Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Apr. 4, 2005. 01:00 AM

Retro player lets you digitize an era

ROBERT CRIBB

CRIBBNOTES

Many people reading this began listening to music on vinyl records or 8-track cartridges.

You instinctively recall the sound of vinyl scratches clicking throughout your favourite song. And you remember the weirdness of hearing a song suddenly fade out in the middle as the 8-track tape rolled over.

Why was any of this ever considered reasonable?

Then came — and went — the audiocassette.

It was that in-between technology that fed the ears of a generation. With boom boxes and Walkmans cranked to 11, we watched those tiny wheels spin the thin tape across heads producing the once-magical sounds of Madonna and Michael Jackson.

That was before the whole idea of analog technology imploded and digital audio was born.

Now, long after being relegated to the music store discount bins, the once venerable audiocassette is back. Sort of.

If you're over the age of 30 you likely have a small fortune in weekly allowance and lawn-cutting income invested in a dusty pile of audiocassettes buried in the back of your closet.

But a Korean manufacturer has devised a way to help us rediscover our musical heritage.

BTO Co. Ltd. has developed a tape deck unit for PCs that converts old audiotapes into the contemporary musical currency of digital files.

Plus Deck 2 ($149 U. S. from http://www.thinkgeek.com) looks like the old tape decks you used to find in vehicle dashboards before we realized analog technology basically sucks.

But sucks or not, dusting off your old cassette collection can be a reminiscence-filled saunter through the days of leg warmers, big hair and sunglasses at night. The synthetic sounds and cheesy lyrics of the 1980s have the disarming power to both charm and embarrass. And some of that music will almost certainly convince you it needs to be added to your current digital library.

When compiling the soundtrack of your life, some early Loverboy and Manfred Mann are essential, you will conclude. You will also rediscover some true duds that will make you wonder what you were ever thinking. Quarterflash? I mean, really.

Once the filtering process is complete, it's time to make some beautiful digital music.

The Plus Deck 2 requires some installation. First off, you'll need a spare bay slot, a serial port and a 10 MB hard drive in your PC. The process of converting analog sound signals into digital files is actually a bit of a technical marvel that could test your computer.

You're well-advised to install the software from the product Web site (http://www.plusdeck.com) for the most up-to-date version.

After that, the process of turning obsolete music from obsolete technology into state-of-the-art digital files is actually pretty simple.

The software is intuitive. You control the tape deck from your computer screen. Cue the tape up to the beginning of the song you want to transfer, hit the ``convert'' button and let it happen. You can choose .wav or .mp3 format (up to 256 bit rate).

But let's be clear. No matter the file format or bit rate, the resulting digital file isn't going to sound great. There's a reason why audiotapes went the way of Michael Jackson's career.

My old tapes sound like they were all recorded in a studio where someone in the back room was power-sanding the floor.

Tape, more than digital technology, deteriorates over time. That's another reason to transfer your cassette tunes if you want them preserved.

Plus Deck 2 also allows the reverse process — taping digital music onto audiocassette. It's unclear to me why you would ever want to transfer a superior technology onto an inferior format for your listening displeasure.

But if you're all about rediscovery for its own sake, there you go.

The obvious alternative to all of this is simply purchasing the old cassette music anew on CD or in digital files. It will sound better and save you the time and hassle of installing hardware and transferring the material yourself.

The cost will likely end up being about the same, depending of course on how many tunes are required to replace your lost musical past.

The cheapest option, of course, is getting your retro music collection for free over the Internet. There's no judgment here.

Either way, it's easier than using a newfangled tape deck. In some cases, however, the old songs may not be available on iTunes or Kazaa. There can't be a huge demand for Quarterflash albums, for example.

And that means tape-to-digital transformation may be your only real musical revival strategy.

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