How to digitize all your VHS and cassette tapes

Preserve your baby videos forever.
VHS tapes

Don't leave a mountain of tapes lying around. Chris Lawton via Unsplash

If your media collection stretches back before the digital age, you may have wondered how to transform your VHS and cassette tapes into formats stored on a laptop or tablet. This article is here to guide you through that process.

It’s not too time-consuming or complicated, and following these steps will ensure your home movies, video tape collection, and rare audio tracks can be preserved for years to come.

The hardware you need

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First of all, you’re going to need something to play the old tapes you’ve got. If you’ve long since got rid of your cassette or VHS player, you’ll have to head to eBay or Craigslist to try and pick up a second-hand one. The good news is you shouldn’t have to pay much for it.

Do the usual due diligence here. Check the listing photos for signs of wear and tear, and make sure you’re buying from sellers with a good reputation.

If you buy an old tape player or you’ve still got one in the attic, check its outputs. Typically you’ll see a composite video output (denoted by a round yellow socket) paired with a stereo audio output (round white and red sockets). You might see a S-Video output (a round black socket with four pins) instead of composite video output. In the case of cassette players you’ll of course just be dealing with audio—check for stereo audio output ports or, at the very least, a headphone jack.

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It’s then a question of converting these outputs into inputs your computer can handle, and for that it’s best to use a dedicated converting device.

The DIGINOW Video Capture ($24 on Amazon), for example, can take S-Video or composite video as well as stereo audio and convert it into a stream that’s delivered over a standard USB-A socket. The Roxio Easy VHS to DVD ($40 on Amazon) does the same job for significantly less cash.

If you’re dealing with audio only, then something like the Ugreen USB External Stereo Sound Card ($16 on Amazon) is a good bet. It pushes stereo audio RCA outputs into digital files via USB. The VTop Digital Audio Capture Card ($18 on Amazon) works with cassette players that have stereo audio and 3.5mm headphone jack outputs. You can also buy all-in-one devices that play cassettes and convert the output into USB format, like the Reshow Cassette Player ($19 on Amazon).

Essentially, you need a box or an adapter that converts your player’s outputs into a computer-friendly USB form. If you’re on a USB-C only laptop, another dongle might be needed to complete the chain. You’re then ready to connect up your devices and start recording.

The software you need

Elgato Video Capture
Elgato capture devices come with software. David Nield

Many of the video capture and conversion devices mentioned above come with their own software, which you can use to convert video stream coming into your computer over USB and saving it as a digital video.

You’ll need to play, convert, and record the footage in real time, so if you don’t want to take a trip down memory lane and watch through all your VHS tapes again, take comfort knowing you can do something else while your computer’s working. All you really need to do is press the start recording and stop recording buttons.

Full instructions should come with whatever device you’ve bought, though for illustration purposes we’ll walk you through the process with the Roxio Easy VHS to DVD package, which sends captured video straight to a DVD disc. Click Record DVD on the opening splash screen, cue up the VHS on the video player, then click Start recording. When you’re done, click Stop recording.

If you don’t find any software bundled with your capture device, or you want to use something different, then commercial packages like Adobe Premiere Elements ($100 from Amazon) will do the job—and give you a host of editing effects and tools to play around with at the same time.

Audacity is an excellent free tool for audio capture. David Nield

Debut Video Capture ($25 from NCH Software, with a free trial available) is a simpler, cheaper option as well. Like the Adobe option, it’s available for Windows and macOS. There are no options that are both free and reliable, so it’s worth buying a capture device that you know has software bundled with it.

When it comes to audio capture, your dongle of choice may come with software. If not, Audacity for Windows and macOS is an excellent free audio editing program. You could trim and tidy up your audio as well as record it.

With Audacity open on screen, choose your USB input from the recording device drop-down menu (with the microphone just next to it). Click the red Record button to start recording, play your audio source, then use the black Stop button to finish the recording. Audacity has a stack of encoding options and filters that are worth checking out via the online manual.

One of the features worth exploring is noise reduction, which can help cut out the hiss of cassette tapes. From the Effect menu, choose Noise Reduction—you’ll be asked to choose a sample of audio for Audacity to work with, and you then select how aggressive you want the filter to be.