Musical Media Manipulations (Converting Cassette Tapes to MP3)

My wife and I finally decided it was time to join the 21st Century and upgrade our music library. We have several dozen cassette tapes and want to pull the songs off of them and convert them to mp3 for use in our portable music players. Since I struggled a little bit with getting the process working I figured I’d share what I have learned in case others would like to attempt this also. eHow (www.ehow.com) has a few useful how-to’s for this, but the one that comes closest to the method I use (http://www.ehow.com/how_4778019_convert-cassettes-mp.html) leaves out a few details.

First, let me tell you what not to do. Do not buy one of the various converting kits one can find on-line. Ion, DAK, and a company called ClearClick sell kits ranging from around $40 to over $100, but all you really need is a $16 stereo cord available at Radio Shack and a couple free freeware downloads, and your own cassette player of course. Before I figured out the better way to do this I bought the ION Tape Express device. It comes with a rather cheep looking portable cassette player and a bit of proprietary conversion software on a CD. On the plus side, the player connects to ones computer via USB. On the downside, the conversion software insists on using iTunes as its repository. Also, the unit I got had a serious noise issue and played my tapes way too slow. The included software did not have noise reduction or speed adjustment capability.

 SETUP

OK. So, here’s how I do it. First, download and install the Audacity audio editor and the Lame mp3 encoder (that’s the name of it, not a comment on it’s useability). If this is your first time playing with audio editing software, as it was for me, Audacity may look a little intimidating. It certainly has more options and features than most people who are not audio engineers or pod casters really need. Trust me, though, this little piece of freeware will save your bacon. One point of excellence for Audacity is the extensive help available via it’s wiki and faq.

Once you have those two packages loaded, connect your tape player to your computer. Radio Shack, or pretty much any electronics/stereo shop I suspect, sells a nifty male-to-male stereo cable for just this sort of thing. Simply plug one end into the headphone jack of your tape deck and the other to the in-line or “mic in” port of your computer. In my case, my stereo headphone jack is the larger 6.35mm version, so I had to use a 6.35mm to 3.5mm conversion plug.

Next, open Audacity and set up the Output and Input devices, usually your speakers and microphone.

setup

Output source selection. Getting this right enables you to hear what you are recording.

You can check that you got it right by clicking the record button (the red dot) in Audacity and Play on your cassette player. If the monitors start jumping, you hear the music, and you see the waveform in the main portion, then you have it right. Click Stop in Audacity (the yellow square) and stop your tape.

recording in progress

Recording in progress

At this time you can also set the input and output levels. You don’t want to peg the monitors as this reduces your sound quality. Either adjust the volume on your tape player or use the Input Volume Slider in Audacity, or both to get the desired input volume. The output volume is up to you, whatever is comfortable for you to hear with. It does not effect the output of the mp3 conversion.

Input volume slider

 RECORDING

Now, we get to record the music. To record the whole tape follow these steps.

  1. Rewind the tape to the beginning.
  2. Click Record in Audacity
  3. Push the Play button on your tape deck, and let it play out.
  4. At the end of the side, Click Pause (the two blue lines) in Audacity, flip your tape, hit the play button, then click Pause again to resume recording.
  5. At the end of the tape, click Stop in Audacity and stop your tape.

If you only want to grab a few tracks off the tape, the process is a little more involved.

  1. Find the start of the song on your tape.
  2. Press Record in Audacity
  3. Start the tape, and let it play.
  4. At the end of the song , press Pause.
  5. Find the next song you want to record, and repeat.

HINT: It is important to press Pause rather than Stop between each song you want to record as this produces one recording track rather than separate tracks for each song and is easier to deal with.

POST RECORDING CLEANUP

Here is where Audacity really shines. The first step is Noise Reduction. Most tape players have some noise associated with them, motor hum and the like. Even if your player happens to have Dolby Noise Reduction, this one modification alone will improve your results immeasurably. To remove the background noise and get a cleaner recording, do the following:

  1. Find a section of “silence” in your recording and highlight it.
  2. In the Effect menu, click on Noise Removal.

noise

  1. In the dialog box that pops up, click the “Get Noise Profile” button.

noise removal dialog

  1. Now, select your entire recording (Ctrl+A, or Edit>Select>All)
  2. Click Noise Removal in the Effect menu again and click the OK button at the bottom of the dialog box.

There are all sorts of other things in the Effect menu, like Equalization, Amplify, and Bass Boost, that you can do to your songs before exporting then to mp3, but for most purposes Noise Reduction is all you need. In my case, my stereo is so old it plays the tapes a little too fast. However, it is at least consistently fast and with the Change Speed tool set to -10% I was able to get things sounding like they should.

CONVERSION

At last! When you have your song sounding absolutely perfect, it is finally time to save it as an mp3. With the noise removed it should be easy to tell where each song begins and ends. Simply set the cursor at the beginning of the song then hold the shift key and click at the end of the song. This selects that one song. Now, in the File menu, click on Export Selection. In most cases the breaks between songs are obvious. In others, like Enigma’s MCMXD, the tracks may run together and you will have to listen for the changes and mark down the time points to use.

Find the folder you want to put it in. I usually name the folder for the artist, or in the case of a soundtrack or multi-artist compilation, the name of the tape. Hit Save, and in the next dialog box enter the appropriate information. The Genre field has a drop down list with some interesting selections.

mp3 metadata

Click on OK or hit the Return (or Enter) key on your keyboard and Voila! Your song is now an mp3 suitable for playing on your digital music player of choice.

Repeat the above for each song and tape you want to record and convert.

I hope this little step-by-step proves helpful to someone. Let me know if you found it useful. I’d also be interested to know if anyone has some other good tips to share, or important steps I may have missed.

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Keeper Of Obscure Knowledge, Designated Official Noetic Theorist, Professional Artificer of Noospheric Intermediary Constructs

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Posted in Brain Lube
2 comments on “Musical Media Manipulations (Converting Cassette Tapes to MP3)
  1. 45spin says:

    Fantastic post, where were you a few years ago when I was trying to figure this all out.

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