Help me digitise and transcribe a cassette tape archive.
November 29, 2020 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I have access to a large archive of local history on cassette tape that needs to be digitised and transcribed. There are people willing to help but I would like your advice on the best hardware and software to use to 1) digitise the (fragile) cassettes and 2) auto transcribe the audio before cleaning up with human transcription.

Some of the cassettes are almost 40 years old and in delicate condition. Ease of use (including and / or after initial set up) is a major factor. Absolutely willing to pay for a good solution.
posted by roolya_boolya to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A cassette player with an out that can run into a Zoom recorder...then uploaded to a computer and edited in Audacity is our set up for similar projects. Recently digitized 30 some year old tapes.
posted by tiny frying pan at 11:54 AM on November 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

The simplest solution would be one of these cassette digitizers - this one for instance costs under $30 and records directly to a USB drive.

Otherwise, any good quality tape playback device (check on Craigslist or ebay for old hi-fis in good condition, there are tons) with a 3.5mm headphone jack should work - you ought to be able to plug this directly into a "line-in" jack that sound cards and some motherboards have. . Alternatively you can use a portable recorder like a Zoom as tiny frying pan suggests. The easiest option there is probably one of these passthrough recorders - it would put the signal directly into digital audio on a SD card or USB thumbdrive.

Audacity is definitely the standard for basic sound file manipulation - you can trim, normalize, EQ and so on. It may require a plugin to deal with MP3s but it's free and there are instructions included.

For transcription, there are a few free transcribers but I've used professionally and it seems to work well. Microsoft also has this built into Word, it seems (though I haven't tried it).

I don't know that there is any way to be sure that the tapes won't break, but if they do, a bit of clear scotch tape will do the trick as it did in the '80s and '90s.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:21 PM on November 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have seen someone upload a movie to YouTube in order To take advantage of the auto-CC feature -- because you can download a text file of the closed captions, saving some typing.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:39 PM on November 29, 2020

Best answer: The easiest option for the first part is to find a facilities house that does archive tape transfers, since they'll have the right equipment to do a good job and will know how to do it efficiently in bulk (e.g. greatbear in the UK).

If you're doing it yourself (as I've done for a few hundred of my family's tapes by now), and you need to deal with tapes in unknown condition, then you want a tape deck that will be gentle with the tape and easy to clean and align. I'd be looking for a reasonably good-quality 1990s hifi deck (Aiwa/Sony/Technics/Tascam...), 3 head, logic-controlled, not autoreverse. I wouldn't put a lot of faith in "USB cassette player" devices, since they tend to use walkman/car-audio style mechanisms that don't perform particularly well at the best of times and will be a pain to sort out if a tape snaps or sheds oxide. Bear in mind that 20+ year old decks will usually need new drive belts by now (you can replace these yourself - they're available cheaply on ebay or from electronics suppliers).

Wind each tape from end to end at least once before playing it so the tape's evenly packed on the spools. It's worth having a few sacrificial known-good tapes around - if you find a tape where the shell has warped so it's too stiff to play, or the foam pressure pad has disintegrated so it's fluttering away from the head, you can open up the old tape shell and carefully move the reels into a good shell. Some old tapes will shed oxide dust, so make sure you clean the heads and tape path with cotton buds and alcohol from time to time.
posted by offog at 1:07 PM on November 29, 2020 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I endorse offog's answer in its entirety. I would add that another reason to eschew the cheap USB devices is that they typically only digitize to mp3, which is a lossy format. Get a USB (not FireWire) audio interface instead, capture at 48 kHz minimum (and 96 kHz is better) and save to something lossless like WAV or AIFF. Then you can transcode the lossless file to mp3 for listening.
posted by humbug at 2:57 PM on November 29, 2020

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