Recording "direct to tape"

I’ve seen folks talk about recording direct to tape, meaning that a work is completed on the tape before (I assume) being transferred to a file format. I’ve seen this both for individual songs and for entire albums.

Is this part of your process? If so, what’s your approach/method for it and, perhaps more importantly, why/when do you choose to do it? If you do it some of the time, why would you choose not to do it other times?

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I don’t necessarily think ‘direct to tape’ has to actually mean direct to analog, but more so the process of tracking your composition and mixing live with minimal edits and overdubs. I’ve been almost exclusively doing this since getting into modular and it’s been the most fruitful and freeing creative music process I’ve experienced in the 30 years of playing music. It forces you to be in the moment, live with your choices and not be open to endless finessing of piece until you suck all of the joy out of it. That was my process before doing this, toiling over countless overdubs and trying for perfection, and I really just hated the music when it was done, if it -actually got done.

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If you (well, anyone) has access well maintained tape machine that has been calibrated and that is suitable to the task, tracking to tape can provide a pleasing compression and saturation characteristic without killing transient frequencies. That’s a lot of ifs, though, since not all tape machines sound quite as good when saturating as others, it’s getting harder to come by spare parts, a lot of tape machines haven’t been taken care of, and it takes a bit of time and effort to calibrate machines (biasing, and with reel to reels, MRL calibration tapes). In some cases, people simply like the sound of tape hiss: in that specific case, dropping in a sample or using tape emulation fx plugins might just get you there without having to bust out the head cleaner and all that.

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This is the principal way in which I record, especially since getting in to modular and dealing which hardware and line-out instruments. It mainly has to do with ease. I agree with @909one that the mindset is a major factor, for example using the norns tape as a simple way to record something is a wonderful convenience. But being able to record something without having to pull out my laptop and the adaptor and the audio interface and the cable that connects to another cable that connects to… not to mention the rabbithole that opening a DAW can be. I understand that people have preconfigured DAW set-ups that might make this easier, but for me there’s something about the simplicity of a tape—a single mono tape, or even a 4-track tape recorder—that eliminates all of those distractions and invites a different interaction with the recording process.

I don’t think any of the tape equipment that I have is of high enough quality to lend anything to the sound other than maybe a bit of hiss, so it’s really about having a relationship to the recording process that keeps the focus on the instrument instead of pulling me towards a DAW. In this way, something like norns’ tape, or even something like Fantastic Voyage (basically a virtual pedalboard with a virtual tape recorder) is really wonderful because it feels like an extension of the instrument and the process rather than an outside force. Sometimes I like to record my modular to tape, and then play the tape into Fantastic Voyage so that I can play the effects live while recording to the virtual tape. Then I can take that audio file to a DAW to tweak or edit. Because of this approach I’ve also done things where I play the same tape back recording it through different effect chains and layer or mix them after in the DAW, which can be fun especially if your tape player is not well calibrated and doesn’t play back perfectly every time :wink:

This all has a lot to do with my personal relationship with the DAWs that I’ve used and my unwillingness to get too familiar with them, more than any generalization about people’s relationships to DAWs in general—obviously the DAW is an extension of the instrument for many people, and I hope to someday get to that point maybe, but I will definitely be carrying the “tape ethos” or whatever with me!

PS I also hate having file archives of recordings that I don’t know if I should delete or if they might be of some use some day, because I never delete them and I never use them… with tape I easily record over myself and I don’t worry about it, I have a box of tapes but I just use the one tape that’s in arms length :stuck_out_tongue: no thoughts, no worries, just vibes.

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One of my most productive periods was recording “direct to tape” on this little fella. (I have been eyeing reel-to-reels on ebay though…)

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At the moment I have a Disting sitting at the end of my signal chain permanently, set to the stereo wav recorder. If things are sounding good, I just flick over to record and forget about it (except for remembering to switch it off again). Once the SD card is full, I’ll pull off the files and dig through for stuff I like… the results always have flaws and things I would tweak if it was a multitrack, but I try not to worry too much about that, and leave it to the mastering engineer to deal with :-D.

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Getting over a “recording rut”, I have made some observations I can share:

  • Remove all obstacles to recording. In my studio, it now takes a few seconds as I have most stuff under a single power button.
  • Decide whether you’re working with multiple takes, or one take on the current work. It doesn’t have to be either/or, but it’s good to know what is your strategy at that time period.
  • Simplify.

To answer some of the questions posed, it really depends on the project at hand. I have the hardest time working on my own music, it’s a creative and personal block I’m working on. But when it comes to actual work (game audio, theater music), that comes easy, and the task at hand is the factor that will determine whether it will be one take or layered multitracking, or multiple takes. It is easy to set a goal and a “good enough” set of requirements when you have a very concrete thing to achieve. In that case, the recording medium, in my case the DAW, becomes a means to an end and as such stops being a burden.

I think when it comes to questions such as these, it’s good to make distinctions between the types of music that each person is striving for, whether there’s a label for it, or not. Not all music requires the same adherence to structure, retakes, or even the same approach to recording. It’s easy to lose track of that when discussing these matters in a forum.

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Though more focused on cassette tape processes and occasionally delving into the minutia of mechanical/hardware things related to that format, I think may also find some related discussions here:

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I’m a big fan of this process. My previous studio was a drum machine/sequencer and synth, a couple fx units and a 16 channel mixer, and the master outs went straight into an old Alesis MasterLink (so not tape, but it’s old dark-sounding converters had a certain magic)

It was great for writing - I’d just lay out the bones of a song in arrange mode and then tweak a few things live on the pedals and desk. Next to impossible to pull up the same song later and get it sounding the same though. But it really encourages you to power through and finish a track.

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I used to have a Disting mk4 for Audio Recorder. It’s good but I remember the bit depth or sample rate is really odd instead of typical 44.1kHz / 48kHz.

Re the topic, I really enjoy do the recording on multitrack. Though the result cannot be very professional, I do really enjoy the workflow.

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I sort of suspected that the focus/limitation was a key element for people, but I didn’t expect that so many people also see “direct to tape” as not about tape at all. My own approach is usually stereo into a Zoom recorder or similar, so I’d be in that boat, too.

This is also something that works really well for me. When I go back and listen to things without the context of recording it, it’s much easier for me to be accept the “mistakes”. Often, what resonates with me later isn’t what resonated in the moment of recording.


One thing that I’m still curious about: for those who do record directly to analog tape, what’s the step after that? Do people just play the tape back into a computer at some point to convert it?

That’s what I have done in the past, and plan to do again in the future. The path into the computer depends on how satisfied I am with the tape recording. If it’s “just right” (whatever that may mean), then I’d probably run it straight into my interface. If it could use a little work, I could bring it in on a channel (or two) on my mixer, apply some EQ / compression / etc. and then into the interface. I haven’t gotten to these experiments yet, so do whatever works best for you. I’m working with a cassette recorder, so the results are probably going to be pretty lo-fi already. It might make sense to use that more as a treatment on certain sounds rather than a “mastering” device. We’ll see, though, this deck is in great shape.

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I run it into the converter. But later this year or early next, since I have all the stuff to go from cassette multitrack to cassette or reel-to-reel master to cassette duplication I kind of want to do an all-tape-media release.

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Lovely thread and excellent questions @stvnrlly! I use various methods. Here’s how I use and see them.

I use the 4MS Wave Recorder module to record my patches at home and during performances. It has splendid audio quality and recording is only one button press away. The front loading microSD card and the way files are stored in folders makes file transfer super easy. For me this module supports my creative process and does not interrupt my flow/mood/mental state. It captures spontaneity and creates focus by limiting options. I personally use it to record the performance of a patch, rather than ideas/sounds for later arrangement. I usually do multiple takes of a patch. Every few months I weed out the SDcard and select the best takes for possible later use or release. I have been a live musician since the age of 15 and love the risk and fun of live performance and improvisation. This recording method appeals to that part of me. All my parts on my 2020 collaborative EP Daya with Madhav were recorded this way.

I also multitrack performances regularly when working in the studio with friends. This allows easy re-arranging and per channel processing in a DAW. I am fortunate to regularly work with the awesome mixing engineers Gregor Beyerle and Pascal Altena. By splitting up channels I allow them to bring their magic to a mix. Which allows both of us the make the most of a track/performance. I have a dedicated set of some 20 TipTop stackable cables (the longest / black ones) to send multitrack audio from various points in a patch to a DAW. All parts of my 2020 release EP Nubis with Acheface were recorded this way. A total of 16 channels were used per track. For the 2019 single Mekanismo 8 tracks were used.

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I picked up a Mixpre 6 last year to record some material with mics, but it’s turned into my main mixer and “tape” when I have hardware out. Previous setup had been a Tascam recording the tape out of a Soundcraft mixer; the Mixpre is smaller and halves the amount of hardware to accomplish the same thing. Net result: lower bar to recording, my backstock of recorded material I need to sort into my raw_but_categorized dir is piling up. :smile:

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