Sunday, 29 January 2023

Sneaking through the Analog Hole

I perhaps-foolishly recently agreed to perform a media-archiving task. A series of books-on-tape (yes, on physical audio cassettes), almost unplayable at this point in the century, needed to be moved onto a playable media. For this particular client, that meant onto Audio CDs (OK so we're moving forward, but not too far!). I myself didn't have a suitable playback device, but quickly located a bargain-priced solution, second-hand on eBay (of course) - an AWA E-F34U that appears to be exclusively distributed by the Big W retail chain here in Australia:

This device purports to be a one-USB-cable solution to digitising the contents of analogue cassettes. Unfortunately, the example I just purchased had extremely severe issues with its USB implementation. The audio coming straight off the USB cable would jump between perfectly fine for a few seconds, to glitchy, stuttering and repeating short sections, to half-speed slooooow with the attendant drop in pitch. Unusable.

I only hope that the problem is isolated to my unit (which was cheap and described as "sold untested" so I have no-one to blame but myself) - if not, someone's done a really bad job at their USB Audio implementation. Luckily, the USB Power works absolutely fine, so I had to resort to the old "Analog Hole" solution via my existing (rather nice) USB Audio Interface, a Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 which I picked up after my previous interface, a TASCAM FireOne, finally kicked the bucket.

In the following picture, you can see my digitising solution. AWA tape transport (powered by USB) to 3.5mm headphone socket, through a 1/4" adaptor to a short guitar lead and into the Komplete Audio 1's Line In. From there, it goes in via the KA1's (fully-working!) USB connection to GarageBand on the Mac. A noise gate and a little compression are applied, and once each side of each tape has been captured, it gets exported directly to an MP3 file. I intend to present the client with not only the Audio CDs but also a data CD containing these MP3s so that future media formats can hopefully be more easily accommodated.

What if I didn't already have a USB audio interface? Would the client have given up, with their media stuck in the analog era, never to be heard again?

It amused me that analog technology was both the cause of this work - in that this medium and the ability to play it has gone from ubiquitous in the 1980s to virtually extinct - and its solution, using an analog interface to get around a deficient digital one.