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Analog Q&A

"...quite frequently after I've recorded an album, I'll dump the whole thing to analog before mixing it. And...I almost always use analog tape for mastering." --EQ Magazine interview with Gus Dudgeon: producer / engineer: Elton John, David Bowie, etc

Q) I want to know if its possible to get a top quality project from a PC recording software from start to finish. Some examples Cooledit Pro, Paris, and Cakewalk9. -Sean

A) It's definitely possible In either the digital or analog world, the most important part of a recording is the quality of the source (like namely in-tune vocals, fine instruments, great songs, tight performances, good track structure/arrangements, good acoustics, mics, well-played grooves, etc.).  With a great source, the listener is always drawn into the music.  Certainly, the sound of analog is revered, but the convenience and economy of digital is high on everyone's list.

An aspect of PC digital recording is that the lower the sampling rate, the more of a "broken-up" effect the sound can have.  The highs sound more harsh and edgy, the bottom is less round and solid, and the upper-mids don't stay as warm and musical when mastering eq is applied.  Using a higher sampling rate (from 48k to 96k) helps, and using a Big Ben or other box to digitally clock your computer helps get a more "analog" sound -- and of course Separations help get a less "collapsed" sound from digital summing (64 bit systems will be interesting to watch though...).

Today, "top quality" can mean a number of things -- it could be an all-analog project recorded with a Neve, API, D&R, SSL or vintage Trident console, mixed to 1/2" analog tape -- it could mean a 96k 24 bit DAW project that's recorded in one of the remaining "A-list" studios and summed in the analog domain -- it could mean all samples and loops in a home recording environment that's well mixed and mastered, etc.  One of my favorite formats is still analog tape.  The bottom is solid, the top is smooth and it's natural "compression" gives body and level to the sound. 

Key: Analog is *infinite* sampling. There are no gaps in the sound. Analog "holds" the bottom end better, and adds a sweetness to the top end that I still haven't heard from any black "analog emulation" box. Analog tape compression gives more emotion to the sound (gads, now we're getting esoteric)!  Keep referencing back to commercial CDs in your studio to keep an eye on the smooth sound of pro-mastered records.  That way you're keeping your ears tuned to top quality.  

Q) Is it worth spending around $1,800.00 to convert the head the existing 1/4" head and assembly to 1/2" or will 1/4" offer me the low end warmth and necessary frequency response that I'm looking for? -OD from the UK

Either 1/4" or 1/2" will give you good sound and warmth, as well as more silky highs than digital. 1/2" is more stable and has a better signal-to-noise ratio. The analog sound will be there in either format.

I currently print through a Finalizer (yeah, I hate what it does to my mix too, but I need my CD-R to be loud for those A&R guys).

It's a common issue that clients/a&r want hotter reference copies... not understanding that a more dynamic mix (with less overall level) is a better source at mastering time.  Print versions with and without the Finalizer, that way you're covered both ways.

Q) I have two ADAT blackface recorders and and old Tascam 80-8 1/2 inch 8 track. Should I track to the adats and mix to the 1/2 inch? Or should I track drums and whatever else I can fit on the 1/2 and transfer them to adat? The adats are to bright and harsh sounding and I want to warm up the sound somehow with 80-8. -Jeff

I would track drums/bass/whatever to the 1/2" then transfer to adat. Save that 1/2" tape. Then I'd stripe another 1/2" tape with SMPTE time code on track 8. Slave the ADAT via a BRC to the 1/2" time code, then record your next six tracks on 1-6 of the 1/2" machine.

Now transfer that over to your 2nd ADAT, then record the remaining tracks on 1/2" and mix to a dat machine, 2 track analog, or analog-in of a CD burner. If you only have 16 track capability, do the drums on 4 tracks - kic, snare, DL-DR (all other drum mikes in a congruent stereo image). You can try mixing to two tracks of the 1/2", but it may add some noise. One layer of analog will help the whole sound. Use Emtec (BASF) 911 or Quantegy GP9 tape (see my page for alignment tips) and maybe rent a tube compressor to run the vocals through at mix time.

Using tube mic pre's, tube mics, and some vintage gear can help warm things up too.  I also like some warmer plug in's like ones found in the UAD cards.

Q) How do you determine the best level for tape saturation? -Aaron

A: Tape saturation is one of those buzz words that is just a name for a different tone. It's like the overdrive on a guitar amplifier. If you asked me how much overdrive is best for guitar, I'd say it depends on the song, your taste, and the audience you're trying to reach. Well, tape saturation just changes the sound. The hotter the input level going to tape, the more saturation you'll get. Use your ears, and try different amounts of record/input level to see what suits you.

Certainly the more record level, the less tape hiss, but also, you get more crosstalk and more print-through you get (which mud's up the sound). Crosstalk is how much of one channel bleeds into an adjacent track, usually from about 400hz and down. The way you lessen it is to record softer or put more physical space between the adjacent tracks. This is why it's good to record similar instruments closer together on analog tape, so that any crosstalk is musically more related. So... don't record the bass next to the lead vocal, or big percussive drum tracks next to your smpte time code track.... and don't record your smpte track at 0 VU right next to a delicate flute solo. Smpte sounds awful bleeding into anything!

Print-through is what happens when you store analog tape. Just like a magnet held close to the tip of a screwdriver will magnetize the end of the screwdriver, magnetic tape held/stored next to another piece of magnetic tape will pick up some of the magnetic energy from the other layer of tape. In other words, some of the first 16 bars of your song is printed *through* the tape onto the next 16 bars, and the next 16 bars and so forth.

Key: The hotter the record level (leading to more possible tape saturation) the more crosstalk and print-through you will get. Decreasing the playback levels (a normal part of elevated tape alignment technique) will not change these conditions. How much *record* level is the sole determining factor.

Q) I'm currently using a Tascam 424. Can I get decent results or am I wasting my time?

Of course the results can be decent! Well, depending on who you play the demo for and what *they* are looking for. If you saturate the heck out of a tape for a purist/classical label, they may tell you to take a hike. If you don't hit hit the tape hard and the label is looking for a lo-fi punk thing, it could have a *slight* factor in the response you get.... but frankly, I think if your material is a knockout and you've got great attitude and performance... the amount of tape saturation (or lack thereof) won't be a deciding factor.

If you are a musician/writer, your demo should demonstrate your level of proficiency in the areas of (1) song writing (2) performances (3) star quality (4) production/presentation (this is where mastering is important) (5) attitude/business commitment and (lastly) your engineering skills.

If you are an engineer/producer/studio owner, your demo should demonstrate that list in reverse order (interchanging engineering/production as required). Musicians get signed because of their music. Engineer/producers get signed because they use talent and the right tools to make a recording that grabs people's attention and is a superior sound vehicle that captures the expression of the artist. Tape saturation is simply another tool that's part of your sound palette. (Learn how to align a 2-track analog tape machine here.)

Q: I've just spent hours studying and reflecting on your incredible tips and frankly, I want to hire you. Do I even need to be there for the mastering session? -Mark

We're happy for you to be here if you prefer, and it's fine if you would prefer to just send in your mixes (and/or Separations). When you send me your project, send me either 3 of your favorite cds, or a compilation CDR with 4-5 songs on them from commercial artists that you really dig the sound of. We'll talk on the phone once I hear your stuff and what you send me, and I'm sure you'll feel very comfortable as we progress.

Q) I plan on mixing in Pro tools at a "real studio". After the mix is done and is a stereo file sitting on the computer, what should I transfer this too? (DAT CDR..). -Curtis

Best is to do 24 bit stereo files along with multi-stems (if you're on a DAW) - Masterlink is great, but here's more mix format preferences....

Is there any benefit of sending this out to 1/2 Analog and using that as my input to the mastering stage?

Yes - with a professionally balanced mix, the analog "compression" sounds great - it adds body and "apparent level", sweetens the highs, gives a woodier sound to snare drum and warmth to guitars and vocals. Holds bass better, too. Separations have many advantages when it comes to addressing smoothness on particular tracks that may need it more than other tracks.

Important: This assumes that you can still get analog tape (Quantegy bites the dust?) and that the studio is very on top of their alignment procedures. Ask the engineer to be very specific about how their machines are aligned, as it's easy to say "Yes, it's aligned." (when it's really just set the way their tech set it 6 months ago). Ask what curve they use at each speed, do they check azimuth before every session, what level are they elevated to, what kind of machine, what kind of shape are the heads in, are they able to get BASF 900 for you... you should get very confident sounding answers to all of these questions. Also be sure they are taking the signal directly off the playback head, not just going through the input electronics. Oh, and buy a roll of virgin tape for your session - "renting" used tape for your mix is risky at best.

BETTER: Actually go the extra measure and buy enough tape to mix your whole album on (go 15 ips if its better for your budget). Use your analog tapes for mastering, and just make transfers to dat or CDR as backup. After you've put the songs in order, leader between each song, but make SURE you don't edit the tape at the exact beginnings (or endings) of the songs. Leave 15 seconds pre/post dead air around the song - there can be pre-roll noise. The beginnings and spread between songs can be fixed in mastering.

Q) Will baking etc. be able to revive my 456 and 499 masters for remixing later on, or should I back them up by transferring over to BASF 900? -Jeff

Baking will revive them later. However, I'd plan on either backing them up when you do play them (baked) again, or sooner if you think it's going to be a while till you play them.

Quantegy isn't baking anymore, but they have someone who does, and they foot the bill (except for the shipping). The question is whether they'll still be doing that in 10 years. After a while they may not. The baking technique is simple - convection oven maintaining perfect temperature for long periods of time.

Exercising the tape sometimes works for the moment, but then the loosened up tape gets stickier, so be prepared to do whatever seems the safest at the moment for the results you want to last.

Created 3/12/99 • Modified 4/6/06
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