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Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

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Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby thehay95 » Fri May 31, 2019 11:29 am

Hi everyone,

I was just wondering. In 'the old days' when pop music was mainly recorded on tape, what was the signal chain? I reckon it would be something like:

drums => mic => mic pre / analog console?? => tape.

And then what happened when mixing? The (say) drums are on the tape, so you play the tape, going through your desk, tweak eq, add some effects and then when you're happy, you put in onto... tape again?

But tape changes the sound right? So how do you know when tweaking how the eventual sound on the tape is going to be?

And... everytime you play the tape to listen and mix, the tape wears out, right? So in order to keep the best sound, you want to mix as quickly as possibe, or maybe I should rephrase: mix with as little passes of tape as possible?
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri May 31, 2019 11:44 am

thehay95 wrote:But tape changes the sound right?

Yes... a bit... not a lot (unless you really abuse it)...

So how do you know when tweaking how the eventual sound on the tape is going to be?

Experience!

And... everytime you play the tape to listen and mix, the tape wears out, right?

Technically, yes... but assuming it's being played back on a good quality machine which is well maintained, clean and degaussed regularly, the wear is minimal and not an issue in all but the most extreme situations.

So in order to keep the best sound, you want to... mix with as little passes of tape as possible?

Ideally, yes.

Thank heavens for the invention of the computer DAW! :D
H
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby blinddrew » Fri May 31, 2019 12:31 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:Thank heavens for the invention of the computer DAW! :D
H
^^^ a thousand times this! :)
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby MOF » Fri May 31, 2019 1:04 pm

But tape changes the sound right? So how do you know when tweaking how the eventual sound on the tape is going to be?

You could listen to the repro heads on the tape return faders I guess, while setting up, but once you were recording you had to listen to the sync’ heads.
Any bounce downs to free up tracks would come from the sync heads too so that would need some eq to keep it from sounding a bit muffled (wider head gap on the record/sync heads meant a reduced frequency response on playback).
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby The Elf » Fri May 31, 2019 2:05 pm

If I thought I had to go back to tape I would give up! :headbang:
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby MOF » Fri May 31, 2019 3:27 pm

If I thought I had to go back to tape I would give up! :headbang:
If I could still have midi sequencing synced to a good quality tape recorder then I could manage, but I've been spoilt by instant recall, automation and everything in the box. :D
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri May 31, 2019 3:30 pm

Haven't we all?! :D
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby James Perrett » Fri May 31, 2019 4:01 pm

I did an all analogue project about a year ago. Thankfully the artists concerned were well rehearsed and could pretty much nail the basic song within a few takes. We then did the odd overdub but nothing too complex so it was fairly straightforward. My biggest problem was coaxing the gear into recording - the tape machines had been regularly used for playback but hadn't recorded anything for quite a few years so some of the relays and switches were a little reluctant to work at first.

Mixdown was interesting. After all this time working with a DAW I was picking up on things like microphone pops which meant I had to tweak the eq quickly at specific parts of the song at the same time as riding a couple of the faders. Whereas in the old days I would have set up a mix and kept much of it the same all the way through, I found myself making many more changes. I almost resorted to editing the master tape as the final mix took me quite a few attempts and it would probably have been easier to take things in sections.

For all practical purposes tape doesn't wear out unless you are Fleetwood Mac and working on the same piece of tape for weeks on end. We used to continue to re-use our multitrack tapes until someone decided they wanted to keep the tape. A typical tape would be re-used for 6-8 sessions.

There is also yet another stage to the process that no-one has mentioned - the production master. The raw mix tapes would be copied to another tape with any necessary volume, eq and compression changes and this tape would then be used to manufacture the end product. Different media would require different production masters and this master could well be copied yet again to send to a factory in another country. So your vinyl record may well have been recorded to 3 or 4 generations of tape before the signal hit the cutter head.

It is worth saying that, in terms of quality, a 30ips Dolby A encoded master is close to 16 bit digital and it is possible to argue that a Dolby SR master exceeds the dynamic range of 16 bit digital.
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri May 31, 2019 4:08 pm

James Perrett wrote:... it is possible to argue that a Dolby SR master exceeds the dynamic range of 16 bit digital.

Yep -- utterly ingenious system that was the pinnacle of advanced analogue perceptual noise masking codecs. Sadly, it came just a little bit too late to stop the onslaught of the first generations of (not quite as impressive as hoped for) 16-bit digital machines.

Thankfully, the later 16 bit machines and then the 24bit systems outperformed SR and all the extra bells and whistles associated with digital quickly rendered analogue tape as something only for the nostlagics...

And Dolby went on to use their expert knowledge and practical experience of noise masking techniques to develop their own superb digital lossy data codecs like AC3 (Dolby Digital) and Dolby E etc.

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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby Elephone » Fri May 31, 2019 10:08 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:
thehay95 wrote:But tape changes the sound right?

Yes... a bit... not a lot (unless you really abuse it)...

But, of course, there's nothing wrong with 'abusing' tape, it's just a machine that was intended for one thing and people found other artistic uses for it. The musical bow most probably started off lighting fires until someone mucked about with it!

It's no different artistically to overdriving amps and even mutilating speakers to get distortion, kicking spring reverb units to get a crashing sound ... all perfectly fine if it's your gear or doesn't cause damage.

Likewise, wow 'n' flutter is as valid as using a Leslie speaker or Univibe or a tremolo pedal, just a different effect.

There's nothing artistically right or wrong with it. Brian Eno capitalised on gear going wrong, even skipping CD players. There are sound artists like Phil Jeck who put dictaphone recorders on RW/FF through delay to make bird-like sounds and turntables playing the same record to produce phasing effects.

Everything is potentially a valid sound, artistically, depending on what you want to do.
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri May 31, 2019 10:29 pm

Elephone wrote:Everything is potentially a valid sound, artistically, depending on what you want to do.

Of course... But the point I was making was that tape wasn't intended to change the recorded sound, and all the relevant manufacturers put in massive engineering effort to make it as linear and as clean as they possibly could.

Yes, the tape medium could/can be used in ways deliberately to introduce forms of distortion as a desirable effect if that's what was/is required artistically -- just as guitar amps can make both clean sounds or overdriven sounds depending on how they're setup and used.

But i think the OP was of the view that tape recording inherently changed the sound obviously and dramatically -- but that just wasn't and isn't the case. The inherent difference between the original and recorded sound was intentionally very small and usually quite subtle -- and that's what probably 95% of its users wanted!
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby ef37a » Sat Jun 01, 2019 9:57 am

Ha! Breath was bated until Mr Dolby came into the thread!

The contribution to tape sound quality cannot, IMHO be overstated brought about by the Dolby A NR system. It made modern multitrack rock/pop possible in a way.

One of the important facts about Dolby (and something seized upon as a drawback by its few detractors) was that levels, tape flux most importantly, had to be kept scrupulously correct. Play a tape into a Dolby decoder at the wrong level and the frequency response goes to H in a tape box. Now I dare say this level discipline was no stranger or hardship to seasoned professionals in studios, especially the broadcast world and brought other benefits in its wake. Such precision regarding levels is largely ignored in the home recording, even somewhat larger "project" studios? A retrograde step IMHO.

The recording world seems to have split into two camps and one much bigger than the other.
There is what I would call the "classical" camp. Populated by engineers in the truest sense who's aim is to capture the sound they hear with as little alteration as possible. Such people would for instance be appalled that a recording engineer would have the temerity to "massage" the balance of an orchestra? That is the conductor's job (and to a degree, that of the composer) Of course real world problems intrude and SOME tweaking of solo parts is usually needed but that would surely be monitored and the producer and conductor be "in the loop"?

Then there is the "anything goes" camp. Maybe being a bit unkind but I am reminded of a quote from a jazz musician (anon) "You have to KNOW the rules before you can BREAK the rules!" (Les Dawson always comes to mind!)

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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sat Jun 01, 2019 11:43 am

ef37a wrote:Now I dare say this level discipline was no stranger or hardship to seasoned professionals in studios...

Ha! You'd be amazed and appalled at how many professional multitrack reels (many from big name studios) exist without Dolby tones on the front! And how much misunderstanding of the technology and its calibration there was (and still is) amongst tape ops and engineers in pro studios. The broadcast world was a lot better -- but then in 'dem dayz' they had proper training and rigid lineup procedures were the stock-in-trade.

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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby Zukan » Sat Jun 01, 2019 11:46 am

To think that we used to go through all manner of sonic refining hell to then finally release our epically engineered, Jedi tape aligned, 60s amp heritage mixes to........................cassette.
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby ef37a » Sat Jun 01, 2019 11:59 am

Zukan wrote:To think that we used to go through all manner of sonic refining hell to then finally release our epically engineered, Jedi tape aligned, 60s amp heritage mixes to........................cassette.

Funny you should say that Zuks! I have been having a monster clear out* and came across a huge case of cassettes (that son had ripped from me for his own nefarious purposes!)

Among then was a BASF LH1 cassette with a Bach violin sonata on it. Must have been recorded from FM radio at least ten years ago. Popped it in the car player (yes! My car IS that old!) and it sounded fine! Clear sound and no trace of W&F. Properly biased, lined up and kept clean, cassette, even the better type 1 (tdk D espc' AD) tapes could give very good results. Type 2 such as TDK AD were "better than source" IMO and, heresy this, better than vinyl.

It was perhaps a shame that just as digital technology became clever and cheap enough to eliminate much of tapes foibles, close transport control, CPU controlled auto bias/setup, the CD and then digital recording happened?

Mind you, running time was always going to be a PITA especially as I did, recording live am drams and PA events.

*See the books in The Lounge.

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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby John Egan » Sat Jun 01, 2019 12:35 pm

Just a comparatively amateur perspective.......
After mucking around with a couple of Grundig 1/4" stereo machines for years, I finally found I could afford a Fostex 8 track 1/4" machine, the quality of which amazed me at the time. And 8 tracks seemed more than enough for my needs.
Then a move to ADATs and mixing in the box, followed by a 24 track (!) Alesis HD recorder, also mixing in the box and finally moving fully to a DAW.
It's so much easier now, thank heavens. And so much more good advice around, thanks to you guys.
Regards, John
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby John Willett » Sat Jun 01, 2019 1:09 pm

John Egan wrote:...8 track 1/4" machine

Same track-width as a cassette ;)
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby Kwackman » Sat Jun 01, 2019 1:23 pm

John Egan wrote:I finally found I could afford a Fostex 8 track 1/4" machine, the quality of which amazed me at the time

I think their first was called an A8? I'd their R8 model which was (and still is) the most expensive single item I ever bought for my bedroom studio.
It was used with the optional MTC-1 which had the most confusing manual.

Even with the strongest hue of rose tainted glasses, I would never want to go back to tape.
I'd rather lose the high frequencies or crush the audio if I want after the recording, with the option of undo!
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sat Jun 01, 2019 1:48 pm

I note that while we are all happy reminiscing, the OP is nowhere to be seen...
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Re: Signal chain in 'the old days' of tape

Postby MOF » Sat Jun 01, 2019 2:09 pm

Ha! You'd be amazed and appalled at how many professional multitrack reels (many from big name studios) exist without Dolby tones on the front! And how much misunderstanding of the technology and its calibration there was (and still is) amongst tape ops and engineers in pro studios. The broadcast world was a lot better -- but then in 'dem dayz' they had proper training and rigid lineup procedures were the stock-in-trade.

We did know how to line up dolby tones in the studios but the problem came with ENG cameras that (to save money ?) didn’t have dolby tone generators. The edit suite playback machines had the requisite dolby cards in them but no tones to line up to, hence the higher frequencies pumping effect.
The worst dolby artefact I ever heard was a non dolby tape being dolby decoded: muffled a lot of the time and then really bright for short periods.
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