Recording Analog Cheaply

The studio I use is all analog.  In the early 2000s, the analog vs. digital debate was hopt, and bringing it up at an audio conference would make people bright red.  By now, the argument is pretty much over.  Analog has found its place, and resurged in the worlds of synths and guitar pedals.  Yet for recording itself, digital is the only option for most people.  Young engineers who want to work with tape are quickly thwarted by the price of tape and difficulty maintaining tape machines and/or finding techs to work on them.  And even if you get past all that, many mastering engineers digitize everything anyway as the last step before pressing on vinyl, and people listen to music online anyway, which is inherently digital.  So why bother?

There are a number of reasons.  One is it’s fun.  It’s fun to use old equipment, and anything that makes the music more fun is good for creativity.  There are people out there that put cars together with all-original parts.  They could buy a 3-D printed part that would get their car running, but what’s the fun in that?  My favorite albums of all time were recorded in the analog era.  I’m not trying to re-create them, but they did set the bar in my mind as to how a recording should sound, and digital isn’t it.  At this point, I’ve worked with analog exclusively for so long, that it is invisible to me.  It is digital that distorts the music into some odd, strange form that I don’t like.  So when looking at how to record stuff, I’m looking at those records.  I also find screens to be a huge distraction, so working without any near is highly desirable.

But I record pretty lo-fi.  The Tascam 488 is an eight track cassette machine.  A standard stereo cassette tape used for normal purposes is divided into 4 tracks: stereo side one and stereo side two.  A four-track cassette recorder uses the same track division, though you can usually double the speed to improve the quality.  The eight track I use has half the bandwidth per channel of a four track, resulting in lower fidelity.  It does double the speed of the tape with no option for lower speeds, except as an effect.  But to many, recording to such a low quality would defeat the purpose of recording analog.

Not to me!  Fidelity isn’t everything,  Fidelity was pretty high by the 80s or 90s, but people started using too many microphones and over-processing with the advent of 24-track 2″ tape.  People argue that records sound better than CDs because they have a higher frequency response, so my cassette method goes against that.  I think what makes digital sound bad, though, is the bits.  It’s like the graphics on an 8 bit vs 16 bit vs 24 bit Nintendo.  How those bits are created, the clocks, those are all major factors in how digital sounds.  I believe having no bits at all is preferable.  And the lo-fi sound seems to suit my playing style.  Am I really worth of hi-fi anyway?

There is bad sounding analog too, but I like cassettes.  I grew up listening to them and feel at home working with them.  I like rewinding, I like the sound of rewinding.  And having been interested in audio from a young age, I learned about quality differences in cassettes just in time.  People younger than me might not know the difference between type I (regular), type II (chrome) and type IV (metal), but they are very relevant.  Metal is the highest quality but you can’t erase it, which is part of the recording process.  You also need a good tape deck that can handle metal tapes.  The deck should either have a switch for tape type, or auto-detect based on the holes on the top of the cassette.  Type II is middle quality, and you should use deck that can switch, but the Tascam 488 is no such tape deck.  That said, a lot of chrome tapes work fine.  In the tape era, Maxells were the best, and that’s what I use.  They go for $5 each these days on ebay, so they are cheap enough for people without enough money to blow on full reels.  They sound good and can take being rewound and recorded over for hundreds of takes.  The will ware out eventually, but I’ve only hit that limit once.  I’ve never liked TDK tapes.  The Tascam cannot handle the the higher-end Maxell XLII-S, which I use in my mix-down deck.  But the XLII is a great classic.  A lot of people using cassettes today opt for the cheapest ones they can find not realizing how drastically they change in quality.  But as someone who grew up in the golden age of cassettes, I think the sound quality on the high-end stuff got pretty good, and is still so cheap as to be negligible, at least compared between the cost of reels vs pennies for hard drive space.  I therefore consider cassettes and upgrade worth paying for and within mu budget.

As for the rest of my studio, I’ve maintained the all-analog rule for everything.  It is non negotiable, not something I will even consider changing.  It applies to synths, drum machines and guitar effects too.  Not all analog is good.  A lot of analog guitar pedals use bucket brigade chips, which do sound significantly better than digital, but I’m still not crazy about.  They sound to 80s to me.  I use them occasionally, but I’d much rather use a tape delay.  And someday, perhaps, replace my chorus pedal with a Leslie speaker.  When I was in the market for a drum machine in the 90s, I liked the Roland 909’s bass and snare sounds better than the 808’s, but went with the 808 because it was all analog.  The 909 has sampled cymbals.  I think there is a big payoff to this rule.  I don’t how to articulate it today, but I feel it.  I’m just trying to go home sonically, whatever that means, and this rule is getting me there.

To this day, I would recommend anyone wants to learn to record to pick up a used 4 track that’s been recently serviced, and a single microphone.  Anything you want to achieve, then, you have to think about and figure out how to do it.  There is less you can do in post production.  There are no menus to get lost in, nor effects that sound like reverb but aren’t actually reverb.  You less inclined to put on stupid effects you don’t need and get in the way of the music because such options aren’t there.  And most importantly, you can get away from the internet and put your mind elsewhere.  And dude.  It will it sound better.  I swear.

That all said, if someone wants to take me into the studio to re-record everything, I will happily do it, just so long as they pay for it.  And it stays analog.


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Too Close to Vomit

Brooklyn's least favorite band. "Somewhere between divinity and polygamy lies Milf City."

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