My analog tape epiphany

This morning I got out a bunch of my old analog tape recordings and listened to them. They were recorded between the late 70’s and late 90’s, on various formats, but mostly 1/4" 8-track and cassette Portastudio-style format. I was completely blown away – not by my “artistry” which is certainly minimal, but by the sound.

In the old tape vs digital debates, I’m something of a neutral observer – they both have their merits, as well as drawbacks. I may be rethinking that now.

These recordings were certainly not “brite” but neither were they “dark” or muffled in any way. I seem to recall the cassette formats usually topped out at 13kHz, not to mention limitations due to tape speed and tape width. But these sounded much better than most if not all of my digital recordings.

Not a matter of limiting/loudness maximizing, either, because for the most part I don’t use those techniques (other than some bus compression on the occasional Rock tune).

Maybe it’s just a psychological effect, from being exposed to something you haven’t heard in quite some time. But I don’t think so… One thing I noticed is that on these old tapes, I can actually hear everything… on a lot of my digital recordings, often I can’t hear certain parts – not because they’re buried in the mix, but more because there’s a lot of masking going on. I don’t know enough about the difference between tape and digital to know why this is so.

So out of curiosity I looked around for prices on used multi-track tape machines. They weren’t as high as I expected, even for such workhorses as an Otari MTR90 or Studer A800 series. What I did find is that biggest problem with an analog tape setup is finding the tape itself.

You used to be able to buy reel tape versions of major releases. They were incredible.

One of the techniques I employ to try to get a bit of warmth into a mix (apart from trying to record a warm sound!) is to use a small amount of low pass filtering on certain parts. Everyone goes on about high pass filtering on stuff to stop the low end from building up into mud but equally subtle low pass filtering can help with the over bright results DAW recording can bring.

The trouble and beauty with digital recording is that what you hear is what you get, no matter how many replays you do it’s always exactly the same this can be a blessing and a curse at the same time.

In the tape days you could actually hear the top end being modified not just from the initial pass to tape but on subsequent multiple replays, also tape does compress at the top to a greater or lesser extent depending on level.

Everything is relative so having over bright drum overheads will lead to over bright guitars etc…

I’m talking about putting a shelf EQ on parts that maybe starts about 2 to 5 Khz and is around 1 to 2dB down at 16 to 20 Khz depending. It’s an interesting thing to try.

It’s interesting also to note that all these analogue systems employ a form of emphasis and de emphasis in the record replay system so records use RIAA cutting the bottom and boosting the top and the opposite on replay thus restoring the bottom to the detriment of turntable rumble and cutting the top to the benefit of reduced crackle. Tape uses a similar system, usually NAB by boosting the high frequencies on record above 4 or 4.5Khz to compensate for the head/tape losses.

I’ve talked recently with my former studio business partner from the 1980s, he has a bunch of our collaborative works on reel still filed and archived carefully, we’ve tried to plan some time to get together and dump them into our respective daws and then further archive/process/whatever… but hard to sync our schedules. He still has a host of old tape machines, as part of his gig is doing format conversions for people. I’ve been thinking about borrowing one of his half inch two or three tracks and using that to mix down to out of Cubase, back through my analog board. Only problem is they are like washing machine sized machines… Definitely going to warm things up.

All the same, I am quite happy with what I get ITB and alternately, real time recording through my Mackie to another machine running Wavelab… even that changes things up noticeably.

Doug why not record back to tape from Cubase and see what you get…

I was talking to my buddy ( nuendo user ) about going back to tape the other day. One of the reasons the conversation started is we were discussing the complexities of DAW software getting in the way of the creative process. Too much flexibility and editing power can sometimes be a bad thing, but that’s another debate. :slight_smile:

I love the sound of Tape. In fact Iv’e been listening to almost exclusively old 70s and 80s tunes and most of them sound amazing.

Buy a multitrack tape machine, as you say isn’t the biggest problem. Although best to find one without too much head wear, but in getting the tape, and just as importantly getting a decent alignment tape and making sure you align it at least every couple of sessions.

I think I’m really missing the vibe of tape because that’s where I started and spent the first 25+ years of my recording life using it. In college, in the Radio/TV Dept we had an Ampex 4-track, going thru a custom-built board, into a 2-track (I think it was a Scully, can’t remember) and I’ve cut my chops spending many an hour cutting tape as well as cleaning and calibrating the machines. Then I had an internship (at the studio where John “cougar” mellencamp recorded most of his early albums) and one of my jobs was MRL calibration an head cleaning. I don’t recall what brand it was, but it was a 2" 24 track and it was always breaking down. :unamused: Then IU (my school) started a certificate program of audio production that I took a few classes in (too late in my school career to complete the whole program) and that also had a 2" 24-track with auto-locators, which was a bit rare for anybody outside the bigger studios at the time.

Then after school like most of us I had a Tascam “portastudio” cassette multi-track, and then later a Tascam RTR 8-track – both of them could stripe a track with FSK to trigger MIDI sequencers with.

It wasn’t until 1999 that I bought the Cubase “Prodcuer’s Pack” and a Creamware Pulsar soundcard, and I instantly hate the sound. So I bought an Apogee Rosetta which helped immensely. But since that time I hadn’t listened to the old recordings until yesterday. Some of them had some dropout on them, as well as some print-through, but I was still amazed at how “smooth” and unhyped it sounded.

That’s a good point regarding the LPF, split – I picked that up on gearslutz awhile back and have used it, but I never know if I’m doing it right – I try to start rather high with just a bit of attenuation and then slide it down in freq until I just start to hear it affect the sound… does that sound kosher?

Doug, as far as epiphanes go, the question I have of you is, what the hell are you doing SMOKING!!! John :mrgreen:

Maybe he sold his soul to someone … :wink:

Yeah, I suppose it depends. I like to use the technique on drum overheads and guitars first then settle everything into the mix that way. Trouble is I find I get used to overly bright mixes very quickly and end up brightening things over time regardless of how much I tell myself not to. Tape seems to enable a bright but smooth sound (not always as I’ve heard and done harsh tape mixes as well). When I think about it there is so much going on with tape, not just the tape itself but the circuitry getting the signal to and from tape that obviously a simple filter cant replicate.

I’ve posted this link before but this box intrigues me and when I get a spare bit of dosh I think I’ll order the kit version and see what it sound like.

I’ve been using gentle lp filters and high shelf cuts recently and find the sound much more pleasing. Trouble is when comparing to many modern mixes it can sound dull.

Yeah thats a problem! I would restore the lost brightness with a nice eq on the masterbuss. Kind of like a de-emphasis-emphasis sort of thing which seems to yield a different result than just having it bright initially!

For instance I like the way the Pultec EQ can boost and cut the same frequencies simultaneously! the result can sound very smooth, probably due to the phase issues introduced.