December 11, 2008

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Audio conversion gift guide
Give a bridge to the digital age

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Is there a dad in your life with hundreds of record albums in the basement? Maybe a punk rock girlfriend with ancient college mix tapes threatening to go all warbly and tangled?

Music nowadays is digital, whether that’s in compact disc form or the ethereal MP3. Updating old recordings isn’t as hard as you might think. Pretty much everything in this category can be found at either ThinkGeek.com (a retailer) or IonAudio.com (a manufacturer).

Ion offers no fewer than eight turntables for getting your vinyl records into digital format. They all connect to your PC through USB, so in effect they act as their own sound card. Five vary mainly by their included software bundle, but three others don’t even need a computer. The LP 2 CD incorporates — go ahead, guess — a CD recorder for $360. The $249 LP DOCK, on the other hand, records straight to your iPod. Finally, $200 gets you the LP 2 FLASH. This one records to either a Secure Digital card or to the USB drive of your choice. It only supports SD cards up to 2GB, but there’s no mention of a limit on USB drives, so you could theoretically hook up any MP3 player with a USB connection.

There are those that question the whole idea of using a USB connection to import audio into a computer. Most PCs, after all, have a perfectly good sound card, and as long as the normally quiet output of a turntable is boosted by a built-in or external amplifier, there’s no need for any additional hardware. Search “USB turntable on Google” and the first sponsored link you’ll see is “Don’t Buy A USB Turntable.” It’s by a company called DAK, which, not surprisingly, sells a turntable and preamp designed for connecting to your PC’s sound card. The whole shebang, including software for recording and separating your tracks, costs $219 at DAK.com.

For getting both LPs and cassettes directly onto CD, check out the variety of turntables at CrosleyRadio.com. Four  models — the Memory Master for $450, the Performer for $300 and the Composer or Songwriter for $400each — include both a cassette player and a turntable in a system with a CD recorder. These have the added advantage of functioning as a compact stereo, complete with speakers. The retro wood-grain styling might not be for everyone, but points for the effort.

For cassette-only solutions, the hippest has to be the PlusDeck. It slips right into a desktop PC’s 5.25” drive bay like a CD-ROM drive, allowing you to record right from it. It costs about $100, but it’s not much good for laptop users, or anyone afraid of opening up their computer. For them, it’s back to Ion.

There’s just one USB tape deck from Ion, the TAPE 2 PC for $150. It’s your standard dual-deck component cassette player and recorder, complete with home stereo connections, that also connects to a computer through USB. Unlike turntables, cassette decks don’t require amplification, so it’s hard to justify this as a separate purchase if you already have a good tape player to hook up to your sound card. That’s especially true since the recording software that comes with this thing, Audacity, is open source and can be downloaded for free at audacity.sourceforge.net.

For just a USB interface and inputs for any audio source, check out Ion’s uRecord or ADS Tech’s Instant Music, both $50 at ThinkGeek.com and elsewhere. uRecord has an integrated amplifier, while Instant Music’s distinguishing feature is SPDIF input and output in addition to plain old RCA jacks.