How Tape Is More Important To The Music Industry Than Ever

Tape machines are fickle, hard-to-control, antiquated pieces of music history that would happily collect dust and dirt in an attic if we let them. They’re a pain to maintain and parts are fewer and far between.

Every year it seems like another of the few places left that manufacturer tape for these machines shuts down. It’s not hard to imagine why – the only position worse than being the proud owner and operator of the run down hardware that you can’t get repaired is the guy that’s stuck with hundreds of reels of tape that nobody needs anymore.

So what is it about the music industry’s obsession with these machines? For most, it’s the analog “vibe” of the hardware. It’s that gooey warmth added to your audio that Class A preamps and converters can’t provide. We’re all after some of that perfect imperfection that gets printed every time.

The Case Against Tape

Have you ever spliced tape? It sucks.

For any real-life tape operators out there still grinding away in some “vintage” studio, I salute your patience and precision. It’s hard to nail the art of recording to tape, and honestly, it’s way too tedious with everything else going on in most sessions.

Do yourself a favor – let someone trained to work with tape handle it, or just forget it. Find another way.

Of course, that’s all assuming you can find a studio with a decent tape machine, stocked with reels of tape, or access to a supply of tape when you need it. But wait, what about “backing up” your session?

Now’s the time to double the expense of your recording session – double the tape & double the time it takes for the tape operator to copy your session from one reel to another.

Maybe There’s a Better Way?

If you’re after the sound of tape, there are options out there for you without breaking the bank (and the feature set to make the difference indistinguishable). In the early days of digital recording, we didn’t have the processing power to support it – but in 2017, there’s no excuse not to be using some emulation in your workflow.

One of my favorite tape-based tools has always been a decent tape delay unit – mostly because it didn’t require the same level of work to get integrated in a recording session as a full-on tape machine. But I was finding they would differ in quality in every studio based on the unit’s age and care the studios took with them.

The solution for me was replicating the analog controls in a plugin format, and adding in a “Health” adjustment to account for the level of degradation I wanted to experience.

What once required setup, auditioning, and potentially teardown, is now as easy as loading the plugin and tweaking the “level of wear” on the machine. It’s a super cool experience that let’s me stay in the zone as a producer.

Feeling Stubborn?

There are going to be people that like doing things the hard way (The Amish, for example). For those people, hope isn’t completely lost. As previously mentioned, there are still skilled tape operators out there making a living working with tape machines day-in and day-out.

For the time being, you’re still able to find shops to maintain and repair older tape machines. Parts will continue to become harder to find, but it’s a gamble that we take with vintage gear all the time.

There are even solutions like the Endless Analog CLASP system which is making it easier to integrate tape hardware with your DAW. Be warned though, these systems are not cheap (starting around $4,000), and can be more temperamental than the tape machines they integrate with.

My Plea To The Amish Stubborn Engineers

Even if you’re not ready to give up physical tape anytime soon, consider the benefits we discussed regarding the “new” tape machines (plugins, if you missed it).

Any engineer should have room for a good tape delay or tape emulator in their DAW. If not for the sake of simplicity, these plugins give you the flexibility to use your hardware on tracks that can benefit the most from it, while still applying some of that tape warmth to your background tracks.

If you’re like me, you might not see the variation out of your hardware, and plugins can be a great way to gain some tonal options.

I’m not saying you’re ever going to be less stubborn about tape –just suggesting you might have use for more than tape alone in your workflow.

Where Do You Fall On The Tape Scale?

If you’re ready to ditch the outdated tape mentality in favor of plugin accessibility, come join me and other like-minded engineers and producers in the JST Forum.

If you’re one of the stubborn engineers, you’ve probably already ignored that you weren’t included in that last invitation, and joined anyway. Welcome!