Tuesday, May 1, 2012

New vs. Old: The Benefits of Tape

There are all kinds of purists out there and in general the common belief is that, "What once was is better than what now is."  Old time hockey fans long for the good ol' days, car fanatics look at new models and sigh with regret and music fans especially, look back to genres now fallen by the wayside and wonder what kids see in the drivel that comes out these days.  The important thing to remember is that people develop a real affinity for the things that are popular when they are becoming themselves. In short, the cars, music, and everything else that were around when you were in high school and college will always have a special attraction for you.  There's a lot more to this but this isn't an article on sociology. (Also, every generation produces crap. Look at the Edsel or play a single that just barely broke the top 100.)

What it is about is the resurgence of tape and vinyl. I'm not going to argue in the least that there isn't magic in a piece of pristine vinyl, played for the first time. Nor will I say the least thing against two inch, twenty-four track tape. It's still the preservation media of choice for a lot of projects, even ones that were recorded digitally.  But it's awful hard to jog with twelve inch vinyl and the list of people with access to two inch tape machines is growing ever smaller.

What I want to talk about is the use of tape machines or even a vinyl test pressing to put the "magic" into a digital recording.  Audio is very subjective, and while using a specific piece of analog gear to get a sound is a great way to do things, there are other ways.  If you've got the facilities to run twenty four tracks off to tape and back in to Pro Tools it can be a great way to add some special flavor to your project.  But I would humbly submit that it's possible to do the same or even better purely in the digital realm.

Before you scroll down to the comment section and start flaming me just hear me out. 
Modeling is pretty good these days. But even before the advent of realistic digital modeling, there were loads of people who knew just how those old analog pieces would behave and who can now go into a digital environment and reproduce just those elements that they want.  It's a matter of skill and understanding.  Joe Schmoe with a big Studer can just as easily murder a project with it as create magic. But a producer or engineer who really understands what's going on inside the gear (and that's the key to being a real engineer whether you've got a diploma or not) can manipulate their sounds into something great.

Take it out of the audio realm for a minute and let's look at all the old-style digital filters there are for photos these days.  There's Instagram and a host of others that will let you make any picture you take on your phone look like it came from an old Polaroid or was done on Kodachrome.  But it doesn't take a master photographer to see that it's just trickery. It takes more subtle manipulation to make it truly believable. When you understand how to do that, even if you've never worked in the original medium, you can far exceed what either the new or the old media were capable of. You can have a picture with the intense resolution, clarity and contrast that's possible with new digital cameras, and give it just a touch of the feel of an older medium and go to a whole new place.

The very same principle applies to digital audio.  It doesn't matter if you've got a two inch tape plugin or a real live Studer sitting in your room, you can do a hack job with either piece.  Where you make the quantum leap is when you decide that you don't want to wrestle with dozens of tracks worth of tape hiss just to get some warmth and punch.  I said earlier, even before digital modeling people knew exactly how this stuff behaved. If you learn those parameters, you can get the magic without the hiss, and also without committing your whole project to tape. Or what about people that cut a test pressing and then play back that vinyl back into the digital realm? Ask anybody at a cutting facility and they can tell you in minute, clinical detail exactly how that equipment will effect tone and dynamics. Is it a cool trick? Sure. Can you afford to do it on every project that wants a vintage feel? Do you even want to go there all the time? Or do you want to understand your equipment (physical or digital) and do more than just put "dust and scratches" on your snapshot.
That's where you push the envelope and turn out projects that wouldn't be entirely possible in either medium but that shine when you combine the best of both.


  1. Sounds like my Presonus should play with my ART tube compressors during festival season this year :) Betcha they add some magic to each other!

  2. It's refreshing to hear this level-headed approach on a topic that is rife with moronic arguments of theoretical behavior of sound waves and hypothetical listening environments. I think expanding the conversation even beyond the "science" of sound and tech to include a discussion of how we listen to (and hear) music would be a great podcast.


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