edmullen dot net
The Computer as a Music Playback and Recording Device

Written by
Edmund J. Mullen
Alpharetta, GA 30004
Original - October 2000
Revised - 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009

cd

Okay ... most of this is horribly outdated. And that's all I have to say.

INTRODUCTION

January 2009 - I was reviewing this page today and had forgotten how long ago I wrote this. Some references are almost a little antiquated. Although, as a general overview, I think it's still relevant. If you should find any errors please let me know.

Unless you've been living under a rock for quite a while, you've heard the buzz about MP3 music on the personal computer. And, judging from what people ask me, or the blank stares I get when I talk about it (a common occurrence for me), a lot of people have heard the buzz but don't have much understanding about the potential all of this represents on a personal level.

NOTE: Go to this page for a quick overview of how I use my PCs for live music recording.

NOTE - For current info on my systems see: This page

The notion of using a computer for listening to music (or creating a library of songs on a PC) can be very daunting for most people. Marrying your computer to your stereo to let you get away from the computer desk is another level of complexity. And making it convenient via a local area network (LAN) is another prospect altogether. This isn't intended as a do-it-yourself guide. Rather, it's a look at some of the issues involved and some of the specifics of what I've come up with to satisfy my own needs. Hopefully you'll find something of use and interest here.

OVERVIEW

Convenience

In the dark ages of audio, about 1985, we used to play music with a turntable and a needle scratching a flat vinyl disc called an LP (Long Playing phonograph record - also called an "album"). Why? It was pretty much all we had. And it wasn't all that different from what Thomas Edison did when he invented the basic technology.

Oh, we also had audio cassettes but they were, for me, only something I used when I wanted to make a custom tape to play in the car, to make a copy of an LP for a friend, or to do some live recording of my own performance. There were pre-recorded cassettes of the latest albums available at the record store but the quality generally wasn't as good as an LP. At least not until later years when they got the high-speed duplicating technology for mass production perfected.

Still, the combination of LPs and cassettes was pretty useful. LPs were how we amassed a library of music to listen to and cassettes were how we shared the music we loved with friends. It was all fairly affordable and not too hard to use. The turntable and cassette deck (recorder/player) were hooked up to your stereo system, you turned it on, put an LP on the turntable, a cassette in the tape deck, and pushed a couple of buttons. It worked in real time so a 30 minute album side took, well, 30 minutes to copy. And making a custom compilation of songs from many different albums was a tedious and time-consuming affair requiring some real patience and manual dexterity in handling the machinery and the media. So, making a 30-minute cassette side of this type actually took a lot longer than 30 minutes because of all the handling (and cleaning) of the LPs and starting and stopping of the tape deck.

Then Compact Audio Discs (CDs) came along. Smaller, easier to store, easier to handle, very rugged, they had great advantages over LPs which were prone to deteriorating sound quality and damage.

Sound Quality

Ah, "The Great Debate!" Does anyone even care about this anymore? Well, you might as well read on because we're having the same debates about new formats like MP3.

CDs also brought a great hue and cry from the audiophiles (I used to consider myself one) about the sound quality as compared to a pristine LP. I'll try not to get too bogged down with that argument but I will agree that there are real differences that a trained ear can hear. The main point, from a practical standpoint, is that very few LPs were pristine once the shrink wrap was broken and couldn't possibly remain that way. And it was not uncommon to have to return a brand new LP because of manufacturing defects. My opinion is that CDs were a huge step forward in quality, my own trained ear notwithstanding.

An interesting thing to me (and maybe only me) is that this same argument has been going on in the film vs. video camp. Yes, film has real technical superiority over video, even High Definition television (HDTV). But, again, from a practical point of view, the films you see in your local theater aren't necessarily brand new nor are these prints always copied with much care and attention to quality control. So, sure the film has greater contrast ratio. It has much better color capability. And it's bigger! But if it's got scratches and dust marks all over it, it looks like crap compared to broadcast and cable TV shows. Even a rental tape tends to look as good to the untrained eye. And now there is DVD which has amazing quality. And you can pause it when you need more popcorn. Convenience. A more pleasant experiencing of the art by the viewer. Works for me.

I actually prefer the sound of a high-quality LP to CDs. But I dove into CDs because there is no way to escape the fact that an LP is destroyed by playing it. It will never sound as good as when it came out of the pressing plant. If you lightly run a phonograph needle over the same place on your arm (even at only, say, 1 gram of stylus pressure) repeatedly for an hour you'll get the idea.

And everyone is human and subject to accidents - like having a treasured LP slip from your fingers and drop onto something hard that ruins it forever. Or having the dog bump into the stereo cabinet while an LP is playing and having the stylus go racing across the surface of the record leaving an audible scratch on every track.

Then there were other concerns like having to isolate your turntable from the vibrations of your speakers. 20 or 30 years ago I was very into this sort of minutia. There were special turntable platforms filled with sand, or balanced on rubber or springs, and all sorts of arcane stuff we went through to get rid of the odd glitch in the system. Speaker isolation was one of my favorite topics back then. Many articles were written in the audiophile magazines detailing all manner of things you could build yourself to dampen the vibrations from your speakers so they wouldn't induce distortion into the turntable during playback. It was fun at the time to fool with all that. I'm a little nostalgic about LPs but I'm sold on digital. Now I just want my tunes.

The cleaning and caring for LPs was another form of insanity. I've spent far too much money over the years on cleaning and maintenance products for LPs. And far too much time using them. My wife finally brought me to my senses when one night years ago she said, "I just don't want to listen to music anymore. It's too damned much trouble!" How sad. So, I let up on my rigid adherence to careful (read "compulsive") handling of our records. And I'm glad CDs came along because we both then got sloppy about how we handled the LPs (although still probably more nutty about it than the average person) and a bunch of them suffered for our lax ways.

But I did suddenly realize that I was a slave to the technology and not the other way around. The whole point is to be able to enjoy the music! CDs are so much more durable than LPs, don't require the finicky handling, and, frankly, sound just fine. I can even turn up my stereo to house-shaking levels (gee, I love sub-woofers!) and the vibrations don't bother the CD player - just the neighbors.

With CDs I could (and still can) make compilations. And it's easier than with LPs because I have a ten-disc programmable CD player. Still, even with a ten disc changer, I got frustrated with swapping discs in and out of the player to get just that right mix of tunes I wanted to hear. And it was annoying to have the great quality of CDs in the house and have to suffer the lesser quality of cassette tapes in the car. Oh, I could have gotten a CD changer for the car but I couldn't make my own CDs. Frustrating.

Then along came CD recorders (or "burners"). This can be a stand-alone component you hook up to your stereo or computer, or a drive you install in your personal computer. Burning my own custom CDs was a great partial solution. Works great for the car changer application. My wife and I both have cars with 6-disc changers and I make CDs with various tunes on them for each of us. But, for the home it's still somehow never exactly the right combination of tunes for the mood and moment.

Now, I can hear people clamoring out there, "But you can get a 200-disc changer now! And some are really cool with displays that have several lines and you can hook up a keyboard and do all sorts of cool stuff with them!" Yep, true enough. And if you don't want to fool around with computers, there's your solution. But I DO like computers, I own four of them, and I'll be hanged if I'm going to go from my computer monitor to a dinky little LCD display on a physically huge stereo component. I wanted a solution on my PC for this mess!

And then I discovered MP3. The software is relatively cheap or even free, the hardware is reasonable, and I can have a library of thousands of tunes I just point and click at and instantly hear anything I want to.

Are you having some friends over who love music? Well, of course you'll have the stereo going when they arrive. And, as the music plays in the background, you'll enjoy each others' company and chat. Until something strikes your friend's ear and he says, "Hey, who's that singing?" With my system all I do is move the mouse and up pops the answer. I can even show my buddy some of that artist's other work on the computer screen. And, if my friend really likes the album, I can click a couple more times and order the CD for him from Amazon.com without stopping the music and without going upstairs to my office to my main computer. Very handy, eh?

It's so convenient and you just don't get that sort of multiple functionality with a dedicated CD changer. Not to mention how impressed everyone is by it. And this is just the beginning. Let's see what other tricks this marvel has in store.

A SYSTEM DESCRIPTION

The system I have lets me do the following:

I am a happy guy! And, yes, I am a little nuts. You're not the first person to make that observation so don't get all excited.

Confession Time

Amassing this library of songs on my PC was not a trivial task by any means. It was not a matter of mere hours, or even days. It took me many many weeks to convert all of my CDs. I've yet to tackle all the LPs, even the relatively few out of the hundreds I have that I would care to have instantly available on the computer system. But I do now have over 13,000 songs available on my system. And I've gotten the processes for doing all of the cool things above pretty much down pat.

The cost of the hardware and software is not cheap. (2009 - Although, it's a fraction of the cost in 2009 that it was when this was first written.) However, I already owned two computers when I first wrote this and the third was an upgrade I'd have done anyway, so I view as trivial the extra components and software in terms of the convenience I now have.

The sweat equity I've invested in all of this is incalculable (my wife hasn't yet figured out what I'm worth per hour, even after 30 years) but it was a labor of both love and fun. I'm into gadgets and music. Or, as I once said to someone in response to a query about my interests: "Guitars, cars, and cigars."

Today I listen to music played back almost exclusively from my computer systems. There is the occasional time when nostalgia strikes my wife and I and we start hauling out old LPs for a music fest. But that's rare enough that I haven't gotten around to converting the LPs. This is NOT all I have to do with my time! Believe it or not.

In my house I have a simple (self-installed) Fast Ethernet local area network (LAN) and four PCs. One is in my office (call it the "server") on the top floor of the house. I also have a 1.3 GHz IBM laptop (call it a "client") which I can plug into the network either in the family room one floor down or in my office (for convenience when I'm doing setup or maintenance on the systems), or wireless pretty much anywhere in the house.

The server in a network is simply the machine which gives the client what it wants. The client is the one which gets what it needs from the server. Like in a restaurant where the nice fellow comes up and says, "Hi! I'm Alan and I'll be your server tonight. May I get you something from the bar?" And, being thirsty clients, you respond, "Hi, Alan, I'm Ann and I'll be your client tonight! Get me a double vodka martini and make it fast!"

Neither of the client systems is state-of-the-art in terms of speed or capacity. But they do the trick and they're not yet failing me in running the software tasks I ask of them. Many people who have bought computers in the last couple years will have even more powerful machines (and have paid far less than I did) than these. Such is the world of computing. The point is that everything I'm describing here can be done with technology that is many years old, at least. Newer hardware simply does everything faster than I could before. Everything always gets cheaper, faster, and better.

In the family room I have two cables running between my stereo and my laptop. They provide outputs from the laptop to inputs on the stereo system and outputs from the stereo which provide signals from the stereo to inputs on the laptop. Using any of the MP3 player software programs (WinAmp, MusicMatch Jukebox, etc.) on the laptop enables programming and storing play lists of MP3 song files over the Ethernet. There are currently over 9,000 MP3 files (and a bunch of original recordings in WAV format) stored on the server in my upstairs office. All instantly available to the system in the family room.

I also have a mixer and microphones in my office, the output of which feeds into the sound card on the server for live digital recording when I'm learning a new song or making a CD for friends. I can also convert these WAV files into MP3 files and email them to friends. I can even do voice or instrumental overdubs using the system.

I can take CDs and turn them into WAV files stored on the hard disk. The WAV files can then be encoded into MP3 files which take up far less room. Once that is done I can delete the WAV files (or let the software do that automatically).

In the family room the laptop not only plays back through the stereo system but it can also record from any source attached to the stereo system: turntable, tuner, CD player, and cassette deck, etc.

Having the recordings on the computer means you can do almost anything with them. You can edit them, combine them, even add effects to them (such as reverb and echo), or even change their pitch, turning, say, Gordon Lightfoot into Michael Jackson. (Umm, as I think about it, I'm really sorry I brought that idea up.)

Because I spend a lot of time in my office upstairs I have one output of my server's audio card running into an external integrated amplifier so when my wife is in bed asleep at night, I plug headphones into the amp and try not to sing out loud.

Installation

Where does all the "stuff" go? In my office upstairs I have a wired/wireless router, a network switch and a cable modem. There are two cables in my office, one (obviously) permanently connected to the server, the other a spare for my laptop or other system I might be working on.

One cable goes to my wife's office and a network switch. Another goes to the Family Room where it is connected to a network switch. The switch provides wired connections for my laptop and our three Tivo Digital Video Recorders.

The cable from my office to the Family Room was the killer. It runs from the switch up through the wall of the office into the attic. From there it drops down a utility chase to the basement, is threaded through the floor joists across the basement, then goes up through the wall into the family room above. It terminates there at a connector on a wall plate behind the stereo. A CAT 5 (Category 5) Ethernet cable runs from the connector to the network switch.

The laptop can access the Internet from the family room via the network (wired or wireless) and the modem in the office server. My email program is set up so that the laptop stores and accesses email on the server in the office so I am always synced up no matter which machine I might use for email.

The 9,000+ MP3 files take up about 53 GB. Still plenty of free space on the server's hard drive. Old computer axiom: You can never have too big a hard drive.

FILE FORMATS

Ok, let's talk a little nuts and bolts. Not too technical or detailed but enough so you have some idea what is going on.

A computer can store sound information in many different file formats. Each has it's place, varying degrees of quality, resulting file sizes, etc. There are Wave (.WAV) files, MP3 files (.MP3), Windows Media Audio (.WMA), and others. But these are the most common for storing music on your computer.

The sounds your Windows PC makes when it boots up, shuts down, receives an email, and the like are usually WAV files. They are good for very short sounds like these or for very high-quality copies of CD Audio discs or original recording. The compression used in WAV files usually means they are comparatively very large. A typical three and a half minute pop song might result in a file using 30, 40, 50 or more megabytes of hard disk space. It makes a virtually perfect copy of the CD song track but it's simply not practical for amassing a large library even with today's affordable huge hard drives of 20 to 60 giga-bytes.

The MP3 (and the newer WMA) format compresses audio so the resulting file is much smaller. That same 3:30 song taking up 50 MB as a wave file can be squashed into a file about 3 or 4 MB in size while retaining quality sufficient for your ears and brain to think you're listening to the original CD. Yes, there is quality loss. It can be quantified. But most of us will never hear it. And those of us who can hear it when we listen critically can learn to ignore it for the sake of file size savings, convenience, or both. This is, for the vast majority of us music lovers, about listening to the music. Not counting bits and bytes.

QUALITY OF MP3

There is certainly a compromise in any digital compression technology (CD, DAT, WAV, MP3, etc.) compared to a very-high quality analog media. However, consider that many people don't have the physical ability to hear the difference (due to below-optimum hearing). And most don't have the training to know what to listen for when comparing different formats. The more aggressive compression modes (meaning, the ones that result in smaller files and the least quality) are the ones that, when used as a comparison with a CD or LP, will fall short to the average listener.

With medium to high sampling rates (resulting in larger files and higher quality) and in a casual listening setting (not a critically structured A-B test) even a trained ear would probably not detect the difference between, say, an MP3 encoded at 128kbps and a CD. In the real world of how most people listen to music, and using the highest sampling rates (above 128kbps) for optimal quality, I contend that MP3 is indistinguishable from a CD by at least 80 percent of the people. Can a "golden ear" detect the difference? Sure. But these are the same ears that claim to be able to detect minuscule differences between the same high-quality analog LP when played on two turntables, one costing $2,000 and the other costing $2,001. That's not an ability or a problem most of us have. Or care about.

Also consider that most people aren't listening to really high-quality systems that will reproduce the subtle differences between the media. A CD played on an $89 portable CD player through a $500 stereo system is probably the norm for the average listener. And it sounds much better than a scratchy LP of 20 years ago played on the average stereo of that day.

Yes, I still like my analog stuff. It's got a warmer, richer, more pleasing sound to my ear. But, even on my stereo system with a pair of speakers that alone cost about $1,000, I play my computer. Why? Because it's more than good enough. My hearing is still excellent. (I stopped going to really loud bars before I lost the high end response.) I've a trained ear (I worked as an audio production specialist in television, designed and sold professional audio and video systems, and am a musician) and I can hear the teeny differences if I listen for them. I just choose not to pay attention to it. I'd rather enjoy the music.

Let me put it this way. I studied broadcasting and film in college. When I was taking my film courses I suddenly found myself unable to enjoy a night at the movie theater. I was sitting there analyzing the director, the actors, the writers, the lighting ... and I couldn't get involved anymore in the story. Which is why I was there in the first place. I had to train myself to turn off my critical eye and let myself enjoy the art. Same thing. I still can see all that stuff when I want to, just as I can hear differences in audio system quality. I simply choose to ignore it and focus on the content.

Another example. If you happen to be a piano player and go to a symphony concert and focus your attention on the pianist, you're going to be missing the orchestra. Does the phrase "Can't see the forest for the trees" help?

LOCAL AREA NETWORK

The first thing that actually led me to set up a network was that I got fed up trying to do large file transfers between my computers using Laplink and USB (or before that, ugh!, a parallel cable). It just plain isn't reliable. A Fast Ethernet LAN makes all drives and printers available to both machines as if they were inside each machine. For disk access the speed is almost like having that remote drive right inside the computer you're sitting at. You can simply drag and drop files to move them from one machine to another using Windows Explorer as you would to copy or move a file from one folder on your hard drive to another. You can tell your client machine to use a folder on the server as a default data location in programs such as Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Netscape, MusicMatch Jukebox etc. Incredible convenience.

For my stereo system application, the LAN makes terrific sense. The laptop has a limited hard drive that filled up fast with song files. And the drive isn't cheaply or easily upgraded. If it were upgraded, the old drive may become junk - a standard laptop doesn't have room for more than one drive. There are solutions to this but, again, more money.

Instead, all the song files reside on the server and the laptop reads them over the LAN. The server can be easily and affordably upgraded to a larger drive at any time.

Security

Do you leave your doors unlocked at night or when you're on vacation? Do you leave your credit cards and check book lying on the patio table when you're not around? Ok, then never mind. Otherwise, you might want to check out some of the sites mentioned in the Resources section.

Even if all you have is a single machine and you connect to the Internet via a modem, you still need security in the form of a firewall on your system. Should you decide to share a connection (even a dial up modem) between two or more machines using Windows networking (or any other kind), you absolutely positively need it. And you should read up on configuring Windows networking. It's default settings work well but leave your entire network exposed to hackers on the Internet. An excellent site on the Internet to read about this issue is Gibson Research at http://grc.com. You can even use the site's testing features to find out how vulnerable your computer is. It's fun to tell the site to, pardon the expression, "probe my ports." The results may astonish you, have you yanking the phone cord out of the wall, and send you running to install some protection on your computer. The part of the web site to test your security is called "Shields Up!" If your system is the typical PC running Windows with Windows Networking installed, and no one has applied any security to your PC, you are in for a big surprise.

If you are unsure of what you're doing, don't like hanging out in the attic on summer days, or just don't want to tackle it yourself, you can hire a qualified installer to run the Ethernet wiring for you. Cost? Hard to say but figure a couple of hundred dollars at least to have two points of network connection installed. It took me about four or five hours to do it myself. Not including standing around scratching my head and drinking a couple gallons of water and toweling off. It was summer in Atlanta and the attic isn't air conditioned. Also, running around buying all the parts took some time. And I spent days researching all this before I dove in. And then days more learning how to really run it.

Likewise, firewall software installation and tweaking network software for performance and security may not be your thing. There are usually local consultants who will come to your home and do this for you - for a price. Still, you should research it and learn about it so you have a handle on what is being proposed for your system before you just let someone start making changes.

TIPS, TRICKS, AND TROUBLE

Matching Levels

In an article for Knight Ridder Newspapers, Sam Diaz described his first attempt at recording an LP to a his computer as "not good." The result, he said, suffered from "feedback." This is possible but highly unlikely that it wouldn't be noticed while it was happening and only show up on playback of the recorded track.

Feedback is a term which typically refers to an electro-acoustic loop, that is, sound going into a microphone, then to an amplifier, then to speakers, then back to the originating microphone, ad infinitum. The result is that "howl" which you sometimes hear in bars when the band is setting up, or in at an arena when the sound man is a little hung over and not watching his mixer controls. In the typical home computer/stereo setup, one way this could happen is if the computer being used had a live microphone attached to it. Possible, certainly, if a laptop with a built-in microphone had that source enabled in the Volume Control program on the PC. Possible even on a desktop PC if it had a headset or other mic enabled in a similar fashion.

It is also possible that feedback could be induced by a combination of having a direct electrical loop between the stereo and computer. That is, the line outputs and inputs on the computer are both active and both connected to the stereo at the same time. It's a bit complicated to get into but suffice it to say that you should only be doing one thing at a time. Either record or playback, but doing both at once by accident is not a good thing. One time to record and playback simultaneously, and on purpose, is when you want to do an overdub, or overlay additional sound onto an already recorded file. I'm not even going to try and describe this in any detail here. "That's a whole 'nother story." as the man said.

One of the keys to doing successful high-quality computer sound recordings: make sure that you open the Volume Control, select Properties, then Recording, and de-select (or "Mute") every input device you are not going to use for your recording. Typically, the only one which should be selected is "Line" if you're recording from your stereo.

An answer provided to this fellow's problem was also odd. His friend asked if he'd adjusted the volume level on his stereo. It solved the problem. What may have happened is that he hooked up his computer to the wrong output from his stereo. You should connect your computer's input to the "Record Out" jacks on your stereo. This output is unaffected by the volume control on your stereo. If you hook up to the headphone or speaker outputs of your stereo you will have a signal that is governed by the volume control. And you will be asking for trouble. The signal levels will probably be terribly mis-matched, at the least, and may be so high as to damage the sound circuitry in your computer. Other "Line Level" or "Preamp Out" jacks may also have their level adjusted by the volume control and should also not be used.

I suspect that the phenomenon described as "feedback" was instead distortion. This results from over-driving the input to the computer's sound board with a higher level of signal than the input can handle.

Think of it this way. If the amount of power coming out of an electrical wall socket in your house is considered "huge," then the output from your stereo's speaker jacks might be thought of as "about average." Turning up with the volume control might result in the level being characterized as "sorta large." The headphone output could be called "tiny" but can be turned up with the volume control to the point of being "larger than tiny, but smaller than about average." And the "record out," or "line out," would be "teeny." And it doesn't get any bigger no matter what you do with the volume control. The line input (not the microphone input!) on your computer wants to see a teeny level. Microphone input and output signals are way smaller than line level ones. Call them "really-teeny-tiny." The point of all this is that output levels and input levels should match or you're asking for trouble.

Imagine if your computer's sound board was expecting a signal level like that from the Record Out of your stereo (teeny). And, instead, it got one of the same strength as from an electrical outlet. This is an exaggeration but it illustrates the point: inputs and outputs need to be matched in many ways (I won't go into balanced and unbalanced lines, impedance, and all that), but certainly signal strength is the most critical in what we're discussing here. By the way, don't try what I just described unless you're prepared to duck really really quickly when you plug the cord into the wall socket so you can avoid the pieces of burning computer flying around the room. It's not as bad if you hook up the headphone or speaker outputs to your computer's input. But, even then, it's still trying to ram 100 gallons of water into a one-gallon balloon with a power washer - something's gotta give.

Ins and Outs

The electrical outlet on your wall is just that: an outlet. Power comes out. In audio and video we call that an "output jack." The cord on your lamp lets you get power from wall into the light bulb in the lamp. That would be called an "input cable" in audio terms. It gets the output of the wall and inputs into the light bulb.

On stereo amplifiers the inputs and outputs typically are jacks (connectors) into which you plug a cable. If you connect a cable to an output on your stereo, the other end needs to be plugged into an input jack on some other device such as the sound card on your computer or input jack on your cassette recorder. In this instance the electrical audio (sound) signal flows from the amp to the computer. That allows you to record anything your stereo is playing onto your computer. Reverse the logic (connect the output from your computer to an input on your stereo) and you can hear any sounds your computer makes on your stereo.

Stereo systems typically use a type of connector called a "phono" (or "RCA") jack (or plug) for the line level signals I'm discussing. Phono plugs and jacks are standardized - they're all the same. A laptop computer or a sound card in a desktop/tower machine will typically use a connector called a "mini-phone" plug or jack (sometimes just shortened to "mini-plug"). There are standards - plural - but they are NOT all the same. You'll find some mini-jacks on some stereos, especially for headphone outputs. These are seldom the same size as the ones used on computers and computer speakers. If you have doubts, intermittent connections, just generally confused, or need adapters and cables, head for Radio Shack.

About Volume Control in Windows

A standard part of Windows, Volume Control is accessible from the Start menu. Click Start - Accessories - Entertainment - Volume Control. A caveat - Volume Control may have different functions and options depending on the capability of your sound card. Unfortunately, there is little or no documentation on any of these either in Windows or supplied with the sound cards or computers. The exception may be if you buy a higher-end sound card.

Also, some sound card properties are controlled through the Multimedia settings in Windows' Control Panel. Here are some things to check when recording from your stereo (or any external source). Turn off every input except the one you're recording from. Hum, noise, and distortion will likely go down quite noticeably. Also, check for adjustments for Treble and Bass. These may be found by clicking on the Advanced button in the Playback Volume Control. If no Advanced button is visible, then the function isn't available on your sound card. If you have it, how to set the controls may be tricky. I've seen tone controls like this be "flat" (i.e. no effect on the sound) when set to their middle position, which is sensible and is analogous to how your stereo is designed. I've seen others that are seem to produce boost when set to their middle position. Experiment before committing to an all-night recording session.

Lastly, experiment with setting levels on the Volume Control. This is digital recording; the need to record at high levels as with analog audio tape to maximize signal-to-noise ratio does not apply. It's better to record at too low a volume and prevent any distortion.

The levels of the different sounds your computer makes can vary wildly. Be careful to have the stereo volume turned down if you're computing and not just playing music on your PC. You can actually damage your speakers with sound from your computer.

Filtering

The other thing to be wary of is the use of programs such as Spin Doctor (which comes with Adaptec's Easy CD Creator Deluxe). These programs have functions for filtering out ticks and pops and noise when you're copying LPs to your computer. Great idea. Except that with very little effort you can set the options in these programs in a way that will ensure a bad recording.

In my experience and experimentation with Spin Doctor, the filters are very touchy and go quickly from the point of doing nothing noticeable to ruining a recording. Of course, all you really lose is time: the LP is still there untouched ready for you to try again.

Track Splitting LPs

The other feature to watch is the one which splits tracks based on silence between songs. There are plenty of songs which the program will split into separate tracks when it shouldn't. The first time I used this feature while copying an LP I found myself going a bit crazy trying to figure out why an LP side with 6 songs turned into 9 WAV files on my hard drive. Which might not sound too awful except that one song was broken into two (because there was a dramatic pause in the song) and two others were combined into one (because the gap between the LP tracks wasn't long enough.) Something else happened, which I don't remember, to account for the other odd tracks.

After I figured it out I had the choice of deleting the bad WAV files and re-encoding or using another piece of software to take the already-recorded files and edit them. Either way, lost time. The choice is a trade off. You can set an LP running and let the computer record and split it all and then deal with odd track splits. Or you can do the same thing and record one huge file containing the whole side of the LP and manually edit it later into separate tracks. My preference, when I have the time, is to record one song to one file at a time. Yes, you do have to be there to stop the computer's recording. But, it saves an enormous amount of editing time later. To do unattended recording I will simply record a whole album side to a single file and then edit it into individual files later.

A caveat: If you start the computer recording and walk away, it doesn't know when the LP has ended. It keeps recording the input signal (silence) until your hard disk runs out of room. Yes, you can delete the file and start over. But you won't be able to edit the file. You've used all the free space on your drive and there's no room for the temporary files needed to edit the original. Not to mention what might happen when the recording software comes up with an error because of insufficient disk space. Operating systems and programs do not like this at all! Programs have a nasty habit of crashing when this happens and sometimes do other nasty things in the process. Pay attention, it's a computer, it's not perfect.

COST ANALYSIS

What did all this cost? I didn't go out and just spend all this at once. In fact, I already had two computers for other reasons. You might also. But let's assume you don't own a computer and you're starting from scratch.

The specifications, performance, and price of computers and peripherals is always changing. You'll likely be able to buy much more power for less money than is described here. Also, you may only need one computer if it's near your stereo system. You may have adequate basic computers but need to add some of the components discussed. However, every time I read this page and try to update it I realize that prices and performance change too rapidly for me to keep this up-to-date. Whatever I say here regarding price will be meaningless in 8 to 12 months. Oh, ok. In December 2005 you could buy an suitable Ethernet equipped laptop for about $500. My Vision server cost about $2,500 equipped as describe on the Site Info page. Networking gear on this date would be about $200-$350 depending on "things."

On the software front, you can just get the essentials (many of which are free in their basic form) or go hog wild.

The real "cost" in this project was the time spent: many weeks to encode all the MP3 files; 5 sweaty hours spent drilling holes, fishing cable, and installing wall plates and connectors; a couple of days of shopping; and untold hours of reading, setup, and debugging. But it all works and works like a champ. I have the best music system I couldn't even imagine just a couple of years ago. And I had a lot of fun figuring it all out.

RESOURCES

Here are some of the links and resources I used to educate myself a bit before I jumped into this. As with all Internet references, they may not still be accurate. Holler at me if you find a dead link. I can't guarantee I'll find it for you but I'll try. There are links to hardware vendors, software sources, and general information sites such as magazines and universities. I've highlighted the ones I particularly liked. However, there's no substitute (other than paying and trusting someone else) for being educated about your computer. It's not just a matter of being able to do what you want, of being able to troubleshoot a problem, it's a matter of your security.

Your biggest source of information, inspiration, and assistance may very well be sitting in the office next to you or in your personal phone book. Ask co-workers and friends if they can help.

http://www.roxio.com - Easy CD Creator

Lantronix Tutorials - Excellent tutorials!

http://www.laplink.com - Laplink software for keeping two computers synchronized (I no longer use this)

http://www.linksys.com/ - My Ethernet switch and PC Card NIC are LinkSys products and the site has a lot of valuable educational information as well

http://www.dlink.com/ - I also have some Dlink Ethernet gear and it's pretty good.

http://grc.com/ - Gibson Research - go test your security

http://www.cs.bsu.edu/homepages/peb/cs637/ethernet/concepts.htm

http://www.hardwarecentral.com/hardwarecentral/tutorials/158/1/

http://www.iana.org/assignments/port-numbers

http://www.zonelabs.com - GREAT firewall software for free

http://www.arin.net/whois/index.html - When your firewall reports that someone may be trying to penetrate your security you can go here and look them up and find out where the probe is originating. Read up on this before you start sending out nasty emails. It could be a false alarm because of the way the Internet works.

http://support.microsoft.com/support/

LIVE AUDIO RECORDING, MP3, AUDIO SOFTWARE AND INFO

This page has a brief description of how I record, software and hardware used, my guitars, etc. It includes software for recording, editing, converting formats, playing mp3 files, encoding, ripping, etc. Additionally, there are a few links to sites with info on recording techniques.


This page last changed: July 24, 2015 - 01:51 PM USA Eastern Time

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