I'd been meaning to explore the recording of audio onto mediums other than digital for quite some time now. On the surface it would seem that these techniques wouldn't be very useful to me as a producer who specifically wants to work in the games industry. An industry which basically only requires audio in a digital format for a number of reasons I wont dive into right now.
Alas, as an audio engineer I still find these alternatives to be interesting for a lot of reasons which I will cover shortly. First I wanted to go over my first real experience in a recording studio that housed a tape machine.
This is the big recording room at Soundpark Studios Melbourne which I had the privilege of using for a full day to record and quickly mix a small ensemble. The group was called Trampoline Death Machine and consisted of 4 members a drummer, a guitarist, a bass player who doubled as a vocalist and a winds (flue and harmonica) player. When recording to tape, keeping your ensemble in mind is an important idea as some instruments and effects don't seem to translate very well onto tape according to a more experienced peer that led the recording session. I investigated further and it seems to be popular belief, at least according to drummer and engineer Christopher Cline, that drums translate well onto tape, the "warmth" that tape popularly provides seems to be the key factor in this.
This idea of warmth is something that's tossed around a lot when people talk about tape and the sound that it brings. Upon further inspection I discovered that this "warmth" is caused by a large number of things, but is basically the product of many small distortions to signal that occur in an analog recording chain. This article from SoundOnSound is extremely helpful at explaining what Analog warmth is and what causes it.
Getting into the nitty-gritty, this is the tape machine we were working with pictured above. It is one of the Studer A80 series, which are well known for their modular design and sturdiness. This one was capable of recording up to 24 channels and has been in the studio for a long time. Studer tape recorders have been around since the 1950's and are one of the go to options for tape recording in the 21st century.
So we recorded the band straight into Pro Tools so we could distribute the recording among the group, we didn't actually want a copy on tape for this excursion but we wanted to keep a few copies for ourselves and the band. Something I noticed straight away was that innate "hiss" that adds so much character to older recordings. I think this "hiss" is part of that authentic warmth that people want when they record things to tape. If you don't know what I'm talking about, this video has a great comparison between a tape recording and a digital recording.
You can definitely tell straight away which one is which...
Well I could at least, the "hiss" and the fuzz on all of the sounds made it very obvious. The guitar sounded bigger and bolder, which is again, another quality that I think people really want when they choose to record to tape.
As we learnt about the tape machine and were talked through all the things that it could do, the one thing that was on my mind the whole time was: How can I use this for video games? What can I use this piece of technology and the sounds it produces for in my own little niche. The first thing that came to mind that was loosely related was the various vinyl and tape releases of some video game soundtracks such as this vinyl version of Banjo Kazooie's OST.
Although I can't really see myself going full indie and releasing vinys and tape recordings of my MIDI music, having the knowledge is always a good thing just in case.
But the thing that really stood out to me, was something so small but it piqued my interest. When we rewound the tape at some point I heard something similar to this:
Pretty cool right?
I've heard this sound effect a few times in lots of different mediums, from video games to films to live stage events. It's one of video games signature "Rewind Time" sound effects and I've always wondered how they did it, and now I know. Listening to the rest of this video I discovered a lot of other sound effects that could be created from recording the various tinkering of a tape machine. For a project a while back I needed an analog radio static sound effect and I'm only now realizing how cool it would have been to have some authentic tape hiss to layer into it.
Lastly, the other thing I could use tape for is as most people use it, through VST's to add that tape hiss sound to a piece of music. Not just for the sound but more for the authenticity it can create for a certain theme. For example if I'm trying paint a picture of some urban street and there's a guy with a boombox from the 60's or someones driving in their car during the 70's, adding a noticeable amount of tape hiss to whatever sound is coming from those devices will add another layer to scene. Sound can tell great stories sometimes if you know how to use properly.
Anyway, that's all for now.
As always thanks for reading and I'll see you next time,