Digitizing audio media — cassette tapes, record albums, reel-to-reel tapes, and so on — is a relatively straightforward task that often doesn't require much in specialized hardware.
Audio CDs: although all of the techniques on this page would work for digitizing audio CDs, there are better, faster methods of digitizing them, discussed on the Audio CD page.
Equipment for Digitizing Audio
- a computer with audio digitizing software (such as Audacity, free, though many other options exist)
- a player for the media that you want to digitize — that is, a cassette player, record player, reel-to-reel player, or whatever
- a way to connect the two.
Headphone Out to Microphone In
If your media player has a headphone jack and your computer has a microphone in jack, the cheapest and easiest way to make the connection is with a cable between the two. For instance, an inexpensive 1/4" male to 1/8" male cable will work if the player has a 1/4" headphone jack. Or a 1/8" male to 1/8" male cable will work if it has a 1/8" headphone jack.
If your media player doesn't have a headphone jack, perhaps you have access to an amplifier that does. When it was part of a home stereo system, that media player was probably connected to an amplifier. Most amplifiers do have headphone jacks.
Line Out to Line In
Chances are your computer doesn't have a line in jack — few machines seem to have them anymore. If yours does, and your media player has line out jacks, you can connect them. For instance, if your player uses left and right RCA jacks for line out, a dual-male RCA to male 1/4" cable will probably do the trick.
Note that you can't mix and match headphone-level and line-level connections (e.g. connecting your player's line out to your computer's microphone in.) The impedance levels won't match and it will sound terrible.
Also note that many older phonographs don't have line out — their audio output signal is lower than line level. So you can either connect them to an amplifier with a phono input, the connect the amp to your computer via its line out; or use a phono pre-amp — a gadget that amplifies the photograph's output to line level.
Not all computers have microphone or line in jacks. In that case, you have to get the sound in via USB.
A number of media players manufactured recently are built specifically with digitization in mind, that include a USB cable to connect to your computer. These give you a digital connection without messing with headphone/audio ports. A number of record players and cassette players with USB connections are available. (For more obscure media, this won't be an option. We haven't seen USB-connected reel-to-reel players— and don't expect to.) If you don't already have a media player, this may be the way to go. We've found several choices in very inexpensive (under $20) cassette tape players with USB output. However, a new turntable with USB output will almost certainly cost more than an old one with conventional audio output from a thrift store.
Alternatively, you can add a USB connection to virtually any audio player with an inexpensive audio to USB adapter. These gadgets have an input port for line-level audio from your player, and a USB jack to connect to your computer.
What if you're digitizing sound from a 1970's Fisher Price toy record player or Thomas Edison phonograph? That is, what if your source audio player doesn't offer an audio output jack of any sort? In that case, your best bet is to use a quality USB microphone to record the media player from its speaker.
Audio Digitizer Software
Audacity is popular, free audio digitizing software that works with Mac, Windows, and Linux, but it's not the always most intuitive. A variety of other digitizing software, free and commercial, exists for every major operating system. Some offer specialized features for digitizing records and tapes, such as pop/click reduction and automatically breaking audio tracks into separate files.
Once everything is hooked up, you're ready to start digitizing. The process can seem kind of old-fashioned: you start recording on the computer, you press play on the media player, and wait while the computer digitizes the audio in real time. That is, an LP can take 45 minutes; and a cassette tape 90 minutes — with stops in the middle to flip to the B side.
Digitize your data at a high sample rate — 44,100 hz is great — and save the data in a lossless format like FLAC, or as an MP3 file with a high bit rate (320 kbps is great.) The files will end up being large, but disk space is cheap. You can always export lower bit-rate versions if you need them, but keep the higher bit rate versions on file in case you need them in the future.