Fixing a water-logged cassette tape
December 26, 2006 9:45 AM   Subscribe

I have an audio cassette tape which has been waterlogged and soaked in dirt for over 10 years. What are my options for respooling/fixing the tape with its contents intact?

The cassette was buried in a badly contained time-capsule in my garden. We jut dug it up and found the whole thing soaked in filth. You can see pictures of the unveiling here.

Any tips on tape restoration very welcome...
posted by 0bvious to Technology (12 answers total)
Check this out.
posted by mds35 at 10:09 AM on December 26, 2006

magnetic media is notoriously fragile, ten years of waterlogging is probably death to the tape- and i personally wouldn't recommend baking a tape unless you have someone else who has (a lot of) experience helping you out.

really, unless the tape's an original family recording- try and find a copy on ebay!
posted by ethel at 10:32 AM on December 26, 2006

Response by poster: The tape is a recording me and my sister made when we were about 7 and 9 years old.

Prospects not looking good for saving it....

I live in the UK. Anyone know any services on UK soil? Google brings up a lot of audio restoration, but not necessarily for water/dirt damage.
posted by 0bvious at 11:11 AM on December 26, 2006

Well, this is just off the top of my head, but I would take the tape apart and use plenty of dampened cotton to wipe the dirt off, being careful not to scratch the tape. It will take a lot of time and patience.

Be aware you would have to clean the whole tape, even if only a small part of it is recorded on, since any dirt can mess up your player.

You should then be able to put the tape back into its shell, or use a different shell.

I would not automatically call it a lost cause. I would sure give it a shot. Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 11:32 AM on December 26, 2006

That cassette looks like it's in a pretty bad shape.

I've baked tapes, and to be honest it's hard to do any damage, especially if you keep a good eye on the thermostat. You do need an oven that can consistently keep a low temperature, say 50 deg Celsius, for hours and hours on end. This should be thoroughly tested beforehand.

However, common tape baking procedures apply to reel-to-reel tape, not cassettes. I don't know if it can even be done, or whether the plastic casing will be damaged by the procedure.

I think your first goal should be determining what problems *exactly* there are with the tape, and to what extent:

  • Is there water lodged in the casing?
  • Has the tape been deformed by water?
  • Has the binder become unstuck from the tape surface?

    If you think it's worth it, it's probably a good idea getting an expert involved for this diagnosis. Aside from the baking method, if the binder is a problem it's also possible (again, with reel-to-reel tapes) to wipe the *entire* surface of the tape with very pure alcohol. Barring any trouble with dirt, deformation etc. this should render the tape playable, if at least just once (if that works, jump on the opportunity and make a quality transfer to computer while you can).

    I would suggest posting your question to the Sound on Sound forums; the Music Recording Technology section is widely read and good for most general topics, although a picky admin might move yours to "Vintage Gear" or whatever. In any case, SoS is a UK-based mag and its readerbase is generally very familiar both with all matters audio-related and commercial services based in Britain.

    Making a time capsule is fantastic btw, I should have done that when I was a kid. Good luck.

  • posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:35 AM on December 26, 2006

    Come to think of it, you could start by carefully taking the tape out of its casing as The Deej suggested, using a clean piece of cloth, and leave it to dry (spooled and all, don't unroll it just yet) at room temperature in a dry place, placed on again some cloth. I would leave it there for a day and then check on it, but it might be advisable to leave it alone for a few days, only replacing the cloth every so often.

    It should be easy to place it in a new case later, barring any serious deformation of the spool hubs, which I don't expect. You shouldn't run the risk of doing any harm this way, and it would be a first step towards determining the shape of the tape and getting it restorated (hopefully).

    Please do keep us updated.
    posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:41 AM on December 26, 2006

    Also, seeing how densely packed tape tends to be when spooled, I wouldn't wipe the *entire* tape just yet as The Deej suggested, if only to prevent any further damage. Was the tape spooled to one end when the time capsule was buried? To the end or start of the tape, and were recordings made on both tape sides? (This is relevant for technical reasons, but not really a high priority issue for now.)

    If it was spooled to the head (start) or tail (end), you might get away with just cleaning the (clear plastic) leader, or even cutting it out entirely and reattaching the tape to a spool (probably not to be done by an amateur though). I doubt there's any real dirt over the entire length of the tape, is there? Just water, right? This would be handy to know. If it's just water, just letting it dry for a while will get you someway towards playability.
    posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:46 AM on December 26, 2006

    goodnewsfortheinsane has a good point. If the tape is tightly wound, there may not be dirt between those parts. But there could be some on the edges, so I would at least wipe the edges.
    posted by The Deej at 12:05 PM on December 26, 2006

    The tape is going to have to come out and go into a new housing, at a minimum. Surely the pads and hubs are destroyed.

    Honestly, you may get something, but it won't be worth the trouble. Depending on the formulation of the tape, it's either destroyed or badly, badly damaged.
    posted by spitbull at 1:49 PM on December 26, 2006

    I have saved cassettes in worse shape......

    The main thing to remember is to be careful, patient, and patiently careful.....

    1) Get the actual tape out of the housing.... you can use another housing, find a cassette that is held together by screws, rather than glue.....

    2) To clean the tape, place the two reels, still connected, carefully in a shallow pan. Purchase a cassette cleaner kit that contains a bottle of cleaner. Pour bottle into pan. Take a pencil (a six-sided brand-new/unsharpened pencil) and ever-so-slightly unwind the spools just so that they are slighty loose, no more than ten rotations....

    3) Leave the pan to sit at room temperature, shaking very slightly once or twice a day until the cleaner has evaporated.... this will take a few weeks..... if you can see any debris or dirt on the tape itself, use a cotton swab to clean the tape while you hold the tape to the bottom of the pan using the eraser of the above pencil......

    4) Cook the tape.... Place the pan, covered ON TOP of your stove and let your stove heat up to 250 degrees for 30 minutes. Turn stove off for 30 minutes, leaving pan on top. Repeat three times.

    5) Place pan in fridge over night (this ensures the tape is cool and not fragile).

    6) Carefully rewind spools with pencil on the bottom of the pan.

    7) Place spools in new housing. I start by putting the larger spool in, and securing with some thin strips of scotch tape...... and then I put the smaller spool in, leaving some slack to feed the tape over the "head" and around the rollers........ Tweezers help..... use the pencil to spool the tape up taut...... use the pad and rollers from the new cassette (obviously)

    8) If the tape is broken, or if it breaks, I have successfully used a light coat of clear fingernail polish to glue the halves back together again.......

    9) Once you get the cassette screwed back together again (making sure to have installed the "slick" inserts on the inside of the shells, between the shells and the tape) rewind the tape all the way, and then fast forward all of the way..... repeat at least twice.... this allows the spools to tighten up fully......

    posted by peewinkle at 3:15 PM on December 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

    I say mail it to peewinkle along with a $100 bill and wait for the mp3s to come back in your email.
    posted by hutta at 4:03 PM on December 26, 2006

    Response by poster: wow, some great advice. i don't think i am up for the fiddling. looking into pay options (preferably in the UK)

    great stuff though guys, thanks a lot!
    posted by 0bvious at 5:28 PM on December 26, 2006

    « Older "Say cheese on three! One, two--oh, shoot, the...   |   Do I give my grandchild a car? Newer »
    This thread is closed to new comments.