Transferring tapes and records to computer or CD

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Contents

A note on terminology

To avoid confusion, please note that in common parlance the terms "jack", "socket", and "port" can be used interchangeably, and that "sockets" can be either inputs or outputs. And, just to make things more confusing, of course, JACK is a Linux audio routing program, and "socket" and "port" are both technical terms applying to TCP/IP networking.

Until the advent of the Walkman in the 1980s, sockets used in audio applications were frequently 1/4 inch in diameter. These are commonly called "phone jacks and plugs", as they originate from the telephone industry. Although professional audio equipment and guitar amplifiers continue to use this 1/4 inch standard almost exclusively (for short-distance, high-impedance connections), most contemporary consumer audio equipment has standardised on sockets that are half that size, or on the completely different "RCA" or "Phono" connectors, the sort you generally see on the back panels of consumer stereo gear, in pairs for left and right.

Often called a 'minijack' or a 'miniplug', these sockets will appear as 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) diameter holes. On computers, minijacks are used for the headphone, microphone (if present), and line-in (line-input) sockets. Most portable music players - including cassette players, CD players, and MP3 players - use minijacks exclusively for the headphones. However, some smartphone devices that can also play music use a 2.5 mm jack to maintain compatibility with hands-free telephony devices. Adapters to allow use of 2.5 mm equipment with 3.5 mm jacks are readily available at electronics stores and online. Another significant exception to this rule involves the headphone jacks used in better quality non-portable (home) audio equipment, such as home theater receivers and cassette decks, where the larger 1/4 inch jack is normally used.

Please be aware that audio plugs (which fit into these sockets) can be either monophonic or stereophonic. A stereophonic plug can be identified by its use of three metallic rings separated by insulators (typically two black rings), while monophonic plugs will have only two metallic rings with an insulator in between. Note that the very tip of the plug and the shaft itself are both considered 'rings'. Some electronic stores sell cables that are monophonic, so it would be wise to inspect the plug to make sure it is what you want prior to making a purchase. In general, and especially if you are a novice, you will always want to purchase cables that are stereophonic.

Finally, if you're working with semi-pro or professional audio gear, you might encounter 1/4" 3-conductor jacks which are nonetheless monaural: these are "balanced connections", which are electrically identical to the common 3-pin "XLR" plugs and jacks found on professional mics and mixers, just wired to a different sort of connector. The cabling is interchangeable, but you cannot plug a stereo 1/4" output into a balanced 1/4" input, so you need to know which sort of jack your 1/4" is; if a manual or label doesn't tell you it's balanced, it generally isn't.

Connecting the equipment

You can use Audacity and your computer to record sound from any external device which outputs an audio signal. Although cassette tapes and records (LPs) are the most popular examples, Audacity can be used just as easily to record audio from the following:

  • open-reel tape decks
  • MiniDisc (MD) or Digital Audio Tape (DAT) players (if you have a digital sound card, connect from digital out of the player to S/PDIF in of the sound card)
  • Radios
  • Mixers
  • Musical Keyboards (via headphones-out, line-out or other audio-out, not from the MIDI output - more help on recording keyboards at pianoclues.com)
  • Video cassette recorders (VCRs), hard-disk Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) and DVD players (recording from a dedicated line-out containing audio output only)
  • Televisions (via a SCART adaptor cable connected to the computer sound card, or through a VCR's audio out)
  • Personal digital voice recorders (DVRs)
  • Portable MP3 players (such as iPods)
  • even another computer


You need to run an appropriate cable from an "out" jack on the external device (e.g. a tape deck, or an amplifier or receiver connected to a turntable) to the line-in port of the computer. You should not connect a standard turntable directly to a computer - see the next section below. The line-in is normally coloured blue, but check your computer manual. You should not generally connect to the microphone port of the computer, as this port, besides typically being monophonic, will excessively amplify the stronger signals produced by a tape deck or receiver/amplifier. The only exception to this might be the outputs of some personal recorders supplied with a minijack intended for connection to the microphone input of a recorder.

For the average user with consumer level equipment, the headphone jack is probably the best "out" jack to choose, since it will allow you to adjust the output level of the source device. If you choose this approach, the most typical setup is to use a cable with a 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) stereophonic TRS plug at one end (for connecting to the device's headphone jack), and an identical 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) TRS stereophonic plug on the other end (for connecting to the line-in socket on your computer). If the device you are recording from has a 1/4 inch (6.3 mm) headphone jack, you will need to get a 1/4 to 1/8 inch adaptor. Such an adapter is often included free with most new headphones, or can be purchased separately at any electronics store.

Some professionals with high-grade equipment would prefer to use the source device's "aux out", "tape out", "line-out" or "record" output (if so equipped), since that approach bypasses an unnecessary stage of (possibly low-quality) amplification, and standardises the signal at a fixed (non-adjustable) level of approximately 1 - 1.5 volts, resulting in a higher quality recording. If you choose this approach, you will need a cable that has dual RCA red/white plugs at one end (for connecting to the "aux out", "tape out" or "record" jack of the device) and a stereophonic 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) plug at the other end (for connecting to your computer's line-in port).

For further explanation of the different types of connectors in use, see Connecting your Equipment.


HELP IF YOU DON'T HAVE A LINE-IN PORT

Some Macs and notebook/laptop computers do not have a line-in port. In that case check if your microphone port can be toggled to line-in with a switch, or by changing the recording source in the software. On some laptops this line-level source is called "mix" or "stereo mix", in which case you could select this source in the system sound preferences (or on Windows and Linux, in Audacity as described above). If you see a line-in option available, always choose that as your recording source. If you have neither a line-in port nor any way to switch the microphone port to line-in, you need to add a line-in by adding a USB soundcard, or other suitable audio input/output device that connects to the computer via USB. Examples of recommendable input/output devices are the Griffin iMic  which has a standard 1/8 inch input (Note: it is not compatible with Windows Vista according to Griffin) and the Behringer UCA 202  which has left and right RCA inputs.

If recording into a USB device, set this as the "Recording Device" in the Audio I/O tab of Audacity Preferences (and also do so in the Apple Audio-MIDI Setup or Sound Preferences if you're on OS X). Where you use a simple I/O device like iMic or Behringer, the Audacity Mixer Toolbar input selector will not be in use, although you'll need to set the line/mic toggle switch on iMic to "line". In the case of a full USB soundcard you will need to select line-in as the input source in the same way as you choose input sources for your inbuilt audio device.


Special note on connecting a tape deck

If you wish to record from an audio cassette or a reel-to-reel tape deck, you can connect that deck directly to your computer without the need for any external amplifier or receiver. Simply connect the deck's "line-out" RCA jacks to your computer's "line in" jack, using a cable described above. You can also connect to the headphones out jack of an integrated cassette deck or to that of an amplifier connected to the tape deck. If you do this (or if the "line-out" volume of your deck is adjustable), it's best to set that level quite close to its maximum, and adjust the recording level using Audacity's input volume slider (see below). This helps keep the inherent tape noise to a minimum in the signal sent to Audacity. If the cassette you are playing has been encoded with Dolby ® as denoted by the Dolby Double-D symbol, then you must enable Dolby playback on your tape deck, or the recording of the tape will sound over-bright.

Before transferring your cassette, see this page for useful tips on proper cleaning and alignment of the tape heads.

Special note on connecting a standalone turntable

If you have a standalone turntable, you should not (generally speaking) connect it directly to your computer's sound-card. Instead, you should connect it to the sound-card via an amplifier or receiver with a built-in "phono" or turntable input, or to a stand-alone phono pre-amplifier and then record from the amplifier's "line out" or "tape out" jacks, or directly from the standalone phono pre-amp jacks. This is for two reasons: (1) the audio signals produced by a phono cartridge are very low voltages - typically too weak to be recorded directly, and (2) most records manufactured from the 1950s onwards are produced with RIAA equalization, a form of pre-emphasis which boosts high frequencies and reduces low frequencies, which is then de-emphasized on playback.

If left uncorrected, capturing this output will result in a recording that sounds very "tinny". All amplifiers containing a "phono" stage will boost the cartridge's signal to line-level so that it is suitable for input into a tape deck or a computer sound-card, and will flatten the RIAA equalization so that the record sounds "normal" again. If you have an integrated "stack system" or "entertainment center" into which you plug your speakers, you may already have a suitable phono input and line-level output to use.

However, it's possible to directly connect a standalone turntable to the line input of a high quality sound card, if you are prepared to perform the amplification and RIAA equalization yourself in Audacity. Effect > Equalization has a suitable RIAA preset. If you are recording discs pre-dating RIAA equalization such as 78 RPMs, these sound too dull if recorded via RIAA re-equalization/de-emphasis. A solution to this is to either directly connect the turntable to a sound card with a "high-gain" input, or to use a "flat" amplifier that applies no re-equalization, but instead just provides signal gain. The recorded waveform can then be post equalized in Audacity using an appropriate 78 RPM filter.

Special note on connecting a MiniDisc player

Some users find that the line-level output of MiniDisc players is too strong for recording on a computer and causes distortion, since its level is not adjustable. If you are encountering this problem, try connecting your cable to the player's headphone jack instead. Since the strengh of the headphone signal is easily adjustable, you can then reduce the signal level sent to the PC. On most players, this means using the same shared line out/headphones out socket/jack, but choosing the headphones out option in the player's "Sound Out" Preferences menu.

Special note on connecting a USB turntable

A USB turntable is a relatively new kind of turntable which is designed to connect directly to your computer's USB port. The concerns noted in the 'standalone turntable' section above do not apply here, as the necessary pre-amplification and RIAA equalisation are already built into the USB turntable. The settings needed in Audacity are slightly different from those used for standalone equipment, and are described on our USB turntables page. Once these settings are adjusted, the remaining instructions for recording, editing and exporting your recording remain the same as for all other equipment, and can be read by jumping down to Recording, editing and exporting, Step 6), below.


Workflow

    Setting up Audacity

  1. Go to the Audio I/O tab of Preferences (Devices tab in current Audacity Beta) and set both the playback and recording devices explicitly to your inbuilt sound device or other sound device your cable is plugged into. Do NOT select "Microsoft SoundMapper" on Windows machines.
  2. If you want to record in stereo, change the recording channels on the same Audio I/O tab to "2 (stereo)" (this is in the Recording tab in current Audacity Beta)
  3. Choose the line-in input source for the selected audio device:
    • Windows Vista or 7, choose the line-in option for the recording device you want to use (e.g. "Line-In: Realtek HD Device") in the "Recording Device" dropdown in the Audio I/O tab of Audacity Preferences (Devices tab in current Audacity Beta)
    • Windows XP or earlier or Linux, select line-in in Audacity's Mixer Toolbar input selector
    • OS X, the Mixer Toolbar will usually be greyed out on "default source". This is normal, but you must go to Apple Audio-Midi Setup (on OS X 10.2 or later) or System Preferences > Sound (pre – OS X 10.2), choose the sound device you are using and make line-in to be the source for the "Audio Input". Note: In Audacity Beta you may be able to choose line-in in the Mixer Toolbar without going into Audio MIDI Setup, if you have selected Built-In Audio in Audacity Preferences at Step 1. In case of difficulty, or if you have a USB or Firewire recording device, you must set the input in Apple Audio MIDI Setup.

    If you cannot choose your input source as described above, or if the line-in input won't record, see our further help for your particular operating system at Mixer Toolbar Issues.

  4. Decide if you want to "monitor" your recording, that is, hear it played back as you make it:
    • Windows or Linux: Try "hardware playthrough". To use this, open the system sound mixer e.g. Sound or Sounds and Audio Devices in the Control Panel of Windows Vista/7 or XP respectively, open the Playback section, then unmute line-in and turn the volume up.
    • OS X: Try "hardware playthrough" in the Audio I/O tab of Audacity Preferences (Recording tab in Audacity Beta).

    If hardware playthrough does not work, or if the playback and recording devices in Preferences are different, choose "software playthrough" in the Audio I/O tab of Audacity Preferences (Recording tab in Audacity Beta). If neither playthrough works on OS X, obtain the free LineIn software playthrough tool. from Rogue Amoeba. Note: software playthrough will have a slight delay, and causes some extra load on the computer.

  5. Set the volume level of your recording input. Click on the downward pointing arrow in the right hand (red) VU recording level meters: Meter Toolbar

    and click "Monitor Input" ("Start Monitoring" in Audacity Beta). While playing a loud part of your tape or record, adjust the input level slider on the Mixer Toolbar so the recording meters are almost reaching the right-hand end of the scale. Don't let the meter bars actually reach the right edge, or the red hold lights to right of the meter will come on, indicating you'll have distortion in the recording. If the recording level meters are not visible, go to the Interface tab of Audacity Preferences and check Enable Meter Toolbar (click View > Toolbars > Show Meter Toolbar in Audacity Beta). Try to aim for a maximum peak of around –6.0 dB (or 0.5 if you have your meters set to linear rather than dB). Tip: enlarging the Meter Toolbar by clicking and dragging helps with this task.

    Recording, editing and exporting

  6. Create a new Project by clicking File > Save Project As. Start your recording by pressing the red Record button, then starting the player. You can pause and restart the recording between tracks or sides with the blue Pause button, which keeps your recording on one track within Audacity. This is the easiest way to record into Audacity, because having just one track on screen allows you to split the recording up into the different songs or sections using "labels". See Step 8) below for more on this. If you do want to start new tracks or sides of the tape or LP on a new track in Audacity, then press the yellow Stop button to stop recording, get the LP or tape to where you want to go to, then press the red Record button in Audacity and start the player. The recording will now restart on a new track.
    For general purposes, use Audacity's default Project Rate of 44100 Hz (set bottom left of the Audacity window) for both recording and exporting. Optionally, recording from analogue sources like LP or tape at 48000 or 96000 Hz Project Rate may capture somewhat higher quality. However, burning audio CDs requires a 44100 Hz WAV/AIFF file, and 48000 Hz is the highest sample rate most media players on computers can cope with, so downsampling when you come to export from Audacity may still be necessary.
  7. When you have finished recording, press the yellow Stop button and save your recording into the Project you started (File > Save Project).
    If your recording is not centered on the 0.0 amplitude line than you have DC offset on your signal. This should be removed before doing any further editing by using the offset removal at Effect > Normalize. Put a check mark in "Remove any DC offset..." but leave "Normalize maximum amplitude..." unchecked.
  8. Now the data is safe, you can edit it in Audacity if you want to (e.g. cut redundant pieces out), or come back to it later by re-opening the saved Project file (File > Open). See here for explanations of basic editing processes: You may also want to remove noise. Steady noise such as tape hiss or vinyl roar can be removed using Noise Removal, clicks from records can be removed with Click Removal, and low-pitched rhythmic rumbling noise such as from vinyl or poor tape or tape heads can be removed with High Pass Filter (underneath the divider in the Effect menu).

    A final editing step is usually to amplify or normalize in order to bring the peaks of the entire recording up or down to a particular level (so retaining the differences in amplitude between each album track). Amplify is often used, but as an alternative, Normalize may be used to rebalance stereo recordings where one of the channels is too weak or strong. If the individual tracks of the LP or tape are in separate tracks in the Audacity window, then by selecting all of them and running Normalize, all the tracks can be brought to the same peak level, thereby removing volume differences between the album tracks.

    The default choice for Amplify (and Normalize in some previous versions of Audacity) is to amplify up to the maximum 0 dB. However as some players could have playback problems with audio at 0 dB, it is recommended to set a maximum of -1.0 dB to provide some extra headroom.
  9. When you are happy with your editing, you need to export the recording as an audio file such as .WAV or .MP3 that you can either play on your computer media player (e.g. on iTunes or Windows Media Player), or which you can burn to an audio or MP3 CD. See sections 9) and 10) below about the difference between audio and MP3 CDs. To export a single audio file, use the File > Export As.. command.

    If your recording contains multiple tracks or songs, you may want to export these as separate audio files. This would be necessary to burn a CD with separate tracks corresponding to each track in your recording. To export as separate audio files, mark the split points between the sections with CTRL + B (or COMMAND - B on a Mac). This places labels (in a new Label Track underneath the audio track) which both act as split points to divide your recording and can carry the name you want for the track. Then use the File > Export Multiple command to export your multiple audio files at one go, based on your chosen split points. Note: in current Audacity Beta the Metadata Editor for entering information like Artist Name and Album Title pops up for every track you export. It can save time to uncheck "Show Metadata Editor prior to export" in the Import / Export Preferences, then enter the tags common to each track at File > Open Metadata Editor before you export. See Splitting recordings into separate tracks for detailed help.

  10. The most common formats for exporting are WAV, AIFF and MP3. WAV and AIFF files are of identical "lossless" quality to the original recording, but take up 10 MB or more of disc space per minute. To burn an audio CD that will play on any standalone CD player (note these only give 74 - 80 minutes' playing time), export your recording as a 44100 Hz, 16 bit stereo WAV or AIFF file. For lossless archiving on hard disc, consider FLAC, which offers file sizes about half as great as WAV/AIFF.
  11. If you want your exported audio file to be smaller still (at the expense of some loss of quality), you can export as OGG or MP3. Choose MP3 if you want to distribute the file over the internet, as all users will be able to play this format. You can also burn the MP3s to a "data CD" or "MP3 CD" which will give you (at Audacity's default MP3 export settings) over 11 hours' playing time on the CD. Note you can only play these kind of CDs in computers, MP3 CD players (including some newer automotive players), or some DVD players. Generally, you will see an MP3 logo printed somewhere on the device if it is MP3-capable. Note that most players manufactured prior to 2005 will not be able to play MP3 CDs. To export as an .MP3, you first need to add the LAME encoder to your system and show Audacity where it is - see Lame Installation.
  12. If you are exporting your file to a media program which has its own "Library" such as Windows Media Player, iTunes or Real Player, you would generally drag your exported file into the program's Library, or use the media program's built-in commands to add the exported file to its Library. For more help on importing your audio file into iTunes (e.g. for burning to CD or for putting on an iPod), see Exporting your Audacity Project into iTunes and iPod .

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