Analog Tape and Fidelity Reduction

A couple of stories involving analog tape came my way today. The first was an email ad for a digital plug in made by Izotope called “Ozone 7”, which includes a module called “vintage tape machine”. This processor does exactly what Robert Werner mentioned in a comment a few days ago. He was being sarcastic…but I responded that professionals have access to digital processors that can modify the fidelity of a digital file and make it sound like a completely different format…including analog tape.

Here’s the marketing text on the Izotope website:

“The Vintage Tape module brings the distinctive richness and feel of tape saturation to your modern digital recordings with all the frequency coloration, distortion, and phase effects of tape. Take advantage of analog tone for masters that sound more musical with added dimension, fatness, and depth.

• Get the deep, natural sound and punchy low-end response of analog tape with the convenience of a digital interface.
• Inspired by the innovative Studer A810 tape machine, known for excellent frequency response even at the critical high and low frequency range limits.
• Continuous Bias control allows for precise tuning of frequency and distortion response.
• Mix in even harmonics for warmer saturation, or leave them out for more accurate tape emulation.

How would you feel about someone taking a pristine, very high fidelity digital recording and reducing the fidelity in order to “bring the distinctive richness and feel of tape saturation to your modern digital recordings with all the frequency coloration, distortion, and phase effects of tape?” This company (and they aren’t alone) is providing a set of tools that modify the sound of your “modern digital masters” and makes them sound like analog tape with the imagined “added dimension, fatness, and depth”. Advocates for analog tape can lust after the distortions, phase anomalies, and frequency colorations produced by their favorite format but I couldn’t imagine taking a fabulous high-resolution digital master and removing all of the advantages of high fidelity digital.

And a comment I received this morning speaks volumes about the quality of sound of digital vs. analog tape. Here’s what Alex told me:

“3M Digital Mastering System

We booked the Village Recorder in 1981 to cut tracks for ‘Nightfly’ and decided to try the 3M digital machine. We ran a Studer A-80 24-track analog machine in parallel with the 3M for the test. After the band laid down a take we performed an a-b-c listening test. The analog and digital machines were played back in sync while the band played along live. We could compare the analog machine, the digital machine, and the live band. The closest sound to the live band was the 3M digital machine. We re-aligned the Studer and gave it one more chance. The 3M was the clear winner. We rolled the Studer out into the street, (just kidding) and did the rest of the recording on the 3M 32-track machine. When it came time to mix, we mixed to the 3M 4-track machine.”

Once again, it comes down to the personal preferences of artists, engineers, producers, audio reviewers, vinyl advocates, and of course, consumers. Analog doesn’t sound better than digital…it sounds different…and less accurate to the input microphone feeds. In reality, audio writers should flip their analog-sound bias and start wishing that analog recording could match the “digital sound” that contains more fidelity than the best of the best analog formats.


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 thoughts on “Analog Tape and Fidelity Reduction

  • Rodrian Roadeye

    It’s like we are being dragged back kicking and screaming to the analog stone age. Sheeeesh! I saw an ad for Lynne’s new ELO on Amazon and they were selling the album for double the CD. Incredible that people are so gullible.

  • Makes me want to take my modern Ram pickup in, have the digital electronic ignition and fuel injection system removed. Then install a carburetor with manual choke, and a distributor with points and condenser. Then instead of having an instant starting, 100,000+ miles plus between tune-ups vehicle, I can have to do a tune-up every fall if I want it to start when the cold weather comes, ill running when cold, overheating when hot, high maintenance truck.

  • Dennis


    Listen to this 4 minute interview about one remaining cassette tape company. Talking about how youngsters never heard real analog sound, and how when they do WOW! The reaction to the rich, full range sound of analog that has harmonics like music is supposed to have.

    Yes, that is right. The full range sound of cassette analog tape. Boy you couldn’t make this stuff up.

    • Admin

      I was going to include a mention of this piece in yesterday’s post. I may do it today…I heard it as I was driving to the university yesterday. Yep, the fidelity of cassettes is what is convincing young people to abandon MP3 files.

    • I think I’m going to vomit. 🙁

  • Well, having done the same kind of analog vs digital test in the 1980s, I’ll just confirm it’s really true. Digital vs board out is difficult if not impossible to distinguish. Analog vs board out, you can nail it every time even with the best of the best machine and alignment. Only our tests were of digital gear considerably below the 3M stuff. It still won, hands down.

    If adding noise, bending the response, adding distortion and intermodulation distortion is a “thing” people want now, great, but some of us spent careers beating those things out of recording systems. Good riddance.

    If I’m not mistaken, the plugin can also add time-base errors to, right? LIke deliberate flutter and wow?

    What I want is the plugin that removes analog noise, distortion, intermod, flutter, and flattens response. In other words, makes it sound like digital and/or board line out. Now THAT I’d pay for!

    It’s always easier to grunge than de-grunge.

    • Admin

      Let’s do a Kickstarter campaign that “de-grunges” all of the bad recordings.

  • Butch

    I ‘get it’ that digital can come closer to the sound of a live performance than analog is able to. How large a factor in the digital chain are the the DACs used in our consumer products vs. the one’s used by the recording engineers? If I really want to hear what the engineers hear, wouldn’t I have to employ the same or very similar DAC as the ones the studio uses? I assume that a USB DAC priced $149 is not the same as say, a $2000 Benchmark DAC.

    Doesn’t the DAC used to decode the bit stream play a role in the fidelity of the sound we consumers hear? Assuming you reply with ‘yes’ to that question, do you have a preference for the type of DAC used?

    A related question is; (tongue in cheek) If one can adjust the DAC’s output to sound like an analog tape, can a DAC be designed which could emulate the output of any of the other DACs?

    • Admin

      Some quick answers…and maybe more in a full post. The DACs in professional studios are high-end pieces no doubt…like the Benchmark or Berkeley Audio Designs. But the quality of inexpensive DACs can be quite good for a lot less money. My favorite DAC is the Benchmark DAC 2 HGC.

      Modeling other devices is perfectly possible and is being done. However, the sonic differences are very subtle when you get to the high-end and accuracy is what counts most.

  • Gordon Wheeler

    Hi Mark,

    I have just read an article on the S&V website entitled “music retailers adopt hi res logo”.

    I refrained from quoting here just in case of copyright infringement.

    I urge you to read it and comment if you think it worthwhile, I bow to your greater knowledge as I am not an expert in the field. However I am appalled at some of the comments made about how the logo alone will help consumers buy optimal quality audio.

    I guess I have just seen an example of what you have been teaching us over the last 2 years of how the industry is failing it’s public and touting “untruths”.

    I research good quality hi res transfers, by reading certain websites then trying for myself, knowing that what I buy is not real hi res but possibly the best quality I can get of a recording.

    This article really got me upset, as it fails to even remotely point anyone in the direction of true hi res, and, what’s more I have never seen any information on a download site that tells me anything about the source recording of that which I have purchased, not to say that they are no sites that do, I have just never been to one.

    I would like to point out that I have nothing against S&V I read the site regularly as any other audio/visual site. I just found this article to leave me aghast.

    Let me know what you think, if you have the time or inclination.

    Hope the Europe trip was enjoyable and look forward to both further blogs and the Kickstarter book.

    All the best


    • Admin

      Gordon, my wife and I enjoyed our time in Europe very much. It was the perfect balance between business and pleasure. I read the article on Sound & Vision and wasn’t actually surprised. However, it does continue to amaze me that everything being done with regards to high-resolution media is marketing hype and doesn’t address the core issue of better quality sound. It’s all sales nonsense. The retailer brochure that’s being develop (by the same Sound and Vision team) contradicts the message in this article. They write in one piece,”HRA defines audio with far more data (like how cameras with more pixels create more defined images), thus creating the potential to deliver greater detail, and a wider range between the quietest and loudest notes”. And then post an article about how the “Hi-Res Music” logo is an indicator of so-called “high-resolution” content. And what about the “Hi-Res Sound” logo.

      It’s actually pretty hopeless as I see it. The powers that be are proceeding with their misinformation campaigns and hoping no one will notice.

  • Bruce B.

    I’ve got a much less expensive way to get that “warm fattened sound” from those “harsh digital sounds” (you know the ones where you can actually hear the cymbals). Take a very cheap dynamic condenser mic, remove the cover and delicately smash the diaphragm in to the pint that it interferes with the coil. Then hook up a mono radio shak recorder to the mic and transfer the high res recording onto some tape that you got at the same garage sale. Just tape over the slots if it’s a pre-recorded tape and hopefully you’ll enjoy that “good old sound” you want so badly. Maybe if you hold the play and fast forward a lot you’ll get some bonus drop outs! Is it April fools day? This can’t be a real thing….

    • Admin

      Thanks Bruce…I’ve all the components and will give this try on my next project.


Leave a Reply

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