Learn Why Drums Sound So Much Better Recorded to Tape

by | May 7, 2015 | Home Recording, Music Production

Yum! Drums On Tape Taste So Much Better
And Why Committing To Choices Yields Better Recordings 

Recording to analog tape is in my top drawer of favorite subjects.  Combine my love of drums as both a player and an engineer; compounded with recording and mixing in the analog domain…well, I might burst!  Or possibly bust a drumhead or two.  My own personal philosophy on how music is recorded also plays an influential role in my love for the analog medium.  It probably goes without saying that I’m an absolute dork when it comes to these things, and hopefully I can paint a clearer picture with just a few words.

So what do I love about recording drums to tape you ask?  Maybe it’s the sound that tape offers?  I can confirm that with a solid “you betcha”!  Analog tape does such amazing things to the signal that comes off of the record head.  It offers warmth, depth, and a power/punch that digital just somehow misses; however, there are a plethora of plug-ins that emulate tape saturation and EQ pretty well these days.  Now let’s be clear about something, I’m not saying that analog is better, it’s just different, and I’m certainly not interested in getting into the whole analog vs. digital debate, as that is just an exercise in futility.

For me, the single greatest thing about tape is the commitment involved.  Not exactly what you were expecting, was it?  Everything about recording to tape is a commitment.  When recording in the analog domain, you have a limited number of tracks in which to record.  Depending on the machine and head-stack, you might be limited to just 8 tracks, or as many as 24 (23 if printing SMPTE on track 24).  This pales in comparison by today’s standards, though, which by and large is Pro Tools for either the professional engineer or home recordist.

And this very limitation in track count doesn’t give the engineer, or the talent, the option for multiple takes or to save multiple takes in separate playlists like Pro Tools can.  Even the smallest of drum kits are going to take up at six tracks if being close-mic’d; just think about what a bigger kit is going to do to the space available on tape!  This limitation of tracks means that the drummer has to be on-point, know their craft, commit to the song, and lay down that “perfect” take for the tune to work.

Recording multiple takes to a second set of drum tracks isn’t realistic as that will eat up the track count and recording more than one take for each song usually isn’t cost effective, as analog tape is so expensive these days.  The engineer also has to commit to the microphones and their placement, to the choice of preamplifiers and dynamic processing, how the tape machine is set up (calibration), what formula of tape to use and the tape speed.

The drummer and engineer should both be able to effectively tune the drum kit together, as well.  A poorly-tuned drum kit does not bode well for the recording, and unlike Pro Tools and its myriad drum replacement plug-ins, replacing drum tracks/tones in the analog domain is very difficult, time consuming, and will eat through your budget like a pie at Zachary’s (Bay Area folks will get that).

And what exactly is the perfect take?  Who knows?!  And that’s just another part of the commitment.  When a take feels really freaking good, many times you just go with it – you commit!  If you don’t, you might not get the same performance again, not even near it, and this is a painful path to travel down.

Here’s one example of a song that I recorded and mixed years ago with the San Francisco band, Elephone (RIP).  The drummer at the time had a beautiful late-’60s Ludwig kit, and an excellent sense of timing.   The entire album was recorded and mixed in the analog domain.  When tracking the drums, I hit the tape pretty hard to achieve the desired amount of tape saturation/compression.  When listening to the mix, please keep in mind that I used very little outboard compression in the process.  90% of the drum mix is exactly what was recorded to tape, and that also includes minimal use of artificial reverb.   And I should also add that the drum machine that kicks the song off is also analog, a Roland TR 606 Drumatix.

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/2UQX64fxrLrpJptS0AIpHO
Rdio: http://rd.io/x/QW__gjcWh54/

The second example I would like to share is from a hybrid session.  This album started off in the analog domain; basic tracks were cut to tape live in this instance.  This included drum kit, rhythm guitars, bass guitar, some keyboards, and just a few other tracks.  Once the basic tracks were cut, we transferred the information we recorded to tape into Pro Tools for overdubs and mixing.  This is somewhat common, and allows the engineer and band to capture some of the mojo that tape has to offer for instruments that might benefit from the sonic qualities inherent to analog tape.  The following track comes from another San Francisco band, The Society Of Rockets.  And pay attention to the sound of the tape machine starting up at the beginning of the song.

The Society Of Rockets/We
Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/4mba4pKrmzY8iC2DJz3KSl
Rdio: http://rd.io/x/QW__gjc-o6w/

I could wax poetic about tape and my philosophies for days, but I will spare you!  Recording your entire session to tape is pretty magical, and every instrument can benefit from tape in some fashion, but it’s the drums that always really soar.  The medium is not perfect, though, and it’s certainly not forgiving.   In order to really capture the sound and the performance of a good kit, a wealth of variables need to be considered and “committed” to, as well.   When all of these variables are working in concert, you’re sure to have an amazing time in the studio, and hopefully that will come through loud and clear when the product is delivered to the masses!

Christopher Cline has been making records for the past 16 or so years and as luck has had it, most occasions have been pretty darn good.  He has engineered, mixed, and/or mastered a number of albums from varying genres of music. Some the artists he’s worked with include The Society of Rockets, Scrabbel, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Seventeen Evergreen, HOTTUB, Deadwood Forest, Explosions in the Sky, The Foreign Resort, Necromonkey, Daniel Kobialka, Ryo Yanagitani and many more.  Cline also co-owns and co-operates Three Ring Records and Monolathe Recordings & Communications – independent record labels with the latter also incorporating a publishing arm. For more info visit www.chrisclinerecording.com.