I have hundreds of cassette tapes that I would love to download onto my external hard drive. Lots of them are original music, and most of them very fragile as they are 15 to 20 years old—so the download has to happen on the first try. Is there a piece of equipment that a technophobe like me could use to do this?
If you live in an area that is very humid and the cassette tapes haven’t been stored in a climate-controlled area, they might have a problem playing back on a cassette player. The oxide can become sticky and gummy. If the tape plays back it will probably make the heads severely dirty, causing the playback to become dull and lifeless over the course of a few minutes. In this case, you might make it through one side of a cassette but then you’ll need to clean the heads well—a Q-tip and 100% Isopropyl or denatured alcohol will do fine here. Dip the Q-tip in the alcohol and clean the head rubbing up and down the gap until you can start with a new Q-tip dipped in the alcohol and not see color on the cotton.
In the worst case, the cassettes will be in such bad shape that they won’t even play on the cassette player, no matter how good the player or how fancy the gadget. These tapes usually need to be baked—that’s right, just like baking a cake. There are commercial companies who will bake the cassettes for you or you can even bake them yourself in your own oven. The process depends on the kind of tape and how bad it is, but the cassettes are usually in pretty good shape for about a month and they can even be baked again in most cases if need be. Google “baking cassette tape” and start researching if you think your tapes are in bad shape.
A cassette player can be easily patched into any computer with an audio card or interface and digital recording software—that’s probably what you’ll need to do. If you have a good cassette recorder, simply connect the line outputs from the cassette to the line inputs on the computer and set the recording software to listen to the inputs you chose. Recording is pretty easy but it takes time to cut each song into the right length and bounce them as MP3s to a folder on your hard drive. If you don’t have a cassette player that you can trust to playback at the correct speed and within technical tolerance of wow and flutter especially, you need to purchase one.
I’m getting other people writing to me about this – so watch my next entry: I will talk about some specific products you can get…
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Bill Gibson is the author of 30+ books about recorded and live sound, including his most recent six-book series, The Hal Leonard Recording Method by Bill Gibson