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Digital Projects Toolkit: Audio

Audio Digitization

Audio Digitization: Overview

Digitizing audio is relatively simple and can often be done on your own. It does, however, take a little bit of practice and research. This page will primarily focus on digitizing cassette tapes.

Digitizing cassettes does not require much effort or hardware and software, and the cost is low. The downside, however, is time. However long the tape is, it is going to take the same amount of time to digitize. If, for example, you have a cassette with a 2-hour interview that you want to digitize, the tape will take 2 hours to digitize (plus the time beforehand to set up and the time afterward to save and process). But in most cases, you can simply set it and forget it (once you have successfully completed a short test and determined the proper settings).

These proper settings, procedures, and resources will be explored further on the tabs under this page.

Digitizing Cassette Tapes

Hardware and Software

  • Cassette player
    • Locating a cassette player might be the trickiest part of this process. If you have a working one that has been sitting in storage since the 1990s, it is time to break it out! If you do not have one, new cassette players can still be purchased online.
  • Cord
    • You will need a cord to run from the cassette player to a computer (more on this in the section below).
  • Audacity
    • This is a free and open-source audio editor and recording software.

Steps to Digitize a Cassette

  1. Put the tape into the cassette player and verify that both the cassette player and the tape are working.
    Connect your cassette player to your computer using an appropriate cord.
    • In most cases, an AUX cable (or 3.5mm cable) will do the trick. It depends on what type of player you are using for the cassette tape. In some cases, an RCA to AUX cable (or 3.5mm cable) will be needed. If you do not have one of these cables sitting around, they can be purchased online for only a few dollars.
    • If your computer does not have a "line in" input, you may need to look at getting an AUX (or 3.5mm) to USB cable, or a USB audio adapter.
  2. If you have not done so already, download/ install Audacity to your computer and then open it.
  3. Adjust settings in Audacity before starting.
    • At the top, click on the microphone drop-down menu and make sure the appropriate recording input (a.k.a. where the cassette player is connected). For further guidance, consult Audacity's "Selecting Your Recording Device" tutorial.
    • Click on the "Edit" menu at the very top and then select "Preferences." On the left, click on the "Quality" section. The default settings of Audacity are 44100 Hz sample rate and 32-bit float. Determine what your preferences are and review the digitization standards on the "Resources" tab on this LibGuide page, and adjust the default settings as necessary.
  4. Do a short sample recording (or "test run") to make sure everything is working.
    • In Audacity, click on the red record button at the top and then push the play button on your cassette player.
    • If everything is working properly, you should be seeing the blueish waveform of the tape's audio within Audacity.
    • After 10-30 seconds, click on the stop button in Audacity and then push the stop button on your cassette player.
    • Don't forget to rewind the tape.
    • For further guidance, consult Audacity's "Making a Test Recording" tutorial.
  5. Listen to the sample recording in Audacity to make sure everything sounds alright.
    • If there is no sound, or you did not see a waveform in Audacity, something went wrong. A common issue is with the cord. Make sure you have plugged it into the appropriate spots on the cassette player and computer.
    • If the audio does not sound right, try adjusting the settings in Audacity, or check your hardware again to make sure that is working.
    • If the waveform is very large, the volume on the cassette player or in Audacity is likely set too high.
  6. Once you have completed a successful test, you are now ready to digitize the entire cassette tape.
    • In Audacity, click on the red record button at the top and then push the play button on your cassette player. Then, wait until the entire recording has played.
    • If you would like to listen to the audio in Audacity while it is being recorded, make sure the "Software playthrough of input" option is checked in the settings (Edit > Preferences > Recording).
  7. When the audio has finished, stop the recording.
    • Click on the stop button in Audacity and then push the stop button on your cassette player.
    • If the recording has stopped before reaching the end of the tape, you will notice a "flatline" in Audacity.
  8. Do a little quality control and listen to the recording in Audacity.
    • You don't have to listen to the entire recording. Just listen to it here and there to make sure everything sounds fine.
  9. If needed, edit the audio.
    • Editing should be kept to a minimum to ensure the integrity of the original recording, but sometimes a little editing may be necessary (such as cutting out a long period of silence at the end when the audio stopped but Audacity kept recording).
    • In Audacity, click on the Selection Tool and then click and drag to select the section of audio you would like to cut (the selection will be a darker color when selected). You can either use the delete key on your computer's keyboard, or you can use Audacity (Edit > Delete).
  10. Finally, save/ export the recording to an audio file.
    • In Audacity, click on the "File" menu at the top and then "Export."
    • Preferably, the recording's master file should be WAV, and MP3 should only be used for access copies. Consult the digitization standards on the "Resources" tab on this LibGuide page for more information on audio file formats.
    • For further guidance, consult Audacity's "Export Audio" tutorial.
Resources for Audio Digitization