The complete guide to make good recordings
(on cassette, of course)
6th step: Set-up recorder
Set tape type
As you may know, there are three types of tapes: I, II and IV. Type III was never a success and no one uses it since the mid 80's, although many decks from those years can manage them.
A SONY type III (Ferrichrome, FeCr) cassette.
Setting the proper type tells the deck what amount of bias has to apply to that particular tape, to get a plain frequency response (I'll talk about this later).
Tape selector switch in a SONY TC-K15.
Many modern decks (from late '90s and later) have an auto tape selector, so there is no need to adjust anything in the deck. The best ones even display the selection on the screen.
SONY TC-K909ES display, indicating it has a 'normal' (type I) tape inside.
Type I (Normal) usually need low bias, type II (Chrome) need more and type IV (Metal), a lot of bias current. Almost all decks from the mid '80s and later can manage the three types of tapes, but only a few boomboxes and walkmans can record on them, although many high quality ones can play them.
There just a few boomboxes capable of recording metal tapes.
The superb AIWA SR8 is one of them.
You may choose whether you prefer Dolby or not. Dolby is a system that can reduce the background hiss by changing the way it records the music on the tape.
Dolby selector with four positions: Off, B, C and S. There's also the HX Pro button.
If you record a tape using it, you may play the tape with it on too. This way you get the best results, as the Dolby mechanism decodes the signal previously left in the tape by the encoder.
It's a good practice to write on each tape if you used Dolby or not, so you can adjust it when listening to it.
The problem is that there are many incompatibilities. If you record a dolby-encoded tape in a deck and play it in another deck, boombox or walkman, you probably encounter (even strong) high frequency loss, or a mudded sound, even if you play it using the same Dolby type. For this reason, if you are recording for playing in a different deck, I suggest you not to use Dolby. Well, maybe you can do a quick test and decide.
Adjust rec level
If your deck is so simple that doesn't allow adjusting the record level, you can simply jump to the next step. However, you may be aware that high distortion or high noise level can appear if the source and record levels differ a lot from each other. The solution is simple: get a better deck with that feature.
If the record level is low, the signal will be weak and you will have to push the volume up to hear the music properly, pushing also the background noise in the same amount.
Audio sample: Tape recorded with a low level (download).
If the record level is high, the signal will surpass the maximum recordable level, so it will get distorted (specially the high frequencies) and it will sound bad and loud. Lowering the volume while playing just makes it sound not louder, but the distortion will remain, of course.
Audio sample: Tape recorded with a excessive level (download).
Once you set the source to maximum volume, play a song and adjust the rec level. Usually the VU meters should be between -5 and 0 VU during most part of the song. However, this fully depends on the changes in volume (the dynamic range) of the song itself. You can seek the louder part of the song (usually the chorus or some part of it) and adjust the rec level so that it reaches 0VU.
Audio sample: Tape recorded with a good rec level (download).
That's the easy part. Just hit Rec and wait.
My last advice is to listen the entire recording (only appliable if you have a 3-head deck), so you can hear if any problem appear (dropouts in already used tapes, etc...).
I hope this guide helps through the entire process and make you enjoy taping much more...