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Does your recording need analog magnetism?

A RecordProducer.com reader wants to take advantage of the wonderful warm sound of analog tape. But he doesn't know what it sounds like.

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Here is an interesting question from a Audio Masterclass reader...

"I was wondering what the outcome would be if I were to do my recording in digital and then once tracks have been mixed, to then record the mix onto analog tape. And then do the mastering :-). Since I don't own a reel to reel two track analog recorder it is not in my capacity to carry out this experiment."

The holy grail of audio?

Firstly let me state clearly that there is no piece of equipment or any technique that represents any kind of 'holy grail' in audio. Everything depends on the knowledge, skills and experience of the people involved.

So transferring a digital recording to analog tape won't suddenly make it magical. It will however change the sound in a subtle way.

Analog tape does several things to a signal, most of which were once considered bad...

  • The balance of frequencies is changed, up to +/- 2 dB across the frequency range in a well-maintained machine
  • A significant amount of distortion is added
  • The signal-to-noise ratio of analog tape is poor compared to modern digital recording techniques
  • Inconsistencies in the speed of travel of the tape cause a smearing of the frequencies of the signal.

When digital recording first became practical, even at 14-bit quality, recording engineers gathered together and shouted "Thank god!!" into their microphones. All the problems of analog tape disappeared at a stroke.

Hard and brittle

But then they started to complain about a certain 'hardness' or 'brittleness' in the sound of digital. Most likely this was because there was an aspect to the analog tape sound that they missed.

Amongst all the various distortions, analog tape has a lovely 'soft' quality. A mix seems to blend effortlessly, where blending digitally can be a struggle.

Having said that, just transferring a digital mix to analog tape doesn't guarantee that it will suddenly be improved. Indeed, it might sound worse. The only way to find out is to find someone who will let you use their tape recorder, or buy an old Revox on eBay.

Tape emulation plug-ins

By the way, tape emulating plug-ins don't sound exactly like the 'reel' thing to me. They might have a sound of their own that is worthwhile, but you have to hear the sound of genuine analog magnetism to get the full experience.

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By David Mellor Friday April 22, 2011
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