Like all analog formats, cassette tapes decay over time. In fact, it’s likely yours have already lost some fidelity. If you want to save those old mixtapes and home recordings, it’s best to digitize them right away.
Thankfully, this is an easy process. You don’t have to be a computer whiz or an audiophile to follow this simple guide. And you shouldn’t have to spend any more than $25 on this project (it’ll probably cost even less).
You Have Two Options
If you want to digitize your cassette tapes, the process is much easier than it is for VHS tapes. You don’t have to know much about computers or tape decks—just follow a few simple instructions, and you’ll get the job done right.
There are two paths you can go down to make this happen. One’s relatively easy and yields high-quality results, while the other is more time-consuming (but not necessarily difficult) and yields even higher quality results:
- USB cassette converter: The cheapest, easiest way to convert tapes to digital files. You just plug the converter into your computer, and its accompanying software does the job. Keep in mind the audio quality won’t match that of a more expensive cassette tape player.
- Digitize from an old tape deck: If you have a tape deck and your computer has some sort of audio input (a microphone port or capture card), this option should be a breeze. It also provides better sound quality than a USB cassette converter—especially if you can adjust the bias for chrome or metal tapes (if you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it).
Remember, tapes are old and temperamental. They don’t sound as good as CDs, and they’re always going to produce some hiss. These processes can’t work miracles; we’re simply saving recordings from the slow decay and inconvenience of analog tape.
How to Use a USB Cassette Converter
Again, USB cassette converters are the easiest way to digitize your tapes, especially if you don’t want to deal with unfamiliar software or computer cables.
Since this process is so simple, we’re going to keep things short and sweet with a nice bulleted list:
- Buy a converter: Your first step is to buy a USB cassette converter. We suggest either the Reshow, which drops recordings into iTunes, or the Dansrueus, which converts recordings to raw MP3 files.
- Download the accompanying software: Your USB cassette converter comes with a software download disc. If your computer doesn’t have a disc drive, consult the manufacturer’s website because you can probably download it from there.
- Put a tape in the converter, plug it into your computer, and read the instructions: After you’ve done this, open the software and follow the instructions to digitize your tracks. Be sure to add the album and artist name to each track, along with a tracklisting (track 1, 2, etc.), so the files stay organized.
- Add album artwork: You can either do this automatically in Music Tag or manually in music software, like iTunes or foobar2000. To add artwork manually, open your music player and find your songs. Hold down the CTRL key, click each track of an album, and then right-click your selection. One of the dropdown menus should say “tagging” or “properties.” Open this menu to add album art you’ve fetched from Google Images.
And that’s all there is to it! Keep your USB cassette converter handy and offer it to friends who need to digitize their old cassettes.
If your USB cassette converter doesn’t include software or instructions, don’t stress. Download Audacity and skip to the “Setting Up Audacity” section of this article.
Set Up a Tape Deck for Digitization
If you want to get the best audio quality out of your digitization process, you’re going to need a tape deck. If you don’t have one, you’ll have to buy or borrow one. You can find working tape decks on eBay, Letgo, or Craigslist, or you can buy a new one on Amazon. If all this sounds like a hassle, remember, you can always use a USB cassette converter.
When you’ve got your tape deck ready to go, follow these steps to set it up with your computer. This process, while time-consuming, is relatively straightforward and worth the effort:
- Make sure the tape deck works: Play a tape you don’t care about. Listen for common issues, like excess hissing, weird playback speeds, or wow and flutter (warbling noises). If you notice any of these (or your tape gets eaten), get your hands on a new tape deck.
- Download Audacity: This free, bare-bones audio editor is easy to use. It’s also great for analog-to-digital audio conversion.
- Adjust the tape bias and type: Each of your tapes should say “high bias” or “normal bias.” If your tape deck has a bias knob or button, adjust it to match each tape. Do likewise, if your deck has buttons for different tape types, like metal or chrome. Some decks don’t have bias knobs—they might be automatic or just really old. If yours has no bias knob, test a sample track to make sure you’ll be happy with the audio quality.
- Connect the tape deck to your computer: This is how your computer records and digitizes the audio. It’s just like plugging your tape deck into a speaker. But every computer and tape deck is different, so you might have to buy some cables:
- 3.5mm microphone input: You can use a male-to-male 3.5mm cable to connect your tape deck’s 3.5mm headphone output to your computer’s microphone input (the blue one). If your tape deck’s headphone port isn’t 3.5mm, you can use an RCA to 3.5mm cable.
- 1/4 inch to 3.5mm: If your tape deck has a 1/4-inch headphone jack, you can use a 1/4-inch-to-3.5mm cable. Some tape decks output audio with two separate 1/4-inch jacks. In that case, you’ll need a stereo 1/4-inch-to-3.5mm cable.
- Capture card: If your computer doesn’t have a 3.5mm microphone input, you can plug a cheap audio capture card into its USB port to add microphone functionality.
Alright, you’ve downloaded Audacity, your tape deck is connected to your computer, and you’re ready to roll!
Well, you still have to set up Audacity, but don’t worry—it only takes a second.
Set Up Audacity
Open Audacity and locate the microphone icon on the menu bar. Click the dropdown menu next to the microphone icon and choose your audio input. It should be listed as a “Line In” device.
Play your audio cassette. If your tape deck has a built-in volume knob, set it at about 75 percent (cheaper preamps could distort the audio at max volume). If it doesn’t have a volume knob, that’s okay—we can fine-tune the input volume in Audacity.
Look for the equalizer at the top of Audacity. It’s a meter that shows whether your recording is too loud (you might have to click it to get it working). If the meter occasionally flashes red or orange, your recording is too loud and will be distorted.
Adjust the Audacity input volume slider (the microphone icon next to the plus “+” and minus “-” table) to a sweet spot where the visualizer is green. A little yellow is okay, but all green is ideal. (If your tape deck has a volume knob, feel free to adjust that instead of Audacity’s volume slider).
Once everything’s level, rewind your tape and get ready to start digitizing!
Record and Organize Your Tracks
We suggest you record each tape in its entirety, without stopping and starting between tracks. Even if you flip the tape over, leave Audacity recording. This makes it easier to chop each song into an individual file. It also ensures volume and quality won’t vary from song to song.
If you’re digitizing other types of recordings, you can follow along but omit the steps related to “cutting” tracks into different files.
When you’re ready to record, press the Record button and record the whole tape. After you’ve recorded both sides of the tape, press the space bar to stop.
Now, we have to cut that giant file into separate songs. Press F1 to turn on the selection tool, and use your mouse to select the entirety of song one. You should be able to see where each song begins and ends because there’s a space between each big blue body of sound.
If not, press the Play button where you think a song might begin or end to see if you’ve got it right. If you need to zoom out, hold the CTRL or Command key and “pull” your scroll wheel.
When your song is selected, press CTRL+ALT+I on your keyboard (Command+Option+I on a Mac). The portion you selected should now appear as a separate audio track.
Repeat the previous step for each song in the giant file. The tracks look out of alignment (like stairs), but it’s not a big deal. You can trim off any excess audio by selecting it (F1) and pressing the DEL key on your keyboard. When you’re finished, you can delete the original giant track by pressing its big X.
Press CTRL+SHIFT+L on your keyboard to save all the tracks as individual song files. Audacity asks you to name and number each track (don’t skip this step), and choose a file location. And that’s it—you’re all done!
If you want to add album art to your tracks, refer back to the section on how to use a USB cassette converter.
Tape conversion is easy but can be time-consuming. It’s worth the effort, though—especially for family recordings, old mixtapes, or those rare cassette releases you have in your attic.
Speaking of rare recordings, tons of them have been lost to time. If you have any home recordings of radio broadcasts, concerts (or anything remotely interesting), consider uploading them to the Internet Archive for posterity.
If you’re concerned about copyright, check the Internet Archive’s “Rights” page to see if your digitized content falls under fair or non-commercial use policies.