Can’t Beat Analog Tape?

It happened three times yesterday. Advocates for analog tape touted their favorite format as the unrivaled “ultimate format” came by my sales table, chatted in the halls, or wrote a comment on the blog. My recent adventure with analog tape and the copying has brought my analog past to the present. But I have to push back when specifications and facts are ignored. It’s perfectly fine to prefer a particular “sound”. I would never argue with someone that says they like the sound of vinyl LPs or analog tape. I would try to nudge them into a really great surround room playing some of my favorite recordings but ultimately they can like what they like.

There are a couple of retired gentlemen sitting next to me selling expensive foil speaker cables and interconnects…expensive cables. A 6-foot length is $7000. I guess if they can get that kind of money for a short cable (and I’m sure that it delivers great sound), more power to them. But one of the partners mentioned while we were setting up the “nothing beats the sound of analog tape”. What he should have said is, “I love the sound of well recorded album on analog tape above all other formats.”

Analog tape can capture and deliver about 72 dB of dynamic range…enough said. That’s the printed specs and translates to about 12 bits of PCM digital.

Later in the day, a young guy came by after sitting through one of the seminars. I think it was the one on affordable high-end audio. According to this guy, a woman on the panel said, “of course all analog tape is high-resolution”. I’m not certain how she came up with that idea. I guess if you lower the specifications of what constitutes “high-resolution” (which is not uncommon), analog tape could qualify as “hi-res” music. This is exactly what the major labels and well-known “ultimate fidelity” download sites are doing…establish a “revisionist” definition of high-res and then selling older analog transfers as “hi-res”. All you have to do is look at the specifications and you’ll know what analog tape can deliver.

After the show ended, I sat in the lobby and wrote yesterday’s blog. It was the first opportunity I had to check recent comments and I read and approved one that hit pretty at my positions on analog tape and high-resolution. You know you’re in for a debate when the opening sentence is, “The majority of what you said is simply ridiculous”.

I’ll spare you the gory details but the last few lines read, “As an engineer, I personally do not care for digital recordings and still record to analog tape as I feel that analog offers much more of a realism for vocals and instrumentation, and a full spectrum of sound. This is something that digital will NEVER be able to imitate. Remember that’s what Digital is. Just an imitation, and not a very good one if you ask me.”

Once again we’re back to personal preference. This gentleman prefers to record and listen to productions made using analog tape. Ok fine. His personal belief is that “vocals and instrumentation” sound more real on analog tape. That’s his personal preference. Moving from there to saying digital can’t measure up to his tastes is a leap off the factual cliff. High-resolution digital does deliver the “full spectrum of sound” and in fact, it does it with more fidelity than any analog tape machine.

I would finally ask why I’m supposed to remember that digital is “just an imitation” of real music? This gentleman has a fundamental misunderstanding of what digital audio is.


I had a gentleman come by the sales table yesterday and start piling up discs to purchase. It turns out he’s got a shop in Taiwan and was looking for great sounding demo stuff. I mentioned the Kickstarter campaign and the reward that would get him every recording I’ve made for AIX Records. This morning he became the first backer at the $2500 level. We’re going to get together on Thursday and spend the afternoon listening. The campaign has 17 days to go and is only $4500 short of the first stretch goal. Check out the campaign at:Click Here


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.

21 thoughts on “Can’t Beat Analog Tape?

  • Joe Whip

    Geez, isn’t the analog tape version just an imitation too, as it is not the real thing?

  • Walter Prill

    Welp, it ain’t interestin no mo. Best of fortune.
    Walt Prill, Ubsubscribed.

    • Thanks Walter…see you sometime down the line.

  • About ‘low level detail’ problem of CD against Vinyl…. I am starting to think it is something with the fact that anything below 100hz in Vinyl is mono (that is, no channel separation below 100hz) compared to CD which technically guarantees perfect channel separation at all levels. It seems some people might prefer mono-quality bass instead of stereo one.

    Record music by definition is imitation of real music…. amp and speakers ‘play’ the music instead of musicians and instruments. But of course, this definition applies to ALL kinds of recorded music, analog, digital, vinyl, cd, etc…

    The question is ‘which method is best to imitate real music as close as possible?’. This translates to ‘which method is best to copy real music with minimum errors(a.k.a distortions)?’. At this point, digital wins hands down.

    • Rodrian Roadeye

      mono-quality bass instead of stereo one
      I thought all bass sound was omni-directional. In other words one could not pinpoint it’s source. I could be wrong.

      • Very low frequencies are difficult to localize…but there are lots of upper harmonics that contribute to the timbre and can be placed in a space.

  • This response is to a quote in Oct 3 newsletter. Someone wrote, “As an engineer, I personally do not care for digital recordings …” He goes on to express his preference for analog tape and concludes by stating that “digital is an imitation.” I am first a bit upset by his loose use of the word “engineer.” There are many kinds of engineers – locomotive engineers, building (edifice) engineers who oversee elevators, air conditioners, janitorial services, etc. Years back even the trash collectors wanted to became sanitation engineers. And of course there are engineers (really applied physicists) who design all manner of devices, based upon a solid understanding of science and above all the scientific method.

    As a person, of course he is entitled to his opinion about everything, but opinions are all equal and are considered to be based upon many non-specific factors. Throwing in the word engineer means nothing when accompanied with the word opinion. Any possible link to being a physicist type engineer went out the window with the non-nonsensical statement that “digital is an Imitation.” Of what? I don’t mean to help him out here, but could he have meant “representation”? So, in that sense it is just like analog – a representation.

    Real electronic engineers can understand the digital process and some can even explain it to others. The accuracy can be measured. Now this does not in any way mean anyone has to prefer the resulting analog sound. Just say you prefer the older lower fidelity, higher noise, lower dynamic range reproduction. No one will waste time trying to convince you otherwise. That is your opinion.

    • Thanks Robert…very clear.

    • Karikua

      Hey Robert, I was the “engineer” who Mark is quoting. If you want to read the full scope of what I wrote, instead of bits and pieces, go to the Understanding Hi Res post and scroll down. Thanks for the write up by the way. It gave me one helluva laugh.

  • Rodrian Roadeye

    Wow. So many bases I’d like to touch on here. Before digital I used metal tape to burn the first album play in order to preserve the album. I had a top of the line HK deck with Dolby Headroom extension and thought it did well making an exact duplicate but sometimes the high-end was too harsh in the tweeter range, causing me to back-off a bit. When CDs came I noticed the frequency response was limited at the range of human hearing and felt that something was lacking but accepted it as the SN ratio from background turntable noise, that mysterious veil that everybody said was the “warmth” in analog, was gone. No more turntable rumble and hiss when the needle hit the record, and what had masked a lot of the music all our lives. Warmth my butt.. Kudos for the new technology as far as my wants were concerned.
    Then one day I visited my brother out of state who was so proud of his new audio system. He played a CD and it was terrible. I checked his settings on his receiver and every knob, bass, treble, midrange was turned all the way to the left. I asked him why and he said he wanted it to sound like it does in his car. So much for the average person’s knowledge and taste. His wife can be thankful that he didn’t have a massive subwoofer in that car, as she hated too much bass. The street kids were so proud and still are of their cheap bass thumping out outrageously exaggerated bass and think that they are so cool. Don’t even get me started on the advent of punk and noisy grunge just as the digital revolution started or the inferiority of mp3’s back then. All this just when most of us thought that finally digital was bringing us the Holy Music Grail. To each his own as they say, but for me, I was glad that I lived through the digital era. I still remember a Stereo Review cartoon of an inscription of a Golden Ears guru on his tombstone by his wife. “Here lies so and so… missed the CD by 3days, 5hrs. and 14 min.” I never forgot that.

  • martin seddon

    It’s kind of disappointing to be told the existing CD remasters of classic Jazz sessions are the best we’ll get. The hope was that the sound quality was limited by bit depth / sampling frequency, and that could now be remedied, so we could all have ‘Tape Project’ on download. I for one am not much surprised that the explanation for SQ lies elsewhere in the transfer chain. CDs can sound wonderful. Hi-res is not the answer to all our prayers. Thats the maths of it. Much more important is the recording and mastering (or transfer) technique. It would be less confusing hi-resolution was renamed hi-BW. Most replay equipment does not have the BW anyway does it, and neither do our ears. best rgds, martin

  • Mark Holmstrand

    Look, I really appreciate your posts, and I have a great deal of respect for you and your understanding of the high-end and audio techniques. I think most of what you say is right on. However, and this is my personal take, but in every post you have typos or editorial errors that are distracting. I don’t know if you can afford a proofreader or editor, but many of these errors are easily correctable. I’d look into an editor or proofreader for your postsif you can afford it. I am not volunteering however.

    • Mark, I write every day…and sometimes in less than ideal circumstances. Yesterday, I wanted to get the blog out during the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I got it done and didn’t catch every typos. I don’t make any money from this effort so it’s hard to imagine paying someone as a proofreader. I’ll try to do better.

      • Rodrian Roadeye

        and didn’t catch every typos.
        You meant typo instead of typos? Right? Or were you just being a bit sarcastic? LOL
        The Grammar Police are out in full force. Sorry, Mark. But you left yourself wide open on that one. (<;

  • “As an engineer, I personally do not care for digital recordings and still record to analog tape as I feel that analog offers much more of a realism for vocals and instrumentation, and a full spectrum of sound. This is something that digital will NEVER be able to imitate.”

    Mark, I know you’re trying to be PC but something like this goes beyond preference, it’s just plain ole mule headed ignorance. What other technology in the universe could someone say we reached our Zenith 50-75 years ago and will NEVER be able to surpass? One of his wheels has completely fallen off and the other 3 have loose lug nuts. That’s just about one of the most ridiculous statements I’ve ever heard.
    What the heck is going on in this tech? Almost every where you look things are headed in the most wrong headed directions, the leaders of the media are taking the public for fools, and many of the design leaders are doing nonsensical things all for the glory of the almighty dollar.
    I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating, High End Audio is the laughing stock of technology’s, and personally I find it embarrassing and shy away from referring to myself in public as an audiophile.

    “OH, Your one of those loony’s?”

    • Sal, you know that I’m not that fond of being PC…I get in a lot of trouble by telling the truth. However, I do try to be polite. It’s never worth getting into a major argument.

    • Karikua

      I think out of all of the comments here yours did it. I’m dead! My friends and I are literally dying here reading these old comments. You guys make for great entertainment. Oh and for the record I was the “engineer” who wrote the original rant that Mark was kind enough to excerpt. At least he was courteous enough to keep me anonymous lmao

  • The “engineer’s” comment re: preference for analog tape….there are several issues here. Tape, and the mechanical transport required to move it past a tape head, are full of audible flaws that when combined create the tape sound. There are huge linearity issues causing audible distortion of several kinds, frequency response can hardly be called “flat”, there is interchannel cross-talk, and speed variations of several kinds, and unavoidable nose that has to either be accepted, or a noise reduction system applied which can have its own artifact.

    Having worked extensively with tape for the first half of my career, my final test has always been to see how a recorded medium compares to a live mix from a console. If you were to compare a live console stereo mix to tape, it’s always easy to pick out the tape. Always, and there’s no question or exception. When we got our hands on the first affordable digital PCM systems and tried that comparison, the difference between the console out and the digital system was not only impossible to discern, it often fooled us. We’d be monitoring tape return (with the digital system), and think we were listening to the console.

    If a system is good enough to sound that close to console out direct, it can be considered more accurate than tape. However, that live vs medium comparison is unavailable to consumers. What they have to compare are two different things, and includes an undocumented audio path to the final version in any medium. They compare not just analog tape to digital recording, but a whole lot of other unknown choices that have been made along the way. It’s an unfair comparison, validated only because they make the decision based on what they have in hand. The causes for the differences are completely unknown and not understood.

    The early and persistent complaints of harsh sound on CDs were caused mostly by the audio taking an entirely different path than the vinyl. Often, safety masters (copies) were used, or mastering EQ intended for vinyl was applied. The sort story was that vinyl was mastered by highly trained people with a full knowledge of the medium, CDs were mastered by “kids”, inexperienced individuals who didn’t even posses full knowledge of how the material they were working with got to them. It happened quite often, but there were also CDs made from real digital masters that sounded fantastic. Nobody talks about them because it’s human nature to complain, not compliment.

    If someone prefers the tape “mask” or “filter”, that’s up to them. Philosophically and technically, it’s a distortion of the original, and a rather significant one in some cases. While I’ve never understood a preference for distortion in a composite final mix, I guess we have to allow someone to have that.

    One comment on the usage of the title, “engineer”, in reference to someone who works with audio. The industry adopted the practice of using that title many decades ago. It is a functional and descriptive term applied more to the function of a technical operator (very much like a locomotive engineer, who is typically not a degreed engineer either). An audio “engineer” may have little or no technical training. All he has to do is lay a hand on a knob and turn it, and he’s the engineer. It may seem an unfair usage of the term, and is often objected to by those with an engineering degree (my father was one who did that), but it’s accepted in colloquial terms.

  • Bruce in Philly

    I’m greatly enjoying the tapes you sold me.

    • Admin

      Thanks Bruce….in the end that’s what matters.


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