Should Audio Tape Be Your Studio's Next Upgrade?

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 27 December 2015 |



“Am I really doing this?”, I asked myself, as I swiftly unplugged and gathered up jack leads, then set about packing away the tower computer system that’s been the focal point of my main home studio for a number of years. The answer, evidently, was “yes” – I definitely was doing it. “Doing what?”, you ask… Splitting one home studio, into two.

The idea of moving a hard disk recording setup to a smaller room made complete sense in itself. Much of this hard disk recording now takes place entirely within the digital domain, courtesy of virtual instruments, and that really doesn’t require a great deal of space. But what was I to do with the hardware instruments – the synths, organs, pianos, guitar amps, physical beat-boxes, etc – all of which had steadily fallen redundant over the past decade and a half? Well, one option was to sell it all off. But as the world’s worst hoarder I didn’t like that idea at all…

EPIPHANY

My return, this year, to posting on Tape Tardis after a long hiatus, reminded me of the excitement surrounding analogue tape. Audio cassette culture has been gaining a new cult following in more recent times, and I can absolutely see why. It’s not until you return to using tape – even just playing a good one on a nice hi-fi – that digital media’s lack of personality really hits you. There’s something about the way tape imparts warmth, the way it vibes up at saturation point, the way a 1970s tape can instantly transform today’s live sound into a thoroughly authentic 1970s-type recording.

It’s not just about how tape re-organises the frequency range and colours a recording. It’s also about how it softens, roughens, cushions, compresses the sound. Subtly and randomly adds micro-pitch fluctuations. Often you’re not perceiving these effects consciously. But even if only subconsciously, what you’re hearing engages the ear in a way that digital uniformity doesn’t.

I rediscovered much of this whilst testing a number of vintage audio cassettes with brand new recordings for Tape Tardis. For the first time since I stopped using tape for regular recording over a decade and a half ago, I didn't know how my final result was going to sound, and that was a real buzz. Having additionally dug out and replayed a lot of my pre-digital home recordings, I was left thinking: “I’m just not getting this sort of vibe with a digital/virtual setup”.

This led me to a convenient conclusion regarding my (sort of) surplus gear. Why not shift all the hard disk recording into a new, compact space, then fire up the old hardware, and completely re-jig the existing studio room for recording to tape? It’s one of those decisions you’re very wary of taking, but the more you consider it, the harder it gets to think of reasons why you shouldn’t do it.

So, the deed is now done. I’m once again recording to analogue audio tape, in a home studio which has recorded digitally since the turn of the century. I may still be amid the novelty phase, but currently, it feels really, really exciting.



ADVANTAGES

The first thing you notice after transitioning from a digitally-focused setup back to analogue, is how immediate everything becomes when you don’t have to think about a computer. Just the fact that you can walk into the room, switch on the power, and instantly play/record something, makes a huge difference. You’re not having to wait for a PC to boot, then open up the digital workstation, and then select whichever instrument you want to play.

You can be microwaving a curry, and in the few minutes it takes to cook you’ve had an idea, popped into your analogue studio and started a recording. I’d never, realistically, attempt to utilise such a short time window if I were looking at a few minutes for everything to power up, boot and be ready. But bite-sized recording sessions are now back on the agenda. And of course, once you start something, you so often get drawn into it – so being able to take that intial step and make a start in such an accessible fashion is hugely important.

It’s easy to forget not only how reliant we’ve become on computers, but also how much they can interfere with our creativity. How predictable they are. How that predictability – knowing exactly what we’re going to get – can instil a notion that it’s really not worth bothering. With modern (and particularly virtual) digital recording, the kind of happy accidents that used to occur in the world of analogue recording are much rarer, because everything is too precisely controlled to stray into the realm of the unintended. After a long period of virtual recording, the lack of any scope for unpredictability can definitely take its toll on one’s enthusiasm.

But the real advantage of tape recording lies in the tape itself. No matter how many processing tools you throw into your computer, you’re never going to affect the sound in the way an audio tape can. If you know your tapes, and you have a range of them available, you can select one that suits the music you’re creating. And because you’re going to use one tape for multitracking, then another for mastering, you can mix things up further.

The combinations are almost infinite. And the difference in sound you’ll get from mastering to, say, a 1995 Metal Type IV tape, as compared with a 1980 Normal Type 1 tape, is profound. In fact, the old Type 1s have provided my most evocative results to date. Very lo-fi, but bursting with a personality I've never been able to instil digitally.



INSPIRATION, FRESHNESS AND MOOD

The whole hands-on affair of tinkering with real pieces of hardware can be very inspiring after a long spell of relentless virtual instruments. The way all the instruments’ glowing buttons and displays light the dimmed room is an amazing mood-setter too. You’re in a nice space mentally, and you don’t get the headache of constantly staring at the same computer screen.

Ditching the audio PC also forces you to look for solutions to problems that don’t exist within a virtual environment, and those searches can result in fresher sounds and treatments. Reverbs and effects you literally haven’t plugged in for a decade are pressed back into use… “Is this the right adaptor for that?… What does this box even do?…”

But it’s a stimulating experience, and the sounds have a different aura from those you’ve come to depend on in the world of virtual recording. Furthermore, the finished product seems to mean more. It just feels like the extra work and consideration gives it more value.

DRAWBACKS

There is a part of you that, faced with a completely analogue setup and no digital assistance at all, lapses into mild panic. You want to sequence something, and there’s no sequencer. You want to tap in a drum pattern, and you’re so used to doing it from a keyboard, into a computer, that re-learning the cumbersome data-entry method of an old Dr Rhythm seems counter-productive.

For this reason I’ve made a compromise, and set up a computer for MIDI sequencing. The PC is, however, confined purely to that role. It’s not recording any audio, and its inclusion doesn’t affect the instant accessibility to sound, because the instruments’ audio outputs are being routed directly to a mixer – not through the computer. And the computer is in fact an old Apricot from the 1990s, so it’s still in keeping with the era of tape recording.



Another issue involves the splitting of one studio into two, and the separation of potentially compatible elements of virtual and physical equipment. Obviously, you can record an acoustic piano either to tape or to a hard disk audio track. So which studio do you build around the acoustic piano? Hard disk, or tape? You’re going to fall short of an ideal situation either way. So the viability of splitting a studio in this manner will depend on whether or not you can cover all the bases across both facilities.

Other drawbacks include the maintenance that goes with tape recording, and the difficulty in editing. I’ve integrated a stereo cassette deck into both studio setups, so I can transfer tape recordings onto the hard disk PC for easier editing if necessary. I’m trying to keep that to a minimum at present, because it kind of defeats the point of what I set out to do, but it’s good to have the facility there – if only for dire emergencies.

Then you have the glitches. You record a track and encounter a sonic drop-out, so you have to clean the tape heads and record it again. These memories can get lost in the nostalgia of analogue recording, but they are obviously still going to be a reality today, just as they were in the past.

SUMMING UP

Just because my hard disk studio is now a lot smaller, it doesn’t mean it’s in some way secondary to the tape studio. It’s smaller because it doesn’t need so much space, and I’m still obviously taking hardware instruments in there to record. Guitars and basses are never rooted to one recording setup anyway. They live in their own space, and they go where they’re needed. The hard disk recording process has not really changed – it’s just moved.

But giving largely redundant gear a new lease of life in a tape-based recording environment has created new inspiration, a new focus, and a new unpredictability – the value of which I’ve underestimated for too long. I’m not suggesting that everyone gives up Cubase, Pro-Tools, their favourite virtual instruments or any other digital marvels they happen to own. But if you have a chance to timewarp back to the days before digital and virtual home recording, do consider it. It could prove highly motivational, and if you can boast a different recording process from the one everyone else uses, the curiosity alone may lend you a lot more listeners’ ears.

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