In the first of a new series, engineer, producer and Kush Audio owner Gregory Scott waxes lyrical over one of the deepest loves of his studio life: the not-so-humble tape machine.

Gregory Scott - Kush-CafeWhat is it about tape that polarises so many conversations among audio geeks? I’m one of those guys who gets a little misty eyed when the subject of magnetic reels comes up. I think of my tape deck, I think of all the reels I’ve slapped on it over the years, I think of all the calibration procedures I’ve done on it… and all of it makes me smile.

But I’ve noticed that the dreamy-eyed nostalgia and romantic – almost gushing – reverence some of us have for magnetic tape can annoy people who, in their own minds, are firmly planted in the brighter, better future that all-digital recording holds.

Maybe they’ve used tape more times than they care to admit and were glad to be rid of it. Maybe they’ve never used tape but can’t imagine what all the fuss is about.

This month’s column isn’t for the post-tape crowd, nor is it for those who, like me, still prefer the transient and harmonic characteristics of a tape deck that’s breaking a generous sweat. Instead, it’s for those of you who’ve never used a real deck, those whose closest brush with overbias and IPS is a tape emulation plugin or something like the UBK Fatso or Portico tape emulator.

If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of tracking to tape, or mixing a song straight off tape, or (as I do exclusively these days) just running your sounds through tape as an effect, I’d like to go on record that you’re missing something special. It may not end up being your cup of tea; you might prefer the faster, punchier bass and cleaner, crispier high frequencies of digital. But you might instead prefer the slower, juicier bass and mellower, more silky high frequencies of tape. There’s only one way to know for sure.

The right kind of change

There’s no debating one of the strongest arguments against tape: when you run your sounds through a well-calibrated deck, what comes back is always different than what went in. It’s unavoidable: tape is not accurate, and it adds noise to boot. The inaccuracy and noise of tape are why many engineers were so happy to move on from it. They grew tired of dialling in their sounds to perfection, only to have the tone and the transients changed by the medium they were printing to.

But one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and many of us possess a deep and abiding love for the way tape changes sound. More than that, some of us actually depend on the sonic shifts tape creates – we rely on it to pull together mixes with the unique and inimitable glue of those magnetic reels.

So what’s all the fuss? In a word: distortion. And not just one distortion, but many kinds.

some of us rely on tape to pull together mixes with the unique and inimitable glue of those magnetic reels

First and foremost, there’s transient distortion. Tape is incapable of accurately capturing any kind of strong, fast or high-frequency transient; it rounds out the peaks and slows down the fast stuff. The harder you drive your inputs, the more noticeable this effect becomes.

The beauty of tape, though, is the instantaneous and musical way it does this. It’s like an infinitely fast limiter. But it’s not a smacky digital brickwall that eliminates punch by suddenly and quickly flattening all waveforms that cross a fixed threshold. Instead, it’s a progressive and oddly natural effect that starts off unobtrusive and grows more intense as it approaches its own ceiling. You control how much you want each track to bend into it.

To me, the resulting tape-ified waveform looks like it was redrawn by an artist who understood the language of the original sound and packed it into a more consolidated, texturally interesting space. The sonic effect is a firmer, more controlled, more naturally compressed version of the original, without any of the attack or release distortions you get with compression. It mixes easier and plays nicer with the other sounds in your mix.

Having a more levelled, rounded, well-behaved signal to mix is a big enough win to keep me coming back to tape, but there’s more to the story.  There’s the harmonic distortion as well. Anyone who’s played with a saturation or distortion plugin the past five years knows what harmonic distortion is – even if the precise definition is not known or understood. But plugins – and I include my own decidedly coloured UBK-1 and Pusher plugins in this broadly dismissive statement – simply cannot touch the delicate beauty and organic warmth of the distortions that analogue tape imparts to sounds. Tape brings forward a richness in the lows, a creaminess in the mids and a softness in the texture of the highs that, to me, sounds more organic, more expensive, a little more vintage and a lot more vibey.

Instruments that can be tricky to compress without obtrusive artefacts – vocals, stabbing synths, electric and synth bass, whatever – can be creamed quite aggressively with tape, and the results are larger, richer with musical harmonics and more liquid in tone, density, and dynamic… but they don’t sound compressed or limited in the same way that they would if you used a compressor/limiter to achieve the same degree of levelling.  They just sound like they were born that way.

The nature of tape’s compressive character – with an attack that is both infinitely fast and infinitely gradual – makes for one of the most natural, organic types of distortion I know of.  Nothing else sounds like it, and with due respect to those of us who make saturators and emulators of all kinds, my ears tell me that nothing sweetens a signal from top to bottom and front to back the way the real deal does.

Earning the magic

Like so many worthwhile things in life, the dark mistress of tape does not give away her secrets or her magic easily; indeed, you must earn all of it. For starters, there’s the fact that every tape deck – from the most basic cassette deck to the most sophisticated multi-track machine – is a serious electro-mechanical affair with tons of intricate moving parts, motors and electronic widgets that coexist in a very delicate balance. This means that if something breaks, it takes a serious and knowledgeable technician to get things running again. These techs are not commonplace, and outside metropolitan areas it can take some doing to find one.

And once you get your machine purring, you’ll need to calibrate and align its electronics for whatever formula of tape you’re using… and there are many, many formulas to choose from. Aligning a tape deck is something any reasonably intelligent sound jockey is capable of, but the first few times can be daunting and confusing at best because absolutely nothing about it is intuitive, and most how-to guides are written by guys with more technical sense than literary chops.

But if you can get past those hurdles – if you can find a solid machine, get it humming, and align it to the tape of your choice – you will be rewarded in ways you never imagined. Everything about tape has the capacity to become a meditative ritual, from the mounting and winding of a new reel to the quiet pause in your process as you wait for it to rewind at the end; from the journey of finding what formula of tape you prefer and massaging your deck’s response to it, to the deeply focussed process of driving a particular sound until you get an effect that makes you smile from ear to ear.

if you can find a solid machine, get it humming, and align it to the tape of your choice, you will be rewarded in ways you never imagined

If you’re a true tapehead, all of the above trials and trivia will bring you untold amounts of sonic joy. If you’re not a tapehead, it will all frustrate you to no end. My advice: figure out which one you are, embrace it, and work it for all it’s worth.  If you’re anything like me, your music – not to mention your soul – will thank you every time you hit that big red record button.

Author Gregory Scott
27th January, 2015

Comments

  • I’d love a tape deck that I can print synth lines, chord, drum loops, single hits, whatever too, just to sample the output back into my DAW.

    maybe attack could follow this up with a “10 best tape decks for all budgets” type article? I haven’t a clue where to start.

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  • Great idea @Plython – we’ll add it to the list…

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  • That is definitely a good idea for an article.

    This piece was very nicely written and has me all nostalgic for a good tape deck when the closest I ever had was an, admittedly decent, cassette deck. I can see this being a potential cause of future financial ruin.

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  • Greg – great to see you here and even greater to read your prose in long-form!

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  • Loved this article! Been wondering if using VCR tape could help achieve/ballpark some form the sonic qualities. Speaking of lists, curious to see what UBK might think of Saturation plugins. His post on LA2A emulation plugin was quite fun to read.

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  • agreed – some further advice on decks and tape formulas would be amazing. perhaps some budgeting advice… how much can one expect to pay on a machine, tape, and service? easy to tell someone to try tape, but its not that easy these days!

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  • Lovely read. Agree with all of the above: I’d like to start adding this into my process but where to start, what to use, how to integrate it?! No idea…

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  • Got rid of a a few (in need of service) reel-to-reel machines during a move and still regret it!

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  • What can I find for cheap …. Tascam? I assume this article is all about reels but can it be done from cassette? The prose was wonderful and I loved this article but now I need more info. So lets say my budget is $250 to $300 what can I get that will give me good results in that range? .. Preferably $250. I want warm rounded fuzzy BASS .. also it would be good to know where to buy the tape itself.

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  • Great read, and what timing! I got my Revox B77 back from being serviced, aligned and fitted with new heads yesterday. Never used tape before in my life, however after a couple of hours experimenting last night I’m hearing some of the stuff mentioned in this article, warm low’s, rounded mids and a softening of harsh high frequencies. It definitely makes things sound ‘fuller’ and adds depth.

    I bought my Revox from Ebay for £250, which I thought was a bargain, so I spent a bit on some really nice ATR tape from Thomann in Germany. When I delivered it to the guy servicing the deck I discovered it was in a knackered state, especially the heads – I’ve now spent a CONSIDERABLE amount more on new parts and also the labour a knowledgable tape op charges to fit and service these machines. My point being be careful what you purchase, and check to see whether the seller includes tech reports. The guy I took the deck to reckoned a decent reel 2 reel (revox, tascam, teac) in good condition with not too much wear on the heads probably wouldn’t/shouldn’t go for less than £700/800.

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  • PLEASE make a “10 best tape decks for all budgets”!!!

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  • +1 PLEASE make a “10 best tape decks for all budgets”!!!

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  • There is no such thing as an affordable open reel deck.

    There is noisy, uncalibrated, on the verge of failure, beat to fuck garbage, and then there are the expensive pro decks that cost a lot. Then you need to find a calibration tape, a degaussing wand, and tape stock(new 1/4″ stock costs $160 for a 2500′ reel). God help you if the heads are worn and need to be relapped.

    Then you are going to need to build up a hord of parts because all of the good decks are 25-50 years old. Then you need to make sure you have a competent tech who can service the particular model you own. Oh yeah, that guy has to be within driving distance because UPS/FEDEX will kick the shit out of the unit in shipping and the deck will need to be calibrated again. Also, most of the guys who know what they are doing are at retirement age and are leaving the business.

    Tape is awesome. I’d record to open reel in a heartbeat. That being said, it’s really fucking disingenuous for a pro to come on to a site geared towards amateur kids who are just coming out of the box and tell them how great tape sounds without being honest about all the costs and headaches involved in using incredibly complicated and delicate electromechanical devices.

    You are living in lalaland if you can get into proper tape for £250. I’d love to tell you that tape is feasible on a budget, but that’s not the case at all.

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  • Always good to see lively contributions here, Sam, but, respectfully, your assumption that everyone here is “amateur” and a “kid” rather undermines what would otherwise have been interesting insights from someone who I assume has a few years behind them.

    I’ve not got any kind of problem whatsoever with someone like Gregory sharing in so eloquent a way his passion and insight into kit I might not be able to afford and/or use yet.

    I have every kind of problem being branded an amateur by someone who knows nowt about me and who thinks complex kit is the preserve of – well, presumably himself.

    Slacker (Proud [amateur] owner of not one but two platinum discs), aged 38.

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  • Tape’s the only recording medium I know. Been working with it for about 7 years now – I’m 25, so it can be a viable option on a budget (I actually think it’s a better option if you educate yourself). I will say Mr. Driscoll (above) has a good point that shouldn’t be overlooked, even if he was a little heavy-handed:

    Analog recording is WAY more expensive than the (used)-sticker-price.

    First, if you’re lucky enough to get a low-hour fully functional machine, you’ll need a tech within driving distance who has experience servicing these old decks. This is REALLY important. Mr. Scott’s article mentions this, but it would be unwise of anyone who’s never worked with tape to assume they could calibrate, align, and service a deck themselves. That’s just not gonna happen, even if you have all the equipment. Find a technician who knows what he or she is doing. This is a requirement.

    Second, it’s important to note that tape itself is relatively expensive. There are 2 manufacturers that still make tape (RMGI and ATR). Stick with them. 1/4″ tape runs ~$60 (32 minutes @15ips). As the tape-width increases, so does the price (2″ runs around $330 per). People forget this. And you might get lucky and score some old-stock reels that are still good, but the vast majority of old tape has major problems with it’s chemical formula (it quite literally sheds and/or disintegrates while playing). Plan on this as a constant expense if you want to keep any of your previous recordings on tape.

    With that being said, I agree with Mr. Scott’s article. Tape is amazing. If you want to try it, I suggest scouring craigslist. Companies to try (within budget): Tascam, Otari, Fostex, Revox, and possibly TEAC. Also consider what you’d like to use tape for. If it’s just for effect, a low-budget (even) unproperly cal’d machine will do just fine, as long as it records and plays back. If you’re looking to track, you’ll really want to guarantee you’ve got a good machine. ALSO: don’t understatement cassette decks. Tascam made some incredible machines that can be had for a relatively good price, and High-Bias cassettes cost a fraction of what you’ll pay for new reels.

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