Cassette Tape Digitization

Audio and video digitization in the IRIS Center is set-up on the George MAC, the computer furthest from the door. Next to George are speakers, a VHS/DVD player, and a tape deck. We only need the tape deck and George to digitize cassette tapes.

Step 1: Equipment Setup

First turn on the tape deck by pressing the power button (red box):
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Then put the cassette tape in the B Deck slot by pressing the open button (blue box). Be sure to have side A facing out. The A Deck side is broken; it only plays the tape for a few seconds then stops.

If necessary, check the tape works by playing it on one of the speakers. To do so, find the audio cable plugged into the speaker and plug it into the front phone jack on the tape deck (red box):
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The speaker’s audio cable looks something like this, only longer:

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The larger end of the cable (called XLR) plugs into the back of the speaker, the other end that looks like a large headphone jack (in this case a 6.35 mm jack) plugs into the front of the tape deck.

Make sure the speaker is plugged in and powered on.

To get the tape to start playing, press the play button on the right, which will play side A (if you have side A facing out). The left play button plays side B:

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A quick reminder of how cassette tapes work, the start of the tape is at the beginning of side A, which is also at the end of side B. Once you play through all of side A, you will be at the beginning of side B. Once all of side B plays, you will be back at the start of side A and the entire tape will have played. Be sure to rewind to the start of side A before digitizing.

Press the right button to see if the tape plays on the speaker. If it doesn’t, it helps to know if the problem is with the tape, the tape deck, or the speaker. You can tell if the tape is playing fine on the tape deck based on whether the numbers on the right are advancing and the lines next to L and R below go up and down. If that is happening and the speakers still aren’t playing, check that they are turned on, connected to the tape deck, and plugged into a power supply.

To stop playback, press the stop button:

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If the tape plays on the speaker, you can make further adjustments on the tape deck. The dial on the right controls playback volume (red box). A small control (blue box) let’s you adjust how much static noise reduction the tape deck has:

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As you can see, there are three settings for noise reduction:

  • OFF: No noise reduction, leaves the most static
  • B: Moderate Noise Reduction, leaves some static
  • C: Strongest Noise Reduction, leaves the least static

In most cases simply use setting C, but you can also use setting B if the noise reduction distorts or makes the desired noises, like voices, too quiet. If setting B still distorts or the voices are too hard to hear, then turn noise reduction off.

You can now disconnect the speaker’s cable from the front of the tape deck so that you can connect the tape deck to George. To do so, use a standard 3.5 mm audio cable that looks like this:

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One end can simply plug into the back of George, if it isn’t plugged in already. Plug it into the audio port with this icon: l0021_audioin

To plug it into the tape deck, you will need a 3.5 mm to 6.35 mm adapter, which look like this: 

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Plug the 3.5 cable into the back, and then plug the front of the adapter into the same input the speaker cable previously was plugged into:

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Once they are connected, you can start recording audio on the computer.

Step 2: Recording

Login to George. Once there, open the application Audacity, which will look like this:
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To start recording, you will need to be sure Audacity is recording audio from the right input. Here’s a closeup of the settings you should have on the device toolbar (red box above):

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Make sure you use these settings.

Right above the device toolbar is the transport toolbar, which has play, pause, stop, record, and skip to start and end buttons. You will use the record button to record what plays on the tape deck.

The way this works is the tape deck sends playback audio through the cable to the computer, and Audacity will record whatever audio is playing at that time. So, you will want to press the record button on Audacity firstrecord. Then, press play on the tape deck, and if everything’s working Audacity should start recording audio:

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Press stop on the tape deck and then press the stop button on Audacity: stop. You will need to adjust the audio levels to make sure the audio isn’t too quiet or too loud before recording the whole tape. In this example, the audio recording was way too loud, which meant the audio was clipped. This means the audio was louder than Audacity was able to record. This makes the recording sound awful. To see all the parts that are clipped, you can go to View > Show Clipping, which will display red bars wherever the audio clipped:

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Alternatively, the audio can be too quiet. Here’s the same section of audio where the levels are set too low:

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The audio will sound better than if it was too loud, and you can use Audacity to amplify the audio after you record it, but it would still be better to get the audio at a reasonable volume.

There are two ways you can adjust the volume. First, you can adjust the output volume on the tape deck using the right dial:

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Second, you can adjust the input volume in Audacity using the recording volume slider:

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Adjust one or the other or both while you test the audio. Aim for a level that is reasonably high but still does not clip. Err on the side of quiet, as you can use Audacity to amplify afterwards.

Audio that is at a good level will look something like this:

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You can also listen to the audio by clicking on the part of the audio you want to hear and pressing the play button. You can then press pause or stop. Pause will resume play where you paused, stop will return you back to where you clicked on the audio.

To delete recordings you have already made, press the X:

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Once you are happy with the audio levels, you can start recording. Be sure to delete your test recordings and rewind back to the start of the tape on the tape deck. Then as before, press record on Audacity first, then press play on the tape deck.

When the tape deck reaches the end of side A, it will stop playing but Audacity will keep recording. Hit the stop button on Audacity. Then, you will record side B as a second track in Audacity. To do so, simply click your cursor to the right of the audio you recorded:

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Once you’ve reached the end of side B, you will be done recording, unless you have more cassettes to record.

Step 3: Saving

First, Audacity has a lot of options for doing many different things with audio, most of which you probably don’t need. If you want to check it out or learn more, here’s a wiki by the developers that can serve as a guide for anything you might want to do with the audio.

For the purposes of saving the audio, all you really need to use is selection and deletion. Since there’s some silence at the start and end of every recording, you can remove it by selecting the silent audio and deleting it. To select a section of the audio, simply click and drag across the part you want to delete:

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Then press delete on the keyboard:
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There are a lot more options for audio selection you can read about on the wiki here.

Once you’ve removed all the silent portions at the beginning, end, and between tape sides, you are ready to save the recording as an audio file. Go to File > Export Audio:
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You can save as many different file types, including mp3s, but wavs are uncompressed and highest quality. You can save it as a wav and convert it to an mp3 afterwards to post it online.

Click save and press okay a few times, and the audio file will save in the location you chose.

You can also save only portions of the recording if you want to save the sides of the cassette tape separately, for example. To do so, select the portion of audio you want to save, then go to File > Export Selected Audio. It will present the same window, but will only save the region you selected.