on it, and nothing else. You will load the CD data into your computer, with your software, and then do the rest of the mastering job yourself. Since you are taking on the most labor intensive part of the job, you can save quite a lot.
Q. I looked into that, and while it was a substantial savings, it’s still going to cost more than to just buy a turntable / tape deck. What do I do with the machine after I’m done converting my music?
A. Several possibilities: Keep on collecting music on vinyl, or even get into vintage recordings on 78s or other media—many people have found this to be a rewarding new hobby, and rest assured that there is no likelihood you will ever run out of new music to find. The history of recorded music (and other neat stuff) is over 100 years old. What is available currently on CD or MP3 is paltry by comparison.
Or, sell/donate the player to a friend or family member, so they can transfer, or simply play and enjoy their records or tapes. Or, sell it and just pocket the cash. Turntables in particular are a serious niche interest these days, and if you bought a good one, it will hold its value well if taken care of.
Q. I sent some cassettes to a transfer service and they returned two of them saying they could not duplicate them because they “are still commercially available”. Why not, since I own them? How would this violate copyright laws, which is what the transfer service told me?
A. Copyright issues are always important, and reputable transfer businesses are highly aware of them. Transferring your recordings to a CD falls into an area of law generally covered by the term “Fair Use”. If a recording you own is out of print, then copying it is generally considered fair use and does not violate copyright laws. However, if the recording can still be purchased from standard commercial sources—i.e., is “still in print”—then the transfer service would be depriving the artist and their agents of income, for income. This is not considered fair use, and the transfer service could face legal action if the artist or record company wishes to take such.
Q. This seems like overly finessing things. Am I breaking the law if I copied the cassette myself?
A. Technically yes, but you aren’t making a profit by doing so, so generally the law looks the other way. These are grey areas. A business operates under different restrictions than an individual in these instances. Besides, a very important practical consideration is that the commercial CD will almost certainly be less expensive than the transfer job, so it makes sense to just go buy it instead.
Q. So how did the transfer service know the cassette was available on a commercial CD? Did they check?
A. Yes. A reputable service will check this first, always. You can check too, generally by doing an internet search for the artist and title.
Q. My main intent in getting my records and tapes copied in digital form is so that I can move them to my iPod. Do I have to have a CD burned from the master transfer?
A. In practice, yes, but if you are doing the transfers yourself, you would have the option of just leaving your track files on your computer’s hard drive, and then moving them to your iPod or other MP3 player as needed. Hard drive storage limits are pretty much no longer a consideration these days, but remember if the drive crashes badly or is physically damaged, you would have to transfer all your analog music all over again—in real time. Tedious to say the least.
Q. Ouch. Didn’t think of that. But that’s still a lot of CDs to keep around.
A. Blank CDs are cheap, even good ones. Plain paper sleeves are fine if you’re just storing them as backups; just keep them in a safe place, with controlled temperatures and humidity. If your hard drive goes wonky, you can rip the CDs back to a new drive in a fraction of the time versus doing the whole analog-to-digital thing all over again.
Another option is to purchase an outboard hard drive, and use it to create a digital backup instead of the CDs.
Q. If I am transferring the digital files to my MP3 player, should I record them in MP3 rather than CD format to start with? Wouldn’t that save hard drive space?
A. As previously mentioned, modern hard drives are now a) very large and b) very cheap. You can put thousands of records and tapes, in full, uncompressed digital format onto one of them with beau coup room left over. It’s no longer an issue.
Remember that MP3 is a compressed audio file format from the days when the above was not true, and most people were still on a dial-up internet connection. You may not notice it on headphones, or while driving in your car, but MP3 sound quality is not as good as a CD. If you are going to the trouble to transfer a record or tape into digital, please record the file in at least CD level quality. Software in your computer can easily downconvert the CD format to the more modest MP3 whenever you need it to. It can’t put back in the original quality once it has been taken out.
Q. Is it more important to transfer tapes first, or records first? A friend of mine said that tapes have a shorter storage lifespan than records, and so are in greater need of preserving in digital format. Do tapes really go bad?
A. Transfer your rarest, or most favorite recordings first, whatever the format. That being said, it is true that tapes are not as durable as records are, even assuming both have been stored under good environmental conditions. All tapes very slowly demagnetize themselves, and so lose high frequencies on playback, making them sound dull or even have hard to understand vocals on playback. This problem is more acute the older the tape is. Tapes from the 1960’s and before are at greatest risk, because the magnetic material on them was primitive compared to tape made decades later.
Q. Can’t those high frequency losses be fixed with software?
A. Not very well. Some improvement can be made, but it is a much harder issue to deal with than the surface noise on records. Also, tapes sometimes develop mechanical issues that make playback a problem when attempting the transfer. This can require a special, risky treatment known as “tape baking” to correct.
Q. I’m baking my tapes?
A. Please don’t. This procedure is needed on some very old tapes—open reels from the 50’s and 60’s mostly—to prevent the tape from dragging across the tape heads and sticking or squealing as it plays. It occurs because the chemical composition of the magnetic coating on the tape has changed over time, and now creates a lot of friction instead of sliding smoothly by the tape heads and guides on the deck as it is supposed to.
Heating the tape in an oven, in a very controlled fashion and at just the right temperature and humidity can correct this problem at least long enough to make a transfer. There is no permanent fix for this stickiness problem. The technique should only be done by professionals unless you are willing to risk destroying your tape if you make a mistake.
Q. My record collection includes large numbers of 45 RPM singles. Do I have to copy them as one single to a CD? That seems wasteful.
A. No, you can place as many of them as will fit on a single CD, which can hold up to 74 minutes in total. You will need to inform the transfer service of the desired playback order so they can arrange the files the way you wish. At an average of 3 minutes each side, you can get about 24 sides, or 12 discs on each CD. If you need more, just keep adding additional CDs.
Q. Same for 78s?
A. Yes. Transfer to CD is especially beneficial for 78s, which are the most easily damaged of the various disc formats out there. Classical music lovers can also benefit by having long symphonic recordings that originally spanned a large number of discs placed onto a single, uninterrupted CD version.
Be aware though that costs can be higher for 78 RPM transfers, due to the nature of the recordings. Different playback equalization curves, the inability to use conventional LP cleaning chemicals, the need for greater noise reduction techniques, special stylus (needle) sizes etc. can make this work more challenging than LP or 45 transfers. Many transfer shops will prefer to quote on vintage recordings rather than flat rate them.
Q. How about really old or oddball formats, like Edison cylinders, wire recordings or aluminum or lacquer discs? Can these be converted to digital also?
A. Any format can be converted, as long as the transfer service has the machines to play them back with. Only the very most specialized shops can handle items like those mentioned, but they do exist. Expect prices commensurate with the rarity of the media on these.
Q. Why is there so much price variation on transfers, even on “normal” stuff like LP or audio cassettes? I checked around and got a huge range of costs quoted.
A. It largely depends on the specifics included in the serivce for a given price. Some shops “flat-rate” jobs, other break jobs down to the individual steps involved. Some figure on basic transfers, other are very fully-featured, such as including track creation, noise reduction, editing services, cover artwork, label printing for the CDs, etc. etc.
Find out exactly what you are getting for what you are paying, and then the comparisons will be easier. As always, beware of any price that seems way too cheap compared to the mainstream—it probably is bogus in some fashion or other. Most LP to CD jobs come out around $20.00 to $50.00 per disc, audio cassettes being similar. Custom work or vintage/antique format recording prices are highly variable, and are often quoted.
© 2012 C.J. Huss | Site design by Ninja Fast