News

20 Oct 2015

THE MILL REPORT: FUTURE REWIND

Dusty Studer

People, it seems, are re-discovering analogue tape… again!

Just when you might have felt certain the format had gone the way of the steam engine, it’s back! How long analogue tape will return for or how the machines used to spin it will survive another resurgence is another matter.

When the analogue tape recording format went away a few years ago (for the second time), soon after most of the world’s tape manufacturers went out of business, I really thought that would be the end of it.

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‘R.I.P. my beloved Studers and Ampexes’, I figured.

But no… it would seem the recording industry is on the same magic roundabout as the fashion industry. Get your old tape machines out folks, it’s 2015 and analogue tape is back!

Or is it?

It’s a bit hard to judge these things really. The noise surrounding it (if you’ll pardon the pun) is a bit like vinyl – everyone talks about its comeback periodically, but how many people actually play records at home I wonder?

Similarly, a few people having a discussion about recording onto tape doesn’t a resurgence make, but I think the new shift is probably much bigger than that.

A new generation is discovering tape for the first time, along with other stuff like analogue synths and mics, and that’s having a broader impact on the way people are judging what’s ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ about their approach to recording, at least within a few pockets of the industry. It’s also encouraging those of us who grew up with the format to discover it anew, and in many cases dust off old machines and tape reels for the first time in 10 or 20 years.

LEADER TAPE

I’ve had several albums either recorded, part-recorded or mixed here at The Mill this year that have been all about a ‘retro’ sound. Because I still maintain a couple of two-track tape machines for mixing (as well as a Neve console and outboard gear) we were regularly calling upon the Studer half-inch valve two-track to add a final touch to the sound of many of these songs.

But make no mistake, these albums haven’t just been tinkering with the analogue format, they’ve been immersed in every aspect of it, from recording onto 8-track one-inch Ampex machines with nary a computer in sight, to replicating Beatles mic techniques and guitar overdubbing processes to great effect. These albums by some great new Australian artists have sounded amazing both in terms of the captured performances and the power behind the productions…

But not for every overdub, or all of the time.

Sometimes the outcomes haven’t sounded so great. In a couple of cases in particular there have been maintenance issues with the machines that engineers haven’t picked up on, perhaps blinded in some cases by the romance and novelty of the tracking method. In the same way that some engineers can get blinded by new technology, others it seems are easily blinded by the old.

This year, without doubt, there’s been a small push to reclaim a tone to which analogue tape was fundamental. Whether this resurgence gains much more momentum in coming months or years as the reality of what’s involved in the maintenance of tape machines hits home, only time will tell.

TAKE THREE

I’m a bit on the fence with this resurgence myself. As much as I love the sound of a good analogue tape multitrack recording, I’ve spent vast numbers of hours over two or three decades living with, managing, and in some cases fighting the format. I know its strengths and weaknesses all too well, and I’m concerned…

Not for the musical outcomes so much; I’m sure there will be some interesting stuff produced and discovered by people who’ve not worked with a medium that’s bound by so many physical constraints. (A good sounding format like tape, which limits your capacity

for endless overdubbing and 20 playlists for every track can be liberating!)

No, my concern is that there’s a lot forgotten about the format, and much that’s attributed to the ‘sound of tape’ that, in fact, had very little or nothing to do with it.

The complexity of the analogue chains, the sounds of the rooms where recordings took place, and the abilities of the performers themselves for instance are often grossly overlooked and understated by those who like to romanticise the tape-based recording era as if there was nothing more to the process. You could be forgiven – based on what some people say about it – for thinking that all you had to do back in the day was roll tape and the rest took care of itself.

I hate it when people rewrite history like that.

Tape was a costly, limited and high-maintenance format. It wowed, it fluttered, it distorted and occasionally broke. It was other things too of course. It was great sounding (if you had a decent, well maintained machine). It was good at adding ‘red-light pressure’, forcing performers to step up and get the job done, knowing that the moment tape rolled it was make or break. Ironically to me now, tape was also liberating (back in the ’80s 24 tracks seemed to offer a huge capacity for songs to be fully realised. Two 24-tracks sync’d together… limitless options!

Now 24-track seems tiny.

But please, let’s not talk about tape like it’s some sort of modern panacea for ridding the world of everything that’s bad about music. I’ve heard that one before! It’s garbage.

And let’s not resuscitate the tedious analogue-versus-digital debate again please… I don’t think I could survive another round of that circular discussion.

!KCAB IS EPAT

There’s no doubt about the fact that tape, as an ancillary format in your studio, has a role to play once again. If you have a decent tape machine that still works and that can be brought up to spec without too much drama, get to it. It’s time, if indeed your machines have survived all these years in their role of indoor plant stand, to power them again up and get them working on some new projects.

I’ve even been contemplating another multitrack machine for The Mill (I can’t actually believe I’m saying this as I write it on the page!) I haven’t thought about it too much, and if I do I’ll probably talk myself out of it. But at the moment the idea is percolating.

It wouldn’t take much to re-establish the format here – I have all the looms and patching ready to go. It would be almost plug-and-play (he says, laughing quietly to himself.)

It’s a huge can of worms though. Maintenance and tape costs are two things mostly forgotten about the format that have scarred me permanently, which new engineers are yet to experience the joy of first- hand. These issues alone have the capacity to wear away the romantic lustre of tape in quick time, which is why I think it came and went so quickly last time around.

If you’re going to go there (or go back there), good luck with it! Remember to keep your ears open for problems during recording sessions. Tape machines, while they may look cool, have a habit of going haywire when you least expect it!

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