Mastering With Analog Tape: What You Need to Know Before You Start Your Project


The main thing a band needs to know about using tape for the mastering process is that it is extremely important to use their decks correctly.  This means servicing their decks to make sure they’re in good working condition, aligning/calibrating their decks correctly, putting the correct alignment tones on their tapes, labeling their tapes accurately, and splicing in leader tape between the songs.  Tape decks, unlike DAWs, are mechanical and have many user-configurable calibrations.  In order for a mastering engineer to be able to play a tape correctly, the engineer needs to calibrate their deck to match the deck the tape was recorded on, so it’s important that the tapes contain all the information necessary for this calibration.

When I started mastering albums in the mid-’90s, many of the of projects still came in on tape, but now recording to tape is much less common, the main reason being that most tape decks are not in very good shape.  I only recommend recording to tape if your tape deck has recently been serviced by an experienced tech and is in good condition.  I also recommend using tape that is less than 2 years old and making sure all reels are from the same tape production batch, to allow the recordings to be uniform from tape to tape. RMGI and ATR Services are the two main tape companies left.

If you’re recording to tape, it’s very important to first align/calibrate your tape deck with an MRL (Magnetic Reference Laboratory Reproducer Calibration Tape).  Don’t trust an MRL that is more than 2 years old, as the high-end tones become less accurate.  Then, on the first reel of each tape batch, or on the first tape recorded in each session, record a minimum of 30 seconds each of 1KHz, 10KHz, and 100Hz tones at 0VU on the tape deck.  Ideally, it is great to have 1KHz, 10KHz, 15KHz, 100Hz, and 50Hz.  This allows the mastering engineer to calibrate their tape deck to the deck you recorded on.  Another helpful thing is to bring in digital files of the recording.  I use these to make sure what’s coming off the tape sounds correct.  I also use them to verify that my tape deck is running at the same speed as the deck the tape was recorded on.  If not, I adjust my deck to the same speed as the recording deck.

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It’s also very important to label the tapes well.  For example, you should indicate whether the tape is recorded tails out or tails in.  Tails out means that the tape on the reel is stored with the end of the tape at the beginning of the reel.  This requires the mastering engineer to rewind the tape before playing it back.  It also will make sure that any print-through will be delayed instead of pre-delayed.  The next thing to label is how your deck is calibrated (the Reference Fluxivity).  When you record the tones, write them on the tape box, like Track 1 – 1KHz – 30 sec – 0VU, Track 2 – 10KHz—30Sec—0VU, and so on. It’s not important to put leader tape between the tones, but it is important to leave at least 30 seconds of blank tape after the tones with a lot of leader tape between.  This is called a record pad, and it allows the mastering engineer to record a bass tone on the tape to calibrate the bass correctly on the playback deck.  Putting leader tape between songs prevents songs from bleeding through to each other and also allows for easy identifying of the songs on the tape.  It’s good to put enough leader between the songs, so you can see it on the reel and easily find the song you’re looking for.  It’s also a good idea to label the start time next to the song title on the box of tape.

By being thorough in the recording process, you ensure that engineers will be able to play back your tapes for years to come.  Tape is an incredible format that lasts a long time. For example, the Numero Group sent me a tape recorded in 1950 with a recording made by Fern Jones, a huge gospel singer of the time.  After putting up the reel, rewinding it, and re-splicing the leader tape, which came apart because it was so old, I hit pay and heard one of the most beautiful recordings I’ve ever encountered.  Every detail was still there. It was recorded live to mono tape and still sounded wonderful over 50 years later.

Tape really is an amazing format.  It gives you a type of compression, saturation, and warmth unavailable in the digital domain. But it is important to keep these things in mind if you want your recording to be a success, and to keep your mastering engineer happy.

Jeff Lipton is a Grammy-nominated mastering engineer and founder of Peerless Mastering in Boston. Known for his unrivaled dedication to achieving the best possible sound for every project he works on, Jeff has become one of the most highly respected mastering engineers in the business, amassing an impressive discography covering an extensive variety of genres. For more, visit

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