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Analog Tape vs Digital Recording: Which sounds better?

Saturday, January 26th, 2013 | by


Which sounds better, analog tape or 24-bit digital recording? Los Angeles producer/engineer Adam Kagan set up a session to find out. Listen to solo’d bass, guitar, and piano tracks from session stars Carlos Rodgarman, Grecco Buratto, and Carlitos del Puerto; decide for yourself whether you prefer the pristine sound of digital recording or the “warm” tones of analog tape on electric guitar, bass, and piano.

I started my professional recording career in the early 1990’s, when 2-inch tape was the main recording format for all but the few who could afford a Sony 3348 digital machine. We recorded to either a Studer, Sony/MCI, Ampex or Otari tape machine and mixed through our analog boards to a half-inch tape machine, usually a Studer or Ampex.

JH-24 Tape Deck, from Flickr user Ronan_CEach tape machine had its advantages and disadvantages: the JH-24 (Sony/MCI) could punch like no other and sounded great, but alignment was a pain and the remote was little more than functional. The Ampex machines sounded fantastic, but forget about punching at all. The Studers had the best of both worlds, with good punching and great sound — at a very high price. In contrast, the Otari machines and Sony APRs had modern features, like auto-alignment and built-in synchronization, but were not considered great-sounding machines. You pays your money and takes your choice. [JH-24 photo from Flickr user Ronan_C]

Fortunately for me, I started right on the cusp of affordable digital multitrack recorders, in the forms of the Alesis ADAT and Tascam DA-88s. Pro Tools (then called Sound Tools) was in its infancy, but worked very well for two-track editing. A few esoteric digital workstations, like the NED Synclavier, AMS Audiofile and Fairlight showed up in post-houses and top-level composer’s studios, but were way out of reach for the average person.

For a little perspective, a decent Sony/MCI JH 24 machine could be purchased used in the early 90’s for around $15,000–not including wiring or required maintenance (e.g., several thousand dollars for a new headstack). At that time a reel of 2-inch tape cost almost $200 and gave you 14 minutes of 24 tracks, so a typical 48 track project (one to three songs) would set you back at least $400 in tape costs.

ADATS and DA-88s brought the cost of 24 track digital audio down to $10,000–15,000, and you could buy just one 8-track machine to start with for around $3000. Digital tape was cheap, with ADATs relying on S-VHS tapes and DA-88s relying on Hi-8 tape cassettes. Each one of those formats, and their various spin-offs, had sonic and functional differences, like synchronizers, remotes, sample rates, etc. These modular digital machines revolutionized the home recording scene before Digidesign (now Avid), EMagic (now Apple), Opcode (now gone), Steinberg and MOTU took the lead with computer based solutions.

So here we are today, with me feeling old and telling stories of yore, with everyone all a-flutter with renewed interest in getting back to the “good old days” of recording to analog tape and pressing vinyl. The changeover from all analog recording to mostly digital recording during the late 90’s brought with it lots of bias, superstition and just plain ignorance. It is true that the very first generation of digital recorders, like the Sony F1 and early DAT machines, didn’t sound as good as the state-of-the-art analog machines. However, the low cost and ease-of-use of the new digital machines guaranteed their success. Luckily, pro audio and audiophile users pushed manufacturers to create better sounding converters and better tools to process the sound (now known as plugins).

It is my belief that much of the pain of switching over to digital recording was due to the tools that engineers had mastered for analog recording. For instance, applying EQ and compression (or no compression) to tape to make up for the color that the tape added didn’t sound so great when recording to digital. Bright FET microphones and harsh transistor preamp tones became rounded off in a pleasing way on tape, and by the 100th mix pass, the high-end was rolled off and the transients smeared so much that the final mix sounded phat, warm and fuzzy. It took experienced engineers a minute (or years) to gather their thoughts, re-examine their tools and learn how to take advantage of the clarity, quiet, and unforgiving purity of digital recording. At that point recordists moved towards super-fast, ultra-clean and high-gain preamps and transparent compression. Low cost digital processors stopped using transformers and tubes, which lowered costs and also lowered THD, while widening frequency bandwidth specs from DC to light. We had finally found it: perfect, clean, sterile audio!

Fast forward to now. Today’s great equipment designers came up studying the fundamentals of analog design, and learned digital design and processing during the evolution of digital. This has led to a hybrid approach of using colorful transformers and tubes alongside super-clean analog and digital processing for the best of both worlds. Recording artists like Lenny Kravitz led the way to digital, and then reverted back to analog, showing us the extremes of each medium. I think almost everyone is now satisfied that by using good sounding analog gear and even affordable converters, digital recording is not only acceptable, but can sound downright amazing.

Humans just can’t let things rest, though. Now we want to re-integrate production techniques and sonics that can most easily be found or created using our old friend(?) analog tape, alongside our digital gear. Fortunately, tape machines have not been out of use for very long, and the techs and engineers at top studios still remember how to align and maintain analog machines. Unfortunately, the companies that made 2-inch tape have all closed their doors. Some new companies have done a good job picking up the pieces, and have been manufacturing analog tape for a few years. While the quality and sonics of the new tape is not exactly the same as the best tape of late 90’s, the stock is very good and totally useable. It is, however, expensive, with a reel of half-inch running about $100, and a new reel of 2” tape from ATR or RMGI fetching just over $300.

I, for one, was happy to see 2” tape slowly fade away, and early on I was toting my Pro Tools rig to mix sessions where the studio begrudgingly set up their SSL synchronizer to talk to my Pro Tools rig. Nowadays the Pro Tools rig has taken the place of the tape machines in almost every studio, and a premium has to be paid to use the analog machines, if they are even still available.

So, how do we know when the analog machine will add just the right amount of punch, warmth, fuzziness or just plain magic to our drums, vocals, guitar, bass? Recently, I worked on a project that was recorded at a few different world-class studios, using both analog and digital recorders and used the experience to document some notable differences in the sonics of each recording format. I will summarize each tracking session and give audio examples, where possible for each instrument and format.

Drums

Here’s the basic scenario: a Latin pop record with some great players, mostly recorded using acoustic instruments (or amplifiers) in great studios. The drums, played by Mario Calire, were recorded at Henson (formerly A&M) in studio A and were engineered by Elliot Scheiner. If you don’t know who Elliot is, look him up — he has recorded, mixed and produced most of your favorite records, from Steely Dan to the Foo Fighters.

The drums were only recorded to 2” tape, so no direct comparison can be given here, but I’ll include a sample that you can compare against your drum sounds. Keep in mind that Elliot’s drum sound will probably kill yours regardless of analog or digital, but it is a great benchmark to work towards.

Dry drum mix (analog tape)

Session Setup

The rest of the album was recorded at Ocean Way in Hollywood, using an Ampex 2” machine and their fantastic Focusrite console. The 2” tape we used was NOS 3M 996 tape stock that Henson Studios sold to us, and we recorded at a level of +5/185 at 30 ips, which is a quiet, but not overly hot level. For reference, most of the R&B stuff I recorded in the 90s was at +9/185, while a lot of rock stuff was recorded at +3/185. Basically, the higher the level, the lower the noise floor and the punchier the sounds. So, drum machines, synths and smooth vocals sound huge with very little tape hiss at a high level and a tape speed of 30ips, while distorted guitars, loud, live drums and screaming vocals sound huge, with a higher, but acceptable, noise floor at a lower recording level and lower tape speed (15 ips). No noise reduction was used on this project.

For the remainder of the instruments, all tracks were recorded buss out from the console and multed (split) at the patchbay to both the tape machine and the Pro Tools interface. The output of the tape machine’s repro head fed a Prism Dream converter and then went to Pro Tools digitally. After each recording pass, the tape tracks were nudged forward in Pro Tools by a bit over 9000 samples (about 10ms at 96khz), which was the delay between the direct signal and the output of the repro head of the tape machine. We recorded into Pro Tools at 96khz, 24bit. Vocals and percussion were recorded at our private studios, so there was no tape used, but the few synth tracks we used were recorded through tape. I didn’t print tape and Pro Tools for the synth tracks because I could spend time playing back midi instruments and adjusting the record level to get the desired tape saturation vs tone for the synths. For the live players, I didn’t have the luxury of time to experiment with tape levels, so I went with my experience for best practice.

WAV Audio Archive

[Download the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz WAV audio files here.]

Bass (acoustic and electric)

Carlitos del PuertoWIth drums out of the way, we were onto bass. First we recorded acoustic bass, played by Carlitos del-Puerto. I used a Neumann U47 fetFET 47 on the body and a KM54 on the neck, with both mics about 8 inches from the instrument. Both signals were mixed at the console and bussed to one output.

Acoustic bass tracks are the sum of the Fet 47 and KM54:
Acoustic Bass, 24-bit digital
Acoustic Bass, analog tape

Electric bass was then recorded using Ocean Way’s custom Jensen transformer DI box into the console and then through their respective tape and Pro Tools paths.

Electric bass (direct box):
Electric Bass, 24-bit digital
Electric Bass, analog tape

In both pairs of samples, listen for the difference in the low end response, apparent level (thanks to tape compression) and clarity of each path. During mixing, I used only the bass recorded onto tape for all the songs.

Guitars (acoustic and electric)

Guitars were next and the player was Grecco Buratto on both acoustic and electric. Acoustic guitar was miked with a Neumann KM 54Neumann KM 54 around the 14th fret. After a few minutes, I decided the analog tape was not the way to go with acoustic guitar, so we recorded only direct to Pro Tools. Electric, however, was another story. Grecco came to the session armed to the teeth with amps, cabinets and pedals. We set up four or five different pairs of cabinets in the live room and his pedalboard, amps and switcher were in the control room with us. Each cabinet was miked with three mics (isn’t a big studio wonderful!): an SM57, an Sennheiser Electronics Corporation MD 421-IIMD 421 and a FET47. I usually buss the 57 and 421 to one track and record the more distant 47 as a room mic onto a separate track. For the audio examples, there are a variety of styles and one example also includes the mix processing to show how different the guitar wound up sounding during the mix. For the most part, electric guitars on tape were used for the final mix.

All guitar tracks are the sum of an SM57 and MD421 close mics:
Funk Electric Guitar, 24-bit digital
Funk Electric Guitar, analog tape

Electric Guitar, 24-bit digital
Electric Guitar, analog tape

Electric Guitar, 24-bit digital
Electric Guitar, analog tape

Electric Guitar, analog tape, EQ'd for mix

Piano

Piano was interesting. We had two pianos to choose from and we went with the smaller, 7-foot Steinway B, over the 9-foot D. Piano was played by co-producer Carlos Rodgarman. I miked the piano with two Royer Labs R-121Royer R-121s in a sort of XY pair, right above the hammers and focused about halfway down the strings. The setup looks like a “V” with the point toward the strings. The backside of the mics point over the players shoulders. The live room in studio A is huge–over 2000 square feet with 23′ ceilings. With this mic setup, the piano sounded live, but not bathed in reverb. For this type of pop music, I like a bright, punchy piano with good stereo spread and the Royers provide that very well–and still fold towards mono without sound phasey. The ribbons also take EQ well, and I provided a sample of tape, Pro Tools and the processed version used for the mix.

Piano, 24-bit digital
Piano, analog tape

Piano, EQ'd for mix

The processed version wound up heavily EQ’d, but in this dense funk mix it sounded great. For some songs, the tape felt a bit thinner than the digital recordings, while for some songs, the mellower tape sound was just the ticket. Each version had its benefits. With the right compression and EQ, I generally find that even a poorly recorded piano can be made to sit well in most mixes–as long as the piano doesn’t have to be featured.

Conclusion

All-in-all it was a good experiment and well worth the extra mile. For the drums and bass, the tape certainly added a punchiness that would otherwise take a bit of processing to achieve. The electric guitars benefited from the rounding off that the tape provided on certain tracks and on others I like the clarity of digital signal.

Acoustic guitar didn’t really work for me on tape, and piano was a mixed bag.

For day-to-day recording I don’t have the luxury of tape, but for the important projects or the special case where a certain color is desired, tape can certainly add its sonic signature. As for printing my stereo mixes to tape vs digital… don’t get me started…

matthew mcglynn

Many thanks to Adam Kagan for conceiving and delivering this piece! Follow Adam online via http://about.me/adamkagan.

If you enjoy challenging long-held assumptions about whether vintage gear always sounds better, you’ll probably enjoy our most famous mic shootout, the U87 vs. the U87Ai.

Posted in DAW, Technique | 47 Comments »




47 Responses to “Analog Tape vs Digital Recording: Which sounds better?”

  1. Darren J. Morton

    January 26th, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Nice comparison and a good read. The results confirmed some long-held beliefs I have worked under the last 10-yrs or so. As much as I want a 2″-16trk for drums and bass, I think my limited, analog investment money is probably better spent on a good 1/2″ mastering machine…until I move into a multimillion dollar facility funded by a Powerball ticket…

  2. Zach Smith

    January 27th, 2013 at 9:41 am

    and what about printing to analogue vs digital? as wondered by humanity in general and in particular me.. I am from the digital age, having only been recording music since about 2005 when i managed to pirate an early copy of cakewalk sonar in high school (subsequently having bought logic). what does “+5/185 at 30 ips” mean? “the higher the level, the lower the noise floor and the punchier the sounds” is that relevant to digital recording? does your signal level really alter the sound in digital recording? I was under the impression that it doesn’t…

    Thank you for the article

  3. Zach Smith

    January 27th, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Another comment… analogue tape basically stores information as magnetic charge. Which is the same way that magnetic hard drives store information. Why is it not possible to record an analogue signal directly onto a hard drive, or a bank of hard drives?

  4. adam

    January 28th, 2013 at 12:25 am

    Hey Zach – In response to your question about what does +5/185…. mean. I was referring to the alignment level of the analog tape. When using different formulations of analog tape, different tape machines and different styles of music (not to mention different types of analog noise reduction) one must choose an operating level and tape speed. The higher the tape speed (ie: 30 inches per second vs 15 inches per second), the better the noise floor, but the poorer the low frequency response. The higher the recording level (expressed in a db value above a magnetic field leve – like +5 over 185 nanoWebers/meter) the lower the noise, but the more compression from tape saturation. These alignment decisions are part of the art of using analog tape and these settings, along with a few more, can subtly or drastically change the character of the recorded sound. Different brands of tape and different models of tape had different formulations to cater to different specifications. Some had lower noise, better high frequency response, lower print-through for higher levels, etc…

    You are basically correct that signal level doesn’t color the digital signal. Signal level is still important to understand, both going into the digital world and when using plugins and routing inside your DAW.

    With digital recording the analog gain staging of the preamp, compressor, eq, etc… are very important to the flavor and drive of the sound, but once you get into the A-D converter (assuming you are not pushing the level into distortion) the digital signal leve does not affect the sound. Some plugins model analog processors to the extent that a high-level input with generate harmonics, distortion or other anomalies, just like analog gear, In practice, you should keep your analog front-end signal in a reasonable gain range and hit your converters (especially going into USB audio interfaces) at moderate levels – like averaging 15 to 20 below full digital level to avoid distortion and other gain-stage problems.

    You need to understand your gear and how it operates at different levels, both input levels and output levels in order to optimise the sound of the audio. If you are using a high-end mic preamp into your DAW interface, you need to know the max output level (and what the meter means) of your preamp and the max input level of your A-D converter. If you are using a lesser mic pre you need to learn where it sounds best – probably mid-level gain settings.

  5. adam

    January 28th, 2013 at 12:53 am

    Hey Zach – in response to your question about recording analog signals to hard disk…

    I know that there is a lot of info here and it may be a bit more than you were looking for, but the question you asked is not just a simple yes, no question…

    Analog tape recording involved a physical process of magnetizing particles on the tape as it passes linearly across a head. The tape then passes over the playback head where the tape’s magnetic field is induced back into a tape head and reproduced through the analog electronics of the tap machine. The magnetic particles of tape travel at a user-determined speed and the level and frequency of the audio is transferred onto the tape through the tape head. A very low level analog signal would not impart much signal to the analog tape leaving a noisy, low level recording. Too high a signal would saturate the tape and distort the audio. Each instrument was recorded to an individual track and the record level of each track was optimized for that particular instrument. For example, a bass with lots of low end, but not a lot of transient information (high frequencies) could be loaded onto analog tape at a high level. The tape would saturate and compress the audio signal, but the result would be a fat, punchy bass sound without distortion. Conversely, a triangle or crash cymbal would have to have a very low record level to tape, since there is so much high frequency energy and would distort if loaded onto the tape too hard. Instruments like acoustic guitar, piano and voice have varying amounts of low frequency and transient content, so the level needed to be carefully tended to.

    Digital recording basically encodes an analog audio signal as a stream of 1s and zeroes at a specific frequency (44.1 khz, 96khz, etc…). You can imagine this by thinking about a light switch that is either on or off. If you turn it on and 100 times per second and use the pattern on, off, off, on, off, off, on, off, off…. you will create a light that is only one third as bright as full on. So a digital signal can represent a lot of “analog” values with only two states of on and off.

    There are only two common ways to record analog audio to digital tape or hard disk. The most common is PCM recording (like an audio CD uses) and the other format is called DSD audio. PCM audio uses a fixed bit depth and sample rate, like 24bit, 96khz or 16bit, 44.1 khz. DSD uses only 1 bit and a very high sampling rate of 2.8 mhz or higher. DSD is theoretically closer to a true analog signal (like the light switch example), but virtually all DAWs, CD, mp3, etc.. use PCM encoding to store digital audio. Since DSD requires an extremely high data rate, DAWs can’t perform DSP like eq and compression on DSD signals. Therefore, we use PCM recording for DAWs and then we can convert the final mix to DSD for mastering or final encoding.

    If you are interested, do some reading on both analog and digital audio and you will see that the storage of both types of recordings can rely on magnetic storage devices, the type of information stored on the medium are very different types of data and analog audio tape would not suffice for digital storage and hard drives would not record analog audio very well. Digital audio has been recorded to tape based recorders (ADAT, DA-88, DASH, etc…) These machines typically used record heads that rotated as the tape passed over them to increase the effective are and allow very high density of data. Also, the tape was formulated specially for recording the high frequency digital audio signal. Analog audio on tape doesn’t really go over 20 or 30 khz, while digital data streams can to from 44 khz up to several megahertz.

  6. adam

    January 28th, 2013 at 1:04 am

    Hey Darren – I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The thing I came away with from this experience is that while tape has a signature that it imparts on audio, it may not be the right sound for every source and the same would hold true for your final mix. In the 90’s I used to print my final mixes from an analog console to half-inch tape and also digitally to DAT at 16bit, 48khz (the best at the time). During mastering, I always liked the sound of the DAT, but sometimes the tape compression from the analog tape helped glue the mix together. The mastering engineer had to find the best repro settings for his tape machine (which was sometimes a different brand or model than the one I used to print the mixes) and there was a lot of room for error as far as noise, azimuth, repro equalization, etc… The DAT recording, on the other hand, sounded exactly the same as the console output (with the limitations of the A-D converter). These days, I don’t like the noise floor or low frequency response of half-inch tape, or the formulations of the tape that currently available and I would much rather use stereo bus processing to achieve the compression, eq and limiting for my masters.

    If your goal is to create the vintage sonics of the 70s and 80s, then tape may be a fun way to go. I just find the deficiencies of tape, along with the difficulties of sourcing tape and getting a proper machine setup lower the audio quality too much these days. It is just not practical to chase that anymore. That said, I do own a nice 2″ tape machine that I wish I had some use for!

  7. Tom B

    January 28th, 2013 at 7:18 am

    HI Zach-

    An overly simple answer to your hardrive question is the mechanism by which the magnetic info gets written. A tape being drawn across a head writes all of the information linearly. This is evidenced by how one has to rewind the tape to hear a song from the beginning, and it has to pass over the playback head in the proper direction to hear the song the way it was recorded. In addition, it has to travel across the head at the same speed.

    A hard drive has what is called random access. What this means is that the information is written to them in small blocks in random places on the actual platter. A hardrive can thus read from the inner-most circles for part and very quickly combine the information from a section on the outer most portion.

    The size of the blocks and how they are stored depends on your operating system and its filesystem, the hard drive type (SCSI, SAS, SATA, etc) and so on. The opposite scenario would be a vinyl record. A hard drive works as if the “needle” could jump around to random placed on the vinyl record. If so, your song wouldn’t play out very smoothly.

    I suppose in theory, one could write magnetic information linearly to a hard drive, but the size of the platter versus the amount of information that would need to be stored would likely not be optimal.

  8. David Beneke

    January 31st, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Great article, brings back memories. When I was recording on tape in the ’70’s and ’80’s, the big debate was 30ips vs 15ips. 30 gave you a lot less noise, 15 more noise and more bottom end, needing noise reduction. The maintenance on the machines were high, and when running at 15 or 30, the reels and motors were noisy if you were in the same room, like radio production. Old tapes, mostly from the 70’s and 80’s have to be baked, because the plastic used absorbed moisture, unlike tape from the 60’s, which didn’t have that problem. And a tape degrades with multiple plays and just time. Putting all of this in perspective, makes me love digital, although analog does have that “sound”.

  9. Mark Chierego

    January 31st, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    The section below is most interesting to me along with listening to the acoustic bass examples. To me it is the Aural explanation for what is being said! it also enplanes why a lot of us are chasing warmer tones in microphones and pre-amps these days, as some older designs would have been created with in built compensation for losses of analog tape in mind…AKA overly bright condensers!!

    Quote:
    It is my belief that much of the pain of switching over to digital recording was due to the tools that engineers had mastered for analog recording. For instance, applying EQ and compression (or no compression) to tape to make up for the color that the tape added didn’t sound so great when recording to digital. Bright FET microphones and harsh transistor preamp tones became rounded off in a pleasing way on tape, and by the 100th mix pass, the high-end was rolled off and the transients smeared so much that the final mix sounded phat, warm and fuzzy. It took experienced engineers a minute (or years) to gather their thoughts, re-examine their tools and learn how to take advantage of the clarity, quiet, and unforgiving purity of digital recording. At that point recordists moved towards super-fast, ultra-clean and high-gain preamps and transparent compression. Low cost digital processors stopped using transformers and tubes, which lowered costs and also lowered THD, while widening frequency bandwidth specs from DC to light. We had finally found it: perfect, clean, sterile audio!

  10. adam

    January 31st, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Yeah – It is interesting that the condenser microphones that are the “holy grail” mics, like U47s, Church mics and even ribbons like the RCA 77 were originally designed as broadcast microphones. The later generations of recording microphones, like the U87, 414s (most of them) and the small diaphragm condensers had much more presence and pronounced HF response. When digital started to become the norm, we first went to mic preamps like Telefunken V72s, which are very creamy and rich, instead of using the console mic pres, which were bright, open IC designs. We naturally lean towards neutral sounds and seem to get the tone from one device to make up for another device’s color….

  11. Mark Chierego

    January 31st, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    Ahhh …Very interesting observation Adam I think you just hit the nail on the head so to speak !!

  12. John McCortney

    January 31st, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Ah, the memories come rushing back… the weight of a reel of two inch tape, the smell as the tape got warm from the heat of the reel motors, the adrenaline surge (or terror) preceding a difficult punch in, the half hour spent aligning the recorder every few days or with each different batch of tape, trying to avoid using the edge tracks for anything except kick drum or time code and having to leave an empty cross talk buffer track next to the time code track, the time lost to fast forward and rewind even though the reels moved at alarming speed, and the amazement that the electro/mechanical monster, a Studer A-80 in my case, could overcome the folly of dragging a ribbon of glorified rust over a stack of electro/magnetic transducers and somehow record and play back that amazing sound. In spite of the difficulties I do miss that sound.

  13. Aaron Hodgson

    February 1st, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Adam

    I was curious if you would be up to the idea of making the full resolution files available for download. I’d love to get the files out of the browser world for listening. I’ve also been working on an ABX Tester unit that I would be curious in subjecting myself (and possibly others) through using these files. Thanks for the article and the time.

    –Aaron

  14. adam

    February 1st, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    The one thing I do miss from analog recording days is the wait time during rewind. Especially for vocal takes this gave the singer time to take a breath and gather their thoughts. These days I say “let’s do 8 passes, here we go” and there is no time to rest. The sessions go quicker, but the art is different… I don’t miss 16 hour days of punching vocals, saving safety tracks before doing a tight punch or offsetting machines to fly chorus vocals! I used to tote around a single ADAT machine and BRC solely to fly vocals towards the end of my 2″ days!

  15. Kevin

    February 1st, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Analog samples sounds much fuller and warmer, sorta what we’ve used to hearing on old pre digital records. Digital sounds sterile/colder smaller then the analog samples. I mixed through digital mixers and I know that digital sound shrinkage anywhere. Til this day I will never mix through a digital mixer ever again, only analog mixers from hear on out after that experience. Digital is good where analog fatness isn’t necessarily required. For Jazz, Classical, Funk, Hip Hop I like to hear all the the instruments in their fat full glory. Digital is perfect if signal exits the mixer and ran through a tube compressor with EQ before going into the recorder. Recording In the Box ALL digital with the internal compressors and fx added to process the signals can yield incredible recordings equal to any analog processing I’ve found out after hearing some recordings. The way to equalize the sonic deficiencies of digital recordings is to Mixdown thru an analog mixer and apply tube compressors and processors. There are ways to use digital and totally eliminate any audio differences that indicates any digital equipment was used. In the old days I used to go straight to digital, but not no more without analog tube compressors or pre-amps between the chain. You can create saturation techniques that fattens the sound to analog like quality before going to digital and with a little knowledge of how processors work make any digital recording sound identical to an analog copy.

  16. adam

    February 1st, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    That’s an interesting take on that stuff. I get that you like tubes, but how about some transformers, like in Neve stuff? How about neither and mixing on an SSL? Which of those three sounds more “analog”? I think we are at a place where the storage and mixing medium has way less to do with the ultimate sonics and the real signature comes from the creative way that audio is recorded and mixed. Of course a high quality microphone, preamp and converter will ultimately sound better than a crappy chain, but that has nothing to do with analog vs digital. I have records that I produced and mixed in early days of Pro Tools, ITB, that sound fantastic and you would never know they were all digital. Conversely, I have mixed some terrible sounding records off of 2″ tape through an SSL J. “You pays your money and you takes your choice…”

  17. Greg Savage

    February 2nd, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Nice article Adam, thank you for posting audio examples. I wish more people did this.

  18. John McCortney

    February 4th, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    I’d like to add that I agree with Kevin in comment number 14 above. Tubes, transformers, and ribbon mics can go a long way toward reestablishing that beautiful fat and warm sound. My motto these days is “front end is everything”.

    I’d also like to thank everyone at recordinghacks and everyone sending in comments for making this website such a great resource.

    Peace.

  19. Mark Chierego

    February 5th, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    I agree with you John!!! “front end is everything” for me the digital recording of ribbon mic on piano has that warm smooth tape character all over it!!

  20. David

    February 6th, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Hey Zach Smith… if you’re asking about simply buying a hard drive off the shelf and putting an analog signal onto it, that would be a “no.” However, it would be possible to put analog signals on a magnetic disk rather than a magnetic tape, but I don’t think it would provide any advantage to do so– in fact, for many years after the consumer market had moved away from magnetic tape as a digital storage medium, large companies and governments continued to use tape to store large amounts of data because there was a price advantage. Hard disks have since come down in price, and it takes much longer for something to load from tape– though the latter is of no concern when working with analog recording.

  21. adam

    February 7th, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Thanks, Greg – I’m trying to push some of the bigger companies to post audio samples from their products, too. There is some resistance simply because this is art and one person’s “warm” is another person’s “dark”. I think comparisons are more fair than single examples, unless the example is of an effect or some other processing. Even then, the dry signal vs the processed signal is useful.

    I would love it if some people would post here what types of comparisons they would like to see other companies or reviewers post.

    For example, I have used simultaneous recording of a vocal performance on two different mics, but with the same preamp to show the differences in two mics, rather than the subjective quality of either.

    thanks,
    adam

  22. Mark Chierego

    February 7th, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    “Nice article Adam, thank you for posting audio examples. I wish more people did this.”
    For sure!! We now live in an age where is possible and easy to do yet so many companies are reluctant when it should be the norm. Thanks for doing it for us Recordinghacks!

  23. adam

    February 8th, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Hey Aaron –

    I do have 16-bit, 44.1khz aif versions of these files. You are welcome to have them – I can send you a download link. I don’t think this type of test lends itself to an ABX type examination. There is so much difference between the files that repeatability is not an issue – just personal taste and production needs. I am building a recorded library of microphone cables, low to high end, each recorded through transformer and transformerless preamp circuits. This examination would be great for an ABX test. I’ve been talking to cable manufacturers and some audiophile folks about recommended signals for listening tests for cable differences and I’m about to do another round of recording samples. I’m doing this in the LA area, where are you located?

  24. Tim Haertel

    February 11th, 2013 at 5:24 am

    I started recording in 1984 on a 2″ 16 track Ampex MM1000. We recorded mostly at 15 IPS and Mixed to an Ampex 440 1/4″ at 15 IPS also. We also had a 1″ 8 track for on-location recording. What I remember most was going through the 2 ” masters trying to find one to erase because the customer couldn’t afford a $400-$600 tape budget on top of the session time. When we moved to the Tascam DA88 format, we got our warmth through our homebrew Jensen transformer based console and by mixing to the 2 track. Now I have a Protools HD5 system and lots of tube gear and plugins and am completely satisfied with the sound I am getting and don’t miss the inconvenience, muddy sound and technical problems from the old days at all. Maybe if I had had a new Studer 24 and fresh tape stock for every session, the results would have been different. I have been thinking about aligning my 1/4 machine and running my mixes through it but I need to get a new alignment tape first :-(

  25. Ryan

    March 1st, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Very revealing article.
    Ultimately, both digital and analog versions sound great, demonstrating that the most important factors needed to get great sounds are good players, good equipment, and a good engineer with good ears.
    On a side note, an earlier conversation in the comments of this article talks about the function of analogue vs digital. Zach notes that “[ . . .] analogue tape basically stores information as magnetic charge. Which is the same way that magnetic hard drives store information.”
    This got me thinking. Digital is composed of discontinuous pieces of magnetically charged information. Analogue tape is exactly the same, as the particles of oxidized iron are actually discontinuous as well. The only real difference is that a disc’s magnetized information is accessed in a non-linear fashion, whereas tape’s information must be accessed in a linear order. I can help but think that one day it will be possible to combine analogue’s warmth and punch with digital’s precision and clarity on a new technology that blends the two sciences in one small, portable drive.

  26. Wendell

    March 20th, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Hello. I enjoyed this article. Much to digest indeed.
    Analogue vs digital. Stereo vs Mono. Realistic vs Kenwood. Ford vs Chevy. Spicy vs Mild.
    Every camp has its boosters and detractors.
    Way back when, people engaged in performing art were the standard. The state of the art. Live performance was and is the apex of this medium.
    Capturing sound(recording) just as capturing light(photography) preserves a moment in time. A moment that can be revisited many times over.
    Photos of iconic moments can be recalled by everyone. So can iconic moments in sound.
    Naked Vietnamese girl with Napalm burns, “Houston we have a problem”, come to mind.
    Regardless of camera/lens/film used. Regardless of mic/pre/recording/playback media used. The content was the important article.
    Would the Eagles have sold fewer or more albums if the kick mic was a PL20 or D12 or M88 ??
    With that said, my opinion is: Microphones/preamps/EQs/media etc. that reproduce most faithfully what one hears is the one to use. No attention paid to who made it, how much it cost, blah, blah, blah.
    Use what you have at hand, be creative. That is what we do. Create.
    Technology marches forward. Experience is the best reference.
    Please don’t get so involved in gear that the sight of the performance is lost.

    (Sorry for the ramble. Whisky and open forum don’t mix)

  27. Dave

    April 23rd, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    Interesting – thanks.

    I generally heard what the author also heard, but his conclusions are troubling because analog has sonic value but represents a “luxury” today, when years ago it was the norm. Think about what that means.

    If anyone doesn’t think reduced budgets, with attendant minimum standards, haven’t been brought by the ProTools generation, you ain’t paying attention.

  28. Scott Troyer

    May 17th, 2013 at 10:18 am

    To add to Wendell’s whiskey-fueled-but-valid-nonetheless point…
    Tape, computers, microphones, and tubes aside, *perhaps* the most important tool engineers and musicians need to make hit records is a good marketing team powered by a healthy budget.

    Still, I want to make the best sounding records I can, so thanks for the great article, Adam. I appreciate the time it takes to share insight and provide examples.

  29. adam

    May 17th, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Thanks Scott – I think most people have come to understand that the song, musicians and instruments make the record a piece of art – not the medium. A well engineered recording enhances the work, but if the substance isn’t there, the engineering won’t do much to improve the material. Even a poorly recorded fantastic performance will get a reaction from listeners, but a well recorded dud won’t get a second look. Marketing and funding are helpful to building awareness of a product, but ultimately the audience will make or break the success of any artwork.

  30. Nero Alvarado

    May 20th, 2013 at 7:06 am

    I would like to very much thank Adam for stoping his schedule to make such a informative and intellectual challenge of digital vs analogue showing us his audio tests, experiments and work. On that note, lets not under estimate what vintage tools can do in todays world of technology. There is a reason why famous engineer Bruce Swedien 5 time grammy winner has a arsenal of vintage equiptment. You can always get better sound if you fallow your ideas and your heart.

  31. Chris Wanta A.K.A. Anything But Broke

    June 22nd, 2013 at 1:52 am

    I have been recording sound for over ten years from bands to sound fx for film. I have listened to all of the audio samples of drums, bass, piano and guitar. I have to say that I draw a somewhat different conclusion. I believe ALL of the instruments benefited from the use of analog recording not just a few. Each digital recording in comparison sounds flat (the highs and lows are diminished in the EQ). I am not sure if the flatness is because the “click” tracks are in .mp3 format. I also believe that the acoustic guitar could have benefited from using a different microphone for recording and might solve the problems listed above by the producer. However, I completely agree that the analog recording added punchiness to the instruments as well as a richer sound. Its my personal opinion that the electric guitar might have benefited the most from the wider range of tonality in the EQ. The analog recording gives the electric guitar that gritty resonance that people want to hear. I am traditionally an electronic dance music artist and mainly use digital as a form of production. The experiment has completely changed my view on audio production. I can now see why analog recording has been used for such a long time. I have a new respect for analog. Thank you for putting this project together!!!!

  32. bern21

    August 31st, 2013 at 10:41 am

    So, now, all of my Ampex 456 tapes are unplayable! The Scotch held up a bit better. My ADAT tapes are all still OK. Aside from some problems playing older ProTools files or Cubase files, digital holds up better. BTW, Harrison’s MixBus is a good DAW for the ‘analog’ sound/feel. And, THEY ALL SOUND DIFFERENT. It’s up to you to make things sound AS YOU LIKE.

  33. JoeM

    October 28th, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    I have been recording instruments since I was 5 years old. Certainly has been a big passion hard to get away from. But we were poor. So I had to learn to tear my dad’s stereos apart and make recording gear out of those as well as re-engineering speakers to use as mics. Lol. It worked fairly well.

    My lack of fortune has made me very fortunate. Because I don’t need expensive equipment to make a highly impressive demo. Fortunately I have been around a good band for years. For years I recorded them live using only a 2 track cassette recorder. I began dabbling with hard disk recording around 2001. It was a learning curve. But computers are my other expertise. So I caught on quickly. It was clear to me that digital recording is a streamline to getting a result.

    But, in 2003, I decided to perform an experiment that I knew would create alot of work for me. The band was playing a gig down the road one weekend. I collected 5 cassette tape decks from family and friends. I stacked them at the gig and patched into the stage board. Routing instruments to their respective mono tracks. 2 instruments per deck. of course, using unbalanced RCA connections. It was completely against the rules. And they thought I was a little crazy for doing it. It gave me 10 tracks to work with.

    Of course, anyone who knows will understand that traditional cassette tape decks do not stay in perfect time. So you cannot simply sync them together. The next day, I uploaded each set of tracks to my computer. Cakewalk Sonar of course. Obviously I had to play back the tapes to get the tracks. So now I had a nice project with 10 tracks to work with.

    And of course I knew the nightmare was about to begin. A bunch of tracks that were way out of sync. Simply getting them lined up on the timeline wouldn’t work. Because like I stated, the playback of the tracks likely would vary. They were even out of tune with one another!! Sounded like guys in a band that couldn’t tune a guitar!!

    So I spent days performing microsurgery on each track. Dropping pitch correction on each track. Not Autotune. I hate that software. It completely destroys the raw quality of a track. Instead, I used a simple pitch shifter wherever it was needed in each track. That alone took days to apply.

    And then there was the speed issues. Sometimes the bass guitar sped up. Sometimes the drums slowed down. And the drums were on several tracks. So i continued splitting tracks in many places and dragging them to where they needed to be. Eventually I ended up with what a 16 track digital machine would have given me from the start. But this was better. Why?

    Because it was TAPE. many people do not know this. But there is a certain charm you get from cassettes that you don’t even get from high profile studio tape. Of course, from a technical point of view, cassettes are considered inferior for professional recording. But not in THIS case. What I was doing was capturing the best that could be gotten. A baseline foundation of raw recording that sounded quite different than any digital signal could give. Once that is established, than any digital processing done afterwards would not destroy what was captured from the decks. You could say the decks represent what a Tape Saturation plugin attempts to provide. But of course the plugin fails miserably.

    Once I spent the next week or two providing my magic touch with editing and composing, the results were quite astounding. Remarkable to say the least. The guys in the band were all in shock. I of course laughed it off at the way I did it. At the same time, proving a point. Not only does tape sound better. Any kind of tape. But you don’t need high dollar equipment to get a high dollar sound. Talent over-rides it. Because many engineers are taught by the book. Their abilities rely on only doing some of the work and letting “money” do the rest. And that is what is wrong with today’s media. Push button, out of the box techniques. Not originality or creativity that separates one from the rest. I can tell you without a doubt that NONE of my demos sound exactly the same. And they sound nothing like any other engineer. You can tell that I recorded it if you listened to them enough. Its like one could tell Eddie Van Halen mixed albums back in the 80s because he had a certain flavor that no engineer provided. We are all unique if we try to be.

    Anyway. 10 years later. And after dozens of digital demos, I decided to pull out that old cassette created digital demo and am still amazed by it. It sparkles and sings in ways that none of my recent demos ever could. Today’s generation needs to realize that nothing is “outdated”. The greed of money leads people to tell lies for the sake of selling “new and improved” products that aren’t improved at all. They can’t sell “cheap”. But it is usually cheap that makes something better. It might take some creativity to make it all work. And that is why music was once far better than it is today. They worked for it. And very hard. 70s and 80s music sparkles in ways that nothing modern ever could.

  34. David Jones

    October 29th, 2013 at 12:04 am

    Any chance of uploading it for us to listen to? Would love to hear it.

  35. bkbirge

    November 18th, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Pro musicians in pro rooms working with pro technicians and other creatives will get pro results. Digital vs. Analog doesn’t even enter into the discussion.

    It was true in the 50’s, and it’s true now, only the technology we nitpick to death has changed.

  36. AdamUp

    December 8th, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    recording student here, writing a paper on analog tape vs. tape emulation plugins. these were a great source for my paper in terms of analog vs. digital. I have also been doing some experiments for vocals that were tracked through a Wunder CM7 > API 3124 > SPLIT > 1.Pro Tools and 2. 69′ Ampex 440B using 1/2″ RMGI 468. The singer that was recorded liked the digital better because the high end was a little clearer but I think ultimately I liked the tape sound better despite the small amount of noise. I’ve also been experimenting with the amount of tape saturation by overdriving stereo mixes through my machine and seeing/hearing the soft compression that comes with it and I think hands down tape beats the emulation plugins every time. Though, I created a preset on the UAD ATR 102 (closest emulation to my ampex 440, with settings that closely represent my tape machine (1/2″, +6, 456 tape, same amount of noise and hum) and the results are surprisingly similar – minus the authentic wow/flutter/scrape drift/drift i get from the actual machine. From one Adam to another, thanks for the article/examples

  37. adam

    December 9th, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Hey Adam -

    Thanks for the input – I agree that vocals can sound great on analog tape. My old records and demos that were cut on tape certainly have a sound to the vocals that I don’t get anymore. That said, I couldn’t produce records the same way with tape that I can in a DAW. The process was just a different thing. For pop records with analog tape, even with great singers, I used to book a full day or two for lead vocals and another day or two for background vocals. With Pro Tools, I can get through a song much faster, simply due to the lack of rewind time, not needing to bounce tracks while the artist sits around, performing comps at a later time, etc…

    Overall, I am very happy with the sound of digital vs tape. They are simply different sounds and they both work well. For stereo mixdown, I was almost always disappointed with the sound of 1/2″ analog vs digital. Especially for bass-heavy R&B, hip hop and dance, the 1/2″ usually lost the bottom-most octave and a bit of the stereo imaging. Digital had its own issues, but usually sounded more like the console output. Although good mastering job could level the playing field between the formats.

    Glad you have the opportunity to compare the formats and see what works best for you!

  38. ?

    December 28th, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    digital sound killing your ears,if you are musical soul- long time session of digital can make you feel sick.
    (open reels sounds like waves all around. you invlving into the melody. you can listen to the Music,not just heard)

    digital is disharmony.

  39. Tom G.

    January 5th, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    Adam,
    Great article/experiment! Thank you for posting the audio…this is what lacks often in other experiments. I’ve been recording for 20+ years and use a hybrid approach. I love the sound of my MCI JH24 and Neotek console and also love my DAW for editing and plugins. I have done plenty of work ITB too but still enjoy analog. In fact, I almost always mix down to my Sony APR 5002. In the end though, digital and tape sound different and it’s the SONG and performance that matter most of course!

    I think the most important detail for digital is knowing proper gain staging.

    Tom

  40. Ian

    January 25th, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Over the years I’ve recorded to most formats, today mostly using PT and logic as that’s what my clients use. Without really thinking about it it’s amazing how my mic technique has changed from using mostly condensers, to more and more dynamics and ribbons each day. One problem I run in to is I have a client who often has very very quiet piano passages ie he plays ppp so I often have to choose to use a pair of condensers and ribbonify them because even a modern mic like the aea98 is too noisy – to the point of being distracting amidst the clean ITB generated stuff. I wonder if the whole project had been done with real synths to tape would this have been a concern or would the noise have got lost amidst the rest of the tape hiss? Despite reasonable budgets this is something I will probably never know as it’s all for tv and film so is much much easier to work in a DAW! Mind you with prospects of an album I may get to play with this…

  41. adam

    January 27th, 2014 at 11:36 am

    You’re right, Ian. Today we have to use different tools to record to digital than were used when recording to analog tape. We still need to worry about noise floor, but adding correlated noise, like real tube and transformer saturation and even plug-in generated saturation definitely helps musical instruments feel “bigger, fatter, punchier, more cohesive, etc..” Tape produces pleasant harmonic distortion, some dynamic compression and a limited frequency response. All these “filters” result in a colored signal that feels normal to our brain. Ribbon mics, lots of transformers, good A-D converters and clocking and the right digital (or analog) processing can get us there, too. I’ll trade the extra work in finding the right coloration over the hiss and work-flow problems of analog tape most every day!

  42. andrzej

    February 23rd, 2014 at 3:37 am

    hello from poland, i listen to both recordings and i think that is no difference, microphones used by recording do not let to hear what is better, mics have narrow frequency response and slow impulse response so high transient distortions, noone needs 24-bit dynamic range, human ear receives 70-80db dynamic range so 144db is circa 70db too much, but important is sampling frequency, higher sampling causes lower transient distortions, ear physiology needs lower dynamic distortions than static as thd and dynamic range, regards

  43. Shane

    March 8th, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    With due respect Sir… This so called test, or whatever you’re calling it, is fatally flawed due to the fact that ALL your audio samples are now digital. Even worse, the playback of ALL the audio examples are coming out of what???… you guessed it, most likely someone’s digital sound card.

    At this point, it’s nonsense to even make any claim as to which sounds best, as they’re both in the digital domain. I don’t care how you try to explain it away, it’s no longer an analog signal. You digitalized it. Therefore, your previous analog signal is no valid

    Speaking of which, anyone who has done a real-world comparison of Analog VS digital, using an actual Tape deck, it’s like as you stated, one can tell right off that analog vs digital have a VERY distinctive sound from each other.

    However, now that you digitized the analog versions, It sounds just as dead and lifeless like your pro tools version. In short, they sound rather average and no better, no worse then someone recording with a Home computer.
    IMO, Pro tools is no match against a good analog machine played back IRL . This pseudo Digital/analog is crap you have going on here is not a great example of what good analog sounds like. it’s just a cheap representation of the real deal.

    To close Here: Digital Vs “Online Analog”<— (that's an oxymoron) Or course they're going to sound very similar, that's because they're both digital now…

    Perhaps you shouldn't have faded away from analog…

  44. matthew mcglynn

    March 9th, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    @Shane, given that 99% of music listening today happens via digital sources, I suppose there’s no point in ever tracking sessions to tape? I mean, if the conversion to digital makes everything sound “dead and lifeless,” why bother recording at all?

    I find your argument nonsensical. Analog gear, including tape, adds harmonic coloration and saturation effects that are not lost in the conversion to digital. I can hear the difference.

    Your comment that this test is “fatally flawed” suggests that you didn’t understand it. The point of the test, I think, is to explore whether the use of analog media early in the recording process yields a sonic benefit during digital playback. The use of digital playback here is not a flaw. Rather, it was part of the design.

    Someday the world might change, and everybody will carry miniature multitrack tape players in their pockets. Until then, I’m confident that recordists and producers are best served by working hard to make their tracks sound great — including, possibly, the use of analog tape during tracking — despite whatever compromises might be built into modern digital playback devices.

  45. Tracy Eaves

    September 20th, 2014 at 6:16 am

    Analoge=benefits & problems, Digital=benefits & problems. Babyboomers were raised on analog. So we have an expectation and demand that sound. New generation is weaned on digital. In the years to come digital sound will be the norm because subsequent generations will identify and expect that sound. Can we see old digital gear become collectible? Because we want to go back to that sound we identify with?

  46. Dude111

    October 15th, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    I love analog….. NOTHING BETTER and im sick of digital garbage ruing music,movies,etc…………..

    Analog is pure,warm and beautiful…….. DIGITAL IS ARTIFICAL CRAP!!

  47. Brent F.

    October 18th, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    In January 2013 I made a HX Pro cassette tape of some Amiga Protracker modules that I found off the Internet and named the tape “Assassin’s Creed 3 Oldies—The Music That You Were Tired Of 80 Years Ago”. I was pretending the year was 1775 A.D. and the oldies music of that time was the wind-up demoscene music box sound of the 1680s which you were tired of in 1695. Anyway, I digitized it back to red-book CD-R and it’s got a sound all it’s own but in impressive fidelity. The secret is to set the azimuth screw on the playback deck not to a calibration tape, not to the test tones, but to the actual music you wish to digitize. You have to deliberately mis-align the playback deck to match the alignment of the recording deck the way it was when the tape was recorded. Don’t worry about making the sound sizzly or screechy. There is no azimuth setting that will make the tape sound brighter than the original recording. Anything but the proper setting will make it sound more like a cheap cell phone at the bottom of a well being piped through a drive-through speaker. Most complaints of lousy sound from cassettes are from a bad azimuth setting.

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