Earlier this week I was at my grandmother’s house helping my mother, aunt and uncle clear out my late grandmother’s belongings. During a break, my family started reminiscing about old times, as well as discussing what we were doing with our lives.  At some point in the conversation, I mentioned to my Uncle David that I was blogging for company that transcribed audio to text.  

His eyes lit up.

He excitedly went on to tell me that he had conducted an extensive interview with my grandmother several years ago.

‘I started to transcribe the interview, but I gave up.  It was too time-consuming. I type too slow!’

My eyes got all big too! I began thinking about how lovely it would be to capture this rare interview of my grandmother and convert her story into text for all of the family to read.

‘Well, I know how to convert audio to text quickly!  Just give me the tapes.’

As the words flowed out of my mouth, I was simultaneously thought of a huge problem.  Hesitantly, I asked my uncle, ‘How was the interview recorded?’ His response was as I had feared: by cassette tape.

My heart sank a little.  I needed a digital file to use Happy Scribe’s audio to text transcription software.  Which got me thinking, ’How do you digitise old audio cassette tapes?’

A little Google researching later,  I found the answer.

Luckily, there are two easy ways to convert audio cassette tapes to a digital format such as MP3. Which method you choose will probably depend on what equipment you already have and how much money you want to spend. However, the equipment required for both is pretty short. All you basically need is a tape player, cables, PC/Laptop and audio software.

Method 1: The Audio Cassette Tape/Recorder

The first approach requires scouring your attic or garage for this:

Photo by Tamim Arafat on Unsplash

If you still have an old style cassette player in your possession (preferably in better shape than the one pictured), you’re in luck. Digitising from an old audio cassette player is easy. And any type will do. The cassette player may be part of your home stereo system, a Boombox, or Walkman. If you don’t have an old style player in your possession, it is also possible to look for an old version at a flea market or on EBay.

To use this method, you will need to make sure that your tape cassette player has either a 3.5mm minijack (often used for headphones) or two RCA phono outputs (red and white output connectors). Check both your player and your PC/Laptop to see which audio cables you will need.

Generally a desktop PC has both the RCA outputs and the 3.5mm minijack inputs. However, laptops tend to be limited to just a 3.5mm headphone/microphone jack these days.

If you don’t have the right cables, then I would recommend purchasing the DigitNow audio to digital converter cable.  This cable comes with a 3.5mm and R/L audio connector inputs that will connect to your cassette tape recorder and an USB audio grabber on the other end that can work with both your laptop or PC. This cable is also supported on both Windows and Mac.

DigitNow Audio to Digital Converter Cable

Next you will need to load some software onto your computer to make the conversion happen.  The DigitNow audio to digital converter cable comes with the professional audio capture/converting software Audacity. If you need to download some free software, then I recommend EZ Vinyl/Tape Converter.

From here the process is pretty simple, but boringly time-consuming.  To digitise the audio, you will need to push play on the tape cassette player and let it record onto your computer or laptop in real time.  This sucks I know.  I researched the heck out of how to digitise cassette tapes and this is the only solution I found.

Once the process is done, you may wish to use the software to make adjustments to the audio. Editing the audio is pretty simple to master, but can be quite involved as well. So, if you are converting a lot of tapes, you are probably looking at a long-term project.

Method 2: USB Cassette to MP3 Converter

If you no longer have an old style cassette tape or can’t be bothered to search second hand shops for an one, then there is still another method.  You can buy a USB cassette to MP3 converter. This solution is arguably easier as it requires fewer cables, is less complex, and encounters fewer problems.

A USB cassette to MP3 converter is a small handheld cassette player that comes with a USB port to connect to your computer. Most also come with the software component, mentioned above, that you will need to install onto your PC or Laptop.

Once you have this piece of equipment the process becomes pretty straightforward. Like in method one, you will have to launch the software, insert the tape into the cassette player, hit play on the cassette player and record in the software.  After the converter software has captured the audio, you can export it as an MP3 and do pretty much whatever you want with it.  

One thing to note here is that there is a lot of variation in the quality of sound transfer depending on what recorder you buy. Top Ten Reviews lists Tape Express Plus as one of its best cassette to MP3 players of 2019.  The benefits of this option are that it is fairly economical (RRP $49.95), produces near perfect sound quality conversions, and the step-by-step software makes the conversion easy.

ION Tape Express Plus is one of the best USB to cassette MP3 converters.

Tips Before You Start

Just like any new task you embark on, there a few pointers you need to know to help make the process smoother:

Software is Paramount: The conversion software that comes with any of the equipment mentioned above is critical to the performance. The best cassette converter applications will let you perform audio editing tasks such as removing tape hiss, cleaning up pops, splitting the captured audio into individual tracks, and exporting to different audio formats. The best ones also allow you to control the volume of the audio as it is being recorded.  So it is worth doing some research before you make a purchase.

Good Quality Audio Leads Are Also Essential: To keep electrical interference to a minimum, it is also recommend to use good quality audio cables. Ideally, you should use cables with gold-plated connections and that use oxygen-free coper (OFC) wiring.

Test First: It is also highly recommended that you record a short test clip to make sure that the audio levels are set properly before you record the whole tape. If the audio on the computer recording is too loud or has a lot of static, simply turn down the volume on the cassette deck.

Choose MP3: MP3 is still the most commonly used format for audio files.  There are others that offer higher-fidelity file formats. However, unless you are going to do this professionally, stick with MP3m, it’s much easier.

Duplicate: Once you have the MP3 file it is easy to copy that digital file. So do it!  I can not express how important it is to make multiple copies and keep them in different places.  I for one, would not want to loose that only copy of my grandmother’s voice. So keep a copy on the hard drive, back that up to the cloud, and save on a portable device as well. Also, if possible, keep these copies in different physical locations - like an office or a relative’s house - just in case of a real disaster, like a fire or flood.

Digitising old cassette tapes is easy, although time-consuming. However, if, like me, you have important interviews of family members that you want to save for future generations, then I highly recommend converting that audio to digital as soon as possible, before the degradation process damages them beyond recovery.

Additionally, once you have that audio file digitised you are ready to start using Happy Scribe to convert that audio to text.

If you have any questions about digitising cassette tapes or converting audio to text, please don’t hesitate to drop us a line.