It starts with the records. I began collecting classical music in 1965 and have never stopped. One significant lapse aside (which we shall address in due course), I’ve always taken great care with my discs. So, for the most part, the records I bought new are in pristine condition. I have purchased used records, but only those that were also well cared for.
Next the discs get a bath. I used to wash them with dish soap and tap water, carefully drying them with lint free towels. That works well, but it’s tedious, and if you’re not careful you can soak the label. Recently, I purchased a Spin Clean record washing system. It’s relatively inexpensive and far more efficient than cleaning by hand. Results so far have been excellent, making most records sound nearly new and removing all but the most pernicious gunk. Moreover, the process is so quick I can clean a dozen discs while one is on the turntable. It works for all sizes and speeds from 45s to 78s and LPs. Not so good for cassettes, though…
I own two turntables. Back in my bright college days, I purchased an Elac Miracord 46, then distributed under the Radio Shack brand. The speed is mechanically adjustable, and the center pin is removable for those occasionally off-center pressings. It plays 33, 45 & 78, and the head shells are easily interchangeable, so I can quickly switch to a 78 RPM stylus. Unfortunately, it’s a rim-drive turntable, which adds a significant amount of rumble to the final product. Back in the day I didn’t notice that, but now I want the sound as pristine as possible. So today the Miracord is for 78s only. However, a few of the older transfers on Analog Masters were made with the Miracord.
The table I use now is a direct-drive Technics SL-D303. It’s exceptionally solid and quiet. As it is not new, the speed adjustment can be tricky and must be readjusted every time I restart the motor. Tedious, but tolerable. Especially given the results.
I chose the Shure M97xE cartridge after reading several excellent reviews on line. A few reviews cautioned that it might not be adequate for classical music, but I disagree. The Shure has exceptionally crisp highs, solid bass, and vivid presence. It’s able to reproduce the entire classical dynamic range with ease and can track through almost anything. Naturally, the company has decided to stop manufacturing phono cartridges. So get one while you still can.
Analog-to-digital conversion is accomplished by a Sound Blaster X-Fi HD model SB 1240, which is both flexible and easy to install and use. I record the audio to my HP Envy DB 6 laptop with Adobe Audition 3.0. I became accustomed to Audition at work, so it was only natural to use at home. The interface is simple, and the transport controls resemble an old-fashioned tape deck. Also, Adobe has some sophisticated processing that’s invaluable for this work. Unfortunately, it also has some annoying quirks, but nothing’s perfect.
Once I have the raw audio, I’m ready to make improvements. My rule of thumb is simple: if I can ‘hear’ the processing, it’s too heavy and I need to back off. Step One is Audition’s automatic pop and click eliminator (moderate level, if you must know). This quickly removes the background crackle that used to annoy me no end while listening to LPs. It also removes all but the worst ticks. The remaining ticks require individual attention. Some can be excised with a simple edit, especially those between movements or in sustained passages. When an edit is impossible, I reduce the audio level of the pop to match the surrounding musical material, which often renders the noise inaudible.
Next I use Audition’s normalize function to automatically match the left and right channel levels and increase the level of the loudest passages to 100%. If the musical work stretches over two or more sides, I edit the sides seamlessly (which can be a fairly involved process itself that I’ll examine in a subsequent post). Then I edit the head and tail of the file so the music begins and ends seamlessly. With that, the file is ready for listening and/or podcasting. I give each file its own unique name and save it separately from the raw audio – just in case I need to go back to the original for any reason (which has happened more times that I care to recall at this point).
Generally that’s the end, though a few discs require further work. Sometimes I’ll add ambience or adjust the equalization to improve the sound. But for the most part what you hear on this podcast is as close as possible to what the original producers heard when the record was finished.