Project Tape2MP3: Completed!

This, dear readers, is all that remains of my tape collection: One USB stick.

AGFA vs. SilverPearl

Twenty years of collecting and nurturing an audio cassette collection have been reduced to nothing more than one 16GB USB flash drive’s worth of bits. Just to put the scale of things into another perspective, take a look at this picture:

A lot of cassettes

Yes, that’s the same USB stick stuck slap-bang in the middle of the shelves, and that’s only some 200 tapes visible in the front layer of the cabinet (not the original collection though). More than this amount of music (data) and the shelf space it occupies have been condensed into what would fit onto that little dongle there.

OK, enough with the dramatic exaggeration already: Reality is somewhat different, and it’s some of these little facts, observations and anecdotes I will share with my non-existent readers here.

If you’re not interested in reading about some guy and his stupid tape collection, then leave now. Go away.

The project and its results

A few weeks ago (21. April, to be precise) I completed the project which involved going through all 284 tapes in my private collection, ripping the bulk to MP3 and partially scanning in the artwork. The undertaking began in December 2007 and took roughly 600 man-hours and brazillions of CPU cycles to complete.

A year and a half later all that remains are 263 MP3 files of varying quality, occupying some 15.4GB of disk space striped across and backed up on multiple media, as well as a shoebox full of highly stylised J-cards.

Shoebox of tapes

Not all tapes were copied, of course: There was no need to rip those made redundant by their CD replacements. Others were edited and condensed into singular MP3 files (such as award shows that were recorded off radio and spread across two or three tapes) while others still (with one album on the A-side and another on the B-side) got split into two files.

Then there were some tapes that required quite a bit more TLC than just a screwdriver and adhesive tape to get playing again. EMI-branded tapes, particularly, suffered from poor materials while the solid, established brands like Sony, BASF, Maxell, and TDK maintained their reputation and still delivered the goods after several years of hibernation.

Considering that at least two original, commercial tapes can be traced back to 1979 and 1980 (there may be even older ones), it’s quite a pleasant surprise to hear that most tapes, if treated well, do have a high degree of longevity. Just to re-iterate, folks — those tapes are 30 years old, and still play and sound fine. Few other recordable media (CD-R, anyone?) last that long.

Of course, another factor is how often they got played.

Maxell tape advert

As a matter of fact, now that the playing field is just about levelled and the tapes have been converted to identical formats (mostly 128kbps/VBR MP3), it’s surprisingly simple to compare the quality of various tapes, types, and brands (apples vs. apples and not comparing tape-to-tape with vinyl-to-tape recordings, of course).

Other factors that must be borne in mind are the recording deck, the playback device, the connecting cables, and (dare I say) the source material: Pop/rock/blues music, it is my experience, sounds quite “reasonable” at a mere 128kbps while jazz and classical/symphonic requires a higher bitrate to capture a similar level of granularity and nuances. Synthpop/dance/electronica is somewhere inbetween, and I won’t go into the details of how important mastering of the source material itself is.

And the convenience of having these digital files right at the double-click of your mouse makes this comparison so much easier!

Before I launch into a rundown of what the series of CDs played on my trusty JVC player pumped into my old Sharp shelf system’s deck now sound like, I can honestly say that the one Denon DX3/90 (Type I) tape I have sounds absolutely stellar.

I mean… it sounds fan-fucking-tastic!

A Sony UX60 (Type II) recorded during the same copying frenzy and partially containing the same source material, conversely, sounds a little tinny. Flat. Clearer in the high-end spectrum, sure, but bland.

On the other hand, two BASF Maxima II/90 tapes recorded the same year sound muddied and muffled, in stark contrast to the BASF CR-E II (both chrome) which again gains on the higher frequencies. The TDK SF/90 (Type II), in turn, sounds loud and clear and great, and a little better than a BASF Chrome Extra II. The Sanji ZX/90, Goldstar PRO CDI/110 and Goldtron GX-1/90 (all Type I) seem to struggle with an onslaught of sound (or, perhaps, it’s instead because we’re approaching the limitations of the 128kbps rate) while maintaining a reasonable all-round sound during quieter periods, something the TDK CDing/74 (Type II) doesn’t suffer from. Other good all-rounders I can vouch for are the Maxell SXI/90, TDK D-90, Scotch BX-60 (all Type I) tapes whilst the BASF Chrome Super II/90, Sony UX-S/90 (Type II), and Scotch XSII/90 deliver excellent performance. One of my favourite dark horses were the Turkish RAKS-brand tapes (good all-rounders at a good price) and no, I’ve never actually bought a metal tape: Too expensive they were!

All things considered, I’m pleased with the overall results; the final MP3 files sound pretty much the same as the original source tapes. Even those created during late-teenage FM Stereo sessions came out surprisingly well (within reason and despite purposely using cheap tape brands like EMI, SR, or Viceroy). Like I said, this is a purely subjective summary, hardly a proper scientific analysis but I will go further and say that there are some ripped tapes that sound even better than those copied or ripped from CD: those taped from vinyl, using a shoddy Funiki-branded turntable combo unit that succeeded in getting some truly amazing dynamics out of BASF Chromdioxid II, Fuji DR + FR-I, BASF LH-EI, Sony HF + BHF, JVC F1, and unspecified Yamaha, Mitsui and Safeway tapes — whilst falling flat with Pioneer C1 and Sony UCX tapes, which suggests that the unit may have had some trouble recording on chrome cassettes.

Then there’s this strange, crappy-looking Arena-branded tape which (despite a constant, soft floor of background crackling) puts just about everything else to shame — including the crisp, clear, shiny, original Compact Disc that has since replaced it. Yep, that’s one of the few that I just had to convert, despite owning its CD counterpart.

And that’s the crux of the matter: There are far too many factors to consider where this vague and generic term “sound quality” is concerned; starting in the original recording studio, through to the mixing deck, the masters, the pressing plant, the material used (nevermind just differing kinds of media), and finally, a bewildering constellation of possible playback devices.

Of course, it’s all in the ear of the beholder, and this one’s chuffed with what his old “workstation” managed to cook up in the past year.

Tape Conversion Studio

The ingredients

1. One computer: The more powerful, the better, of course. My old PIII/933MHz with 256MB RAM handled the job well.

2. One tape deck: The better, the better, of course. A Sharp RT-100 that I picked up second-hand a few years ago specifically for this project handled the job just fine. Two or three cheap, shitty tapes did get munched through no fault of the deck but the simplicity of the unit guaranteed that it was easy to open and recover the tape from the belly of this old beast. Ironically, it was only some time afterwards that I learnt of the Plusdeck‘s existence — else you’d have to tolerate my opinion of that device, too.

3. One soundcard: Ideally, a good-quality external soundcard with a powerful DSP would be best but since that’d be overkill and I ain’t got one of those spare, an old Creative Labs SB PCI512 had to do.

4. One connecting cable between the line-out jack of the tape deck and the line-in jack of the soundcard: Ideally, you’d want an oxygen-free cable with gold-plated connectors. Realistically, that’s overkill if you consider the soldered internal wiring of the devices you’re interconnecting. Obviously the cable should be placed far away from power wires, AC adapters and any power supplies or transformers that could cause unwanted induction. And I’m regurgitating this here only because I have seen a lot forum posts by less than tech-savvy people who seem to be overwhelmed by the very simplicity of this basic task.

5. Speakers. Speakers do help you monitor what you’re doing.

6. Software: The heart and soul of the entire operation. You need something that can record what your tape deck (fed via the sound card) churns out, allows you to do some rudimentary editing and noise reduction and can save the resulting sound file/s in the format of your choice.

While Audacity is highly-rated, I ended up using Magix Music Cleaning Lab because… well, because I went out and paid money for it some years ago. And it was cheap. A horrible user interface but sufficient power, filters and gadgets under the bonnet to eliminate most tape hiss and even enhance the overall sound quality, and it is this which ultimately determines your PC/OS requirements: the software you use.

7. Time. Lots of it.

Notwithstanding your PC’s horsepower and software efficiency, don’t forget to tack on the 90+ minutes that a 90-minute tape will take to play because this is a real-time process — way different to ripping CDs!

A few exceptions aside, all tapes were copied verbatim, warts ‘n all. Clicks and skips and dropouts were generally NOT corrected although most of the dreaded tape hiss was filtered out and all tapes, regardless, were normalised and converted to standard 128kbps/44.1kHz/VBR Joint-Stereo MP3 files — with the exception of some crappy FM-stereo or even worse AM-radio recordings that ended up as 96kbps/stereo or 96kbps/mono MP3 files, respectively.

Just like a photograph can trigger an entire avalanche of memories and thoughts, the general point was to maintain as much of the original spirit of those old sound carriers and preserve as many memories of a mis-spent youth as is possible through their flaws — both sonic and visual.

During this project I learnt, via the tapes themselves, at what an early age I began to appreciate and admire the Beatles and later-on Queen. As a young person matures and tastes change, one can follow the progression from generic radio-friendly pop via Hi-NRG/dance to late 80’s UK indie/alternative stuff and later even harder rock via, believe it or not, a quick trance/techno divert.

One can trace his steps of technical finesse and know-how, remembering the financial or geographic boundaries through the early tapes that got recorded off AM Radio with my first tape deck (a mono Toshiba boom-box purchased in Saudi Arabia), early tape-to-tape compilations of then-favourite tracks done free-to-air, speaker-to-mike, utilising a second Sanyo radio/tape combo until the first proper Hi-Fi unit entered the family room, abruptly ending my love for radio and developing a serious teenage crush on vinyl — but not before getting into the “special version” which later was known as “extended-” or “maxi” version, played by Cocky “Two Bull” on Radio 702‘s “Maxi Single Show”, only to be doing the same years later by taping those off Clive Smith‘s show on 5FM — now in glorious stereo.

It’s the sheer randomness and utter lack of coherence that makes those possibly the most treasured recordings of all.

The last recording off radio was in 1990, co-incidentally the year a new, second-hand VCR became the latest toy and media piracy tool!

And then there was the artwork, consisting mostly of magazine cut-outs and every other conceivable printed source of imagery. I have memories of going through stacks and stacks of Family, Radio & TV, Huisgenoot, Fairlady, and Scope magazines, cutting out and hoarding a vast gallery of small pictures, usually no larger than 2x2cm, later even butchering my precious old Top 40 magazines, and whatever came my way.

Cut ‘n paste involved scissors and glue back then.


Ironically, when the first computer did eventually invade our household, most tapes suddenly began to take MONTHS to get filled up; stuff was added very gradually to several tapes simultaneously (based on theme or genre, usually) before it was completed, and then it took another few months until I got around to completing the actual artwork.

There’s a story to each and every one of those tapes.

Every single tape has a tale to tell. It speaks of its origins, its contents, usage, audience and zeitgeist. Each tape is a time capsule and a small stepping stone in a person’s journey through life, and far too few people appreciate the value thereof.

We didn’t just pirate and record music. We recorded history.

Image credits: Photos by hmvh DOT net, print ad via Maxell

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2 Responses to Project Tape2MP3: Completed!

  1. WOW.
    I am rather in your same mood.
    After about 30 years of digital sound (it appeared in 1984 if I don’t go wrong) I moved again into the analogue world.
    Thanks to e-bay I am buying a lot of new branded blank cassettes and I restart with 4 cassette recorder (two old mine and two new entry).
    I don’t really think to make the same work you’ve done but surely I want to born again with analog tape recording.
    I also had a lot of 20 and 30 years old cassette (and reels) tape that sound amazingly without any sign of aging.
    The sound is crisp and clear and the dynamic is OK too.
    So…..long live analogue recording and long live cassette tapes.
    Oh…….I forgot….congratulations for the work and obiouvsly for the PASSION!!!!!
    Greets from Italy

  2. hmvh says:

    Sure thing, glad you enjoyed the article!

    PS: I have another tape-related project planned for the near future. We may just cross paths on eBay or similar.

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