It seems that we tend to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles, or, in the case of music recording, hear it through rose-tinted ears! We have a whole generation of new engineers who are convinced that they're missing out by not having analogue outboard stuffed with valves and huge multitrack tape recorders, and who knows, they may be right, but living with tape wasn't all good. The machines needed realigning with annoying regularity, they were unforgivingly noisy unless used with noise reduction, and nothing came back sounding quite as it did when it went in! If you did use noise reduction, that introduced its own sonic side-effects, you could only do the most basic of edits using razor blades and splicing tape, and the tape had a habit of running out halfway through the ultimate good take. Throw in a helping of wow and flutter, regular breaks to clean the tape heads and the cost of the tape itself, and you start to get the picture. Despite this, there were certain sounds that were changed for the better by going via tape, and when we think of those old tape machines, that's what we see through the filter of nostalgia, while forgetting all of the bad things.
Fortunately, it seems that plug-in designers are finally getting very close to emulating the behaviour of tape, so that we can apply its magic where needed and avoid it where tape isn't the best solution. Tape certainly works for rock instruments such as bass guitars, electric guitars and certain drum styles, as well as vocals, but those who worked with tape the first time around will also remember having to record high-pitched sounds, such as hi-hats, at a very low level to avoid horrible‑sounding distortion — sometimes as low as -20dB. The beauty of the plug-in environment is that we can now use tape emulation on some tracks but not on others, or we can revisit old 'in-the-box' mixes and feed them into a tape emulation to add a bit of low‑end weight and smooth out the high end. The plug-in versions is also less likely to run out in the middle of a take, unless the designers have gone just too far and also emulated the tape length!
The development of believable tape emulation is most welcome, and I applaud designers who allow us some way of controlling the amount of tape influence, such as reducing or removing any modelled tape hiss, varying the amount of wow and flutter and adjusting the low-end kick delivered by 'head bump'. Whether tape really did sound better or whether it is just a case of us identifying with the sound of classic records made using the medium is entirely a different matter, but there's no denying that the sonic character of tape played an important part in the way that the sound of pop music evolved. I can't help but wonder if early adopters of wax cylinder recording felt just as nostalgic when technology moved on to deliver a technically more accurate sound.
Paul White Editor In Chief