Recording on the Cheap

by David Czepanski Mar 27, 2006

I thought that this would happen less and less but twice this week I have been asked how to get old tapes and records onto CD.

Maybe the guys that asked me are a little behind the times but I figure that that there must be others out there wondering how to do this which makes this is worth covering. I do some home recording and so have traveled that path before. What I am about to share is not a professional recording solution but it more than meets my needs and will be more than adequate for this task.

A small disclaimer first. In some countries it is technically illegal to use a video recorder to record a TV program to watch at a later date. Likewise, in some countries, the letter of the law states that it is illegal to record a song from the radio. These laws vary from country to country and most countries are much more relaxed about copying things for personal use. The point is that you must be aware of what you’re doing and what legal implications it may have. OK? OK.

The first thing that you’ll need is something to play your old media on. Tape decks are still easy to find, but when I tried to find a record player a couple of years ago I couldn’t find one! True – I didn’t try too hard but I was surprised that no one still had one sitting around, gathering dust. This may be the hardest part of your task so be warned!

We used to use a free, lite version of Pro Tools to do our recording in OS 9 but this changed when GarageBand came out. GarageBand (GB) is a very slick entry level sound recording and MIDI program which comes on all new Macs. Even if you don’t have it and would like to do some basic home recording, it is certainly worth the cost.

If you’re thinking about doing this more seriously, go have a look and listen to what’s at As well as gear reviews, you can listen to what other people are making using GB – pick carefully; there is some fantastic stuff. It’s free and legal to download what you want.

We do our recording on our iBook which, believe it or not, handles the task with ease. The catch is, the iBook doesn’t have a direct audio in, only a built in mic and that’s no good for what we are doing.

What we need is a USB audio interface and for the money the Griffin iMic is hard to beat. There are numerous other devices out there, some with proper microphone jacks, others with MIDI connectors. Do some reading and think about what your needs are before you make a purchase.

Even though iMacs, eMacs and PowerBooks appear to have an audio line input, I have never made it work as it used to with beige Macs. If it did there would be no need for an iMic on these models. If anyone can shed some light on this I’d appreciate it!

You will need to select which audio in device you wish to use and thankfully the iMic plugs in and appears in the Sound System Preference straight away; no need to load drivers from a CD. In the “sound in” tab, choose the iMic from list.

The same sort of thing also needs to happen in GarageBand – you need to tell GB to “listen” using the iMic rather than the built in microphone.

Once that’s done, a simple audio cable (most likely with iPod sized jacks at both ends; it depends on your gear) can be plugged in and you’re ready to get going.

The easiest thing to do is to go from the headphones of the tape deck or record player directly into the iMic. You can imagine how this works – the music plays out from the headphone jack of the tape deck while the Mac and GB “listen” using the iMic and record it.

This is the same sort of setup that we use for recording our own original music at home. The only difference is that we have a small mixing desk plugged in where the tape deck is in the example mentioned above. This means that we can plug in an electric guitar or bass or a vocal mic into the mixing desk and record directly into GB. You could also use RCA cables and plug them into the iMic which opens up other devices such as video recorders.

Purists may laugh at such a rig but appreciate that even with this very basic setup, you’re getting sound quality that would have cost thousands of dollars just a few years ago.

One “gotcha” is that you will need to make a new track in GB and the track needs to be a Real Instrument rather than a Software Instrument. Think of a “real” instrument as something that you can hear with your own ears; an acoustic guitar, a voice, a conga. Software instruments in GB are usually MIDI controlled ie. using a MIDI interface, a keyboard can be used to sound like a drum or an acoustic guitar.

You will probably have to adjust a few things to get the levels right but with this simple setup you will be listening to and preserving you old favorites in no time at all.

If you’re lost with GB, have a look at this tutorial which, although out of date now, will point you in the right direction.


  • the reason your line in doesnt work on the new ibooks is interesting. my friend bought the monster cable (1/4 in - 1/8 in) off of the apple website and it works fine if he plugs straight in.but on mine i have to use some sort of buffer(a mixing board) to get enough volume out of it may have to do with the settings on the new audio in ports. they may be set to a lower input level. im not sure

    soserious had this to say on Mar 28, 2006 Posts: 1
  • It was about halfway through the article before I realized “GB” was an abbreviation of Garageband and not GigaByte. :S

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Mar 29, 2006 Posts: 299
  • That would have made for strange and interesting reading!!!

    Thanks, soserious, for the comment - I may have to try putting some sort of pre-amp in there first….

    David Czepanski had this to say on Mar 29, 2006 Posts: 25
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