Most people listen to digital music files these days, but that doesn’t mean your beloved old cassette tapes need to be trapped in the analog realm for eternity. It’s not terribly difficult to load your favorite tapes onto a computer and a portable MP3 player. You just need the right equipment and a little determination. This guide will show you four different ways to do it, and provide instructions for each method. If you want to capture a vinyl record into a computer, check out this B&H InDepth Tips and Solutions article on that topic.
Here are four ways you can record a cassette tape into a computer:
- Use an all-in-one cassette deck with a built-in CD burner;
- Use a USB cassette deck;
- Use a regular cassette player and a Macintosh computer;
- Use an audio interface to connect a tape player to a computer.
Using an All-In-One Cassette Deck with a Built-In CD Burner
Currently, there is only one all-in-one CD burner/cassette deck available at B&H, the Tascam CC-222SLmkII. It has the ability to play a cassette tape and simultaneously record it onto a compact disc. There are numerous buttons and dials on the face of this machine, but the basic operation that you want to perform is to load a blank CD into the CD side of the machine, and insert the cassette you want to digitize into the tape side. You then hit RECORD on the CD side, and hit PLAY on the tape side. When you’re finished recording, you load the burned CD into a computer.
There are useful features built into to CC-222SLmkII, like the ability to have the machine automatically create new tracks on the CD as your tape plays. This way, if you’re recording a tape that has several songs on it, the CC-222SLmkII will automatically split the songs up, so you don’t end up with a 60 minute recording with no breaks between the songs. You can also turn off the Automatic Track Division feature and insert the track divisions manually as you record. There are also vinyl record player inputs on the rear of the device, for digitizing records.
Using a USB Cassette Deck
Manufacturers have created special USB cassette decks to make digitizing cassettes easier. As the name implies, these are traditional cassette decks that feature a USB port. You connect the USB port to a computer that has audio recording software loaded on it. You can then play cassettes on the deck, and record their audio directly into the computer. For a hands-on review of one of these devices, check out this review of the Ion Tape 2 PC.
One model that operates a little differently from the other USB cassette decks is the Teac AD-800. This unit features a USB port on its front panel, but instead of using it to attach to a computer, this port is designed to accept USB Flash Drives. You just play your tape on the AD-800, and you can record it into any flash storage device. This is a nice option for people who don’t want to fuss with recording software and computers.
Using a Regular Cassette Player and a Macintosh Computer
If you own or have access to a Macintosh computer and a plain old cassette player, the only piece of equipment you may need is a simple audio cable. Most Macintosh computers have a 3.5mm “line-level” input, which can be used to record a cassette directly into your computer. Unfortunately, MacBook Air computers, iPhones, iPads and iPods don’t have a line-level input. Line-level inputs are very uncommon on Windows-based computers as well. Many Windows PCs feature a 3.5mm “mic-level” input, but cassette players never have a mic-level output, which makes this method a little too complicated for PC owners. However, you can record cassette tapes into any of these machines with an audio interface (skip ahead to the Using an Audio Interface to Connect a Tape Player to a Computer section for instructions).
If your Mac has a line-level input, you can connect either the headphone output or the RCA outputs of a tape player to this input. If your tape player has a 3.5mm mini-plug headphone output (this is the most common kind of headphone jack these days), then you just need a stereo mini male to stereo mini male cable. If your tape player has red and white RCA outputs, then you need a stereo mini male to dual RCA male y-cable. Once you have your tape player connected to the line-level input on your Mac, you’re going to need to launch some audio-recording software in the computer.
B&H sells lots of great audio-recording software, but Macs come with an audio recording application called Garageband. You can also use a free downloadable program called Audacity, instead. When your software of choice is running, you may need to adjust the Preferences so the program knows to look at the “Built-in” sound as the input source. What you need to do is to create a stereo track, arm it (enable the track for recording), start recording in the software and hit PLAY on your tape player. Once the tape is recorded into the software, you’re going to have to save and export the file yourself in order to load it into iTunes or the virtual-jukebox software of your choice.
Using an Audio Interface to Connect a Tape Player to a Computer
An audio interface is an external piece of hardware that enables you to connect a tape player to a computer. You’re going to need an audio interface that features “line-level” inputs, which is the type of audio signal that a cassette tape player sends through its outputs. Line-level inputs are found on most audio interfaces, but they’re not universal on every model, so be sure that the one you plan on using has them.
Most audio interfaces connect to computers through standard USB ports, but some models connect with FireWire ports, ExpressCard slots and PCI. It may be a good idea to get a little more acquainted with audio interfaces before you purchase one. You can learn everything you need to know about them in the B&H InDepth Audio Interface Buying Guide.
The basic idea behind this method is to connect either the headphone output or the main output of a tape player to the line-level inputs on an audio interface. The audio interface will be connected to the computer, and the computer must have audio recording software loaded on it. When everything is connected and ready to go, you start recording in the audio software, and then hit PLAY on the tape player.
The kind of audio cable that you need to connect either the headphone output or the main output to the audio interface will vary. Some headphone outputs are 1/8" stereo jacks, and others are 1/4" stereo. Most tape decks feature red and white RCA jacks as their main outputs, but it’s possible that it could be another kind of connector. The kind of line-level inputs you will find on various audio interfaces are diverse as well. You best bet is to contact a B&H Pro Audio Sales Professional for advice about the specific gear you’re using (either on the phone at 1-800-606-6969, or through Live Chat). They’ll be able to supply you with the exact cable you’ll need.
So, how do these cassette recordings sound after they’ve been loaded into a computer? Well, for the most part, they still sound like cassettes. A casual listener likely wouldn’t notice the difference in sound quality between a completely digital song and one that was transferred from cassette, but, if your ear is intimately familiar with the idiosyncrasies of cassettes, you’ll hear it after it’s been transferred to the digital realm. Ultimately, this isn’t a bad thing. It can be charming to hear analog imperfections in the digital world. But, if you want to clean up your audio after you’ve recorded it into a computer, there are plenty of restoration plug-ins that run within audio recording software that are capable of this.
There’s a wealth of recordings that lay dormant on cassette tapes, and the majority of this material isn’t available on the Internet as digital downloads. The best way to archive these recordings for yourself and the future is to transfer them into a computer. Though digitizing cassettes requires a decent amount of effort on your part, going through this trouble could pay off for years and years to come.
Thanks for checking out this B&H InDepth article. If you have any more questions about digitizing cassette tapes, we encourage you to submit a Comment below.