What Is a Turntable Recorder?

Jeffrey L. Callicott

A turntable recorder — also known as a turntable MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 (mp3) recorder, universal serial bus (USB) turntable or record player recorder — is a device that serves to transfer music from vinyl to the digital format of a user’s choice. While it is possible to create digital files from vinyl recordings by using a traditional record player and an amplifier connected to an audio capture card, the use of a turntable recorder greatly simplifies the process. The music can be easily output to any electronic device that can accept input via USB. The target for recording is usually a computer, but it also can be a portable audio player. Although mp3 audio is the most common file type for the resulting digital audio files as of 2011, music can be recorded to a variety of different file formats.

USB cables are used to connect devices -- such as record players -- to computers.
USB cables are used to connect devices -- such as record players -- to computers.

Physically, turntable recorders are similar to analog record players, and several manufacturers produce both traditional and USB turntables. Their appearance may be so similar that any differences are noted only on closer inspection. Both have a covered area where the user places the vinyl record, a motor to spin the record, a tone arm for placing the needle, and a cartridge containing the needle itself.

Music from a turntable recorder can be easily output to any device with a USB input.
Music from a turntable recorder can be easily output to any device with a USB input.

Still, there are several differences between the two. First, the output of a turntable recorder is a USB plug, instead of left and right RCA audio cables and a ground cable. Second, most turntable recorders include software for labeling of or edits to the resulting digital files. Third, USB turntables contain features that traditional turntables may not have, including variable speed control, anti-skate controls, and even RCA inputs.

There are key features to look for when purchasing a turntable recorder. The type of cartridge is important, and the two most common types are ceramic and magnetic. Ceramic cartridges are found on lower-cost models, because they do not require an internal turntable pre-amplifier. The downside is that they are heavier and can cause more wear to records. Magnetic cartridges are featured in higher-cost USB turntables and tend to produce a more accurate signal, leading to better sound quality and less wear.

Anti-skate adjustment is a desirable feature in a turntable recorder. The angle at which the tone arm places the needle can cause it to be off-center in the record groove, which can reduce audio quality. The ability to adjust the anti-skate allows for better sounding recordings, less wear to vinyl records, and the best possible balance between the left and right channels.

Some models of turntable recorders may mandate the use of specific programs to use the turntable. Some models will include the needed software with the turntable, whereas others require the end user to download software necessary to use the USB turntable. Should the user want other software options, third-party programs are available that can be used to improve audio quality once the digital files have been created.

There may be different options for hookup and playback using the turntable recorder. Some may feature RCA inputs that allow audio from other devices, such as tape recorders and CD players, to be transferred over the USB connection. Some players have RCA output, too, so they function as recording devices and as record players on a home stereo system.

Turntable recorders will not necessarily result in an improvement in sound quality compared to files created from compact discs (CDs). Traditional vinyl records have inherently lower sound quality than CDs, and this carries over to the digital files created from them. The digital files can be processed to improve the dynamic range — the overall difference between the loudest and softest sounds that can be produced — and reduce pops, clicks and hiss, but the result will usually still be inferior to files obtained from CD or digital downloads.

Lastly, there is a difference between disc jockey (DJ) turntables and turntable recorders. DJ turntables typically offer USB output, but they are intended primarily for unique effects such as record scratching, and may not offer the easiest way to record vinyl to digital formats. Many DJ turntables will not include software for recording from vinyl to electronic files.

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