Cassette to CD Service
June 27, 2005 6:33 AM   Subscribe

I possess a number of rare demo tapes (audio cassettes) from the 1980s Halifax music scene that I would like professionally restored and transferred to audio CD. Can anyone recommend a service that can do the work?

(One of the cassette needs to be repaired.)
posted by tranquileye to Media & Arts (6 answers total)
What's your budget? And how valuable are these recordings beyond their sentimental value to you?

Also, what condition are the recordings in, beyond the damage (I assume to the mechanism) to one tape? If the recordings are still audible and clean, you might be able to do this yourself fairly simply, and own the gear to do it for not much more than you might pay someone (especially if its a lot of tape).

Minimally, you need a professional studio quality cassette deck (ca. $700-1000, TASCAM and Denon make nice rack mount models), a high quality computer audio interface (anywhere from $200 to $1000, with a sweet spot around $500-800 for devices like the Edirol FR2 or MOTU 828MkII firewire A/D converters), a decently fast computer with some hard drive space (and obviously firewire), and some audio restoration software. If you're on a Mac, Soundsoap from Bias-Inc. is relatively easy to use and available in consumer (ca. $100) and pro (ca. $500) versions -- it works as a VST plug-in. It can fix a lot of problems endemic to aging cassettes. Plus you need, obviously, the digitizing/editing/mastering software, where there are dozens of choices for all platforms ranging from free (audacity) to ProTools, Logic, and Peak on the Mac side (I don't keep up with the PC audio side anymore).

Teach a man to fish . . . and he may eat for the rest of his life or curse you as he freezes his ass off on a dock.

Repairing the cassette mechanism itself is actually trickier work. You can buy new housings from suppliers like -- including archival grade housings. I hope your originals are on decent tape, with screwed-together housings. In essence, you remove the screws, carefully extract the reels, and simply mount them in a new housing, threading the tape properly, manually take up the slack, and you're done. In practice, it's like microsurgery. Practice on tapes you don't care about first.

Don't trust just anyone to do this. A lot of people run little businesses transferring LPs and tapes to digital, but most are not trained to handle valuable archivally important materials, and most do not use high end *analog* equipment at the start of the chain. If you can beg, borrow, or rent a very good cassette deck, everything you do after that will be improved immeasurably. Monitor the entire transfer process closely, watching the tape for flaws and any hitches or slack. If you can, run an analog or DAT dub at the same time so if you need to go back to try it again, you might be able to work from a less fragile, though now 2d generation, master.

My archive's audio lab can do contract projects like this if they are of some scholarly value and you intend to deposit them in a non-profit, scholarly archive somewhere. We charge only for labor (trained grad students, or me personally) and supplies (like tape housings, which have to bought in bulk), though we have only done a few jobs for non-institutional clients. If you don't plan to archive it somewhere public and non-profit, we can do it, but not likely cheaper than you can do it locally. Just use due diligence choosing a service, because you can easily screw this up and ruin the masters, or achieve low quality results that aren't worth the risk to the tapes -- you may only get one or two shots before playing the tapes after a long period of storage starts to really degrade them. Ask to see the studio where the transfer will be done, make them show you their analog cassette unit(s), and check the unit to be used out on the web to make sure it really is a pro-grade deck.

All depending, of course, on how valuable these really are to you. No lab will guarantee their safety or the quality of the results of the transfer because shit happens to old tapes. Avoid a lowball operation at all costs.

If you are interested in discussing whether my lab could handle the stuff, or the subject of where you might deposit them in a public archive (and if they are of value in that context) holler back in the thread and I will email you privately. For what it's worth, we restored and transferred Dexter Gordon's personal collection of cassettes from his days on the road with the Ellington band last year. If you truly care, look for a shop with similar experience.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:56 AM on June 27, 2005

Addendum: I didn't consider the possibility that the damaged tape might actually be broken and require splicing. That's a lot harder with cassette tape than reel-to-reel because the tape is so much narrower and, usually, thinner and imprinted across more of the surface and because the splice will be subject to greater forces in transport even on the best quality cassette deck.

You might see if there is a university music archive (I can put you in touch with someone at Univ of Toronto, though I don't think they have an archive as such, but there may be something more local with a specific interest in this material) you could take this material to. You might get the job done on their dime in exchange for depositing copies with them, or be able to hire one of their grad students or archivists privately to do the job. I farm small jobs like this (I'm guessing it's small, but maybe you have 150 demo tapes?) out to my grad student archive employees when they come my way (which is frequently). I imagine other archivists might do the same. Just be sure you trust the person you hand the tapes to.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:07 AM on June 27, 2005

And another thought: I assume these are regular two-sided stereo cassettes. But since you mention they are "demos," I should ask if (any of them) are, perchance, 4-track cassette masters of the demos made on the very popular Tascam portastudios of that era. If so, splicing is almost hopeless (at least to fix the song where the splice is done) and playback equipment much more specialized (basically someone needs to have a compatible portastudio unit that has been meticulously maintained). And of course the tracks have to be remixed. The tape also degrades a lot faster, because those units fit so much information on such tiny pieces of coated mylar real estate. (Plus some of those units had selectable speeds as I recall!).

Sorry to get so geeky about it all. My obsession.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:19 AM on June 27, 2005

realcountrymusic, drop me a line.
posted by tranquileye at 8:06 AM on June 27, 2005

That was an awesome response, realcountrymusic. It's things like that that make AskMe worthwhile.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2005

Muchas gracias Faint
posted by realcountrymusic at 10:04 AM on June 27, 2005

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