The romantic spectre of magnetic tape has loomed large over the audio world from the onset of the digital revolution. Sure, tape was fussy, noisy, and the machines were large and required frequent maintenance. But it also brought warmth, depth and headroom that was tough to beat. In this exclusive roundtable, we asked five outstanding engineer/producers, all regular users of Universal Audio equipment, to rewind to their early experiences with tape, and discuss how they’ve reintroduced the virtues of tape into their work in new and exciting ways using UAD magnetic tape recorder plug-ins.
Meet the roundtable
A four-time Grammy winner, Powell’s extensive credits include The Raconteurs’ Consolers of the Lonely, The Dead Weather’s Seas of Cowards, and Chris Stapleton’s Traveler, among hundreds more.
For over 20 years, Katis has been a leading indie-rock producer/engineer. His initial splash was with Interpol’s landmark debut Turn on the Bright Lights, and he has since gone on to work with Guster, The National, and Mercury Rev.
With an extensive list of credits that dates back to the late ’70s, Bolas counts Toto IV as well as titles from Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer, Neil Young, and James Taylor in his oeuvre.
A mastering titan and five-time Grammy-winning engineer, Dodd’s credits include albums from George Harrison, The Dixie Chicks, Wilco, Green Day, Steve Earle, Robert Plant, the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty, and more.
The only “analog-only” member of the roundtable, soul-music stalwart Younge is responsible for the critically-acclaimed Black Dynamite soundtrack as well as Ghostface Killah’s Twelve Reasons to Die.
How has your early career using tape as the primary medium influenced your work in the digital realm? Are there intangibles that went missing when we stopped using tape to record?
Peter Katis: I have a lot of experience on analog machines, and I still use a real Studer A827 two-inch machine in my studio. But around the time I really got into recording, around 1989-90, the digital push was already full-on, with the strong message that this was going to be better than analog, and of course, people were making all those dumb mistakes that they made at first.
Digital is so much better than analog at certain things, but a lot of things you took for granted with analog suddenly went away, so the nostalgia for tape took hold quickly for me. After a point, it was like, okay, with digital I don’t have to work that hard to make it not noisy — big deal. But yeah, there’s two sides to what makes tape special — there’s the sound of it, and then there’s just the difference in the process when you’re recording to tape. I don’t miss the process for myself, but I miss it for other people, because it’s just so great for some bands to work that way, to be obliged to respect all the things that tape demands.
“The goal in the early digital years was to hear every instrument separately. But people began to miss the feeling of listening to a softer-sounding ‘big ball of music.’ That’s what tape does.”
— Peter Katis
Adrian Younge: I use tape exclusively. Do I look to the past? Sure — to pull out all the great things I love about those old records: the musicianship, the compositions, the sonic palette, the way you’d hear solid-state mixed with tube. There are so many textures and colors, and midrange sparkle that you get from that old equipment, so the only way I believe I can do what I do is from the two-inch tape format.
And I agree that tape enhances the level of performance by the artists. In the digital world, a vocalist can come in, do a ton of takes and then ask the engineer to fix the whole thing for them, rather than locking into a few great performances with fewer takes and, I’d say, more perspective.
Vance Powell: Digital wasn’t enjoyable to me right off the bat. I started out using a pair of 1″ 16-track machines, and a 2″ 24-track, so, the first time I did an album on a Pro Tools system in 2001, I remember struggling to get the sounds I wanted.
But with digital, I was suddenly free to use those unlimited channels to put up lots and lots of mics — something I immediately regretted. So then I found myself reverting to “tape thoughts.” Things like, no more than eight channels of drums, ever. Make a musical decision, live with it, and move on.
That being said, things are different now, converters are better and we have higher sample rates, so we’re finally getting to a point where our digital recording mediums are actually pretty great.
Richard Dodd: I always felt that the console, microphones, and especially the players’ techniques had much more to do with the juju of the sound you got than the tape did. Tape just happened to be a facility that sometimes did great things to the sound, and sometimes not, especially over time, and that could be between recording it and playing it back.
But I do have a vivid memory of the transition from tape to digital, and it was, “This is awful.” There were particular things digital couldn’t do, and one of them was to make things sound acceptable. The only thing anyone could point to was that there was no hiss. Well, there was no tone either. I used to think the only way to improve a digital recording was to find the power button and turn it off. Avoidance behavior was the only way to live with it.
“A big part of what people want to go back to with tape is transformer distortion, tape compression, and noise… today I use the UAD Studer A800 plug-in to get those characteristics.”
— Niko Bolas
How does the flexibility and stability of UAD tape recorder plug-ins improve on the old hardware machines, and how does it allow you to re-introduce the desirable aspects of tape back into your work now?
Richard Dodd: UAD tape plug-ins offer options never before available, the most obvious being the option to not hear the tape noise, thus making very low-speed, high-headroom settings useable for the first time. Plus, your settings always stay the same with tape plug-ins. That’s great if you’re not into surprises or the very rare “happy accident!”
Niko Bolas: A big part of what people want to go back to with tape is transformer distortion, tape compression, and noise, all three of which you can do in the digital domain. In fact, I use the UAD Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plug-in to get all of those characteristics.
The other thing I really miss from the tape-era is musicians who could really play! But that said, I never use actual tape. It’s a detriment. It’s cumbersome, it’s extremely expensive — in an age when we have no budgets — and the tape is not manufactured with good quality control. It’s a painful joke compared with the positive aspects of it that we’re actually trying to emulate with the UAD plug-ins.
Vance Powell: I use the UAD Studer A800 plug-in almost exclusively. It’s especially good for improving tracks that have been recorded, how shall I word this, poorly. Either too many transients, not enough dynamic control, in need of de-essing, cymbals that are too shrill. The Studer A800 is great with all that kind of high-frequency control. And yeah, the ability to use it over multiple individual tracks is great: I’ve done sessions where I’ve put the UAD Studer A800 on every single channel — drums, bass, guitar, vocals, the whole thing — and it always makes it better.
Peter Katis: While I love working with real tape, the sonics of tape is ultimately just science—EQ, compression, and saturation. Sometimes we think it’s magic, but it’s still science. So why shouldn’t plug-ins be able to do much the same thing? That’s why I use the UAD tape plug-ins every day.
See, if you’re recording an album to a real tape machine, it’s all going to sound the way that particular tape machine sounds: the way it’s aligned, the type of tape you’re using, etc. But with the UAD plug-ins, you can treat each track any way you want to, which is pretty great. My workhorse is the UAD Studer A800. It’s the one I know and love best. I’ll use it very frequently on individual tracks, on entire busses even sometimes on my entire mix when more extreme measures are demanded.
Are there particular tweaks or go-to settings on the UAD tape plug-ins that you like — whether that be tape speed, input level, tape type, etc.?
Peter Katis: Part of what I love about the plug-ins is how they can respond in unpredictable ways, much like the real thing. Recently, I was mixing an instrumental metal band that I had recorded, and it was all sounding good, but I felt it was lacking a certain aggression with my standard audio chain. So I put a default UAD Studer A800 setting on it. Now, typically I find that if I click the speed up from 15 IPS to 30 IPS, it’ll get a little brighter, with a bit more grind and saturation, but generally leave the low-end untouched. But for some reason, in this case, at 30 IPS, the low-end just became pounding. It went from being fairly polite to just throbbing toms, bass and kick drum.
Vance Powell: I remember working with a guy who would intentionally under-bias, say, the snare channel on the tape machine to get the top end to sound a little less linear, more like a big shelf EQ. I’m currently working on a session with a real Studer A800, and right now it’s aligned at 3/250 everywhere but the kick and snare. The kick and snare channels are 2/250. So, a pretty mild alignment, and I’m going to bias it correctly for the track. I’m manipulating the medium itself to get the kind of tone I want. And a lot of people did that in the tape days. This is pretty much what I do in my own preset for the UAD Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plug-in: 3/250, Scotch 250 tape, at 15 IPS, set to CCIR.
“The speeds and widths have particular effects on me: ¼" at 7 ½ IPS is 'ooh,' ½" at 15 IPS is, 'aah,' while 1" at 30 IPS is more, 'why?'”
— Richard Dodd
Niko Bolas: I’ll often use the UAD Studer A800 when I need to make an abrasive percussion track more palatable. The subtle compression, the ability to adjust bias, and the saturation you can achieve with the Studer plug-in on tambourines, guicas, and shakers is better than a conventional plug-in compressor that just rolls off the top end and squishes it.
There are also times I’ll use the Studer on my mix bus, especially if I’m doing something that has kind of a period quality to it, and it seems sterile without the Studer. Compression, noise, and a little top-end bludgeon — when I turn it up loud, it feels good on my body. As far as tape speed or tape type, close your eyes, click through all of them, and pick the one that sounds best for the music you’re working on.
Richard Dodd: With the UAD Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape plug-in, I can compress a little, I can limit quite a lot, and I can EQ. In terms of settings on the UAD Ampex ATR-102, it’s like all plug-ins: I try to blank out what they say they can do, and just listen blindly to see what they’re really going to do for me.
If you’ve had the chance to see my “secret” preset on the UAD Ampex ATR-102, you may notice that it is based on 15 IPS, Scotch 250 tape. The tape width is what I option out per the program, usually settling on ½″. The speeds/widths have particular effects on me: ¼″ at 7 ½ IPS is “ooh,” ½″ at 15 IPS is, “aah,” while 1″ at 30 IPS is more, “why?” Also, 3 ¾″ is cool for a drum parallel sub mix — turn the tape noise off, lower the level and play with the bias. This one’s on me, folks.
Adrian Younge: I use an 1970s Ampex 1200 24-track machine, with Ampex 456 2″ tape, but I record to 16-track for better resolution — the machine has 16-track heads on it. It’s a sound that’s very fat. I mix down to ¼-″ Ampex AG350 tape, because I love the sound of ¼″ tape; and while mixing down from Pro Tools to ¼″ tape won’t give you the full benefit of tracking to tape, it will definitely take the edge off of the digital mixes, and give you something that sounds like a finished record. I still have a whole bunch of Ampex 456 reels, and I think the key is just to keep using it. I use those reels every day. I typically run the input quite hot, always in the red, and this helps stimulate the midrange gives it dirt and sparkle.
Mix engineers often describe tape as providing the best “glue” for a mix. What do we actually mean by that, and what makes tape such a desirable and unique signal processing tool, compared to conventional compressors or EQs?
Vance Powell: Tape gives you a “non-linear” compression. Which is to say, it’s not 4:1 compression, or 3:1 compression. It’s very “frequency-based” instead of “level-based” compression. And that’s a big difference.
Peter Katis: I’m a big fan of saturation, and the UAD tape plug-ins do that so very well. They always help me to get things sounding loud and bright, with plenty of compression and limiting, but — and here’s the key — without sounding harsh. That just has to do with the fact that you’re saturating the right frequencies, so you get an aggressive sound that’s also smooth and pleasing.
I also think tape helps smooth out upper midrange frequencies. Ironically, that “glue” you’re talking about is something that people fought against. The goal in the early digital years was, “Wow, you can hear every instrument separately.” But people quickly began to miss the feeling of listening to a softer-sounding “big ball of music.” That’s what tape does.
Richard Dodd: Tape is distortion and compression, both interacting on and with each other. Add the EQ change that happens simultaneously, and you really do have that audio Swiss Army knife to take along the rocky mix path.
Adrian Younge: Ultimately, the sweetener that tape adds to the sound actually makes your job as a recording artist easier, because you’re less inclined to have to fix problems, because your tracks already sound great from the beginning. Tape is full-sounding, but in a highly dynamic way.
When we’re mixing and mastering all-digital, and trying to get that full sound, we often end up compressing the shit out of it to make it sound loud and full. That’s not how music is supposed to be experienced. You want to hear the dynamics, and that’s what tape is great at.