Analog Rules!

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"As so much music is listened to via MP3 download, many will never experience the joy of analog playback, and for them, I feel sorry. They are missing out."

Henry Rollins

There's a growing trend in the music business - recording to reel-to-reel tape. Wait, I thought we got rid of that when we went digital. The truth is, it never went away. Much like the recent boom in sales of records and film, reel-to-reels are gaining new fans and bringing back old ones.

Vintage analog outboard gear, like mic preamps, compressors, and reverbs are still coveted by both young and seasoned professionals. But analog tape took a serious backseat to digital by the time we partied like it was 1999. Most studios abandoned tape for the new highly-efficient Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) like ProTools. Those still using tape did so out of economic necessity or defiance. Digital enthusiasts touted the DAW's noiseless recordings, fast work flow, unlimited track count, and endless plug-ins. Analog purists decried digital as harsh and soulless, with some vowing that tape would be pried "from my cold, dead hands."

It turns out that those old school purists are having their day. Those of us that made the transition from tape to digital know firsthand that it doesn't have the same sonic resolution. But because there were so many compelling features, we overlooked its shortcomings. Later on we pined for some of those old analog sounds, so the market brought us software plug-ins that emulated vintage gear like vacuum tube compressors, classic EQ strips, vinyl record noise, and reel-to-reel tape recorders. DAWs now make it easy to integrate vintage hardware into our sessions. There is even a device that flows audio through a recorder, onto reel-to-reel tape, and into a ProTools DAW.

The things we don't miss about analog tape are the slow work flow and machine maintenance. The tape hiss can be managed with noise-reduction, but there is significant sonic detail lost when bouncing from one tape to another (called generation loss). Tape wear from shuttling back and forth while building a song is a real problem as well.

Things we miss about analog tape are the warmth from the magnetic reproduction of sine waves. The frequency bandwidth is far greater than standard digital recordings, which can capture valuable harmonics and deep bass. Analog stereo recordings have a proven time-spatial advantage that more accurately translates the recorded space - in other words, listeners feel like they're in the same room as the musicians.

We have all been overexposed to compressed sound, such as the mp3 and streaming media. Even the trusty audio CD is sonically limited. This may be one reason why we're looking to the past to put some juice back into our recordings. John Mellancamp's recent album "No Better Than This" was recorded with a vintage RCA 77DX microphone on a 1950's mono Ampex 601 tape deck. Taylor Swift, Jack White, and Lenny Kravitz are analog aficionados.

Analog tape's restrictions are actually helping some musicians. Taylor Swift's producer Nathan Chapman says “Taylor’s young and she has the energy to go the extra mile it takes to record in analog’s more limited number of tracks.” Five-time Grammy-nominated producer Cookie Morenco of Blue Coast Records says that the high cost of recording tape forces producers and artists to make quicker performance decisions. This makes for a faster session with less fatigue.

Analog tape's archival qualities are another reason to believe. Recordings from 30, 40, and even 50 years ago can usually be played back. Digital formats and files can disappear without careful archiving and re-archiving. All but gone are DASHs, ADATs, DA-88s, DATs, and minidiscs. However reel-to-reel players and replacement parts are becoming scarce.

With the price of recording tape at an all-time high because of low demand and costly raw materials, it will remain a niche recording process. But in the never-ending pursuit of a unique sound, some will embrace it until the next thing comes back. Just to be unique, I'm going old-school here in my office and installing candlestick telephones. If you want me, just call EDison 5-1101.

More on the analog revolution:
Analog Recording Make a Comeback
Why I prefer recording to analog tape
The Return of the Analog Studio
The All-Analog Daptones Records
CLASP by Endless Analog

Did You Know?

  • During the overdub sessions of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours album, tape decay from shuttling back and forth almost killed the whole project. The basic backing tracks got so muffled that the kick and snare drums were indistinguishable from one another. Fortunately a second 24-track machine recorded the basic tracks during the original session. Vocal overdub tracks were meticulously transferred to this backup tape.
  • Vinyl record sales have increased 260% since 2009, according to Nielson.
  • The Beatles' "Abbey Road" is the best selling vinyl album since 2010.
  • Though many are tracking music to analog, then mixing to digital, some are going the other way around. Many music projects are started digitally and mixed down to a 2-track reel-to-reel mastering recorder.
  • There is only one U.S. manufacturer of analog tape - ATR Magnetics in York, PA.
  • A 2" reel of tape (used for 16- and 24-track recorders) is $345. Running at the preferred speed of 30 inches per second (IPS), there is only 16 1/2 minutes of recording time.
  • The theme song for the 2009 movie "Up in the Air" starring George Clooney was recorded at the all analog Daptones Records in Brooklyn .
  • Amy Winehouse's Grammy-winning "Rehab" was also recorded at Daptones.
  • DSD, one of the highest performing digital recording formats, achieves 2.8 million transitions (or snapshots) per track per second. A 1/4" reel-to-reel tape running at 15 IPS achieves 80 million transitions per track per second.
  • Dynamix Productions can transfer many vintage formats to digital, including reel-to-reels, LP and 78 records, cassettes, microcassettes, minidiscs, ADATs, DATs, and 8-track tapes.

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