What Recording to Tape is Like

Vinyl records, 8-tracks, cassette tapes, compact discs (CD), mp3s, and streaming services are viable ways to listen to music today. If you have the proper equipment that is – and most audiophiles do. Most casual music fans will stick with streaming services, such as Pandora and Spotify.

However, there are still those that like to put on some vinyl and listen to every crackle and pop with delight. The “what sounds better” debate raged for decades between CDs and records. Even though streaming music has supplanted CDs, the argument persists. Streaming music sounds just as it should (with proper wifi) while records have a much warmer sound.

Sound quality aside, the same tug of war is happening with how the music we listen to is recorded. As home computers became standard in the 1990s, music recording software developed right along with it. Digital audio workstations (DAW) made it possible for anyone with a computer to produce their own music.

And just as vinyl lovers prefer that medium, there are those in the industry that still prefer to work with analog tape recording at the studio. Although the use of 2-inch tape and reel-to-reel recording tape machines are much too expensive for the masses, the number of professional studios that use tape is growing. They just like the “sound” of analog.

But does it sound better? That’s really up to the listener. Working with magnetic tape is a much more laborious process, so maybe all of that blood, sweat, and tears that went into production can be heard. Let’s take a look at the differences in sound recording between the two media sources.

Compatibility

Anybody that has ever tried to take a PC word document and open it on a MAC more than 10 years ago knows what we mean. Digital offers advances in technology almost daily, but it can also be outdated in mere seconds. Flash was the software to know for creating animations a mere decade ago. Now, browsers won’t even play Flash and offer no support.

The same can be said about DAWs. At their core, all DAWs are essentially the same, with a few bells and whistles to help tell them apart. But try to work on a Logic Pro X (Mac only) file while using Pro Tools (Either PC or Mac) – it won’t translate. Even older files of the same software may not be compatible with the newest, most up-to-date versions.

With analog tape, there are no such worries. Tape and the large reel to reel recorders that use the tape from 30 years ago can still be used. It can be used between different recorders no matter if it’s 2-inch tape or a ¼ inch. It would appear tape never becomes obsolete.

Longevity

Analog tape from decades ago can still be used today with a little restoration. While tape can be used over and over again, once you’ve taped over something, what you’ve taped over is gone for good.

Track tape is only as good as its recorder. While many machines are still in use after 40 years, the combination of worn tape and tired tape heads may affect the tape speed or create a tape hiss during recording. Both situations can be remedied, however.

Ever have a computer freeze on you before? Hoping everything you had been working on for the last hour (or longer) didn’t get deleted? Or just having the whole hard drive up and die, leaving you unable to retrieve any files at all? These situations happen to mostly smaller setups, such as home computers.

The simple solution is to save all of your digital recordings to an external hard drive. By keeping the two separated, your computer can perform at maximum capacity and you’ll always have a back up of what you’re working on. If you have years of work saved somewhere, consider updating the files so they don’t become obsolete.

Working with Tape vs. Digital

Usage: With top-notch computer power and speed, and a few external hard drives for storage, you can produce all the music you want. It won’t cost you a dime, either, after the initial money is spent on gear. The same can’t be said for tape.

And tape ain’t cheap. A full reel of 2-inch tape is well over 300 hundred dollars. You could get a really nice DAW for that kind of money. While there are ways of extending the tape, recording at 15 ips (inches per second for example), your recordings will sound better if you’re recording at a 30 ips speed. And if you’ve decided to record to tape in the first place, that decision is based on getting a particular sound quality, so chances are, you’ll be opting for the more expensive burn rate of 30 ips.

Punching in/out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punch_in/out Needs to be added. Unlike digital audio workstations, where specific points of a recording can be chosen, engineers have to have a steady hand with tape. If a portion of a song needs to be re-recorded, the tape is queued to where the existing music is. The recording button is “punched in” at just the right time, then “punched out” when finished. It can be a nerve-wracking experience for even the most experienced engineer.

Editing: While we aren’t here to say digital recording is better or worse than working with tape, when it comes to editing, editing tracks digitally is far easier. When tape was king, audio engineers who wanted to cut a section of a song literally had to cut it.

Using a razor blade and finding the exact moment, they would splice out the offending part and then attach the tape back together again. With a DAW, it’s just a matter of highlighting the problem and hitting delete or making other edits. Finding different sections of a track is also much easier.

A few clicks of the mouse and you’re where you need to be. While you are able to establish a few auto-locate points, finding certain sections of a song on tape means hitting the rewind button and guessing when to stop it. When time is of the essence, would you rather spend it producing or searching?

Sound: This, of course, is in the ear of the beholder. Some may say digital recordings are a little too perfect and robotic for such a creative industry. Others say removing all of the imperfections of tape makes the song sound the way the artists intended.

Some music producers will track digitally, edit digitally on Pro Tools or some other DAW of choice, then send to tape for mix. Old school performers and some indie rock enthusiasts prefer throwing caution to the wind and will stay entirely in tape but doing so is rare as it is very costly.

Start Your Experience

At Recording Connection, we believe the best way to gain experience is in the real world. Our Audio Engineering and Music Production Program will place you in a professional studio, working one on one with an industry pro. The curriculum is based on what you want to learn and what your mentor needs you to know.

Setting up the studio acoustics, developing relationships with artists, and learning what it takes to make money in the music industry is what we offer. But it’s up to you to get the most out of it. With the experience we provide, past externs have been offered jobs, won Grammys, and made a career out of doing what they love. Are you ready to Amplify Your Life?

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