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How to turn a cassette tape into MP3s

It's time to dust off that cassette deck and turn those precious cassette tapes into MP3s. Here's how.

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As far as I'm concerned, we have a global musical crisis on our hands.

The cassette tape was the dominant music format through most of my childhood. The first read-along books I had as a kid were on cassette tape. The first time I ever bought music with my own money, it was on a cassette tape (which, by the way, I'm proud to say was Run DMC's "Raising Hell"). The first time my band ever released a demo, it was a demo tape.

For independent musicians of the '80s and '90s, cassette tapes offered the first affordable medium for both recording and distributing music. I still have a case full of tapes made by the garage bands I loved as a teenager. I'm afraid to throw them away because I'm certain there's no way I can find them again.

Because some of these tapes are from bands I actually played in, a combination of ego and sentimentality compels me to rescue them from analog obscurity.

Unfortunately, the process for converting a cassette tape to MP3 is painful enough to have kept this project at bay for years. Much like digitizing LPs, doing the process right involves several careful steps and a surplus of time.

Now, we had an old tutorial on this floating around CNET for years that involved some discontinued, PC-only software and a tedious method of stopping and encoding between each song. It was a process that could break your spirit and eat up an entire weekend.

My version goes a different route. We'll record an entire side in one pass using Audacity, a free, open-source application available on Mac, PC, and even Linux. From there, we'll divide and batch export tracks with just one command. Then, we'll whip out iTunes (or your preferred librarian/encoder) to back up files to CDR, convert to MP3, and bulk-edit ID3 file info.

Sound like fun? It's not. But it's thorough, it's free, and it's faster than most methods I've seen.

It's also not dependent on anyone's for-profit software solution. I'm not against paying for useful software, but this niche market is littered with so many dead-end, unsupported solutions that I just have to steer clear of them for the sake of keeping this tutorial relevant in the long-term.

So, if you're ready to tackle this project, brush up on my overview video and then dive into the nitty-gritty with my step-by-step gallery.