What effects, etc. do you use for cassette to Audacity?

I have old cassette tapes of our bands playing, mostly in the 1990s. I’m transferring them to iTunes via Audacity. I can either use the tapes as-is or add effects once they are in Audacity.
I’d like your ideas on getting the best out of my recordings. Some are boombox recordings and some are decent tape deck recordings. Some have people talking while we played, some are quiet rooms. So far I have tried Reverb, Compression, Amplify, Loudness Normalization and a few others, but I’ll admit I don’t really know what I’m doing. What have you had success with? I’ve also had to speed up or change pitch on some.
I’m enjoying listening to the performances from the old days and will burn CDs for the band members.

Equalization is the most useful effect. There are free real-time equalizer plugins which work in Audacity …

You should know how the tapes were recorded. Plain, Dolby B, or Dolby C. For plain tapes, gentle noise reduction to get rid of the tape his (fffffff) can go a long way. For the other two, you should match the player to the tape. Some claim that you can play a B tape with some regular effects and be good to go, and it may be possible to decode B as a special effect, but C tapes are unrecoverable without the real decoder.

A good C tape can sound pretty much exactly like the original performance. So that puts you in the position of solving years-old performance problems.

Worst case is trying to solve both tape and performance problems. Good luck.


There’s an app for that …

[Never tried it myself though].

Note that Dolby noise reduction has to be calibrated and there’s no way to properly calibrate the digital levels. With trial-and-error you might get acceptable results.

Audacity’s Noise Reduction is also worth a try to reduce tape hiss. But there can be side-effects so it’s just something to try to see if it makes things better or worse. Noise reduction is for low-level background noise. It doesn’t remove things like a barking dog…

Otherwise, I agree that equalization is probably the most useful effect. It should be used as a “corrective” effect. If your recordings have good frequency balance you may not need it. Audacity has a Graphic EQ and Filter Curve EQ as well as a regular Bass and Treble effect. The Graphic EQ or Bass and Treble are the easiest to experiment with.

The other two “most common” effects are compression (and limiting which is a kind of fast-compression) and reverb.

Compression (and limiting) make the quiet parts louder and/or the loud parts quieter. In practice it’s used to make “everything louder”. Analog tape compresses (or “saturates”) as you go “into the red” so depending on how loud it was recorded, and depending on the performance, you may not need any compression. Compression will tend to bring-up the tape hiss during quiet parts so it may be undesirable.

Reverb is used to simulate the sound of a room. Depending on where the recordings were made they may already have some natural reverb. Most professional recordings have some reverb but it’s usually subtle so you don’t really notice it.

Amplify and Normalize are both linear volume adjustments and they don’t affect sound quality unless you allow Amplify to clip (distort). Amplify will default to whatever adjustment is needed for normalized (“maximized”) 0dB peaks. So if you accept the default, the Amplify effect will Normalize. (The Normalize effect defaults to -1dB peaks and it has a couple of other options.)

Note that effects such as EQ can push the levels into clipping. Audacity itself won’t clip but the exported file can clip and/or your digital-to-analog converter can clip during playback. The Amplify or Normalize effects will reduce the level if necessary so it’s a good idea to run one of these effects as the last step before exporting.

Thanks to all the replies. I’ll have to experiment!
I’ve put about 40 cassettes into Audacity so far. I found some from the 60s. I’m surprised that they still play.

Using Windows 10.

Is there a certain order for applying effects? A friend with a studio says to add reverb and then compression.
When I put a cassette tape into Audacity, are these steps correct?

First the Amplify step.
Then I add reverb (one of the drop-down choices, usually Bathroom, Vocal 1 or Vocal 2)
Then Compression (the default)
I sometimes add the Loudness Normalization.

Still learning.

You might find these Tutorials from the Audacity Manual useful:

  1. https://manual.audacityteam.org/man/tutorial_copying_tapes_lps_or_minidiscs_to_cd.html

  2. https://manual.audacityteam.org/man/sample_workflow_for_tape_digitization.html