How to recycle old tower PCs into CD and cassette ripping monsters

Want to see a couple of media-ripping towers? In this article, we showcase two David Gewirtz built for bulk ripping CDs and, believe it or not, cassette tapes.

It's always interesting what you find when you move. In my case, one of my more interesting finds was a stack of special-purpose tower PCs I'd used, and then stored away for a rainy day.

As I was unpacking here in Oregon, on one of this area's typical rainy days, those PCs reappeared. They'd made the trip from Florida to Oregon, and were now taking up valuable workspace on my workbench.

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I remembered custom building each PC for a special purpose, to meet a need I had at some point in my life. Two of the towers were then-powerful NAS boxes. Back when owning a one terabyte drive gave you bragging rights, each NAS had an array of ten.

One of the towers was built to rip our CD collection. The last was built for the sole purpose of digitizing old-style cassette tapes. Yep, cassette tapes.

Neither of these towers serves a need for me today. I moved to appliance-style NAS boxes quite some time ago. Once our CD collection was converted to FLAC files, we didn't need to do it again. To be honest, after recording in a bunch of cassettes, it became clear that the device was relatively unreliable, and the process was way more time-consuming than it was worth.

In any case, before I remove the hard drives and donate the remains of the boxes to a good cause in my new neighborhood, I'll show you the media rippers. In a future article, I'll show you why I think it's now almost always a smarter choice to buy a NAS than build your own.

Even though I did these projects years ago, it turns out it's still practical to build your own rippers now -- and it's mostly cheaper. For the CD ripper, you can get a bunch of DVD drives for about twenty bucks each.

Given the power of today's processors, you can marry those drives with pretty much any mobo that has a lot of SATA ports, throw a stick of RAM at it, and go to town.

The key to making it all work is a good ripper. I used dBpoweramp's CD ripper, which is about $40 and well worth it. Once you fire up the machine, the CD ripping software eats CDs for breakfast. You just keep inserting CDs, the ripping software powers through pulling the music off the disks, and then spits out the disk. With four drives running at once, we were able to get through our entire collection in about a weekend.

We ripped to lossless FLAC, and then used dBpoweramp to convert the entire ripped FLAC collection to MP3, so if a player (like the iPod, back in the day) couldn't play FLAC, we'd still be able to play the music. It was geeky, inspired, overkill, and great fun.

The other ripping machine we built back in the day was a dedicated box designed to digitize cassette tapes. Looking back at it now, it seems like something of a silly idea. But when I found a dedicated drive I could put into a tower, I was compelled to buy it and install it.

It's called the PlusDeck 2c, and to my complete surprise, you can still get one (slightly used) from Amazon. It definitely worked, but it was hacky as heck. Basically, it's a cassette player in internal drive form factor, and it comes with an audio digitizing card. You install the card, connect a bunch of wires internally and externally, and essentially route the sound out from the cassette player drive into the audio capture card.

It came with a quirky and generally unreliable bit of software designed to start, stop, and rip the contents of cassettes into MP3s.

Once I got all the software bits working, I decided to keep this as a dedicated machine. In its form, it worked. I had no idea if I updated the machine, added additional hardware, or even looked at it funny, whether it would break. We wound up ripping in a lot of personal cassettes, cherished cassettes from back-in-the-day performances, some classic mix tapes, and more.

And then, like the CD ripper, that tower spent almost half a decade buried under other stuff in the corner of my garage and the back of a closet.

I'll tell you what's exciting. When I first found the machines in the moving load I was unpacking, I felt bad, because they were old, and hadn't seen much love. But the thing is, they were built for a special purpose, they served that purpose admirably, and instead of them taking up space and gathering dust for another five years, they've been donated to folks who are very excited to mine them for parts, repurpose them, and put them back into service.

There's something about finding a new home for old hardware that almost brings a tear to my eye. What about you? Do you have a lot of old hardware that's in need of, or has recently found, a new home? What special purpose tower PCs have you built?

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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