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I want to make an actual compact cassette mix-tape as a gift for someone. I use iTunes to manage all of my music.

So a few questions:

  1. If I gather a bunch of songs on a playlist for sides A/B of the tape, how can I ensure that the volume for all songs is the same as it plays on the tape?

  2. I was thinking of finding an old compact casette recorder and putting the single line sterio output of my Mac to the casette's microphone input. Is that a good way to record onto the actual tape?

  3. How long is each side of a compact tape? Is there a default speed the tape plays at?

  4. Let's say I want to mesh some songs together so that they will completely fill up one side of a tape (cut off 10 seconds off the end of one song or the beginning of another song), what's the best way to do that?

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+1 for gift idea –  Ciaran Sep 2 '09 at 17:35
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4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

If I gather a bunch of songs on a playlist for sides a/b of the tape, how can I ensure that the volume for all songs is the same as it plays on the tape?

Turn on the 'Sound Check' feature of iTunes. This will auto-level your music.

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I was thinking of finding an old compact casette recorder and putting the single line sterio output of my Mac to the casette's microphone input. Is that a good way to record onto the actual tape?

This is the most inexpensive way. If the cassette recorder has a Line In input, this would be best.

How long is each side of a compact tape? Is there a default speed the tape plays at?

Wikipedia says about 30-45 minutes. The cassette should have the duration printed on it. The speed at which it plays is standardized to 1 7/8 ips, and should not be an issue for most players.

Let's say I want to mesh some songs together so that they will completely fill up one side of a tape (cut off 10 seconds off the end of one song or the beginning of another song), what's the best way to do that?

iTunes gives you the time duration of a particular playlist. Just match as closely as you can. You might need to export your music to a more complicated program to get this exactly right.

Audacity is a free sound editing program that may do what you need.

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Can I just say that I find it funny that you look on Wikipedia for how long a tape is... It's actually not funny, it's just a sign of my age that I consider that sort of knowledge second nature rather than something you'd look up. –  Jon Hopkins Sep 2 '09 at 15:00
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At one time I knew this information from memory, but it was purged from active storage years ago. I now use Wikipedia as online swap for much of my memory. ;-) –  Chris Nava May 5 '10 at 16:53
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1) Enable the "Sound Check" option under iTunes's preferences.

2) It's the ONLY way I think. Or rather it's the only convenient way. RCA inputs would be better than microphone in if your cassette recorder supports it. If your recording device supports optical even better. For ultra hardcore, use a DAC in between an optical output and an analogue input.

3) Depends on the tape. It can be SP or LP, SP being 30 minutes per side, and LP being 45 minutes per side. It's rare, but I have seen Super Long Play audio cassette tapes with 60 minutes per side.

4) Yes, there is a standard as to the default speed at which the tape plays. Depending on the tape playback device, you can make it go faster or slower.

5) with iTunes, you cannot cut off songs easily (unless you want to manually edit the audio files). I recommend you use smart playlists to fill 2 playlists with music that won't exceed the time for each side, and set yourself to recording it.

P.S good luck in finding an audio cassette that isn't eaten by mold yet.

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Bear in mind that cassette tapes usually run for a minute or two longer than their stated length. e.g. a C-90 tape may run for about 46 minutes per side –  pelms Sep 2 '09 at 14:42
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  1. An alternate to itunes sound check is amplify (but don't allow clipping) or normalize.
  2. 3.5mm audio jack (three conductor) or step up to 1/4" is going to be the easiest.
  3. 30,45,60 per side are common, the length is generally stamped in the center opposite the magnetic tape. I would recommend that you leave 7-10 seconds of silence at the ends of the tape (to prevent garbling and such) and cleaning of the heads.
    • Doesn't the tape speed vary? the center gears that drive the tape are moving at a constant speed but the outside circumference is growing during the recording, so is this an average?
  4. Another vote for Audacity, (simple program with good functionality).
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There is a pinch roller next to the read/write head which keeps the tape at a constant speed past the head. The take-up spool is driven to keep the tape taut. The tape spools do rotate at different speeds, depending on how much tape there is currently on the spool. –  dr-jan Mar 3 '11 at 9:41
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  1. Sound Check in iTunes will adjust the sound level of each track to match the other tracks in the playlist, but won't adjust the sound levels within the track. Some cassette recorders come with automatic level control, or you can use an audio program (I recommend Audacity) to further normalize the sound levels.

  2. There are several sizes of cassette (30, 45, 60, 90, 120 minutes). Each side is half the total length. Most common is C90, which has 45 minutes per side (with 5 seconds or so of leader).

  3. The tape speed (speed moving past the heads) does not vary and is standard, though some recorders can record at half or double speed. Different recorders may run at slightly different speeds.

  4. within iTunes it is possible to alter where a song starts and ends by altering the playlist entry and adding an offset or overriding the length. This can be used to lop off the beginning or end of a song to make it fit. You need to enter numbers, so there is a bit of trial and error. You can do the same thing in Audacity, however every conversion between MP3 or AAC (the format most iTunes music is stored) and the uncompressed format used by Audacity degrades the music slightly.

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I'm impressed, someone has found a use for those start-stop times! –  mtone Jan 2 '12 at 4:15
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