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How to copy anything onto cassette tape

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

How to copy anything onto cassette tape

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

Some of the best-sounding records in my hi-fi collection have been played only once. But I listen to them often.

If this seems like a riddle, look for the answer in my cassette deck. It has recorded thousands of records over the years. Often, the recording was the first-and last-time the disc was played. The records themselves sit safely on my shelves, away from the harm of dust and needles each time I play the taped copy.

The copies are entirely legal, if they're strictly for your own use, and they sound very good. I recorded them using a special technique that I'll share with you. You may find, as I do, that discs recorded this way can even sound better on tape than they do when you play the originals.

Here's how to do it:

First, make sure both your cassette deck and your phonograph stylus are clean.

Forget the cleaning tapes that you pop in your deck; buy some foam swabs—not cotton ones, which will leave little fibers all over the moving parts—and shine a flashlight into your recorder while you scrub the tape path clean.

Use a soft artist's brush to clean the stylus if you don't have one of the commercial cleaning brushes. Dip the brush in rubbing alcohol or distilled water.

While everything is drying thoroughly, clean the first disc you want to copy. I use a record-cleaning machine made by Nitty Gritty, but a Discwasher brush will work if your records are only dusty and not really dirty.

Next, choose a good cassette tape. Maxell and TDK have led the industry for years, and they are usually the best choices.

Then make sure the tape is properly matched to your cassette deck. The tape should play back the signal at the same electrical level that was used in recording. If the playback level is too strong or too weak, the balance of high and low frequencies will be upset when the signal goes through the deck's noise-reduction system.

If your deck's owner's manual recommends a specific brand and type, use it. Otherwise, try out various tapes until you find one that's right. (Record the hiss that's between FM stations at a low signal level and then play it back, comparing the playback with the original. Make sure you adjust the two sounds so that they are the same loudness when you compare them; otherwise your ears will let you down.)

I prefer Type I tapes—the normal "ferric" variety—since they usually have the fewest dropouts. Stay away from so-called metal tapes unless you're certain they work right in your deck. (Many of them don't.)

Make sure your recorder's noise-reduction circuit is switched on. This circuit, which is usually labeled "Dolby B" or "Dolby C" (you can use either one), cuts down on distortion as much as it reduces hiss, so you should always use it. If yours is labeled "dbx" or "Dolby S,"that's fine, too.

You should also switch on the deck's multiplex filter. This keeps the tape from picking up ultrasonic noise from the disc. If you can't find a switch with that function, don't worry; the manufacturer probably put the filter into the circuit permanently.

Now put your deck into "record" and "pause" and cue up your disc. Find the roughest-looking band-it will be the loudest-and play it while looking at the deck's meters. Normally, the pointers or lights shouldn't go past the highest numbers, but you might be able to get away with a stronger recording level. Experiment to see how it sounds.

The next step is the key to making recordings that can sound better than the originals. You want to keep sonic feedback, which is always present to some degree when you play a record over your loudspeakers, from showing up in the tape.

You do this by turning off your speakers when you are recording. Use headphones instead. If you don't have headphones, turn the volume all the way down just before the recording starts. Don't turn the sound up at all, since even faint feedback will make the sound muddy.

That's all there is to it. Label the cassette to show the date of the recording as well as the name of the disc, and store it away from hot areas and any electrical or magnetic fields. Every six months or so, rewind all cassettes that you haven't played to keep the tape from taking a permanent curl.

But keep those records where you can find them. You'll enjoy reading the liner notes each time you play a clone, knowing that the discs are safe from wear.

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