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.
What 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.