Veteran Producer Eric Lilavois on Analog’s Resurgence, Plug-Ins & The Real Benefits of Tape

by | May 7, 2015 | Home Recording

Veteran Producer Eric Lilavois’s Thoughts on The Format’s Modern Resurgence 

There’s a word resurfacing in the studio world that has become more and more unfamiliar to some, and more poignant then ever to others: TAPE. A veil of mystery that has many screaming that they just don’t get it, and others swearing at its altar. You may be thinking, “Won’t my plugs-ins do the trick?” Well, get out your razor blades and your best takes, and let’s explore.

The argument is somewhat daunting in a modern recording age when Starbucks has become an alternative control room for many and you can download drum samples of iconic studios like Ocean Way. However, there is a massive resurgence of artists, engineers, and producers turning back the clock and seeking out studios with tape machines, but why?

Part of the fall-out of the home studio boom is that the price of studio time has been driven down significantly, and independent artists can again afford to work in bigger studios and to record to tape. The price of tape machines and tape however, is still significant, so we have not seen a trend where they are integrated into the home studio arena. A very common practice is to go into a studio, record drums and basic tracks to tape, then do all of the overdubs at a home on your DAW, at a smaller studio or “B room.”

Some of the most popular 2” tape machines like the Studer 800 and 827 are in high demand, and still readily available. Another resurgence we’ve seen is doing final mix-down to 1/2” tape, and many mastering houses are also getting back to working with this method.

Admittedly, by using plug-ins that emulate tape machines (I happen to greatly favor the Waves J37 plug-in and the Universal Audio Magnetic Tape Bundle) you can achieve some very cool saturation and harmonic distortion effects similar to tape, and add it across select or multiple tracks, as well as experiment with those plug-ins as a creative tool that go far beyond the traditional way you would use an analog tape machine. You can also adjust the parameters very quickly with plug-ins, allowing you to audition a variety of sounds and switch between various machines and tape speeds as well as bypassing or making changes after the track is recorded.

There are endless debates on how plug-ins measure up to analog gear sonically, and multiple resources exist for A/B’ing the two, but the tape debate has one unique factor: the single most important thing you cannot achieve with any plug-in is the experience of recording to tape, and the way it changes the approach to tracking. It can serve as a philosophical return to different kind of artistry – to listening closely to a take to hear if there is magic in it, as opposed to simply looking at a screen and seeing if the kick drum lines up. Too often in the digital realm we make music with our eyes and not our ears, and tape is a great equalizer in that way. Granted, you can also still pick it apart and edit away once it is imported into your DAW for overdubs if you so desire.

Perhaps the biggest resurgence of artists using tape are those who are interested in simply capturing their performances, as rich, full, and real as humanly possible. At London Bridge Studio we’ve seen a recent boom of artists who are interested in getting back to that method, as opposed to endlessly tinkering with pre-recorded sounds “in the box.”

The best non-musical analogy is Instagram versus a 35mm camera or a Polaroid. There are many filters and quick changes you can apply and make to a digital photograph, and yes, they look pretty cool and often they come close to emulating “analog” photographs in a slightly more slick and sleek way, but when you hold a Polaroid in your hand, or a photograph printed from film, there is a different saturation, look, and feeling.

Eric Lilavois is a producer, Curator of Make Music Pasadena, Co-Owner of London Tone Music and the Historic London Bridge Studio in Seattle. He has worked with countless artists in various capacities, including Saint Motel, Atlas Genius, Surfer Blood, My Chemical Romance and more.