This guide is made by hobbyists for hobbyists, with the VGV community in mind. The intention is to help those who are interested to create one-offs of their own personal tape projects. Please take the information provided with a grain of salt and do your own research as well.
Note: There are links in this guide that lead to external websites. Year of the Tape is not affiliated with any of these resources and does not receive any sort of commission for the links.
This guide was written for fun, but feedback is welcome. The goal is to make this as helpful as possible so that we see more cool projects appear in the community. Let’s inspire each other!!!
Need some help along the way? The image below will take you to our Discord where we’ll be more than happy to answer any questions.
Special thanks to the tape community for their knowledge and encouragement.
General advice: be resourceful. Use what’s easily available to you, ask questions, and don’t worry about perfection.
The process in a nutshell:
- Choose your project
- Choose the tracklist
- Design j-card
- Design labels
- Source supplies
- Source audio
- Dub the tape
- Put it all together
- Show it off!
Pick something that speaks to you. If you aren’t passionate about the idea, you’re less likely to complete it. It doesn’t matter what other people want or if it’s something that’s been done before. You have something unique to offer.
And remember, it’s your vision. Getting opinions from others can be helpful, but this is your project, for you. Have confidence in your ideas 😊✨
For a first time project, I recommend a soundtrack or selections that fit on one tape. Keep it simple while you get a feel for things. The tracks you choose will determine the length of tape you need.
For example, let’s imagine we’ve picked a soundtrack that has 15 songs with varying track lengths. The combined length of all 15 tracks is 58:42. It doesn’t split perfectly even, but we decide:
- Side A — 8 tracks (29:40)
- Side B — 7 tracks (29:02)
Since we need to be able to fit the higher length (29:40), we decide to use a C60. Cassettes that are C60 have 30 minutes per side, totalling 60 minutes. This ensures we’ll have enough length for all our audio, with a bit of extra time to be safe and in case we’d like a few seconds of silence between tracks.
Given the nature of our scene and unofficial releases, there can be a lot of grey areas when it comes to usage. Please be considerate with your artwork selections. Indie and fan artists deserve our respect, so if there’s any doubt, please ask for permission if you’d like to use someone else’s art for your project.
Some general suggestions when it comes to art that will be printed:
- Create in at least 300 DPI (dots per inch) — this means more detail will be visible when the art is printed, providing a higher quality image.
- Add a bleed area to your work (generally ⅛”) — this means extending your design past the actual size of the j-card or labels so it can be trimmed down to the proper size without accidentally losing any detail.
- Print in CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, key) — screens show colour in RGB whereas print colours are CMYK. To get a better idea of what your colours will look like in print, you’ll want to preview and export it in CMYK. This process will depend on the tool you use.
A general image editing program is all you’ll need for designing. There are plenty of PDF and PSD templates available, such as the ones available here from Duplication that you can import into your program to use for guidance.
- Look up cover art for the game or other games in the series
- Watch some gameplay to refresh your memory of the visuals
- Reference other cassettes and album covers you like
- Observe how retro cassettes and j-cards were designed
- The placement of soundtrack title, tracklists, credits, logos, artwork, etc.
- Font size and style (good rule of thumb is to stick to 1 or 2 different styles at most)
- Some sources of layout designs include Discogs, thrift stores, libraries, music shops, or your peers in the community. You can also check out our archive here for examples
- Observe how retro cassettes and j-cards were designed
- Ask yourself some questions, such as:
- What do I like about this game? Why?
- What’s a recurring theme in the game?
- Is there a memorable scene?
- Are there any noteworthy items or objectives?
- What aspect or aesthetic do I want to emphasize?
We’ll need to design the front and back. Your exact j-card size may vary depending on the template used and where it’s being printed. The standard j-card size (no extra panels) measures 4.0625” in width and 4.00” in height without bleed.
Below is an example template for an outer j-card design that matches those dimensions. This template is JP0 from the Duplication link in the previous section.
This is the bleed area. You’ll want to extend art to this line. Art between the black and red line most likely won’t be shown in print, but this ensures there will be no white edges if alignment shifts during printing.
This is the cut line. Anything outside of the solid line will most likely not be seen. The dotted line shows the spine folds.
This is the safe area. You generally want to keep text & other key elements within these lines. This way, in the event that printing is misaligned, important info won’t be cut off.
Generally speaking, unless you’re printing to size, you won’t need to worry too much about the safe area. My personal preference when printing at home is to print up to the bleed line on a paper larger than the actual j-card. This way I can trim down to size myself with some room for error.
The inner j-card template is a mirrored version of the outer and is included with the download of JP0 from Duplication.
Note: If your j-cards aren’t being printed exactly to size, you may find it helpful to leave your template layer showing, but deleting as much of it as possible. By doing this, there are only small notches left that will show you where to cut and fold. You can also change the colour of the template and lower its opacity so it’s more subtle, but if you look closely you’ll still be able to see your indicators.
Alternatively, you can cut out a piece of watercolour paper and then measure out and fold the cover, spine, and flap. This way when you glue the art on, you just need to start at one edge and shape it to the folds that are already made and then trim off the excess paper.
Okay firstly, you’re probably wondering: how do I print directly on the cassette shell?
The good news — it’s possible. The bad news — it’s not realistic for most small (sub 25) runs. If you’re interested in learning more, do some digging into “cassette pad printing” and/or “cassette UV printing”. As with a lot of printing/manufacturing, minimum order quantities often need to be met for it to be worth a business’ time. Which means as a customer you need to buy more than one.
That being said, we’re going to look into paper labels since they’re much more affordable for the average hobbyist creator. Again, we can utilise Duplication’s templates for labels. There are a few different options for label style, so pick whichever you like best; just ensure it will fit the physical design of your shell.
As with the j-card templates, the lines here represent the same things. Black line is your bleed, red line is where it will be cut, and blue line shows your safe area.
- Assuming the audio is different between sides, we’ll want to be able to differentiate between which side is A and which is B
- Choose a base colour that complements the colour of the shell
- Info to possibly include: game title, “original soundtrack” or “soundtrack selections”, composer, and/or your ‘label’ name (make something up just for fun!) If the number of tracks is small you can even include them on the cassette. Alternatively, you can leave it completely blank and just add a matching texture or image (be careful about images though as it can make or break your overall design)
What we’ll need:
- Cassette shell — can be purchased new in varying lengths & colours, or can redub over a secondhand tape. If using secondhand, you’ll want to verify the length fits your project.
- Norelco case — can generally be purchased for less than $1.00, including coloured options. Can also be repurposed from thrifted cassettes.
- Label paper — a lot of different options here. If you have a printer at home, you can buy sticker paper or cassette specific label sheets, you can also just print normally and hold them on with folded scotch tape (Figure A).
- J-card paper — again, a few different options. Printing somewhere specifically that does j-cards will probably require a minimum order and this will cost you more than necessary. Instead, consider printing with a local shop on thicker card stock and scoring the paper yourself. Alternatively, use printer paper and glue your design onto something thicker; watercolour paper (140lb/300gsm) has served me well for this. If going that route, I would recommend cutting the watercolour paper to size first, measuring & folding, and then glueing your cut out design.
- Another community member has recommended using FedEx Office to fit 4 j-cards on 8.5” x 11” flyers. I haven’t done this myself, but it may be worth checking out.
You’ll probably want to actually listen to it at some point, right?
To put it plainly, my skills are more related to art & design opposed to audio. Rather than pretending I know what I’m doing with audio (like I’m doing with everything else), let’s refer to a guide written by The Walkman Archive on making good cassette recordings.
This guide covers topics like:
- Choosing a tape deck to record on — single vs double decks, 2-head vs 3-head.
- The hardware you record from (ie. laptop to deck) — this section may be outdated since the writer references their Dell Precision M4600 laptop, which was released in 2011. In my opinion, your default audio output will be perfectly fine for small scale projects.
- Different types of tape — normal (type I), chrome (type II) and metal (type IV).
- Line out vs headphone out — may be irrelevant depending on your output device.
- Using Dolby — suggestions on whether or not to record with Dolby NR (noise reduction).
- Recording levels — mastering is not as important for tapes as it is with vinyl. The key takeaway here is ensuring your audio peaks are not drastically different and that your device output volume is maxed.
For reference, I dub my personal projects through a 2018 laptop’s headphone jack into a Sony 2-head double deck that originally belonged to my parents. Honestly, it’s a bit embarrassing, but it works. The results sound fine to me and others have been happy with the results, too.
My point being — use what’s available to you and don’t sweat buying new stuff if you don’t need it. If possible, use a phone to aux converter, iPod, or CD player, and avoid doing tape to tape recording.
If there’s an official CD, try to use the files from that. VGMdb can be helpful for seeing what kind of official releases exist for a title. Depending on the title, you may need to rip audio directly from the game or get creative with other methods.
I will not be linking resources on free downloads of game music. I am sure you are capable of Googling, “download video game music”.
Once you have your files, depending on how you plan on playing the audio, you may wish to prepare them into A & B side playlists. Alternatively, you can use a tool like Audacity to combine individual songs into one longer file. Audacity can also be used to add fade outs, balance audio levels, and add a few seconds of silence between tracks.
If recording from a computer or phone, make sure you don’t have any notifications or programs open that might make sound during recording. Disconnecting from wi-fi can help reduce this. Worst case scenario, you can always redub over those pesky Facebook sounds.
When recording, watch your tape deck’s VU metres and make sure your highest points are just touching +0 or +3. Afterwards, listen back to your recording and trust your ears that it sounds good and not muffled or compressed.
In my opinion, mastering specifically for cassette is not necessary. If your mix sounds good when listening to it digitally, it will probably sound good on tape. The key takeaway is ensuring there aren’t any large volume discrepancies throughout the mix.
- Prepare your audio for playback
- If outputting from a phone or computer, turn the volume up to max. However, if you’re dubbing using a cassette-corder and not a tape deck, you may need to use a much lower volume (<5 on a PC, but your mileage may vary)
- If your cassette is tabs out, put some adhesive tape over the holes at the top of the shell — note, be cautious about the adhesive tape you use, as some can leave undesired residue behind (Figure B)
- Hit record on your deck, count in ~10 seconds, then play your audio for side A
- Stop and flip to your B side — rewind to the beginning if needed
- Hit record on your deck, count in ~10 seconds, then play your audio for side B
- Test playback. Peel off the adhesive tape if it sounds good; if it doesn’t, try again!
You’re in the final stretch on easy street, baby.
Put it all together
By this point you probably have your card printed and folded, the labels cut out and stuck on, and the tape dubbed and jamming. You know how to stick it all together.
But I would highly recommend doing a project post-mortem.
Give yourself some time to reflect on how it all went. What parts were fun and which parts weren’t? What turned out well and what could have turned out better? Maybe you’re super happy with the cover art, but feel like the spine layout could have been improved. Focus on the positives while being mindful of your opportunities for growth.
Show us in #crafter-community!!! We wanna see!!!!!!! It is infinitely easier to buy a tape than it is to make one, so seriously: be proud of yourself and the effort you’ve put in.
Make sure to at least show me so I can add you to the cool gallery at the bottom of this guide 😎
Thanks for reading!
Feel free to comment or contact me with anything you’re curious about — there are no dumb questions, and while I can’t guarantee I’ll always have an answer, I’ll do my best to figure something out : )
Q: What is “tabs in” and “tabs out”?
A: Tabs in cassettes have the holes at the top of the shell filled in, which allows the cassette to be dubbed. Having tabs out isn’t a problem at all, it just means you’ll need to cover the holes at the top with some adhesive tape in order to dub.
Q: Can you wind a tape yourself?
A: Yep! You can use a pen or pencil to manually turn the spool. Someone actually wrote a wikiHow on this here, which has handy picture examples.
Projects made with the help of this guide — DM me to add or remove your submission.
🤪 📼 🎮 🎶 👾
Found this guide helpful? Please consider purchasing some of my stickers below or other merch on my store here to support me : )