From Tape to CD

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Step 2: Prepare Your Tapes

While importing audio from old cassettes, you’ll inevitably hear some tape hiss—a result of the tape’s narrow track and slow playback speed. And a dirty deck or improperly handled tape can compound the problem. To get the best playback from your tapes and deck, take the time to do some basic housekeeping before you begin recording.

Clean the Heads 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. Here’s a primer on cleaning your tape deck.

Acclimate Your Tapes If you have stored the tapes in a hot or cold place, let them sit for a few hours to acclimate to the temperature in your recording room. This will eliminate moisture condensation and other problems that could cause tape jams. Then promise to treat your tapes better in the future.

Break the Tabs If you haven’t already done so, break off the plastic tabs on the backs of the cassettes you plan to convert. This will prevent you from accidentally recording over your audio.

Desperate Measures When you play that old tape that used to live in your Firebird’s glove compartment, you may hear an unpleasant mechanical squealing sound. This is the result of binder ooze, and it’s likely the dying gasp of your cassette. Over time, the glue that holds the magnetic particles to the tape can migrate to the surface. The tape becomes just sticky enough to adhere to the tape deck’s heads, emitting a squeal.

It’s probably best to throw away a squealing tape. But if it contains priceless audio, try baking the tape for about 10 minutes at 125 to 150 degrees—preferably in a convection or electric oven. (A gas oven produces too much moisture.) This helps dry out the excess binder.

When the tape has completely cooled, replay it. If it’s squeal free, digitize it immediately. Some experts say you can bake a tape a couple of times, but the heat takes a toll on the tape and the cassette mechanism. Consider the oven a last resort.

Step 3: Fine-Tune Your Settings

No two cassette recordings are exactly alike, so to get the best results, you’ll want to adjust your tape deck and software settings to match the specific characteristics of each tape you convert.

Adjust Your Deck Tapes come in several formulations—metal oxide, chromium dioxide, and so on. 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 correspond 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.

Before you record, you should also experiment with your deck’s Dolby noise-reduction setting. Dolby noise reduction can soften the noticeable hiss in a problematic tape. However, it also tends to mute high frequencies, making your audio less vibrant. To see which setting you like best, play a portion of the tape while switching Dolby off and on.

Set Software Levels Next, set your audio software’s volume controls to accommodate the loudness of your tape. 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 them too high, and loud portions of the recording will sound horribly distorted.

To set the volume control, forward your tape to a particularly loud section. Fire up Amadeus II and begin playing your tape. As you listen, adjust the on-screen sliders in the Navigator window until you find the best balance between soft and loud tones.

Check Recording Settings Like all the programs I tested, Amadeus II is preset to record audio at standard CD quality: 44.1kHz sampling rate, 16 bits of resolution, and two tracks. You probably won’t need to change these settings. However, if you’re restoring a monophonic tape, you can halve the amount of disk space required by having Amadeus II record in mono. Go to Sound: Characteristics, and then choose Mono from the Number Of Channels pop-up menu.

Step 4: Record Your Tape

Once you’ve set your levels, rewind the tape. Click on your software’s record button, and then press play on the cassette deck. Don’t worry if you end up recording some silence at the beginning of the tape—you can always remove this later.

To make the recording process easier, record an entire side of a tape in one pass. If the tape contains discrete sections—for example, individual songs or acts of a school play—you can use Amadeus II to divide your recording into separate files once you’re done.

When you’ve finished recording, save the file. Place the word original in the file name to identify it as your source material. Next, use the Save As command to create a copy of the recording, replacing the word original with edited. You’ll perform your audio alterations on this copy. That way, you’ll always have the original, unprocessed version to fall back on if something goes wrong—or if better restoration software appears in the future.

To ensure that nothing happens to your source files, you should burn them onto a CD and store it in a cool, dark place.

Adjust your software’s levels so that the audio is loud without being distorted. The loudest portions of your tape should illuminate the yellow segments of the meters, but never the red ones.
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