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Converting Audio Cassettes to MP3: Setting up to Digitize Your Audio Tapes

Equipment Checklist for Transferring Audio Tapes to Your Computer

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Soundcard Audio Connections

Soundcard Audio Connections (Left to Right: Microphone / Audio Out / Line In)

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The Problem with Magnetic Tape
Just like magnetic video tape, the material used in your old audio cassette tapes deteriorates over time -- this is commonly known as, Sticky Shed Syndrome (SSS). When this happens, the metal oxide layer (containing your recording) gradually falls off from the backing material. This is normally due to moisture ingression which gradually weakens the binder that is used to adhere the magnetic particles. With this in mind, it is therefore very important that you convert any valuable recorded audio to digital that may still be on your old cassettes as soon as possible before the degradation process damages it beyond recovery.

Basic Equipment for Transferring Audio Cassettes to Your Computer
Even though your music library may be mostly in digital form such as audio CDs, ripped CD tracks, and content downloaded or streamed, you may have some old recordings that are rare and need to be transferred. In order to get this music (or any other type of audio) on to your computer's hard drive or other type of storage solution, you need to digitize the recorded analog sound. This may sound a daunting task and not worth the bother, but it is more straightforward than it sounds. However, before you dive into transferring your tapes to a digital audio format like MP3, it's wise to first read up on all the things you'll need before you start.

  1. Audio Cassette Player / Recorder -- obviously to play your old music cassettes you will need a tape-playing device that's in good order. This may be part of a home stereo system, a portable cassette/radio (Boombox / ghettoblaster), or a standalone device like a Sony Walkman. To be able to record the analog sound, the device you are going to use will need to have an audio output connection. This is usually provided via two RCA outputs (red and white phono connectors) or a 1/8" (3.5mm) stereo mini jack that is often used for headphones.
  2. Computer with Soundcard Connections -- most computers these days have either a Line In or microphone connection so that you can capture external analog sound and encode it to digital. If your computer's soundcard has a line in jack connection (usually colored blue) then use this. However, if you don't have this facility, you can also use a microphone input connection (colored pink).
  3. Good Quality Audio Leads -- to keep electrical interference to a minimum while transferring your music, it is a good idea to use good quality audio cables so the digitized sound is as clean as possible. You will need to check the type of connections needed to hook up the cassette player to your computer's soundcard before purchasing a cable. Typical examples that are commonly used include:
    • Stereo 3.5mm mini jack (male) to 2 x RCA phono plugs
    • Stereo 3.5mm mini jack (male) at both ends.
    Ideally you should choose cables that are shielded, have gold-plated connections, and use oxygen-free copper (OFC) wiring.
  4. Software -- many computer operating systems come with a basic built-in software program for recording analog sound via the line in or microphone inputs. This is fine for quickly capturing audio, but if you want to have the scope to perform audio editing tasks such as removing tape hiss, cleaning up pops/clicks, splitting the captured audio into individual tracks, exporting to different audio formats, etc., then consider using a dedicated audio editing software program. There are quite a few that are free to download such as the very popular open source Audacity application which is available for a wide range of operating systems.

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