Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Home Recording Tip 9: If you get an analog tape machine, have it gone thru and setup by someone who’s learned how it’s done in a professional environment.

This is sort of an extension of my last post. As I said, I grew up in the analog age and know well the challenges of recording to analog. Different tapes, philosophies of recording levels, opinions of alignment, overbias, eq curves- be it RIAA or CCIR, head gaps, degaussing, tape tension, etc are all just part of what one needs to understand to properly setup and use an analog tape machine. Can you setup and record without knowing all that and get good results? Maybe..and if the machine arrived in good shape, probably. But it’s sort of like banging out sounds on a Nord when you have no clue what the knobs do. You’ll may get lucky and make some good sounds, but if you want something in particular or get a sound back to what you had two days ago, you need to know your gear.

You, or somebody really needs to know this stuff if you ever decide to buy an analog tape machine. When it arrives…OH YEAH! Your baby has finally arrived and you want to get right at using it. Forget waiting on the tech to show up! “Let’s record” you boast bravely, thinking you’re being cool and rock n roll, not wanting to get “bogged down” with the technical things.

It may work ok, and may sounds good. It even may be close to aligned for the kind of tape you happened to buy….for a few days anyway. You see tape machines don’t stay aligned. They will drift like a piano and need to be realigned regularly. Also each tape needs a specific kind of alignment. And each tape machine does even that differently.

The thing you may not know, is those great bands, the Beatles, Stones, Led Zepplin, etc had great engineers who made sure that EVERY DAY the machine was setup and aligned properly by technicians who’s job it was to take care of these machines. That’s part of why those albums sound the way they do. Of course it’s not all, but it is significant part. To not get a good setup of your tape machine makes as much sense as having your Dead-Head cousin refret and overhaul the ‘63 Les Paul Gold Top you just found in your uncle's attic. You’d have an expert setup a guitar. Your tape machine is no different.

My original tip said to have the tape machine “..gone thru and setup by someone who’s old enough to have been around when it was made.” I got challenged for that by one of my twitter followers as espousing ageism, so I changed it to say, “someone who’s learned how it’s done in a professional environment.” Of course the original statement is tongue in cheek, but I would maintain it’s not a bad idea. It is a bit natural that older guys know better how to keep an analog machine humming simply because younger folks haven’t been around them as long or at all. While it’s certainly true that young talented guys and gals can become competent doing this, it’s not something one can learn from a book. It’s much more a black art and is best learned by an apprenticeship. And there’s nothing like the experience of a guy who’s wrestled one of these babies around for years. But whether you pick and old fart or a young gun, just be sure they have put in the hours and know their stuff.

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