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How to Copy a Cassette Tape to MP3 or a CD

written by: Lamar Stonecypher•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 12/14/2009

Do you have a collection of old cassette albums that you'd like to listen to in iTunes or on your MP3 or CD player? This article shows how, with screen shots and links, to copy cassette music into tracks on the PC and export the tracks to MP3. It's a bit time consuming, but it's not too difficult.

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    Obtaining the Cables and Adjusting the Sound Level

    Before converting your first cassette to MP3 tunes and, optionally, importing them into iTunes, you need to assemble what will be needed. For software on the PC, we'll use the freeware program Audacity, which is a fine and versatile recording program.

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    Selecting the Correct Cables

    Then you will need the cables to connect the sound source to the PC. The PC may have a front-mounted line-in port or, if a multimedia PC, RCA-style jacks for left and right. If the PC has a TV tuner card, there may be additional ports, but we'll be interested in the red and yellow ports. For a PC with no front panel inputs or outputs, the line-in port on the rear panel, which is usually blue, can be used. Please note that a front port marked with a microphone symbol is usually monaural, so if you see that, use the rear-panel line-in port instead.

    The connectors on the audio source may be either a 1/8" stereo mini plug or RCA jacks. In the image below, a miniplug is at the top and RCA plugs are at the bottom.

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    Miniplug to RCA 

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    Image: Radio Shack

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    If both the PC and the audio source (cassette player or "boom box") have the 1/8" miniplug jacks, a double-ended miniplug cable should be used. Note that this is actually the same type of cable that normally connects sound-out with powered speakers. In the case of a cassette deck (that time forgot), we'll want either RCA to RCA or RCA to 1/8" miniplug. If you need to purchase a cable, Radio Shack is a good source, but please note that in most cases, the line-in jack on the PC is preferred.

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    Doing a Sound Check

    Once you have the cable to go from your audio source to the PC, you should turn up the sound and play a cassette to ensure that you hear the sound from the stereo speakers. If no audio is getting through, there are a couple of things to try. If your PC has specialized audio such as SoundMax or Realtek AD, the controls can found easily enough in the application’s settings panel. This can usually be started from Control Panel or from an icon in the notification area (system tray) of the PC. Look for a "Line-in" setting and adjust the level under "Recording level" or similar. I recommend no more than 75% of maximum, although the input may sound better at a lower volume setting.

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    Realtek Control Panel 

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    Standard audio, or an alternate source for the settings, can be found by right-clicking the normal speaker icon in the system tray and selecting "Recording Devices." Double-click "Line-in" and then select the "Levels" tab.

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    Windows Recording Panel .

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    Again, listen to the cassette playing while you adjust the line-in level. Both the output volume on the audio device and the input volume can be tweaked for the best sound. Start with, and try to keep, a minimal volume on the cassette player if you're using the headphone output. This will avoid some distortion in the recording.

    A cassette deck will have low-level outputs, so the only adjustment will be the line-in on the PC.

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    Setting up the Software

    For recording software, we'll need Audacity, and, to export the tracks as MP3 songs for an MP3 player or to import into iTunes, the Lame MP3 encoder binary.

    Audacity is available as both a stable and a beta version. For most of the steps in this article, I used the 1.39 beta version without any complications and recommend it.

    Audacity is about a 5 MB download. And here's what it looks like in recording mode.

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    audacity 

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    You'll need to also download and install the Lame encoder. This is used when Audacity is asked to "Export Selected" to MP3.

    I'll bypass the steps involved in downloading and installing Audacity and Lame, but if you need a walk-through on that, please see the article "Create Ringtones from Music You Already Own" here on Bright Hub and then come back to this article.

    Once you have Lame and Audacity installed, it's time to take care of one setting. By default, Audacity listens to (and thus records) from the output of the Microsoft sound mapper. Depending on what you have running on your PC, this can include all sorts of interruptions like Windows sounds, Skype calls, and various pings and bongs. Since we don't want all that ruining our recording, there are a couple of proactive steps we can make.

    First, start Audacity and select Edit → Preferences. On the right side, click "Microsoft Sound Mapper - Input" and change that to "Line In." (On my PC, it's labeled "MME: Line In (Realtek High Definition).") It's fine to leave the Playback device set to the sound mapper - that lets you hear the output while it's being recorded.

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    Setting Line In 

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    To make sure that Windows sounds don't intrude, we can address that, too. Right-click the speaker icon in the notification area and select "Mixer." Then yank the "Windows Sounds" slider all the way to the bottom. If there's a slider at the bottom of the dialog, slide it to the right and hush any other applications that you don't want to hear from.

    Congratulations. You're now ready to try a trial recording.

    Next: Making a Test Run

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    In this section, we start by making a trial run to adjust the recording levels in Audacity, including how to read the VU meters and avoid clipping. Then we create the recording on the PC from the line-in input from the cassette player. The next step is to divide the recording into tracks and export them individually as MP3 files, including whatever meta-data about the album and artist desired. If planning to use the tracks with an MP3 player, this is all that is needed.
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    The Test Run

    The next step is to a trial run to adjust the recording levels in Audacity. When recording, you'll see the sound for each track (left and right) indicated by a moving waveform. If the height of the waveform is too slight, the volume of the recording will be low. If the height of the waveform is too high, an effect called "clipping" will result and cause distortion when the track is played back.

    The recording level is adjusted using the slider to the right of the microphone icon. During recording, the relative strength of the sound intensity is shown with the VU (volume units) meter above the other microphone symbol.

    To make clipping easy to discover, select View → Show Clipping. This will cause a red vertical line to be superimposed on the waveform at points where clipping occurred. No clipping, of course, is the objective.

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    Now we're ready for the test run. Start a cassette playing and adjust your PC speakers to a comfortable level.

    In Audacity, click the circular red "Record" button. The waveform will start to scroll immediately. Look at the VU meter to get an idea of the input volume. Adjust the recording volume using the slider so louder parts of the waveform almost touch the top, but no red lines indicating clipping appear. Watch for a couple of minutes and see how it does. When you're satisfied, click the square brown "Stop" button to stop recording and stop the cassette player.

    To review what you just recorded, pull the scroll-bar back to the beginning, click at the start of the waveform, and click the green "Play" button.

    Repeat as necessary, and when you're satisfied, stop the playback, click the waveform, and press Ctrl-a to "select all." Then press Delete to remove what's been recorded so far.

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    Make the Recording and Export a Track to MP3

    Audacity likes to start new recordings on a new staff. We will prevent that so the waveform will appear in the same, top area.

    It should not be necessary to change any settings during the recording. To make the recording, reverse the tape to the beginning and start it playing. In Audacity, click the red Record button.

    Then enjoy your music until it ends. Click the square Stop button and stop the cassette player if it has not already shut off.

    Click the waveform and press Home on your keyboard to go to the beginning. If you're really lucky, the cassette's sleeve art will show you the running time for the first track. Move the scroll bar to the right until you see the waveform narrow to almost nothing for a few seconds. This should be the end of the first track. You can move it back, click the waveform, and click Play to confirm it.

    Determine the point that you wish to end the first track and place the cursor there. Begin to drag to the left to select the track and press Home to select all the way back to the beginning.

    To export the selected region to MP3, select File → Export Selection.

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    Export Options 

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    This will open the "Export File" dialog as shown above. To the right of "Save as type:" select "MP3 files" in the droplist. Then click the "Options" button to the right.

    Do you want the best quality reproduction of your track? If so, select "Constant" under "Bit Rate Mode" and "320 kbps" under "Quality." The "Channel Mode" should be set to "Stereo." Then click OK to go back to the Export File dialog.

    Navigate to the folder where you want to place the MP3 file, and then click the "Save" button.

    Here's where you can enter meta-data details for the MP3 such as artist name, album name, track number, year, and genre. These details are saved with the MP3 file and can be displayed in iTunes or in Windows Explorer (if you select a "Media" window). When done, click OK and Audacity will export your track to MP3.

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    Saving the Track to MP3 

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    To get the next track, go back to Audacity. The portion you exported should still be selected, so press Delete to remove it. This will put you at the beginning of the second track.

    Repeat the process until you get to the last track. Instead of scrolling to the end, you can click the waveform and press Ctrl-a to select it all before you export it.

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    Now you're ready to flip the cassette over and grab the other side. Remember how I mentioned that Audacity likes to start a new recording on a new staff? You can prevent that holding down Shift while you click the Record button. That will make it "append" to the current (empty) recording rather than starting a new one beneath the first one.

    So that's it for capturing tracks from a cassette to MP3. If you have an MP3 player, just sync your new tracks to it in the manner in which you are already accustomed.

    But what if you want to import your new MP3s into iTunes or even write the captured audio tracks to a CD? Please continue...

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    In this last section, we look at two ways to import the newly created MP3 files into iTunes. One way is to use the new "watched folder" feature in iTunes. This is nice because it is automatic. The other method is to "import music folder into iTunes." The disadvantage of this method is that it has to be repeated every time music is added, but it offers finer control over the folder hierarchy. Dragging the tracks into a Playlist and selecting "Burn Disc" in iTunes is easiest way to convert the tracks to CD.
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    Import Newly Created Tracks into iTunes

    If you have iTunes 9.x, this is very easy. You can have iTunes watch a folder to automatically include content in your iTunes library as you add songs. If you want to use this feature, you'll need to let iTunes "organize your music." This means that iTunes will create folders for albums and copy the music into them. Access this under

    File → Library → Organize Library.

    It takes a while, but when it's done, you'll have a new folder under

    User → Music → iTunes → iTunes Music → Automatically Add to iTunes

    unless it's a brand new install of iTunes, in which case it's placed in

    User → Music → iTunes → iTunes Media → Automatically Add to iTunes

    Put your new tracks there, and within a few minutes after starting, iTunes will notice them and import them.

    But what if you don't want to have to use a particular folder and want to control your own folder hierarchy? That's fine, too. Click File → Add Folder to Library… and navigate to the top-level folder of your MP3 music collection. In other words, if you just put your MP3 in a folder called My New Album under My MP3 Music under Music, point iTunes to "Music" and it will find the downstream folders as well.

    The disadvantage to this method is that you need to repeat including the folder every time you add music to it, but that's how we did it in previous versions of iTunes, anyway.

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    Burn Tracks to CD

    Creating an audio CD from your newly captured audio tracks is easy in iTunes. Select File → New Playlist to create a new playlist and name it something like "Copy to CD" or "Temp" similar. Then from the Music listing, select the multiple tracks that you want to include on the CD and

    • Right-click and select "Add to Playlist...", or
    • Drag the selected files to your new Playlist

    When you're ready to burn the CD, go to your Playlist and click "Burn Disc" at lower right.

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    Over and Done With

    And, that's it - how to use a cassette deck or boom box to copy a cassette tape to your PC, convert the audio into MP3 tracks, import them into iTunes, and, optionally, burn them to an audio CD. This is exactly how I've been copying my old cassettes to MP3 for my MP3 player as well as to import into iTunes. I hope that you had no problem following along and that this provided the information that you needed.

    Thank you for reading this, and thank you for visiting Bright Hub!

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