How To Convert Your Old Casette Tapes Into MP3s

cassette tapeIf you’ve ever wanted to convert your old cassettes into MP3′s, then this is your lucky day. The process is simple enough for almost anyone to undertake, but it requires a fair amount of time and tends to produce MP3′s that are slightly noisier than those ripped directly from CD. There are, however, a few cases when it might be worth it:

  1. You have more time than money,
  2. You can’t possibly justify spending money to re-buy music that you’ll stop feeling nostalgic about next week,
  3. You don’t want the judgmental eyes of the record store clerks to realize that you secretly still like Winger, or
  4. Sadly, the band on your tape is out of print, never made the jump to CD, or broke up before getting a recording contract.

What You’ll Need

  • A walkman that plays tapes.
  • A set of headphones or speakers.
  • A male to male 3.5mm stereo cable. You can usually pick up a stereo cable for a couple of bucks at an electronics store. You don’t need a fancy, brand name cable for this as long as you make sure that the cable is stereo and not mono. A stereo cable has two black lines on the tip, while a mono cable will only have one.
  • Audacity, the free, open-source audio editor.
  • A fair amount of time.

Physical Setup

  • If the batteries in your walkman were installed while you were wearing a “The PMRC Can Suck It” T-shirt, they’re probably corroded and need to be replaced.
  • Soak a q-tip in alcohol and clean off the tape head in your walkman.
  • Shut off the bass boost, set the tape to Normal or Cr02 depending on what kind of tape you have.
  • Plug one end of the stereo cable into your walkman’s headphone jack, and the other end into the line in jack on your PC. The line in jack is usually blue and has a symbol that looks like an arrow pointing into a bunch of lines.
  • Plug your headphones or speakers into your PC if you haven’t already.

Audacity Setup

  1. Download, install, and open Audacity.
  2. Click Edit / Preferences / Audio I/0.
  3. Under the Recording section, set the channels to 2 and click Ok If you skip this, you’ll be recording in Mono, which defeats the purpose of that $2 you spent on that male to male stereo cable.
  4. Go to the File Formats tab and set the MP3 Bitrate to your bitrate of choice. I think it defaults to 128, but you could set it to 256 for a little better quality. It’s a cassette transfer, so it’s up to you.
  5. Click Ok.
  6. Set the drop down box that says Microphone to Line In.

Set the Levels

Press play on your walkman to give your cassette a quick test listen. Tapes wear out, and if your old tapes are from your teenage years, the years might not have been to kind to them. Make sure that the tape is in decent shape before you waste your time recording it.

If everything sounds Ok, click the record button in Audacity to do a quick test recording. As you’re listening, you’ll see a red meter at the top right of Audacity start jumping to the music. Use the Microphone volume slider to raise or lower the volume to get that red bar to be as close to -3 as you can without going over. If you have the levels set correctly, you should see the meter filling up to about -6 and bouncing off -3 every so often. If you set the volume higher than this (say at 0 or more), the recording will end up sounding distorted. If you set the volume too low, you’ll miss some of the nuances of the original.

Once you’ve set your levels, rewind your tape to the beginning and delete the test track you created by clicking the X on the track.

Record The Cassette Into Audacity

  1. Click the record button in Audacity (the red dot), and then press the play button on the walkman.
  2. Walk away for a half hour and you’ll record side one. If you want to practice some air guitar or sing into a hairbrush while you wait, that’s entirely up to you.
  3. Hit stop on the tape when it’s done.
  4. Click Pause in Audacity after side one.
  5. Flip the tape and press play on the walkman.
  6. Click Pause in Audacity again to continue recording the second side of the tape.
  7. Return to whatever awesome activity you undertook while waiting for side one.
  8. When the tape is done, press stop on the walkman and click stop in Audacity.

Noise Reduction (Optional)

Once you listen to your recording, you’re probably going to notice a bit of tape hiss. You can’t get rid of it entirely (you are recording a cassette tape after all), but if it bothers you, you can reduce it a little bit.

  1. Use the mouse to highlight a second or so of tape hiss from the beginning of the tape before the music kicks in. You’re going to use this to tell Audacity what tape hiss sounds like so that it can try to remove it.
  2. Click on Effect / Noise Removal and click on Get Noise Profile. You just told Audacity that tape hiss is noise. The box will vanish without telling you what happened. This is normal.
  3. Now select a small portion of a song and then Click on Effect / Noise Removal again. Here’s where we test out just how much noise removal we need. You should see a slider that reads Less / More which controls how much noise reduction that will be performed. By default it’s set in the middle, which is usually too much.
  4. Click Preview to hear what the noise reduction will sound like. Usually, having the slider set in the middle makes the music sound like it’s coming from inside a tin can, so you may need to adjust the slider in the “Less” direction and try again. It’s not unusual to have to move the slider all the way to Less.
  5. When you’re satisfied, click Remove Noise and then Close.
  6. Go back to the track and listen to the noise removal followed by a portion that has no noise removal. The music shouldn’t change, but you should hear a major reduction in (or full removal of) the tape hiss. If it sounded fine, hold down [CRTL] and Z to undo.
  7. Select the entire album by clicking anywhere on the left box of the track. It will turn a bluish purple color.
  8. Repeat step 5 and the noise removal will be applied to the entire album.

Normalization (Optional)

You shouldn’t need this step if you did the level setting properly in the beginning, but if you set the levels too high or too low, you may need to normalize it. Volumes that are too high or low can be fixed by selecting the entire track and clicking Effect / Normalize from the menu. Leave both boxes checked and click Ok.

Split and Save the Tracks

Now, you need to split the whole album into separate files. You can see that each song is separated by a period of silence, so they’re not hard to pick out.

  1. Click Project / Edit ID3 Tag and type in the information for the first track.
  2. Select the first song with the mouse, and select File / Export Selection as MP3.
  3. Repeat this process for every track on the album, making sure to change the track title and number in the ID3 tag.

13 thoughts on “How To Convert Your Old Casette Tapes Into MP3s

  1. Thank you! I have a lot of tapes of live shows from my old college radio station, and they’re bands who never put out a recording. The sound quality is lousy, but I’d love to be able to transfer them to a less fragile format. Plus I can’t buy a car stereo that plays tapes anymore… my old stereo got stolen and the only way I can listen to tapes now is on my ancient Walkman…

  2. Ah the quiet solitude of deadened sound rooms where the only connection to the outside is a glass window and a boom mic. Those were the days, eh? In my radio days, I ended up making a “no bongos” rule for bands. Play a snare or clap your hands, but no one is playing bongos.

  3. It’s been many many MANY years, but I still have “dead air” nightmares, and they scare the crap out of me. Oh my god, I ran out of records and pulled out all the carts and forgot how to use the board and poured a Coke into the turntable and EVERYONE’S LISTENING!!!

    Whew.

  4. I made it up to production director at our station, and we used to call in and chant “Deeeeeeaaaad Aaaaaaaiiiir, Deeeeeaaaaad Aaaaaiiiir” whenever someone goofed. I forgot about the wonder of carts. Getting ones that weren’t properly queued, or having to insert so many PSA’s per hour. Goood times.

  5. I want to thank you for posting this. My friend has a Tascam 4-track, and I was able to use your instructions to transfer some of my old college cassettes from when I was trying to be a musician. (you can hear the results here, but I’ll warn you… they ain’t metal. ;)

    Just wanted you to know you helped!

  6. You may wish to modify step five in the noise removal section – if you remove noise from a section of the piece, then remove it from the whole track, that first section will have been noise-removed twice, and will likely sound very tinny.

  7. Love this! When I have a weekend with nothing to do I’ll give it a shot. I’m guessing that’ll be sometime in 2019, when all my kids have moved out.

  8. This looks like the simplest method for doing it. Maybe even I can do this. I have tapes I recorded off the radio in the early 70′s. One was during a wild blizzard when we were snowed in for three days and they were describing the scenes outside, snowplowing schedules, wind chill factors, etc. This summer (2009) I played them up at the cottage July 4. People thought it was just the radio playing until the DJ started describing the weather scenes. Ha! Now I won’t have to wait to play them when I can find a cassette player.

  9. Jon,

    Do you have to do the noise reduction step for each cassette, or can you wing it with previous settings after the first couple…?

    (Dumb, lazy question.)

    Josef

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