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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 | 79 Comments »




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

  1. Leeland White

    November 19th, 2014 at 10:31 am

    There is a huge difference between digital and analog. While digital relies on double over sampling, 44.1 khz, the beat frequencies are horrible. The harmonics are reversed. The law of physics proves that, the fundamental frequency 4.1khz (approximately) beats with the 44.1khz, frequency creating a 10 khz beat frequency. Since 4.1khz is only 30% of the music spectrum within a controlled bandwith of 15khz, the harmonics via the beat makes up 60% of the entire digital signal, but worse is the beat frequency being 3rd harmonic echo, is at least 200% lounder than the fundamental that is detectable with anyone who has a hearing range above 10KHZ.

    For many musicians being hearing impaired, that can hear only 9khz or below, the second harmonic, frequency wise may appear to sound in tune, but for the rest of us, digital is sick. For editing and memory storage, however, digital time wise is a God send.

    Speed of sound in analog is superior, volumentric amplitude in analog is superior, resolution in analog is superior when referenced to tape. Noise is undefined in digital and is misleading. Mixing in analog is ultimately superior as it is almost impossible with the present technology to blend music instruments without phantom cookie cutter presence of only one musical instrument. While there is no floor which is untrue in digital, a presence that is noticeable at 120hzs and in analog at about 800 hzs in analog, analog gives remarkable strength pursuant to the human ear, while digital gives pre emphasized base, and a strong since of separation. This is why digital is psycho accoustic.

    This is what I perceive and hear. While one may enjoy hearing symbols playing backwards. I do not. I believe reversed harmonics are dangerous, and can cause epilepsy and perhaps autism in children. Many people who listen to digital and sing Karokee are beginning to sing the ending line without harmonic and quite, quite baratone, rather than tenor..

    All in all, the article is excellent. The ultimate result, is that everything boils down to digital. For a serious musician, going analog in the recording primarily and manipulating the signal to convert to real time of the analog is a worth while investment. This way resolution is preserved on tape.

  2. Justin

    December 9th, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    For years now I’ve been whinging about the sound of songs on the radio, and even been underwhelmed by the rock albums that I’ve purchased on CD. I started trying to pin point what it is that I don’t enjoy and have realized or pinpointed the culprit…distorted electric guitar sounds. They aren’t what they used to be in analogue eras. I find the digital recordings of distorted electric guitars harsh and abrasive on my ears…almost aggravating. Traditionally I love rock music and ever since the mid nineties I’ve not enjoyed listening to rock music. Is it just me that has a problem with the digital thinness or harshness or a distorted electric guitar. I want the sound to have depth and to caress my ears. I even if the digital media has been responsible in part for the demise of electric guitar driven music in mainstream pop? Digital sounds great for those light poppy tunes that dominant mainstream radio but in my opinion crap for rock music.

  3. Adam

    December 10th, 2014 at 1:19 am

    Hey Justin –

    I certainly agree that recording electric guitar to digital vs analog tape poses some challenges. Analog tape provides compression and saturation effects that sound especially pleasing on (possibly) hash electric guitars. I find that mixing music that is electric guitar heavy often requires the use of transformer bases processors, reamping or at least some kind of tape saturation emulation to tame the tones enough to fit into a well balanced mix. I can’t say I miss recording to analog tape, or that it sounds “better”, but I would say that analog tape provided signal processing that helped many harsh sources, including electric guitars, some vocals and drums. I used to call it “getting something for free” from analog tape. I have found my workarounds in the digital world, but many people have not. Further, digital amp modelers, while convenient, have their own issues.

    best of luck!

  4.  

    February 25th, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    I love analog and always have….. I love my records,vhs and cassettes.. Analogue is warm and pure … Digital is a void with no warmth @ all………

    Digital has its place BUT NOT WITH AUDIO OR VIDEO!!

  5. Ran

    March 2nd, 2015 at 8:26 am

    Thanks for the audio samples. For my ears, the digital samples sounded clearer with more texture than the analog ones. Also, the hiss on the analog samples is pretty audible.

  6. Jim K

    March 7th, 2015 at 5:56 am

    Hi, Shane.

    > 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.

    I hear the difference very clear
    on very simlpe gear
    as such
    1. Asus Xonar Essence ST card, slightly tweaked (op-amps changed etc)
    2. Topping TP41 “Class T” digital amp
    3. Magnat Monitor Supreme 100 speakers ($130 for pair!!).
    Tape sounds “slower” and warmer.
    I’ll take files to listen my reference home system, thanks.

  7. Brianj

    March 15th, 2015 at 8:51 am

    Justin,

    I agree with you completely. Todays rock bands sound different than those form the glory days of the 70’s and 80’s. Why?.. I would argue that alot of musicians that grew up on MP3’s use alot of digital music gear for their “tone”- digital amps, digit effects, etc.

    Most musicians back in the day were using tube amps and analog effects for their tone. Its all they had to work with and still sounds light years better than anything digital used today.

    To me, the argument of analog tape recording vs. digital can also apply to musical gear as well.

  8. scottsasonic

    June 6th, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    Hi there, when you say the term “punching” or “punch” are you referring to hard overlaying a track into another track (done on mixing board) or are you referring to a dynamic in sound quality? (ie . punchy sound)

  9. scottsasonic

    June 6th, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    Oh wait – at the end you use another form of Punch.

    “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 ”

    So now I really need clarification.

    My critique about this article. This was a fairly redundant article as this is basics in understanding what sounds best in the real world when merging technologies. Why all the hoopla ? Did you not do your research?

    And the ‘hawtyness’ and weird ego splashing by stating (among other fallatiouisnesses) ” 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. ” –

    Yikes – how do we become a member of the self important club?

  10. Dave H

    June 10th, 2015 at 2:28 am

    Thanks for the comparison tests. Having cut my teeth on analogue tape since the ‘70’s, I have had a love/hate relationship with multi-track and half-track recording machines, where I seemed to have spent more time repairing them than making music.

    BACK TO THE FUTURE?
    Nevertheless my all time favorite tape to record on was AMPEX 499 Tape, and the irony of this is that recently I have returned to mixing down on 499 tapes again. I felt for most of my life I had grown so accustom to analogue sound, (just as younger folks are used to digital), I thought now might be a good time to re-acquaint myself with magnetic tape…

    MID RANGE ISSUES:
    The second reason why I decided on the above action is that I am very sensitive to lower mid range frequencies, and continually struggled with Digital when trying to make instruments sit down in a mix. With respect, I found the above instruments you recorded to Digital had a hard mid range sonic cloudiness; in fact everywhere you go, you can hear the same problem with most digital masters… and it drives me crazy!

    In my opinion Digital tends to make instruments cling to one another, whereas analogue tape seems to have the knack of keeping them separate, though you would have thought the opposite since Digital has cleaner characteristics?

    ANALOGUE MIXING DESK TEST:
    However recently we did tests with a Soundcraft analogue mixing desk and found the same results as our analogue tape v. digital test, though it must be said Soundcraft always had this sonic attribute with regards to instrument separation in the mix, and a good match for recording directly to analogue master tape.

    Ironically when we sent a Digital recording through the same Soundcraft analogue mixing desk, we could hear improved separation around the instruments that was not evident on the original Digital Master, mmmm very interesting! That said digital did produce a marginally tighter bass sound when compared with analogue tape, so going forward the ultimate might be a combination of the two?

    In the final analysis, Digital and Analogue can be very subjective, and since your Ladyship is nowhere to be seen, I am quite certain this debate is far from over 🙁

  11. adam

    July 6th, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    Hey Dave –

    Thanks for the comments. Lately I find that running a few, or maybe even 6 or 8 tracks through some analog gear with transformers tends to help those instruments (mainly vocals and bass) sit better in my mixes. Could be the freq rolloff or phase shift or slight saturation that our ears like to hear.

    I’d love to hear some samples of your digital mixes vs mixed via Soundcraft mixes to hear what qualities you are hearing. Could you post them somewhere?

    thanks,
    adam

  12. Rick

    July 28th, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    I have always been a fan of analog over digital. One thing I have come to realize is that no two people have the same hearing accuracy. My trade involved working in a very loud environment but they gave us hearing protection and we had our hearing tested every year. My hearing has deteriorated to a degree but as we age our hearing naturally deteriorates. I came upon a sound test that measures what your hearing range is. There were two different tests from two different sources. One test starts in the high range and slowly drops all the way down to the lowest range of human hearing. The other test was completely opposite. I ended up with differing results. Starting low and going high subjects your hearing to loud sounds that fade to high frequency relatively quiet sounds. I found that to be rather destructive due to recovery time needed for your ears to stop “ringing” from the lower louder frequencies. The second test was much better starting high and quiet and getting ever louder and lower. The difference was around 5 KHz which is a very substantial amount. Human hearing range runs from 20Hz to 20,000Hz (20 kHz) approx. so 5 kHz is 25% of the hearing range.
    The most interesting part of the whole experiment was not so much the range issue it was realizing just how different each ear is. (I opted for the high to low test for the maximum range I can hear)
    I have a good quality Denon receiver and used a set of Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones. I went through the test using them instead of the speakers. I sat back and closed my eyes and was just paying attention to pinpointing the exact source position. (with computer gaming positional presence is a must) This was completely shocking to me. The test gives a perfectly equal signal to both ears yet with my eyes closed the positional presence went from left to right and back again as the pitch dropped from 20 kHz to 20 Hz. Under the speaker test I could hear 16 kHz and below which is above what the average range is for someone my age. Using the headphones really opened my eyes as to just how much difference there was between my left and right side.
    The point I’m trying to make is that the argument over analog vs digital cannot ever be fully quantified if you have not first had your hearing tested. The silent booth testing done at work only measured 8 specific tones, but the high to low frequency testing was more accurate. There they checked to see at what point your hearing drops off at both ends of the scale.
    You can find these tests on YouTube but you need to make sure you set the test to 1080p. Below that you won’t receive the full scale of sound. You need a good set of descent headphones. I highly recommend the closed eye positional test. It was a real eye opener for me. (pardon the pun)
    I’ve always had a better than mainstream stereo system with a higher end Garrard turntable back in the heyday of vinyl. I had 2 vinyl records and an exact cd version of the same music. I had Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons and I had Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances. There was no comparison. The vinyl records were full with rich tones while the equivalent cd’s were very flat in comparison. I knew then that music was taking a step backwards in digitizing sound. They had spent 50 years perfecting the recording processes of vinyl records from source master recordings done on 15 IPS and 30 IPS equipment. Now they discovered that what they touted as more accurate sound was in itself less accurate. If you have ever done any sound editing you can see the duplications of each sound as it traverses up the frequencies. There is a resonance that is repeated and reflected. In digital sound they had removed much of those resonances with the misunderstanding that they shouldn’t be there. These days they have come a long ways into bringing back the resonances between the frequencies but it still is not the same. You can see the difference much more when you look at the spectral frequency view of the music through high end editing programs. If I record to lossless wav format from an album and compare it to the same piece of music from a cd there is a lot of difference between spectral views of the identical pieces. Something is lost in the translation. I don’t know if that stands if the original recording was completely done in digital format because there is no analog version to compare it to.
    In my opinion digital is where it will remain but like the 50 years it took to perfect analog it will take roughly the same amount of time to perfect digital to the same extent. Up until now I don’t think digital has quite caught up completely. For all the technical discussions that I have just read it just backs up the way I hear and feel the music as it washes over me from my vinyl records.

  13. Neil

    August 4th, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    So far, the biggest complaint I have right now is lossy digital audio like MP3. It just sounds like total crap. Once you hear a completely analog mastered 30 or even 15 ips tape, everything sounds bad. It is like that sound you get from a good vinyl LP, only better and without all the mechanical noise, and the fullest low end and high end there is.

    One of the things you must remember about the CD is that many CDs were made in a hurry, and digital technology is not as consistent as analog. In researching why many CDs sound like crap compared to the record, you have to remember the 80’s, I did some assistant engineering on CD mastering for some major labels. For one, there was a time when you had to put the entire CD on one tape. Most albums have 2 reels, one for each side of the record. Often times, for longer CDs, you had to use a lower tape speed and copy down to 7 1/2. That isn’t too bad, but…

    Where records are cut when the album is new, the tape is fresh and the engineer that made it is available, you have proper calibration. In the 60’s and 70’s, you had to deal with Dolby A, and some DBX. Cutting engineers were used to dealing with this. But, wait 10 or 15 years and give a reel of tape to another engineer, who is pressed for time and deadlines, and is also told that some of these will be “destroyed” after you are finished, and things get digitized in a hurry.

    In the 1980’s we were thinking “it sounds better than a cassette” “it doesn’t have surface noise and crackle like a record” “you can scratch it and it will still sound the same” and “I can play it millions of times and it will never wear out”. It was very costly to press a CD versus a record, but the benefits of just having something on a CD were deemed very important.

    So, some CDs were issued without the Dolby A decoded, which has a tinny sound that ends up being 4 band compression. Sometimes, tapes were transfered using High Speed dubbing in digital, and some were played backwards to save copy time.

    Here’s 20 albums, I need them done by tomorrow! Sometimes heads weren’t perfectly aligned, there were even some that were digitized with DIRTY TAPE HEADS (I won’t name which album, but I watched one being run this way) and some were digitzed on unmodified PCM-F1 units.

    For artists, being issued on a CD determined whether you would exist in the future. And yes, folks, mp3 files come from where? They don’t use a master tape to make an mp3, the make a CD and then an mp3.

    It is interesting to note that beginning in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there is “digital vinyl”, records that are cut using a computer that cuts the record much like a CNC machine. At one point in the 1980’s, this was the norm for making a record:

    To make a record, you must first make a CD. The CD is then read to a hard drive or drives, and those are used to cut the laquer. The CD is then used to arrange the Cassette and 8 track cartridge releases!

    In other words, many of your early 80’s records are actually cut from CD! JVC had been making small production CD pressings dating back to 1980.

    It is also very interesting to note that many newer issues of CDs are DA AD copies of the originals. I have met a few artists that use their CD to identify themselves! One has a 1980 pressing!. It sounds nearly identical to the analog record pressing of the album! But, you get the later west german and US pressings, and they don’t sound that good.

    Alias filtering and DA AD is part of the problem with the Compact Disc, as well as decoding Dolby A, (god forbid B!) Also, during the CD mastering era in the US (1984-1991) we all had to deal with Sticky Shed and Squeaky Tape. When you are in a hurry, this becomes an editing job for post production. If there wasn’t such a hurry to get CDs issued, things would have sounded better.

    Digital gear was very costly in the 1980’s. A cheap sound card nowdays is often better than some high end stuff we had back then. But realize that Digital in the 1970’s and 1980’s did have some advantages. Mainly, it had to compete against Analog!

    I should also point out that there are great variances in the sound quality of CD players! Seriously, I purchased a particular player at a thrift store, and then started buying CDs again! But there are very few that sound that good. Out of 100 different players I tested, I have 1 that I like that sounds comparable to vinyl. And it is from 1986!

    Analyzing the spectrum, the CD is inferior at 44.1 The resolution of analog is around 5X that of 44.1. But being said, the sound quality of a worn out record…..is not that great.

    In the 80’s in particular, there are some records that the first pressing is analog, and the second and subsequent pressings are digital. You can hear the loss of digital on the record!

    48Khz is superior to 44.1. Note that with ProDigi and DASH recordings, many albums are recorded multi-track in digital and mixed down to Analog. Analog 2 track tape is almost a mandatory format for any bigger album. As we said in the 80’s, if you are recording in digital, and using only one copy, you aren’t recording at all!

    Even in 2015, Digital recording is NOT as reliable as analog. Digital can degrade or completely disappear, on hard drives and memory cards. Analog can be damaged but is usually able to be recovered!

  14. Neil

    August 4th, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    I meant to say “everything else sounds bad” after listening to a 30IPS tape!

  15. Adam

    August 5th, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Hey Neil –

    Excellent summary of the shortcomings of traditional music mastering and prepping for distribution. There has been room for error and improper handling for every type of distribution medium, from wire – to vinyl (in all its formats) – to cassette (8 track, too) to digital discs and mp3s.

    The process that I detail in my article was not to compare storage and distribution media, but to compare the analog recording format and digital recording formats used during music production and initial capturing of audio. For those who aren’t familiar, there are several stages of music production. The first “recording” is of instruments in their most basic performance. Sometimes this is the last time the recording is touched until it is duplicated for release, but usually there are many more steps and audio transfers/treatments along the way. After an instrument, say a vocal, is recorded to tape or hard disk, that instrument is processed using a variety of processors (analog and/or digital) to change dynamics, equalization, harmonic content, ambience, tuning, timing – whatever it takes to help fit the performance into the final realized production. Sometimes this is a pure art form and sometimes this is a complete bastardization of the original performance. Both are valid and I won’t even debate that.

    In the last decade or two, digital recording and audio processors have become the norm and many of those recorders and processors are audiophile quality and perform as well, or better than, their analog counterparts. Analog processors still exist and are commonly employed, but may be too expensive for many, or simply not convenient or accessible to many. The problem with many digital audio productions is a general lack of care or knowledge in the proper way to record and process the audio and also the abundance of poorly designed, inexpensive digital recording hardware and software. This is not to mention the poor quality microphones and poorly treated recording spaces where many modern recordings are produced using.

    Back in the day, if you wanted to record something, you secured funding and backing from a record label (or a benefactor) and hired a professional facility with professional staff and equipment. Today, many people use whatever software they can find cheap and whatever recording equipment they can beg, borrow or steal for the project. There is no professional oversight, quality control or even “pride in workmanship” for these recordings. But again, art is valid in whatever form the artist wishes to employ.

    I teach recording and music production and I surely point out the benefits of analog consoles, analog processors, analog recorders, but I also demonstrate proper use of digital recorders and processors. Analog and digital are both capable of the extremes of quality and garbage. I am confident that a skilled engineer in a professional setting can produce a recording using digital methods that would meet or exceed the quality of analog methods.

    Tape and vinyl certainly had their “thing” that colored our enjoyment of music, but I am glad to have left many of their shortcomings behind. 30 ips tape sounds great, but so does 24 bit, 96khz digital audio. Both have great qualities and ugly artifacts.

    Mp3 has become the defacto distribution format for convenience sake alone. Nobody will argue an MP3s inherent quality – although high bitrate Mp3 can be every bit as good as the original source – they are .wav files at their core. We need to push the artists and music distributors to uphold the quality of the source and let the artist chose how their music is presented…

  16. Rick

    August 6th, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    I think in today’s world there is one thing that I find consistently irritating. In the days of tape you recorded watching your levels to keep the at or below 0 on the dB scale to avoid oversaturation and clipping. Since digital has become mainstream they can take the levels higher with less distortion than its analog counterpart. Because of that there are no volume standards anymore. Even when I am watching movies on Netflix i am constantly adjusting my volume levels between movies. I used to get upset when commercials on TV jumped several decibels higher. Now there doesn’t seem to be any standard whatsoever. I will watch one movie and the next one I have to jack up my volume sometimes as much as 10dB difference just to make the levels equal.
    I have seen the same thing done on remastered to digital music. In fact when I play the digital album on iTunes which uses mp4 to achieve the 24-bit 96kHz or better quality I can see that each piece or song (I’m a classical music lover to a larger degree but I know my Zeppelin as well) had the volumes tampered with in regards to the original recordings done decades ago. Classical is meant to vary in volume. That is one of the fine points of classical music going from pianissimo to forte or grande forte. Why did they change the volume from piece to piece when they digitized it to mp4 standards? The entire recording is supposed to fluctuate that way. It’s different than playing Rock music where louder seems to be better more often than not. I have a particular recording of Handel’s Messiah done in 1958 with the latest and best recording equipment available in that era. If you look at the credentials of the people involved in creating it they all have doctorates in their fields. They spent months searching for the perfect settings that matched all the dimensions they knew had to be in place to produce something spectacular. The resonance of the chambers was measured, the distances from orchestra to choir had to be just so. The microphones were different and calibrated to record things like the soprano arias and each section of the orchestra was set up separately according to the string section versus the brass, drums oboes etc. It was balanced out perfectly. They had done such a great job preparing everything that the entire score was recorded in 8- 3 hour sessions. The results were so spectacular that they never had to redo a single part of it. They came, they saw, they conquered. They measured things that are no longer even attempted anymore. They had specialists with doctorates who has spent their life studying Handel’s music style and could reproduce it to near perfection. You don’t see that kind of research going into any of the music we listen to today. It is all synthesized, adjusted and mixed in later. Music back then was all they had. In retrospect you can’t find the quality of singers in such large numbers as you could back then. People don’t sing anymore. They compute, social network, face time on cell phones and in their spare time they will listen to some music but with all the gizmos and gadgets available today. Only the joggers and people in their cars take the time to listen. The audience has shrunk dramatically. I see teens doing nothing but playing video games every minute they have free. Music is no longer the sole entertainment anymore. People like us, who appreciate what was, are just a small minority today. We put music to movies and it is a large part of the effect but no longer the sole effect. Music can make or break a movie but if there is plenty of action and the plot and storyline was good, it will get 4 stars even with bad music in it. The music business survives but only just unless the artist is truly spectacular. What we call spectacular today would have been at best mediocre in the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. Your options back then were plays or music including operas which were a mix of both worlds. That was the only entertainment they had. Now it’s whatever the budget can handle, spend the large part on the special effects. Times have changed. Music will never again see a Beatles phenomena. There are way too many other distractions now vying for your time. mp3’s are great, they have never heard anything better so they don’t know what’s missing. They don’t really care as much either. If you can spend all day listening to mario brothers repetitive music while playing the game how much value does the music part of it carry overall.
    That my friends is the sad truth of the music business. Pirating songs hurt them but disinterest hurts them even more. I am not surprised when I see a classical singer win these American idol style various competitions. I find it so refreshing to see the looks on peoples faces when they hear a true soprano sing classical pieces. It’s still a show stopper every time I see it. People can’t believe what they are hearing. It’s exactly the same reaction the prisoners had in Shawshank Redemption.

  17. Tonmeister K

    September 7th, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    To quote John Watkinson (RESOLUTION MAG, OCT 2006 UK)…..”Today’s production equipment is IT-based and cannot be operated without a passing knowledge of COMPUTING, although it seems it can be operated without a passing knowledge of AUDIO” To continue, it is not the tools, it is the brains and the amazing amount of analog technology in the past century..all the way from vacuum tubes to transistors. Anyone remember the contribution of Blumlein, or the man behind Calrec Soundfield mic? How about the history of UREI or the story of Leo Fender of Fender Music Instruments, Music Man, G &L? Brains, creativity and the term ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ come to mind . The trouble with current cheaply made digital equipment is that they don’t sound good, or pleasing, or whatever. Also digital technology is all dressed up and looking for a party to attend. Now we know why Neve, Trident, and API analog desks are back. In the world of analog synths, Dave Smith (SCI), MOOG, ARP, KORG are back. It looks like we carbon-based humans prefer ANALOG audio to DIGITAL after all Analog in the studio always wins because there is more time spent on CREATIVITY as opposed to dealing with the MECHANICS (computer set-up time). of recording the sound/music. While current digital audio systems are convenient, fast and repeatable, it is also an unfinished WORK-IN-PROGRESS leading to constant updates and upgrades. And at the end of the day, creative people will deploy WHATEVER WORKS. Cheers.

  18. adam

    September 9th, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    I totally agree about the euphonic mojo of analog consoles and transformer and tube based mic preamps and compressors. However, the days of analog vs digital should be long gone. Except for dealing with unavoidable A-D-A conversion issues (bit depth, sample rate and latencies) the rest of analog vs digital is semantics. Both sound great and may excel at different things at different times.

    We certainly have a trend towards the top music creators of the day being young and “ignorant” (hyperbole) producers who use free (or cracked) software in a basic laptop to create pop music. Pop music, however has always been that way. I put music into at least two categories – pop music, which is a craft and based on fashion and trends and art music, which is in the mind of the creator and meant to stand the test of time and to be enjoyed and appreciated by a more sophisticated audience. Sometimes the two cross, certainly in the hey-day of analog recording that was much more the case, but both categories have their place.

    When I record a 30 piece string section using vintage tube mics and a 72 channel Neve console the feeling the music generates is wonderful. Also, when I put a subharmonic enhancer plugin on an 808 kick in a trap mix the feeling is just as exciting.

    I employ tube microphones, transformer based mics and transformerless, FET based mics all the time. All these mics have analog circuitry, but they sound completely different from each other. I also employ many analog and digital processors and all sound different from each other but equally as good and useful as each other. I wouldn’t have it any other way – I don’t separate analog and digital as classes of gear – just treat them as they need to be treated and find what you need to achieve what you want…

    As for wasting time with the mechanics of digital, that is not an issue any more than dealing with maintenance of any recording or playback equipment. I spend more time testing and (re)tuning my listening environment and maintaining analog wiring than I spend tweaking any of my digital gear, including my computers.

  19. Chris

    April 8th, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    I didn’t even bother reading this article. I only read articles hand written in analog.

  20. Adam

    May 9th, 2016 at 8:29 am

    Ha! So, how did you type this response? I assume you used longform ASCII code, not an analog typewriter…

  21. Ali

    May 31st, 2016 at 7:12 am

    I work for a radio company. There are 300,000 reel-to-reel tapes (600, 1200 and 2400 feet) of radio programs from 50 years ago (in 1 7/8, 3 3/4, 7 1/2 and 15 ips). we are capturing tapes to digital format (wave96000hz24bit) with studer A-807 , lynx two-B sound card and adobe audition 6 software. after capturing, pitching 96000 to 48000, because we capture it with double speed (for example if the tape recorded in 7 1/2, we playback it with 15 ips to capturing). i am an archivist and i don’t have any information about sound and capturing. is this capturing good or not? specially capturing with double speed and return it to normal speed with software. if possible for you, post answer to my email address. thanks a lot for your help.

  22. Howard Barnett

    July 16th, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Here’s the thing. It may sound better, but objectively, is compromised heavily, and not at all accurate. The goal of the recording medium is to be as accurate as possible, and not color the sound due to inherent limitations of the medium. The highest digital resolution is starting to heavily blur the line between recorded and live in A/B testing. My bona fides? I’m a master audio engineer who’s been recording/mastering/editing since 1978. The late 70’s was the pinnacle of 2″ tape and it had reached it’s technical limitations. It’s by far my favorite beyond hi-rez digital, but not it’s equal. Full stop. BTW, downconverting from 96 to 44.1 invalidates the test. I would like to see 320/24 go head to head as well, with full resolution playback.

  23. adam

    July 26th, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Hey Ali –

    I think the idea of running the tape at double speed is simply to save time during the transfers. It certainly won’t improve sound quality and performing a sample rate reduction is not a totally transparent operation in software. Since the recordings are old and probably not audiophile recordings, the transfer and conversion are acceptable. Later, noise reduction and restoration can be applied if the material needs to be used for something.

    In my experience, Adobe Audition is not a reliable audio workstation for professional use, as I have found sample rate/ time-base issues with projects recorded in Audition, which would be similar to long term pitch drifts in analog tape. Maybe you could use a different software – even some free solutions seem to be more stable, like Audacity or Reaper.

    Also, How are the digital files being archived? Are you keeping hard drives, tape-based archives (LTO) or DVD/optical media? Each of those has its own considerations for longevity and robustness. I would imagine stations like NPR and the BBC have published extensive recommendations for archival processes and methods…

  24. Tracey Todd

    September 25th, 2016 at 6:48 am

    Hi,

    My husband, who had early forced retirement from the music industry, (he’s a grand ol’ wizard at 46)…has been experiencing a lot of interest lately with an album he did with Roy Thomas Baker in the late 80’s. Although he owns the masters, each song requires the use of (2) 24-track 2″ reels, spinning in perfect quartz sync with a Sony 48 DASH Digi machine.

    Any decent studio should have a 24 Studer in a closet and can dust it off.
    But where in the heck can a person find a working Sony DASH??!!

    I’m assuming he won’t sync and will ‘eyeball” it in PTHDX –
    So, all the machines don’t have to be at the same studio.

    As his wife and former tour manager, it would be fun to see the old bird back in action.

    Thanks for any thoughts.

    Tracey

    PS – It looks like old 3348s are cheap online – can these things stand alone? And wasn’t there an Apogee upgrade required for this thing to sound decent?

  25. Adam

    October 16th, 2016 at 10:47 pm

    Hi Tracey –

    Sounds like a cool project. My first call would be to some of the big studios in L.A., Nashville, New York, Atlanta, Austin, or wherever is closest to you. Studios like Capitol, Record Plant, The Village, Henson Recording, Sunset Sound, etc… should be able to help you out. Many of the top studios still have older machines in good condition as well as techs who know how to align and set them up. It may not be inexpensive, but you could simply have all the tapes transferred to Pro Tools and line them up in the DAW. Each tape could also be transferred while Pro Tools is lock to the multitrack timecode, so the audio should all wind up in sync.

    Sony 3348s may be cheap, but shipping, setup and any repair may be way more than the price of the machine. Many 3348s were upgraded with Apogee converters, but that would be individual per machine. Even the stock machines sounded excellent, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Today’s converters are probably far superior to the late 80’s tech, and if you can get a digital signal out of the 3348, transfer to Pro Tools may even stay in the digital domain.

    Additionally, I hear that Iron Mountain (the data storage company) has a facility in Los Angeles where they maintain every professional recording deck for purposes just like yours. I’m not sure if they provide “retail” services, but it’s worth a call. I’m in L.A. and I’d be glad to facilitate the transfer if you are out of the area.

    -regards,
    adam

  26. Andy

    October 21st, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    Hey Adam, thanks for the article, nice read.

    My dilemma, or my story is that over the last year I have been busy getting a commercial studio built. – I had to make the decision early on to go with all digital (for speed) – or full analogue for sound (slower)..

    As a current Digital user (ProtoolsHD, Digital Desk etc, and analogue H/W units) running a hybrid setup, I figured this would be the way to go… – after-all, budgets these days are not as large or as lengthy as they used to be, and digital fills this gap so perfectly, and the option to just recall a session on the fly is an absolute godsend!. – but, (Having grown up with 2″ tape) I never could ever get the sound from digital as I did with tape.

    I Used to second guess myself always at mixdown. thinking WHY it was too “pure” – there was no dirt/grime/inconstancy. digital was just to clean/perfect for what I wanted to hear, and fake tapes/saturation never did ANYTHING for me in the digital world.

    Then I went to see a studio where they have a NeveVR, I mixed on it for a day, and immediately had that sound I had been searching for, as subtle as it is, and maybe only ever pleasing my own version of perfection, as clients possibly would never be able to tell.

    So needless to say, I went the vintage Neve route, but Just the console & its hardware, Tape machine is still digital (Protools) – but I think for me this is the best compromise, between fully digital or fully analogue.

    I dont think digital sucks like some suggest, I think its a medium of time/cost saving and moreover you can be mobile and still do it. – so the convenience factor is hugh!. – but there is still something grounded about a real analogue desk that plugins and a computer just cant capture.

    Thats my 2 cents anyway..
    be well.

    P.S I noticed in your tests you ran at 96k, doesn’t old tapes/gear work better at 44k for that sort of thing. (recording from..)

  27. Jon Sundell

    December 7th, 2016 at 10:05 am

    I’ve been working on a lengthy recording project off and on for the last twenty years with a small local recording engineer in Winston-Salem, NC. Everything is in 16 track format on ADAT` format. Several of the best songs are still waiting for a redo of the vocal lead or adding harmony. Since I finally retired from my day job/ career in July, I have been planning to finish the project and get it published. Unfortunately, I just found out that one of the 8 track machines no longer works and probably will not get fixed or upgraded.

    Do you know of any studios in my area that can play ADAT to either finish the recording or transform it to a current format like Protools, so that I can finish the project? Also, are there some bulletin boards or internet discussion groups where I could reach a lot of studios and engineers to find out?

    Thanks for any guidance.

    Jon Sundell

  28. Mark Fallon

    February 15th, 2017 at 11:59 am

    I am a musician & songwriter and 66 yrs old…… I have 2, 4, 8, 16 track analog machines– and also a 24 track digital…. I still love 15 ips & 30 ips warm sounding analog vs. the pristine clarity of digital !! The digital sound is just too ” stiff” and too perfect for me. I will always record on analog until death do us part !! I first learned recording at The House of Music in West orange, NJ with Stefan Galfas from producing albums for Warner Bros– on an MCI 16 track 2 inch tape– in the early 1970’s…..with the Eventide-Clockworks ( first ) digital delay !! ( cost = $ 4,500 !! ) That was a LOT of money in those days !! WOW !! I wish you could hear my high quality recordings– even mixed to cassette from the reel to reel !!

  29. Adam

    August 10th, 2017 at 7:08 pm

    Hey Mark –

    I’m sure your stuff sounds great! I’m the first to support whatever works for you. I made some excellent records on tape but I never loved it. I do like it for vocals and drums. On vocals the tape fixes the harsh stuff and on drums I get that extra compression and level. Otherwise, I always felt like what I put on tape needed a lot of help to get back to what the source sounded like. I did find that as productions became more common on digital, I changed the mics, preamps, etc.. that I used because the digital recorder didn’t help the recording chain. Analog tape is much more forgiving if a mic has a bright resonance or the compressor adds too much attack. I use saturation plugins in the digital world all the time to get a touch of that sound and I almost always use analog (transformer and tube based) compressors during in-th-box mixing.

    Once in a while I come across an old recording I did on 2″ or even 8 track 1/2″ or cassette and I’m surprised by how good it sounds!

    I feel ya, but I don’t miss the tape. I have a couple MCI JH24s in the garage if you need one!

    As for old digital processors, the Lexicon 480, Eventide H3000, AMS RMX and DMX can’t be beat by any plugins today! Digital kills for convenience, but those boxes certainly have a sound.

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