Everything old is new again when you convert analog collections into near-indestructible digital. Nathan Taylor explains easy ways for music, video and photos to make the transfer.

We’ve all got them: the aging collection of vinyl LPs from our childhood; the family photos slowly rotting away in an album in the cupboard; the personal VHS and 8mm tapes recording some of our finest (and not so fine) moments from ages long past.

So rather than let those memories fade with the analog media on which they’re recorded – or be rendered useless as the analog equipment that plays them disintegrates – now might be a good time to start thinking about converting them to a format that will last. With digital you can make endless copies and backups, and it makes it much easier to store the media off-site.

But how do you go about converting your old media to new? We’ll we’ve got you covered right here.

Audio – converting your vinyl records

One of the good things about the MP3 revolution is that there’s actually not much music that can’t be acquired digitally. Most music can be found in MP3 or a similar digital format, or purchased on CD and converted to MP3 using free MP3 ripping software such as Exact Audio Copy (which can be found online at exactaudiocopy.de) or the simpler CDex (cdexos.sourceforge.net). Although it might gall a little to pay again for music you already have, it is generally much easier than trying to digitise your vinyl or cassette collection.

If, however, you’re really keen on doing your own ripping then you have 4 broad options at your disposal:

1. Use the line-in or microphone port on a computer or media player to capture the audio output of any analog device: most desktop PCs have both a microphone and a line-in port. The difference between the two is that a mic port typically has a high-gain amp attached, while a line-in port expects line-level audio and does not have an amp. For most recording from older sources, you’ll use the line-in.

On laptop computers this is trickier. You need to check the notebook computer manual – some simply don’t have line-in ports; in some cases there are separate ports; in others the two ports are combined and the PC detects what kind of input is coming down the wire and whether to amp the signal or not.

Some media players can also record audio, though line-in or mic ports are very rare indeed. Most media players don’t have input ports, just integrated mics – and using an integrated mic would be pretty much the same as option 3 below.

2. Use a dedicated device such as a USB turntable to capture the audio on a vinyl record

3. Acquire a dedicated CD-audio recorder and hook up the audio outputs of the analog player to it

4. Stick a microphone next to the player’s speaker and hope for the best: obviously this solution is not recommended since it will generally produce awful audio as well as pick up ambient sounds, but sometimes the technology is so old you have no other choice, such as with certain tape players that have no AV or headphone outputs.

Recording from the line-in or mic ports

There’s a pretty good chance you’ve already got just about everything you need to try this solution out: a PC with a line-in port; a player for your analog media with either AV or headphone output ports; an audio cable to string between them. If you don’t have the last, you’ll have to make a trip down to your local electronics store and get the proper cable. One end of this cable will need to be a 3.5mm stereo audio jack for plugging into the line-in port of the PC; the other will have to match the audio output ports of the player. Often that’s left/right RCA, though it could also be the older 6.3mm audio jack used for headphone output.

You’ll also need recording software. Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net) is the most commonly used, although there are various other audio capture tools available as well. Unfortunately for beginners, Audacity is a complex product that can take some learning to wield properly. We’d recommend visiting audacityteam.org/wiki/ for a guide on using the software.

What Audacity does is record all the audio coming into the PC’s line-in port as a waveform, which you can see in the main viewing area. To use it, you’d start the playback on your vinyl deck or cassette player and hit record in Audacity. Assuming the correct audio input port is selected in Audacity (you can change the recording input by selecting Edit→Preferences), the waveform of the audio will appear in the Audacity window.

The best idea is to start slow. Set the volume of your player to a fairly low level and record for a few seconds before pressing stop in Audacity. Then have a listen to what you’ve recorded to see if it’s OK. If it’s too soft, increase the volume and try again. When you hit the right level, you can go ahead and record an entire album. If you don’t see any waveform, then it’s probably that Audacity is set up incorrectly (check the wiki) or that the cable between the player and the PC is incorrect or plugged into the wrong ports.

Audacity records audio as a continuous wave. Unlike a CD ripper, it doesn’t neatly segment the album into tracks for you. You have to do that yourself. It’s fairly easy, when you’re looking at the whole waveform, to see where individual tracks begin and end because the waveform dies down to nothing because of the silence between songs. Once you’ve identified where a single tracks begins and ends, simple click and drag to select that section of the whole audio. Then you can save that individual song by selecting File→Export Selection from the Audacity menu (and generally you’ll want to choose the mp3 format to save it in).