Trapped on tape

Transferring audio from cassettes to your computer

By Drew Williams

Some music fans hide shameful little secrets in their basements, garages, and crawlspaces: pleather carrying cases and shoe boxes filled with audio cassettes—the sad jetsam of the digital media revolution. I used to run across my own water-damaged box about once a month while I searched for places to stash the latest haul of diapers from the warehouse store. Whenever I tossed it around, my music tapes rattled in protest, and I felt a little pang of regret that I had let my high school memories slowly degrade on magnetic tape. Before my cassettes joined my black Chucks and suburban teen angst in 80's slacker heaven, I decided to grant them immortality by converting them into digital media files.

You might have your own fading memories trapped on cassette tapes, but now there is something you can do about it. There are a variety of tools you can use to convert analog recordings to digital sound files—external sound cards, encoding software, even USB tape decks. Before you begin, however, you should know that any conversion process you use will take some time and will ultimately sound, well, like an old cassette tape. It doesn’t really make sense to convert a commercially released album that you can easily buy on CD or download as an MP3, but if your old recordings have personal value to you, it might well be worth the effort to convert them.

Because I am an insufferable music snob, I decided that my 20-year-old tapes were important enough to be saved for posterity. Because I am also cheap, I decided that I wouldn’t spend more than a few bucks on the project. I started with the assumption that I could move forward using programs already in Windows Vista, and it turns out I was right: Windows Movie Maker does a good job capturing analog recordings and converting them to digital recordings.

The hook-up

You don’t need much extra software to begin converting analog tapes to digital files in Windows, but it’s important to be sure you have the correct type of hardware. Here's what you will need:

  • A tape player with RCA audio out jack. Usually, the jacks are color-coded white (for left) and red (for right). If you use a good quality tape deck to play the recordings, your cassettes will produce a better analog signal and ultimately produce a better-sounding digital sound file.

  • Red and white RCA audio cables and a Y-adapter plug so you can plug them into the line-in jack on your computer (the non-RCA end looks like an headphone plug). You can buy a dedicated Y-adapter cable, but you probably already have standard RCA cables lying around. Y-adapter plugs are available at many electronics stores.

  • A computer running Windows Vista with a line-in jack (often color-coded light blue).

Connect the cables to the audio out jacks on the tape deck (sometimes marked “Play”) and the line-in port on the computer. There's no need to connect your tape deck to an amplifier or any hardware other than the computer.

Picture of RCA cables and jacks Windows Movie Maker
Connect the white and red RCA cables to the back of a tape deck
Picture of a Y-adapter cable and line-in jack Windows Movie Maker
Connect the Y-adapter cable or plug to the line-in jack on a computer

Sound check

Once you have your gear assembled, you can perform a test recording. I'll take you through the steps for recording a test sample, then you can repeat the same procedure for recording a full side of a tape. When you are finished with the process, each recording will be saved as a single Windows Media Audio (WMA) file.

Open Windows Movie Maker. In Windows Movie Maker, click the Tools menu, and then click Narrate Timeline to reveal the Narrate Timeline pane. This pane is where you will check the settings and record the tape.

Picture of Narrate Timeline option
Narrate Timeline

Set the audio source. Before you start recording, make sure Windows Movie Maker is set to record from the line-in from the cassette deck. To do so, click the Show options link to expose the Narration captured timer and the Audio device menu. Click the Audio device menu, and then select Line In.

Check the levels. Find a section of the tape that has an average sound level and play it. In Windows Movie Maker, position the Input level slider at the position where the color-coded Input level bar begins to transition to orange (the bar will show the input levels even if you aren't recording). If the audio level is set properly, the Input level bar should be mostly yellow. Note: you won't hear the audio play through your speakers until you save your recording and play it back as a WMA file.

Picture of Input level bar in Windows Movie Maker
Input level bar

Record the tape. When you’re satisfied with the Input Level settings, cue the tape to a point where you would like to start recording (for example, the beginning of the tape, if you are recording a full side). Click the Start Narration button, then quickly press play on the cassette player to begin your recording. Don’t worry if it seems like nothing is happening—the only indication that the audio is recording is a Narration Captured timer that shows the total time of the recording.

When you are satisfied with your sample recording (or when the tape runs out, if you are recording a full side of a tape), click Stop Narration. Movie Maker will prompt you to name and save the file. You can save the file anywhere you like, but I recommend you save it in a new folder within your dedicated Music folder—that way, Windows Media Player can easily find your new recording.

Find the recording. After you save the file, your recording will appear in the Audio/Music track on the Timeline in Movie Maker and as a WMA file icon in the Collections pane. If the file is in your Music folder, the music will automatically appear in the Windows Media Player library. Using the Player, you can play the sound file on your computer speakers to check its quality.

Picture of a recording captured in Movie Maker
A successful recording will appear in the Audio/Music track on the Timeline in Movie Maker

Create descriptive text. After you complete the recording process for both sides of your tape and save the WMA files to your Music folder, open Windows Media Player so you can edit the descriptive information associated with your file. Right-click each track, then click Advanced Tag Editor to enter whatever media information you would like. You can also drag a piece of art onto the blank album cover.

Picture of the Advanced Tag Editor field in Windows Media Player
Fill out the fields in Advanced Tag Editor to create descriptive information for your recording in Media Player

Analog memories, digital permanence

Now that your recordings are out of the shoe box and safely stored on your computer, you can burn files to compact disc, play the music on a portable player, even add the audio to a video in Movie Maker (which is easy to do, since you created the files in Movie Maker in the first place). Your tapes might end up in a landfill, but your musical memories will last until you are old and gray and ready to bore your grandchildren with them.

About the author

Picture of columnist Drew Williams

Drew Williams is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. Before joining Microsoft, he wrote about video games, airplanes, crime, and hazardous waste (although not always at the same time). Outside of work, his hobbies include raising small children, shoveling compost, and sleeping.

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