CONVERTING OTR TO DIGITAL
by Fred Berney © 2007
(From Radio Recall, April 2007)
How do you listen to old time radio? Many of us started in this hobby when there was just one format: reel to reel tape. Then the audio cassette came into being and even 8 track tapes for the car. If your collection was on reel to reel tape and you wanted to convert a program to a cassette, all you needed to do was plug the output of your reel to reel recorder into a cassette recorder and make a copy.
Today, there are a lot more choices. There are audio CD players, MP3 players, and of course playing audio on your computer. So, if your collection is on reel to reel tape or audio cassette, how do you convert it to one of the digital formats mentioned above? Well boys and girls, don't touch that dial, because this article will attempt to teach anyone how to do this.
To start with you'll need a computer. Note: if you don’t own a computer, or would rather eat dirt than attempting to learn to operate one, there is another solution. A company called Tascam makes a recorder that has an audio cassette recorder and an audio CD recorder built into one case. But it's not cheap; you'll pay somewhere around $500 for the unit, but it does the job and it is very simple to operate.
You put an audio cassette in on one side and a blank audio CD in on the other and then press a button which is marked DUB. The cassette then starts playing and the CD starts recording and when the cassettes ends you have a CD that you can play in any standard CD player. The unit will even playback the second side of the cassette automatically. The only drawback, other than the steep price, is that if you have blank tape between the end of the last program on side one and the end of the tape, the audio CD will record this silence until the tape reaches the end of side one and switches to side two. But, if you can live with that and don't want to use a computer then I would suggest that you buy this recorder. It is model number CC-222MKII.
The rest of this article will explain in simple detail how to use a computer to convert your tape collection to any kind of digital format. Let's start with either an audio cassette or a reel to reel tape. The process is the same regardless of the format. You will need the following:
1. A cable with a mini stereo male plug on one end and two RCA plugs on the other end.
2. A tape deck, either reel to reel or cassette
3. A computer with a sound card, or an external sound card that will plug into a computer.
How do you know if you have a sound card in your computer? Well, if you hear music when you boot up your computer, this is a good indication that you do. Look at the back of your computer. You should see a set of three or four mini jacks that are probably color-coded. If your computer has speakers attached, follow the cable that goes from your speakers to where it plugs into your computer. In addition to the jack where the speaker is plugged in, you should see several other jacks of different colors.
At this point it would be a good idea to check the documents that came with your computer and find a diagram of the back of the computer that identifies which jack is which. Almost all sound cards will have a microphone input, but what you are looking for is either a "line in" or "auxiliary in". On some cards these jacks will be identified with the actual words. Other use symbols and/or colors. Some cards use the same jack for both the microphone and the line or auxiliary in. This is where the instruction manual can be helpful.
Plug the cable that has the mini plug on one end into the line or aux in of your sound card. Plug the other end of the cable which has the two RCA plug into the "line out" of your tape deck. I'm assuming that your deck has RCA jacks. Almost all decks that were meant to plug into home stereo systems have RCA jacks. The small portable cassette recorders will have mini jacks and for those you will need to buy a cable that has a mini plug on either end.
Now that you've got the equipment attached, you will need some kind of software program that will record audio in your computer. An excellent program is Adobe's Audition. This was originally Cool Edit but when Adobe bought it a few years ago and renamed it Audition. It usually retails for $350, but I'm sure you can find it for less if you shop around. Adobe has a free trial version at their web site www.adobe.com.
For a short period of time, Adobe is giving away a free version of a program called Soundbooth. Go to http://labs.adobe.com/downloads and look for the beta version. It is a light version of Audition. It doesn't come with mp3 conversion, but there are other programs out there that can convert WAV files to Mp3 for either no, or very little, cost. There’s a
free program that converts files to different formats. It is called Wavpad and you can get it at www.nch.com.au/wavepad.
Now let's get started transferring your tape into the computer. Open or start your sound recording program. Most programs will not have a volume control as part of the program but depend upon the Windows controls that come with your sound card's driver. If you will look on your task bar where the time is displayed, you should see a small icon that resembles a loudspeaker. Double click on that. If you don't have this icon on your computer then go to your CONTROL PANEL and look for an Icon that is titled SOUND AND AUDIO DEVICES. Double click on this and look for a tab that says AUDIO. Click on this and you will come to a screen that has a button called VOLUME. Click on the VOLUME button and up will come a window with different volume controls on it. Double clicking on the loudspeaker icon will bring you to the same window.
At the top of the window is a pull down menu called "options". Press this and then select "recording", this opens another window that allow you to check boxes. Place a check in the box that either says "line in or aux in" or something very close to this. You will then see a volume control appear. You will use this control to adjust the volume that is coming into your computer and going through your recording program.
Put your software program into record. Press play on your tape deck. Most software recording programs have some kind of level meter so you can see how loud or soft you are recording. You want to make sure you keep the highest level of your sound material below 0 db or below the red area of the level meter. It is better to be too low than too loud.
That is basically it. You record the sound from your tape deck to the hard drive of your computer. Then using your recording software program, you edit out the material that you don't want on your final sound file. Finally, you save this sound recording as a WAV file. Once you have it saved as a WAV file, you can convert it to whatever format you want.
If you have a CD burner on your computer, it should have come with software that will let you burn an audio CD from the WAV file you have captured or edited. This software might even have a sound recording program. To put those old radio shows on an iPod or other mp3 player, you can probably use the same program to convert the WAV file to an mp3 or other compressed digital format. Unless you are dealing with stereo recordings, and most OTR program are not in stereo, you will want to save the MP3 files as mono. A setting that I have been using is 32 kbps, 22050 Hz, constant bit rate.
This will get you started. If you have additional questions, please email me or write to me and I'll try help you with any issues you may have:
P.O. Box 638, Walkersville, MD 21793 or email me at email@example.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Berney has been a collector of OTR programs since 1952. While still in high school, he started his own recording studio, recording small bands, musical events and cutting records. It evolved into Satellite Media Production, now a 50 year old firm, which he and his wife, Ellen, own and operate. Fred has also worked on feature films as either film editor or sound man, plus a multitude of varied commercials and industrial films. He has done freelance sound work for ABC, NBC, and UPI.