Audio Tape Transfer - How to Transfer Cassette Tapes to Computer, CD and MP3 Using Audacity

To transfer a cassette tape to computer you will need the following:

The most important factor in a good transfer is the quality of the analogue playback machine, i.e. the tape deck you're using. Try to find or use the best quality and best sounding one to your ears that you can. If you have or can borrow a 3 head machine especially a Nakamichi and it's working well that should give you excellent sound on playback. It's a good idea to clean the heads, capstans and pinch rollers with isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and a q-tip.

They often become dirty with tape oxide that can muffle the high frequencies and give you a dull sounding recording. Gently rub the heads with the wetted cotton bud until no more brown gunk comes off. Most computers and laptops have sound cards with 3.5mm, minijack connectors on them.

If you have a more specialised sound card it may have larger 1/4" jacks or even XLR connectors but you probably won't need this article if you have one of those! You will need a cable with two phono connectors at one end, for the tape deck, and a single 3.5mm mini stereo jack and the other. These cables can be bought very cheaply and are often used to connect media players to stereos. Plug you cable in and get ready to record! There is a wealth of recording software for Windows, Macintosh and GNU/Linux to choose from, some of it expensive, some cheap and some free!

We're going to use the free software, which is actually very good. Point your web browser to the Audacity website and download and install the version suitable for your operating system. Once you've got Audacity installed and working you'll need to check in the Preferences Audio I/O menu that you have the correct playback and recording inputs selected. If that's ok then press the big round, red record button and then start your tape running. If you see the meters moving up and down and a waveform being drawn across the screen, well done it's recording your tape! It might be a good idea though to stop and check it sounds ok as very low or very loud recordings will not sound good. You will need to be very careful of what's called clipping. Digital recorders can't record 'into the red' like your old tape deck could.

Once they go over 0dB you'll get clipping. This sounds terrible so it's best to check your levels and give yourself a bit of breathing space and record lower. This breathing space is called headroom. If the recording has gone ok, it's safest to save the file first before you do anything to it, using the File Save As menu. Now you can play it back, edit it, burn it to a CD or convert it to an OGG or MP3 file for your media player. If you've any large gaps at the beginning or end, it's a good idea to trim these. Just use the 'I' beam tool and select the flat looking bits of waveform at the start and end of your recording, then press backspace just like you would to delete a word or paragraph in a wordprocessor.

If your recording is over 80 minutes and is destined for a CD you will have to split the file by cutting the section for side 2 maybe and pasting this into a new stereo Audacity document as 80 minutes is the most you can burn on a CD. If you want a CD with track points you will need to create 'markers' in Audacity speak at each gap between tracks. If your recording has neat gaps between the tracks then it's pretty easy as your can use Audacity's Find Silence command which will place a marker at every point in the file that the volume falls to a certain level for a certain length of time. This may need a bit of trial and error to get right but it's worth persevering as it saves much time over the manual method of listening to the whole recording an inserting markers at the point between songs or tracks. If everything's fine, you're almost there.

The last stage before putting your recording on CD or converting it to a compressed format for your media player is to Normalize the file. This looks at the whole file, finds the loudest section and then increased the volume of everything in proportion until the loudest part is just as loud as it can be before it clips. I usually Normalize to 98% or -0.3 dB. Now it's time to make a CD or file. From the File Export menu choose the type of destination file you need. For CD choose, WAV, AIFF and for your media player choose Ogg Vorbis, FLAC or MP3. Now sit back and let it create the final file.. If you have created markers for track points in your CD, you'll need to use the File Export Multiple command which will export each track as a separate file. If you need to make a CD use the WAV file or files in your favourite CD burning application and it should burn one perfectly and you can sit and listen to your recording safe in the knowledge you can make as many digital copies now and play it back forever with no fear of the tape wearing out or getting 'chewed'!Auda

Adrian Finn is the founder and proprietor of greatbear, a UK business that specialises in helping individuals and organisations adapt and make the best use of the Digital Age. This includes web design and development, computer support and audio and video transfer services to CD and DVD.


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