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In The Lab
Retro Music Capture
by chris

The In-store Clinics we held on September 24 brought some back some early audio capture memories back for me. The clinic I refer to was on Ripping and Burning CDs, with some demonstrations of how to do these activities using iTunes or Windows Media Player 10 and a CD-R drive. I doubt that most people will just stop at burning the same music that they extract from their audio CDs. I know I want to be able to change the order, combine favorite tracks from different CDs, remove others, or make a CD with a little more variety. I've heard that there are even people out there that do other things with the music they digitally extract from CDs, like listen to them on tiny MP3 players (what will they think of next?)

But what if your favorite music is not available on CD and all you have is some gigantic black disk with this tiny hole in the center? What if you want to listen to talk radio or listen to the audio track of a show from the comedy channel on TV? (Podcasting? What's that?) The TV show might be easy if you have a TV Tuner card installed or one of the Media Center PCs. Otherwise, you will need some way of connecting some external equipment to your computer's sound card. Phonograph players, like Microphones, only produce very weak signals and must be amplified to get something usable.

Recording to your sound card is not that difficult. Even the most basic card will usually have at least three connections, one for line-out (or speakers); one for a microphone; and one for line-in. While you can connect a microphone to the "mic" connector to record sound from this source, you cannot usually connect a turntable directly to this jack and get anything useable. This means you need to connect your turntable to an amplifier (it probably already is...) and then attach the amplifier to the computer's line-in connector. By the way, this same hook-up works for just about any type of audio input. You can connect an audio patch cable from your AM/FM tuner, reel-to-reel, cassette, VCR or even an 8-track tape player to the amplifier just as easily. (Okay, maybe not 8-tracks...)

Wacom Intuos3 9x12 USB Tablet
Click to enlarge

This configuration allows you to feed any of the different sources through the amplifier, and into the computer where you can use your audio capture program to convert the analog sound into digital data. If you plan on creating sound files of your old LP (Long Playing) records, you are probably going to want more than just a program that captures sound. Phonograph records have all sorts of annoying characteristics, including hiss, crackle, and pop (sort of like listening to a breakfast cereal.) Sound editing programs can filter out many of these problems, and may allow you to do other enhancements as well such as increasing the tonal range, adding echo or reverberation effects, mixing tracks, or fading-in or out as desired. Besides audio editing applications that are included with CD-burning software like Ahead Nero and Roxio CD-Creator, you may be able to record from within your music player software like you can with Music Match Jukebox.

Side Note: Some of these features are useful if you want to take sound "clips" and add them to your home movies, and it's easy to do with most DVD video recording software.

If all you are trying to do is capture the sound file without any of the enhancements, you can use something as simple as Windows Sound Recorder which is available in the Programs/Accessories/Entertainment group. If this is missing on your Windows system, use Add Remove Programs in the control panel to add in the multimedia Windows component. An obvious limitation of this program is that Sound Recorder only records 60 seconds of audio before stopping. To record longer programs, you can work around the limitation by creating a large blank file and then editing over the top. Here's how to do that:
Select the source and set the recording volume to zero:

  1. Open your Audio Mixer by double clicking the speaker in the system tray.
  2. From the Options Menu select Properties.
  3. Change the select to Recording and click OK (You should now see the Recording Control volume mixer.)
  4. Select your input source - Line-In, but set the volume level to zero for this step.

Record 60 seconds of "silence":

  1. On your Sound Recorder, click the red dot to start recording 60 seconds of "silence".
  2. From the File menu in Sound Recorder, click "Save As". At the bottom of the window, click the "Change" button. Select the quality / format of the file you want to record in, such as "PCM 44,000 kHz, 16 Bit, Stereo". Enter a file name and location and save the file. I called mine "quiet60.wav".
  3. When you are ready to record your long audio track or program, or to make large template files, select Open from the file menu and select the new quiet60.wav file.

Insert multiple copies of the silence file to make a longer file:

  1. From the Edit menu, select Insert file and pick the same file.
  2. Repeat step 1 until your file is the desired length, then choose save as and pick a new name like quiet_5min.wav, quiet_10min.wav, etc. (One thing you will notice is that the time counter of the program only goes up to 999.99 seconds and then it starts over at 0.00; learn to live with it, or get a "real" audio editing program.)

To record your longer audio track, open a "quiet file" that is long enough, select the active Recording Control (Line-In) and the volume slider to the desired level, and then click the red record button on the Sound Recorder. When done, choose "Save as" from the file menu to save your new file. The Windows XP version of Sound Recorder allows you to convert the files to MP3 and other formats before saving, or use the default PCM Wave file format.

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