Written by Wes Williams

This short article discusses subjects that affect people starting out on transcribing 78rpms.

I’m not going to discuss software (as this topic is discussed on our site here, here and here), only the basics of setting up a system, getting it to record to a computer file, and purely mechanical problems you may encounter.

Why can’t I plug my turntable into my computer, and what can I do to solve it?

This question crops up many times on forums, so here are some answers.
First the technical bits. There are two things we need to know about cartridges;

  • the amount of output signal they produce,
  • and the impedance (or load) they expect to be connected to.

Typical signal levels from a modern cartridge are very small, around 5 mV (5 millivolts – a millivolt is one thousandth of a volt) and they need to connect to a 47K Ohm (47,000 Ohm) load. The signal from an older ceramic or crystal cartridge is much higher, typically 100mV, and they need to connect to a 1M Ohm load (1 million ohms).

A PC sound card/chip needs around 100mV and has a 10K ohm impedance, so it obviously doesn’t match either magnetic or ceramic cartridges.

If you connect a magnetic cartridge to it, the impedance mismatch (10K versus 47K ohms) means that you’ll only get about 20% of the signal level, so around 1mV. Similarly, the ceramic cartridge impedance mismatch (10K versus 1M ohm) means that you’ll only get 1% of the signal level, so 100mV becomes 1mV. A lose-lose situation! What also happens is that the impedance mismatch badly affects the frequency response.

And now for two solutions.

If you have a reasonably good audio system, you can plug your deck into the phono inputs, and then use the ‘tape out’ sockets to connect to your PC.

If that’s not possible, you can buy a pre-amplifier to connect between your deck and the PC. You don’t need to spend a small fortune on an exotic phono pre-amps but you do need to get one that has a phono or RIAA input.

There’s also another thing I should mention, and that applies mostly to laptops. Often they will only have a microphone socket for input. If you use that, you may find that you don’t get a proper full frequency transfer. Most cartridges will provide frequencies up to 18 to 22K Hz, but recently another community member on this site and I discovered that his laptop microphone input limited the frequency range to under 8K Hz. His only solution was to use a USB external sound module.

And don’t forget that 78rpms need a 78rpm stylus. You can’t play them with a 33/45rpm stylus!

Spinning Up Your 78rpms

Everybody here will agree that the best transfers are made from 78rpms in almost ‘new’ condition. But your chances of finding records like this are slim – remember that even the most modern 78rpms are at least 50 years old, and some even over 100 years. So how can you make the best of a very grubby, badly scratched 78rpm?

Your first move is turn off the computer, put on a CD of music you like, and head for the kitchen sink. I’m not going to go into details of the washing and cleaning process of 78s, as there is already a good description of how to do it on our site, (here) but members here have suggested using some kind of brush – usually an old toothbrush – but I use a small decorator’s paint brush. The only point that needs to be emphasised here is that it needs to be made very strongly!

Never – ever – use record cleaning fluids intended for vinyl records on a shellac record! They usually contain some form of alcohol which will melt the shellac your 78s are made of.

After your record is dry, check that you’ve got the cartridge tracking weight set correctly, and that the anti-skate is turned to zero.

Is your stylus clean?

Pop the record on the turntable, and give it a quick dust off. If you are lucky you might already have a dust-bug for this, but you can always use one of those soft cloths that glasses come with, a woman’s face-powder make-up brush, or even a microfibre cloth. That’s it! You are now ready to make your recording.

But I Only Have 33rpm and 45rpm On My Turntable

No problem, you can always change this in your audio editor software.
There is one possible thing to discuss at this stage. Always pick 45, because you will have less chance of pushing the bass on your recording down into the low frequency rumble region of your turntable, and besides, it will be a bit quicker than 33. The only exception is if you have a very warped record, where you may need to drop to 33 so that the record can be played properly without the tone arm skipping grooves.

My 78rpm Doesn’t Play Through Properly

This leads to two problems you are likely to encounter at some point – sticks and skips. Sticks are where the record groove has been damaged in a way that stops the stylus progressing towards the centre of the record, and the record just repeats. The first thing to try is to reduce your turntable speed to 45rpm or 33rpm. You can also try increasing the anti-skate and the cartridge tracking weight.

If you still have problems then my way of dealing with sticks is to apply very gentle pressure on the head-shell towards the centre using a small brush – I think most of mine came from electric razors, but I’m sure you’ll find something to improvise with. It helps to rest your forearm or hand on something as you do it, which steadies your hand. It takes a bit of practice, but you’ll soon learn to apply the right amount of pressure to force the tone-arm through the stick without losing any of the recording. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth trying. And don’t worry about the sticks you’ve recorded – you can take them out later in software.

Skips are where the stylus loses proper contact with the record groove – either because of a warp, or because of groove damage – so part of the recording is lost. Often they can be cured by increasing the anti-skate, and stubborn skips can sometimes be cured using the brush technique above, but applying pressure towards the outside of the record, although it’s a lot more difficult to control. I’ve also had occasional success by looping an elastic band around the tone arm and applying a gentle pull towards the outside of the record when it gets near the skip.

I don’t know of any foolproof ways of dealing with skips and sticks (apart from micro-surgery), and you may have to give up and write off a few 78s as unplayable.

So can anybody add some other methods? Please add your comments below…

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