As part of my Digitize the Family History This Month project, I’ve pulled out old audio cassette tapes with oral histories or other recordings of living and deceased family members.

 

At the end of this How To, I’m including some types of cassette recordings I’ve found to help spark your curiosity about what your family may have recorded.

 

 

How to Convert Cassette Tapes to Digital Files

 

There are several ways to convert old audio cassette tapes to digital files and I’ll describe four methods. I’ve used three of these methods: one very low tech and two with better sound resolution and quality.

 

Here’s an image of my final method of choice but your needs may be different than mine so I’ll share a few different ideas.

 
Turning old cassette tapes into digital files

Perhaps the Simplest Audio Method  (I haven’t tried this)

Purchase a Cassette to MP3 Converter from Amazon or another store. For about $25 you could save yourself a lot of recording hassle. This device will plug into your computer and it plays your cassette tape and uses software (provided) to convert the tape to an MP3 file. I’ve never tried this so I don’t know how simple or complex the software is to use, but I’m just throwing it out there as an option.

 

The Low Tech Audio Method (this is better than leaving it as an analog magnetic tape)

You’ll need:

  • a cassette tape with content
  • a cassette tape player of any type
  • a smartphone with a story recording app OR
  • a computer with a built-in mic and a software program like  Audacity (free)

Directions for Cassette to Digital without a connecting cable

  • You’re going to play the cassette tape and record its contents to your computer or phone without using a cable to connect the devices. This method will pick up any background noises so it’s very low tech, but depending on the contents of your cassette, you might not need a more professional digital recording.
  • Put the tape in the audio cassette player
  • Use a story recording app on your phone (Family History Memories, StoryCorps, etc) and record the cassette as it plays; if you want something visual as well, you could use your phone’s video camera to record the cassette tape as it plays and aim the camera at a photo of the family member on the tape (this is a low tech way to achieve the final product I created)

OR

  • Download and install Audacity on your computer
  • Follow the directions for either a Windows PC or an Apple Macintosh below

With a Windows PC

  • Select the Windows icon in the bottom-left corner of your screen
  • Select Windows System
  • Select Control Panel
  • Select Hardware and Sound
  • Select Sound
  • Select Recording
  • Select Microphone
  • Open Audacity on your computer
  • In Audacity, Select the sound recording option MME
  • In Audacity, Select Microphone
  • Select the Record button (red circle)
  • On your cassette player, Select Play
  • When the cassette player stops, Select Stop Recording in Audacity (the black square)
  • You can then Select Play (green arrow) to listen to the recording or you can flip the tape over and record the other side of the tape. If you can’t hear your recording you may need to go to the Windows Control Panel, Hardware and Sound, Sound, Playback, and adjust the Sound Settings for playback or plug in headphones to hear the recording if your computer doesn’t have speakers
  • You can use the Audacity Help Menu if you want to learn how to edit or enhance your recording (in the main menu, Help)
  • Select File, Select Export, Select Export as MP3 or Export as WAV or another option (if you use Save As it will save it as an Audacity file, not an MP3, etc)

With a Mac

  • Select the apple icon in the upper lefthand corner of your screen
  • Select System Preferences
  • Select Sound
  • Select Internal Microphone/Built-in
  • Adjust the input volume as needed
  • Open Audacity
  • Select MME
  • Select Microphone
  • Select the Record button (red circle)
  • On your cassette player, Select Play
  • When the cassette player stops, Select Stop Recording in Audacity (the black square)
  • You can then Select Play button (green arrow) to listen to the recording or you can flip the tape over and record the other side of the tape. If you can’t hear your recording you may need to go to System Preferences, Select the Apple icon in the upper lefthand corner of your screen, then System Preferences, then View, then Sound, and make sure Output is on Internal Speakers
  • You can use the Audacity Help Menu if you want to learn how to edit or enhance your recording (in the main menu, Help)
  • Select File, Select Export, Select Export as MP3 or Export as WAV or another option (if you use Save As it will save it as an Audacity file, not an MP3, etc)

If you have a quiet place to do this type of audio recording, you may be happy with your results. Mine sounded fine but my standards are low. I sometimes watch Standard Def TV without noticing it’s not High Def, so I’m not very picky.

I decided to go buy a $7 cable and use the High Tech method because I have at least twenty tapes to digitize and with the sound running through a cable I didn’t have to listen to hours of cassette tapes during the transfer process.

 

 

The High Tech Audio Method

You’ll need:

  • an audio cassette tape
  • a tape cassette player with audio output lines
  • a computer with audio input lines
    • Most Windows PCs have audio input lines on their backside (the blue connector hole) Audio input line on a Windows PC
    • Not all Macs have audio input lines, this is the connection you’re looking for What an Apple Mac Audio Input Line looks like
  • a cable that connects your cassette player to your computer audio input lines (the single end will plug into your computer and a single OR double end will plug into your cassette player’s audio output lines
  • Audacity (free) or similar audio-editing software

 

Directions for Cassette to Digital with a cable connection 

  • You’re going to Connect your cassette player to your computer with a cable (a Mini to RCA audio cable or a Mini to Dual RCA audio cable- you can purchase at Walmart, Amazon, or a tech store for about $7 ). This cable connection will allow you to digitally record the cassette tape without picking up any background noise. If you have two stereo output lines on your cassette player, plug the dual audio connectors into those outlets and the single connector into your computer’s audio input jack. If you only have a single output line on your cassette tape then purchase and use the single connector cable to connect the devices.
  • WARNING – don’t connect the cable to the microphone jack on your computer; Audacity warns “A microphone port will excessively amplify the stronger line-level signals produced by a tape deck or receiver/amplifier. This could lead to damage to the microphone port or to your sound device.” On a Windows PC the microphone jack is usually pink, you need the blue audio input jack; most Macs have a built-in microphone and no mic jack. The headphone jack has a headphone symbol above it, you need the audio input jack with a circle and two inward pointing arrows in the image above
  • Download Audacity (free) or a similar computer program and use this program on your computer to capture the cassette tape contents and convert them to a digital file of your choice.
  • Follow the directions for a Windows PC or Apple Macintosh below

With a Windows PC

  • Select the Windows icon in the bottom-left corner of your screen
  • Select Windows System
  • Select Control Panel
  • Select Hardware and Sound
  • Select Sound
  • Select Recording
  • Select Line In
  • Open Audacity on your computer
  • In Audacity, Select the sound recording option MME
  • In Audacity, Select Digital Audio or Audio Line-In
  • Select the Record button (red circle)
  • On your cassette player, Select Play
  • When the cassette player stops, Select Stop Recording in Audacity (the black square)
  • You can then Select the Play button (green arrow) to listen to the recording or you can flip the tape over and record the other side of the tape. If you can’t hear your recording you may need to go to the Windows Control Panel, Hardware and Sound, Sound, Playback, and adjust the Sound Settings for playback by selecting Speakers or Headphones (plug in headphones to hear the recording if your computer doesn’t have speakers)
  • You can use the Audacity Help Menu if you want to learn how to edit or enhance your recording (in the main menu, Help)
  • Select File, Select Export, Select Export as MP3 or Export as WAV or another option (if you use Save As it will save it as an Audacity file, not an MP3, etc). I chose to export my digitized content as both .wav files and .mp3 files. (The .wav files are a standard file format for watching or listening to audio files on a Windows computer and the .mp3 files are a standard file format for burning the content to CDs.)

With a Mac

  • Select the apple icon in the upper lefthand corner of your screen
  • Select System Preferences
  • Select Sound
  • Select Audio Line-in 
  • Adjust the input volume as needed
    • (If your only option is Internal microphone/Built-in then this computer doesn’t have an audio line-in port and you’ll need to use another computer or another method)
  • Open Audacity
  • Select MME
  • Select Digital Audio or Audio Line-in
  • Select the Record button (red circle)
  • On your cassette player, Select Play
  • When the cassette player stops, Select Stop Recording in Audacity (the black square)
  • You can then Select the Play button (green arrow) to listen to the recording or you can flip the tape over and record the other side of the tape. If you can’t hear your recording you may need to go to System Preferences, Select the Apple icon in the upper lefthand corner of your screen, then System Preferences, then View, then Sound, and make sure Output is on Internal Speakers
  • You can use the Audacity Help Menu if you want to learn how to edit or enhance your recording (in the main menu, Help)
  • Select File, Select Export, Select Export as MP3 or Export as WAV or another option (if you use Save As it will save it as an Audacity file, not an MP3, etc)

 

 

The High Tech Video Method (my final choice)

I chose to use Camtasia (video-editing software that costs money) because I already own the software and it allows me to add a photo, photos, or video to the audio clips. (Audacity is only audio-editing software.)

This recording method is similar to the High Tech method for audio, you just replace Audacity with Camtasia. Because not everyone will have access to Camtasia I’ll skip the steps I took to digitize the tapes, but really, the only additional step was before I hit “Record” (again, a red button) I found a digital photo of the person who was speaking, singing, etc on the cassette tape and I put it on my desktop and told Camtasia to record that picture along with the audio file. Camtasia let me crop the picture before I hit Record.

Now, if I want to listen to the audio file on my computer I will see an image of the speaker as well. I just like that final touch for my family history.

 

 

Cassette Tapes to Digitize for your Family History

You probably have some old cassette tapes tossed in storage boxes somewhere. Some things you may have recorded on cassette tape that should be digitized and preserved for posterity include:

  • Oral histories recorded to tape – if you know of any transcribed histories, see if you can find original cassette recordings to digitize so posterity can hear the person’s voice
  • Favorite songs or recordings – when Sony Walkmans and personal cassette recorders first entered the scene, many people created cassette tapes with their favorite songs or mixes; these were the original Playlists (unless you consider a stack of quarters and a Jukebox a playlist)
  • Recorded interviews – my father was a lawyer and I have three cassette tape recordings provided by a radio show that interviewed him about legal matters; you may have similar professional recordings
  • Recitals or Performances – my mother sang in a barbershop quartet and a women’s chorus and I have a few cassette recordings of her quartet; maybe you have a recording of someone’s recital or other performance
  • Family gatherings – I recorded some family gatherings where we were sharing stories; you may have some wacko relative like me who did that sorta thing
  • Answering machine tapes – You may have cassette tapes from old phone answering machines. I know I kept some of those but haven’t found them yet.
  • Children’s first words –  I know we had at least one tape recording of my brother’s earliest words and sentences. Maybe your parents also took the time to record some of your childhood on tape?
  • Other – I have about twenty additional cassette tapes that are opened and obviously used but unlabeled. If these mystery tapes have anything of interest I’ll edit this list to include those items.
  • UPDATEDEulogies – I also found a recorded eulogy in the unlabeled tapes, not one that I recorded but perhaps one that was sent to a family member who missed the funeral. Everything else worth saving fell into one of the categories above. (Goodbye cassette tape of an Elvis impersonator.)

Best with your research and family history projects!

Here’s a pinnable image to save for your future projects and please follow any of these OnGenealogy Pinterest boards for family history project ideas:

What Family History do you have stashed away on old cassette tapes #OnGenealogy #cassettetapes #FamilyHistory

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