Part 2: Set-Up, Use And Other Suggestions


It is best to use the simplest path possible to make the best dubs. What I do is connect both decks into the same tape loop. Here's how it works: Preamp(Receiver)>Deck 1>Deck2> Preamp(Receiver). There are other advantages to this aside from having only a patch cord between decks. While you are dubbing you can listen to something else. It also frees up an extra input on your preamp(receiver). Obviously you record from deck 1 to deck 2 so it is best to have deck 2 be the better deck. When you just want to listen to tapes you use deck 2. If you want to record from something other than a tape you either record on deck 1 or pass the signal through deck 1 to deck 2. For best results you could physically remove deck 1 from the chain but that would be a pain. If you have a deck that has playback fine tuning features such as the Nakamichi Dragon and CR-7A you will probably want to have it in the playback position. Do some experimenting and see which decks work best in the play and record positions. If you have one deck that is a Nakamichi and one that is not you will probably want to pay particular attention to which one you use for which purpose. Keep in mind that a tape made on a Nak will sound best when played back on one.

It is better to not stack your stereo equipment on top of each other. You should isolate your amp or receiver as far away as possible from your other equipment. Try to keep other electrical appliances as far away as possible from your audio equipment. Once you turn your cassette decks or other equipment on you should leave them on until you are through with them for the day. Equipment such as preamps and CD players that do not run hot should be left on all the time. Each time you turn a piece of electronic equipment on or off you send a surge through it. Leaving equipment on but idle uses very little electricity. Your equipment will last longer and sound better when left on rather than turned on and off repeatedly.

Audiophile cables are worth looking into and really can make a difference. The following are recommended. Prices are approximate and for a 1 meter pair.

Kimber PBJ $65
Straightwire Flex Connect $50
Vampire (not sure of model) $30
Audioquest is also a good low cost alternative, but I am not that familiar with their line.
AVOID Monster cable, the above are far better.

Setting Levels

Setting levels is going to vary from deck to deck for a variety of reasons explained below. You want to set the levels as high as you can to keep the music above the noise floor(hiss). If you set the levels too high the tape will saturate and distortion will result. With most chrome tapes on many decks you will want the peaks around +2 or +3 dB. Different tapes and decks will react differently. Consult your manual to see what it suggests as far as setting levels. Use that as a starting point and then experiment. See how far you can push different types of tapes before distortion begins. Once you find the point where your deck is going to distort try to stay about 2 dB below that level.

First of all, 0 dB on cassette decks can vary from one deck to another whether by design or just by miscalibration. Most decks have a Dolby symbol somewhere on the meter and this *should* be considered the real 0 dB. Different meters also react differently, especially different types, i.e. needles, LED, fluorescent. Some meters are faster than others and also some are meant to show averages(needles) and not peaks. Slower meters are not able to "follow" a signal all the way up to the peak. Very fast meters can read peaks of +5 or more but this is for such a small fraction of a second that the tape will not saturate. These +5 peaks will more likely read at around +2 or +3 or lower with most other meters.

Play recordings made on your deck on other decks and try to get a consensus of how differently your recordings are going to react. READ YOUR MANUAL. It will suggest recording levels based on how the deck has been set up. Some decks, especially ones with meters that show averages, should usually be set around 0 or +1. Very fast meters should usually be set with *peaks* at around +4 to +7. If your source material has high continuous levels you will need to set the levels lower or saturation will result. This is based on chrome tapes. Metal would be a little higher, normal bias a little lower. Experiment and see what works best. See how high you can push a tape before distortion results. Experimenting with test tones can lead to some insight. As an example I can use a test tone and match my two cassette decks to exactly 0 dB with a continuous signal. Peaks on my Onkyo TA-2056 of +2 dB will correspond to about +5 or +6 on my Aiwa F-990.

Set the levels for the loudest part of the tape. Once you get the hang of this and get a good feel for your tape decks you will be able to do this fairly quickly. Keep mental or actual notes about where the peaks are on your tapes. Once you set the levels and start recording you should not change them so as to preserve the dynamic range. If there is an obvious change in level due to something non-musical, then it probably is a good idea to make subtle adjustments to compensate.

Some purists say you should never adjust the balance between the left and right channels. The simple fact though is that after a few generations it is real easy for the balance to get skewed to one side. I personally prefer the levels to be close to even on average unless there is a good reason for them not to be. Some early(60s) tapes had a weird left-right balance and necessitate being off balance. Also, the Dead's drums/space segments will have odd balances on purpose. Use your best judgment. Find out what your trading partners prefer.

Head Cleaning

The best and cheapest method is to use swabs (Q-tips or whatever) and plain alcohol. Cassette cleaners that you insert in the deck are not as effective. First of all make sure you use something that has 90% or greater alcohol content. Most rubbing alcohols have around 70% and this is not good as there are too many additives which are not good for your deck. The best thing I have found to use is grain alcohol. Everclear is 95% alcohol, and I think it is the most concentrated you can get. I can't believe people actually drink the stuff. Another good choice is denatured alcohol which you should be able to get at a pharmacy. There are some drug store alcohols that are something like 92% for about a dollar. This is the cheapest way to go, but I think using Everclear or denatured alcohol is better. The 200ml bottle of Everclear will cost about $4 from a liquor store, and you will probably never run out of it. Keep the cap on tight as it evaporates easily. It is probably better to get the foam swabs rather than cotton as the cotton strands sometimes unwind and could get caught up in the deck. I still use the cotton though.

Take the swab and dip it in the alcohol and then scrub the heads and anything else that the tape might touch. When the swab gets a little bit of brown gunk on it change to another. Do not use alcohol on the rubber pinch roller, or it can dry and crack. The safest thing to do is use only rubber cleaner on the pinch roller. At one point you could get rubber cleaner at Radio Shack but I have not been able to find it there lately. Places that sell professional recording or broadcast supplies should have it. I often use just a dry swab on the pinch roller. The capstan (metal pin above the rubber pinch roller) is usually spinning all the time when the deck is on. This makes it pretty easy to clean as you just have to press the swab against the capstan and the spinning does a pretty good job of cleaning. Some capstans only spin when there is a tape in the deck. In this case you can feel around at the top of the deck's well and find the switch that senses when a tape is inserted. Pressing the switch will make the capstan spin. The capstan is very important to keep clean because it is usually the culprit when a tape is "eaten." If the tape well in general looks dusty or grungy try to clean it up as best you can. A can of compressed air can be very effective. The alcohol usually evaporates quickly, but it doesn't hurt to go over everything with a dry swab to make sure everything is dry. Many decks have removable doors that make them easier to clean.

Clean the heads about every 20-50 hours of use. Some decks get dirtier faster than others. If there is more than just a hint of brown stuff on your swab, you need to clean your heads more often. It does not hurt to do it too often.


There is much controversy concerning demagnetizing. A few say it needs to be done often, some say only once every few years and many say not at all or only when necessary. One thing I will say is DO NOT use the cheap demagnetizes that you find in record stores. These can cause more harm than good. Demagnetizing should only be done by a professional with professional equipment. The safe plan is not to do it all. If your deck is having problems and you are having it serviced ask the technician about demagnetizing. They will usually do it for free if you are already having work done. Otherwise, if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Professional Maintenance

It is a good idea to take your deck to a reputable repairman or high-end oriented audio store and have your deck professionally cleaned, aligned and calibrated. If your deck gets very heavy use you should do this about every year or so. If you are a little tight on money you can get by with every two or three years or so. At a minimum have them 1) calibrate the meters on playback and record 2) calibrate the transport speed 3) calibrate the bias to the tapes you use most often 4) clean and demagnetize(only if necessary) 5) set the head-azimuth to zero' 6) check the performance of the analog sections. After 5 or so years it is a good idea to have them check the motors if the deck has had very heavy use. This will cost approximately $30-$80, depending on where you take it and how much you need done. This can be done yourself if you really know what you are doing and have the right equipment.

Bias Setting (Tape Types)

There are three broad bias or tape type settings. These are: [Type III or Ferric Chrome is no longer available.]

Each of the names on a line means the same thing. The first name is the most common in usage.

Most cassette decks should have settings for the different types of tapes. Car stereos, boomboxes, and walkmen sometimes do not. In playback mode metal and chrome are basically the same. Many car stereos and walkmen have a playback setting that says chrome/metal. Many newer cassette decks have an auto setting so you do not have to even worry about setting this. Even with auto setting there should still be some sort of indicator light showing the setting.

Fine Bias

Within the normal and chrome settings there is also bias fine tuning that is necessary. Most better decks made within the last several years will have some sort of bias fine tuning. Some of the older decks may not. If your deck does not have any sort of fine bias adjust you should find out what tape the deck was factory set for and use that tape or have the deck recalibrated for the tape you want to use. Many decks are set for Maxell XL-II or TDK SA in the chrome position which are pretty close to each other as far as bias. The exception would be where the deck manufacturer also makes tapes in which case they would likely bias their decks for their own tapes. This is a concern that needs to be addressed with Sony and Denon decks. The deck's manual should say what tape the deck was set for. If it does not try contacting a service representative for the company or try experimenting with different tapes. (More on different tapes below)

There are two ways of setting the bias fine tuning. With automatic systems it is usually just a matter of inserting the tape you wish to set the deck for and pushing a button. The deck will go through its motions for several seconds and then be ready to go. With a manual system there is usually a dial on the front of the deck. In the straight up position the dial should lock in place and be set for whatever tape the deck was biased for. The deck's manual will show where to set the dial for other brands of tapes. If the manual does not give the information you need, you can call a service representative or you can try to figure it out for yourself by ear.

You will need a 3-head deck to set the bias by ear. Start recording a good sounding source(preferably a CD or LP) you are familiar with. Put your deck on source and get a good idea of how it sounds. Then switch over to tape and have the bias dial set to the straight up position. Slowly turn it to the right and see what it sounds like and then slowly turn it to the left. Your goal is to as closely as possible find the setting that will match the sound of the source to the tape setting. Resist the urge to set the dial only based on where the hiss is the least. This can result in dull highs. The difference in sound will likely be very subtle, so take your time and listen closely. The effects will be most noticeable in the high frequencies. Try this both with speakers and headphones.


My best advice is to not use it. Most current tape formulations allow for very low noise so Dolby is not really necessary. To my ears, Dolby B is terrible and I try not to ever use it for any reason. It kills the high frequencies and sometimes causes weird phasing or pumping problems. Dolby C *can* work very well on a high quality deck. The problem is it only really works well when you play the tape back on the same deck it was recorded on. Results can vary considerably when tapes are played back on other decks. Dolby circuits in decks that cost less than about $250 or so are not likely to be very good.

If you have a tape that already has Dolby on it the best way to copy it is to set the Dolby off on both decks. The copy will still have the dolby on it and will need Dolby engaged when playing it back. Most people don't want Dolby on their tapes though so most of the time you will decode the dolby on your play deck and then record without Dolby. Some dubbing decks will not let you do this. Multiple encoding and decoding of Dolby will make the sound worse and should be avoided.

Dolby HX pro is a dynamic range enhancer, and on good decks is usually beneficial. It is on all the time.

I have not heard a dolby S deck yet but have heard that it works very well, better than Dolby C supposedly. The advantage is supposed to be that you can play back a Dolby S tape with Dolby B and it will sound decent but not as good as played back with Dolby S.

The MPX filter (not Dolby related) on cassette decks is intended to filter out unwanted multiplex noises associated with FM broadcasts. It does not need to be decoded on playback. It is not supposed to affect the sound of an FM broadcast, but I can hear a subtle difference so I don't use it. Experiment and see what you prefer.

Erasure Prevention Tabs

The tabs on the top of a cassette can be popped out to prevent accidental erasure of a tape. You can cover the hole with thin tape if you want to record over the tape. When doing this make sure you only cover the part where the tab was. The hole beside the tab is used for cassette decks that set the tape bias automatically. Also keep your tapes far away from electro-magnetic sources such as your speakers, TV and other electrical equipment to avoid erasure.

Tape Length

It is best to use 90s as much as possible. Use 100s when necessary. 110s should only be used when absolutely necessary. I would avoid playing 110s in walkmen, car stereos and boomboxes as the extreme tape length is bad for the motors. Avoid fast forwarding and rewinding when possible in any deck with 110s. The only two 110s I would consider using are the Maxell MX-110 and the TDK MA-110. I tend to prefer the TDK as it seems to put less strain on the tape deck. DO NOT use anything over 110. If something will fit on a 60(like some Dead first sets) check with who you are trading with to see if that is OK. Most people will prefer a 90 and then some filler.

Be aware that tapes are not going to be exactly the specified length. They are always a little bit longer. There is usually about two extra minutes per side on most TDKs and Maxells. It will vary from batch to batch.

Tape Brands

Since most good decks now have bias fine tuning you can usually optimize the performance of your deck with just about any good quality tape. Still you should consider strongly the tape recommended in the deck's user manual and also try some experimenting.


Maxell XL-II has pretty much become the standard among tape traders. Some people also like to trade with the nicer and more expensive Maxell XL-IIS. For the most part XL-II will do for most situations. XL-IIS can make a difference with super high quality low generation tapes. XL-IIS tapes have a nicer shell and also a higher bias so that you can record higher levels. If you do not have bias fine tuning you will see little to no advantage using XL-IIS tapes, unless your deck was factory set for them. Maxell's MXS metal tapes are extremely good but pretty much overkill in the world of tape trading. Their best use would be in dubbing exceptional tapes from DAT and for live recording. MX tapes are a notch down from MXS. In most cases XL-IIS will probably outperform MX tapes. Avoid the Maxell Capsule series. Many people feel that the XL-IIS and MXS are among the most durable tapes you can get, so there is some advantage to putting irreplaceable recordings on these tapes.


Although most everyone prefers Maxell, TDK tapes are at least worth a try. Some decks may work better with one than the other. If you do not notice any difference in quality get whichever is cheaper. Make sure with your trading partners which tapes you send them. TDK SA tapes are comparable to Maxell XL-II, SA-X are comparable to Maxell XL-IIS, MA are comparable to MX, and MA-X are comparable to MXS. TDK does make some real high end metal tapes above the MA-X but they are really only necessary in pro applications. TDK D tapes are good if you want something that is real basic and cheap. They are good for boomboxes, car stereos and walkmen.


If you have a Denon deck I strongly urge you to a least try a few different Denon tapes and see how they sound. Denon makes a wide range of very nice tapes. It should make sense that a company would set their decks for their own tapes. They make one of the best metal tapes I have ever encountered, but it costs about $7. If you do find that the Denon tapes sound better, urge your trading partners that you will be able to make them better tapes with the Denons.


I have never cared very much for Sony tapes, but if you have a Sony deck you should probably at least give the better ones a try.


I have encountered a few people that have like Fuji tapes. I have not tried them.


Nakamichi chrome cassettes are TDK SA-X but with a different (better?) shell and higher quality control. The tape is only taken from the center part of the large spools in manufacturing where the quality is more consistent. They are considerably more expensive than regular tapes

Continued in Part 3