Getting Rich Analog Tones in Digital Home Recording

Some purists declare true devotion to analog recording – the real sound of tape, of tubes, of true magnetic tone. However, not all of us can afford pure analog studio time, much less what it would cost us to build such a studio ourselves. So we opt for digital, which gives us the ability to easily access a wide palette of sounds right in our bedrooms.

Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean that your home recordings have to end up dry, overly digital, and without nuance. By combining easy and affordable digital recording software with affordable analog technologies, any artist making home recordings can create lush tones and characteristically warm and nuanced sound that many conflate with “pure analog recording.”

Street Fighter’s Dictaphone and Signature Gritty Tone

The home-recording approach – which usually results from a lack of resources and a “making do with what you have” mentality – has roots that are more aesthetic than they are financially oriented.

As seen and discussed in the 2015 documentary Keith Richards: Under the Influence, one of the signature Stones sounds – that rumbly and overloaded acoustic chug that opens “Street Fighting Man” – came from Richards recording the lead acoustic track on a small 1967 Norelco Dictaphone machine in the heat of the moment during a session.

After hearing it back and noting the sound of the overloaded guitar blowing out the flimsy microphone, the band fell in love. They recorded the playback from the Norelco onto the master tape (by micing the little Norelco speaker) to be dubbed on top of by the rest of the band and to be swaggered on by Jagger. Layering on that in-the-thick-of-the-jam session noise created a signature sound that makes that tune as much a produced rock song as it is a spontaneous moment captured on tape.

Keeping an old vintage Dictaphone or microcassette recorder in the studio is always a good idea, allowing you to quickly record the sound of that special take and letting that old technology work its magic on the moment.

Wards Airline 7" Reel to Reel Stereo Tape Machine

Finding a Dictaphone or microcassette recorder can be tricky, however. The best place to find these things seem to be estate sales and flea markets, but there are a variety of vintage reel to reels available on Reverb that need little to no work to get you going.

Once you record something you like, you can mic it up or go direct-out into your DAW during playback. You can also multitrack over the fuzzy or grainy take with clean instruments to develop a tonally diverse and signature sound.

Create a Dub Mix by Playing the Console Like an Instrument

Dub music is the smokier version of Reggae and has proven to be hugely influential for much of modern electronic music. It is also rooted in this sort of studio trickery.

Analog tape inside a Roland RE-150 Space Echo

Scientist, one of the pioneers of that hazy dub sound, uses playback from pre-existing tracks and sessions, bounces them from the recording console through his famous Roland RE-150 Space Echo and other outboard effects, and essentially uses the mixing console as an instrument.

This sort of bouncing technique, where you use the console itself as an instrument, inspired waves of electronic musicians. It all started by taking a pristine analog studio recording and bouncing it through somewhat distorted analog technology to give it that notably humid and cavernous dub sound.

This, too, can be a pricey investment if you want that truly authentic Scientist echo, but you could just as easily run your playback from a digital recording through other analog (or digital) outboard effects. Check out the Wampler Faux Analog Echo Delay, the MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay, or the TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb.

Be sure to play with the effects settings during playback and try a few console-as-instruments tricks like timed mutes, EQ sweep, panning, and playing with wet/dry effects levels. To take it one step further, record several of these experiments to a cassette 4-track to be EQ’d on the tape machine and bounced back to your DAW for final mastering.

Sample Yourself and Dub to Tape for Nuance and EQ

Tascam Portastudio 414 mkII

Legowelt, a Dutch producer, often dubs or bounces his house and techno tracks. He makes his tracks using a hodgepodge of sounds – modular, vintage analog and digital synthesizers – arranged into tracks in Ableton and a Tascam 414-mkii cassette deck.

This technique give his tracks a deeper, tightly EQ’d sound. Most of all, it is distinct. You can feel the tape in a good Legowelt track even if you don’t know that that’s what you’re feeling. Most of the characteristic tape-hiss that digital purists detest can be EQ’d out digitally with a low-pass filter.

In an era where everyone can be a bedroom producer, adding this sort of tonal quality or nuance – one that is more fuzzy from using various artifacts – can produce a signature sound. Also, in case you didn’t know, Legowelt loves synthesizers.

To replicate Legowelt’s process, start by recording some tracks directly into your DAW of you noodling around on various electronics, modular racks, and synths. You can also record acoustic instruments into your Dictaphone and run them into Ableton to create samples.

After you put a track together, bounce a master recording of that digital track to your cassette 4-track machine. You can adjust the tape speed and DBX features on your 4-track to get that “chopped and screwed” but lossless analog pitch shift, as well as compression and EQ when you dub back to your DAW.

Machines like these Tascams and Dictaphones are perfect for experienced and novice producers alike looking to develop more timbre and feeling to their programmed electronic recordings.

Similarly, using these sorts of strategies when recording more traditional rock songs on a budget can create great recordings, full of nuance and character. Whole waves of producers are learning to incorporate this sort of bouncing back and forth between characteristically cold digital and pristine and clean analog sounds through hazy effects to create distinct hybrid recordings.

There is no need to stick immovably on one side of the long-standing “Analog vs. Digital” debate. Instead, embrace both, use both, and apologize for nothing.

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