Genealogy: How to digitize cassette tapes to CD

Genealogy: How to digitize cassette tapes to CDBy Barry J. Ewell

Audio cassettes opened up a world of portability unimaginable in the days when LPs ruled the roost. Now, however, cassette tapes have fallen by the wayside (or, in many cases, have been thrown to the wayside from moving vehicles), and, unlike LPs, they don’t look to make a comeback anytime soon. This poses a problem for those of us who would like to preserve important conversations or good songs that are currently stored on cassettes, not only because audio cassettes eventually deteriorate or get “eaten” by tape players, but also because cassette players are becoming increasingly rare.

Converting cassettes to digital files is almost exactly the same process as converting vinyl LPs to CD.  The real difference is that we use a cassette deck vs. a turn table.  The following is a very brief outline of the recording process.  For more in-depth detail see “How to Convert Your Vinyl LPs and Singles to CD—Step by Step,” process.

What’s needed?
Fortunately, you can easily transfer audio from cassettes to your computer, where it can be stored in formats such as WAV and MP3 or can be burned to CDs. In fact, $6.00 could get you everything you need.  The following is the entire list:

The following items are needed for the conversion:

  • Cassette deck.
  • Computer with sufficient hard disk (to store the .wav files) and RAM (to edit and process the files).
  • CD writer.
  • Sound card.
  • Audio recording software and noise reduction software or plug-in (optional).
  • CD authoring software.
  • Interconnect cables for connection between the cassette deck and the sound card:
    • A “Y” stereo adapter cable with a pair of RCA-style channel connectors (one is usually red, the other white) at one end, and a single line-in, 1/8-inch (3.5 millimeter) mini-connector at the other. This is also called a 3.5mm Stereo to RCA Dual Audio Cable. You can probably pick it up for about $6 at a “big box” retailer or local store.
  • (OR)
    • A regular stereo hook-up cable with RCA connectors at both ends and a 3.55 mm mini-connector adapter. With this setup, you plug the RCA connectors at one end into the cassette deck’s line-out jacks and then plug the connectors at the other end into the adaptor, which has a 3.5 mm mini-connector at the other end to plug into your sound card’s line-out jack.
  • (OR)
    • A regular stereo hook-up cable with RCA connectors at both ends and a RCA-to-USB audio interface (converter). With this setup you connect the RCA cable to the converter, which has a USB plug to connect to your computer’s USB port.
    • A PC with a sound card that has a line-in jack. Almost all computers have this device, except for some laptop computers that do not have a line-in jack; in this case, you may need to use the USB interface.

Step by step instructions

  1. Connect the LINE OUT of the Cassette deck to the LINE IN of the Computer Soundcard.
  2. Select the soundcard as the preferred recording device (under control panel – multimedia icon).
  3. Ensure the LINE IN Fader on the audio mixer of the computer is not muted.
  4. Launch the audio recording software.
  5. Depending on the software used, activate and check all the settings to allow recording.
  6. If possible, monitor the incoming signal from the cassette deck using the audio software to ensure the incoming signal is not clipping (Too Hot; Levels Too High).
  7. Set the appropriate levels for recording and rewind the cassette tape.
  8. Activate the recording on the computer and playback the cassette tape.
  9. Once the material on the cassette tape has been recorded into the computer, save the material as .WAV format and edit your recording. You may not need to do any editing, but if you want to cut out silences, erase some tracks, or change the volume, for example, most sound-recording programs will allow you to do so. When editing, it is a good idea to keep the original file as a backup and change the names of edited files when you save them in case you find you made a mistake. When you’re sure you like the edited file, you can delete the original to save memory space on your computer.
  10. When all editing has been completed, the number of .wav files should correspond to the number of songs on the cassette, unless some songs have been omitted.
  11. Next, close the audio recording software (be sure to save all of your work) and launch the CD authoring software.
  12. Select for audio CD writing and import the .wav files and arrange them according to the sequence required. (Exact procedure of import would be dependent on the software used.)
  13. Load in a blank CDR disc and write to the disc using disc-at-once mode and finalized as a CD-DA format. (Exact procedure of writing would be dependent on the software used.)
  14. 1Burn audio to CD if desired.

Tip

  1. The audio file you created is probably in WAV (“.wav”) format. You can play it with almost any audio software. These files, however, are quite large, so you will probably want to compress them to MP3 or some other format. Your sound recording software may have this function built in, or you may need to get additional software. Fortunately, you can get such conversion software free online.

Warnings

  1. The WAV format audio files are cumbersome. One cassette tape may take hundreds of MB, so make sure you have enough space on your hard drive.
  2. Take care not to violate copyright laws with your recordings. Cassette tapes may be old, but the copyright is usually still enforceable.