Most of us born before the year 2000 likely owned cassette tapes at some point. You might be surprised to learn that certain cassette tapes can sell for thousands of dollars.
These items don’t have to sit and collect dust if you don’t plan on selling them, though. Digitizing a cassette tape can repurpose this information and make it more accessible.
Care should be taken during this process to ensure data integrity. Let’s explore how to digitize cassette tapes the right way without ruining quality.
What Is Cassette Tape Digitization?
As the name implies, this process involves transferring audio from a cassette to a digital format. For example, you could take a cassette full of 90s songs and turn them into MP3 files. Digitizing your cassettes allows you to consolidate your music/audio recordings into a single location.
It also allows you to forego the dangers of cassette hardware failure. To clarify, old cassette tapes are likely to stop working at some point.
There are two primary ways you can digitize cassette tape audio: using a USB converter or using a tape deck. Both have their pros and cons, and it’s essential to understand them to make the best decision. After you make your decision, you can continue with the process.
Step 1A: USB Converter
This method is the easiest and cheapest. It’s best for those who don’t want to deal with complicated software or an abundance of cables. To get started, you’ll need to purchase a USB cassette converter.
There are many different options, but most of them perform the same functions. They’re also relatively inexpensive.
Prioritize devices that can convert tapes into raw MP3 files. Cassette converters come with specialized software that you’ll need to complete the process. You can obtain this from a disk included with the device or from the manufacturer’s website.
Ensure that the software provided by the manufacturer is available for your operating system. To clarify, certain files don’t open on Mac computers, while others won’t open on Windows computers.
The last thing you once is to pay for a converter only to find you can’t use the software. Once you’ve downloaded the appropriate files, follow the instructions provided with the device.
If you lose your instruction booklet, you can likely find a manual online. The instructions will detail how to connect a tape to your computer and convert its audio.
Step 1B: Tape Deck
USB devices typically yield high-quality results. However, tape deck conversion brings quality to the next level. It’s worth noting that this method is a bit more complicated and time-consuming.
It’s ideal for those who prioritize quality over everything else. Before you get started, choose a tape you don’t particularly care for to make sure the tape deck works.
Pay close attention to the presence of issues like varied playback speed, hissing, etc. You should also listen for “warbling,” which often sounds like variations in audio pitch.
If you notice these problems or if the tape is damaged during playback, you shouldn’t use this tape deck for conversion. In a case like this, you’ll need to purchase a new one or risk damaging your other cassettes.
Tape decks have a setting known as “bias.” More specifically, they allow users to set either “high bias” or “normal bias.” Although the nuances of bias are complicated, this factor influences the overall quality of the recording.
You need to adjust your tape deck bias settings to match those of the cassette you wish to digitize. Some tape decks have options for matching chrome or metal cassette types. If this setting is available, choose the option that aligns with your cassette.
If a tape deck doesn’t have a bias knob, it’s either an older model or has automatic bias adjustment. You can use a test cassette in this scenario to assess audio quality.
Once you’re ready to move forward, connect the tape deck to a computer with the appropriate cable. The most common cables for this purpose are 3.5mm cables that fit into headphone jacks.
Finally, you can transfer the audio content of the cassette into an audio editor. Any editor will do, and there are several free options available.
Step 2: Reducing Noise
Transferring cassette audio to your computer is only part of the process. Now, it’s time to polish the audio quality. Getting rid of white noise and hissing is fairly straightforward.
Most audio editors have built-in settings to handle this task. There are also many third-party plugins available that are specifically designed for noise reduction.
Test out a few free options to see if they can meet your needs so you can save extra cash. In most cases, you shouldn’t have an issue with noise reduction. Cassette tapes that were cared for properly likely don’t have noticeable defects.
Step 3: Amplification and Restoration
Even after you reduce noise, there’s still a good chance the audio needs a bit more attention. You can’t get the best listening experience without amplification. As with the above steps, you can use dedicated software or plugins to make the audio louder and clearer.
Many audio editors have stock tools you can use for this purpose, though. Those without audio editing experience should likely choose specialized options. There are simply too many nuances for amateurs to recognize and work with.
There’s a handful of general tips you should consider during the process. These can help you prevent issues you may have otherwise encountered. Listed below are some of the most notable.
The bit rate you choose will depend on the type of audio on the cassette recording. For spoken audio (such as a prayer sermon), you should choose 128 kbps. For music, consider using 256 kbps or 320 kbps instead. This can ensure your digitized music files have the most detail.
Working with Multiple Tape Volumes
When working with multiple tapes, they will typically be at different volume levels. For example, you might have imported multiple cassette audio files into an audio editor.
If you intend to consolidate them and export them as a single file, it’s essential to balance the volume levels. Many audio editors have a normalization feature that can make the volume of multiple files more consistent with each other. Be careful when using online resources for this purpose, as it could result in a loss in quality.
Tape Head Cleaning
If using a tape deck, you should clean the cassette head to maximize your results. The process is simple and only requires you to buy cleaning tape and tape head cleaning fluid.
Apply a few drops to the cleaning tape and then place it in the cassette player before hitting “play.” If necessary, repeat the process.
Sometimes, cassettes can have uneven left and right audio channels. Even if they’re subtle, this can still detract from the listening experience.
The good news is that this problem is very easy to fix. In an audio editor, you can adjust the left and right levels until they’re as close to even as possible.
It’s best to keep your volume in the “green” zone when digitizing. If your cassette deck has volume meters, reduce the volume if it ever enters the “red.”
If it’s slightly in the “yellow” zone, this often isn’t an issue. Having the volume too high can result in audio distortion.
When playing audio files in an audio editor, use this same practice. You can also use a limiter plugin to set a volume ceiling, preventing the audio from distorting.
Use Detailed Equalizers
The more bands your equalizer has, the better. Basic equalization software has anywhere from three to eight bands. These control different frequency ranges, such as the bass, midrange, etc.
Advanced software allows users to work with a much larger number of bands, sometimes over 30. Having this level of control can help you boost certain frequencies while taming others.
Working with a professional is the best way to get started. Although you can handle cassette tape digitization on your own, you could also make mistakes.
Not only could this lead to poor results, it could destroy the original audio. Under most circumstances, you won’t be able to recover this information.
When searching for someone to hire, consider their past reputation. There should be no shortage of positive reviews.
Keep an eye out for how they respond to negative feedback. If they get aggressive or defensive with previous customers, this is a red flag you shouldn’t ignore.
Consider their pricing structure, as well. Not all service providers are created equal, and you often get what you pay for.
However, you shouldn’t gravitate toward the most expensive options. Somewhere in the middle of the price range can likely meet your needs.
Knowing How to Digitize Cassette Tapes Is Simple
Understanding how to digitize cassette tapes doesn’t have to be a complicated process. In practice, it’s much more straightforward than most people anticipate. The above guide has everything you need to know to get started on the right track.
Speak with a representative at Envision Video Services today. We have the experience, tools, and resources to handle your project effectively.