Digitizing & Preserving Old Audio Cassette Tapes

In my quest to store all of my life (and memories) in the cloud, one of the last things left for me to tackle was my box of old audio cassette tapes.

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If you’re too young to remember, cassette tapes were an extremely popular way to store sound during the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. In fact, until recordable CDs became commonplace, cassette tapes were the go-to way people recorded music.

The term “Mix Tape” was born in that era. I finally decided to go-through (many) boxes of old cassettes, and preserve what was worth preserving.

My vision was to get everything converted to MP3, and uploaded to my Google Music account, where I could listen to those old memories on any device moving forward (Google Music allows you to store up-20,000 of your own tracks, free-of-charge).

I had countless dozens of old tapes that honestly weren’t worth the effort. Converting old cassette tapes to MP3s is time-consuming, and I realized it would be cheaper and easier just to buy that music as MP3s.

It’s important to emphasize that this process can take a lot of time. I converted my old cassette tapes to digital in real-time. Therefore, converting 100 90-minute cassettes can take 150 hours or more, so it doesn’t make sense to convert things that can be easily and inexpensively replaced.

However, I had a number of cassettes containing stuff that was irreplaceable. Many were recordings of me on the air during my “radio days,” and others were my band performances back in school, which my late father had (thankfully) captured on cassette tape.

Sorting Out The Old Cassettes

The first thing I did was identify what, exactly, I had in my cassette inventory, ending up with with three “piles:”

  1. Those things not worth the effort (that could easily be replaced)
  2. Those things that were irreplaceable, and had to be preserved, and
  3. Those things that were unidentifiable, requiring a manual review (I wasn’t always great at labeling my tapes back in the day, and time had caused some of the remaining cassette tape labels to fall off)

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The Hardware For Converting Old Cassette Tapes

It’s been years since I’ve owned a cassette player, and I quickly found it’s getting pretty difficult to find a decent one at all, but despite some mixed reviews, I picked-up a Tape2PC from Ion Audio, and got down to business.

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I liked that the D-A (Digital-to-Analog) converter was built-in, so it delivered the played-back audio as a data stream to my PC via USB.

One of the things that had concerned me when I read the reviews, was that a number of people complained that the audio quality was pretty poor, and that certain old tapes had speed fluctuations.

That’s not really true. In reality, pretty much all audio cassette tapes are shot by age at this point. There’s no magic bullet that can reverse the effect of time.

Of the 100-or-so cassettes I’d found, about a dozen were just plain toast. Years spent in boxes after time spent in hot cars had taken its toll. I can’t blame the machine for that. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I’d have to say that the audio quality of the Tape2PC impressed me. The resulting audio files sounded much better than what I was expecting.

The Software

Ion Audio includes software called, “EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter,” and I’m going to give that a “so-so” rating.

It worked, and the resulting audio files sounded perfectly fine, but it wasn’t the most usable thing in the world.

The purpose of the EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter software is to monitor the signal coming from the device to the USB, and break it into individual files (tracks) while it’s recording on the PC.

Unlike CDs, cassettes had no “markers” to indicate where one track ends, and the next begins. It’s really just a single sonic stream, broken only by silence (between tracks). The software works by “listening” for those silent sections, and starting a new file each time.

The theory is sound, but the implementation falls short.

Instead of creating a new file when sound begins again (indicating the beginning of a new track), it usually started a new file when the previous track ended, leaving each subsequent file with preceding silence.

Another annoyance was that certain quiet passages would trigger a new file.

Since there is no way to configure the program, you’re stuck with the audible threshold and duration the programmers settled-upon when they wrote the program.

I was able to use PC-Based software (the free, open source Audacity) to trim (“top and tail”) the resulting WAV files manually. More times than not, it was “close enough,” and that’s all I needed.

The Workflow

Once everything was converted, I ended-up with a lot of very large WAV audio files on my machine, that needed to be converted to MP3 before I could store them away.

I used LamedropXP which is a drag-and-drop graphical front-end for the popular Lame MP3 encoder.

By setting its default encoding to the highest quality MP3, I could drag a group of files into it, and let it do its thing. The resulting MP3s were almost ready-to-go.

The only thing left for me to do was to edit the metadata.

When the original files were created (using EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter), each file was assigned a file-name based on the basic information I was able to provide, but a lot was still missing… Such as the year, and the album art (if any).

Once my MP3s were organized by album, I used Tagscan to edit the meta data to be as complete as possible before finally storing them in the cloud.

Conclusion, & Lessons Learned

Now that the project is done, I have to say, it’s a “blast from the past” to listen to my old band recordings, and radio airchecks on my modern devices.

Once I was done with the project, I’d pitched the old tapes, and sold the Ion Tape2PC on Craigslist.

That was my mistake. A week later, I found a couple of dozen more old audio cassette tapes.

Maybe that guy will sell (or rent) it back to me when he’s done?