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Cabrinety cassette capture

Cassette capture in progress

In the ongoing Cabrinety-NIST Project, NIST normally performs all disk imaging, but there is an exception to the rule. When the Stanford fall session begins in late September, a subset of the Cabrinety collection will be used as teaching materials in the Rhetoric of Gaming class. Rather than send the Cabrinety boxes containing these materials to NIST (which is located in Gaithersburg, MD), and risk them not returning in time for the class, I decided to do all disk imaging at Stanford.

One of the more challenging media formats found in the Cabrinety collection are computer cassettes, also known as datasettes. These media carriers can form nightmarish tangles, so audiovisual archivists working with them must maintain constant vigilance to forestall potential chaos.

The Cabrinety “teaching set” consists of 16 boxes containing 666(!) software packages, 60 of which are computer cassettes. The Stanford Media Preservation Lab (SMPL) provided invaluable assistance with capturing data from this obsolete format.

In a dedicated space located in the Stanford University Libraries branch location in Redwood City, CA, there is a room equipped with 8 Nakamichi CR-7A cassette decks. The outputs from these 8 cassette decks are recorded simultaneously while connected to 2 Mytek 8x192 ADDA converters, with Cubase 7 software being used to capture the PCM audio stream as WAV files. [Note: This is an oversimplification of a complex process that also involves several layers of quality control.] I stayed in that room for several days and created a lot of noise pollution – computer cassettes make a very unpleasant sound, akin to that of a dial-up modem. Here’s a 7-second sample!

Computer cassette WAV file

There were also normal audio cassettes mixed in with the computer cassettes to provide relaxing pockets of intelligible sound in the midst of the data noise.

Audio cassette MP3 file

One of the problems I encountered while working with the very last set of computer cassettes was that the Coleco ADAM format did not fit into the cassette decks. The cassettes seemed like they should fit, but the cassette deck player doors would not close. The reason for this was that the Coleco ADAM cassettes were missing holes in the bottom that would allow the doors to close. There were two solutions to this: a) Drill the holes or b) Temporarily rehouse the cassettes. I went with option b in order to maintain the integrity of the original media carrier.

Coleco ADAM cassettes


This was the basic workflow for rehousing the Coleco ADAM computer cassettes:

1.Prepare an empty cassette shell by removing the screws and opening the top.

2.Open the Coleco ADAM cassette by removing the screws and opening the top to expose the tape.

3.Carefully(!) take hold of the tape reels, lift them out of the Coleco ADAM cassette, and transfer them to the empty cassette shell casing. Make sure the tape spins properly.

4.Replace the top of the temporary cassette. Check again that the tape is spinning properly.

5.LABEL the temporary cassette so you know which tape reels are inside, and also which side of the cassette is side A or side B.

6.Replace the top of the Coleco ADAM cassette so you don’t lose the tiny screws for it and set aside.

7.Perform data capture of both sides of the tape reel using the temporary cassette that was just created.

8. When the data capture is complete, reverse the earlier process to put the tape reels back into their original Coleco ADAM cassette.

There were 20 Coleco ADAM format computer cassettes, some of which contained 30-40 minutes of content on each side, so this was extremely time consuming, even with 8 cassette decks going at once. This was quite a learning experience and one that gave me a stronger appreciation for the challenges faced by those tasked with preserving analog materials. Also, I learned that whenever you are starting the long process of capturing data from time-based media, treat it like a road trip – make sure to take a bathroom break first!