How to digitise audio tapes

So what's your DR-score?

Or: Cassette Project #2: A reprise

A few years ago I digitised my old tape collection. The results were rather satisfactory.

As is the nature of this beast, other ideas and more tapes have collected since. Some of those tapes were rare, if not unique. Others demanded more attention than the rushed 128kbps rips from the previous round. It seemed sensible to archive some and re-rip others at the highest possible sampling and quality rate.

Here then, if you will, is a list of hints and observations on how to rip audio tapes.

But before you start, do ask yourself what it is that you want to digitise: If it’s stock-standard pop fodder from your youth, you’re better off finding the CD on eBay or in the supermarket’s bargain bin. If it’s on iTunes or Amazon, don’t waste your time ripping tapes; spend a few bucks and “support the artists”. The quality is likely to be better, too.

If you want to preserve or backup historically-relevant tapes, then you shouldn’t need this guide because you’re a qualified expert and have already done so with professional equipment before storing the originals in a climate-controlled archive.

If your reasons for bringing your tape collection into the digital world lie somewhere inbetween, then please, do read on.

Your four main components will be a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation = computer), a decent cassette player, suitable software, and you!

Digital Audio Workstation

The last time I used a commercial all-in-one software program named Magix Music Cleaning Lab. There’s probably nothing wrong with other commercial solutions of the sort should you choose to go this route but this time round I purposely used an arsenal of loose, unrelated, and free utilities. The freeware tool Audacity comes highly rated but I used it only for importing the audio, not editing it. The bulk of the work was done with Adobe Audition 3.0 (recently made available for free, and a successor to the excellent Cool Edit that I’ve been terribly fond of for many years). Soundforge, Sony Vegas, and NCH WavePad appear to be other capable options worth exploring. Either will do the job, and they will all have a learning curve.

If you’ve never done this, you’re well off learning to use Audacity as a complete solution.

Have a look at the hardware requirements of the software you choose because those will determine the next component.

A computer: If you replaced your desktop computer in the last few years, that old clonker will probably do just fine. I restored a 3GHz Pentium 4 with 1GB RAM that a neighbour was about to throw out, then installed Windows XP SP3 and larger hard drives for this project (expect to work with up to 2GB of file per tape).

Admittedly, it was during certain operations with Adobe Audition that 1GB of RAM turned out to be a bottleneck. Adding an extra 512MB made a world of difference (which is remarkable because the last time WinME + Magix Music Cleaning Lab made do with a mere 256MB).

I cannot comment on the quality of the on-board sound card of a laptop or desktop computer but try to avoid it as a matter of principle. An external USB sound card would be my preferred weapon of choice but I ended up using the Creative Labs SB PCI512 card from last time. Keep in mind that a PC is a noisy device. I would imagine that most sound cards from the current millennium will deliver acceptable results.

The same will probably hold true for Apple or Linux environments.

Find a decent tape deck. Yes, I said “tape deck” because your old boombox or crappy bookshelf stereo will not do. Use “Dolby C” as shopping criteria (if it has Dolby C, it’s likely to be a high-end deck). Your chances of finding a proper hi-fi deck on eBay or similar are excellent. If the asking price is beyond 50€, then you’re likely to get a capable unit (and would be able to re-sell it for the same amount afterwards).

Unless you get one of them for free, I wouldn’t waste a cent on Alesis or similar units.

Make sure the transport mechanism works and the belts aren’t brittle or worn. Clean it inside and out. I had two donated decks (Teac and Kenwood) fail because their belts turned into a vulcanized mess of gunk when they were tested after years of storage in a basement. Another fine Philips deck’s sensitive auto-stop mechanism gave up on me after playing exactly one tape! I was thrilled when I was given a Pioneer CT-447 in pristine condition.

Give your new/old toy some love and a good workout. Clean the heads and the pinch roller with isopropyl alcohol. Adjust the head’s azimuth, if needed, and demagnetise it using something like this:


Once you’ve collected all the components, it’s time to combine them into a workstation.

The lesson begineth thus. Here’s a concise guide on how to digitise tapes.

Photos and screen captures via hmvhDOTnet, Donald Bell/CNET, Wikiphoto/

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