Financial Times

Memories are made of bits

By Paul Taylor

Published: July 24 2008 20:02 | Last updated: July 24 2008 20:02

While I access most of my music, photographs and movies in digital form, I also have many precious memories locked up in analogue in the shape of vinyl LPs, family photographs and film.

Any content I still have stored on magnetic tape, photographic paper – there is a shelf of family photograph albums – or celluloid film is probably deteriorating and may fade away altogether. So I decided to look at the latest options to convert analogue personal content into digital formats that can be easily accessed, stored and backed up for safe keeping.

But first a note of caution. As I have discovered on several occasions, digital does not always mean better. For example, many audio­philes argue vinyl LPs sound warmer and better than CDs – particularly if played through an old-fashioned valve amplifier. And unless carefully managed, the conversion process often results in degraded quality.

Converting to digital formats to preserve and protect

Q. I have lots of old photos, videos and LPs. Why should I be concerned about digitising them?

First, some analogue content, particularly photographs and anything stored on magnetic tape, will deteriorate. Converting it
to digital format enables you to preserve and protect it. Second, digital content such as MP3 files are generally easier to access than LPs or other analogue content, which may require obsolete equipment to play it on.

Q. Does digital music sound better than vinyl records?

This is hotly contested among audiophiles but generally the answer is no, especially if the digitised content is created using compression or other techniques designed to minimise the size of digital files.

Q. Do CDs, DVDs and other digital formats last forever?

Probably not. Content on CDs and DVD is expected to last about 100 years under ideal conditions. Technology changes so rapidly that current formats are likely to be obsolete long before that.

Converting vinyl LPs and audio cassettes to digital format:
If you have a stand-alone turntable or cassette deck and an amplifier you can record directly to a PC by connecting the amplifier “tape out” sockets to a PC sound card “line-in” socket using a standard phono-to-3.5mm jack cable. If you have no amplifier, you need to amplify the signal using a pre-amplifier before plugging it into the PC sound card.

You also need sound recording software. There are several suitable packages, including Wavepad, from NCH Swift Sound (, which comes in a free basic version that is powerful yet easy to use. WavePad inc­ludes audio restoration features such as noise reduction and click pop removal, which are essential if you want to clean up old and scratched recordings. Two other easy-to-use audio suites are Roxio’s $27 (£20 in the UK) RecordNow 10 ( and the excellent $64 (£45) Nero 8 Ultra Edition (

If all this sounds too complicated, there is a simpler alternative. Several companies, including Numark (, sell turntables to plug straight into the USB port on a PC. Similar products are also available from Ion (www.

Numark’s ttUSB Turntable works with both PC and Apple Macintosh computers. The turntable, which costs $160 (£99), features an adjustable anti-skating control for increased stereo balance, support for 33.33rpm and 45rpm playback speeds and adjustable pitch control.

It comes with Audacity’s software (PC and Mac compatible), whose features include removal of clicks and other noises.

Numark also sells two other interesting USB turntables. These are the TTi, which records directly to a docked iPod without involving a PC, and the LP 2 CD, which records directly to a built-in CD burner.

Ion’s Tape2PC device, about $150 (£93), does a similar job for cassette tapes by plugging into the USB port on a PC and converting audio cassette tapes into MP3 files using an inclusive software package called EZ Tape Converter.

 Converting old photographs and transparencies:
With a flatbed scanner or an all-in-one printer/scanner this is easy. Most scanners have software that includes set­tings to capture photographic images. Others, such as the $150 (£159) HP Scanjet G4050 Photo Scanner, have special transparency holders and inc­lude innovations such as six-colour, 96-bit scanning and 480-by-9,600 dpi resolution, resulting in high-definition images.

If you want to convert a large transparency collection, it may be worth spending on a transparency scanner such as Plustek’s $250 (£169) OpticFilm 7300 (www.plustek. com), which is easy to use and produces excellent digital images. It features several advanced technologies, including one that improves scan­ned image quality.

Converting home videos
This is the most difficult conversion process. One option, if you still have a cine projector, is to project the film on to a white background and to use a camcorder, preferably HD, to film it; use video editing software to correct colour or quality; then burn the file on to a DVD. But results can be patchy. If you have a lot of material, consider a specialist commercial service, especially for older cine films that require expensive equipment for good results.

VHS and other magnetic video tape formats are easier to deal with. Pinnacle’s Daz­zle product family ( enables anyone to digitise VHS tapes quickly and efficiently.

The Dazzle Video Record­er, at $50 (£40), provides straightforward recording from a VHS or audio tape and transfers digitised content straight to computer. Video Creator, also $50 (£60), goes one better, inc­luding Pinnacle Studio software so you can edit home movies in digital version while the $80 (£70) Video Creator Platinum enables more ambitious editing.

Once home movies are on a DVD, there is a neat way to finish: DiscPainter from Dymo. Disc­Painter (, which costs $280 (£245), uses inkjet print technology to print high quality, full colour, 1200dpi edge-to-edge images on printable DVD discs as they spin at full speed. The device works on Macs and PCs and it takes between 30 seconds and three minutes to print the image.

Paul Taylor tackles your high-tech problems and queries at

More in this section

Memories are made of bits

Apple fails BlackBerry test

Elixirs of life for tired PCs

Gadgets find new ways forward

Brickfish aiming to use viral adverts

Square up to the all-in-one

A bolder, brisker browser

Data back-up saves the day

A shot at a moving target

Workhorse printers take the load

Do you have a window?