Analog Distortion on a Budget – Cassette Overdrive Technique

Introducing the cassette distortion technique: a clever way to add some analog grit and saturation to your mix using a tape deck and a 1/8th inch to cassette adapter.

“At the moment there seems to be a craving for that lofi retro sound. Everyone is trying to get rid of the clean digital output of VST’s and digital synths by adding another VST’s to their fx-chains that simulate analog gear.. or by purchasing analog gear that costs an arm and a leg. Here is a trick that costs about 10,- euros and looks way cooler than any VST!” - Riku Annala

You may have noticed the increasing influence of analog sound that is happening in music production and recording. After decades of computer-based music, many producers are looking outside the box to find warmth and grit that a computer just can’t provide. Digital music has a tenancy to sound very clinical and even small additions of outside sounds, especially analog sounds, can bring depth and life to your music. Some producers use outboard mixers, pre-amps, or reel to reel tape to fatten up a mix. The medium of tape, in particular offers a unique (warm) sound and better dynamic range than most digital formats. But most of us don’t have a nice reel-to-reel sitting around to fatten up a mix. So as a creative work-around, I want to share a great technique that I recently learned by way of our friend Peter Kirn at Create Digital Music and Riku Annala, a producer/musician hailing from Helsinki, Finland. May I present – the cassette distortion / overdrive technique.

This is a great trick because it takes a minimal amount of gear, costs close to nothing, and provides a gritty, compressed effect that can liven up your beats. To create this effect you’ll need 1. an old cassette deck, and 2. a cassette to 1/8 inch adapter (the one that plugs your ipod into your tape deck). And some cables, of course.

To set up the effect: 1. Run the output of your source sound (drum machine, computer, etc) to the 1/8 inch end of the cassette adapter (I used 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch adapter to make this happen) and put the cassette adapter in the deck. 2. Connect the output of the tape deck to your mixer or speakers. 3. Press play on both your source and the tape deck, with plenty of volume coming from the source (the key here is to overdrive the signal a bit). 4. Enjoy your new analog compression / overdrive effect.

Now I must admit – I didn’t think this would work because I thought that the tape medium itself was the source of the sound/compression on tape recordings. But apparently this isn’t the case and the tape head itself will give character to your signal without the use of any tape at all.’s Riku Annala explains:

“The results are actually surprisingly nice (depends on what you’re after). Of course the character of the sound completely depends on the components of the tape deck you use; the condition of the tape heads, connectors, mic pre’s etc. The sound is far from hi-fi, so if you’re after that, just go purchase a real reel-to-reel unit. In the case of Hitachi D-230 I use, there are a couple of different options for obtaining a different sound. The audio can be just played back through the tape, but it can also be fed through the line-in’s, “recorded” to the tape capturing it’s output. Both of the methods give actually quite a different sound. With the former method you can get a moderate crunch with a rather clean sound. With the latter, you get loads of more noise, but also A LOT more distortion and a nice pumping compression when pushed.”

Michael Walsh is a producer of audio/visual art and a journalist living in Southern California. Read more of his work at