If you had a Sony Walkman when you were younger, then there’s a good chance there’s a box of old cassette tapes in a box because you just couldn't bear to throw them away. These might be mixtapes, bootlegs of long-forgotten concerts, demo tapes from your old band, or just albums that never quite made the transition to the likes of Spotify.
But what can you do if you want to listen to them on your phone, tablet, or PC? We show you the simple way to convert analogue cassettes to digital formats.
How do I transfer cassette tapes to my computer?
In order to convert cassettes to mp3 you’ll need a tape player, cables, a PC, and some audio software such as Audacity.
If you still have your old Walkman, that'll do nicely as it should have a 3.5mm headphone jack, but an old hi-fi with a headphone output or RCA phono jacks will work too. Check both your player and PC to see which audio cables you’ll need.
Your computer will need some kind of analogue audio input, such as a line-in or microphone minijack.
As a rule of thumb, laptops tend to limit the options to a 3.5mm headphone/microphone jack these days, while a desktop PC is more likely to have a separate mic input and 3.5mm minijack input. It's best to use the one marked Line In to connect your tape player if you can.
If you don’t have a working tape player then you might want to consider one that has a USB output designed specifically for sending audio to a computer, and this way your computer doesn't need to have a Line In.
These are quite cheap online, with the Tonor Portable Cassette Player Tape Converter available at the time of writing for £16.95 on Amazon UK. US buyers can get the Dansrue Super USB Cassette Capture which costs $21.99.
Audiophiles may want to search for something a bit more up market, but for the majority of us who just want to salvage old tapes, these devices will be fine. Let's not forget, the quality of cassettes was never great in the first place. And as we mentioned, it's worth checking to see if the album or songs you're trying to convert are available on Spotify or YouTube as even when converted to MP3 format, the quality you'll get from a cassette is relatively poor.
Some of the modern tape players will come with their own conversion software, but if not you can use Audacity, which is free and has all the tools you need.
How to convert cassette tapes with Audacity
Attach the cassette player to your PC via USB or (as we are doing here) via the Line Input, then click Start and search for Control Panel.
Select it from the results that appear. Next, navigate to Hardware & Sound > Sound. This opens a new window in which you want to select the Recording tab and then ensure that you can see the Line In listed and that it says "Plugged in". If you're using a USB player, check that this is also in the list which it should be if you have Windows 10. If it isn't there, it's likely you'll need to install the correct driver for it, and you'll need to follow the manufacturer's instructions to do so.
Launch Audacity, then from the menu bar at the top of the screen choose Edit > Preferences > Devices.
You’ll see a section in the main panel marked Interface. In here should be a drop-down menu with MME as an option. Select this.
Just below is another section entitled Recording. Be sure that the settings in the Channels field is 2 (Stereo) and that your player is the one chosen in the Device field.
With the settings in place you can now set the levels for recording. To do this, press play on the tape and then check that the two green bars in the upper right corner don’t go into the red, as that will distort the sound. To change the input levels you can either adjust the volume control on your player, or the input slider control (the one with a microphone icon) in Audacity.
Once you’re happy with the levels you can rewind your tape to the beginning, click record on Audacity and press play on the cassette once more.
When the tape reaches the end of side one, pause the recording, turn the cassette over, then resume.
After the contents have been recorded into Audacity you’ll be left with one, long continuous track. If you want to break this into individual tracks for each song then it will take a little editing.
Place the audacity playhead back at the beginning of the first track then select Tracks > Add Label At Selection from the menu bar at the top of the page.
Type in the name of the song, then press Enter. Now repeat this process, looking for the gaps between tracks that will be evident by the flat areas in the recording.
Now all you need to do is go to File > Export Multiple, select the format you desire, and finally click Export to send your sparking new digitised music to your hard drive. Note that Audacity doesn't come with an MP3 encoder due to licensing, but will give you instructions on how to download and install the Lame MP3 Encoder.