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Convert Cassette Tapes to MP3 Files

cassette tapes

Convert Cassette Tapes to MP3 Files - Pretty Easy - Takes Time

On November 28, 2021 I asked my 31,000+ newsletter subscribers for help in identifying the best hardware to convert old cassette tapes to MP3 files.

Quite a few replied with ideas. Just about every one is below for you to read in detail.

If you want a quick summary of how best to convert cassette tapes to MP3 files, here it is:

  1. Connect a traditional cassette tape player to your computer. Use a cord that connects from the earphone output on the player to the microphone input on your computer.
  2. Download the free version of Audacity software (opens in new window).
  3. Discover how to record an audio file using Audacity. Read below about what you need to do for music cassettes.
  4. Buy plenty of fingernail files as you'll need them as you do the minute-for-minute transfer. There's no silver bullet to speed up the process.

I tried the above method. I already have Audio Hijack Audio software I use to record my podcasts so I didn't need to download Audacity. A HORRIBLE humming noise was on my first transfer. I tried a second time putting a self-made choke (several round circles of the cord on top of one another) on the transfer cable. My thought was the linear transfer cable was picking up RF from the computer. The choke didn't work.

I decided to experiment using my studio-quality USB podcast microphone set 5 inches away from the piece-of-crap (POC) speaker on my POC cassette tape player.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Since I'm just transferring voice files and not high-fidelity music, this crude method of using my microphone produced very good and acceptable results. Listen to the re-recording below:

Here's the feedback I received from my subscribers if you want to DIG DEEP into other great tips. PLEASE do not ask me questions about any of this in the comments below. I'll not be answering them. You have all you need here to get going.

NOTE: I have NOT edited the responses. It would take far too long. Any typos, grammar, punctuation, innuendo or other errors are not mine. I just put in the first name of the subscriber to put a face on the input:

Nancy sent:

"Suggest you go to your public library as they usually have the equipment to do that."

Kim responded:

"Regarding cassette transfer - two important things - if wanting absolute best transfer use a good tape machine that has adjustable heads - so that you get absolute best sound from each specific tape  (I'm sure many of them were recorded on different machines - and all do not have same head positioning when recording) when using adjustable tape machine - you can tweak each tape to get best sound nakamichi CR-7 is one of the best. Also - use good analog to digital convertor (via computer - whatever) and keep files as WAV vs MP3. WAV is lossless and you'll have best format to keep "forever" "

Nick sent:
"I am a recording Producer/Engineer by trade.  I have used the Marantz Professional PMD-300CP and cleaned up audio in pro tools or logic."
Chuck added to the fray:

"You can usually connect a regular cassette player's audio out jack directly to your computer microphone jack and record directly using Audacity or any other audio editing program.

Recording directly to your computer obviously saves a step because then you don't have to move the files from the cassette device to your computer. Plus you have a better idea of the sound level input when using software rather than a device."

Marc expounded:
"Although very tedious, converting from tape to mp3 is fairly easy to do. You need a PC with an "AUX" input (blue 1/8" audio socket next to the pink and green ones), a cable that has two RCA (phono) jacks on one end (left and right, plugs into "TAPE OUT"), and a 1/8" stereo male jack at the other, a—functioning!—tape deck for playback, and a software package like Audacity (free) to capture the audio. I say tedious, because you can't speed up the capture process, this is done in real time. This means that if the tape has 45 minutes of content on it, it will take 45 minutes to capture (or digitize) the material. If you do have a high speed dubbing deck, it works but it introduces more hiss during the transfer. It also is more stress on the tapes, which at this point may be 30-40 years old, so real time is better (more gentle on the brittle tapes). Although I have the equipment, I am in Canada (shipping costs are insane and I'm not sure about the carriers being able to make sure the tapes arrive here safely); I know that transfer services like this exist pretty much everywhere. I seem to remember Costco advertising that not too long ago… oops, just did a quick check and they seem to only do video transfers. My bad. Honestly, look more for someone local to you, where you can go in-person. For stuff like that, either do it yourself or carry the tapes to someone that you trust not to loose the things (and do a good job with digitizing). Those tapes are unique as long as there's no duplicate in digital form, which makes them irreplaceable in case of loss."
Roger sent:
"I've been doing this to my entire cassette collection (several hundred cassettes) over the last few years. I have my stereo cassette deck hooked into the line-in jacks of my computer and record the signal with the free Audacity computer program. If there are any sound quality issues (such as pops because some of the tapes were dubs from albums) Audacity can filter them out. There are many many more adjustments you can make to control the frequencies. If the tape is stretched there isn't much you can do to fix that. But if it is dragging on the side of the case and slows down or stops I have opened the case and put the tape in another good case to make it run more smoothly. The worst-case problem I had was a tape of my departed father-in-law giving a speech at his retirement ceremony. The cassette recorder evidently had poor batteries so everything sounded like the chipmunk's cartoon. Audacity was able to change the speed and pitch of my dub to be more reasonable. It doesn't look like you have professionally produced music cassettes but if your cassettes are professional music albums that you have recorded to have in the car or something, you can probably replace them by borrowing CD copies from your library and copying the CDs to MP3 files on your computer. My next project is to go through all my vinyl albums and decide which ones to copy. I'll probably buy a turntable and hook it directly to the computer with a USB jack. They're not that expensive. Hope this helps somewhat."
Bob proclaimed:
"I've been transcribing important cassettes that have homemade recordings of interest to my family for the last month or so. If you don't find an automatic machine, I can help. I'm using a boom box with a cassette drive and a free program called Audacity. I run a 3.5mm cable from the boombox headphone out to the line-in socket on my 10 year old Dell desktop. In Audacity, I set the recording levels, record, edit out the unwanted space and convert to both MP3 files and wav files. I can also convert one channel mono recordings to pseudo stereo recordings by duplicating the one audio track. Audacity is powerful, fast easy to use and has a graphical interface. Like most things, the first successful recording might take a few days of fiddling, but then you can crank them out. I was shocked at the quality I recorded from 40 year old cassettes."
Mark remarked:

"It’s been a few years so the technology has changed however there is no machine does a direct conversion that I’m aware of.

Best thing is to pick up a cassette deck that’s high-quality preferably HXPro or even better a dolbly noise reduction. Ideally decks with both of these functions should  be used during the initial recording and then also playback so you get the full impact of it. If it wasn’t used during the creation of the recordings the results won’t be as effective.
Dolby can be used on cassettes that weren’t recorded with it, but it tends to knock all higher frequencies out of the recording( takes hiss away but now may sound warbley . You may  be better to use an EQ  (stand alone box) or EQ filter like they do in recording studio or a computer filter to selectively knock out the hiss.
Either way you then need a computer and a  interface (like a USB interface) ( less than a 100 bucks) and some trial and error to record it to your computer.
A tip might be to contact your local music store and get a connection to a recording person or go on line and look for  a place that transfers old film movies to digital."

Barb and a few other subscribers suggested paying others to do it:

"I am not an audio engineer.  I looked at the website recently about converting photos to digital.  The site seemed to have good reviews.  They provide many types of services.  The site is www.digitalrecollections.net     They seemed to provide services fairly quickly."

Jim had this to say:

"Converting audio tapes is ten times easier than video tapes. All you need is a player, a computer with line in jacks, a capture program like VLC or Audacity, and a lot of time to waste.

First you set up all the jacks and levels and such, then hit record on the capture program and let the tape crank away. You will get a huge file that's the .wav file of the tape. Very large.
Then the real time wasting begins. Edit using audacity, sorting the good from the bad, splitting the tracks, labeling the file names, and converting to mp3. You can take out glitches and add effects (but use caution). You can take out some hiss, but basically it's just turning down the treble and it will not really improve the quality of the recorded signal. But it won't degrade it."
Beth shared tips on shipping cassettes copied from some other source:

"Care must be exercised to ensure that tape collections are not harmed when they are transported. When magnetic media are transported, temperatures should not exceed 110° F (43° C). Collections should be transported in the spring or the fall when outdoor temperatures are moderate, if possible. Properly wound tape reels can survive greater variations in temperature and humidity without permanent damage than can poorly wound tape packs.Tapes and cassettes should be shipped in the same orientation as they are stored – on edge – with the weight of the tape pack being supported by the reel hub. Tapes that are shipped in the flat position are particularly subject to damage from dropping and other forms of shock. This is especially true of tapes that experience large changes in temperature during shipment or tapes that are poorly wound.

Media should be protected from damage due to shock by packing them in materials that will absorb shock (special packages, bubble wrap), using special labeling, and transporting them in appropriate vehicles. Shock-absorbing packaging will often have the added advantage of providing insulation that helps protect the media from large swings in temperature and humidity.

Exposure to strong magnetic fields must also be avoided to prevent information loss. Some of the detectors used to screen luggage in overseas airports have been known to partially erase tapes. Walk through metal detectors and X-ray scanners do not pose a threat to recorded information. Some hand-held metal detectors can cause problems since they use strong magnetic fields. Refer to the section on Stray Magnetism in the Ampex Guide in the Appendix."

Phil phoned in his comment (not really):

"DAK.com has an interface and software that you can use to convert your tapes and vinyl records to MP3 format on your computer. Cost is about $70. I have had mine for several years and have converted hundreds of vinyl records already with it."

Jeff tooted his horn:

"Here is what I have done many times and it has worked well. You need to connect a tape player to your computer. If you only have a Walkman or something comparable you can connect directly from the earphone jack to the microphone or input jack of the computer. Use a cable that has stereo mini-phone plugs on each end. If you have a stereo cassette deck that would probably work even better. You can use the headphone jack and connect to the computer or better still if you have RCA phono input jacks in the back of the deck you can get a Y connector with two male RCA plugs on one end and a single stereo mini phone plug on the other to plug into the computer. You can get the cables on Amazon and I think at Walmart. Download and install Audacity onto your computer. It's a free multi-use audio program that you can find on the internet. It works well with Linux, Mac, and Windows. Now play your tapes into the computer after pressing the record button on Audacity and it will record. You will probably have to experiment adjusting the recording volume in Audacity. You can record a little and then play it back and see how the volume is. Be sure to delete any experiments before you do the final recording. With Audacity you can convert the audio files into MP3s. Concerning the quality and hissing etc., It will turn out exactly how it sounds on the tapes."

Rob responded:

"In response to your call for assistance, you probably realize that it isn't as easy as you make it sound.  Firstly, the recording process - each recording machine has its own quirks - cleanliness of heads, alignment of heads, inherent noise in recording circuits, bias in recording circuits, external electrical sources that could introduce audio anomalies.  Also the microphone and associated systems with similar concerns.  Next, on the restoration side, the playback equipment - most of the same as above, but for each tape the heads should be readjusted to match the new tape's alignment.  Tapes have inherent noise, different tapes, different mixtures of magnetic media. Even the same brand could change mixture with different batches of tapes. So, of course, there could be a good deal of work to extract the best quality from each tape. And there is software capable of removing some degree of noise, with the possibility of also degrading the signal, depending upon the judicial use of various filters. The human factor, a real human listener who knows what filters to use and how strongly to apply each of them is important for optimal results.

Of course, there are machines that can do a "reasonable" job.  However, no machine will be able to produce an archival quality finished product.
Of course, this is all based upon what the end-user deems acceptable.  You mentioned the MP3 format. This is what is known as a lossy format.  This means that the audio program encoded into this format automatically loses quality.  This may or may not be acceptable. It is popular because of its small file size.  The small file size is becoming less important as computers (audio players) are having more memory than in the past, and as the processing speed of computers is increasing.
It looks to me that you have roughly 150 tapes (from what I can see). This would require about 300 separate sessions (one for each side). At a bare minimum, a person would have to insert the tape, possibly rewind, press play, and wait for extraction (other things can be done while extraction occurs), return to the machine, and begin the process again.  Assuming 5 sessions per day, that would be about 60 days, if you are talking about a dedicated volunteer situation."

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