Skip to main content

Years ago I was fortunate enough to record a few songs using a professional reel-to-reel machine. It was an Otari MTR-90 2 inch 24 track. I have since used high quality converters from RME, Lynx, and Apogee. Although, they were all extremely adequate "especially the Lynx", they never seemed to give me the same realistic top-end or BIG sound that the Otari recorder did.

I want to buy a tape machine but I don't need (and can't afford) an Otari 24 track. I have heard that the width of the tape has a lot to do with the big open sound that analog is famous for. Which format should I go with in order to get close to the sound of that Otari 2 inch 24track?


  • Should I go with a half inch 2 track, and just record two tracks at a time, then transfer to digital?
  • Or, should I go with a 1/2 inch 8 track format, more tracks but less width per track?
  • What would be the sound difference between these two formats?

Any help would be appreciated on this obscure topic, thanks :)

Topic Tags


Boswell Mon, 10/30/2017 - 17:15

There are lots of factors to take into consideration, both linear and non-linear. Perhaps the most obvious is track density, i.e. the number of tracks per inch over the width of the tape. Your MTR-90 is 24tpi, the half inch 8-track is 16tpi and the two track is 4tpi. You would expect the higher the tpi the lower the signal to noise ratio, but the sonics of the signal to stay much the same, at least at the same tape speed. But it doesn't work quite like that. I would bet the Otari would have sonics and noise performance similar to or even better than the others. Design quality and manufacturing quality play a big part.

Many years ago, not long after I got my first Alesis HD24XR hard disk recorder, I took some recordings to the small studio that a friend of mine was a partner in. He was wondering whether they should move to digital recording and had never had the opportunity to hear the differences.

We played all the songs from the Alesis on to his 16- track Ampex 2-inch deck, then replayed them from tape and recorded them on to the other drive in the HD24. I took the HD24 home and leisurely produced a third drive with all the songs on but randomly direct or via tape. I gave the HD24 back to the studio for the other partner to mix, as he had not been involved until that point.

It was uncanny that he preferred all the songs that had had the tape process. Maybe he was familiar and comfortable with the sound, but it meant tbat they went on using their Ampex until customer pressure forced them on to ProTools a year or so later. He hated the Digidesign I/O sound.

Much later, I re-discovered the original and composite HD24 drives and transferred a couple of the songs in both original and via tape forms to a DAW, in an attempt to see if there was any visible difference. Trying track subtraction, I found I could get rough nulling over short timescales because of (inaudible) slow speed variations, but two things were noticeable. The first was the well known tape compression, which was visibly present over about the top half of the amplitude range (6dB). The second was small compressions and expansions of the timescale on the tape tracks against the digital tracks. I vowed to investigate that further in my retirement, to attempt to separate out these effects to see if either of them was the "sound of tape".

Whatever the result might be, it was clear that tape transfer did make a difference. I also have a hunch that really good deck mechanics plays a big part.

kmetal Mon, 10/30/2017 - 17:25

Kurt Foster is a huge fan of tape.

From what I understand the wider the tape and track width the more open (hifi) the sound.

I would err towards an 8 track rather than two so I could cut a whole set of basic tracks before transferring to digital. There’s a certain vibe and continuity that comes with that method. Two track would require you to mix everything down to two tracks, limiting your ability to adjust things later. You could do drums only mixed stereo, kick and the rest mono, drums and bass mono (one on each track) and still get good results, but I’d prefer 8 discrete tracks. Having 8 in the daw transfer is helpful, and it could be fun to send them from tape thru a mixer, or other outboard On the way into the daw.

1/2” 2 tracks are usually used to mix down to from the multitrack machine.

You might be able to get a decent fostex 16 or 8 track machine. I think a lot of guys used them when studer and ampex was out of their budget.

I have a 1/4” tascam 34 reel to reel and a 424 mk3 cassette portastudio. Both have the great grungy sound I like tascam tape machines for. The reel to reel sounds bigger with more dynamics than the cassette. I’m guessing a combo of the electronics and tape width.

That said I was surprised how clear the 34 actually was upon first use.

paulears Wed, 11/01/2017 - 06:31

I'm convinced that these differences are simply down to preference. Listening to my old recordings from the 80s and 90s, they sound wrong. They didn't sound wrong then. When CDs came out, I really liked the sound, many friends didn't. Given a choice, I rather like the sound of MP3s. I also liked the ATRAC characteristic sound of Mini Disk. Swapping my 8 track for ADAT in the 90s was an improvement because I liked the sound. I use lots of archive stuff in my work, and it annoys me that the digital stuff from the 90s sounds wrong now. I know the enthusiasts love the old tape format sound, but I actually don't. Once my long term stuff ended up as digits, this pressure to constantly improve kind of went away. I can mix my material up now and not have to worry about the sound being very different at all. If you want the old tape sound then you'll really have to audition any machine you are thinking of, because sometimes the love for a sound was the love for the setup and alignment. One engineers little tweak in the bias current or replay eq. Not, I think, the machine. I produced some truly horrible stuff on good machines. The nicest sounding reel to reel I ever had was a 2 track Ferrograph Super 7 that I didn't heave the service manual for, and I set it up by trial and error. I adjusted playback on a known good tape until it sounded right, then tweaked the record circuitry to be as close as I could get, and I loved it. I suspect that if I had those old masters, I'd hate them now!