Analog Tape-the When and Where
When you read anything about recording and music today, you will likely come across these terms:
These are common because of the renewed love of that ‘analog’ sound. Its nice to see an old format return, much in the same way vinyl albums have. Not that either format completely disappeared, but to the general populace these have been considered ‘extinct’ until only a few years ago.
Just as everyone has their taste in clothes, I can easily say that I don’t applaud the return of analog tape. In some circles I would be considered a heretic, but my reasoning is all based on facts, many experienced first hand.
No matter what the subject, there always is a ‘romance’ factor involved, a ‘selective memory’ that only recalls what one chooses. We’re all guilty of that in some respects, but analog tape is not on my list. How on Earth can I say this, you ask?
Its simple. I won’t go into the science of exactly how recording works, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_recording_and_reproduction) but I can tell you what I need from a recording system:
A proper recording and playback system will capture the source as accurately as possible and reproduce the recording as accurately as possible.
Before digital recording was common, I was always disappointed how analog recordings never accurately captured what I was hearing. Before you Audiophiles and Techies get upset, let me assure you, the equipment available was the best possible, so it wasn’t because of inferior gear, it was the limitations of the technology.
I’m sure you don’t hear this viewpoint, but I can assure you I’m not alone. Those of us that worked with tape had plenty of workarounds and practices we used daily to make up for the deficiencies of analog tape. What were these deficiencies?
-Signal to Noise ratio
-High Frequency loss
Even on the best machines that were precisely maintained, these factors never went away, they are integral to the format. So how did these factors influence my work flow? I’ll give you some examples:
Signal-to-noise Tape hiss would be a problem when recording quiet instruments. This means that the noise, in some cases, could be louder than the source you were recording. Dolby noise reduction could help, but it had to be setup and calibrated properly. Though despite its help, to some engineers Dolby had its own ‘sound’ that was not flattering to the recording.
Crosstalk is the leakage or ‘bleed’ from adjacent channels. The better the quality of the machine, the less crosstalk. An example: Record a piano on two channels as stereo, Piano Left and Right, on tracks 9 and 10 of the tape machine. Track 11 is bass guitar, recording direct with a direct box. If you’re not careful with the level that the bass is recorded at, it could ‘leak’ on to track 11.
This means, for instance, you could ‘solo’ channels 9 & 10 on your console and hear a ‘ghost’ like recording of the bass. The way we would reduce the leakage would be to record the bass at a lower signal level, thus increasing the possibility of having a noisy recording of the bass. Or record it to a channel, farther away from the piano.
Why could this be a problem? Say, for example, you decide a different bass performance is required. If the original bass leaked on to your piano tracks, that bass recording, is embedded in your piano tracks forever. So now you’re stuck with the original bass, like it or not. Only option then is re-record the piano and the bass. Not cool!
Durability Tape is a chemical formulation that needs to be stored in a particular environment. You can’t store them in the trunk of your car, your attic, or your damp basement and expect them to play back properly.
High frequency loss High frequencies evaporate from analog tape over time. Its not dramatic like turning the treble control down on a sound system, but if you’re looking for a recording system that will faithfully playback your recording a year from now, this is not it.
Transient loss true story: Recording a drum kit in a famous studio. Perfectly tuned kit, beautiful sounding room, world class mic and gear choices. Classic vintage Neve console, recording to a Studer A800 24 track machine. Recording to Ampex 499 tape. With the tape machine on input, I dial in the perfect drum sound.
We do a test recording of the drums so the drummer can hear what we have for a ‘sound’. On the playback I already have to use an equalizer, because the attacks we captured on input aren’t being reproduced from the tape. The transients of the drums are being softened.
Print through Most reel-to-reel tape machines have two reels. A Supply and a Take Up. When a tape is played, it travels from left (supply) to right (take up). When the tape is to be removed, it can be spooled one of two ways: heads out, or tails out.
“Heads out” means the tape would be rewound to the Supply reel. “Tails out” means the tape is wound to the Take Up reel. What’s the difference? When the tape is stored “heads out”, the magnetic layers containing the audio recording, are physically on top of each other. With “Tails out”, the audio recording side of the tape is physically separated from the adjacent layer by the ‘back’ of the tape (the side that is NOT recorded on). Why is this important?
Most tapes are stored for long periods of time. Meaning they sit in their respective containers for potentially years/decades, untouched. If your tape is stored “heads out”, the magnetized layers of audio will start to ‘bleed’ into each other. Since the tape travels horizontally in time, that bleed will be heard before it originally occurred on the recording. Meaning you’ll hear a ghostly replica of that sound BEFORE it actually happens. It can be a nightmare, believe me.
This is why you want to store your tapes on that Take Up reel. This eliminates print through because there is a physical barrier between each layer of your audio recording.
Analog = Maintenance This is the ‘romance’ of tape that I have the most trouble with. Analog tape is a maintenance intensive format. You can’t just throw your tape on any comparable machine, hit ‘play’ and expect it to sound exactly like it does on the source machine. Why, you ask?
Because every tape has to be calibrated on every machine you’re playing it on. If you don’t calibrate to that particular tape’s settings, it won’t play back as you remember.
Every channel has record and playback parameters that have to be adjusted. Adjusted to an included recording of test tones that were made on that particular tape for the original tape machine. The idea is that wherever you use your tape, that different machine can be OPTIMIZED for your tape on that machine. Meaning it should sound exactly as you remember it.
We won’t go in to all the parameters of calibration, you can find out all about that from our friend Bob Shuster (http://www.shustersound.com/services.htm), but its important to know that an investment in analog recording has to include proper maintenance to garner all the acclaimed properties of the format.
Why all this back story?
I did a project a year ago requiring an ‘old school’ mix. The artist wanted the console, the tape machines, the outboard gear…all of it. As Mix Engineers, we’ve all adapted our workflow to that of a DAW and software, but I was game for a return to the old methods.
It was fun to load up the studio with all the classic pieces, most of which have virtual emulations these days. The plan was to dump the Pro Tools sessions to 24 track tape and mix on the console to 2 track 1/2″ tape.
We set up the first song. Because of the track limit, a fair amount of consolidating needed to be done, bouncing down sub-mixes that the artist had been living with. If we needed to adjust those balances, it was easy enough to open up Pro Tools, tweak and re-bounce to tape.
The mix was printed to 1/2″ and Pro Tools. Client comes back the next day. Loved the bass and low end.
But they missed everything else.
We learned and confirmed that tape was an effect. No different than a reverb unit or a guitar fx pedal. The band had worked on this project on a laptop for a year, so that sound was ‘right’ to them. Not ‘better’ necessarily, but it’s what the album sounded like to them. This was not my first experience like this, but as a professional sometimes you have to let the client come to their own conclusion.
All said, as the punch of the kick drum shrunk, the bass bite and keyboards softened, it felt like a step backwards. I described the way that I, and many of my colleagues, mix these days. Which is to use the best of analog in this DAW world. In my case, its routing my Pro Tools outputs, like a tape machine, to my API console. I get all the benefits of analog, without that hiss and expense from tape, plus the ease of recalls that is afforded by my DAW’s automation.
So, what I take away from this experience is, if you are going to use tape it has to be at the start or end of your project. Meaning start with tape, and finish in your DAW, or the opposite, mix out of your DAW to tape. We did listen to the 24 track mix, playing back from the 1/2″ analog, but it was too much analog. No matter the tape size or format, its always going to be an effect on the overall sound.
Its safe to say that the tape they purchased won’t be used again!
Great Music. Period