Advice from the Archives: Caring for cassettes

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

Top tips to preserve your old cassettes by David Brookfield, Audio Digitisation Engineer at Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH)

Believe it or not, cassettes are back. And chances are, you might have a few cassettes from a few years ago – if you’re anything like me and keep everything you ever recorded.

The truth is though, tape doesn’t last forever, so if you have a recording of your mum playing piano when she was a lot younger, you might want to think about making a copy and keeping it somewhere safe.

If you feel like making digital copies, there are various things you can do to make them sound as good as possible.

Get a good cassette deck

There are cassette players that plug directly in to USB, which is very handy, but if you have access to a good deck, that is better! If you have a collection of older cassettes, it might be worth seeing what you can pick up.

Prices vary wildly and a lot of the older machines are more expensive than you might realise, but utter bargains can still be had if you hunt around. Ebay is your friend.

Clean the heads

This is super important if you want to get the best quality. Use a cotton bud and some isopropyl alcohol to wipe across the play head a few times to remove oxide left by previous cassettes. Don’t be tempted to use hand rub or water. Even if you want to listen without digitising, keeping the heads and mechanism free of oxide is always the best way to make sure everything sounds good.

Adjust the Azimuth

Because of the way tapes are designed, the head of the playback machine you are using may have a slightly different angle to the one the tape was recorded on.

Get yourself a small cross head screwdriver and find the little hole at the bottom of the door of the cassette deck. Behind it is a little screw which holds the head in place. It is designed to be altered, but be careful and try to keep adjustments to a minimum.

Play the tape and gently turn the screw a small amount at the same time, you will hear the high frequencies appear and disappear. Find the place where the recording sounds brightest. Then you’re all set.

Making a digital copy

Like cassette decks, sound cards give you what you pay. Here at UOSH, we digitise tapes at 96000Khz at 24 bit depth because we want the recordings to sound as good as possible, but CD quality (41000 at 16bit) will do. Use a program like Audacity; it’s free and very easy to set up and use.

Make test recordings with a less prized tape before you have a go at the important ones. Save the recording as a WAV. Keep the original digitisation and then make mp3 copies from that to remove hiss and add EQ if you want.

Finally, keep the digitisation safely on the cloud if you can. Happy recording!

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Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is a national project led by the British Library and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Find out more about the project.

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