BOOT CAMP 194 (27/09/01)




Thanks to your enquiring and inquisitive minds there is no shortage of topics for Boot Camp to cover and the next couple of week's we are responding to a succession of reader's letters and emails asking how to use a PC as a sound recording device. This week we'll be looking at the rudiments of audio recording on a PC, next week, putting it to practical use.


Sound came quite late to the PC; they all beep when booting up and when something goes wrong but up until the late 1980s that was about as far as it went, sound cards and speakers didn't become standard features until the early 90's and then they were usually more trouble than they were worth. Anyone involved with PCs back then will doubtless remember the agonies of setting up sound in DOS and early versions of Windows; these days we take it all pretty much for granted. In fact most users rarely give the sound systems on their computers a second thought, which is a pity because even the humblest PC can be turned into a sophisticated hi-fi system and a powerful sound recording and editing studio.


However, most of the queries we've received lately concern a much more down to earth application and that's to use the PC as a means of transferring cherished recordings on vinyl records (and even 78s) and tape (open reel and cassette) to audio Compact Disc. CD has taken over from vinyl and cassette tape is on the way out and a lot of people want to preserve their collections or make compilations of favourite tracks on CD. PCs and low-cost CD writers have made this possible and currently you can pick up perfectly capable CD writer drives for less than £60; blank CD-R (record once) discs can be bought in quantity for as little as 15 pence each.


Incidentally, fitting a CD-writer to your PC is quite straightforward and it's something we looked at in detail in Boot Camp 158 (18/01/01).


Most CD writers come with software that lets you copy CDs or make track compilations from several discs but the instructions rarely – if ever – explain how to make custom audio CDs from records, tapes and other 'analogue' audio sources. It's not difficult so we'll try and fill in the gaps. The process breaks down into four stages:


1 – connecting the sound source (i.e. record player or tape deck) to the PC


2 – recording the sound onto the PC's hard disc drive


3 – organising and converting the tracks


4 – recording or 'burning ' the finished CD


The first stage is easy. Connecting a record player or tape recorder to a PC is usually just a question of getting hold of the right cable. Most PCs have two audio inputs, one for a 'high-impedance' source, such as a microphone (or the 'phono' output from a record player), and one 'low-impedance' or 'line-level' input, which is compatible with the audio outputs on devices like tape recorders, CD players etc. In theory you can connect the output from a record player to the microphone input on a PC, and sometimes it works okay but in my experience the results are often disappointing. Where possible it is better to leave the record player connected to the amplifier (or pre-amplifier) and connect its audio output (but not the speaker output!) to the PC. 


On most PCs the audio input sockets are usually 3.5mm stereo 'minijacks' whereas the audio outputs on audio and hi-fi devices are generally push-fit phono sockets, so you will need a stereo minijack to phono adaptor cable; these are readily available from most audio and video dealers, usually for less than £5. When connecting audio equipment to your PC make sure you use the right socket, they're not usually very well labelled and almost always in an inaccessible location on the back, behind a jungle of cables. If in doubt consult your instruction manual and use a torch. By the way, don't be tempted to connect the headphone sockets on audio equipment to a PC, the output level can be quite high and it can cause all sorts of problems.


At this point it's worth saying a few words about audio recording formats. The vast majority of CD decks in home hi-fis and in-car players can only replay discs recorded in the standard CD-Audio (CD-A) format (a few recent models can also play discs recorded with MP3 format tracks). Most PC recorders record sound in the .wav (wave) format; the quality can be very good indeed but .wav files can only be played on a PC and in order to hear them on a CD player they have to be converted to CD-A files. One other point to bear in mind, .wav files can take up a lot of space – reckon on at least 10Mb per minute – so you will need a fair amount of free disc space on your disc drive if you are going to fill a 74 or 80 minute audio CD with music.


Single programs that can both record and convert files from one format to another are available but in my view they are either highly specialist and therefore difficult to use, not sufficiently flexible or they are expensive, therefore I suggest using two programs, one to make the recording the other to prepare the files for recording to disc.


Windows comes with an audio recording utility called Sound Recorder (Start > Programs > Accessories > Entertainment/Multimedia) but it is far too basic for our purposes. There are numerous shareware and freeware audio recorders for Windows available for download from the Internet and we'll be looking at a couple of them next week. Some of the more advanced programs have facilities for removing scratches, hiss and pops from vinyl recordings and it's very easy to get drawn into the technicalities of bit-rates, sampling, mixing and editing but at this stage I suggest you stick with simple recording software until you've mastered the basic techniques.


There is also plenty of 'high-end' file conversion, track compilation and CD 'burning' software to choose from but several programs combine all three functions and for beginners this can be very convenient.  


Next week – Audio recording on a PC, part 2





The process of recording a CD-R or CD-RW disc in a CD writer drive



Measurement of resistance in relation to an alternating current



Motion Picture Experts Group audio layer 3 -- digital audio compression system commonly used to send files containing audio and music over the Internet



Whilst we're on the subject of sound, here's a nifty freeware program that turns sounds on your PC into visual displays. Although the Sound Frequency Analyser download is only 31k this powerful little utility shows both the amplitude of sounds passing through your PC as a constantly changing waveform, and as a colourful Fourier Transform, which represents the spectrum of the frequencies contained in the sound. Even if you're not interested in the science and mathematics of sound analysis it's fascinating to watch the patterns on your PC screen. Sound Frequency Analyser is a zip file and it can be downloaded from:

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