The Reality of All–Analog Recording

The last time vinyl records saw the kinds of numbers they’ve been selling lately, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, George Michaels’s Faith and U2’s Rattle And Hum were topping the charts. Last year, the RIAA reported that at $416 million, vinyl sales had reached levels that hadn't been seen since 1988.

Back then, those records would have been recorded and mixed to analog tape – a recording format whose mythical status and hipster quotient have risen in concert with vinyl’s.

Analog won’t make a mediocre song sound better, but it does retain an aural warmth that keeps aficionados like Steve Albini firmly in its camp regardless. The complexity of analog technology can engage musicians and producers more deeply in the recording process than digital ever could.

The rituals involved with spinning Mylar-backed ferrous particles onto stainless steel capstans and watching mechanical VU meters go ballistic (which is, literally, what they are supposed to do) may be technically demanding, but this makes them no less wonderfully exotic.

Part of digital’s allure is its putative simplicity and its undeniable ubiquity. People can and do make records on their phones and laptops. Making records on tape, however, requires a lot of know-how that’s not easy to acquire. Here's what happens when man meets machinery.

The Set–Up

Meet your multitrack deck. A classic Studer A800 or an Otari MTR–90 has dozens of moving parts and some potentially temperamental electronics. A 24–track deck will take between 30 and 45 minutes to fully calibrate prior to a session — if you know what you’re doing.

Start by cleaning the head assembly with denatured alcohol and demagnetizing the heads. Then, using a Magnetic Reference Laboratory calibration tape (which cost about $500), calibrate the deck’s repro and sync playback levels with a series of frequency–specific tones. You’ll need a tweaker screwdriver and a sharp eye on the VU meters.

Studer A800

Otari MTR–90

Finished? Well, that was just the playback level calibration. Now let’s do the overbias, or recording, calibration.

Playing a 10–kHz tone from the mix console or a standalone oscillator, use the tweaker to adjust the bias levels slightly, watching the VU meters for a peak. Then reverse direction and increase the bias past the peak until the frequency level off of the tape drops by the amount of dB specified for that particular tape formulation.

The classic Ampex 456 tape will have different specs from those of the former BASF and AGFA, now made by France-based Mulann.

Next, you’ll need to calibrate record level for 1 kHz, EQ the record level at 10 kHz, and then set the low-end repro level for the sync and repro heads. Then call us — we’ll be downstairs in the lounge playing video games.

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Nuances

Seriously, analog recording is a complex proposition. It does get easier, or at least less nerdy, from here, but it becomes considerably more nuanced.

For instance, a guitarist will need a significant amount of time in order to overdub a solo or licks and fill in various part of the song. The time it takes to physically rewind the tape might test the patience of anyone brought up on digital’s instant access.

On the other hand, some musicians seem to appreciate those extra few seconds, thinking about varying a note or two on the next pass.

Larry Crane and his MCI JH-16 tape deck
at Jackpot! Recording Studio

“Or, maybe, just tuning up,” cracks Larry Crane, founder of Tape Op Magazine, a trusted resource for analog aficionados. Crane has run Jackpot! Recording Studio in Portland, Oregon for two decades, where one of his three Otari MTR-80 multitrack decks is regularly cannibalized to keep the other two fully operational.

Co–founded by Crane and Elliott Smith in 1996, Jackpot! counts Sleater–Kinney, Sonic Youth, and The Decemberists among its clients. Thanks to plenty of experience recording clients in a variety of ways, Crane is not nostalgic when it comes to analog.

“You have to plan out analog sessions — budget your tracks ahead of time,” he explains. “It’s not like digital where you can keep adding tracks forever. If you want to layer background vocals, for instance, you’ll [often] have to bounce those tracks down to one or two before you can move on.” An analog session is a set of logistical calculations worthy of a moon shot.

In fact, Crane has found that sometimes the calculations can be so daunting that bands come in prepared to zoom through songs nonstop. Having solos worked out and vocals pared down to what could be accomplished live on stage works in everyone’s favor in the long run, Crane thinks.

And then there are times when a band might throw in the towel and just ask to move over to Pro Tools, which he’s OK with, too.

Playing For Keeps

Welcome To 1979 Studios

If an engineer has to know his way around a tape machine to get a session started, he or she will also have to stay a bit sharper during the session. When a track on tape gets inadvertently recorded over and sent to “magnetic heaven,” it’s not coming back unless someone plays it or sings it again.

“You can’t hit the spacebar and then command–Z and get it back,” warns Chris Mara, owner of Welcome To 1979 Studios. This is Mara’s very analog abode in Nashville where he also refurbishes vintage MCI tape decks for his own use in the sprawling loft and for resale to clients like Ryan Adams.

“You need to learn how to pay attention in a way you might not need to in digital. If another track is armed when you hit ‘record,’ whatever’s on it is gone. Moving around tape is different from getting around digital. You need patience.”

The Ultimate Irony

Is the work involved in analog music production worth it? Those who know it best will tell you it is.

Speaking at an event honoring him by the Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing in Los Angeles just ahead of the Grammy Awards in February, Jack White told the audience that analog inherently compels constant creative decisions. Artists have to stay within the physical boundaries of the tape itself.

White described it as “recording under duress.” It’s an antidote to the digital procrastination that lets scores of digital tracks pile up, which he said has become a way of working for too many artists.

If you can’t get a song down in 24 tracks, maybe it wasn’t a very good song in the first place." - Larry Crane

White’s statements drew a knowing response from a crowd mostly brought up on analog. This was a room full of people tired of seeing Pro Tools sessions consisting of 100–plus tracks and plenty of deferred creative decisions plopped into the laps of mix engineers tasked with finding the song buried in there.

White’s talk illustrated how far digital technology may have taken music production from its roots. The limited number of tracks available once demanded that artists and producers make critical artistic choices as they moved forward. So the ultimate irony of analog may be that, for all its complexity, it’s also the road to simplicity.

“If you can’t get a song down in 24 tracks,” says Larry Crane, “maybe it wasn’t a very good song in the first place.”

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