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“Tape is dead: long live tape!”

In this week's tech report Professor Rumsey looks into the nostalgic revival of that classic analogue sound in the studio

In the mid eighties I came across some people at a convention carrying placards proclaiming “Tape is Dead!” They were a bit ahead of themselves, though, as it took some years for “tapeless” sound recording to replace the old ways. Now that it has done so, nostalgia has taken hold. Engineers have an obsession for compression, they miss the hiss, they can’t mutter about flutter. No surprise, then, that there are plenty of ways of bringing that analogue tape sound back into the studio. What is it about analogue tape recording that makes it a desirable “effect”? In purely technical terms it’s not for fidelity or transparency that one would choose it, because by almost any measure it’s noisier, more distorted and has a poorer frequency response than high quality digital recording. It’s precisely for these deficiencies, if that’s what they can be termed, that people tend to use it. Soft compression, high frequency saturation, gentle onset harmonic distortion, intermodulation distortion – these are all things that can soften the edges of sounds in a mix. A little like using photographic film instead of taking digital pictures, analogue offers a “texture” and a perceptual signature that can be used in artistic ways. The options, if you want the analogue tape sound in a typical studio today, are (a) buy an analogue tape machine (if you can find one that works, and can afford a few reels of tape); (b) buy a workstation plug-in that emulates magnetic recording; (c) buy a hardware signal processor that emulates legacy analogue audio systems. There’s a hybrid option, though, and that’s to use CLASP – a device from Endless Analog that interfaces an existing tape machine to your workstation and enables it to be used as a plug-in. Stuff can be recorded to workstation tracks via a tape record–replay path, with the system compensating for the delay between the heads (it must align the workstation track accordingly). Real-time monitoring of sources during recording can be done via the CLASP box, which appears to act a bit like the original switch to monitoring sync replay on an analogue tape machine. That way your artist can hear themselves without any system delay, in sync with other tracks coming off the workstation. Opinion seems to vary about the relative merits of real tape versus tape machine emulation using digital signal processing. Emulation is certainly convenient because you don’t have to maintain an ageing tape machine. And how many actually know how to line up an analogue tape machine these days (he said, leaning on his stick…)? Universal Audio makes a Studer-endorsed plug-in model of an A800 tape machine, complete with many of the machine’s record and repro calibration controls. Separate adjustments for hiss and hum are also available. The German VTAPE – Analog Tape Suite – plug-in claims to introduce flutter, which most others ignore. These high-speed variations in pitch introduce modulation noise and sidebands that contribute to the “fat” sound of analogue tape. If you want to buy tape, you can still get it, courtesy of RMG International (which took over the EMTEC/BASF brand) or ATR Magnetics, but a reel of two-inch will set you back a fairly substantial sum. Or am I just getting old?