Digitizing

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In essence, digitization refers to the process of converting something (anything) into a computer-readable "Digital" format. Audio cassettes are the most common type of media to be digitized when it comes to war music, and this article will go over the process of digitizing them.

Note: there are companies that can digitize your cassettes for you, but we do not recommend this, because they usually don't deliver the quality of a home digitization. However, if you have seen a company that delivers good results, and are willing to risk mailing your tape to them, this may be an option.

Overview

Digitizing tapes is fairly straight forward, and doesn't require any specialized equipment. Before starting you should inspect your tape for mold, sticky shed and any other issues that could lead to the tape being damaged during playback. A detailed inspection process can be found here.

In addition, you should inspect the condition of your player before playing any tapes of value. Check the inside of your player (where the tape goes) and make sure it's free of dust and make sure all the belts in the player are tight, not sticky and not degraded. Also make sure the tape transport mechanism is intact and the pinch roller is not sticky, cracked or chipped.

Even if everything looks good, it's worth doing a test run with a blank (or worthless) cassette, just to make sure it doesn't get chewed or mangled because of faulty tape transport. You don't need to do this before every digitization, but you definitely should for your first time using the player.

Equipment needed

To digitize a cassette tape, you will need:

  • Cassette player
  • Audio cable (Type depends on player)
  • A Computer with a "Line In" or stereo microphone jack
  • Software to record the audio (Audacity is a free program for this)

Cassette players can still be commonly found in thrift stores or on eBay. Try to find a cassette player that looks new or is still in the original box. Avoid buying cheap players that were made in the modern day, as they usually lack the quality of older players. The best players were manufactured in the late 90's or early 2000's. Do NOT use any player that has a USB output, or claims to do automatic digitization. Most of them are cheap and output low quality MP3 files.

The audio cable you need will depend on what connectors your player has. Cassette players Usually output audio using one or more different connectors. These connectors are: RCA, Quarter inch, and bare wire terminals. You'll need to adapt one of those connectors to the 3.5mm audio jack found on your computer. On a laptop, there should be separate microphone and headphone jacks, while desktops usually have pink "Line-in" jacks at the back. Line-in jacks are preferred for digitizing. If your computer or laptop does not have a separate microphone input, then you'll need to purchase a USB Soundcard, or use an audio interface (if you're more advanced). 3.5mm combo jacks (ones that carry headphone and mic over one connector) should not be used for digitization, because they cannot record in stereo.

Audacity can be downloaded on Linux and Mac, but this article will focus on digitization with a computer running windows.

Hardware setup

Examine your equipment and pick one of the following setups, according to what's easiest for you.

RCA setup

Quarter inch (phones) setup

Software setup

Digitizing

Troubleshooting