Let’s be honest, nobody listens to cassette tapes anymore. To most of us, they are about as useful as a van full of 8-track cartridges. And although records are still a staple for DJs everywhere, kicking back on the couch and listening to a needle bouncing around on vinyl isn’t most people’s idea of getting down.
But that’s not to say the music on these outdated formats isn’t worth listening to. Chances are you’ve got some old records and tapes sitting around the house—mixed tapes, bootleg concerts, even audio recordings of important events—and 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. And records? Let’s just say that after enough time in the sun, they don’t even make good Frisbees anymore.
If you want to listen to some of your treasures on the computer, in the car, or on an MP3 player (or just keep them from vanishing forever), it’s time to think about digitizing them. In some cases, you can even make these recordings sound better—so what are you waiting for?
To transfer audio from aging cassette tapes or records, you’ll need some basic audio hardware and recording software.
Cassette Deck or Turntable The first thing you’ll need is a cassette deck that can play back your tapes or a turntable for your records. Any tape deck with audio-out jacks should work. But if you have a large tape library and you don’t want to commandeer the deck in your stereo system, you might want to buy a separate player that you can dedicate to the task. You can find a good stereo cassette deck online for less than $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. Audio geeks will tell you to shop for a vintage deck on eBay—those made by Pioneer and Nakamichi in the 1970s and 1980s were built like tanks and had some great features. But keep in mind that even the best equipment won’t really improve crummy audio.
For records, you need a turntable, of course. But you’ll also need a phono preamp to boost the volume of the audio coming from the turntable and to compensate for the RIAA curve, a form of equalization built into records since about 1950. Basically, low frequencies require a larger groove, which can cause higher distortion and reduce available recording time—so the RIAA curve dictates that records be engraved with reduced bass (low-end) levels and increased treble (high-end) levels. When you plug a record player into the phono port on a stereo receiver or preamplifier and play an LP, the RIAA curve is reversed, and you get normal sound. If your stereo receiver has a line output, you can connect it directly to your computer—otherwise, you’ll need a separate preamp such as TCC’s $43 TC-750 Professional Moving Magnet Preamp. Although you can import audio from a turntable without using a phono preamp, it’s not a good idea—the levels are likely to be very low and the sound very tinny.
TCC’s TC-750 Preamp
Audio-Input Hardware You need a way to connect your deck or turntable to your computer. Almost every computer includes some kind of audio input, whether it’s a built-in stereo minijack or an included sound card. To connect your hardware, you’ll need some type of cable—usually a minijack-to-RCA cable (also called a Y cable). If your computer lacks an audio input, if it has only a mike input, or if you want better quality than what’s built-in, you’ll need to buy one of the many PCI, USB, or FireWire audio adapters out there. Some good ones are Creative’s $100 Sound Blaster Audigy 2 NX for PCs, and Griffin Technology’s $40 iMic, and M-Audio’s $180 MobilePre USB for Mac or PC.
Griffin Technology’s iMic
Audio Software There’s no shortage of programs that can record and manipulate audio. In some cases, you may be better off getting one program for recording, and another for fixing up your digital files. CD-quality stereo audio eats up about 10MB of space per minute—so make sure you’ve got enough hard drive space to hold that audio.
Prepare Your Media
To get the best quality when digitizing, it’s good to do a little bit of prep work.
Tasty Tapes When you’re importing audio from old cassettes, tape hiss is probably inevitable—it’s a result of the tape’s narrow track and slow playback speed. But a dirty deck or an improperly handled tape can compound the problem. One possible solution is to use cotton swabs and tape-head cleaner to clean your deck’s playback head, as well as its capstan and pinch roller (the spinning pin and rubber roller that work together to grip the tape and move it across the heads). You can buy head-cleaning fluid at almost any electronics store (isopropyl alcohol from your local drugstore works well, too).
If you’ve stored the tapes in a hot or cold place, let them sit for a few hours to get used to the temperature in your recording room. This will eliminate moisture condensation and other problems that could cause tape jams. Break off the plastic tabs on the backs of the cassettes you plan to convert, if you haven’t already done so, so you won’t accidentally record over your audio.
If a tape is in really bad shape (say you left it under a heat lamp for several years), you may hear a mechanical squealing sound when you play it. This happens when the glue that holds the magnetic particles to the tape moves to the surface, sticking to the tape deck’s heads. If the tape contains priceless audio, try baking it for about 10 minutes at 125 to 150 degrees in an oven (convection or electric—a gas oven produces too much moisture.) When the tape has completely cooled, replay it. If the squeal is gone, digitize it right away.
Rockin’ Records To prevent nasty pops and generally improve the sound of your records, pick up a record brush or a cleaning kit and use it to remove dust and even mildew from the surface. You might also want to pick up a new stylus before you start.
Fine-tune Your Settings
For best results, you’ll want to adjust your tape deck or turntable and software settings to match the specific characteristics of each recording you convert.
Adjust Your Player There are many different kinds of tapes—metal oxide, chromium dioxide, and so on—and newer cassette decks sense which type of tape you’re using and adjust playback appropriately. But many older decks don’t, and if you own one of these, you’ll need to set its front-panel switches to the type of tape you’re restoring. If the tape isn’t labeled, play back a portion of the audio with each setting and use the one that sounds best. And for turntables, make sure you have the correct speed selected for each record—unless you want to make your recording sound like either Barry White or a chipmunk (assuming that it’s not of Barry or a Chipmunk).
Set Software Levels Next, set your audio software’s volume controls according to the loudness of your tape or record. Proper volume is vital to getting good sound. Set the levels too low, and your audio will be too soft and prone to noise. Set levels too high, and loud portions of the recording will sound horribly distorted.
Check Recording Settings Most software out there is preset to record audio at standard CD quality: 44.1KHz, 16 bits, and stereo WAV (PC) or AIFF (Mac). Make sure, though—even if you’re making MP3s from your recordings, you might as well start with the highest quality possible.
To make the recording process easier, you’ll want to record an entire side in one pass—you can always chop up the recording later. When you’ve finished recording, save the file with something like “original” in the file name, and then make a copy—you’ll be glad you have a backup if you mess up or if better restoration software appears in the future. You can even burn the backup to a CD if you’re really paranoid.
Refine Your Recording
Once you’ve captured the audio, you can take advantage of your software’s editing tools to enhance the quality of your recording. The steps you take here will depend on the software you’re using, the original recording’s quality, and the degree to which you want to tinker with settings.
If your tape of a favorite live concert begins with a few minutes of audience murmuring, delete it. If you’ve recorded multiple songs, split your single recording into separate files. That way, you can make each song or section a separate track on an audio CD or on your iPod. Some software can detect silence between songs and divide them for you. If your recording doesn’t contain silent passages (or if the software doesn’t do a very good job), create the breaks yourself.
You can also insert fade-ins and -outs, change the pitch of a whining recording, and—perhaps most important—remove tape hiss, pops, and clicks. If your software doesn’t include the ability to fix these nasty problems, take a look at BIAS’s $99 SoundSoap 2 or Roxio’s CD Spin Doctor 2 (part of Roxio’s $80 Toast Titanium 6 ).
Roxio’s CD SpinDoctor 2
Import and Archive
Once you’ve refined your recordings, add them to your music library so you can burn them to CDs or compress them for your portable player. If you’re planning to create audio CDs from your restored audio, use the uncompressed tracks—that way, you won’t sacrifice any sound quality to audio compression.
To free up some disk space, you’ll want to either delete or archive the uncompressed files—consider archiving if you might want to encode them in a different format later.
Jim Heid, the author of The Macintosh iLife ‘05 (Peachpit Press, 2004), grew up in his dad’s recording studio and is gradually restoring hundreds of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes. Patrick Norton is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area and a former cohost of TechTV’s The Screen Savers.