Over the past year plus, the Townsend Labs Sphere L22 has become one of the most important pieces of gear in my signal chain. I honestly would not want to record or produce without it at this point. So when the opportunity to purchase a 1979 MCI JH110A 1⁄2” 4 track machine came my way, one of my main questions was how the Sphere would (or wouldn’t) fit into using an analog multitrack tape recorder. Here's my journey of using Sphere with an analog tape machine summed up for you.
My first concern was whether or not the fantastic microphone models would still be accurate and sound good when used with a tape machine due to the sonic coloration that the machine imparts to the recorded material. I then remembered that I had tracked, and printed through Universal Audio’s excellent Studer A800 emulation plug-in many times, sometimes with some pretty extreme settings, with no problem. Then again, one of the benefits of the plug-in and the Apollo channels is that a stereo pair of channels could be perfectly matched, with no variation from “channel to channel” on the tape machine. This isn’t always as easy with a 40-year-old tape machine due to many factors, but I was still hopeful. I spent a fair amount of time aligning the first two channels to make sure that the frequency response and levels were as consistent as possible with each other, thus setting me up to get the best results with the Sphere.
Developing the Setup
First I thought about a signal flow that would allow me to have the flexibility of changing models and settings that I have become so addicted to during my time with the Sphere. What I came up with was the L22 into the Louder Than Liftoff Silver Bullet through its API style circuit. This preamp sounds great and works perfectly with the Sphere because both channels are matched and controlled by one set of knobs. On my patch bay, I sent the stereo output of the Silver Bullet to two different places, one copy of the signal went directly into two channels of my converters and into my DAW, and the other copy went into the first two channels of my tape machine. The outputs of those two tape machine channels were then routed to two channels of my converter and input to my DAW.
The main reasons for sending multiples of the incoming signal were twofold: firstly, I needed to be able to monitor the direct signal while recording without hearing the latency that is unavoidably caused by the gap between the playback and reproduce heads of the tape machine. Secondly, I wanted a digital “safety copy” for both comparison purposes and so I could accurately line the tape-recorded copy up with the digital one in the DAW. In my Apollo Console, I muted the tape version and monitored through the digital copy. In this case, I had the Putnam Mic collection in a plug-in slot to monitor through, as it’s become a personal favorite of mine.
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Throughout sessions spanning four days, I tracked, bass, guitar, drums, percussion and vocals through this chain. Since I was using the tape machine as a front end processor and not as a storage medium, I didn’t have to worry about locating or punching on the machine, all of that was still in the DAW timeline. I just needed to be mindful when it was getting to the end of the reel. I found that this approach offered the best of both worlds. Once the tracks were in the DAW, I simply used Logic’s I/O plug-in to figure out the latency of the tape machine through the reproduce head and corrected it with Voxengo’s handy (and free) latency delay plug-in. I also made sure to recalculate for different sample rates in my DAW.
The sonic results of using Sphere with an analog tape machine exceeded my expectations by far! One of the benefits to how I had the setup routed, was the ability to compare the straight digital with the analog tracks. I preferred the tape machine tracks every single time. I should mention that I don’t mind tape hiss and other inevitable artifacts that come along with tape. In fact, I’m in love with what tape does. The best news was, flipping through models, proximity, axis and other settings on the Sphere tracks printed through tape was the same dream of an experience that I have come to know, with the added sonic magic and benefits of tape.
“I now use the L22 on anything and everything. Vocals, drums, guitar, strings (it really sounds amazing on cello!), percussion, and on and on. I will add another Sphere to my setup when budget permits.”
If I felt that there was a plug-in that captured and delivered all of the sonic glory of a professional tape machine, I would not choose to go through the effort and cost of maintenance (no matter how cool they look in a control room) of owning one. I am also sure that there will be situations that I will choose not to use the tape machine, as quiet can be a good thing in certain genres. However, the combo of the MCI plus the Sphere is something that I am very excited about, and I am overjoyed to have the past and the future meet so elegantly in my room.
Have a listen for yourself
And now it's your turn! Listen to both the digital and tape versions of a couple of examples using the above signal flow. Please note that the playback from Soundcloud is data-compressed. Don't the raw, uncompressed files below and make sure to listen back on high-quality headphones or studio monitors.
Jake Fader is a composer and producer whose music has been featured in multiple documentaries like Romeo Is Bleeding and in shows like the Netflix originals Ugly Delicious and Abstract:The Art Of Design.
Interested in having your tracks bounced through tape for some good ol’ analog love? Check out Jake’s online service here.
With Sphere, you can audition and change the microphone model both while you're recording but also long after tracking. This makes comparing microphones really easy and means that you don't have to commit right away. We have ready-to-go session files available for you with several acoustic guitar examples so you can experiment on your own. You are invited to install the free, fully-featured Sphere plug-in for all major platforms and DAWs. Try it now and reimagine our library of pre-recorded tracks.