One stay-at-home project is converting a collection of cassette tapes into mp3 files that you can play on your computer, put into iTunes or load onto a USB Flash Drive. You’ll need an inexpensive (under $20) audio capture / grabber, software, a cassette player and a computer. And a lot of time, since these convert in real-time – so a 60 minute tape will need to play for the full 60 minutes to convert from analog to digital.
Let’s start with the hardware. Our two choices for the best audio digitizers.
The DIGITNOW USB Audio Capture Card Grabber is low-priced at $16, and has everything needed to get the job done.
On the analog cassette side (“audio”), you have the option of using the RCA connectors (Red = Right Channel, White = Left Channel) or the 3.5mm headphone jack. Either option gives you a 2-channel, stereo signal. The other side (“pc”) has the standard USB connection.
The power comes from the USB port, so no need for batteries or a power adapter.
Another nice feature is that you don’t need to load any drivers or software for the hardware. To your Windows PC/Laptop (Windows or higher) or MAC (OS 10.11 or higher), it will look like a standardized USB Audio Device.
Here are the easy steps to convert your tapes to mp3 or wav files:
- Connect to your cassette player on one end and your computer on the other
- Open / Launch the audio software (more on this below)
- Press “Record” on the software
- Put in a cassette and press “Play”
After your tape has played the songs you want to convert:
- Press “Stop” on the software
- Press “Stop” on the tape player
We prefer using the RCA cables if you have that option. With the headphone jack, the volume you are playing at is the volume going into the digitizer. Often with the headphone jack, you’ll need to have the volume rather high in order to get a good audio conversion, and this can also introduce more noise and distortions.
Check out the Inquisim comparison shopping site for some more options and updated prices.
Our alternative choice is the V.TOP Digital Audio Capture Card (about $18) Audio Grabber for Cassette Tapes to mp3 Converter
You may notice that this looks almost the same as DIGITNOW mentioned above. And for all practical details it is. We didn’t get a chance to crack open the cases on both of these to check the actual electronics and specific chips – maybe later we can do a full tear-down review.
It has the same USB 2.0 on the PC/MAC computer side, and the same options for RCA or 3.5mm headphone jack on the Audio side.
Power is again from the computer USB port, so no additional wires or adapters required.
The V.TOP works with all the common operating systems (OS) – Windows 7 or higher, and MAC OS 10.11 or higher. The computer will automatically recognize the USB device and no additional drivers are needed.
All in all, it has the same performance and basic functions. If you bought both and did a blind test we don’t think you would find any differences between the V.TOP and the DIGITNOW. The only difference is a couple bucks in the price – and that can always change!
QFX J-22UBK ReRun
If you don’t have a working cassette player, or want a really simple solution, check out the QFX J-22UBK ReRun X Radio and Cassette to MP3 Converter (about $35) .
It’s like an update version of your 1980’s boom-box. The QFX is a 4 band radio (AM, FM, SW1 & SW2) with a cassette player. What makes it modern are the USB port and SD Memory Card slot.
It has built-in software to convert the cassette tracks to MP3 on USB or SD storage.
The stereo speakers and 3-band equalizer make this a usable, portable radio. It’s powered by 4 “D” batteries (not Included) or wall-outlet 120V AC (it does have an AC power cord, which ships inside the battery compartment).
You can also listen to music through the 3.5mm stereo earphone jack.
The video above explains how to convert your tapes to mp3. Basically, you put in the tape and put in a USB memory stick or SD memory card. Press play on the cassette and press the button for USB or SD.
There is even an option to record live over-the-air programs to the cassette or the USB / SD.
Measuring 14.5 x 4.8 x 7.6 inches, and under 2 pounds, we think this is good to have around just for emergencies when you want to tune in the news or weather. Or to bring to the beach for a blanket party!
Software – Audacity
The V.TOP and DIGITNOW come packaged a CD version of “Audacity” . This is a free, open source audio program that is very good. We recommend you skip the disk and start with a download of the most recent version of the software direct from Audacity .
You can also use the Audacity software to edit the files from the QFX boom-box from the USB or SD memory.
The two best things about Audacity are the price (free) and the features (great). There is a short learning curve to get the basics down, but most people find it easy and intuitive.
Here’s a quick summary of the Audacity software from their website:
Audacity is a free, easy-to-use, multi-track audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems. The interface is translated into many languages. You can use Audacity to:
- Record live audio.
- Record computer playback on any Windows Vista or later machine.
- Convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs.
- Edit WAV, AIFF, FLAC, MP2, MP3 or Ogg Vorbis sound files.
- AC3, M4A/M4R (AAC), WMA and other formats supported using optional libraries.
- Cut, copy, splice or mix sounds together.
- Numerous effects including change the speed or pitch of a recording.
- Write your own plug-in effects with Nyquist.
The digital effects include things like: change the pitch, remove background noises, alter frequencies, remove vocals, create voice-overs for podcasts etc.
Anyone really into editing audio, and would have a use beyond converting a cassette collection, may want to look at Adobe Audition software. It’s expensive at about $240 for a 12-month subscription, so we won’t spend any time on it here (use the link above to get more info).
You’ll also need a pair of RCA male-to-male cables to connect the digitizer to your cassette player. Notice that the RCA plugs on the the digitizers are both female, and your cassette player is also female. Even if this wasn’t the case, you would need a longer cable to comfortably set everything up. We like the 8-foot AmazonBasics stereo cable (about $9).
When you’re done digitizing, you can use the cable for a subwoofer or soundbar (check out Best SoundBar under $50 review ).
You might also wonder if this will work for vinyl records. In general, the answer is no. This is because the older record player turntables need to amplification which was usually found in the receiver that it was hooked up to. Not too worry, we’ll be covering how to transform your vinyl records to digital MP3 files in a later post.
We mentioned in the beginning, but it’s worth repeating so that you don’t waste too much time getting the transfers right: It’s best to use the RCA plugs since those are connected to the “line-out” of the tape player. This means the player sets the volume and it’s not adjustable by you (and you don’t need to adjust). If you use the headphone jack, you must set the volume. Usually you’ll have to have it close to the maximum to get a good volume on the digital transfer.
One major difference between transferring a cassette to MP3 files compared with ripping a cd is that there is no meta-data associated with the songs on a cassette. On a CD you’ll get things like artist information name of the track link of the track etc.
When you create an MP3 file from the songs on your cassette, you’ll just get random file name. It’s up to you to go back in and add in the track name and other information.
That’s a wrap for this review. Time to unbox those mix-tapes and other cassettes to get started bringing them into the 21st century!
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