Mastering a digital mix to analog tape and back.

Discussion in 'Mastering' started by jm2, Oct 24, 2008.

  1. jm2

    jm2 Active Member

    I read somewhere that sometimes a digital mix will be put onto analog tape and then converted back to digital in an effort to induce the warmth of analog tape.

    Is this a common procedure, and how effective is it at doing just that, namely adding some warmth or body, or replicating an analog sound?

    I realize the question could perhaps fit in other forum categories, but if I were to have this done with a mix of mine, this step would be done by a mastering engineer at a full process studio, hence my desire to get the perspective from contributors to this forum.
     
  2. Massive Mastering

    Massive Mastering Well-Known Member

    It's not exactly "common" -- It can be reasonably effective on a fairly stellar sounding mix.

    It's NOT a "fix" for a "sterile" sounding mix. It's not necessarily superior than 'traditional' analog processing. It will NOT make a recording sound like it was tracked to analog tape. There's most definitely a subtle 'warmth' added (assuming the converters and the deck are up to the task at hand) and it occasionally can be one of those "ahhhhh" moments. But not often, certainly not as a 'go-to' process.

    I do layback a few times a year -

    I'm big on doing whatever a mix asks for. For layback, it has to beg for it.

    Is there a reason you wouldn't simply mix to analog?
     
  3. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    As John pointed out, taking digital to analog tape and back again, isn't necessarily something regularly done. But for an actual reel example of how one might use this process, I'll elaborate.

    One of the desirable advantages of analog tape recording is its nonlinearity. That is to say when one approaches the maximum amount of signal that the tape can accept, it begins to get "saturated". This saturation makes the tape react like a limiter, to a certain degree. A limiter that adds a certain amount and type of distortion that causes a desirable mush factor or, "warmth". This can be particularly effective sounding on instruments with strong transients such as drums. Most effective upon drums.

    So to gain this benefit you push the drums hard on analog tape, even banging the meters at times. If you have recorded your drums digitally and not overloaded your drum tracks? You could take your drum tracks and feed them to the analog machine. While recording the drums to analog, you can monitor the playback head. As you increase your input level to the tape, while monitoring tape playback, while recording, you'll start to hear the results of the saturation. The drums will appear to " fatten up" before the sound turns to crap. Real bad sounding crap. So it's a fine line. Now of course, this would cause a delay based on the distance between the record & playback head. Thankfully in the land of nonlinear digital recording in a computer, you could realign the track back into synchronization. BUT WAIT! You might think you could just record the drums to analog tape, rewind the tape and then play it back into the computer. Well guess what? It won't hold synchronization. So the only way to accomplish this, in an economical way, for a home project studio, would be to accomplish this in real time. That is, while recording to analog tape and playing back in real-time through its playback head, you have to be transferring the output of the analog machine back into the computer or your digital multitrack machine, to other empty tracks, while you are recording on the analog tape. Otherwise, it would require a gaggle of external synchronizer's & specially equipped analog tape machines along with an interface to your computer. A whole lot more stuff than this explanation can get into.

    In a different explanation, quite a few mastering engineers will take a clients digital recording and play it back through a superior digital to analog processor. Then this superior analog signal can be filtered and/or compressed and/or limited, utilizing esoteric analog equipment. That signal is then put through a superior analog to digital converter to create the optimized & retransferred digital master. The mastering engineer can then make yet more changes in the digital domain. So a best of both worlds scenario without ever necessarily going to analog tape. But all of the above can be employed and has been by many. Like John said, it can make the best sounding mix, even better. Conversely, it can make a big heap of crap sound like a slice of salami on a dog food sandwich. Which might be better than just a dog food sandwich? But not by much.

    Specialist in the best sounding dog food sandwiches with salami
    Ms. Remy Ann David
     
  4. jm2

    jm2 Active Member

    Thanks again for the replies. I appreciate the explanations.

    "Is there a reason you wouldn't simply mix to analog?"

    Yes. I do not want to track elsewhere, and my modest recording setup is limited to Cubase (and obvious things like mics, preamps, etc.). I wanted to better understand what options are available to me when it comes time to have something mastered.
     
  5. Michael Fossenkemper

    Michael Fossenkemper Distinguished past mastering moderator Well-Known Member

    mixing TO analog tape is great. It'll allow you to tweak the mix to compensate for some of the drawbacks of printing to tape while retaining its benefits. But printing through tape with a finished mix mostly has no real benefit, sometimes does like explained above.
     
  6. Massive Mastering

    Massive Mastering Well-Known Member

    Fair enough. Just wouldn't want you to expect anything extraordinary. I've had projects come in with instructions to run it to tape where it really wasn't the right thing to do - just for the "novelty" of it.

    Most of the time, if something is asking for "that tape sound" I tend to reach for the HEDD over the tape deck - Much of the "good stuff" without the possible negative effects.
     
  7. jm2

    jm2 Active Member

    I did some reading on the HEDD. It sounds interesting, and is recommended by Bob Katz. Coincidentally, I recently read Mastering Audio by Katz, and benefited from the aspects that were digestible by one quite new to recording. Curiously, the HEDD is not found on any of the gear lists of the top recording studios or mastering shops in my area.

    I have to admit, I remain perplexed about how one would know if layback for a mix is the right thing to do, but as with many things in complicated fields of endeavour, the answer may only become clearer with time and experience.
     
  8. Massive Mastering

    Massive Mastering Well-Known Member

    It's really just taking a listen. I think after you've "hit tape" a few thousand times, you get a knack for being able to mentally visualize (sonically) what the effect would be on (X) recording.

    Crane song though... Some people luck out -- I ordered my first piece of CS gear (STC-8) and had it the next day. Then (hindsight) replaced with with the 8M (mastering version) a few days later.

    I found that to be a fluke - As the rest of my CS gear has much more interesting stories behind them.

    The HEDD for example - I heard one a few years ago in February and that was it - I needed it. NEEDED it. Called up about a dozen places that hadn't seen one since the previous November. Called Scott & Dave at Crane Song to find out who was going to be getting the first bunch and ordered one in early March. Paid in full. Heard they'd be out in April.

    In July, I went to Crane Song with a vanilla shake from McDonald's (Dave Hill likes the vanilla shake) and a Big Mac for Scott as bribery to get me my HEDD!!!

    Got it - In November. Totally worth the wait - But figure that *no one* who ordered one for nearly a year got it right away. My Ibis, I picked up used while I (and it) was at Crane Song on another occasion - There were none to be found anywhere in North America at the time -- One was sitting on a workbench with a "SHIP IT" tag on it. Found out that it was a unit in for a "checkup" by an engineer who was going to sell it.

    After a few phone calls, the "SHIP IT" tag had MY address on it (I couldn't take it with me as I was on a motorcycle at the time).

    But you definitely find a certain "passion" among a lot of habitual Crane Song users. We'll wait - A lot. We'll drive, we'll ride, we'll bring vanilla shakes and burgers, Christmas cards, whatever it takes (short of man-whoring -- I have to draw the line somewhere) to get the gear. With some of it (namely, the HEDD, STC-8M and Ibis), once you hear it, it's like "tunnel vision" where you feel as if you're not doing your best without it.

    It's like audio crack.
     
  9. Michael Fossenkemper

    Michael Fossenkemper Distinguished past mastering moderator Well-Known Member

    John,
    tell us how you REALLY feel about CS gear.
     
  10. Massive Mastering

    Massive Mastering Well-Known Member

    If they offered me a job, I'd think about moving.
     

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