I don't know whether to call this a Tutorial or a Learning History. Each tidbit of knowledge was hard-won -- but -- I might still be off-base. I invite any expert (i.e., anyone who knows more than me) to point out a better way.
My mother isn't much of a saver, but she did manage to keep about 25 records from the 1940s. Not Bing Crosby, not Benny Goodman, these records were burned by my mother's family on their own hulking recording machine. They are precious, of course, but also full of silliness. Heirloom material, but perhaps not up to Smithsonian standards.
Listen: Here's an example of how they set up their recording sessions. This is my Aunt Mary at about 1 AM, at a 1944 Halloween Party.
First advice: Use a commercial service
If you only have a few precious 78s to convert, use a professional service. I did this with the first 3. I used AVConvert and was very happy with the results.
But meanwhile, I invested in a new turntable, so I was intrigued by the thought of doing the conversion myself.
Preparing the records: careful cleaning
Getting crap out of the grooves is a good first step. Basically, I modified the instructions given by John Wright (see link). I stood at the sink and dribbled some Dawn dishwashing detergent around the edges. With a fat damp calligraphy brush, I drew the detergent and some lukewarm water around the grooves. And I rinsed. I tried to keep the labels dry, but the forces of gravity being what they are, the edges did take on some moisture. If these were rare Glenn Millers for resale, I might have freaked out, but really the water didn't seem to hurt. Overall, this was a kind of dreamy thing to do on a Saturday afternoon.
I washed both sides, then laid them out on paper towels to dry. Don't play them wet. (Apparently, there are people who deliberately play vinyl records wet for better sound and less groove damage -- yikes.)
Don't use alcohol-based vinyl record cleaners. 78s are made with shellac and you wouldn't want to use any solvents that would start melting the surface.
I have flashes of technical skill, but audiophile rigs was never one of them. I was probably the only college kid in 1968 who played Beatles LPs on a monaural lo-fi record player. Now I have a 90's era Technics mini-stereo system, made when everyone was throwing out their turntables.
I bought a Stanton (STR8-100) turntable from Amazon because it purported to connect "directly" to one's computer. Ha. This is a DJ's turntable -- definitely for really cool people who know just what they are doing. It didn't even come with a needle (or, what I learned to refer to as the cartridge and stylus).
It gives me a headache to think of all I had to learn about grooves and styluses (excuse me, styli). To make a long story short I sprang for a good Stanton cartridge (about $30) and a stylus specifically made for 78s (about $50 from the Needle Doctor). Amazingly, I got it all connected (another long story truncated).
Recommendation: They say it eliminates a lot of unwanted noise if you capture the sound in mono rather than stereo. Switch your amplifier to MONO if it has that option. Jean-Luc Fradet explains why and demonstrates a method for directly rewiring your stereo cartridge, but it was way too much engineering for this girl.
Playing the 78s
78 rpms is fast! That, plus reasons I may not understand, means the tone arm counterweight needs to be set heavy so that the stylus stays in the groove. For some very difficult records, I learned to lightly add pressure on the cartridge with my finger and/or to manually ease the stylus over a single groove when it stuck. It's tricky -- my technique is not yet perfected.
Note from Allen Reny: "For 78's, and if your Stanton's tone arm is up to it, adjust it to about 5 grams of weight. Or even more if possible. I don't like the idea of pushing on the tone arm while it's playing. But you can do that if you are using a D-Jay turntable and cartridge. They are made for that. But don't even try if you are using a real expensive Hi-Fi equipment. Then it would be "Bang !! goes the cartridge!" Maybe that Stanton turntable had my name on it from the start.
2.28.07 Note from Day Cobb: hope you're still not using that Stanton DJ table for your 78s... From what I heard, and it makes sense, DJ tables are no good for optimal 78 speed playback due to their straight arm and rigid tracking. They're built to hold the groove no matter which direction the DJ is yanking the record. A curved arm or angled head is crucial because it allows for more optimal tracking across the breadth of the record. With a straight arm there is only a small margin that the stylus is tracking correctly, right in the middle of the record. The stylus should ride on both sides of the groove evenly, rather than pressing up to one or the other side of the groove. I think this can cause a lot of distortion and hiss, and you are not doing your records any favor by cranking the tone-arm weight really heavy to make up for that. I think the tone-arm weight should maybe only be slightly heavier than for LPs, and of course the correct stylus size is essential.
Surprise. Quite of few of these old "78s" were recorded at 33 rpm. Did you ever realize that 45 + 33 = 78? There is obviously some physics here that I don't understand.
Making the connection
Preferred: If you're lucky, your computer sound card will have a Digital or S/PDIF* In jack. A cable with RCA connectors can then give you a direct connection between the Stanton's Digital Out and your computer's Digital In.
What also works (diagramed below): Get a pre-amp at Radio Shack. Set selector switch to Phono on Stanton back. Connect from Line Out to pre-amp (cable with RCA connectors). Connect pre-amp to computer's Line In jack. (Cable needs RCA connectors on one end and mini-stereo plug on the other. Radio Shack has couplers if you need to join two different cables.)
Alternate method: Don & Carol write: "Did you know that the Stanton STR8-100 has a built-in phono pre-amp?...This built-in phono pre-amp is of fairly good quality, but some audiophiles may not think so. For those people, the phono-out allows them to connect to their own phono pre-amp, which they consider to be worthy of their audiophile tastes." Set selector switch to Line on Stanton back. Connect from Line Out directly to computer's Line In. Cable will need RCA connectors on one end and mini-stereo plug on the other. (Radio Shack has couplers if you need to join two different cables.)
The trial-and-error adventures of a stereo boob, if you must know:
I have been using this direct connection ever since: (1) RCA cables from turntable to pre-amp In; (2) From pre-amp Out, RCA to mini-stereo cable; (3) Since that is short, a mini-stereo coupler is used; (4) Mini-stereo cable to soundcard. This means using Windows sound controls rather than the stereo's, but overall I like the elegance of a direct connection. To tell the truth, I'm not sure I'm getting noticeably greater results than with Trial 3. Is this the "direct" computer connection touted in the Amazon blurb? No. I think they were referring to a connection between the digital-out SPDIF* jack on the turntable to a digital-in jack on my soundcard -- but alas, my soundcard has no digital-in jack.
I've seen lots of advice to use Cool Edit Pro or Cool Edit 2000 (which has a recommended ClickFix plug-in, but I'm a Sound Forge girl. Once I have my turntable connected to my soundcard, I set the Microsoft recording control (see Sound Capture tutorial) to record from "What U Hear" (a nice feature of the Audigy soundcard).
Then start up SoundForge, open a new document, and click on Record. Start playing the record and watch the meters. Adjust the sound on the Microsoft "What U Hear" slider till the Record dialogue meters pulse along with the sound, only occasionally hitting the red distortion zone at the top.
Another note from Allen Reny: The best way to get your Line In level set right is to play the loudest part of a song of the loudest record that you have, and then hardly ever touch it. These loud parts correspond in general to the widest part of the groove. You can determine that with a magnifying glass and just looking.
Stay with the turntable. Like I said above, you might have to gently urge the needle past a sticking point or coax it to stay in the groove.
When the record is done, stop the recording. The sound waves should fill the screen, nicely distributed vertically between +6 and -6 dB. If they are too tall and flattened or too tiny, try again. If the volume is a bit low, that can be boosted later in the process.
There's a lot of advice out there about cleaning up sound from old records. Some of it says that Sonic Foundry's Noise Reduction plug-in is outrageously expensive. It was expensive. However, it does a great job, especially for those of us who aren't quite familiar with what a healthy sound wave should look like or how to make it that way.
Save the original as is and work on a copy (in case a better clean-up method comes along). I've been saving them as mono .wav files (44,100 Hz, 16-bit).
First, I use the Click and Crackle filter for those needle-like pops. Most of the time the preset for 78 rpm records works fine.
Then, Noise Reduction. This requires taking a sample of a tiny bit of noise only, analyzing it, then applying the findings to the whole file. The instructions were very clear.
You can see what happens to the sound waves on the right.
Occasionally, I've gone through both processes twice when the first round was too conservative.
Then I try to clean up any spots where the needle went crazy -- where I might have done multiple "takes" at trouble spots -- or where the needle got stuck. Once you begin to recognize the "stutter" pattern, you can cut them out pretty easily.
I set markers to identify specific songs or voices for my own reference.
Although I've fooled around a bit with Equalization, I've generally stopped my "restoration" at this point till I know more what I'm doing and till I decide how I'm going to use the final product.
More advice from Don & Carol:
4.4.03 (rev. 3.10.2007 )
Allen's Site. How to Begin Restoring Old Records. Step by step through the process. Good workarounds if, for example, your turntable doesn't play at 78 rpm.
AVConvert. CVC Productions. High quality conversions of 78s (or any obsolete media) to CDs. Not cheap, but worth the cost for precious items.
Guide to Playing 78s. Roger Beardsley's helpful general introduction to the topic.
Easy Listening HQ. Broad ranging advice for the non-engineer.
Cleaning 78s. John Wright provides simple do-it-at-your-kitchen-sink instructions. (Poke around on this site - there's lots more.)
Needle Doctor. Source of stylus for 78s that fits the Stanton 500 AL II cartridge.
Stanton. Turntables for people who know what they are doing.
*SPDIF (say "spiddif") = S/P DIF = Sony/Phillips Digital Interface, a standard for sending and receiving digital audio signals using the common RCA connector. (I might as well tell you everything I learned along the way.)