5 Ways To Use Reel-To-Reel Tape On Your Next Project
Tape is one of the most occurring points of discussion in the ol’ Anologue vs. Digital debate; it has undeniably shaped the recording and music industry into what it is today.
Thirty years ago you’d be hard pressed to find a studio or radio station that wasn’t actively using one, and the vast majority of downright classic audio masterpieces were born through this, only somewhat comprehendible, medium of magnets and plastic.
To a large extent, we have been blessed with the technical revolutions of digital music. It has not only made creating music a lot easier and made it far more accessible to people in their every day lives, but it also helped musicians and recording engineers understand the properties of sound to a much better extent.
Personally, I have an undying love for the whole concept of tape – the recording process, the physicality of the audio, and those holiest of sounds and tones generated by the physical properties of tape and the machines.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have used it on a few projects, some being combined with digital processing, and others using only analogue through its entirety. I’m pretending to not be slightly biased with either form of recording processing, but it is undeniable to me that tape will nearly always have a positive affect on everything it touches, and has become a very, very desirable characteristic across a vast majority of genres (why else would there be so many plug-ins and emulators?).
“Yeah, yeah, yeah tape is great how does this apply to my music?”
You don’t have to own a tape machine to be able to benefit from its character, and it is definitely not a requirement to douse your whole project into something that sounds like it’s eating and breathing tape – that just might not be what you’re going for. However, with modern audio processing and digital music the way that is now, you can basically cherry pick what you want to add to your project to transform it into something quite unique.
We’ve singled out five ways reel-to-reel tape can be used to add character, improve a mix and overall help make better sounding music, all while still being able to use DAW if you choose!
1. Natural Compression
Unlike a regular compressor or limiter, you can’t precisely pinpoint a ratio that you want it to work to. You can ‘slam’ the tape by varying the volume and the speed of the playback, but depending of the size of the tape it will affect the tone and compression rate at different rates – yay for physics. Ideally, one would never want to ‘slam’ tape; it’s certainly not common practice and it is definitely a case of ‘less is more’.
Basically, this type of compression is non-linear and it will add charisma to a track and also take away certain things, which thankfully are usually the unwanted elements.
Because it is a natural way of applying compression to a track, it will also naturally manipulate the audio into something that is comfortable and appealing for our ears. It smoothes the high end, appearing to provide good quality “de-essing”, immediately reducing the high-end pokey frequencies that have a nice habit of making people cringe. Running any sort of track through a tape machine (leaving colour and character of the model of tape/machine aside) will reduce harshness in the high end, take out the muddiness of low end and boost the whole middle spectrum to a subtle level of warmth that is really only comparable to the warm-and-fuzzies from buttered rum or cotton candy.
Re-amping is an excellent tool for adding body and character to anything that’s coming off a little lacklustre. Whether it’s a guitar tone that doesn’t sound quite as good through your amp as you want it to be, a bass line that’s sounding a bit thin or a synth that’s just completely apathetic, sonic improvement can be introduced by re-amping the audio signal and pump a whole new level of life into it.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about re-amping itself, Mike Levine wrote a good article about it for Electronic Musician a few years ago, but tape is very organic way of improving the volume and spectral properties of any instrument or track. Any amplifier will have a personality that can bring some level tone and colour to an instrument, but they’re all within their physical limitations and may not be able to facilitate the sound that you’re chasing.
As mentioned when overviewing qualities of tape’s natural compression, the physical properties of this medium have a very good knack for making things naturally sound good, and can be utilised in a way that the preciseness of digital audio can’t always facilitate. These same principals apply to re-amping of an audio signal, albeit with modified processing methods, and will undoubtedly add substance and persona to your instrument tone.
I use the slash between affects and effects because in reality, tape manipulation does both. It is a sound effect, but it also tangibly affects the soundwave and it’s properties are physically modified.
You can have waaaaay too much fun playing this side of things. The most popular choices usually being delay and echoes, sampling and looping, and you can make some downright funky sounds by manipulating how you run the tape.
Tape machines will nearly always have two ‘heads’ on them that the tape will run over; one for recording and the other only facilitates playback. If you’ve got something playing back from the machine and then you hit record, the already moving tape is pushed against the recording head and the sounds playing back will be momentarily warped and captured into the audio. The same kind of deal works with fast forwarding, rewinding and stopping and starting of play.
Depending on what you want from your track or song, you can apply a variety of these processes purely to add cool affects/effects, or even to add narration and semiotics to the project.
Skinny Jean - Informed
There are a few awesome units that specialise in effects. Roland Space Echo and Chorus Echo series RE-101 to RE-501 include echo, delay and looping and chorus effects. Another lesser-known beauty is the Watkins Copicat Echo Unit, originally working with valve electronics before moving over to circuits.
4. Stereo Imaging
There are some fantastic plug-ins for widening stereo imaging, in addition to the wide array of pan pots that usually present themselves on a desk, but often you’ll tweak and toy with it until the cows come home in a hunt for the right amount of depth, and still not find what you’re looking for.
This is another instance where the organic profile of tape can almost immediately give everything a lift, and in this circumstance, create a wider sound field.
The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club is an awesome example of how you can create both massive stereo space and smaller, intimate sounds by modifying the extent to which the processing is applied to the audio via tape.
Potentially sounding like a broken record here, cough, but tape saturation is a widespread quality and can and will be applied, again naturally, by the majority of tape processing. Tape saturation can be implemented to varying degrees, depending how far you’re pushing other elements of tape processing and what combination you’re opting to use them.
Daft Punk’s most recent studio album, Random Access Memories, used a combination of both analogue and digital audio processing and workflow, with tape being a very large contributor to the entire process. They have cherry-picked various elements from tape and other digital/analogue techniques to create an extremely well received and critically acclaimed album, and the production speaks for itself.
This audio medium can and will evoke soothing warmth and true character from any sound source and is well worth using.