How to Digitize Vinyl Records Without a Record Player

Analog WeekJust because ‘there’s an app for that’ doesn’t mean you have to use it. This week we’re going analog, reminding ourselves that we can live—and live _well_ —without smartphones, and seeing what’s worth preserving from the time before we were all plugged in 24/7.  

Digitizing vinyl is a lot harder than ripping a CD. An external CD drive costs $26 on Amazon; a record player with a digital output costs $250 or more. Plus you have to use special software, specify the beginning and end of each track, write out all the metadata, and make sure the record plays smoothly. Or you can get someone else to do it for you. Here’s how.

Partner with a vinyl lover

I wish I could be a vinyl guy, but I live in a New York apartment that’s already overstuffed with books, with no room for records. And I like to have my music available at work or on my phone, so it needs to be digital. But at least once or twice a year, I come across some music that’s only available on vinyl. (Sometimes there’s a YouTube copy that I can rip, but often it’s too low-quality to be satisfying.) It’s not often enough to justify a new hobby and equipment.

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So when I found the novelty song “Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang” by Monte Video and the Cassettes, and I wanted the rest of the album, I asked Twitter: If I bought the album on eBay, would anyone digitize it for me?

I was answered by a hero. David Buck is a nostalgia writer who blogs about classic video games and Weird Al, posts old commercials to YouTube, and writes about cult/novelty music for the email newsletter Tedium. Our tastes…overlapped. But where I am a dilettante, David is a specialist, who collects vinyl and knows how to digitize it.

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David kindly agreed to digitize Monte Video’s self-titled LP if he could keep the record. I was getting the better end of this deal—the album is usually available for under $10 on eBay—but this became a fun shared project for us, as we emailed back and forth about the tracks and swapped other novelty music recs. We got to know each other better and now I regularly follow David’s writing. We’re internet friends.

Which is why I’m not recommending you go hit up David Buck. I don’t even come to him with every album I want to digitize, because not every album is up his alley. If you want someone to do the hard work of digitizing music for you in their free time, approach them with music that they like as much as, or more than, you. Or offer them a similar service of your own. Maybe you’ve found some rarities that they couldn’t; maybe you can dig up information about the album that you can both discuss; maybe you have skills of your own that people always want for free.

If you don’t have a wide network on your usual social media, join a music forum, or a subreddit like Vintage Obscura. Make whatever contribution you can, and then ask for your digitization favor as nicely as possible. Be warned, joining these forums will introduce you to more vinyl rarities that you just have to buy.

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If no one takes you up on your swapsies offer, it’s time to shell out some money. Kind of a lot of money!

Pay a digitization service

Because digitizing a record takes a couple hours of physical and mental work, it costs a lot of money. The mail-in digitization service EverPresent charges $35 per record, plus a $30 service fee per order. Tri State Indie charges $35 per record too, but their minimum order is $240. It’s a lot of money, but again, they’re doing a lot of work, and they’re doing it professionally.

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The costs can quickly add up to more than buying your own record player. But you’re really paying for the labor, and for the training that lets these services transfer records better than you might do on your own. If you wanted cheap music, you should have stuck to Spotify.

Do it yourself, the fun way

At some point, though, you might decide to learn to do this yourself. Buy yourself a fancy turntable, read a guide to digitizing your own albums, ask for help on a forum (most hobbyists actually love helping a newbie). Keep your records after you digitize them, so if you improve, you can make newer, better transfers.

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And once you’re really good, you can be someone else’s music buddy. Make your tastes public. Get people to send you rarities that you can record. Offer your services locally on Craigslist.

If a track really isn’t available anywhere but on used vinyl, and the artist or their estate clearly aren’t making money from any sales, you might consider uploading the music to YouTube. While uploading copyrighted music is usually illegal, YouTube allows a lot of unlicensed copies to stay up, and makes deals with music labels to detect—and put ads on—their songs. If you really want to keep clean, you could track down the artist and ask their permission. They might be thrilled that someone is preserving their music.

Or, hey, keep it to yourself and privately enjoy something that no one will ever find on Spotify. You earned it.

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