Even though services like Spotify are awesome, you may still have your vast library of music around because it would be insane to delete it all—just as it would be mad to get rid of your old CDs, cassettes, vinyl, and even MiniDiscs.
But isn’t it time you decluttered?
One way to reduce the physical space taken up by music media is to digitize everything, converting them into a digital format such as MP3 or FLAC. If you have old tapes, MiniDiscs, or CDs you want to put into storage (or the trash) but want to keep their contents, here is what you need to do.
The One Tool You Need to Get Started
Whatever format you’re converting, and whatever platform you’re doing it on, you’ll need audio editing software of some kind at some stage of the process. This might be to adjust the equalization of a ripped CD, or to record the contents of a cassette tape.
Many audio editors are available, but only one offers all the features you need for free while being simple to learn and use: Audacity.
This open-source tool is perfect for recovering audio from older, physical formats. Available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, Audacity can be used to record audio channels coming into your computer, as well as cut and crop, remove background noise, and generally tidy up.
Before proceeding, make sure you have Audacity installed. All the screenshots in this article feature Audacity as our tool of choice. If you already own another audio editor or digital audio workstation that you know can do the job for you—such as Adobe Audition—by all means use that instead.
Download: Audacity (Free)
How to Convert CDs to MP3
If you’re only interested in ripping audio from a CD, then all you’ll probably need is your computer’s optical drive.
For most adults, this information might be nothing new. However, if you’re a bit younger and newly interested in ripping your parents CDs (or some you picked up cheaply at a sale), you’ll be pleased to know that this is the easiest option. Assuming your laptop has a CD or DVD drive, that is.
Most operating systems feature audio ripping from CDs by default. If they don’t, you can use various popular tools to do the job for you. For instance, iTunes will rip audio from CDs and add it to your collection.
By default, this is in AAC format, but you can switch this in Edit > Preferences > Advanced > Importing. Find the Import using drop-down menu and select MP3 encoder, either at 160Kbps or 192Kbps.
While it is possible to connect a CD player to your PC and record the data with Audacity (per the other examples in this article), it’s simpler to just let your computer pull the data directly from the disc.
How to Convert Cassette Tapes to MP3
More popular even than vinyl, magnetic tape had its heyday in the 1980s, used for albums, singles, and even video games for some 8-bit platforms. You’ve heard of the Walkman, right? That was for cassettes.
The magnetic tape in cassettes doesn’t last forever, and is at particular risk from strong electromagnetic sources. As such, it’s a good idea to back up any recordings you have.
Cassette was a popular format not just for buying, but for home recording, too. Often, vinyl LPs would be copied to cassette; some hi-fi systems (“high fidelity”) would let you copy from cassette to another.
Being light and easy to use, cassettes were often used by bootleggers to record live concerts (in the days before smartphones). You may even have used cassettes to record your own music, performed by an old band.
Either way, copying the contents of your old cassettes to MP3 is relatively easy. It just depends on the tools.
Record Audio Using a USB Audio Capture Card
The most obvious option is a USB audio capture card such as the Somaer Audio Grabber-cassette, which comes with the necessary cables for connecting your cassette player to your PC.
However, this isn’t your only option. You can also use a dedicated USB cassette player such as the Wikoo Portable Cassette Player, which are designed specifically for transferring audio from tape to a PC.
The process here is simple. Connect the device to your computer, and wait for it to be detected. This will ensure that it is available as a microphone or input in your DAW. It’s particularly important for Audacity, as newly-connected items cannot be detected without exiting the program.
Once you’re ready, insert a cassette and cue it to the position where you want to start recording. Hit Record on Audacity, then Play on the cassette player. Note that you’re recording in real time, so the length of the cassette (printed on the media) will give an indication of the maximum length of the recording. Be sure to be around halfway through that time to pause the recording and turn the tape over!
After recording is complete, you can save the project as normal, or export it (File > Save Other) in your preferred format. Note that if you’re using Audacity for the first time, you’ll need to install the Lame MP3 encoder. The software will help you do this when you try to Export as MP3 format on the first occasion. Once installed, you’ll be able to create valid MP3 files.
How to Convert MiniDiscs to MP3
Although CDs are still around, MiniDiscs came along later. Despite their compact size, capacity, and portability, however, they just couldn’t disrupt the iron grip of CDs in the audio format wars. I still love MiniDiscs and find it very difficult to consider parting with them. However, in the interests of archiving my music collection, I have recently backed them up.
You have three options:
- Phono cable from MiniDisc to PC microphone in.
- Phono cable from MiniDisc to USB port.
- Optical cable from MiniDisc to sound card (where supported).
Sadly as yet, no one has produced a MiniDisc player with USB support. As a result, you’re limited to old-style audio cables.
Follow the steps for connecting a cassette player in order to record your MiniDisc contents: press Record in the DAW, press Play on the player, and keep an eye on the time so you’re around when it finishes.
Once you’ve copied all of your MiniDiscs to your HDD, here are a few things to do with your MiniDisc collection.
What About Vinyl Records?
Finally, let’s talk briefly about vinyl. You probably know that vinyl is making a comeback, so perhaps the urge to back up your vinyl is waning slightly. On the other hand, knowing the audio quality is far superior, and that the tangible benefits of engaging with the music and artwork are unparalleled, you might still be keen to keep your vinyl collection free of scratches and fingerprints.
In this case, our guide to recording vinyl with Audacity will come in extremely useful.
MP3 vs. FLAC: Which Format Is Right for You?
MP3 has been around since 1993, and has been a popular format since the late 1990s. However, it isn’t the only audio file format you can save your digitized analog recordings in. WAV, AIFF, Ogg Vorbis, and FLAC are also available, with the latter proving increasingly popular in recent years. This is largely due to it offering lossless audio, where the quality is exactly the same as the original recording.
If quality is what you’re looking for, exporting your recordings into this format is simple. In Audacity, use File > Save Other > Export Audio and in the Save as type box, select FLAC files.
Digitizing Old Audio Media Is Simple!
Those old cassettes, CDs and MiniDiscs don’t have to be forgotten. The old albums (perhaps in different versions or mixes than their modern MP3 variants) don’t have to be ignored, pushed into a box, and left in storage. Once you know how to convert them to MP3 they can still be enjoyed.
Whether you’re looking to digitize cassette tapes, vinyl, MiniDiscs, or audio CDs, there is a straightforward option you can use, and you can save them in your preferred audio format.
Are you already familiar with Audacity, but haven’t used it for a while? Then check out the latest Audacity features for improved audio editing and production.