August 30th, 2009 | by Bill Gibson

My Voice is Trapped on Cassette Tapes!

Dear Bill,

I have hundreds of cassette tapes that I would love to download onto my external hard drive. Lots of them are original music, and most of them very fragile as they are 15 to 20 years old—so the download has to happen on the first try. Is there a piece of equipment that a technophobe like me could use to do this?

-BettyJane

Hey BettyJane,

If you live in an area that is very humid and the cassette tapes haven’t been stored in a climate-controlled area, they might have a problem playing back on a cassette player. The oxide can become sticky and gummy. If the tape plays back it will probably make the heads severely dirty, causing the playback to become dull and lifeless over the course of a few minutes. In this case, you might make it through one side of a cassette but then you’ll need to clean the heads well—a Q-tip and 100% Isopropyl or denatured alcohol will do fine here. Dip the Q-tip in the alcohol and clean the head rubbing up and down the gap until you can start with a new Q-tip dipped in the alcohol and not see color on the cotton.

In the worst case, the cassettes will be in such bad shape that they won’t even play on the cassette player, no matter how good the player or how fancy the gadget. These tapes usually need to be baked—that’s right, just like baking a cake. There are commercial companies who will bake the cassettes for you or you can even bake them yourself in your own oven. The process depends on the kind of tape and how bad it is, but the cassettes are usually in pretty good shape for about a month and they can even be baked again in most cases if need be. Google “baking cassette tape” and start researching if you think your tapes are in bad shape.

A cassette player can be easily patched into any computer with an audio card or interface and digital recording software—that’s probably what you’ll need to do. If you have a good cassette recorder, simply connect the line outputs from the cassette to the line inputs on the computer and set the recording software to listen to the inputs you chose. Recording is pretty easy but it takes time to cut each song into the right length and bounce them as MP3s to a folder on your hard drive. If you don’t have a cassette player that you can trust to playback at the correct speed and within technical tolerance of wow and flutter especially, you need to purchase one.

I’m getting other people writing to me about this – so watch my next entry: I will talk about some specific products you can get…

Bill

You can send your question to Bill Gibson’s “Gear Guts” through the VoiceCouncil editor
Bill Gibson is the author of 30+ books about recorded and live sound, including his most recent six-book series, The Hal Leonard Recording Method by Bill Gibson

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  • auramac

    I have old cassette tapes going back to the 70's.. as long as they're 60's or 90's and not 120 minute tapes, most of them are in surprisingly good condition still with no bleedthrough. I play and record onto a digital recorder (Edirol, Marantz), then transfer to my computer via USB, where I tweak them with programs like Amadeus Pro or Sound Studio on my Mac. There are many other methods and programs, but it's amazing what you can do.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/holworks Mark Holman

    Thanks for the information – very helpful for us trapped between the tape and the disk, . . .

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  • ujiya

    Betty Jane,

    I just did a similar project. My late band of 13 years, Sonic Erotica, has decided to regroup. The problem was back then we used tapes vs. CDs and I had a ton to go through, just to remember what we did. I have a nice SOny Tape Deck that I've used maybe 4-5 times. Sooo, I dusted it off, cleaned the tape heads with alcohol, and got to work. Some of them were a lil' warbled and all of them of course retained hiss.

    The hardest part of the process was listening to everything in real time. Keep that in mind! This lil' project will take you a lot longer than you might want it to because however you decide to record it, it'll hafta' be in real time…just like when converting VHS to DVD.

    The beauty of it is that you get to sit and listen to everything…like it or not. A blast through the past is always fun!!!

    I bought RCA to 1/4″ Adapers to pop on one end of a RCA cable. The 1/4″ ends go into your sound card. If you have a good sound card, use 2 channels that have preamps so you can juice the mix up a bit. I use ProTools and Sonar and both DAWs have good restoration tools. If you're happy just capturing the audio then it's easy, however using common restoration tools is cheap and easy. Finally, after restoration, you can use basic Mastering plug ins to beef up the end result!!!

    Good luck!

    Brian

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