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Endangered Audio Cassettes

Frank from CA writes:

I recently found an audio cassette from 1974. It’s a recording that my father made with my grandmother before she passed away. No one has played this cassette in almost 40 years and I am afraid to play it because if it snaps I’ll never be able to replace it. I just watched your great tutorial on YouTube about how to use Audacity to convert cassettes to electronic files. My questions are: 1.) are old cassettes likely to snap or is that just my fear talking? 2.) Am I safer taking the cassette to a professional conversion service or is my home cassette player just as safe? Thanks for your advice, Frank

Hi, Frank.  Thanks for the great question.

First off, although this probably won’t set your mind at ease much, let me say that it isn’t just your fear talking.

From the time that cassette tapes first hit the market, they were the leading edge of the music industry. Although they didn’t sound as good as records, they were portable. There was another portable tape format called 8-track (so called because it literally had eight tracks: four music tracks with a left and right audio track each), but it was not as desirable because of its tendency to “double track” – meaning it would play music from more than one track at a time.  As a result of the 8-track’s failure, a LOT of us have a LOT of cassettes sitting around out there.

But the problem with both your cassette tapes and your video cassettes is that they are very fragile. They’re basically made of a magnetic ferrous oxide coating on a strip of celluloid. Too much moisture damages them. Too little moisture damages them. Rewinding damages them.  Even PLAYING them can cause damage. About the only thing that didn’t damage the things was to leave them in their cases. Still, tape was the best format that we had for home audio and video for a long time. 

As far as this treasure of a tape that you found goes, congratulations.  That’s a great score. 

Probably the best thing would be to bring it to a professional.  And do yourself a favor… don’t try to cheap out and take it to Walmart.  The reason that I say that is because if you can find someone who primarily does tape transfer, even if they cost a little more, they’re probably going to maintain their equipment better, which means less risk to your tape.  Don’t rewind it. Their equipment is designed to do that much more gently than a home machine.  Inform them about what conditions the tape was stored under and the age of the tape.  After the transfer is done, put the tape in a case and lock it in your safe and never play it again.

None of that guarantees that the tape won’t break, but it’ll reduce the possibility considerably.

I hope that this helps.

~Randal Schaffer