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Topic: Converting Cassettes to MP3 (Read 1584 times) previous topic - next topic
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Converting Cassettes to MP3

Looking to convert cassettes (many) to MP3.
These are not music, but speaking, so quality isn't so much of an issue.
I have a lot to do, so quick and easy is important.

p.s.  I have seen inexpensive converters on Amazon etc.  but I doubt the quality of the machines themselves and/or
the output.

Any info. options would be appreciated

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #1
Do you have a cassette player?

Do you have a desktop/tower computer with a regular soundcard and line inputs?

Do you already have/use an audio editor or recording application?

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #2
I have had good results with inexpensive "Super USB Cassette Capture" devices off of Amazon. The advancements in electronics over the last 20 years is amazing. I do not pretend to be an "audiophile". I just know what works well for me.

Things to consider:
The condition of the audio cassette itself (garbage in = garbage out). I have found that almost any cassette can be salvaged...given enough effort.

The most important thing is cleanliness. Even a very small gap between the cassette tape and playback head results in loss of frequency response. So that little bit of crud (dust, rust, whatever) does matter.

I clean the tape using a cotton swab lightly moistened with denatured alcohol. NEVER use water or even isopropyl alcohol that is less than 91% alcohol. Water makes the tape sticky, the more the water the sticker the mess.

Depending on the type of tape, bias, Dolby or no Dolby I generally get frequency response up to around 16 KHz.
As I am in my mid 60's this is significantly above my hearing threshold, so good enough for me.

I also use iTunes match ($25 a year). Somewhere around 60% of what I have digitized has been matched in iTunes and a nice new shiny 256 kbps copy downloaded from iTunes.

Do NOT use cheap USB cables. USB 2 or USB 3 cables are more expensive (by a dollar or two) but have much better bandwidth/frequency response than USB 1. I would go for the USB 3.

Audacity (free and good documentation) works well for me to digitize, remove noise, split tracks, and convert to mp3.

Save a copy of the digitized cassette as a WAV file.  You are putting in a lot of time and its a good idea to safe guard your work. Storage is very inexpensive these days so having a backup (or two) makes sense. As technology and your skills develops you may come across a better system or method. At some point you might find a method of using a batch process to quickly and easily improve the quality of the if you only had that original WAV file.

Best of luck in your efforts. Again this is what works for me. I am sure there are many other ways of getting good results; but, not all of us can afford to have a Nakamichi Dragon.

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #3
A couple of more things.

The  "Super USB Cassette Capture"  will show up as a plug and play "stereo microphone". What that actually means is that it has a built in sound card.

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #4
Do you have a cassette player?

Do you have a desktop/tower computer with a regular soundcard and line inputs?

Do you already have/use an audio editor or recording application?


dvddoug ,  I should have mentioned that I realize I could just play a cassette player connected to a PC and capture
the audio via Audacity  etc.....
 I have done this in the past and it works.
But as mentioned, I have many, a 100+, so speed and efficiency are a must


Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #5
If you have access to a number of computers then for $20 each (for the USB capture device and included USB cable) you could use them as workstations. Given that you are converting speech the high end frequency response is not an issue and better USB cables are not needed.  If the host computer is running Windows you can use Audacity as a portable app so that the host will be unaltered.

I use 4 low end computers (10 years old, 1 gig of ram) to be able to digitize many cassettes at the same time. This speeds things up greatly. I think that I could realistically handle 10 at a time. Just set Audacity to time record for however long the cassette tape is plus 10 minutes (sometimes it takes the cassette player a while to switch over to play the reverse side of the tape). Also be sure that you have swap file (in Linux) or page file in Windows turned on. 4 gigabytes should be enough. That way the process will stop by itself so you can go do something else and come back whenever.

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #6
But as mentioned, I have many, a 100+, so speed and efficiency are a must
It's going to take one hour to digitize a 1-hour cassette.  ;)  In the old days you could get high sped duplicating decks but I don't think those are made anymore.

Plus a little set-up time, and you'll probably want to trim the ends and adjust the levels after recording.   So that's probably an hour and a half minimum.   If you have two computers you can record (digitize) and edit at the same time.   "Multitasking" (with the computer) while recording is a bad idea, but of course it's OK if you can do something else while recording.

I realize you don't want do much editing, but it wouldn't be unusual to spend 4 hours or more on a 1-hour tape.   That includes listening-through once before editing, once after editing, plus any editing/processing, plus the recording time.

There is also a learning curve if you don't already know how to use Audacity (or similar).

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #7
 "Multitasking" (with the computer) while recording is a bad idea. In what way? Do you mean using the PC for other tasks while ingesting audio? It would be dicey with an OLD single core machine but a multi core should have no issues. I routinely record 4 HD video streams while working in Adobe Audition 3 with no issues at all. This is not some whiz bang PC, It's an AMD A10-6800, rather modest.

The OP says it's speech so 100% QC on the files  is probably not needed if the tapes are in OK shape. If the tapes are old enough, they might require baking to remove moisture and sticky shed syndrome.

Once the tape is copied into the PC I bet he could get the editing time way down and still be OK. I don't know if Audacity has a 'delete silence' but Audition does. It also has 'dynamic' processing, AKA compression.

Good Luck

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #8
With a general purpose OS (which are not realtime OS) you never know. There is no *guarantee* that time-critical tasks like sending audio frames to/from device will be done before deadline. Therefore if you can leave it alone and do something else, it'd be more safe. Even though there's a high chance that it'd be OK anyway.
some ANC'd headphones + AutoEq-based impulse + Meier Crossfeed (30%)

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #9
Speed isn't too much of an issue. Nothing that needs to be done right a way.

the "cassette to mp3" converters on amazon sound good in that they are plug and play.
Pop them in hit go and when done converted to mp3, either to a thumb drive or direct to PC...

see here

The issue was that there lot of them and the price is right, but some of the reviews are typical,
tapes jam, tapes stick/slow down while recording.... all the things small cassette players did back in the day.

I wouldn't mind paying a bit more if I was sure it would work well.
Was hoping I would find someone here who could recommend one, or something even better.

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #10
either to a thumb drive
If you're not going to do any editing there might be an advantage in that.    And, you might save some time & trouble setting-up Audacity for recording the 1st time.  Some people do have trouble getting started and you could avoid that, but once Audacity is set-up it's just a matter of clicking "Record".   And with Audacity, you would save the (little) step of copying from the thumb drive to the computer .
or direct to PC..
That's helpful if you have a laptop with no line-input, but otherwise it's the same except you are using the "soundcard" built into the cassette player.

...If you buy one of those USB capture machines, it may come with Audacity on a CD.    If it does, check the Audacity website for the latest version.  And, the information & tutorials on the Audacity website are often more up-to-date than the included instructions.  

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #11
I have yet to see a USB-Cassette-Player/Recorder that isn't awful. USB cassette decks are quite similar to USB record players: they take the worst of both worlds, and slap them together haphazardly.

When ripping a tape with one of those, the resulting audio quality is often far worse than what you get with dictation devices. The reason is, you have a cheap, poor-quality tape mechanism, paired with the cheapest USB audio module you can imagine.
You can get cheap, 1-US$ "USB sound cards" on Ebay and Ali-Express, those kinds of USB audio modules are what they usually put in those "USB cassette decks" or "USB cassette walkmans". Some are actually worse. The software they put with those recorders is usually Audacity or some other free software they just put on a CDROM.
Keep in mind, that even if that recorder can record to an MP3 file, those are usually unable to detect individual tracks, by monitoring the volume, etc. So unless you get a quite "premium" model, they'll record an entire side of a tape into one file.

From my experience, those devices are much more hassle than they're helpful. In the end, streamlining your recording setup on your computer with a nice sound card and a good cassette deck is what you want. It makes recording individual tracks much easier, and gives you much more flexibility with meta information (ID3-Tags, etc.).

If you want to digitize a bunch of tapes like this, your bottleneck is not the recording hardware as such, rather it is the transmission speed. You can technically only digitize a tape at its regular, real-time speed. If you can find a tape deck that supports playback at higher speeds, you could rip your tapes at that higher speed and later adjust the sampling rate in the file, bringing it back to normal (this would worsen the quality, but as you said, you only deal with speech and given good-enough hardware, this should still be acceptable).
Batch processing files like this is super easy and adds next to no extra time, on top of the rather slow capture process.

Also keep in mind, that those "USB Tape players" usually only do that kinda digitizing in real time, too. So even by getting one of those machines, you wouldn't make the process much faster.

Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #12
Agree with polemon; there's not a great speed advantage to be had anywhere. Maybe some kind of "gap detect" function on the digital recording/editing side of things (to split tracks apart) might help if you have a lot of cassettes to process.
Just concentrate on making the playback from the cassette as good as you can. If you can adjust replay head azimuth or select tape/Dolby types on your deck, all well and good. If you can't, ask yourself if it's really worth the expense of buying a new machine with all the tweaks, or if what you have will actually do just fine.


Re: Converting Cassettes to MP3

Reply #13
No matter which route you end up taking you are still dealing with audio cassettes .... an electro-MECHANICAL device. So once again garbage in = garbage out. That is not to say that good results are not possible, just that it is going to be highly dependent on how well the cassette itself functions. Was soda spilled on it (sticky)? was it ever under water? I have managed to get good recordings from both of these cases but the key is to get the cassette to function as it was designed to. That is do the reels turn freely, are the felt pad and spring working to make sure the tape contacts the play back head and the tape itself is not sticky? Look up sticky shed syndrome.

There are plenty of resources on the internet. YouTube has excellent tutorials on Audacity. In particular Paul Licameli has videos that were eye opening for me. The spectral view (vs. wave form view) really changed the way I process tapes.

You may also benefit from learning how to clean and lubricate the tapes. Check out
It is for reel to reel tape decks but cassettes are actually just miniaturized reel to reel setups. And the tape itself is essentially the same formulation. Once I discovered how to lubricate the tape properly (or alternatively 'bake' them) so that the tape no longer stuck to itself, the reels would turn freely and I was able to get very good copies off what initially I had thought were tapes I would have to junk. And if you do lubricate the tapes you are also cleaning the gunk off of them at the same time. This does add time but can be done using the fast forward and rewind functions. I rotate the cotton swab after the tape has finished fast forwarding so that when it rewinds a new, clean face contacts the tape to pickup any remaining crud. And in the end lubricating/cleaning  may actually end up saving time as it no longer necessary to fiddle endlessly with a tape trying to get it to work (at least that has been my experience). On rare occasion changing the shell of the cassette might be needed in order to get it work right (1 in 100?).  I have processed many tapes and have lost count, maybe 6 or 7 hundred?

The condition of the tape may have played a factor in many of the negative reviews of the cassette to mp3 using USB flash drive type devices on Amazon. I actually had fairly good results and a fair number of the tracks did get matched in iTunes. The problem I had with them was A) that they only do 128 kbps and I wanted all the tracks to sound as good as possible not just the ones that got matched B) the file names assigned were totally arbitrary.

A) The 128 kbps is far more than adequate for speech and B) if you have some sort of method so you can match the random file saved to the flash drive to something meaningful such as Physics Lecture #1 such a device could work out for you.

In the end the most important thing is to begin.

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