Using a USB Turntable with Linux


For most consumers, vinyl records are twenty years dead. But if you’re a DJ, a collector, or the owner of limited edition vinyl, then records still matter to you–and you probably want to listen to your tracks sometimes on your Linux computer. The best way to do so is to create and transfer files via a USB turntable and the Audacity sound editor. The process is relatively straightforward, but it does have a few quirks.

Why bother with a USB turntable? After all, most computers today come with an inline port into which you can plug an existing turntable. The answer is that a USB turntable produces better output with less effort than regular turntables in the same price range. With features that may include a felt slipmat for the turntable, an adjustable counterweight for the tone arm, an automatic noise reduction system and, on belt-driven models, a control for the tension of the belt, USB turntables are far beyond those of any old turntable you are likely to have around the house. Moreover, they also include speaker jacks, so you can use them to play vinyl without your computer if you’re so inclined.

Selecting a Turntable

As with most hardware, the trick is to find a turntable that works with Linux. You might think that the USB connection would be enough to ensure compatibility, but some USB turntables require software specific to Windows or OS X to run.

The best source of information is the Audacity wiki, where brand names such as Ion, Audio, Numark, and Lenco are recommended.

However, you can also apply a simple general rule: Does the turntable come bundled with udacity? If so, then likely it is Linux compatible. To be cautious, you should ask about a store’s refund policy before you buy, or, better yet, see if you can run a trial with a laptop in the store, but the Audacity rule held true for all the models I tried before recently buying my own turntable.

You will probably have to install Audacity for yourself, since any accompanying DVD is unlikely to include versions of Audacity only for Windows and OS X, but, since the application is packed for most major distributions, that should not be a problem.

Setting Up to Record

As the Audacity wiki points out, many of the instructions for using the sound editor that come with turntables is incorrect or outdated. Nor are the instructions correct that are linked to in the Welcome window when you start the latest version, the 1.3.7 beta–let alone easy to follow.

However, basic instructions are simple:

  1. Set up the USB turntable, and plug it into a USB drive on your computer.
  2. Start Audacity, and go to View -> Toolbars -> Device Toolbar.
  3. In the Device Toolbar, set the Input Device field to ALSA USB Codec. Alternatively, you can set the input device from Edit -> Preferences -> Audio I/O -> Recording Note that the USB Codec is only available when an audio device such as the USB turntable is connected.

In the versions of Audacity for other operating systems, you can also use the Device Toolbar or Preferences to set the output device, so that you can listen as you record. However, ALSA audio does not support the use of two different devices at the same time, and Audacity does not support Pulse audio, so on Linux, this option does not work. If you want to listen as you record, you will have to hook a pair of self-powered speakers to the turntable.

You might need or want to adjust other settings, such as the input level on the Mixer Toolbar to reduce the background noise. But the chances are that you won’t need to, especially if the turntable has its own noise reduction system.

Normally, the three steps above are all you need to prepare. When they are done, you can press the Record button in the Control Toolbar, then start a record on the turntable. When you need to turn the record over, press the Pause button to stop and re-start recording. Should you press the Stop button by mistake, press the Shift key when you click the Record button to continue recording.

Making Selections to Rip

When you are finished recording, the result is one long file. Probably, you want to split the result into separate tracks so that you can set up random playlists on the computer. This process involves finding the start and end of each track on the timeline, events usually marked by a lack of spikes in activity (although not always). You may also want to delete any long pauses at the start or end of the result.

For rough selections, you can click anywhere on the timeline, then either drag with the mouse or select Ctrl+J to select from the click to the start of the track, or Ctrl+K to select from the click to the end of the track. However, if you need more exact selections, use the Selections Toolbar to set the exact start and end of the selection, then click the Snap To box to highlight the selection. Right-click on the start or the end selection tools, you can set Audacity to select as little as 1 / 1000th of a second, so you should have no trouble selecting exactly what you want. You can even use the Selection Toolbar to remove a burst of static in some cases.

Ripping Tracks

You can create separate tracks in three ways in Audacity. The first way is to select, copy, and paste sections of the timeline into a new file, which is slow but reliable.

The second is to select sections, and add a label to them by selecting Tracks -> Add Labels at Selection. When you finish adding labels, select File -> Export Multiple to export each labelled section as a separate file. In theory, this is the most efficient way to produce separate tracks, but, in practice, no version of Audacity I have used does this operation reliably. Sometimes, it works flawlessly, but, at others, for some reason it does not work at all, or only works for the first four or five labels.

For this reason, I prefer the third method: Selecting a section of the timeline, then choosing File -> Export Multiple. It is slightly faster than using labels, and, in my experience, more reliable.

No matter which of these work flows you use, when you are done, you need to export each file to a usable format. If you want to use a free codec (and one that is guaranteed to work with your distribution), then the obvious choice of format is Ogg Vorbis. For other formats, such as MP3, you may need to install proprietary codecs first.

Saving and Adding Metadata

As each file is saved, the Edit Metadata window opens. Here, you can record the artist, album, year of release, genre and other information that you might want to know when playing a track on your computer. The main advantage of the last two methods of separating tracks is that, when you go to the next save, the last metadata you entered remains in the Window, which on an album means that you only need to change a few details such as the song title and track number, and not re-enter identical information ten to twelve times for each album. While the time saving may be minimal, the reduction of tedium can be very welcome.

Just-In-Time Results

If you are one of those who maintain that vinyl produces a richer, more natural sound than CDs or other formats, then you might be disappointed by the results of USB turntables. While the quality of the output depends on the features of the turntable you are using, in my experience it tends to be higher-quality and closer to what you would expect from a CD than you would get from a traditional turntable.

You could, of course, use Audacity to roughen the sound, just as you could use it to reduce noise or add effects after you record. But I suspect that many people will be less interested in the authenticity of the sound than in having the music from LPs and 45s in a convenient format for their computers and portable music players.

Personally, since I bought my own USB turntable, I’ve been enjoying albums that I haven’t listened to in years because they were in storage. Not only that, but, despite the fact that the cult of vinyl seems likely to be around for a few more years, I can’t help being relieved that I’ve transferred my old music to a more accessible format while I still can.