Digitizing Cassettes

Can you recommend an audio system that will let me transfer my cassettes to CD or MP3? It would also need to have excellent sound quality and all the usual features; satellite radio would be great as well. I've checked with several retailers, but none seem to have what I need, especially the first item on my list, which is crucial.

Some have suggested I simply buy a tape-to-CD dubbing deck, but they are cumbersome and the last thing I want is a shelf of separate components. Right now, I don't have any audio components, not even a portable. Cost is also a factor (keeping it low as possible).

Ray Aviles

It sounds like you want an all-in-one audio system with cassette-to-CD dubbing capabilities, but I know of no such product. A dubbing cassette player/CD recorder would be the simplest solution, but as you point out, you'd also need an audio system to hear what you're doing.

Do you have a computer? If so, I recommend getting a good cassette deck, USB audio interface, and audio software, which will let you convert your cassettes to digital files in the computer. This is the most flexible solution, because you can digitize the cassettes at 44.1kHz/16 bits uncompressed, which are the specs used by CDs, and most audio programs include various editing capabilities to reduce noise and otherwise enhance the sound quality. Then, you can burn CDs or convert the files to MP3s as needed. But be sure to keep an uncompressed copy of the files for future use.

Examples of the software you need include Acoustica Spin It Again, PolderbitS Sound Recorder & Editor (seen here), and Digitope Cassette to CD and MP3. These programs and others like them can work with the analog audio input on the computer, but you'll get better sound quality if you use an outboard USB audio interface. Examples include the Numark Stereo iO, Behringer UCA202, and Ion Audio Record 2 PC.

Neither the software nor the audio interface is expensive—each of these examples is less than $50. A good cassette deck might cost a bit more, but aren't your precious tapes worth a little investment?

If you have an A/V question, please send it to askscottwilkinson@gmail.com.

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John A. Mozzer's picture

I have digitized numerous standard audio tape cassettes using GarageBand, with an analog cable connected directly from the tape cassette deck to the analog audio input on a Macbook Pro.

After I started doing it that way, I heard Leo Laporte say to several callers on The Tech Guy show not to use a computer's analog audio input for this purpose, because of the possibility of the computer's internal circuitry adding noise, which would end up getting digitized along with the source audio. Of course, analog tapes are inherently noisy (with tape hiss, etc.), and I do not believe in trying to fix noise on the source during the digitizing stage. But I became very concerned about whether I was digitizing any additional noise, and therefore always monitored the digitizing process very carefully with a pair of headphones and my ears.

Other than one occasion when a bad surge protector introduced additional noise, I always felt very confident that I was not allowing additional noise to get digitized using this process. Nevertheless, I agree with Leo and Scott's advice to instead use an outboard USB audio interface, to be safe rather than sorry. In fact, recently, I changed my protocol to using such a device, and I am loving the results.

In GarageBand, I digitize to a new basic track. I have learned to keep the waveforms "healthy"; in other words, set the input gain control to a level so the waveforms don't appear with flat tops.

After digitizing, I right click on the GarageBand project icon (with the application closed), select Show Package Contents, open the hidden Media folder, and copy the AIFF files. (Or even move the AIFF files out of the folder, and subsequently delete the GarageBand project.) Then I can rename the AIFF files to anything I want, and keep them organized with the Finder. Later, I started using Rogue Amoeba's Fission for lossless editing of the AIFF files, when I want to do simple trimming, merging, splitting, etc. I use GarageBand if I want to compress the AIFF files to MP3 files.

John A. Mozzer's picture

Correction made to original post: I use GarageBand to compress the AIFF files to MP3 files, not iTunes.

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