Analog Tape Is Back!

Aug 4, 2010 4:28 PM, By Blair Jackson



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The years come and go, equipment changes, trends evolve and still the great digital vs. analog debate continues. Not that it’s really a fair fight at this point. After all, digital recording formats have become completely ubiquitous, admired for their ease of use, sonic transparency, cost-effectiveness and, increasingly, the variety and quality of compatible signal processing plug-ins available in the digital realm. But wait a minute—you still need the gear that gets you to your DAW, which certainly includes a mic preamp and perhaps some of the cool outboard boxes that discerning ears argue still sound better than most plug-ins. Your tools of choice may also call for an all-in solution like an analog console that provides the input, processing and a mix summing platform for one last look at analog before the audio goes digital for distribution.

In Avatar Studios are (L-R) Bob Mallory (assistant engineer), Matthew Followill, Jared Followill, Brent Rawlings, Jay Schleusener, Jacquire King, Nathan Followill, Caleb Followill, Angelo Petraglia (producer), Brad Bivens

In Avatar Studios are (L-R) Bob Mallory (assistant engineer), Matthew Followill, Jared Followill, Brent Rawlings, Jay Schleusener, Jacquire King, Nathan Followill, Caleb Followill, Angelo Petraglia (producer), Brad Bivens

But what about tape? Ah yes, that tool of recording’s dark ages. Even though the availability of the product has returned after its initial fall from use, it’s expensive, noisy (compared to digital) and famously cumbersome to work with. That is so 20th century! But it is also a technology that a vocal minority of engineers and producers—young and old—have embraced in recent years, with a modern twist: They use tape for its sonic properties, but also employ digital media for its editing and storage capabilities. This is not exactly news: All through the so-called “digital revolution,” there have been folks who have recorded, say, drums, bass and guitars to analog tape and then transferred to Pro Tools, Nuendo, etc., for editing. But some of today’s hybrid enthusiasts are now finding ways to work with tape throughout the recording process, combining the best of the analog and digital worlds. Mix recently spoke with four Tape True Believers about their affection for the whirring reels and mysterious properties of magnetic tape.

During the past 15 years, Jacquire King has been involved in a slew of interesting albums by the likes of Smash Mouth, Tom Waits, Modest Mouse, Norah Jones and—most famously, perhaps—Kings of Leon. When we catch up with King, he is at different stages of work on two albums: Kings of Leon had worked on their next album at Avatar in New York and Blackbird in Nashville, and now King was mixing at his home studio in Nashville; and L.A. band Cold War Kids had recorded at Ocean Way and House of David in Nashville, and were planning to go out to Sunset Sound in L.A. this month as they toil away on an album expected early next year.

“I like to use a console and tape machine and more of an ‘old-school’ traditional studio setup in part because they’re tools that are more about using your hands and ears—your ears, especially—as opposed to a computer,” King comments. “Don’t get me wrong—I use the computer and have for a very long time. I’ve had Pro Tools since it was a baby—and since I used to swear up and down I’d never use a plug-in! But atmosphere-wise and vibe-wise, I think recording on tape creates something people feel more invested in and there’s a romanticism to it; people get excited about that. It just creates a different level of purpose and awareness. People feel like, ‘Oh, we’re going to tape!’ It puts people on a different wavelength as far as how they’re working. If you’re recording just to digital, you can get into the mind set of, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, we can always do more takes, you can chop it together.’ There’s some of that attitude, which is not anybody’s fault and I’m not even saying it’s bad—it’s just the way the world works now.

“The other thing that tape does and digital can’t do—and plug-in emulation still can’t do—is the tape saturation, the handling of transients. Digital is a perfect linear playback device, and a tape machine is not perfect, which is one of the things I love about it. Tape is wiggling around, no matter how good the machine is, and that does something to the sound. And tape machines have their frequency curves and what they accentuate and what they don’t, and how they roll off a top end and all those sorts of things, so I love it for the sonics, as well.

“I mix in a hybrid situation. I mix from Pro Tools with a lot of stems, use a lot of analog inserts, parallel compression, but I use Pro Tools as more than just a playback device. Of course, I use it for editing. What I’ve discovered is I get better mixes in the hybrid scenario if I’ve recorded to analog—if my individual tracks have seen a tape machine—because there’s more consistency with the transients, with the shape of them, the tone of things and the sustain and depth, because tape squishes things and mangles things a little bit, but in a very usable, pleasing and musical way. I end up EQ’ing and compressing less in a mix because I’ve already used the tape to help me achieve a more musical sound.”

Is anything lost in the analog sound in the translation to Pro Tools? “A little bit, but when I’m tracking I’m always monitoring through Pro Tools, so in terms of conversion or how the sound is going to change, I’m always listening to that so it doesn’t take me by surprise. In some cases, too, I’ve captured [the performance] digitally and then during the mix bounced it off a wonderful ATR-102 tape machine I have to still get the analog sound. It’s not the same as going straight to the tape machine and then transferring—you’re dealing with two times conversion—but it’s a safety net. Primarily, I want my analog involvement to be multitrack.”

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