Introduction: Images on an Audio Cassette

Picture of Images on an Audio Cassette

If you have some old cassettes, a computer, and a love for obscure technology, here's a fun project to waste a couple extra hours on. Using a type of amateur television broadcasting that dates back to the early days of space travel, you can store and view images from normal audio cassettes, using only your computer and a tape player. And once you've figured out what you're doing, you'll be able to transmit pictures on anything that's audio-capable. And maybe actually learn to use the technology for it's intended purpose.

   Before you begin, here's a few things you'll want to have:
  •   A computer with a headphone and microphone/line-in jack.
  •   A tape player with the same jacks, and a record button
  •   Tapes
  •   The ability to work on a pointless, and mostly useless project
  •   A lot of extra time to kill
   That being said, let's learn a few things about what we're going to be doing.


Step 1: Slow-Scan Television

  What makes this project possible is a type of television called SSTV, or Slow-Scan Television.
 With normal television, about twenty five to thirty frames (pictures) are broadcasted per second, making a moving image on your screen.
 But with SSTV, there aren't any moving images at all. Infact, all you see in the end is one, still image, which is only about 256×256 pixels  large.  To most people that probably wouldn't sound very exciting at all, but for people like me, being able to transmit even one still image makes my brain jump with excitement.

 Usually, SSTV is used by amateur radio enthusiasts, who broadcast an image that includes their callsign and other radio-related things over the HAM or shortwave radio bands. SSTV is even used on the International Space Station to broadcast images of the station back to earth, and to anyone who's listening in with a radio.  But in this instructable, we'll be taking the audio signals that make up our pictures and recording them, instead of broadcasting them. Because radio transmitters are expensive.

Even though we won't be using it for it's intended purposes, the way we use it is exactly the same as if we were using it over the radio. We use a computer program to turn our images into audio, and also play audio to the program, which will then decode it and show us the picture that's encoded in the sound.

Step 2: Getting Started: MMSSTV

  Ok, now it's time to actually get started on the project.

 The main component in this project is a Windows program called MMSSTV. We're going to use the program to create our images, to turn them into audio, and to view images that are already in audio format. If you don't have Windows, there are Linux programs for SSTV, but I haven't played around with them too much. They should work about the same as MMSSTV though.

The first thing you'll need to do is, obviously, download and install the program. You can download the program here: .

Once you've installed the program, start is up. But be warned, it's going to look very overwhelming at first. Just stick with the instructable, and you'll soon have a small understanding of what half of the things in the program mean. But most importantly, you'll understand how to use it. Hopefully.

Once you've played around with the program a little, move on to the next step to get started on your image.

Step 3: RX, TX, and Robot 36's

Picture of RX, TX, and Robot 36's

 Like I said in the last step, looking at MMSSTV is probably giving you a headache if you've never had any experience with something like this before. But don't worry, it's not as extremely confusing as it looks. If you have no clue what you're doing, here's a very simplistic explanation of what you're seeing on the screen, and what it does.
  •     Orange Bar in the Top Right Corner - This is a spectrum analyzer. In a way, you can think of it as the wavy line on an oscilloscope when you play music through it. It'll show you what's going on with the audio. You won't need to know too much about it, only that when it's moving, there's audio either playing or being heard by the program.
  •    "RX Mode" Boxes - These boxes set what SSTV mode the incoming video is encoded in. Each mode supports different colors, sizes, and other aspects of pictures. Just leave this on Auto, and you'll be fine. The program will detect which mode the incoming video is in.
  •   "TX Mode" Boxes - These boxes set what mode you want your picture to be set in. Read about the different modes, and pick which one you think will work best for your picture. I usually use Robot 36 or one of the Martin's. You can read about the modes on the SSTV Wikipedia page.
  •   Big White Square With Tabs At The Top In The Top Left Corner - This is what you'll be paying the most attention to. Think of it as your work space. Each tab does something different, and you can use the tabs to do everything you need to do. All you really need to know is what each tab does, and you can use the program. Here's an explanation of each tab, and what some things mean.
           Tabs:     Sync - The sync tab does what it says, it helps control the synchronization of the image you're receiving. You don't 
                                       have  to worry about this tab when you're not receiving a video, but if the video you're decoding has a weird
                                      tilt or slant, this tab can be used to fix the picture. Right click on the smiley face to fix your slant problem.

                           RX -    This tab will show the picture your receiving/decoding. You can ignore the other buttons in the tab, all you need
                                       is the empty white square. It's where the picture will show up.

                        History - This will show you all the images you previously decoded/received. It's pretty self explanatory.

                            TX -    The TX tab is the tab you use to convert your image to audio. The picture you put together in the Template
                                        tab will show up in the white space. When you're ready to turn the picture into sound, just press the red
                                        TX button on the bottom of the tab and listen. The spectrum analyzer will move around, and a scan line
                                         will move down the image. When the sound stops and the line hits the bottom, the audio is done.

                      Template - This tab is where you put together your image. You can use the "Draw picture" button to load a picture into
                                           the template, and the "T" button to add text. Putting together the image is pretty easy, and most of the buttons
                                           functions are pretty obvious. If you want a blank template, just click one of the blank squares at the bottom
                                           of the screen. When you're done with your image, just go to the TX tab to turn it into sound. 


Step 4: Making It Happen

Picture of Making It Happen

Now that you know how to work the main parts of the program, you should be able to figure out how to put the audio onto a cassette. But just incase you haven't figured it out, I'll tell you how to do that, and also how to get images off the cassette, or whatever you're getting images from.

  Once you've got an image made up in your template, and you're back on the TX tab, all you have to do is record the audio onto a tape. Press the red "TX" button to test your sound, and if you start hearing tones and weird computer sounds, then everything's working. Use a Male to Male audio cable to hook up the headphone jack on your computer to the microphone/input jack of your tape player, start the tape recording, press the red TX button again, and let it play through to the end. Once the sounds played through, everything is done, and now you have an image recorded on a cassette tape.

To read the image off the cassette, open the RX tab in MMSSTV. Then, use the same audio cable to plug the tapes headphone jack into your computers line-in jack. Go to the Options tab at the very top of the program, and click "Soundcard input level...". Make sure the Line-in input is turned all the way up, and then you're ready to go. Rewind the tape to just before the image, and press play.

If everything worked right, then an image should start slowly loading in the white space on the RX tab. This is the image you saved to the cassette. If the image has a weird tilt or shift, wait until it's done loading, go to the Sync tab, and right click the smiley face. Now go back to the RX tab, and the picture should be fixed.

Step 5: Doing More

Picture of Doing More

 If you've read up to here, you should now be able to figure out how to make this project work. And if you got it to work, then you now have the ability to do so many more things. Why does the image have to be on a tape? Try and think of other things you could send your pictures through, like a telephone, or anything else that uses audio.

And if you enjoyed doing this project, you can always learn more about SSTV, and maybe actually use it the way it's normally used.

You can also keep poking around the program to find even cooler things that it can do. After a few hours of playing with it, you might be able to do even more than I can do with it.

If you want to read more about SSTV, you can read the Wikipedia article on it, which should be able to give you all the information you need.


Nirgal38 (author)2011-06-12

As a ham radio operator, I find this Instructable awesome. One of the first things I did when I got my general class license was to build an interface to hook my computer to my transceiver so I could send and receive SSTV images.

There are different ways of encoding the images. Some of the methods are better for long distance (DX) because the signal may take longer but the error correction makes for a better image on the other end.

I see no reason that a person couldn't transmit images like this across the telephone except for the limited frequency response of most telephones. But I've sent images across a room by doing nothing more than turning up the sound on the transmitting computer.

Maybe this will inspire folks to look into ham radio and how much it's changed with the advent of digital technology and help revitalize the hobby.

All in all, good job!

jwzumwalt (author)Nirgal382011-06-12

FYI: In the early 80's, there where several attempts to market "video phones" which used SSTV images. I recall there being two major drawbacks that forced marketers to throw the towel in.

1) It required identicle equip on both ends.
2) Not everyone wants to be seen when they answer the phone (Woman with messy hair, or answering in the bath room).

Talking while a picture was being sent, messed up the picture. I don't rememeber for sure but I think it took 10-15sec for each picture to be taken and sent.

akearley (author)jwzumwalt2017-04-13

This would have been a good idea for people interested in voice chatting with strangers and then actually seeing who they're talking to if only a snap shot. Imagine talking to someone on the other side of the country and then 15 seconds later seeing what they look like. By modern standards that's not very impressive, but back in the 80s and early 90s it would have blown people's minds.

Nirgal38 (author)jwzumwalt2011-06-13

This process isn't for live, real time transmission by any means. The "SS" in SSTV stands for "Slow Scan" and deservedly so. Ten to fifteen seconds is optimistic for transmission time. There is no voice transmission when sending a picture and, more from tradition than regulation, we switch to another frequency for voice (aka phone in the parlance of hams) communications.

The software isn't for image capture, either. Hams usually send pictures of their setups, maps showing their locations, cute/funny pictures and the like. There's one guy out of Oklahoma who likes to send pictures of Christian iconography.

I do remember the first attempts at "video phones" and they tried to send images using a cross between SSTV and analog signals. It was a pretty abysmal failure.

And 30 years later, smartphones are able to get high quality video-calling. Really, time flies by...

tardismaster (author)2015-03-23

I there a mobile app that does the same thing?

superbrain (author)2014-04-03

great mam, really great

halamka (author)2013-12-15

Great but there is no computer available. Paul Allen actively eliminates start up microprocessors? It is strange that nobody , but nobody can build an actual computer. I am at the point where I know that a radix is a binary point similar to a decimal point in division. Flow charts for binary division can be drawn. There are homebuilt computers on youtube. These are limited to single individuals.

erikals (author)2012-09-11

I've been playing around with MMSSTV for a bit, and I managed to work out that 'headphone output' mode on a netbook (if it is equipped with sound card management software provided by the sound card manufacturer) is not at all suitable for the transmission of images over audio. You should choose 'speaker output' mode if you are using this to send images via MMSSTV from a netbook's headphone port to a PC's mic input. PC speaker out > netbook mic in works fine. Just watch out when it's the reverse... otherwise your picture will be severely distorted...

crazydog75 (author)2011-06-12

Another cool idea would be to use KipKays laser communicator (On YouTube: Weekend Project Laser Communicator) and use it to transfer pictures instead of just sound.

That exact same project popped into my head when I was thinking about what to do with the audio from this project.

If only I had a bunch of extra laser pointers.

If anyone does, I hope they make an instructable about it.

Warlrosity (author)crazydog752011-06-14

I take that challenge.

Where is it?

I'm actually getting several lasers soon for another project, I may be able to try this soon.

Dr.Bill (author)2011-08-14

Next step is to get an Amateur Radio License and do it with Radio like we do.

yodady14 (author)2011-08-05

I recently have used SSTV to send images over a CB radio, and it comes through more clearly than a tape, as i was using my ipod to play it over Cb into my computer. Nice range

0Ihavenousername0 (author)2011-07-24

Yes, it's completely safe. It was made by a HAM radio operator from Japan, and it's definitely worth the download.

0Ihavenousername0 (author)2011-07-24

I've never really played around with other programs too much, but they should work too. All you have to do is figure out how to use them.

BodhidharmaCharma (author)2011-07-07

Would the picture be visible if the audio signal was ran through an spectrogram?

As long as the picture still reached the computer or a modem, you could still see the picture. Running it though a spectrogram shouldn't chance the pictures quality.

Awesome! Now I can be like my hero Aphex Twin and place an image into a song! Thanks!

josh1324 (author)2011-06-22

This isn't really all that amazing, because the commodore pets used cassettes too for storing infomation. Cool instructable though!

mad_mat (author)2011-06-18

Great Instructable! Thanks.
Berith, yeah! Modems in computers do that every time you download something. When we all used to use manual dial-up modems and the baud rate was in the bps and kbps range you could hear the same computer type noises emanating from your computer during dial-up. That was your computer communicating via sounds with the internet service provider or BBS.

If you want to communicate with someone on computers via phone lines, install a dial-up modem in each computer and play around with dialling one another and using the multitude of programs and games that support modem connections. It was great fun when online gaming was limited who you could connect to and who could get it to work :D

Another common instance of image data transfer over phone lines is the common household and office Fax (facsimile). This is the whole kit and caboodle built into a box on your desk. It scans your page, dials your intended recipient and transmits the image in sounds. The other box picks up the phone, lists for the sounds, decodes the sounds, then prints a facsimile of the scanned page. Brilliant! :D

violentorchid (author)2011-06-16

Who is that tall man in the background?

In the last picture?

The man painting the building is Bask. It's a picture I took of him while he was painting a building near my house. The other picture is just a random computer to fill space.

nanoBorg88 (author)2011-06-13

This is a little similar to a thing I saw a couple weeks back about about sending secret messages images in audio files. check it out!

powerfool (author)2011-06-12

This is great!
Question: if you hook the exit from the cassette player to the input of the tv (where the antenna would go) would you see the image on your tv?

pbates123 (author)powerfool2011-06-12

No. Connecting the audio from your recorder to your TV's Ant input will not work. The TV Ant is expecting a Radio Frequency (RF) Signal from the Antenna. That has been encoded with Digital or Analog Signals which then must be decoded by the TV set to be displayed for you to see.
Slow Scan TV (SSTV) only translates the sent picture, one picture at a time, to Audio, then receives the Audio and translates it back into a picture. It only does one frame without any voice or sound.
Unlike a television that receives and decodes audio and video up to 30 Frames in one second.

powerfool (author)pbates1232011-06-13

Ok thanks!
So, how did they use to see the SSTV images before the days of computers?

skrubol (author)powerfool2011-06-13

I think the earliest were actual special TV's that were low resolution and had slower phosphors to be able to display the signals directly without any sort of memory.

pbates123 (author)skrubol2011-06-13

In reading what I wrote it may not be clear: Whether you turn on or off the beam depends on whether the image is light or dark at that point of the scan.

Great Questions!

pbates123 (author)skrubol2011-06-13

skrbol is correct in the cense that initially the first SSTV was made using something called a Vidicon a "memory" screen of sorts. Later Ham operators used RADAR screens which were Cathode Ray devices with high persistence similar to today's television sets although the image stayed longer.
Powerfool: to transmit an image you only need a little information actually. It depends on the size, variation of color or gray scale. Unlike a computer that divides the screen in to little dots called pixels. Old tv's divided the TV into lines actually one line that started in the upper left corner of the screen and descended in a zigzag pattern toward the bottom. The second scan started in the top middle of the screen and interlaced or was place in between the first lines. Each screen or frame equaled 525 lines and, on tv's, the scan rate is 15,750 Hz. Imagine as the scan starts you turn on the beam or turn it off. That is what TV's and Slow Scan do Slow scan is just slower. TV's are more complex due to how the information is rec'd, and the resolution.

I've heard a few things about SSTV modems being used before they used computers. The modem could translate a picture to sound, and a sound back to a picture.

That's why there's so many different modes of SSTV. Most of the modem manufacturers decided to make their own modes instead of just use the ones that were already around.

Everyone has or thinks they have a more efficient way to compress the information. That lead to the different modes.

Great instructable!

It has brought up some great questions.... By the way modem stands for Modulate - Demodulate MOD - DEM drop one "D"
To transmit information you must somehow modulate then demodulate. So Modems have been around as long as transceivers.........

Keep up the good work.
- Phil

VenomousFish. (author)2011-06-13

Brilliant! I love this instructable! I also tried to do this with an old Dictaphone, (the type that uses microcassettes). The result were recognisable, but severely distorted. This reminds me of something a spy would use...

skrubol (author)2011-06-13

Any thoughts about doing this on a microcontroller or FPGA/PLD to output to TV? I've been looking at the Propeller recently because if it's multitasking and apparent ease of dev, and it's video capabilities are often touted. Only issue I see is it's short on RAM (32k,) so you'd need external RAM for a frame buffer. There might be better suited chips, but it might be the quickest to get working, as video output (NTSC or 64 color RGB,) is pretty simple to implement.

onlylooklikepackrat (author)2011-06-12

Re: "Because radio transmitters are expensive.", despite my username, I do pick up things and recently came across the cast-offs of a retiring HAM buff. There are boxes and boxes of IR components (devices (transmitters?) power supplies, transformers, caps, various other electronic items). Much of it is heavy. I am in San Antonio and would be happy to help get the stuff into the hands of someone who can use it. If a serious inquiry is made, I will list the box contents description.

You make me jealous. I'm always on the look out for things like that, but so far all I've found is an old ship's radio. I live a little too far from San Antonio, but I hope someone else can find some use for that.

lukeyj15 (author)2011-06-12

This reminds me of dial-up Internet. It would be really cool to set up your own dial up or ADSL connection

I was thinking about writing an instructable on setting up a dial up connection actually. It's pretty easy, but I got kind of lazy when I tried writing about it.

If your computer runs windows, you can run a program called sexpots.exe, which forwards all incoming calls to a port on your computer. It's pretty fun to play around with.

The nerdling (author)lukeyj152011-06-12

i still use dial up on my brothers phone.
the phone is connected to an old lappy then the lappy uses it as a modem then i connect my school lappy to that then i set up wi-fi using my lappy the i conect my phone to the wi-fi so all of that goesbthrough a phone with usually 1 or 2 bars of gprs signal so it is really slow, but it works

berith (author)2011-06-12

That's really impressive! i'm quite young and never seen something like this before!

I have a question, do you know a way to do this same thing, but with raw data? like binaries or something like that? it would be really cool to pass "encrypted" data/programs to your friends so no one would figure out that your tape holds important information :D

0Ihavenousername0 (author)berith2011-06-13

Well I know it's possible, since most old computers used tape drives before floppy disks got cheap enough for normal people to use. But so far I've never figured out how to do it with newer computers.

It is possible to write text to cassette though, using the same method as in the instructable, but with a different program. The person who made MMSSTV also has another program called MMTTY, which is made for sending text over radio to other computers. After I wrote this I played around with MMTTY, and it works really well for reading/writing text from a cassette.

powerfool (author)2011-06-12

great instructable but please fix the text in this step :)

Dr_Stupid (author)2011-06-12

there was a kid's video camera in the 80's that was based off of this principle, only the images were in b&w, I think it was from Fisher Price if I remember correctly.

timothymh (author)2011-06-12

I love Ham radio! I've been a licensed operator since 2006 (I was 9 years old at the time).

SWV1787 (author)2011-06-09

fist of all, Michigan is perhaps the greatest place to live! and I recall an old toy video camera that used audio cassettes in-place of video cassettes that reminded me of this project somewhat. it was the fisher price PXL-2000 or pixelvision and was available in the 1960's

bobwojo (author)SWV17872011-06-12

Could not be the 60's.

xenomachina (author)SWV17872011-06-12

I had a PXL-2000 (I actually still have the manual with all of my old computer books, though the camera itself disappeared years ago). It was actually made in the late 80's (1987, according to Wikipedia).

I remember listening to a PXL-2000 tape on a standard cassette player. The recordings sounded a lot like those that would come from my Commodore 64's Datasette.

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