SUGARCUBE SC-2 Mini vinyl recording system with click removal
The Sugarcube is a neat little vinyl recording system, but in the end we were even more impressed by what it can do in real time, without hitting the red button.
This neat vinyl recording system has an extra trick which may make it indispensible to vinyl fans.
Remember when we used to record stuff? Put vinyl records on, make mixtapes to cassette, play them in the car, give them nervously to prospective girlfriends with a carefully hand-written case insert, wondering if that track near the end isn’t a bit much for that stage of the relationship?
Where has it all gone? These days you’ll be lucky if your hi-fi amp even has a ‘record out’ round the back. It almost makes us chuckle when we review something which still has an input labelled ‘tape’.
It was compact discs which did for recording, of course, because once you could copy digitally and burn your own CDs (though heaven forbid we should suggest you so much as think of copying digital music in any way because we get rude letters from lawyers forbidding any mention of such fun if we do), the whole mixtape game was up. File sharing just made it even more quaint, while for our tastes sharing a Spotify playlist seems rather lacking in romance by comparison.
But now we are enjoying the revival of vinyl, and to a lesser and faintly ridiculous extent also of cassette, which must have tickled or perhaps utterly baffled the Dutch inventor of the Compact Cassette, Lou Ottens, before he died last month, aged 94. So perhaps the time has come again for some recording fun. The makers of the Sugarcube clearly think so. Not only will they help you record your vinyl, they’ll even make it sound better in the process. (And thankfully, no cassettes are involved.)
The Sugarcube range hails from SweetVinyl in Mountain View, California, which funds product development via the Indiegogo platform, most recently with the SC-2 models updating a legacy range. There are other variants, including the SC-2 Mini/Phono, which adds a phono stage to the model reviewed here, but Australian distributor Decibel Hi-Fi says availability for that one is currently ‘constrained’. So the only key prerequisite for this SC-2 Mini is that you’ll require a phono stage, either standalone prior to the SC-2 Mini’s inputs, or within an amplifier which offers a tape loop for connection.
Round the back of the SC-2 Mini in addition to its inputs are analogue outputs on to your playback system or tape loop, USB slots allowing an external DAC to be used, a USB slot for the provided Wi-Fi adaptor, and an Ethernet socket if you’re able to present the unit with a hard-wired network connection.
On the front is another USB slot to which storage can be attached to transfer recordings, along with a knob and buttons to control how much cleaning up the SC-2 will do to your recordings.
It’s a solid little unit; we couldn’t criticise the engineering-like construction other than at its feet, where sorbothane-like rings in a bottom groove no doubt provide useful isolation against vibration, but had a tendency to fall out whenever we moved it. With our turntable and preamp connected to the Sugarcube’s input, and its output running to our main system, we powered up the unit.
Connection and control
The front panel display is a bit alarming at first. A couple of company ident screens flash up very quickly, then there’s nothing but ‘snow’. This won’t alarm those who have fully perused the manual in advance, as did we, of course, being responsible reviewers, though in this case the required information appears only in the digital manual supplied on a stick, and not in the fold-out ‘welcome’ sheet. In there, on page 12 of 54, it tells you not to be alarmed by the snow on the display: “When you power up your SugarCube, it will take about two minutes to complete its startup procedures. During this time, the LCD display will show snow (our humorous tip of the hat to the old days of analog TV). There is nothing wrong with your unit. We apologize for the wait but we have some seriously sophisticated software loading and it simply takes additional time. When you hear the results of our efforts, you will agree that it was worth the wait.”
We don’t encounter many jokes in product manuals, let alone baked into the software, so kudos for that, and we braced ourselves for any further amusement at users’ expense further down the line. In fact it can’t have taken longer than 30 seconds before the snow was replaced by a far more reassuring screen with the SugarCube logo, and we were able to progress to networking and using the app.
We had given the SugarCube unit an Ethernet cable connection, thereby avoiding use of the supplied Wi-Fi dongle. But the app didn’t automatically ‘see’ the unit on our network, as the manual suggested it would when using Ethernet. It offered us the options of Wi-Fi set-up, which we didn’t want, or ‘Enter IP address’. The unit usefully shows its IP address if you hold down the ‘Bypass’ button. We entered it into the app. Success!
Just to be thorough, we removed the Ethernet cable and inserted the
Wi-Fi dongle to try set-up that way. Wi-Fi set-up involves pressing the big front button for more than seven seconds (say the app’s instructions) or five seconds (says the manual) then letting go, until after a worrying pause the screen displays ‘Wi-Fi Set-up’. You can then connect your device, in our case a current iPad Pro, to the SugarCube’s own Wi-Fi network, then return to the app. Whereupon, says the manual, the SugarCube will be found. Oddly the iPad Pro failed, but a 2016 iPhone SE worked, though the tiny screen didn’t do the app any favours.
There is one more way to control the SugarCube, which is via a Chrome browser. We unplugged the Wi-Fi dongle and returned the SugarCube to Ethernet. Then, as described in the manual, we typed in the IP address followed by :5123, its port number for external control. Instant success here, and the first thing that we did, under the ‘Support menu, was to accept a software update. And we’re glad we ended up with this method of control, because the bigger the screen, the clearer were the editing functions once we started recording.
We began by pressing the unit’s ‘Bypass’ button to check that the sound of our vinyl was flowing freely. Then on the app we went, to the ‘Recording’ section; we dropped the needle and pressed ‘New recording’. A light on the unit flashed red, and the app indicated things were under way. Well, that could hardly be easier.
The app immediately offered to search for the album’s metadata if we cared to enter the artist or catalogue number. It managed no match for Alex The Astronaut, but this was not unexpected, as we were playing a non-mainstream piece of vinyl — a disc combining her first two digital EPs on one LP. But we found the catalogue number on the back of the album, which was ATA003, and were quite astonished to find that the app immediately returned the correct artwork and album details (see overleaf). It even popped the artwork up on the front-panel display. Then we sat back to enjoy the album. If you’re more keen to wander off and leave it running, you can limit the recording length (e.g. 20 minutes), which is a nice user-friendly touch.
As noted the app was fairly cramped for operation on a smallish phone, but big, bold and easy to handle on the Chrome browser — noting also that the Sugarcube seemed happy for us to use both control systems at the same time. If not particularly swish in terms of font use and design, it’s perfectly clear what you need to do.
We had already, via the web interface, set recording quality to 24-bit/192k FLAC, and this particular LP being fresh and new, we had the cleaning circuit set to ‘4 Low’.
We stopped the recording at the end, and investigated how we might break the album into individual tracks. You don’t have to do this — you may be happy with complete sides of digitised vinyl, but once we got the hang of the track splitting, we found the process to be quick and accurate, sliding start and stop markers around
“The Sugarcube SC-2 Mini is a great recorder, helpful at splitting tracks and IDing LP metadata. But vinyl fans may well find they love it even more for day-to-day playback.”