Time to cut the tape

Q: Where can I find a good-quality piece of equipment to transfer my collection of self-recorded great music cassettes to DVD?

I have checked a number of products online that get poor reviews.

Thank you for your help.

— Randall

A: For audiophile-quality results, I'm afraid you're out of luck. But for quite-good-enough results, I've always had good luck when reviewing Ion Audio products that convert cassette tapes or LPs and 45s to digital. Some people haven't, however.

But don't despair; you have options:

1. Pay a service to do it for you.

2. Buy one of those cassette-to-digital converters, knowing that you can eventually find help for any problems you run into.

3. Use your own cassette player and buy an audio interface, which converts your player's audio into digits your computer can understand.

4. Connect your cassette player's headphone output to your computer's microphone input.

Using a service

Search online for "cassette to digital service" to find a shop that you can mail your cassettes to and about a month later receive your tapes and CDs of your music. Expect to pay $10 to $15 per tape (not a good idea if your both sides of your tape or not full). Some services will do a little extra to improve the sound of your tapes for about $25 per 75 minutes of material on your tapes (so if you have five full 60-minute tapes, expect to pay about $100).

Buying a converter

These are cassette players with USB ports so you can play your tapes into your Mac or PC. They run from about $30 for a Walkman-style portable to $100 for dual-cassette dubbers that also connect to your computer. The include software to help record your audio to your hard drive, and the software has a feature that can reduce (not eliminate) cassette tape hiss.

Unfortunately, these aren't press-a-button-and-go devices. The trick is setting your computer to "hear" your tapes and then to pass along that music to the recording software that comes with these converters. They all come with instructions, but some novices can get tripped up or feel overwhelm. If you get stumped, post your questions at avforums.com. It's a community of tech geeks who look discussing and trying to solve problems. Make sure to say whether you're using a Mac or PC and what version of Windows you have, if applicable. Be as specific as possible about your problem and be patient — and say thanks, whether the replies you get help you or not.

Buying an audio interface

If you have a working cassette player, you can save a few bucks by buying an audio interface. The kind we're talking about accepts RCA inputs on one side and on the other has a USB plug that goes into your computer. You can use the free recording software Audacity, which can mystify novices, but it's the same software that comes with many cassette-to-digital converters you'd buy in the store.

You'll also need a stereo mini-to-RCA cable available for around $5 at any electronics store (make sure you ask for a stereo cable, as opposed to mono). Use this cable to connect your player to the cassette player to the audio interface, then plug the audio interface into your computer, and you're nearly ready to record. You're now at the spot mentioned above — the trick is setting your computer to 'hear' your tapes — so everything applies to you too, including visiting avforums.com if you run into trouble.

For those trying to convert an LP to digital, make sure the audio interface you buy has a preamp, because the sound signal from a turntable is much lower than that from a cassette player.

No digital middleman

Also if you have a cassette player, you can buy an under-$5 stereo mini-to-mini cable and connect the headphone output of your cassette player to the microphone input of your computer. The results might be as good as using an audio interface, but you still have to deal with setting up your computer and finding software to use.

And there you have it

To audiophiles, these options sound dire. They cringe at the thought of sending music through cheap audio-to-digital converter chips, only to be compressed into a computer file. But if you're on a budget and want to convert your cassettes to CDs now, this is how most people do it. Unfortunately, the market for at-home cassette-to-digital conversions is not profitable enough to bring about a better solution.

Have a question about your computer, cellphone, camera or any gadget? Let us know! E-mail Eric Gwinn at egwinn@tribune.com, and you could be featured in an upcoming Gadget Q&A column.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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