Digitizing Tapes

So how does one digitize tapes (and records for that matter)? There are many different ways. I will go through how I do it. I sometimes convert tapes for other people – which is really where this blog came from. They send the tapes to me, I digitize them and send them back. If you are interested in that, let me know.

The equipment is the biggest expense to take care of. You really do need a decent computer with plenty of processing power and available storage space. Working on audio files takes up space and processing power – so just be ready for that. Also, I know there are devices that will convert tapes to digital files without using a computer – but using those will get you stuck in their system of how to digitize. That may work for some tapes, but eventually you will run into a tape that it doesn’t work for… and you can’t change it then.

My tape deck is a JVC TD-W5TH (I also have an Audio-Techa AT-PL50 for ripping vinyl). It’s one of those old component standalone things that needs a central receiver with speakers to actually make sound come out that well (in other words, it won’t play tapes out loud by itself). To be honest, I bought it for $15 off of eBay years ago.  The brand and model weren’t as big of a deal to me as the features:

  • Dual tape deck – some tapes sometimes play bad on one deck, but play perfect on the other. It is good to have a back-up just in case.
  • Higher quality playback – smaller cheaper units just sound smaller and cheaper. You CAN rip tapes with a Sony Walkman, but tape decks always work better.
  • Volume control on the unit – some tapes are dubbed way too quiet or way too loud… and then on top of that, cheaper tape decks have low output volumes. But jacking up the volume on the receiving end can massively increase tape hiss. Reducing volume at the source will help the music stand out above the hiss a little better. Remember, once you send the sound to your computer or whatever other device does the digitizing, it can only adjust what it gets. Volume control on the output source end can make a huge difference.
  • Dolby noise reduction – this is not always that big of deal, but it does make a difference in tape hiss from time to time.

These types of cassette decks will usually have an RCS output wire. I basically plug that into my “microphone in” jack on my computer via an adapter wire that goes from the dual channel RCA outputs (left and right channel) to the single 3.5 stereo jack. You used to go to RadioShack for these kinds of wires, but sadly today that is not possible, and Amazon is the next best source.

For recording, I just use Audacity. You can pay a lot of money for other programs, or use other free programs. For me, Audacity does the trick. I set Audacity to record from the line in, and use a pair of iPhone headphones to listen while ripping. I get that some will object to iPhone headphones, but here is why I choose those. I always listen to the final files with a much nicer pair of real headphones. But my iPhone headphones really, really highlight any problems from the source files, especially digital distortion. Tapes that are dubbed too loudly will sound like something is amiss in the higher range with cheap iPhone headphones, where as nicer headphones tend to balance out those issues and make them less noticeable (which is a good thing). I press play on the tape deck, and record on Audacity, and make one big file for each cassette side. If something sounds off, I stop, make adjustments (volume, Dolby, etc), and restart. Sometimes switching to deck B solves the issue – just as an FYI. Don’t automatically assume it is just an old tape. It could be an old tape, but it could be a sensitive old tape that just needs a slightly different deck.

This is where it gets a little tricky. If I am ripping for someone else, I will usually export the whole side to a WAV file as a raw rip back-up. But I don’t stop there – we are all used to individual files now. Also, tape hiss sounds a lot worse in digital format than I remember it sounding back in the day in analogue. Maybe I was just used to it then. But here is what I do to clean up the raw rip WAV files as best as possible.

The first thing is that I highlight the the whole thing and use the Normalize feature of Audacity (making sure to set it to normalize left and right channels separately). This usually deals with final issues of volume – sometimes the sound is just sooooo low that I can’t fix it from the source – but Normalize will help. Individual songs might still need this effect again, as many demo tapes are just string a series of separately recorded tracks strung together with no thought of consistent levels. But usually an initial pass can get most song levels to the right level (this feature on Audacity tends to auto-detect the settings needed).

The next part is reducing the impact of the hiss. There is a Noise Removal effect on Audacity that works well sometimes. This is more true for louder music with less quiet space and fade ins/outs. I will highlight an area of tape hiss where it is the loudest (you can often hear it get louder up to three times on many tapes due to the amount of times they dubbed the music in DYI studios or jam boxes). Then I will use noise removal to take out the hiss. I will then check the results at the places where the songs fade in or out – if I can hear the digital distortion when the music is quieter, that means I will probably also hear it in the song. Sometimes the hiss is quiet enough that it gets removed with no trace. Other times, it is so loud that it mangles the quiet moments with digi-stortion. If the music is mangled, I just undo Noise Removal and leave the hiss.

However, I don’t leave it there. Hiss is most noticeable at the beginning and end of songs, especially with clicks and pops in between songs where DYI dubbing/recording happened. I use a bit of fade in/fade out effect trickery to deal with this. If a song just begins suddenly, I just clip the song to begin a hair before the music begins. Then I highlight a fraction of a second of the silence right up to where the music begins, and apply the Fade In effect to that small slice. I don’t know how to describe it technically, but to my ears it makes it sound like the music suddenly grows out of silence, rather than pops in because someone clicked play. It just makes it sound better for some reason. I will also do the same thing at the end of the song if it suddenly ends. BUT I will usually leave the silence between songs at the end of the track. So typically what I will do is highlight everything that will be quiet, and use the “Remove Audio” function of Audacity to silence it. Then I will click back once with the arrow key to remove the highlight, and click the other direction to get the cursor at the very beginning of the silence I just created. Then I hold down the CTRL button and highlight the sliver that will be the super quick fade out after the music ends – applying the Fade Out effect to that sliver. Again, it just makes a cleaner ending than sudden silence.

For longer fad ins and fade outs, I basically try to make the Fade Out or In effect go a little faster than the original source, so that you hear the music fading out before the hiss gets noticeable. This does shave off a fraction of a second of the song, but makes for a better listening experience in the end (to me, at least). I do this by finding the point where the music fades enough to where I hear more hiss than music – usually right at the point where you stop seeing a visible music wave in the window. I will click there and highlight to the end of the track (I make sure to trim the track down to the individual song before working on it, doing a Normalize if needed) and using the Remove Audio function to make it silent. Just make sure not to delete any talking or chatter between tracks that might be interesting as well – kind of rare to have that, but make sure you have listened for that to be sure. When the silence is done, I click the left arrow once to remove the highlight, and then the right arrow to get the cursor back exactly where the silence begins. Then I hold down CTRL and highlight back to where the fade out begins in the source music (you will see the audio wave start to decrease where that is). Apply Fade Out, and the music will now fade out just slightly faster than the hiss fades in. I usually listen to the section I mess with to make sure it sounds right. Occasionally I hear the music fade out and then a blip of hiss at the end before silence – that just means I guessed the wrong place to fade to. CTRL X works great in Audacity – just roll back and start again.

Once I am happy, I export to WAV file with the track number and same (“01 This Song”). Since I am a bit lazy, I will typically CTRL X to undo everything from that song and bring back the end of the tape I clipped off at first, remove the part I just exported, find the beginning of the next song, delete to the end of the tape, and start working on the next song. Audacity has a great Undo capability that works fast, and the source file doesn’t save changes until you tell it to, so I just move fast to create each song individually, and then close without saving and changes to the source.

After I have WAVs, I take them to iTunes and listen through a better set of headphones. If I notice problems, it is back to the source files to fix. If not, I use FooBar2000 to convert the WAVs to FLAC, and then I label the songs in iTunes and export them to mp3s at 192k – just to have mp3s on hand if I ever want to stream these songs to a phone or other device. If I am ripping for someone else, I will export to whatever format they want.

Oh, and I also scan everything that I can. Usually that is the J-Card and maybe the tape itself. If the J-card doesn’t have anything on the inside, I don’t bother scanning it. However, other times a tape has a looong J card that I have to scan in pieces and then stitch together in Fireworks or something else. I also scan the tape itself if there is anything on the tape at all – even hand writing (and only the sides that have something on them – no need for scans of a generic tape side with nothing added). I save these as PNGs after trimming down to just the card or tape itself. That sounds easy, but you soon find out that most j-cards are not straight or square, and that most tape labels are not stuck on straight.

Also, as a final step, I create a 500x500px jpg of the J-card art for adding to the mp3 artwork section in iTunes. Typically, the front cover, spine, and back wrap around will come out to roughly a square. But not always (and occasionally it is not anywhere close). I get as close as I can to a square and call it a day. Some people like to cut down to just a rectangle of the front cover only, or stretch and distort the rectangle front to a square. I like to highlight that this was a tape by leaving the spine and back as part of the coverart for iTunes – but that is just my preference.

I know some people get into changing levels of bass or treble or other things like that. I have found I tend to mess up the sound more than fix it, so I leave that alone. If anyone has an easy guide for how to fix tape levels without messing them up, however – I am all ears!

Whew – that was a longer explanation than I thought it would be!