#1September 2nd, 2011 · 05:01 PM
370 threads / 187 songs
3,343 posts
United Kingdom
DAW to TAPE
DAW’s and Tape

By Paul White

August 30, 2011 | Posted in Feature, Music Technology

We may live in the age of the DAW, but there’s still something musically seductive about the sound of analogue tape. The problem is that professional tape machines are expensive to maintain, and for the cost of a reel of two-inch analogue tape, you could buy a hard drive big enough to hold a lifetime of music recording. There are DAW plug-ins that emulate tape – those made by Universal Audio and Waves being particularly good – but what if you have an old analogue tape machine lying around and you want to make use of it?

The simplest way to use an analogue machine is to mix your song in your DAW in the usual way, then copy the end result to analogue tape before replaying it back into your computer to produce the finished master. You can do this with a stereo machine, such as  the Revox quarter inch machine, or by using two tracks of a multitrack machine, ideally at the highest tape speed possible so as to minimise noise. The only tricky part of the process is deciding how hard to drive the input of the tape machine to get the desired amount of analogue tape saturation, and that’s something that can only be determined by ear, so work on the loudest part of your mix and try different record levels until you get the result you want. Usually you’ll want the tape machine record-level meters peaking a few dBs into the red. Also note that the tape saturation effect will be different depending on whether your tape machine uses noise reduction or not and what type of noise reduction that is. As a rule, Dolby overloads more musically than dbx.

Of course if you have a multitrack recorder, you might want to use it in a more sophisticated way. Back in the days when tape was the established medium and DAWs were still new, there were numerous third-party boxes available that could be used to sync a sequencer DAW to a tape machine. You’ll find some of these reviewed in older issues of Sound On Sound and they occasionally come up for sale in the Sound On Sound reader ads.

The process involved first writing a time code to a spare track on the tape machine. Once recorded, this time code track fed back into the sync box and was used to generate either MIDI Clock data with Song Position Pointers or MIDI Time Code (MTC). The DAW was then set to external sync and would follow the time code on the recorder, allowing both digital and analogue recording systems to be used together. How well this worked in practice depended on the various pieces of hardware agreeing to play nicely, and there was always a delay of a few seconds after starting the tape before a reliable sync could be achieved. You may still be able to track down one of these tape sync boxes, but I have to admit that it isn’t a working methodology that I particularly enjoyed.

There are other ways to use a multitrack tape machine to add that analogue magic to your recordings, but it much depends on whether the machine has a combined record and replay head (as the Fostex machines did) or separate record and replay heads (as most Tascam machines did). Those with separate record and replay heads are the easiest to use, so I’ll describe that process first. This process describes how to set up just one track of the machine to process a digital track you’ve recorded on your DAW, but of course you can use as many of the tracks at the same time as you like, providing you have enough spare I/O to feed them all.

Set up your DAW so that the track you want to process is routed not to the main stereo mix but instead to a spare output on your audio interface (you need an interface with multiple inputs and outputs to make use of this technique). Feed that output to one of the tape machine inputs and adjust the level at source so you get the required amount of tape drive. This usually means having the tape machine VU meters go a few dBs into the red on signal peaks.

Take the output from the tape machine’s replay head back to a spare input on your audio interface and then record this to a new DAW track. Set the tape machine to monitor the replay head, hit record and then set your DAW going with the new DAW track also in record, so that it records the signal from the tape machine’s playback head. What happens now is that your original DAW track gets recorded to tape, then a moment later it is replayed when the tape passes over the replay head, at which point it is recorded back to your DAW. The new DAW track will of course be delayed because of the time it takes the tape to move from the record head to the replay head but you can easily fix this in you DAW.

Using both the original and the newly recorded ‘from tape’ waveform views as a guide, slide the new track back so that it lines up with the original – zoom in so that you do this as accurately as possible. Alternatively, enter a negative track delay value if that has sufficient range to bring the two tracks into line.  You’ll probably hear a phasing-like effect when the two tracks are well lined up and played back together, so when you get to this point, make a note of the amount by which the new track had to be shifted as this value will apply to any further tracks you process via the tape machine, providing you use the same tape speed and don’t adjust the varispeed control.

Once your new track is aligned, all you have to do is mute the original track and use the one that’s been subjected to the tape magic. If you’ve processed multiple tracks at the same time, they’ll all need to be offset by the same amount to bring them back into time.

Things get trickier when you don’t have separate record and replay heads on your tape machine so the process is rather more long-winded.  DAWs are controlled by a crystal clock and so run at a very consistent speed, whereas the motor controls circuits on tape machines do tend to wander a little, which means you can’t just line up a DAW recording with a tape copy of itself and expect the two to stay in sync indefinitely, even if you can start them at exactly the same time. However, the timing should be good enough for  holding true for, say, the length of a verse or a chorus. If you’re lucky, it might even hold up for a whole song.

The trick here is to record the full length of the track (or multiple tracks) you want to process by copying from your DAW to your tape machine, then replay the tape recorder output to a spare DAW track. You’ll need to use the waveform displays every time to line up the tracks to the best of your ability and then you need to play the two tracks side by side to see if they stay in time. If they start to drift, you’ll need to divide your new ‘from tape’ track into a number of sections and then sync the start of each section with the original track using the waveform display as your map. This works well for vocals where there are likely to be gaps between phrases, but can be tricky with continuous tracks, such as drums. As a rule, the shorter the sections you divide your track into, the less obvious any subtle time sliding will be, so it all comes down to how stable your tape machine’s speed is and how patient you are when editing.

Where multiple tracks have been processed to tape at the same time, these should be grouped once they’ve been recorded back into the DAW so that any edits or position shifts affect them all equally. This is especially important in the case of things like drums where there’s always some spill between tracks, so it is imperative that any edits move all the ‘from tape’ tracks by exactly the same amount.

As you can see, the process of integrating tape into a DAW system requires a little more work and patience than simply dropping in a plug-in. You also have to be aware that analogue tape reacts very badly to high pitched sounds unless they are recorded leaving plenty of headroom. For example, bell trees or cymbals can break up very badly unless under-recorded by as much as 20dB. Bass, drums and vocals can really benefit from going via tape as can electric guitars but you may find that some types of sound work better if you leave them ‘digital’. So, if you have an old tape machine sitting there doing nothing, give it a go. You might be surprised at how different your mixes sound.
About Paul White

Paul White has written 14 articles on this blog.

Paul White is editor in chief of "Sound On Sound" magazine where he shares his musical and recording experiences with other gear addicts. Paul plays live with the 'Pewke Band' and as part of an acoustic/electric guitar duo with Ray Mytton.

Paul White
Editor In Chief - Sound On Sound Magazine
www.soundonsound.com
#2September 5th, 2011 · 09:50 AM
28 threads / 20 songs
255 posts
Australia
This article is suggesting using tape as more of an 'effect' as you are pretty much eliminating all benefits of analog recording by tracking to DAW.

Also, I doubt you will be 'surprised' in a good way if you decide to do this with 'an old tape machine sitting there doing nothing'. First of all, you need to align and calibrate the tape machine to the new tape you are using and secondly, good tape machines still sell for over $200 and sound much better than the worthless old tape machine lying around in your closet.
#3September 5th, 2011 · 10:15 AM
370 threads / 187 songs
3,343 posts
United Kingdom
Chill wrote…
This article is suggesting using tape as more of an 'effect' as you are pretty much eliminating all benefits of analog recording by tracking to DAW.

Also, I doubt you will be 'surprised' in a good way if you decide to do this with 'an old tape machine sitting there doing nothing'. First of all, you need to align and calibrate the tape machine to the new tape you are using and secondly, good tape machines still sell for over $200 and sound much better than the worthless old tape machine lying around in your closet.

Nothing ventured nothing gained.

I've since seen other producers comment on this. Every tape manufactures sound is different, there's no point doing this on a cheap tape machine, but there are some plugins which have good reviews.

Personally I love analogue sound - It appears that many studios are reverting back to it??.  I will be experimenting with tape simulation plugins on my next recording and upload it on the AMP if indeed it sounds good.

Your first comment "This article is suggesting using tape as more of an 'effect' as you are pretty much eliminating all benefits of analog recording by tracking to DAW. ". I'm not sure I understand what you are saying here.  To me they are suggesting to record on a DAW, transfer it it to tape, then import it back to your DAW - seems the logical way to do it, since you'd get better results IMO
#4September 5th, 2011 · 12:27 PM
28 threads / 20 songs
255 posts
Australia
Denis wrote…
I've since seen other producers comment on this. Every tape manufactures sound is different, there's no point doing this on a cheap tape machine, but there are some plugins which have good reviews.

Yes, I am trying to point out that the article had no mention of this and so people may expect that running their mix through their old cheap tape machine will give them a great sound.

What I meant in the first part is that all you are doing to your mix is applying an analog 'effect' to your mix. You are not going to add better clarity, depth or anything to your mix but only add a bit of noise and distortion to give it tape artifacts, ie an 'effect'.

Tracking to tape and avoiding conversion to digital can give you better clarity, depth and perceived musicality (through higher order harmonic distortion) amongst other things. And that's another misconception some people have... (and this article doesn't do it any justice) that all recording to tape does is add some 'touchy feely' things to your mix such as warmth and natural sound.

Many artists record to analog... all Arcade Fire's albums, Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, last couple of RHCP albums, most recent foo fighters album... these are all tracked to tape and mastered to tape.... some with no digital conversion ie 'no computer screens'.
#5September 5th, 2011 · 04:54 PM
77 threads / 59 songs
913 posts
Netherlands
Chill wrote…
Tracking to tape and avoiding conversion to digital can give you better clarity, depth and perceived musicality (through higher order harmonic distortion) amongst other things. And that's another misconception some people have... (and this article doesn't do it any justice) that all recording to tape does is add some 'touchy feely' things to your mix such as warmth and natural sound.

Many artists record to analog... all Arcade Fire's albums, Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, last couple of RHCP albums, most recent foo fighters album... these are all tracked to tape and mastered to tape.... some with no digital conversion ie 'no computer screens'.

interesting topic!

first i'd like to ask what is ment by 'natural sound'
(It seems weird to me to 'add natural sound ")
is it the unrecorded live sound, or do you mean the recording that sounds most s the unrecorded sound?
most modern productions have drums which sounds nothing like a drumkit  in whatever room.., ('we' like really processed acoustic guitars), and live we add it all to the PA,so whats the importance of natural?
( an electric guitar that sometimes sits left, or right, then in the middle etc, we all know his amp doesnt move in real, wait, i'm drifting off :p )

2nd about clarity:
 I read that cd's contain no information above 20K, and there is discussion about the influence of those unhearable frequencies on our feelings, listening experience, behaviour of the sound etc..
could this be responsible for the clarity thing?
how long will it take untill 'we' solved that digitally?

3. nostalgia?
we get used to things we hear all our life, we get attached to it, emotional maybe.
Maybe its like compression, radiostations used lots of compression to get there signal further in the air, and be the loudest one on the radio maybe, then cd's became louder and louder and we got used to that etc
(I quote Billy Corgan: my cd may not be the best or most beautifull, but it is the loudest! )
or like people who love their cracks and noises on their LP's and the rumble and the hiss...

lots was recorded analog, still mostly we listen to it on cd now, or worse(yek!) mp3!

just some thoughts

PS. i really enjoy "selling england by the pound" by Geneses lately, sounds so simply mixed, leaves all the room to listen to the music itself, which is so great!
whitout unwanted noises, except for just a slight (tape?)hiss now and then..,
who cares

Max
#6September 6th, 2011 · 06:35 AM
28 threads / 20 songs
255 posts
Australia
MaxdB wrote…
interesting topic!

first i'd like to ask what is ment by 'natural sound'
(It seems weird to me to 'add natural sound ")
is it the unrecorded live sound, or do you mean the recording that sounds most s the unrecorded sound?
most modern productions have drums which sounds nothing like a drumkit  in whatever room.., ('we' like really processed acoustic guitars), and live we add it all to the PA,so whats the importance of natural?
( an electric guitar that sometimes sits left, or right, then in the middle etc, we all know his amp doesnt move in real, wait, i'm drifting off :p )

2nd about clarity:
 I read that cd's contain no information above 20K, and there is discussion about the influence of those unhearable frequencies on our feelings, listening experience, behaviour of the sound etc..
could this be responsible for the clarity thing?
how long will it take untill 'we' solved that digitally?

3. nostalgia?
we get used to things we hear all our life, we get attached to it, emotional maybe.
Maybe its like compression, radiostations used lots of compression to get there signal further in the air, and be the loudest one on the radio maybe, then cd's became louder and louder and we got used to that etc
(I quote Billy Corgan: my cd may not be the best or most beautifull, but it is the loudest! )
or like people who love their cracks and noises on their LP's and the rumble and the hiss...

lots was recorded analog, still mostly we listen to it on cd now, or worse(yek!) mp3!

just some thoughts

Yep interesting questions here...

1.
This whole thing with 'warmth' and 'natural sounding' associations with analog recording comes up in discussions all over the internet. I'm pointing out there are other elements/benefits in recording to tape than just these. In fact I think that these elements are made up mind game sort of things that really aren't proven or even measurable in most cases.
Warmth seems to be described as a rounder and less harsh or piercing sound. Tape is 'warmer' to some people because of the certain high frequency losses in reproduction (especially above 6KHz) when using noise reduction as well as the head bump (a boost in the low-mid frequencies around 200Hz) inherent in the technology.
Natural sounding just means that a guitar or a voice sounds 'more' like a guitar or a voice rather than something else and as you can probably imagine... depends on A LOT of other things and really the only thing I can personally see analog being better than digital in achieving a more 'natural sound' is the presence of tape hiss and perhaps as you said, the presence of these inaudible frequencies (above 20KHz).

2.
Yes, digital recording only captures frequencies between 20Hz and 20KHz because this is theoretically all the frequencies that the human ear can hear (many people can only hear to about 17 or 18KHz, including me). The affect of frequencies outside the audible human ear range I think do have an effect on the listener, I've read some discussions about this but I don't have anything conclusive to say about the matter.
Keep in mind that digital recording has the capacity to store frequencies above 20KHz it's just that if you can't hear it... why would you waste storage space to record it?

3.
Nostalgia is a big part of it in my opinion. The more you sound like what the listener is used to or the more you sound like the listeners' favorite band, the better you will sound to that listener.
#7December 22nd, 2011 · 09:29 AM
3 threads
6 posts
Austria
mastering to tape is cool, then resample it.
#8December 23rd, 2011 · 01:30 AM
155 threads / 29 songs
1,930 posts
United States of America
My preference for recording is to record all tracks analog ie 24 track tape. then drop those  to DAW for editing. Then back out to the tape drives for final mixing  Something about the dynamics of slamming a tape drive.

 These days I record everything digital into the box.  Then warm it up with tape drive plug ins, Neve Portico . Not as good as using a real tape drive but, it does get close.
 
  Even with 24 bit, I still can't get the dynamics, and fat sound as tape.

Maybe when they make 64 bit I/0
#9December 23rd, 2011 · 04:07 AM
370 threads / 187 songs
3,343 posts
United Kingdom
Around the late eighties I purchased a JVC nicam tv and video. The audio was picked up by the entire width of the tape. When I compared the sound between a CD and a nicam Hi-Fi music video, the music video was so much better. I think  not only did it have the warmth  character, the bass in particular was so rich. I had the system connected to Technics Hi-Fi too. Nothing and I mean nothing has come close to the sound. It was truly a pleasurable experience listening to music videos. I don't think they do nicam video recorders anymore, only basic ones. I know the one I purchased at the time was a lot of money, but it was new technology at the time.
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