AUP230 - Tape Project

  •  Introduction

The tape project was very unusual as I've never recorded anything to tape before. We started off by heading to Soundpark Studios in Melbourne. The entrance looks like a film studio as if it'd built an abandoned warehouse set.

 Entrance of Soundpark Studios

Entrance of Soundpark Studios

Overall, the studio looks fantastic, as if there's plenty of story to be told about it. There are loads of artwork spread across the place, as well as an impressive amount of handmade wooden diffusors. What's more, you can find an overindulgent set of keyboards, cables, interesting lamps and more.

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The objective of the project was to successfully record two bands: Tram Cops and . My role was that of the Pro Tools engineer, which meant that I was responsible for communicating with the producer and the band. The project lasted the whole day and the class was split into two groups; I was assigned at the afternoon period. 

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As far as I remember, the recording setup was as follows: the microphones signal would first go through the preamps, than the tape, then move to the mixing console, then end in Pro Tools. In other words, the audio was being recorded to tape, and being monitored through Pro Tools. I have to admit, it was very confusing to fully understand what was going on, as when I arrived all was already up and running. 

 The massive tape setup.

The massive tape setup.

The tape recorder available at Soundpark Studios was a Studer, although I don't recall if it was the A80 or A800. It had 24 channels at our disposal, and we made use of all of them. Despite there being a limited amount of time to complete all the recordings due to the finite length of the tape, as opposed to nowadays non-linear DAWs, I was impressed at how much all groups could record in a day. 

  • Production

When I got in the studio I had no idea what was going on. I thought it would be a turn by turn project, so to speak, where the first group would set up, record and pack, and the second group would repeat the process. That was not the case. When I got there I had to take over a session that had already begun and familiarise myself with the environment. There were very many people inside a small room, and one of the things I have the most trouble with is concentrating at one thing while there are people talking right next to me. Either way, I had to keep my cool and be professional. I think that the key ingredients that differentiate an amateur from a professional is patience, empathy, confidence and positive attitude. In the inside, I was freaking out, but I tried to push my insecurities aside and just focus on the outcome of the project.

The genre we recorded was quite jazz-y, and therefore the hiss produced by the tape was very pleasant to hear. Despite preferring the sound of digital, I can't deny that tape hiss adds so much character to certain types of much, especially classical, which is my favourite genre. There were a couple of moments when I completely zoned and just enjoyed the sound. As mentioned in an article from Universal Audio, 'probably the most commonly cited characteristic of analog recording is its "warmth." Tape warmth adds a level of color to the sound, primarily softening the attacks of musical notes, and thickening up the low frequency range. Recording at slightly hot levels to analog tape can also produce a nice distortion that works well with certain types of music such as rock, soul, and blues.' 

Another interesting aspect of tape its speed is directly related to the amount of bandwidth it can retain when recording. The table below, extracted from OpenLearn, briefly illustrates this concept.

 Bandwidth related to tape speed. Image from OpenLearn.edu. Click   here   to view source

Bandwidth related to tape speed. Image from OpenLearn.edu. Click here to view source

In the same article from Universal Audio, they mention that a faster tape speed tends to result in a cleaner recording since the signal is spread over a larger area and the signal-to-noise ratio is increased. Supplementary to this, when recording in 15 its (inched per second) the engineer will often find an improved low-frequency response compared to running the tape at 30 ips (Mignola, 2015). Therefore, I think that if we had the tape running at 15 ips, the amount of noise in the vocals and drums would be higher.

Why'd She Have to Leave so Soon? - The song we recorded for Tram Cops

The mix above was crafted by my colleague, Nick Penberthy, and when listening to it a couple of weeks later with fresh ears, I'd say that the vocals could be a bit louder, although since it was recorded quite low, I'm afraid that if it got boosted, then tape hiss would be much more prominent, thus making noise an intrusive element rather than a characteristic of the song. Nevertheless, despite this minor issue, the mix sounds pleasant and the band was very pleased with it, and that's what every engineer wants to hear, isn't it?

All in all, I had a great time learning about tape and being in a professional music production studio. Despite having worked in a music production studio before, it was nothing compared to Soundpark in terms of space, decoration and equipment. Even though the sound of digital audio pleases me more than analogue, tape quality, it was very interesting to learn about the differences in tape speed as well as hearing it happen in real time. This experience gave me a broader appreciation for classical and jazz music, as opposed to when I thought that tape hiss was an inconvenient element.


  • References

Keller, D. Universal Audio. Analogue Tape Recording Basics. Retrieved from https://www.uaudio.com/blog/analog-tape-recording-basics/

OpenLearn. Revolutions in Sound Recording. Retrieved from http://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/engineering-and-technology/technology/revolutions-sound-recording/content-section-1.3.3

Mignola, P. (2015). Learn The Key Differences Between Analog Tape Speeds. Retrieved from http://performermag.com/home-recording/learn-the-key-differences-among-analog-tape-speeds/