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Tape machines are like your grandfather. They’re old, and cranky, and require patience and tender loving care. But just like Grandpa, if you take the time you can coax wonderful things from tape. If you’re an indie rocker, tape gets you closer to that vintage vibe than all the plug-ins in the world, and if you’re a pop-meister or EDM-head, it’s the secret weapon that’ll put you in a whole different class from the competition.
Let’s take a minute to think about tape historically; it’ll help us understand what we’re doing and why. Remember that when tape was invented, it was the ONLY recording medium available. The goal, then, was fidelity. Every new machine, every new tape formulation, was aimed at getting closer to the nirvana of getting back what you put in. Lossless. Just like digital is today. And yet, oddly, we now recognize that some of that loss was just what the doctor ordered. Things came back from tape warmer, rounder, punchier, and definitely chewier. We’ve lost that magic change with digital.
Don’t get me wrong. I work in digital all the time, but “digital makes things sound better,” said no one ever. Digital is what it is, and that’s a good thing, too.
In the quest for fidelity, tape machines were invented that ran faster (30 ips) and used wider tape (1/2” 2-track, or 2” 24-track). Tape was formulated to hold “more signal” (allow recording at higher gain before unpleasant distortion took effect). But, that exactly NOT what we’re looking for.
To that end, the ideal tape machine for this mix effect is sturdy, dependable, holds its calibration well, BUT is slow and narrow. We want tape that is good, doesn’t shed or stretch, BUT is formulated for average calibration. This is how I came to own a Studer A-810. It’s all that and more. I run 1/4” tape at 15 ips. I use RMG 911 tape that is a re-make of Ampex 456. I calibrate to +3 dB. This allows me to push into the tape but get tape effect at moderate level.
This particular machine can hold dual calibrations, so I’ve done the calibration with RMG 900 (GP9) tape at +9 on 30 ips. It sounds good! But it’s no longer contributing something to the sound of the mix. This is why I call using the tape an “effect” – we’re looking for it to add something to the recording, not just playback with greatest fidelity. If we merely wanted fidelity, we’ve got digital.
Practically, what we do is pass the mix from the console (or DAW if you’re in the box) to the tape machine while it is in record mode (tape is spinning) and then re-record the output from tape into the DAW. We set the input level to tape using the master fader on the console aiming to have the VU needle averaging around +3 dBU. This leads to peaks +6 and higher. You’ve got to use your ears to fine-tune the amount of effect you’re looking for.
When we’re done, we always do a pass without tape and, after careful level matching (don’t fool yourself by letting one be louder than the other), do a blind comparison. I’d say 8 out of 10 times tape wins! So be kind to dear ol’ Grandpa and his tape machine; he might just teach you a few new tricks for your mix.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award winning mix engineer and producer Jordan Tishler runs Digital Bear Entertainment in Boston MA. A large Augsburger designed mix/overdub room with SSL console and racks upon racks of analogue outboard gear, tape machine, and gazillions of instruments, Tishler has credits including B Spears, JLo, Iggy A, MOTi, Justin Prime, SIA, and London Grammar. Contact me about producing your next record, or mixing the one you’re working on now! Visit www.digitalbear.com for more.