Sometimes you want or need to transfer your old media to digital. This includes cassette tapes. Let’s talk about the reasons why you might want to transfer cassette tapes to digital as well as how you go about doing that.
Why you would want to transfer cassette tapes to digital
In some cases, you may have recording on cassette tapes that never made it to other formats. Cassette tapes wear out, and every time you play them, there is a small but non-zero risk of damaging the tape. If the tape has value, you would rather not do that. That value could be monetary, but it can also be sentimental. Sometimes people underestimate the sentimental value of things. When I wrote about collecting tapes, the reader feedback I received indicated a lot of them don’t consider themselves tape collectors, but they kept their old tapes as keepsakes and they really don’t care what they’re worth at anybody else.
I totally get that.
If you convert those cassette tapes to digital, then you can keep the tapes on a shelf or wherever you keep them for safekeeping, and you can listen to the digital version anytime you want without risking the physical tape. You can listen to the physical tape on special occasions if you want, or not.
Is it legal to convert cassette tapes to digital?
The legality of converting copyrighted material has always been a bit fuzzy. The record label will tell you no. But this falls into the same category as making tapes of vinyl records or CDs used to fall into. You are transferring media that you paid for to a more convenient medium. As long as you retain the original copy, you aren’t breaking any laws. It is also extremely difficult to argue you’ve done anything unethical.
And if you feel guilty about making a copy of something you already bought for your personal use, just go buy a digital copy of the same recording wherever you buy digital music. Then listen to whichever copy you wish.
A copy of the same recording purchased new in digital format or ripped from a CD will absolutely sound better. Transferring cassettes to digital is about preserving recordings when you don’t have any other option, or when the sound from a tape seems more authentic. I once met someone who told me he didn’t like the Grateful Dead unless he was listening to them on 8 track. He thought the music lost something on a less period-correct medium.
Marshall McLuhan would have agreed with him.
A pro tip for reducing the chances of damage when digitizing vintage cassette tapes
When you go to play a vintage cassette tape, whether it’s for casual listening or converting to digital, there is one thing you should always do to minimize the chance of damage. It will also give you a higher quality recording. Insert the tape, then fast forward it all the way to the end. Then rewind it all the way back to the beginning before you play it. This is called retensioning the tape.
Every tape drive is a little bit different, and the main reason tape players eat tapes is because of slack in the tape. Re-tensioning the tape takes up the slack and allows the motor to set the tape to the tension that best matches its characteristics.
There is a perception that rewinding tapes is bad for a tape player’s motor, but that is advertising hype. Spreading that rumor helped electronics companies to sell rewinders for VHS tapes in the 1980s. The negligible amount of wear on the tape mechanism’s motor is offset by minimizing the chances of damage to the tape or the mechanism from the tape being too loose or too tight.
In other words, it’s worth it.
How to transfer cassette tapes to digital or mp3
There are two general ways to transfer because that tapes to digital formats, such as MP3, or even a lossless format like ogg.
Which way is easiest and cheapest depends on what you have to work with.
Some people claim a USB cassette deck is the easiest and cheapest way to convert analog media into digital files. I can’t argue with whether it is easiest. It’s certainly the easiest. Whether it is cheapest depends on whether you already own a working cassette deck and whether your computer has analog audio inputs. Some computers don’t have those anymore, because progress.
If you want to go the USB route, you simply purchase a USB cassette deck, which will usually come with software that does the conversion. You plug the cassette deck into an available USB port, insert your tape, run the software, press play, and it will do most of the work, including splitting the recording into individual songs, and sometimes even adding metadata like naming the files and adding album art. Some of them send the data into iTunes, and some of them generate MP3 files.
You will probably love one of those options and hate the other, and I won’t convince you which one is better. If I had to guess, if you have a lot of Apple gear, you will like the iTunes option. And if you don’t have a lot of Apple gear, you are more likely to prefer the MP3 option.
Using a tape deck to convert cassette tapes to digital
You can also connect a regular cassette player to your computer to convert audio cassette tapes to digital. This method is more difficult but gives you far more control over the process.
You will need a suitable audio cable, assuming your computer has an analog microphone input. If it doesn’t, you can buy a USB device that has a 3.5 mm audio jack you can use.
Then you need a stereo cable to go from your tape deck’s audio outputs to the audio input on your computer. If your deck has headphone outputs, get a cable with a suitable connector for your tape deck on one end and a 3.5 mm audio jack on the other. Frequently this will be 3.5 mm on both ends. Some tape decks had a larger headphone connector.
Some tape players only have RCA jacks because they plug in to a separate amplifier. If that’s the case with yours, you need a cable with a 3.5 mm plug on one side and RCA plugs on the other side.
When you connect to your computer, turn the volume to about 75% if you are using a headphone jack connector. If you are using RCA outputs, don’t worry about the volume.
I use an open source program called Audacity to record audio. It works extremely well, it doesn’t cost any money, and it is reasonably easy to use.
When you launch Audacity, you’ll probably have to tell it which recording device to use. That’s the option to the right of the microphone icon. Choose your microphone or audio input from the drop-down menu. The option next to that allows you to choose stereo or mono. You probably want stereo.
Hit the big red record button, then press play on your tape deck. If you don’t see audio, something is wrong. You may have more than one microphone or audio input. Just stop the tape, stop the recording, rewind, and try a different microphone or audio input. Repeat until you are able to see sound.
After 30 to 45 minutes, you will have a long recording. When you look at the recording in the lower half of the user interface, you will see a highly compressed sound wave. If you’re OK with one long recording for each side, you can save it here. Or you can split it into individual tracks.
Separating your recording into individual files
I think everyone has their own way for splitting a recording into individual tracks. You can absolutely do this other ways, but I find it easiest using the arrow keys on the keyboard.
First, zoom in enough that you can see the sound wave. Use the zoom option in the view menu. Zoom in and scroll around to get the lay of the land. You can use the scrollbars on the screen to zoom around quickly, and the arrow keys to scroll around very slowly and precisely. There is usually a gap of around a half second between songs. Make sure you zoom in far enough that you can see that gap.
I click near the beginning of a song, use the arrow keys to get the position exactly where I want, then I hold down the shift key and the right arrow key and hold both keys down until I reach the end of the track. If I overshoot, I just let go of the right arrow key while continuing to hold down the shift key, and use the left arrow key to get where I want. You can tell from how the waveform looks where the song begins and ends. The gap between songs is flat or nearly flat. Once you have your track highlighted, copy it to the clipboard. I use the Control-C shortcut, but you can also use your mouse to pick copy from the edit menu.
Now make a new file. You can either hit Control-N or go to the file menu and select new. When the new window appears, paste the track into it. Either hit Control-V to paste, or navigate to the edit menu and select paste.
Now navigate to the file menu and choose save as. Name the track appropriately, choose the audio format you like (MP3, OGG, or even WAV) and save it where you keep your music collection. WAV takes up the most space but is good for transferring the recording to CD. OGG strikes a good balance but not all software or devices support it. MP3 is lossy so you can lose some fidelity but it works with almost everything. If in doubt, choose MP3.
Repeat this process for all of the tracks. With practice, you can split a recording into individual tracks and just a few minutes.
There are almost an infinite number of ways to use Audacity, so I am not saying this is the only way to do this.
If you learned to use Audacity a different way and have a way that works for you, you can use that method. I find this method less cumbersome than some of the other methods I have seen people describe online, but feel free to use whatever works for you.
Repeat the process for the other side. Of course you want both sides of the tape, right?
When it comes to adding album art and other metadata to these files, you are kind of on your own. But most software for playing back MP3s has the capability to recognize the song and artist and add metadata, including album art, and even rename files to match a standard convention. Use your favorite playback software and take it from there. Mediamonkey is one favorite, but even old fashioned Windows Media Player has a fair bit of capability in this regard.
One you’ve massaged the recording to your liking, you can also transfer the folder or individual files to a thumb drive for portability, backup, or playing in your car.