This post focuses on the use of analog tape’s warm, unique compression as an effect.
When engineers and producers started to make the switch from analog to digital, they found that digital was not only cleaner sound, but it was also somewhat unforgiving. Most producers were quite fond of ‘driving’ the tape a bit by sending it slightly higher levels than the tape was normalized for. Turns out that the sound produced by this overdriving was a subtle compression resulting from the saturation of the magnetic medium. If you try to throw signal at digital above and beyond what it is normalized for, you’ll end up with brick-wall distortion. This is one of the reasons why tape is considered by many to be warmer and ‘fatter’ sounding. Drums, in particular, work extremely well with tape because the compression allows for a rounding of the transients and a certain punch not typically found in the digital domain. I know some engineers who still track drums to 2 inch tape.
Digital captures exactly what it’s given, whether good or bad. As a result, piping in warm, punchy signal from an analog tape machine will be captured warm and punchy. So, if you have access to a high quality tape machine, why not take advantage of it?
Using Tape as an Insert
One way to get an analog sound is to route some digitally recorded tracks from your DAW into the tape machine, onto the tape. You can either record it to the tape and bounce it back after-the-fact, or simply engage the record head and monitor the playback head right back into some of your DAW’s record-enabled tracks (which will produce some latency that you’ll have to account for).
Bouncing from Tape
Another way to do this is to simply track direct to analog tape and, afterwards, bounce it to digital for editing. This is the most common choice I see producers making, if only for the drums.
Tracking ‘Through’ Tape
Finally, you can combine the ‘tape as an insert’ philosophy in the signal chain during recording by placing the tape in-line during the live session, recording to tape and monitoring the play head into the DAW’s record-enabled tracks.
While not everyone has access to a Studer 2″ machine, there are a good number of larger studios that keep them around. If you happen to be in a studio that has one in good condition, it may be worth some of these techniques to capture a bit more ‘vibe’ to your recordings. Just keep in mind that tape will add a marginal amount of hiss to your recordings (which you can either deal with, enjoy, or filter out with some digital processing). Have fun!