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Recording Directly from a Sound Card

by Alan German

Some years ago, I described a method for copying tracks from vinyl records (remember those?) to a CD (remember those too?) using a cable to connect a stereo system to a computer’s sound card. Well, time and technology have marched along and now music is readily available through the Internet and we can save individual tracks to audio files. At least, we can if we can access the input from our computer’s sound card, and we have some suitable software.

One would think that having paid good money for a sound card, either as a plug-in device or as a module built into the computer motherboard, we would readily be able to use the device to its full potential. However, it turns out that Microsoft, in some versions of Windows (notably my version of Vista!), has disabled access to the sound card’s line-in through the use of a restrictive driver. Nor, in my case, is it obvious how to switch the driver for a more permissive version.

It appears, from various postings on the web, that this issue results from concerns over potential copyright infringements should certain music be downloaded and stored. But what about individuals who wish to record non-copyrighted material (some of which is available on the web), or Skype sessions with their grandchildren in Australia? Clearly, restricting access to certain features of the sound card was a poorly thought-out choice.

However, the good news is that, as with all technological problems, there are workarounds. One solution is to dual-boot Linux since, as you might imagine, this free (as in free-speech) operating system has no qualms about allowing full use of the capabilities of the sound card. An alternative approach, which I was also able to adopt, is to use a newer computer, running Windows 7, with a Realtek sound card, and a driver that allowed setting the “Stereo Mix” feature on the sound card as the default recording device.

The second piece in the sound recording puzzle is the recording software. Audacity is an open-source software package that is available in versions for both Windows and Linux. The program is very powerful, both as a recorder and as a sound file editor, but can be quite simple to use.

But, first, we need to check that we can use the computer’s sound card. Navigate to Control Panel – Hardware & Sound – Sound – Manage audio devices – Recording. If the sound gods are smiling on you, something like “Stereo Mix” (or “Line In”) will be displayed with a green check mark designating this as the “Default Device”. If you don’t see a suitable input, try right-clicking in the window and check “Show Disabled Devices” and “Show Disconnected Devices”. If your sound input is either disabled or disconnected you should enable/connect it. If there is no sound card input shown, then you may be subject to the dubious whims of the Evil Empire as noted above – but, Linux awaits!

Let’s assume that your computer’s operating system is working as it should and you have the sound card configured as a default recording device. Now, it’s just a matter of running Audacity and setting up the sound card as the software’s recording device of choice.

From the program’s menu, navigate to Edit – Preferences – Devices. Use the drop-down menu for the Recording Device field and select your sound card’s input. In my case this was listed as “Stereo Mix (Realtek High Definit”. Finally, in the Channels field, select “2 (Stereo)”. There are lots of other settings in the various tabs of the Preferences menu; however, it is quite likely that the default values will be appropriate. So we can hit the “OK” button and move on to make an actual recording.



Firstly, we need some music to record and, as indicated above, we can find material that is free of copyright on the Internet. For example, how about a flugelhorn rendition of “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables? We’re in luck. “TheLellefix” has voluntarily posted such a rendition on YouTube ( The guy is actually playing the flugelhorn and, since on other tracks he is also seen playing the piano, it seems likely that he is playing the accompaniment here too. Thus, this truly is a web-based recording that is free of any copyright (take that Microsoft!)

Finding the material was the tough part. Making the recording is pretty simple. In Audacity, press the large round button with the red circle (Record). In the browser, click on YouTube’s play icon.

The red level indicators at the top of Audacity’s window should be moving left and right in accordance with the sound intensity, and the blue stereo traces at the bottom of the window should be scrolling to the right as the track continues. If the sound levels aren’t high enough, move the slider with the microphone icon to the right. If you need an even higher level, turn up the volume on the YouTube playback as the recording level is dependent on the level of the output from the source.

When the track has finished playing, press the third button from the left, the one with a brown square (Stop). The traces will stop scrolling and Audacity has recorded your chosen track.

To save the recording to disk, you could choose File – Save Project. This saves the recording in a series of files that can be subsequently opened in Audacity in order to edit the track. However, if you wish to simply have a version that you can play, select File – Export. Browse to a folder on your hard drive, give your audio file a name, and select a file format (such as MP3, Ogg or WAV). The next window allows you to enter metadata for the file including such items as artist’s name, track and album titles. The simplest thing is to leave all the data elements blank and press “OK” to store the recording as an audio file (e.g. d:\music\dream.mp3)

Audacity has way more features than can be described in detail here. Suffice it to say that a recording can be made with multiple components, e.g. a symphony with four movements. The start of each track can be marked, labeled, and individual tracks can then be stored. Simply click on the trace to add a marked location. Then, select Tracks – Add Label at Selection. Finally, choose File – Export Multiple. Another handy feature is the ability to delete long spaces between tracks. Left click at the start of the region of silence, drag the mouse to the right, and release the mouse button. The selected region is now highlighted. Deleting this selection is simply a matter of clicking on the scissors icon (Cut).

A very detailed manual is available on line and can be readily accessed through the Help – Manual menu item. There is quick help for those just getting started, details (Foundations/Editing) of how to use the program's many features, a number of tutorials, and information on advanced topics.

Audacity has a multitude of features and options, and has a fairly steep learning curve. But, there is a tremendous amount of detailed information available on using the program and, because it's free – as in open-source – it won't cost you a cent to give it a try!

Bottom Line:

Audacity (Open-Source)
Version 2.0.5
Dominic Mazzoni and Roger Dannenberg

Originally published: January, 2015

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