High Fidelity: TapeLink makes cassette-to-digital transfer easy

By  Todd Whitesel

I must confess, there was a time back in the 1980s when I forsook my beloved LPs for the convenience of cassette tapes. I had always used cassettes as backups or to play in a car, but as the format packaging got better and more releases were offered with replica artwork and recorded on high-bias tapes, I didn’t think I was losing much. Besides, my shelfs were groaning under the rows of records I had accumulated in my first decade of serious record collecting.

It wasn’t long before one cassette became 10, then 50 — then way more. Soon, I had cassette racks mounted on walls with every last slot filled with tapes, with still more in boxes. Sound familiar?

Fast forward to 2009, and I still have those tapes stored in boxes. I even play them occasionally through my restored Bang & Olufsen Beocord 8004. I remember looking longingly at such equipment as a teenager, but the 8004 retailed in 1984 for around $620 — far beyond what I could even dream of. So I waited 20 years and finally bought one on eBay for about a quarter of that price. My love affair with tape decks continues, but the cassette tape deck for the car has gone with the wind. So if I want to hear some of my old favorites on tape, I’m confined largely to home listening.

There’s been a lot of press about converting LPs to CDs; this column will spin off and look at one current and very easy way to transfer the audio on your old cassettes into a computer and then onto compact disc.

Alesis’ TapeLink USB is a dual-cassette deck with a USB port that makes it possible to transfer audio from cassette tapes directly to a computer’s hard drive. There’s no need to run the deck through a separate receiver or amplifier. Although the TapeLink also functions as a standard cassette player and recorder, I doubt many users would purchase it for a stand-alone deck. If you own or owned one of the beastly cassette decks from the late 1970s, such as one of the upper-end Pioneer CTF units, you’ll probably shake your head just lifting the TapeLink.

At just 8.5 pounds, this will never be confused with any of the over-engineered players of yore, or be the go-to deck for high-fi playback like many of the revered three-head Nakamichi decks. The TapeLink isn’t feature-heavy, but that isn’t its intention. It is compatible with normal bias, CrO2 and metal tapes, and it offers high-speed dubbing between its twin decks. But most importantly, its USB audio interface provides 16-bit, 44.1 kHz (or 48 kHz) sample rates. That’s CD quality! And that means that your time spent transferring audio files isn’t compromised by some self-imposed lossy software that automatically converts the stereo WAV files to MP3s. There’s no loss of resolution during transfer. The manufacturer’s list price is $299, but the average price at a dealer is $199.

Recording

Setting the TapeLink up could hardly be easier. The unit is plug-and-play ready for both Macintosh and PCs. A CD with basic software for audio transfer and others for optional clean-up comes with the unit. Simply install the software, connect the included USB cable to an open port on your computer and the back of the deck, and you’re good to go. If you want to go old-school, the deck can be run to an amplifier/receiver via a pair of RCA inputs/outputs on the back of the unit.

I work on a Mac, which is compatible with the supplied EZ Audio Converter software. The program is essentially foolproof, requiring a set of simple steps to start transferring audio. Once summoned, EZ Converter pops up and walks the user through:

Step 1: Connect the TapeLink to the computer.

Step 2: Insert the cassette you want to transfer, press the record button on the software screen and press the play button on the TapeLink. Two bars indicate input level as the deck plays back. If the levels are too high, a gain knob on the back of the deck can be adjusted to bring the input to a favorable level. You want to record to the hard drive like you would to tape, with the levels peaking just below the red indicator lights.

Step 3: Once recording begins, you have the option to split each track by clicking the “new track” button between individual songs.

Step 4: After recording is complete, you can tag the tracks by artist name, album title and track title. Once this is done, the software automatically imports the audio into iTunes.

In Action

As described above, set-up and recording are a breeze with the TapeLink. The deck provides a few options for specific playback, such as for playing CrO2 tapes, and cassettes recorded with some form of noise reduction (i.e. Dolby B) via a Dynamic Noise Reduction button. In my experience, hissy or noisy tapes were better recorded using this feature. For most, I left it off and let my ears decide if it was warranted.

Although you can feed audio into a hard drive from either of the TapeLink’s decks, only Deck B is equipped with a counter. In my opinion both decks should have counters, particularly if you’re recording tapes that have long count-in times and you don’t want to start with eight seconds of silence before the music begins. Without a counter, using Deck A for playback, you’re left to time it yourself before pressing the record button.

The EZ Converter software is great if you’re present during the entire playback of each cassette and remember to hit “new track” between songs. In reality, I found this takes too much time, particularly since the operation must happen in real time — if you have a 60-minute cassette, it will take 60 minutes to transfer.

Fortunately, the software CD comes bundled with additional software, including Audacity’s audio-editing software and trial versions of BIAS SoundSoap, which can be used to filter click, crackle, hum and rumble along with other such nasties. With some time and a bit of computer savvy, a small engineering studio is at your command. If you just want to record and walk away, the Audacity software can split tracks after the fact. It’s not difficult and is actually fun to work with the music and see the dynamic range of individual songs and how they graph in such a program.

I transferred many cassettes via the TapeLink and found that the results mimicked the source. If a tape had wobble or was poorly recorded, that’s what I got back. Starting with a clean recording always yielded good results. I could spend hours tweaking each tape in SoundSoap, but I reserve such efforts only for music that is out-of-print.

I really liked the TapeLink’s interface with the software and iTunes. It was as simple as I could imagine, and the results were as good as the source tape. Once I recorded tracks and tagged the album, I could download the album artwork via iTunes, which is pretty cool. As well, if you have a CD player capable of displaying CD text, you’ll be jazzed with the TapeLink’s ability to transfer that info. Even if you don’t burn the digital tracks to CD, you’ll have them archived and saved in case some catastrophe befalls your old Maxells and TDKs.

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