Records have had a rough time since music went digital. First the compact disc came along and sent LPs to the back bins of record stores, and then MP3s and the iPod made them even more of a relic. But vinyl has survived, and now you can use a USB turntable to turn analog LPs into digital files that will play on iPods and CD players. The Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB is one of the most affordable USB turntables available and makes the analog-to-digital conversion a simple, though time-consuming process.
A NO-MUSS, NO-FUSS TURNTABLE
The AT-LP2D-USB is a very basic turntable, with no bells or whistles, and few controls or adjustments to make. With a case made of lightweight plastic, and an aluminum platter, the total weight of the system is only 13 pounds. The turntable is automated, so the tonearm cueing control and start and stop switches are used to control the action. There is also a button to switch between 33 1/3 and 45 rpm records and another lever for 7-inch and 12-inch records. There are no user-adjustable anti-skating or tonearm balance controls, and the stylus can be replaced, but not the cartridge.
A pair of RCA jacks hard-wired to the back of the turntable and a switchable stereo phono/line level pre-amplifier allows you to hook the AT-LP2D-USB into your stereo to monitor recordings. Alternately, you can use the RCA-to-3.5 mm (female) cable to output the music to a pair of headphones. You don’t need to have monitoring set up in order to record to your computer, but what fun is that? Before recording, you need to install either the Cakewalk Pyro 5 application (for PCs only), or the Audacity software application for Mac or PC to your computer. Both applications are supplied with the turntable. Installing the Pyro 5 or Audacity software is pretty straightforward, and the documentation is very clear and thorough on the whole.
THE DIGITAL SCENE
To set up the turntable for recording, you hook up a USB cable (included) to your computer, launch the Pyro 5 or Audacity application, and select a location on your drive to store the files. I used Pyron 5 for this review. The simple interface has a Start Recording button and a volume meter that displays the output levels as the albums play. Recording is remarkably easy: hit the record button, play the album, and when it’s over hit the stop button. Unless you have sturdy flooring or a solid equipment rack in the room where the turntable is located, the tonearm/stylus may skip if you walk near the turntable, as it did during my testing. The only other problem I ran into was the drive belt slipping off once, but that was easy enough to fix.
Once the album is recorded, it’s stored as a .WAV file, which is the raw, uncompressed data that amounts to about 30MB per track. At this point, you may want to use the Pyro or Audacity application to split the tracks, and use the provided digital filters to remove pops, clicks, and hiss. Unless the album is really trashed, though, I would suggest not using these filters, because they tend to flatten out the sound and remove too much of the detail, contrast, and dynamics that make vinyl special in the first place.
After you finish touching up the tracks (or not), you can convert the file to either WMA or MP3, depending on what type of portable device you have. Keeping a copy of the album in the .WAV format is always a good idea, too, so you’ll always have the original, uncompressed recording.
AND THE RESULTS… Two of the LPs I recorded with the system were Kelly Stoltz’s excellent new album, Circular Sounds [Sub Pop], and Wynton Marsalis’s Think of One [Sony], which had a good many scratches because I played it non-stop back in the early ‘80s. After I lowered the stylus on the Stoltz album, I noticed that the recording levels were pretty high, so I adjusted them using a menu, and then hit record. When it was finished, I decided to split the tracks (so I could skip through tracks on a CD), which took about 15 minutes. It’s a mundane but simple process that you would much prefer to have automated. Another downside of Pyro 5 is that you can’t download and associate artist, album, and track information for LPs, so you’re stuck doing it manually. All of this manual, post-recording work amounts to a serious time commitment if you want to record, convert, and catalog an entire album collection. It’s no wonder that services on the Web that transfer LPs to CD charge $20-$30 per album.
In terms of sound quality, the biggest factor is the condition of your records. Overall the AT-LP2D-USB offers admirably neutral tonal balance, though it is not the last word in definition or detail (nor would you expect it to be at this price). I did compare the sound quality of the AT-LP2D-USB to another USB turntable I have, the Stanton T.90, which is a more advanced DJ rig that costs about $400 (about twice what the Audio Technica does). The Stanton sounded noticeably better—with more lively treble and smoother bass—and this was probably due to a higher-quality cartridge/stylus assembly. That said, the AT-LP2D sounds fine, so that it is likely to meet, though perhaps not exceed, typical users’ expectations.