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Backing Up Cassettes with Audacity

I have literally hundreds of audio cassettes that contain music for which I have no other media. I have made it my mission to digitize this music, as the cassettes are all getting old and brittle. This article describes the process I go through to record a cassette tape onto a hard disk.

Hook Up The Hardware

How you hook up your tape player to your computer depends entirely on the player and the computer. If the player has left and right RCA output jacks, you need a conversion cable to convert to mini-headphone stereo. You would then plug that into the Line In plug on your computer. Do not plug it into the microphone input, as the impedances do not match well and you will get low signal levels and noise.

If you have a cassette player that has a USB output jack, you can plug it directly into a USB port on your computer. Audacity can find either input.

Configure Inputs and Outputs

Start the Audacity wave form editor. Before you can record with it, you must configure the input and the outputs. The selectors for these are in the Audacity toolbar.

The pulldown on the left that says 'default' is the output. Usually, you can leave this on 'default'. The pulldown on the right is the input. Here is a sample of what you might see in this pulldown:

To select the Line In for your computer, there will be a 'Line 0' or just select 'default'. To select the USB input, chose 'USB PNP...' for the input.

You will need to monitor the audio of what you are recording. If your tape player has speakers, just use them. If it doesn't, you can use Audacity to monitor the input. Click on the Transport menu item, then check the Software Playthrough item.

Set Input Level

You must now set the input level. If it is too high, you will end up recording some distortion. If it is too low, you won't be able to hear the result.

To set the level, you must play the tape and monitor the levels. click on Audacity's red record button, then start the tape player.

Adjust the output level on the tape player if the red indicators bump over into the heavy vertical bars. If the level is too low, adjust the player's level up without going into the vertical bars.

Once you have adjust the level, stop the player and rewind the tape. Also stop Audacity recording by clicking on the square stop button. After stopping, erase the recording by clicking on the small 'X' next to the words 'Audio Track' in the recording graph. You should now be ready to actually record the tape.

Record One Cassette Side

You will need a pencil and a piece of paper before you start recording. Writing down the time where the tape transitions from one track to another makes your job very much easier.

Start the Audacity recording, then start the tape player. Write down the time whenever a new track starts. When the entire tape finishes, turn off Audacity recording and the tape player playing.

Mark Each Track

Since you are already at the end of the Audacity recording, you can work your way backwards to the beginning of the recording and mark each track. Use your pencil list to go back to the start of the last track recorded, then click in the interval. A vertical line will appear in both channels. Press Ctrl-B to add a label at that selection, then type in the name of that track. Continue back through the tracks, marking each one.

When you have marked the names of each track, you need to save each track as a separate file. From the File menu, select Export Multiple. In the Export Multiple dialog, select an Export Format, then select a directory where the files will be saved. Click the Export button.

You will see an Edit Metadata dialog for each track. Add the name of the artist and verify that the track number is proper. Click the OK button. When you have filled out each dialog, the conversion will take place. You will end up with a file for each track on side one of the cassette.

Record The Other Cassette Side

After the files are created, you can remove the the soundtrack graph and the labels graph, in preparation for recording the next side of the cassette. Use the 'X's to do that.

Turn the cassette over in the player and rewind it so you are at the start. Follow the same procedure for that side that you used on the first side, writing down the start of each track. When you have finished recording, mark each track like you did on the first side. Click on Export Multiple and go through the same procedure as before, but this time the track number will be the number shown plus the number of tracks on the first side. For instance, if there were five tracks on the first side, the first track on this side will be 5 + 1 = 6.

You have now finished backing your tape up on your hard disk.