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  Thoughts about mixing to Analog Tape  

Key: Use an excellently maintained machine! Folks sometimes don't realize that those good old analog machines were loaded with high-grade electronic circuits that your favorite DAT machine or even Masterlink doesn't come with. Typical stereo digital machines are low-priced because the emphasis is on a semi-pro buyer, not the ultra-high end recording studio.

Analog tape recording has a "sound shape" almost like a processor. When you put in a square wave test signal into an analog recorder, the output looks different - the "hard" edges are smoothed out - they are less square, which accounts for the silkier sound, the wetter edge and woodier sound to acoustic instruments. Ideally, record on both analog and digital mediums, because it's a great way to have more options with just a bit more involved in the set-up.

Given that Quantegy may or may not still be available, and rumor has it that Emtec (formerly BASF tape) will be making tape, it's a little up in the air about whether you can even get analog tape. When several brands were available, I felt that Quantegy 456 was somewhat cloudy sounding,. While 499 is better sounding than 456, I would probably go with GP9, which is an old formulation of 3M tape. The old BASF 469 was my favorite and 468 was good too. Emtec's 900 series may be the way to go... check around.

I don't recommend elevating your level above +6dB. Why? Marketing hype has made the overload capabilities of modern tapes overrated. There's a lot to consider about the plus' and minus' of tape saturation vs. signal-to-noise vs. print-through, etc. Take print-through for instance: Tape machine heads pick up magnetic signal, and the stronger the signal (louder you've elevated the tape) the easier it is for the adjacent tracks to pick up what's recorded. Result: more crosstalk, especially from 500 hz down. That means that all the low end will bleed slightly from track to track to track. At +9, track 5 "hears" more of track 4 & 6 than if you elevate to +5. All that low bleed makes for mush in your mix. You'll have no hiss, but the bottom will be tubby and slow sounding.

Trick: If you don't mind breaking the rules, align your machine so that you set 1K at -2 (using an NAB 250 nW/M alignment tape) and 10K at -3. That way you have to elevate the high end more. The tape can handle the extra high end level, and it doesn't mush up the bottom. It's not enough to saturate the highs, and it's not dangerous enough that if the tape goes to another studio people will faint. Think of this trick as a broad-range, simple form of noise reduction (which is the whole goal of tape elevation, anyway!) Now you get the hiss reduction of a +6 master with the clean bottom of a +5 master! Voila! (Or just use IEC (CCIR) equalization instead of NAB. It's a standard, and it's reproducible and accomplishes the same noise reduction effect.)

Ok, so you don't want to use analog.... the next best thing is a great A-D converter like Apogee going into a Masterlink HARD DRIVE (Masterlink's make jittery CDR file copies) at 96k or 88.2k 24 bit. If you are bouncing into a computer, make a 24 bit AIFF (WAV is ok too) file - the higher the sampling rate the better (and remember to stay a couple dB under clipping). Some listening tests show that recording your stereo mix looped back into the DAW (via recording) sound better than an internal bounce. See chart on the rates page for another look.... and when you're ready to see how 30 different digital systems stack up sonically next to each other, read this!

Meanwhile, give yourself some slack at first. Group "C" may have had a $50,000.00 budget for their mix alone. Mix so that when you push the CD-player-button, they sound great, and when you push the stereo buss button, YOU sound great too, in the context of your music and the tools you have to work with.



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Erik Zobler, mix engineer for Dianne Reeves, Teena Marie, Natalie Cole, Anita Baker and more