Why we record analog

Studer A80R taperecorder

Why an Analog Recording, and why, in a time when digital tools are widely available, excellent, affordable, and so much easier (and cheaper!) in use?

Let me start first by saying that I am not in any way against digital recordings: I embrace digital media, and live and work by the grace of digital media. There would be no Authentic Sound, Wim Winters or anything remotely related to what we do here if it wasn’t because of the fact that we live in a digital age.

As a Clavichordist and Pianist, I expect my recordings to closely reproduce what I hear and feel from behind the keys of my instrument. I don’t mean that they have to be a copy of reality (an idea that seems to be hammered into the minds of classical music lovers), but that they capture the essence of my playing. The color of the instrument, the room, the sound, all of that will necessarily change according to the choice of equipment, positioning, and so on. As long as the result is an honest reproduction of the situation in which I played, it’s good. And if it sounds great on a hifi-set, even better. But the essence should be there.

So what is the “essence”? Let me give you an example.

In the time when I worked hard on improving my YouTube recordings, investments in equipment were an obvious step to do. I know — it’s not only about the equipment, (thank God it isn’t!), but a decent pair of microphones and a good preamp were essential. Certainly if you want to record a clavichord that needs an amplification of approximately 62 dB. Talk about signal/noise ratio!

neuman mic tml 170r

So there came a pair of Neumann TML170R, extremely sensitive microphones that allowed me to experiment with different set-up patterns. Luckily, I got them from a ‘fan’ for quite a bargain, since brand new, they would have fallen wayout of my budget. Then I bought a wonderful PreAmp, Presonus ADL600, dual mono, tube, which happened to be in B-stock at a big online warehouse. -50%! At the same time, I bought Benchmark’s AD converter when they upgraded their famous line to the second version. Also 50% off.

Nothing to complain about here I’d say. And if you are an experienced recording engineer, I guess this is all you need to make excellent recordings. And yet, whatever I tried, there was something missing. Something. Hard to explain what. Room. Air. Peace. Calm. I don’t know what, but something very concrete felt wrong: my trills didn’t feel ‘pure’, there was no articulated air between them. I practiced and practiced, and also made adjustments to the setup, but it just seemed to be very difficult to have them on the clavichord like I wanted.

One day Joris Potvlieghe, the builder of my clavichord, lent me his old Revox PR99, unused for 2 decades (and with a single tape of the same vintage!). I made a recording, and something happened: there was something in that recording that was not there in the digital counterpart. There you had the feel of calm, room, openness, air, trills (!!), even a somewhat wider stereo effect. I’m not an engineer, so I cannot explain what happened, but it felt that once the sound hits that tape, something beautiful happened, something, we humans, respond to very well.

There was no way to return to 100% digital after that experience. No, I’m not a missionary. You will not hear me talk about the ‘necessity’ of analog, how much ‘better’ it is than digital. The only thing that interest me is giving you a ‘product’ that I’m most satisfied with. A ‘product’ that I feel comes very close to an experience you would have when sitting on a chair at my side. The essence of my playing. And that old, stuffy PR99 had it. Wow.

So what next?

It was not hard to find out. Two days later I realized that, if this were to be be taken to the next step, two things were required:

  1. Buy a fully refurbished tape recorder that was brought back to factory specifications
  2. If possible, buy a large, studio machine, as the tape guiding system (and the weight) would result in a better recording compared to the smaller (e.g. Revox PR99) machines. Again, we’re talking here on extremely sensitive recordings.

Studer A80r taperecorder

And so we set up contact with Andreas Kuhn of Studer Analog Audio Switzerland. He restored our Studer A80R with parts and equipment that once belonged to the famous Swiss Studer Company.

That Tape Recorder changed everything. We did a lot of experiments: recording tape first, recording digital and printing it on tape, digital 44/16, digital 96/24… and compared the results.

And the results of all the testing?

First off: the first recording I recorded on tape for YouTube resulted in several comments from viewers asking what I did with the sound. Can you imagine that? I mean: YouTube, heavily compressed sound, listened to often at a desktop, tablet, … and still, without me saying anything, it caused spontaneous reactions of enthusiasm?

My very personal conclusions of the tape/digital test.

  1. The sound hitting the tape first (so recording on tape), seems essential. Compared to HiRes digital, the tape adds a kind of 3D feel to the sound, blends all frequencies together, and feels very relaxed (strangely enough I feel that in my stomach…). HiRes digital, even played directly from the PC through the Benchmark feels “stressed” compared to the tape.
  2. Strangely enough, the sound of digitized tape retains many of its original qualities. How that is possible, I don’t know. So first tape then digital sounds very different (better I’d say) than digital first and then tape. The order is important.
  3. Back from digitized analog to tape does not change much any more. Still the analog only sound is to be preferred, but the digital in between is – to my musician’s ear, I’m not a trained recording engineer!- not destructing much of the original analog. So a vinyl disc from a digitized analog source (tape first) might be a very close to the original analog compromise. The playback (disc) is analog by definition, and the original analog characteristics are still there. Again, AAA is the ultimate dream, but on a larger production scale, that would multiply the costs even in a way a small production house as Authentic Sound, as we speak (the future might change) is not able to pre-finance.

That’s a long and honest answer to this very legitimate question “why analog?” And again: the ultimate dream is to have everything AAA once in the future, not only for the 100% Live series. Let’s embrace that as the vision.