One man’s journey from computer-based recording back to tape.
Story: J. Walker
When I started out on my recording journey as a very green 13-year old, digital recording was barely a thing at the high-end of the recording business let alone for the home enthusiast. My first experiences of overdubbing consisted of bouncing audio between two cassette decks with horrendous amounts of noise and audio degradation. My idea of hi-fi was saving up for a chrome II tape and using the Dolby noise-reduction switches on my crappy cassette decks. Nevertheless, I was hooked very early on the possibilities of recording sound onto sound. It’s probably safe to say I experienced the very worst aspects of analogue tape recording right at the start — terrible noise and degradation issues, very limited track counts and the necessity of un-redoable submixing.
As the years went by I progressed from cassettes to four-track ¼-inch, to eight-track ½-inch multi-track machines and entered the world of high-fidelity tape recording. With my all-round recording skills steadily improving, those early experiments served me well. I knew how to squeeze the absolute maximum out of every device I had, I knew how to make on-the-fly decisions that would benefit the final outcome and how to keep things lean and mean. I loved tape and the discipline of recording to simple low track-count machines. Still, once I got my first hard drive computer recording system in the ’90s, my tape machines and analogue mixers quickly got sold off or leant out to unreliable friends, until all I had left to show for all that earlier analogue know-how were some boxes of old reel-to-reel tapes.
I jumped boots first into the wonderful world of digital recording and didn’t look back. I couldn’t believe the fun I was having flipping things backwards, racking up big track counts, exploring the emerging world of digital plug-ins, looping beats, cutting and pasting, totally re-arranging songs post-tracking and all the other previously impossible things the new technology allowed. I still had friends who worked with analogue tape machines and consoles, now and again — where the budget allowed for pro studio time — I did too, but mostly I stayed happily in the box until about three years ago.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
I’m still not sure exactly what made me jump back into analogue again. I’d tried the summing box approach but found it wasn’t for me. Retro purists banging on about how ‘warm’ and ‘human’ analogue tape sounded didn’t persuade me either — most audio professionals think whatever gear they’re using is the best, whatever gear that happens to be. My clients almost always required recalled and rejigged mixes (sometimes months after the initial sign-off), so I definitely wasn’t interested in a pure analogue-only approach. Nevertheless, the truth was I kept hearing sounds in my head I wasn’t able to conjure with all the plug-in compressors, tape emulators and ‘warmth’ simulators in my digital arsenal. I was also feeling a physical need to stop looking at blue lit screens so much. VU meters and spooling tape suddenly seemed much more appealing. I wasn’t expecting some kind of ‘Halleluya’ moment when I first put a guitar to tape again, but I thought if I got a decent tape machine it might be a pretty cool weapon to add to my existing gear, both as a tracking and processing tool. It would also take me down some alternative paths process-wise, and hopefully help me make some albums with a different-but-good sound to them. Having made this decision, my mission was to find a good machine with a form factor that fit my workflow.
Checklist: What to Look for When Buying a Tape Machine
Unless you are a vintage electronics wiz, get a tape machine in good working condition with some history of regular maintenance — repairs and/or a rebuild can become expensive very quickly.
Look for a machine that is a reasonably common brand and model. Companies like Studer, Ampex, Otari, Sony, MCI and Tascam all pumped out large numbers of good quality machines in their heyday. Buying a more common model means parts will be easier to source and online forums will be a more useful resource for trouble-shooting.
Always check the condition of the heads and rollers for signs of wear. A good set of heads will last many years so make sure there’s some life left in yours.
It’s best if your machine can run at the standard pro tape speeds of 15 and 30 IPS. Some vintage machines can only manage 7½ IPS, meaning more noise and less headroom in your recordings.
Tape is an ongoing expense, so make sure you and/or your clients can afford the format you’re investing in.
Spare parts are an extremely handy asset when things go south as they inevitably will. Manuals, schematics and cabling are also very useful.
Remote controls were a common feature with many pro models and are a great asset. Utilising a remote control means you can have your machine tucked away in a corner of the studio and do your recording from your desktop — very nice!
After the earlier mono and two-track machines of the ’40s and ’50s, track counts quickly expanded towards the end of the ’60s. By the mid ’70s, 16- and 24-track machines were the norm, and the technology had matured in terms of stability and sonic quality. The great American tape machines were made by Scully, Ampex and MCI. Studer and Revox were the high-end European equivalents while the Japanese chimed in with great machines by Sony, Otari, Teac, Akai and Tascam from the ’70s onwards. By the early 2000s, reel-to-reels were more or less defunct as a manufacturing concern so most machines on the market today are between 25 and 40 years old, a sobering thought when you consider these are some of the most mechanically complex recording devices ever made!
I eventually settled on purchasing an early ’80s Otari MX 70 one-inch 16-track machine. Not the ducks nuts as far as brands go, but I had worked on Otaris before and knew they were nice sounding, reliable machines. I bought the Otari from a collector who was meticulous with his maintenance, meaning I knew I was getting a solid machine that had been regularly serviced and was in good condition. The seller also threw in a second identical but non-functioning machine for parts (a major bonus), along with a spare remote, take-up spools, 16 noise reduction modules and a full technical manual. I really liked the idea of the 16-track one-inch format. It was a good fit for my digital set-up’s I/O count plus one-inch tape is a much more affordable format compared to two-inch which costs upwards of $350 per reel (not something some of my more budget-conscious clients would relish). Tape is sold in Australia via several online stores and is best bought in batches of five or 10 to get a discounted rate. $500 got me five reels of lovely brand new Quantegy 499 1-inch tape (a hi-bias format that fit the way my machine had been set up).
In terms of tape formats, many would argue that the wider the tape the better the recording quality (for instance Jack White’s studio proudly records to an Ampex eight-track one-inch machine), and there is certainly some truth to this argument. Perhaps because of my indie DIY background however, I actually prefer the sound of a more slender tape width as I feel I can hear the tape sound more clearly. If I wanted clean recordings I had the digital option but for tape recordings I knew I wanted to hear as much of that ‘tapeness’ as possible.
TALE OF THE TAPE
After some tedium getting appropriate cabling and patch bays in place (another hidden cost), I was ready to hit record and see whether all this fuss had been worth it. Having braced myself to be, perhaps, a little underwhelmed, I was pleasantly surprised by how my initial electric guitar, bass and drum recordings sounded. Further experimentation and then some full band tracking got me more and more excited about the sounds coming back off tape. So what was I getting excited about exactly?
Firstly, I was hearing the more obvious and much touted benefits of tape that, to some degree, I expected — natural tape compression did indeed seem to glue everything together in a noticeably pleasing manner. Drum kits and guitars benefitted from a slightly smoothed top end, transients sounded sweeter and less harsh, vocals seemed bolder in the midrange and smoothed out up top meaning less annoying mouth clicks and lip-smacks to deal with. What I wasn’t expecting were a few additional benefits that perhaps don’t get mentioned as much as they should in digital versus analogue debates. For one, there was a definite sense of midrange guts and power coming off the Otari that sometimes really blew my socks off. Some sources felt like they were on steroids compared to my usual DAW sounds. Passages that were meant to sound big, sounded big! Perhaps related to this was the extended dynamic range the tape recordings exhibited. For whatever reason, it seemed the relationship between the loudest and quietest passages simply ‘felt’ better. Certainly, this dynamic behaviour is more like my favourite old vinyl records than contemporary digital recordings, so perhaps there’s some psychological and historical elements at play there. Finally, there was the undeniable fact that when I (and the bands I worked with) listened back to bed tracks we all felt like we were listening to something that already sounded good. Often when listening back to digital beds with a band, I find I’m immediately jumping in to whack a few compressor plug-ins on to show a band how things will ‘eventually sound’. With the Otari there was no such need — the integrity, authority and overall vibe of my standard mic and instrument setups were undeniably magnified by this medium. The jury was in, tape really did sound bloody good!
Tape Machine Tricks
Half speed and double speed tracking allows for some special tape effects. You can do this with your DAW as well but nothing sounds quite like tape for half-speed effects in particular.
If your machine boasts a vari-speed control this opens up all sorts of possibilities such as tracking vocals or other instruments a semi-tone lower and then playing them back at standard speed to get some different tonalities. Speeding up or slowing down a whole track a little (Beatles-style) is also a cinch, and there’s none of the warbling artefacts that continue to dog digital pitch shifting processes.
Flip your spools backwards to get some cool reverse effects happening. Just remember that the channels will also be flipped, so on a 16-track machine track three would become track 14, etc.
If you want to go down the analogue-only route then it’ll be handy to get your tape splicing chops going. Most pro-level machines will have a splicing block built in. Get yourself a nice sharp razorblade and some splicing tape and go nuts (the diagonal cut method is best). Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich insists tape edits sound better than digital ones so put his theory to the test. Practice on some non-critical material first till you feel confident!
Once my inner jury was in, I started making albums predominantly on tape. I’d still run everything off to my DAW for mixing at the end but increasingly I and the artists I was working with were creating and shaping songs via the early ’80s magic of the Otari company and Quantegy one-inch tape. Layered indie folk sounded great through this machine, electro-pop with multi-tracked female vocals sounded great through it, rock ’n’ roll sounded great through it! Everything was going so well… until one fateful 40-degree summer day when my studio was hit by a multi-spike power blackout.
I had no power for about 24 hours and the glorious Perch Creek, who I was recording at the time, were left high and dry. When we finally got mains power back I quickly discovered my previously quiet Otari MX-70 was a maelstrom of noise (it sounded like Bells Beach on an angry day in there), faulty circuits and dead channels. Fortunately I had the amazing Geoff Williamson to call on for in-depth technical assistance and a whole spare machine to grab parts from, so while Geoff hauled the Otari off to his workshop up in the hills I reverted, tail-between-legs, to my previous in-the-box workflow. The repair process did in the end require a bunch of spare cards to be cleaned up, as well as new relays installed (which turned out to be the main problem) but it did take a long time to track down all the faults and get everything right again. By the time I was hitting record with the reels turning again it was several months later and, despite Geoff’s generous rates, I was out of pocket for almost as much as I’d spent on the machines in the first place!
While all my outboard and digital gear had come through the blackout totally unscathed, the tape machine had copped a terrible hiding and I now have it plugged in through several expensive power conditioners to avoid more painful downtime and expense. The big lesson here is that old gear can be a little frail, and is also not a quick fix. Oh, and you’d better have some spares handy and access to a good tech!
A year or two have gone by since those experiences went down and the Otari has been solid as a rock ever since. I’ve tracked some beautiful records to tape for the likes of (the very patient) Perch Creek, Emma Davis, Jordan Ireland, Jen Cloher and Masco Sound System, and everyone has loved the results. The discipline of recording to tape means that everyone is very focused during the initial bed-tracking phase and it definitely encourages proper ensemble playing with the aim of getting great performances onto tape from the get-go. This process has a different flavour to digital tracking and I do find it a musically superior way to get results, especially in an ensemble situation. There’s more of a sense of occasion when the reels are spinning. Takes can always be comped together later once transferred to digital (or if you’re happy to go there, via cutting and editing the tape itself), and different techniques can bring the tape machine back into play further downstream in the album making process (see the sidebar about getting the most out of your tape machine). Mostly, it just sounds great, and it really is nice to be standing with a bunch of people looking into the space between the speakers or watching the VU meters bouncing while listening to a take, rather than watching a screen. The hybrid tape/digital workflow has worked really well for me as my tape recording skills seem to complement my digital ones. Ultimately it’s all about personal preferences and workflows — I’m yet to make an album straight off tape but I have loved integrating the tape machine into my recordings and feel like I’m deriving a lot more benefit from the sounds and process of tape recording than I ever thought I would going into it. If you’re reading this, have some recording chops and are thinking about taking the plunge into tape, my advice is — keep your eyes wide open and be aware of the pitfalls, but yes, absolutely do it! If you get a solid machine, you won’t regret it.
Tips on how to get the most out of tape machine recording:
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can just run tracks through the tape machine in standby record mode and straight back out again. If you don’t record your source to tape through the record head with the tape running and capture it back out through the playback head you’re only capturing the sound of the machine’s electronics, not the sound of the tape itself.
We’ve increasingly become addicted to overdriven and harmonically saturated sounds; for very good reason given they often impart more excitement and sense of scale to a recording. While the temptation is there to run everything hot to tape, be aware that tons of level will not always get the best results, especially with very sharp transient sounds like kick drums and tambourines. Less dynamic sources like guitars, keys and room mics can benefit most from higher recording levels, where tape compression is a wonderful asset, but don’t forget that the more dynamic a sound is, the more headroom you need to allow. A big dynamic range is actually one of the most pleasing and lifelike qualities of tape recordings, so don’t be afraid to let some things breathe without squashing them and keep that dynamic range nice and wide!
Conversely don’t set your record levels too low. This will invite the unwanted guest that is tape hiss into your recordings where it will wait for mixing and mastering to really rear its ugly head. A bit of tape hiss on a track can be cool and I’ve had artists insist on the some being left in or even exaggerated. 16 or 24 tracks of the stuff will drive you nuts though, so keep your recording levels nice and healthy with peaks making the VU needles really work and you’ll save yourself grief later. It’s pretty easy to source cheap old-school analogue noise reduction units at the moment so the more fastidious will find a ready solution there. Personally I find if I have my recording levels right using hi-bias tape (such as GP9 or 499) even at 15 IPS there’s no real noise issue to worry about.
Maintenance is key with these devices. You’ll need to clean the heads and the tape path very regularly with cotton tips dipped in pure isopropyl alcohol, as well as practicing the arts of head demagnetizing and azimuth alignment. Regular I/O level calibration with a test tone will also help keep your recording levels predictable across all the channels of your machine.
Dropping in is a high stakes game when the surrounding audio is mission-critical, but again, practice makes perfect and it’s kind of fun working without a safety net!
The analogue joy doesn’t have to stop when you fill up your tape machine’s tracks. You can bounce everything to digital, run off a stereo mix of all this back to two tracks and fill up the remaining tracks again. When you’re done just fly everything back into your DAW and line it up with your original stereo mix (doing small edits along the timeline of these new tracks to make up for any time lag or rushing). I find it’s best to do this extra overdubbing in the middle of the reel as the lag/rush seems least noticeable there.
You can also record straight in and out of the tape machine with the tape rolling, and just drag the tracks back in your DAW timeline by the amount of time added between the record and playback or repro heads. Once you know what this amount is for a particular tape speed it’s a very simple operation to repeat. Of course you’ll need to monitor from the record head while doing this.