Archiving Cassette Tapes to a Linux Computer

How to take your old tapes and archive them to your computer.  Tips on what kind of player to get, how to connect, how to set your levels, and how to record.

I found a bunch of cassettes, including some personal tapes, and wanted to digitize them and archive them on my computer. The cassettes are probably more durable than the computer, but I have only one cassette player.

If that breaks, all my cassettes are unusable.

So digitization was critical. Also, once I’m done with this task, I can sell the tape deck and make a little money.

My setup was simple. A Denon tape deck, a 3.5 mm mini phone plug to RCA adapter, and the PC running Linux.  I don’t remember Windows too well, so I won’t write about it. I haven’t recorded on my Mac in a long time, so, again, it’s not covered. It’s strictly Linux.

How to Get a Deck

You want a used 1990s or 1980s Japanese or German tape deck. These are cheap and decent. If you have the cash, get a Nakamichi, Dual, or a NAD. Otherwise, other good brands are JVC, Sony, Denon, Onkyo, Fisher, Pioneer, Akai.  You can find more info at tape head websites.

You can buy these at anything from a thrift store to a vintage hi-fi shop.

The main feature to look for is “logic control“, which just means that there’s some computer in there to control the machinery.  The older decks from the 1980s and before often had mechanical buttons that would move the head into the tape.

The decks from the 1980s and 1990s often had “logic control”, which have electronic push buttons that direct the computer to move the head, which is attached to a carriage, that’s driven by a motor.

3 heads is not necessary. You aren’t recording, just playing back.

Auto reverse is an anti-feature. It requires a more complex mechanism, and is more likely to break.

Dual decks might be ok. If one breaks,  you have the other deck. The caveat is that dual decks was mainly marketed to the lower end of the market, for people who wanted to dub tapes.  Watch out for the 2x speed duplication features. It’s a sign that it’s designed for tape dubbers.

If you shop at a thrift store, you have to watch out for a few things:

  • Excessive head wear – the head’s just worn out, and it won’t play back loud or clearly.
  • Broken belts – the belts driving the different parts of the machine are breaking or broken. You can replace these, but  that involves opening up the machine, ordering replacements, and waiting.
  • Just plain doesn’t power up.
  • Broken buttons. You need to test them all.

Cabling

It’s pretty simple. There are RCA plugs that send the tape output to the stereo or computer.  Get some 3 foot audio cables.

The computer requires a 3.5mm plug as input.  You can get a Y-adapter that combines the two RCA plug outputs into a single 3.5mm plug.

Plug in all the parts, and put the 3.5mm into the “LINE IN” on the computer’s sound card. Line in is usually the white plug.

Software: Recorder and Volume Controls

I’m using Audacity.  It has a timed recording mode that will automatically save your project when it’s done.  So, you can start recording, and then ignore it.

For volume controls, I used the old ALSAmixer console app. You run it by opening a terminal and typing “alsamixer”.

I settled on using ALSA rather than PulseAudio Volume Control because it was easier.  PulseAudio runs on top of Alsa (sometimes), and abstracts out some of the details of the inputs and outputs, so  you control the input levels via a “microphone” control.  I found this confusing.

As a regular user, I love PulseAudio, because so many little apps like the toolbar volume control use it, and make volume control simple.

As someone making recordings, Pulse sucked.  Alsamixer had volume controls for each specific input. The volume control for “line in” was called “line in”.

The ALSA system has two different sets of controls: one for playback, and one for capture.  You set your levels by controlling the capture level for “line in”.

I like to set the level visually.  I pop a known tape in, and then play it.  Then, fire up Audacity, and click on the “mic” input monitor.  There’s a button on the meter, and pressing it will display the signal.

You want the level to not go into the red. Touching the yellow is OK, but you also don’t want it going there too much.

Once the level’s set, you generally don’t need to adjust it again.

Next, you want to set your playback volume.  This is also called the “monitor” or “mixer” volume.  This is the volume level for the sound that comes out your speaker or headphones.

Please note that the playback is separate from the capture. This means you can capture and record, but suppress the playback.  You go into the playback volume control, and press “m” to mute the “line in” playback.

If you want to watch some videos, you can do so.  It doesn’t affect the capture.

Think of the sound card as containing two components: a mixer, and a stereo receiver.  The mixer controls the recording, and the stereo receiver controls the playback volumes.

Recording

I use the “Timer Record…” feature in Audacity.  It’s under the “Transport” menu.

I set the recording time to 55 minutes for one side of a 90 minute cassette.

The first recording, I adjust the levels so the signal doesn’t peak too much, or at all. It’s better to have a recording that’s clear than loud.

I control the levels via the ALSAmixer “line in” control.  In Audacity, I keep the mic  level at the maximum.