From Tape to CD

You know those old cassette tapes you have lying around the house—compilations of favorite songs from a bygone era, family get-togethers recorded with a battery-powered portable, and audio letters swapped with a faraway friend? They aren’t getting any younger. In fact, they’re deteriorating as you read this. Over time, a tape’s magnetic particles lose their charge, muffling the audio. If you’ve stored tapes improperly—in a car’s glove box or in a hot attic, say—the particles may flake off entirely, peppering your audio with momentary silences.

It’s time to get those magnetic memories into your Mac. Once you’ve digitized your old tapes, you can enhance the audio and remove noise, and then burn your efforts to CDs or transfer them to your iPod.

Step 1: Set Up Your Equipment

To transfer audio from aging cassette tapes to your Mac, you’ll need some basic audio hardware and recording software. Here’s what I recommend:

Cassette Deck The first thing you’ll need is a cassette deck that can play back your tapes. Any deck with audio-out jacks should work. However, if you have a large tape library and you don’t want to commandeer the deck in your stereo indefinitely, consider purchasing a separate player that you can dedicate to the task. You can buy a good stereo cassette deck online for under $100. If you originally recorded your tapes on high-quality gear, you should use a midrange or high-end deck that can do justice to your recordings. But keep in mind that even the best equipment won’t significantly improve audio captured with a cheap battery-powered tape recorder.

Audio-Input Hardware Next, you need a way to connect the cassette deck to your Mac.

Most currently shipping Macs include a stereo audio-input minijack (marked with a hollow circle and two arrows pointing inward) that’s perfect for the task. To connect the two, you’ll need a minijack-to-RCA cable. Simply plug the two RCA phono plugs into the line-out jacks on your cassette deck, and plug the 1/8-inch stereo miniplug into your Mac’s audio input port.

If you have an older Mac that lacks an audio input, you’ll need to buy one of the many third-party audio adapters that connect to the Mac’s USB or FireWire ports. For people on a tight budget, Griffin Technology’s $40 iMic (see Best Current Price ) is an inexpensive option that plugs into any USB-equipped Mac. However, you’ll get much better results with a full-featured audio interface such as Griffin’s $100 PowerWave (   ; Mac Gems , June 2003 ) or M-Audio’s $180 MobilePre (see Best Current Price ).

Audio Software There’s no shortage of programs that can record and manipulate audio on the Mac. (For some of my favorites, see “Audio Software Options.”) But for versatility and affordability, you can’t go wrong with HairerSoft’s $30 Amadeus II. This general-purpose audio editor is well designed and loaded with features for editing out unwanted audio, creating fades, improving sound quality, and more.

Audio Software Options

Company Product Mouse Rating Price Records Audio Pros Cons
Apple GarageBand 1.1 4.5 mice $49^ Yes Nondestructive filters and effects operate in real time, making experimentation easy Offers fewer editing features than a dedicated audio editor
BIAS SoundSoap 1.1* 3.5 mice $99 No Great at cleaning up scratches, pops, and other noise. Relatively expensive; no recording features.
Felt Tip Software Sound Studio 4.5 mice $50^^ Yes Straightforward interface Limited playback controls hamper precise editing.
HairerSoft Amadeus II 4 mice $30 Yes Versatile program for recording, editing, and optimizing audio; inexpensive. Noise-reduction features are less effective than those in Soundsoap or CD Spin Doctor.
open source Audacity 1.2 3 mice Free Yes Free; large array of effects and optimizing filters. Clumsy interface.
Roxio CD Spin Doctor 2 4.5 mice $100^^^ Yes Great at cleaning up noise and optimizing audio. No audio-editing features.

* Version 2.0 was announced as we went to press; ^ Included as part of the iLife ’04 Suite; ^^ Bundled with current iBooks; ^^^ Included with Toast 6 Titanium and Toast with Jam 6.

Although I’ve based these instructions on Amadeus II, the steps should be similar in whatever recording software you choose.

Storage CD-quality stereo audio eats up about 10MB of space per minute. Before you begin, check to see if your Mac has enough room to hold all your audio. If not, you may need to invest in an external hard drive.

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