Monday, February 15, 2010

The Tape Fetish in Analog recording

my latest blog is about the cult-like obsession some people have with analog tape in music recording. Where does the fad begin and end - why are there retro fads - is tape (vs. digital) definitive of the sound of a recording - is it a powerful tool ?

An analog recording session with the band Flaming Fire at my place - You can see the big tape machine in the back, under the window 

 A musician walks into the control room of the recording studio - where the band listens  back to their 1st performance of the day - and exclaims; OMG ! listen to that TAPE !
And he takes on a look of profound satisfaction and relief. And he owes this aural salvation to ..tape - as opposed to digital.

 What's wrong with this moment ? (I wouldn't mention it had it not been tellingly repeated with other musicians and artists). Basically, tape got all the credit. My countless technical and creative choices were not the easy and comfortable explanation for the excellent sounds - ahem.. ahem.

Some things come with the territory

Many musicians claim better results at analog/tape studios. Is it the gear, or the people and ears running the gear ? Older, more experienced engineers, or engineers with certain sensibilities at those studios might be the reason, as opposed to the tape itself.

I solicited a quote from another Brooklyn producer,
Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Antony and the Johnsons, Phish, Sebadoh, Akron Family):
"the true beauty of the medium is that analog recordings demand the participation of more professional operators. The limitations of analog recording enforce a level of discipline which digital does not. Sure the peak limiting is far smoother on analog....etc"

 Well, more difficulty editing and fixing performances is one of those limitations of analog. And better musicians as well as engineers are more likely to be willing to work with those limitations (because they'll have less to fix), in order to get the hoped-for enhancement of tape. Better engineers and musicians = better sounding records no matter what

Aren't the sounds going to be only as good as the medium used to record them ? And isn't some basic quality of that medium going to define the sound ?

[sure, somewhat] - but comparing top end pro digital audio to analog is a lot closer than comparing say, film and video. Pro Digital is improving. The quality gap is closing -

Brooklyn producer Joel Hamilton (Tom Waits, Nina Simone, Elvis Costello, Frank Black) of Studio G in Williamsburg chimed in with this (and he does use tape regularly):

"None of the tape machines, which are simply tools for hanging on to something that me and the band fought very hard to collect, EVER made the record great for me.
Conversely, none of the computer/digital based recording systems (including RADAR, ADAT, DAT or DASH ) EVER wrecked any of the records I made on them"

Credit and blame don't lie with the tools. Producers/engineers do what it takes to satisfy their ears.

Producers/engineers work hard to achieve a sound, alternately working with or against the recording medium. They try to achieve what's in their mind's ear. They don't capitulate to the sound inherent in the equipment or "capture format" (tape or digital conversion)

Joel Hamilton continues:
"In both cases [digital and tape], I have to hear the result of the playback and make adjustments to everything affected by the capture format, to get the results we are looking/listening for. Mic position will always be 10 million times more important than the capture format"

Not all records made in the golden era of tape sounded great

Please, please. When I started engineering in 1981, I was largely motivated by how much I hated the sounds of so many records.. not by LOVE. There was to my ear, more bad sounding records than good.
I do wonder if the rose colored glasses of history are fully in place on this topic with most people. The great recordings of decades past are more likely to be remembered, and great music tends to flatter the recording (and vice versa)

Blaming the entire state of sound today on the "umbrella" technology of digital

That would be like 20 years ago assuming that a pro analog recording would sound the same as recording onto a consumer analog cassette. In fact on the consumer level, digital and specifically MP3's are clearly worse than a good 'ole turntable was with decent vinyl. It's not surprising that people's vinyl sounds better than downloads on itunes. That shouldn't prejudice people to digital in the studio

Something's always retro

Yep, there's a natural fear in people that "something is being lost" with changing technologies, lifestyles etc. It's human nature that someone's gonna be paranoid. So it makes sense that at the onset of digital in the 80's, some people asked "is the soul of music being lost, because it's being turned into digital 1's and 0's ?"

 "There is nothing to fear but fear itself" or ...see the advantages, and work on the rest

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