Recording to tape was the mainstay of the recording industry for over 40 years, but is tape still relevant in 2023? We look at the pros and cons of tape; the sound, the workflow and discuss whether you should embrace a DAWless analogue workflow…
Recording to Tape – DAWless recording
“Recording to tape”, the phrase alone invokes a response, doesn’t it? If you’re over the age of 40, then memories of tangled tape, head cleaning & alignment and difficult editing are probably still raw. Without a doubt, however, some of the greatest records ever made were recorded entirely on tape.
So, 70 or so years on from the invention of magnetic recording tape, is it still relevant in 2023? Why, when you and I can easily record high-resolution audio with non-linear editing, does tape refuse to die? What is it about recording to tape that still captivates in the digital era?
We’re going to take a deep dive into the qualities of tape we love, as well as those we hate! We’re also going to discuss affordable ways to get some of the same experience of recording to tape. Ready? Let’s dive in…
The Tape Sound
It’s entirely possible that if you’re reading this, you may never have recorded audio to analogue tape before. Whether you’re recording to the humble compact cassette, or on a 2″ 24 track Studer, there are fundamental similarities. Analogue tape responds in an inherently non-linear fashion. Putting that into simple terms, what you put in is not what you get out!
Importantly, tape is a physical medium, and the machines that record to it are based on analogue electronics and mechanical engineering. Variances in the tape stock, the electronics and even the transport can affect the sound coming off the tape itself. If you fancy looking into this more, Nirvana producer Jack Endino made some fascinating experiments on various tape machines.
Recording to tape adds an overall EQ and tonality that is typified by a smooth, rolled-off top-end and a famously “warm” and fat bottom end. As you increase the recording level to tape the signal will progressively transition into harmonic distortion. However, this occurs very gently and progressively, a character which is widely sought after. This “soft-saturation” effect is often very useful for softening transients and smoothing off sources. This effect is most pronounced on sources such as drums and vocals and is also very useful for making distorted electric guitars sound rounder and smoother.
Tape “stock” as it’s known (the actual reels of tape) has always been extremely expensive, however. A reel of 2″ tape costs around $350, and may only give you around 10 minutes (or less) of recording time. Additionally, the machines are finely tuned pieces of engineering. There’s a reason studios would employ someone solely as a “tape op” and it wasn’t just to hit play and record! At the beginning of every session, the machine needs to be cleaned and aligned to tolerances.
RTM SM911 2" Tape 762m NAB
Tracking with Tape
One of the things that made tape revolutionary, was the ability to edit recordings. Before this, recordings were cut directly to gramophone records; you had no ability to edit the recording or make a composite “master”.
With that said, it doesn’t mean editing on tape is easy. Tape edits are made by using a razor blade to cut the tape and move sections of your recording around. You then need to physically stick the tape back together again to complete the edit. This is what’s called “destructive editing”; if you place a cut in the wrong place then the recording is irrevocably ruined.
Nonetheless, some astonishing feats of tape editing have been made over the years. Famous pieces of electronic music, such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s theme for Dr Who were sequenced and constructed entirely through tape editing and manipulation.
The relative difficulty and risk involved in tape editing, however, pushes you into a different mindset. When it’s difficult to make an edit, you think hard before you do it. Equally, it may be easier to simply re-record until you get a better take. By the same token, you can’t simply click a button and make all the drum hits click to a grid.
It’s this very limitation which presents a workflow that’s very attractive to certain producers. For example, Foo Fighter’s album “Wasting Light” from 2011 was made entirely without computers. In a 2011 interview for Sound on Sound, Butch Vig recounted a conversation with Dave Grohl about the choice to track to tape:
That means you guys have to be razor‑sharp tight. You’ve gotta be so well rehearsed, ’cause I can’t fix anything. I can’t paste drum fills and choruses around. This is gonna be a record about performance, about how you guys play.
Getting the Tape Sound on a Budget
If you’re inspired to experiment with tape and tape workflows, then there’s good news. While the cost of analogue tape stock and vintage machines is extremely high, there are some affordable options! Firstly, it’s still cheap and simple to experiment with cassette tape. and if you fancy playing around with open reel tape, then you can still pick up domestic 1/4″ machines for reasonable money.
RTM FOX C60 Type 1
What if all of that is just still too much hassle though? Well, thankfully there are a bunch of plugins nowadays which can give you a taste of the tape sound. Universal Audio’s recreations of the way tape responds are deeply impressive. Ever wondered what your mixes would sound like if they were tracked using a Studer A800? Well then wonder no more! UAD Studer 800 allows you to track and mix with a perfectly modelled, virtual Studer A800.
Studer A800 Tape Recorder
Equally, Softube offers their imaginatively titled “Tape” plugin which gives you three different characters of tape saturation to play around with. It’s a more pared-down offering compared the UAD plugin, but useful for throwing onto sources to get that saturated tape sound.
Tape by Softube
Embracing Tape Workflow
What if you’re keen to step away from the overly precise, highly clinical editing of DAW-based workflows though? What if you want to embrace the authenticity of placing performance over-editing? Well, the easiest and cheapest way to do this, is simply to change your own mindset. If you’re working with live performers, then give the session more time and more space. Don’t settle for an “ok” take, thinking you’ll fix it in the edit. Instead strive to get the very, very best performance possible from the get-go. Only then use editing to add the final “pixie dust”.
For example, how many times have you simply copy-pasted an entire chorus section? How about recording that chorus multiple times for some variety? If you’re recording your own band, rather than rely on snapping the rhythm section to a grid, spend more time practising the songs and get tighter playing together. Yes, this all takes time and is one of the reasons why DAWs became so popular. It’s possible to construct a song within a DAW, but it’s much harder to actually capture a great performance.
If the temptation of cut/copy/paste is too great, maybe consider going DAWless for tracking altogether! Products such as the Zoom Livetrack L-20 allow you to record a multitrack performance straight to SD card. If you then need to edit afterwards then the session can be dropped into a DAW. But think of it as a challenge! Put some musicians in a room together and focus on getting the best takes possible, straight to “tape” (oh OK then, SD card!).
Zoom LiveTrak L-20
Is Tape Still Relevant
In my opinion recording to analogue tape is still relevant today, even if it’s now resigned to niche uses. A similar situation exists in the movie and photography industry regarding film. These traditional, analogue formats carry an inherent aesthetic and workflow which directly influences the finished product. It’s inherently more costly, more time-consuming and ultimately more limiting. For artists with the time and resources, however, the results are often worth the sacrifice.
How about you? Have you had the experience of recording to analogue magnetic tape? Does it intrigue you? Do you feel it’s a valid artistic decision to use tape, or is it something that belongs firmly in the past? Let us know in the comments!
- UAD Studer A800: UAD
- pb: Plugin Boutique
- Softube TAPE: Softube