The sound of analog
Recording in analog - good for making money or good for spending it?
Steve Boyce-Buckley has over 30 years experience recording international music artists at the highest level. Now also a session musician and arranger as well as an experienced recording engineer and producer, Steve also teaches at SSR in Manchester where he gets to inspire, coach and train talented young professionals of the future. He is also resident engineer at Lisa Stansfield’s studio ‘Gracieland’ in the UK. The interview was conducted at SSR’s Spirit Studio at their Manchester headquarters.
AA. What are the characteristics you enjoy most about analog?
Analog just sounds fuller. People refer to the warmth of tape, although that’s a nice way to generalise it, I think a lot of that comes down to what we call tape saturation, which is a physical property of tape, that when you begin to push it a little bit, in terms of gaining higher levels, you tend to get tape compression and when you get tape compression you get this wonderful sound which is why when you have a lot of singers singing at the same time you get this, not electrifying, but a sound that’s a little bit more alive than the digital medium.
AA. Is it the process of the tape that creates that?
Part of it yeah, part of it is what’s going on at a molecular level I suppose you could say. What’s happening within the particles when you begin to push them, with them being magnetic if you push them to a certain point they kind of don’t want to go any further. If you do push them past that point you’ll get distortion. But if you push them exactly to the right point you’ll get what’s called natural tape compression and that can be heard on literally thousands and thousands of recordings and you can actually use it to your advantage if you’re aware of it. You don’t get this on digital, there isn’t that physical property.
AA. So if you could listen to the same recording on both digital and analog do you think that you could actually perceive this audibly, or is it just something for the expert ear only?
Strangely enough I’ve recently been mixing an album that I recorded 14 years ago, which I did on tape and listening back to things such a choirs which I recorded, I don’t think I could re-create that sounds in digital. It’s even been commented on by people who have heard these mixes and said how wide, how big it sounds and how it jumps out at you. Even though i’ve been working with digital for many years it’s something, that when I originally played the tapes back a few months ago I thought ‘my god’ i’d almost forgotten how much it really does jump out at you and a lot of that is down to multi-tracking many times. It’s about bouncing information and trying to cram as much information into a small space as you can so that you start to compress the tape itself.
AA. Does recording in analog encourage you to use different techniques and are there any technical difficulties that arise from working with tape as opposed to digital?
If you’re asking me is it more difficult to record with tape, yes. Yes it is, if you’re not accustomed to it. If you are then it’s not, but you have to go about it in a slightly different way because it’s a completely different medium. So things like an overall level in digital you wouldn’t really worry because there are two states really. A state of, it’s fine and a state of, you’ve got a peak or red light and that’s distortion. On tape however, there’s a whole area of possibilities where it might be ok, it might not, so you have to be not just aware of that, you have to be able to control it and know whether a certain instrument can be pushed to a particular limit or whether you have to leave it alone because of distortion. So you see there are no yes or no states, there are many states of ‘possibly’ and when you start to push it, you’re constantly thinking how far can we push it before the tape distorts. And you won’t know it’s distorted until it comes back. Very much like film where you process a film you don’t know what’s there until you get it back.
AA. So it is trickier?
Well, I wouldn’t use the word trickier, its just a more involved process and I think it involves skill, there is a certain skill involved in it and I suppose I would use the word art, there’s an art to recording on tape. It’s certainly more demanding, if you had only recorded with digital you couldn’t just jump into analog. Your could jump the other way though. In fact, I tend to record to digital with a slight analog mind. I’ve just found over the years that by using certain processes and maybe over compressing slightly I get what I want. I love digital but what I find i’ve lost is that tape compression and I try in some ways to re create that.
AA. Do you find that people consider working in analog as simply old technology or do they think of recording in analog as something that is experimental and creative?
There is definitely an element of experimentation involved. People want to explore it for a kind of artistic satisfaction. There are certainly more and more people, especially young people, who are interested in the analog experience. However, the reality of it is they like the idea, but putting it into practice is not always easy. I encourage it. With my students I like to show them as much as I can, little tricks, little techniques, speeding up, slowing down, the more artistic stuff because although Protools is a great system, things like Varispeed, using things where you can be an artist and create stuff is far more rewarding for them. The thing that is hard to grasp if you’re not used to it, is its not as immediate, exactly the same as with photography. It makes more demands of you and you have to work at it, but the rewards are great. I learnt from people saying to me ‘I want this to sound like that” and you have to sit and think how am I going to do this? So you end up thinking if I did this, if I do that, if I turn the tape over and so on. And you would do this hoping that the end result will happen and nine times out of ten it did, and that’s fantastic. So now I find more and more students are buying their own tapes to use on their own projects.
AA. With many bands now recording albums in analog again, do you see any evidence for a ‘back to tape’ movement or is it just a fad?
I don’t think it’s a fad and I think it will always be there. Just to digress slightly, when digital recording started to come in big time in the early 90’s, I advised all the studios to keep their analog machines because digital was probably here to stay, but analog isn’t disappearing, so hold onto you tape machines because at some point you’ll brush them down and get them out again. To get back to your question, it’s all very well and plausible for the big names in the music industry to go and record in analog, but the costs involved are significant. To go and record an album in analog you need a lot of time. You’ll probably need to triple the amount of hours in the studio to complete it, if only for things like rewinding tape.
Based on my personal experience I can say that if you had two albums recorded, one on digital and one on analog the outcomes would be totally different. With the analog one, what happens when you record analog is you tend to produce very carefully. You can hear the record before it’s finished. You kind of know what and how you want it to sound, so you go about recording it in a specific way. This means things often turns out better than you’d imagined because you’ve done all this work in your head, you’ve done a lot of homework. Whereas with digital you can just try stuff very, very quickly and if it works it works, if it doesn’t it gets thrown out. Whereas the planning involved in analog is quite exciting because you’ll play a piano for example and you’ll say that’s too bright, that’s too dull, we need more compression, you want to capture it to tape is will be in the mix. You don’t want to mess around with it after because of things like noise levels, so therefore you tend to do a lot of fairly intense engineering and production up from so that when you play it back off the tape you’ve got the sound that you want. This is one of the reasons I believe these bands are doing this, it’s a more exciting and intense way to record. It creates discussion in the studio because it has to be right there and then. Whereas with digital there’s alway the feeling that we can sort that out later.
AA. What are the major drawbacks to recording in analog?
There is a noise issue. No matter what speeds you’re recording at you are going to get noise from an analog tape machine and the whole analog path. You can use really high end gear, but you have to be aware there is a noise level that can be a problem. Time is the big drawback. It’s more costly and therefore people are less likely to go the analog route. Or simply the fact that it’s not instant. I always say it’s about re-educating people. And analog is not an instant medium. You have to go through this process meticulously in order to get what you want and so all that is a real drawback, you have to wait. We’re now in a world where everything is instant, people are used to instant. And we forget it wasn’t always that way. We’re always looking for faster and faster ways and analog will never be as fast as digital. But you have to weigh up the pro’s and the con’s.
AA. You said to your contemporaries don’t throw away your tape machines. Do you still feel that way?
Whether its a fad now and disappears for a while doesn’t matter, it will re surface. without a shadow of a doubt it always will. Analog has something special about it, it has a certain magic that people just connect to. It has a warmth that digital can’t re-create. Digital can be clinical, it’s a case of you play something it’s in there, wham bam that’s it done. Whereas with analog there is a sense of caring about what you’re doing, caring about the music and taking the time to capture it as good as you can. So I think it’s here to stay, it always was, I think we live in a digital age and there’s nothing we can do about that, and what’s more I don’t particularly want to. But I think there is room for both mediums. They are two completely different animals and it’s up to the individual to decide how they want to record. Digital and analog are two very different mediums and I suppose you could say, one’s for making money and the other’s for spending it.