Digital Tape: Smoothing Out Tone


The analog vs. digital debate is a topic unto itself, and I don’t have any interest in engaging that; I use analog tools where appropriate, and digital tools for the same reason. However, a little backstory is appropriate. When you’re recording entirely in the analog domain, every action you take loses you some high frequencies. Run it through a desk? Lose some HF. Run it through a compressor? Lose some HF. Record to tape? Bounce to tape? Play the tape? Lose some HF. Along the way, we got used to the tone that came from all those analog passes. Then along came digital, promising superior fidelity with no signal loss. Bad converters aside, the consensus? It’s “harsh,” cold,” and “brittle!” Digital, with all its superior fidelity, often seems to be missing a little charm.

These days we have the best of both worlds; if you want the sound of tape, tubes or transformers, you can record through tape, tubes and transformers without having to worry about signal loss down the road. I don’t have any nostalgia for low fidelity; however, there is something to the way analog gear handles high frequencies. I’m going to explore a couple of options for emulating that response with more precision.


For tonal content, DMG Essence is an amazing tool. While it’s billed as a mastering de-esser, it’s really a sub-band processor that allows you to selectively compress specific frequencies. In practice; let’s say you’ve got a vocal track that sounds fine when the singer’s quiet, but sounds harsh when they hit the chorus. You can isolate the offending frequency and set the threshold so it only engages at high levels, effectively smoothing out the signal. This technique can be used with high ratios to deal with resonances in instruments or amps (even feedback), but if used subtly (with low ratios & gentle filter slopes) it can emulate the way tape attenuates high frequencies when pushed. With experimentation you can achieve this effect very transparently, without the inherent noise or distortion of tape.


OD DeEdger offers a similar feature set that’s tailored to transient content. While the controls are much simpler, the concept is the same; pick a frequency, pick a Q, and set your threshold. DeEdger is perfectly suited to taming grating percussion, crunchy amps, and the high-mid sharpness you can get from cheaper condensers. While I haven’t tried them myself, oeksound’s Soothe and Spiff seem to be well-suited to taming harshness as well, and they’re creating some good buzz in audio circles.

There’s no denying that analog gear is a lot more fun to play with (and makes for a more impressive studio shot), but not owning a $5,000 preamp is no excuse for bad tone. Hope this series helped you get a little closer to that!


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