Analog Tape Dr. AIX's POSTS — 11 July 2015

By

The production of an album can be accomplished using a lot of different approaches and techniques. The purist approach involves getting the artist/band to perform their set in the studio and a recording engineer capturing a live mix to a stereo recorder. Jared Sachs uses a version of this technique when he produces his DSD classical projects. I think I would be too nervous to lock down my mixes at the time of the performance but I do understand the basic concept.

The Stereophile family of sites sent out the AnalogPlanet newsletter the other day and I clicked on an album review that Michael Fremer wrote about Jerome Sabbagh’s new project called “The Turn”. Michael loves this project and rated both the music and the sound a “10” from the vinyl LPs. It’s unclear what the maximum rating is because the graphic shows an “11” above the “10” but maybe it’s the Marshall Amp thing from the movie “Spinal Tap”. Anyway, he’s very complimentary and discussed at length the process that Jermone and his production team went through to successfully produce a limited run of 180-gram vinyl LPs.

However, the production “provenance” of this project involves some compromises that are unusual. The album was recorded “the way records used to be made”. Engineer James Farber brought Jermome and his quartet in to Sear Sound and in a single session captured over an hour of material. The project resulted in a double disc album…that’s four sides of 180-gram vinyl. The engineer miked up the instruments, balanced and EQ’d them through an analog console, and then recorded them on a stereo analog reel-to-reel tape machine.

But the budget wasn’t large enough to allow the purchase of sufficient raw tape stock to cover the entire session, so “the choice was made to record, bounce to high resolution digital and re-use the tape”. It was at this point in the article that I dropped my jaw. Why in the world would a knowledgeable artist and engineer allow this to happen? The cost of a 1/4″ reel of tape is about $65 per reel. At 15 ips (inches per second) that 2500′ reel will provide about 30 minutes of recording time. Now I don’t know the hourly cost of the studio but “bouncing” from the analog master tape takes real time. Therefore, in order to re-use a reel of tape containing 30 minutes of music will tape 30 minutes (or more). I can’t imagine that the cost of the studio is less than $100 per hour making the cost saving almost meaningless. Not to mention that the background noise of a new reel of tape is substantially quieter than recording over a used tape. IMHO they should have purchased the tape and then sold whatever they didn’t use. Cost savings should have been applied somewhere else.

There “is no analog master tape of the entire record”. What a shame. Doug Sax mastered the record for digital distribution on CD and “high-resolution” download. I checked and the album is available in “Audiophile 192kHz/24bit & 96kHz/24bit” AIFF files on HDtracks. Nowhere on the HDtracks album page is there any mention of the analog tape to high-res digital transfer provenance of this album. This information is available and should be included in the “About This Album” section. This is prime example of a “Hi-Res Transfer”…from analog tape to high-res digital.

I imagine that the recording sound great…I’m not going to download the album and do an analysis.

The artist funded the vinyl LP mastering (also by Doug Sax) and production of 500 limited edition copies through Kickstarter. They raised $10,570! If they had only thought of raising the money before they recorded over the tape! Choosing to compromise the “all analog signal path” seems rather shortsighted to me.

To be continued…

Forward this post to a friend and help us spread the word about HD-Audio Forward this post to a friend and help us spread the word about HD-Audio

Share

About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(13) Readers Comments

  1. Your right, it is a VERY strange path to final release. Still has my head shaking over going threw the trouble of making a “pure” analog session and then throwing it all away over a few $ of tape costs?
    But in the end I don’t see any real final loss, Mikey gave the analog to high res digital to vinyl transfer a 10 for sound quality and the digital master will be there for any future needs.
    Worst part is the total waste of analog tape. Following this path, they could have come up with an even better sounding master by just going straight to high res digital in the first place.
    But hey, as long as Mikeys happy, I’m happy. LOL

    • They could have but chose to make analog the fidelity limiting factor by recording to tape first.

  2. Well, if one is sufficiently rabidly biased about all things analog, and doubly so about all things vinyl, then it is common to go into such a trance, just at the sound of a needle dropping onto a lead-in groove, that you are experiencing ‘tens’ and ‘elevens’ very routinely.

    And if one writes reasonably competently about such things, then it is easy to create a cult following. The followers want to be told such stories routinely, and they will quite readily duplicate the ‘tens’ and ‘elevens’ at home.

    IMHO Fremer is a cultist of the worst order. I rate him right at the bottom if I want any factual information about anything at all. But if I wanted to be entertained by a human-story-oriented encapsulation of every myth and all the self-reinforcing stories about analog audio and vinyl, then I would open his pages first.

    For that reason I wouldn’t bother putting too much emphasis on the content of such stories about what happened in the studio or why, or whether it was good studio technique or waste of money. It was just a puff piece.

    The music, that he also rates a ‘ten’, mind you, is soft mellow jazz. It will please some I suppose. But I would question whether the scorer has the expertise to analyse or rate musical content seriously.

  3. Means – for ‘the hardcore vinalysts’ – that, what they get on the purchased discs, is a digital file (mastered for vinyl purposes).
    I guess most of them will think, that the have bought an all-analog album.

  4. Whats funny (or sad depending on you perspective) is that everyone got screwed. A analog purist ended up with a LP totally tainted by being mastered from a digital file. A digital purist ends up with a large bit bucket tainted by coming off a analog tape recording.
    But Mikey likes it so all is well in the audiophile world. LOL

    • Sadly, Sal, your last line is where the story ends, these days. But I still nurture a faith that one day we will emerge from this gloom into a new Golden Age of audio truth and progress, instead of today’s golden age that actually glows yellow and sounds cozily warm with avoidable distortion. A good start would be 2496 PCM audio of at least 5 channels with zero ADC (after the digitized mic feed lines), zero upsampling, and zero upmixing. Oh yes please.

      • My honest opinion is that we’re not going to get there…at least the commercial music business is not going to get there. The audiophile or high-end folks will but they don’t count in the music industry as a whole.

  5. This is an interesting “inside baseball” analysis of this recording’s provenance. And, thanks to reading your posts regularly, I’ve hit a new plateau of insight about this complex world of provenance and formats.

    Phil C

    • Thanks Phil…it is interesting what happens in the world of high-end audio.

  6. Hi Mark, hi all,

    I came across this and wanted to clear up a few things:

    1. I explained in great detail the choices that were made for this recording and I stand by them. It’s all here: Click here

    Relevant excerpts below (slightly adapted):

    "The record was done all in one day. We recorded all in a room at Sear Sound, without headphones. James Farber used quite a few microphones (great vintage mics for the most part: Neumann M49 on the tenor saxophone etc) and the mixing was done live, on a Neve 8038 console in Studio A. Among other things, we used real EMT plate reverbs and also a Pultec tube preamp on the saxophone.

    We actually recorded three different versions simultaneuously: one to ProTools digital at 88.2/24, one on an Ampex ATR 102 solid state tape machine, and one on a Studer C-37 tube tape machine. Both tape machines used 1/2 inch tape at 30 ips. Both machines were backed up to ProTools at 88.2/24 at the same time as we were playing. We reused a couple of tapes throughout the day, as I couldn't afford to buy enough tape to record everything without doing that. I am aware that this is a bit of a trade-off, but I have done this before and I feel it's well worth it: It allows me to use tape and I think tape sounds a lot more musical than digital in general. I also feel that the transfer at 88.2/24 is quite faithful to the sound of the tape. The converters at Sear Sound were Mytek.

    During the mastering process, we listened to the three sets of files and tried to keep an open mind. We decided to use the files made from the ATR 102 tape machine. We thought they sounded the best overall, the most balanced and the most solid. The files from the Studer tape machine sounded really great too, but somehow the sax felt a bit peaky. The straight-up digital files were good but just didn't compare overall for my taste. Both sets of files from the tape sounded a lot more realistic and involving to me.

    Doug Sax and Jett Galindo then gave me a few options to pick from at mastering. Since we now had digital files at 88.2/24, the main decision was whether to master in digital or convert back to analog. We tried both. Upon listening, I thought that going through The Mastering Lab's pristine analog chain sounded a lot better despite the added conversion. That's what we did in the end.

    I don't think Doug did that much to the files but what he did made a big difference. He did some very effective, tasteful EQ, and just a little bit of limiting. Doug also did separate passes through his JCF converters to create the 192/24 version and the 44/24 version, thus avoiding any sample rate conversion, which, in my experience, always degrades the sound.

    Doug cut the LP directly from the 88.2/24 files from the Ampex ATR 102, using the same analog chain he used before: for the LP, EQs were recreated and the same analog signal (converted from the 88/2/24 files and mastered in analog) was simply sent to the cutting lacquer, saving two additional conversions, compared to if we had we used the 192/24 to cut the LP and avoiding the one final conversion necessary to make the CD or 192/24 download. I personally think that avoiding that last conversion is a factor in the LP sounding better than the files."

    2. As the above makes clear, we recorded to 1/2 inch tape at 30 ips (it sounds great and had better S/N ratio). The cost of that tape in the studio is $160 (and you want to buy it from the studio, so they are responsible if there is an issue). You can only get about 15 minutes of music at 30 ips, considerably changing the numbers you were speculating about.

    3. As the above also makes clear, we bounced in real time, at the moment the music was made, from the play head of the tape machine. We would be pretty stupid indeed to use expensive studio time to try to save on tape costs, and, of course, that's not what happened.

    4. The 192/24 is a digital capture of the analog mastering. Doug Sax felt it would be the most faithful capture of that signal, so we went with the high resolution. I think it sounds very good. I agree that that information should be provided on HD Tracks … but I don't run HD Tracks! I have been going out of my way to explain what we did as best I can.

    5. I am not an analog purist, or a digital purist. I am a musician trying to make great-sounding records. I use the tools available to me, in the budget that I have. I think there were very good reasons to do what we did, with the constraints we have. I am happy to send anyone two tracks for free, so you can check it out. The music is definitely not "soft, mellow Jazz" overall 🙂

    6. I wish people would listen to things first before criticizing them. I am not an idiot and I spent a lot of time on this music, writing it, performing it and recording it. Criticize all you want, like it or not, but at least do me the courtesy of listening first.

    As an aside, I heard Christian Jacob with Tierney Sutton at the Jazz Standard a few months ago. I thought he sounded great, we talked a bit after the gig…

    All the best,

    Jerome Sabbagh
    http://www.jeromesabbagh.com

    • Jerome, thanks very much for taking the time to write about your process and correct the assumptions that I made regarding tape format, speed etc. It’s always great to hear from the artist or engineer on such things. I applaud you efforts to get the best sound that you could. I’d be very interested in hearing a track or two and would love to hear you opinion on recordings done the way I make records. I could give you the credentials to my FTP site or set up another one.

      The use of 30 ips and 1/2″ analog tape does dramatically improve the specifications of analog tape…but it still doesn’t achieve the specs of high-resolution digital. However, if the “color” it produces meets your aesthetic goals then I certainly have nothing further to say.

      I would only argue that you could have recorded to 96 or 192 kHz/24-bits at the outset and then transferred through the AMPEX ATR to get that sound. Then people like me that are crazy for the clarity of high-res digital would be able to get what we want. Thanks again!

      • Hi Mark,

        Thanks for responding. I am happy to send you a couple of tracks of the 192/24, either by FTP or wetransfer or similar. Just send me your email or relevant info. My email is jeromeATjeromesabbagh.com. I’d be curious to hear your recordings as well. I am all for people trying to make great sounding records, whatever way they choose and I know there are multiple paths to success. Caring is the most important thing, and I think we both do.

        I like high res digital and in hindsight, I probably would have recorded (both the tape and the straight-up digital) to at least 96/24 instead of 88.2/24. However (if I understand correctly what you are suggesting above) staying digital all the way for one version would change the sound a lot and, in effect, you would have to master it twice: once for the high res digital version and once for the version through the tape. That would be costly and result in two significantly different versions of the record. From an artistic standpoint, I’d rather make the best sounding record I can, the way I like it, and then attempt to deliver it in the best possible way in different formats: high res digital, CD, MFiT, vinyl, for whatever people are into. Myself, I listen to all these formats at times, although I definitely prefer vinyl and high res digital. In the case of my record, even though I think the CD sounds really good, I think the best sounding version of the record is the vinyl, followed by the 192/24.

        Also, to me, not everything is about specs. Certainly high res digital has cleaner specs than tape, even at 1/2 inch 30 ips, but I am not sure it means the emotional impact of the music (which is what I am trying to capture for the listener to experience) gets across better with high res digital than with tape. In fact, in my experience, it’s often the opposite. To each his own.

        In the end, it’s all about using tools carefully and tastefully and going for the sound you want.

        Thanks!

        Jerome

        • Jerome, I’ll write to you and we can exchange some files. I think you’re approach is perfectly legit…and if it gives you the sound you prefer, who am I or anyone else to say that it’s wrong. My point is that you could have gotten the same result AND been able to deliver a real high-resolution file by recording to ProTools at 96 kHz/24-bit (go to 192 if you think it helps) and then sending that through an analog stage.

          I don’t master my records…yep, no EQ, no dynamics processing, and no artificial reverb. The sound that the musicians produce is delivered to the end listener. I mix in stereo and surround and make files or discs available through various outlets. Tape produces a “sound” and has limited dynamic range compared to high-res PCM digital. Stay tuned for an email…and thanks for taking the time to come by the site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *