Analog tape simulation during the mixing process

Robert Katz Leave a Comment

From: Aaron Anderson

I do not have an unlimited budget (who does?) so i’ve decided the best thing for me to do is to build a world-class (in theory) 2track signal path, and mix in the computer.. i also do a lot of processing of sounds with different amps, mics, synthesizers, an eventide, samplers, stuff like that… i really like to put sounds in odd spaces and create textures.. anyways, i love the sound of albums produced by Flood (mark ellis.. he’s always talking about 15ips in interviews. he’s done U2, NIN, depeche mode..) but I don’t have much experience with tape.. and i still haven’t quite gotten the tone i want in the digital realm.

i love compression and dark sounding recordings (achtung baby by U2, radiohead’s ok computer, etc the more color the better!) and to this end i use things like the cranesong hedd (great tube simulation), a joemeek comp (goofy box), and a pair of distressors (my swiss army knives).. i also have a couple of neve broadcast modules the sounds, but they still don’t really have the bottom and darkness i associate with “tape.” does the SPL box really do what it claims? and more importantly, do you think it might help me find what i’m looking for..

Dear Aaron:

My answer is POSSIBLY. I am concerned about recommending the use of analog tape simulators in the mixing process unless you have world-class monitoring which can tell you unequivocally when (if) you’ve gone “too far.” There’s nothing worse than the sound of oversaturated analog tape; turn the drive knob one step too far and the distortion you generate will turn from “good” distortion to “bad” distortion. Once any damage has been done, it cannot be undone. Furthermore, I’ve found that after good mastering, a little bit of analog tape simulation is enough; so using such a device in the mixing chain can be a problem, because you cannot anticipate its interaction with the mastering processors. As usual I recommend that you send two versions of a mix to the mastering house, one with and one without processing. This applies to any processor(s) you put on the mix bus.

In general I recommend waiting until the mastering process for such a box, if you are planning on putting it in the mix bus before your mixdown file. One of the artifacts of an analog tape simulator is that because of the addition of harmonics, it reduces the transient character of the music; this is like a second cousin of a compressor. All my usual considerations of wordlength and dither also apply, because the external Machine Head box outputs 24 useable bits.

Now, for the subjective sound of the Machine Head. I have found that if you start with a 16 bit source (low resolution medium, already dithered at the 16 bit level) and then process it through the Machine Head, you will not come close to the resolution and quality of a well-made 1/2″ 30 IPS tape. The Machine Head is not a perfect substitute for analog tape, but it is a very powerful simulation. It adds a bit of “digititus” onto its “analogitus.” That’s the tradeoff. Subjectively, it raises the perceived quality of certain musical sources that need “fatness,” but don’t expect the exact equal to mixing to the highest resolution media. Of course there is no single “magic” solution, and talent and ears count as much as the equipment used. However, by now (2012) I can recommend some things that are much better:

Recently (2012), analog tape simulators have gotten shockingly good. The UAD ATR-102 and Studer A800 make marvelous tools for mixing engineers or mastering engineers (with the same caveats about overdoing it). These are the first analog tape simulators I’ve found without any detectable digititus or harshness. They do add very similar depth, warmth, and “punch” to the real tape machine. And for mastering engineers (with the same caveats). I also have and use when desirable the Anamod ATS-1, an all analog box which is not subject to the alias distortions but finally I find it hard to hear the difference between the ATS-1 and the UAD products, which are very precise and satisfying replicas to my ears (minus the flutter, and good riddance).

I recently mastered a project that needed some sweetening using the UAD A800 set for 30 IPS, BASF 900 tape and turning down the input by 6 dB and turning up the output by 6 dB. THAT SUBTLE…. using the I/O gains as a form of compression control.

Abuse? Abounds! I’ve received some VERY SPONGEY mixes where the mix engineer got thoroughly carried away with an analog tape simulator.
Now, if you’re looking for A’s, you know what to do. If you are looking for A++, you also know what to do. Consider waiting till the mastering.

Sincerely,

Bob

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