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How to make digital copies of your vinyl records, CDs and tapes

When’s the last time you set foot in a record store? If the thought sounds quaint to you, you’re not alone. In 2018, streaming music overtook physical albums in terms of sales for the first time — and since then, streaming platforms have only continued to expand their reach.

The lasting effects of this shift are impossible to ignore. Millions of people no longer own most of the music in their collections and are able to carry hundreds of albums in their pocket at the same time. Tap or click here to see which streaming services give you the most music for your money.

But those of us with big physical music libraries aren’t about to pay twice for the same songs we already own. Instead of signing up for a bunch of new services or charging your credit card for music downloads, here’s how you can take your physical albums and transform them into a digital collection you can listen to anywhere.

1. Connecting your media to your computer

Depending on the type of collection you have (CDs, cassettes or vinyl), you’ll need a device that can convert your albums to a digital format.

To convert CDs, a DVD-ROM reader/writer is all you need. Your computer may already have one built-in, and in case it doesn’t, there are plenty of USB-powered devices that can get the job done. Once you have your device, you can fire up your preferred media manager like Apple’s Music app, iTunes, or Windows Media Player to start “ripping” the CD — copying songs from the physical disk onto your computer.

If you have cassettes, vinyl or other older media, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper for proper conversion equipment. Digital tape decks and digital turntables will have the ability to connect to a computer and help you transfer the files.

Tap or click here for great options that won’t break the bank.

To actually convert your tracks, you’ll need a free program called Audacity. This audio editing software can do everything from help you transfer your physical music to edit podcasts or other audio. Don’t worry, we’ll show you exactly what to do below.

Now that you have your equipment and software of choice ready to go, you can get started converting your music tracks.

2. Ripping your media from the physical world to the digital one

The ripping process differs depending on what kind of media you have in your collection. Because big CD, cassette and vinyl collections are most common, we’ll show you how to convert these three media formats. The process is pretty simple for CDs.

Converting CDs to digital files on Windows:

  1. Insert your CD into your disc drive.
  2. Open Windows Media Player and check to make sure the disc is visible in the left-hand panel.
  3. Click on it and check the boxes next to the songs you want to copy to your computer.
  4. Click on Rip Settings and scroll down to Format. Choose .mp3 as your file type.
  5. Click Rip CD.

Converting CDs to digital files on Mac:

  1. Open the Music app and insert your disc.
  2. A menu will automatically pop up asking if you want to import the tracks from the CD. Click Yes to import them to your library. 
  3. Wait for the import to complete.
  4. Plug your iPhone in. You’ll be asked by the app if you want to sync your device. Sync it when prompted.

Cassettes and vinyl, on the other hand, are analog media. This is why buying the right equipment for conversion is so important.

As we mentioned above, you’ll need the free Audacity app to continue with the next steps. Download it now, then come back to these instructions when you’re ready to get started. There are a lot of steps, but worry not — we’ll walk you through exactly what to do.

Converting Cassettes to digital files:

  1. Plug your tape deck into your computer’s microphone input. This is how the audio will be captured.
  2. Open Audacity. The default settings will work fine for conversion.
  3. Click on the “input source” drop-down menu next to the microphone icon. Select the device you’re using (tape deck).
  4. Move the slider next to the microphone icon in the upper-right of the screen all the way to the left. This prevents additional feedback or interference.
  5. Click the Record button and hit play on your tape deck.
  6. Let the entire album play. Stop recording when the side is finished.
  7. Listen back to the recording to make sure everything sounds normal.
  8. Click Edit from the top of the screen and scroll down to Select. Choose All and then click Effect from the top of the screen. Choose Amplify and click OK to boost the volume of your recording from its raw format. The default settings are fine as is.
  9. Use the waveform area of the program to identify the beginning of each track. Click the start of the first track on the waveform menu and click Tracks from the top of the screen. Choose Add Label at Selection and label it “1.” Repeat this process with every track. Usually, you can eyeball this by looking at the gaps in the waveform area.
  10. Click File from the top of the screen and select Export Multiple. From the menu that appears, choose .mp3 as your export format. You can also choose where on your computer your files save from here.
  11. Click Export. You’ll now see a series of windows for every track where you can enter information like the song title, artist and album title. Click OK for each one to export the tracks.
  12. Repeat these steps again for the other side of the tape. The files will save as .mp3 files that can be imported into your favorite music player.

Converting vinyl records to digital files:

  1. Plug your USB turntable into a free USB port on your computer. This is how the audio will be captured.
  2. Open Audacity. The default settings will work fine for conversion.
  3. Click on the “input source” drop-down menu next to the microphone icon. Select the device you’re using (turntable).
  4. Move the slider next to the microphone icon in the upper-right of the screen all the way to the left. This prevents additional feedback or interference.
  5. Click the Record button and start playing your record.
  6. Let the entire album play. Stop recording when the side is finished.
  7. Listen back to the recording to make sure everything sounds normal.
  8. Click Edit from the top of the screen and scroll down to Select. Choose All and then click Effect from the top of the screen. Choose Amplify and click OK to boost the volume of your recording from its raw format. The default settings are fine as is.
  9. Use the waveform area of the program to identify the beginning of each track. Click the start of the first track on the waveform menu and click Tracks from the top of the screen. Choose Add Label at Selection and label it “1.” Repeat this process with every track. Usually, you can eyeball this by looking at the gaps in the waveform area.
  10. Click File from the top of the screen and select Export Multiple. From the menu that appears, choose .mp3 as your export format. You can also choose where on your computer your files save from here.
  11. Click Export. You’ll now see a series of windows for every track where you can enter information like the song name, artist and album name. Click OK for each one to export the tracks.
  12. Repeat these steps again for the other side of the record. The files will save as .mp3 files that can be imported into your favorite music player.

3. Getting your music on your personal device

Now that your files are ripped and ready, the final step is to transfer them from your computer, smartphone, tablet or media player. The process varies depending on your computer, phone and operating system, but what matters most is the media manager you use.

For Macs, your only real option is to use the Music app to load and transfer your files. If you’re a Windows, however, you have access to both Google Play for Android and iTunes (yes that one) if you use an iPhone.

Here’s how to get your freshly exported tracks on to your smartphone, tablet or media player.

For PC users

If you have an iPhone, download iTunes to add the music to your device. When you set up iTunes, it’ll ask if you want to automatically import music files to your library. Answer “Yes” and your newly ripped files will be ready to sync over. Just plug your iPhone in and sync.

If you have an Android phone, visit Google Play in your web browser. Log in with your account, select Music from the left pane and click My music. Choose the Menu button in the upper left-hand corner and select Upload Music. Locate the files on your computer and sync them.

For Mac users

Open the Music app on your Mac and plug in your phone or media player. The program will prompt you to sync your library. Click Yes, and don’t forget to make sure you have enough room to store everything.

Finally, your music is digitized and ready to go. Now, the last thing you’ll need is a great device to play all your tracks. Since standalone mp3 players are going the way of the dodo, why not find a smartphone that fits your budget? Tap or click to score a great deal on the new iPhone SE.

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