Yamaha Reface YC Review

Riding the wave of reissues, Yamaha released the successful Reface series, a modern take on some of its classic keys of the past: The Reface DX revisits the ubiquitous in ‘80s MOR recordings, hotel discos and cruise ship piano bars DX7 digital synth, the Reface CP is based on the CP80 electric piano, the Reface CS on the legendary CS analog monosynth family of the late ‘70s, and last, the Reface YC, is a modern take on the YC organs, Yamaha’s very own combo organs of the late sixties to mid-seventies period. These new iterations of the Yamaha classics were built with affordability, versatility and portability in mind. The latter is of particular importance, since they come as alternatives to heavy, bulky analog machines.

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Yamaha Reface Yc Portable Combo Organ With Vintage

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Being someone who uses keys all the time, and knowing very well the pain of having to move a transistor organ or an electric piano around venues and studios, I was happy to see Reface around, even though I was a bit skeptical about the sound: I find digital organ emulations to be somewhat flat and lacking – and the costs involved into owning a modern top tier organ emulator are disproportionate when compared to the sonic quality and low cost of a ‘70s analog transistor organ. The basic question has always been: “Why spend 1.500$ for a Nord Electro, when a 150$, battered, yard sale Ace Tone will sound better?” 1.500$ is a commitment. 150$ is a fun amount to spend.

With a price ranging anywhere from 300 to 400 US $, the Reface YC looked like a very interesting proposition, and the wealth of features seemed like a fair trade off to the 3-octave mini-key keyboard.

The only thing I wasn’t willing to trade was of course the sound. As said, transistors – especially the older, Germanium ones – are key to creating a warm, fuzzy, perfect organ sound, while the Reface YC, being a contemporary design, uses instead the AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) tone generator, which is the proprietary PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) sampling engine used by Yamaha.

On the other hand, even the original YC series, used tone generators that were outside the canon: They were the one of the very few organs using ICs (Integrated Circuits) instead of discreet components in the frequency dividers and filters, and probably the only true organs to use ICs in the oscillators. The company was experimenting since the late ‘60s, following an individual path in circuit design, something that played a role in shaping their unique sound.

Yamaha was never the legendary company with a fandom that other brands can boast about. It was never about flashy endorsements, legacy and emotional connection to some gilded history. Most people anyway connect the name with motorbikes or boat engines than with instruments. And even in the field of instruments, its classic, the DX7, is of rather utilitarian nature, becoming a classic for successfully emulating an acoustic piano rather for having any personal character.

In reality, the company has offered instruments that were full of character and unique sonic capabilities – finding their way on stages and in recording studios worldwide. Some of them, were very beautiful examples of modernist design – lacking only somewhat in the naming department: The – Link Wray-endorsed – 1967 SG-2 guitar, the A-3 organ introduced in 1966 and the YC organ series, introduced in 1969. These instruments were a feast for the eyes, as they embodied the best elements of the futuristic ‘60s, and were the first serious rivals – quality-wise – of the US and European manufacturers of the era.

Especially the YC organ, available in a multitude of colors and permutations, was the definitive Yamaha instrument. Extremely stable, being the most reliable organ around, very well designed, with a control panel that helps approach the instrument in a novel way, and a sonic palette that extends way beyond that of most electric organs, it is has been an instrument of choice for the last years.

The only downside it that the most common variation, the YC-25, is a two-manual beast that weighs 45 kilos (100 lbs), meaning that it isn’t very practical to move around – even if it comes with handles – so it mostly a studio dwelling machine.

This alone was enough of a reason to be curious to try the YC Reface, which weighs just under 2 kilos (4 lbs) and is not much larger than a laptop.

Old Becomes New Again

The first thing that someone familiar with the original YC series will notice, is that the designers kept not only kept an appearance similar to the original YC – down to the color palette – but also used a similar layout for the control panel, something that is a big plus, as it is very ergonomic, suited to the needs of organ playing, intuitive, and most importantly, capable of almost infinite tone combinations, managing to maintain the versatility that made the YC such a useful instrument.

On the left end there are the Output Amp controls: Rotary Speaker simulation controls and Volume. Next to it, the Oscillator section, with controls for Octave Transposing (+/-3 octaves, mitigating the limited range of the keyboard) and Wave. There are 5 different waveforms available, each one assigned a letter, which happens to be the first letter of the organ that it imitates, and that Yamaha hasn’t got the rights to it: H for Hammond B3/C3, V for Vox Continental, F for Farfisa Compact, A for Ace Tone Top and finally, Y for Yamaha YC.

In the middle above the keyboard, there is the Footage section with 9 sliders (in the tradition of the 9 Hammond drawbars), on its right the Vibrato/Chorus selector and the Intensity, next to it the Percussion section with On/Off and A/B buttons and a Length slider. On the right end, two sliders for the Effects: Distortion and Reverb.

On the back we find the AC adapter input (it also works on batteries, by the way), On/Off button, and foot controller connection, along with 1/4” L-R output, 1/4” stereo headphone output, 1/8” Aux In, plus, two handy MIDI and USB connections.

The building quality seems good, and the external material – a rubbery, anti-slip plastic, feels good to the touch. The keyboard is solid, stable and with a very nice feeling. In fact, it’s good enough to make the small key size seem irrelevant, and become a factor that greatly adds to the enjoyment of this instrument. Its 3-octave range means it is mostly suited for lead roles, and not so much for 2-hand Hammond organ style playing.

The only inadequacy seems to be in the control panel: The sound of the organ has zero dynamics by nature (it is either on or off, without any sustain or any attack variations), so the tabs, switches, drawbars and sliders of an organ are regularly used, abused an overused, in order to create dynamics. For this reason, the controls have to be sturdy and reliable. This is true for the sliders, but not for the tabs: The 3 tabs present (Vibrato/Chorus, Percussion On/off and A/B) are flimsy to the touch, feel fragile and not always succeed in making contact. Luckily, the controls prone to overuse – and especially the metallic Rotary Speaker selector – feel sturdier and can be used with confidence.

But, given that I can survive the crap quality of some ‘70s organs because a good sound is what I am after, these Reface reliability issues do not distract me at all from the main thing: The sound. And what a sound this little machine has! The good thing with this organ isn’t that it is a good emulator (which, it obviously is), but that it has a personality on its own.

The tones are defined, yet warm. It is a very melodic instrument, that, in the tradition of the best organs, can become eerie and mysterious very easily, something that the tame digital organs in the market struggle to achieve. The sound has all the small “irregularities” so characteristic of transistor and tonewheel organs, yet they remain defined and articulated well.

The “H for Hammond” wave is a very convincing B3 copy, even though its tiny on-board speakers are unable to reproduce those low 16” notes and it would be best enjoyed when hooked to an amp. I may not be the biggest fan or Hammond around, but I found myself using the H wave a lot more than I’d expect.

The obligatory combination with the Rotary speaker emulation, gives some very good results, even if – let’s face it – all approximations of a physical rotating speaker and a rotating horn, are expected to come short and be – at best – a glorified chorus effect. If someone wants a Leslie speaker sound, the only way is to use an actual Leslie and go through the pain of carrying it around. Nevertheless, the Reface’s Rotary speaker simulation is an effect that produces very rich sounds, with swirling bass and pulsing lows, and thus, it is destined to be used all the time for its own sake. Even as a Leslie simulation though, it is worthy, as it is designed to have the characteristic delay when accelerating from Slow to Fast, which is half of the enjoyment of using it, being the perfect tool for verse-to-chorus build-ups.

The V wave offers the rich, square wave tones of the Vox Continental. A very close approximation, with an added plus: The 9 Voice sliders, offer a much greater palette of sounds than the 4 drawbards the Continental had. Plus, the Continental offered 16”, 8”, 4” and 5 1/3” voices, while the Reface offers 9 different footages, making it possible to play sounds that the Continental wasn’t designed to play. This is a very big plus, since it permits the musician to escape the expected norm, given that 60 years of use of the Vox Continental in some of the most famous rock records ever (The Doors are the first example that comes in mind), has somewhat created some fixed expectations of how it should sound like.

The same goes for the next sound wave: F (for Farfisa). Of course, a Farfisa Compact has such an untamed sound that I am not sure anyone would notice if an extra footage or two were added to its sound. This wild, alive sound, was the strong point of the Compact, courtesy of a combination of a unique square wave design and an array of Germanium transistors in the oscillators and preamp. As expected, it is the only one of the emulations that isn’t very successful. This is not a bad thing though: Farfisas are still available on the 2nd hand market, so who wants one can have one. What we have in the F wave, is a really beautiful, lively and frisky organ sound, which becomes totally psychedelic and engaging with the Vibrato on, even if someone is playing simple, one-finger melodies.

The Acetone sound – marked “A” is a much more successful emulation, and it is the one sound suited for every garage, surf, trash, and lo-fi project one could dream of. Reedy, dirty and mean, as it should be.

Finally, the Y wave, is a faithful reproduction of the YC series sound, but with a catch: The YC series had 2 different sound banks – the Flute/mellow one, and the Reedy/Strings/harsh one. Only the mellow one was included, even if all possible needs for a mellow sound are already covered from the absolutely great H wave. Nevertheless, it is still a very usable section, with a characteristic clarity – bound to find its way in many recordings, since it has the ability to cut very clearly through almost any mix.

All these sounds are controlled from the 9 sliders mentioned above. Each slider controls a footage. A footage is practically the octave in which the note will play, and is measured in feet – a remnant of the era of pipe organs (feet measurement corresponds to pipe length)

The 9 footages are the “standard” Hammond footages: 16”, 5 1/3” 8”, 4”, 2 2/3”, 2”, 1 3/5”, 1 1/3”, 1”. So, a C key played with the 8” slider on will be an octave higher than the same C played with the 16” slider on. The sliders with fractions, produce different notes: A C key played using only 2 2/3 will play a G note. By adding the sound of the different sliders together, a very complex, rich in harmonics sound is produced, and it is possible to achieve a very big amount of control on the sound by using the fraction sliders accordingly.

This means that the amount of tones the Reface can produce is almost endless. This makes it a very expressive instrument, something that comes as a welcome exception in a family of instruments which are not very expressive by design – since the sound in an organ is either on or off, without any envelope variations.

The Percussion, which comes in 2 different flavors (mellow and sharp) with adjustable length, is another factor that adds to the versatility of this instrument. Apart of the usual implementation, as companion to the Hammond-like H wave, it can also be used for pseudo-harpsichord sounds (sharp), Hohner Pianet-like sounds (mellow) and with the addition of Vibrato, for a Marimba/Vibraphone-like effect.

The Vibrato has adjustable depth, but sadly fixed speed, and it’s very rich and organic – permitting some rather sci-fi effects on full depth. The chorus on the other hand, is a puzzling addition: It sounds almost exactly like the Vibrato (which was the only effect that all electric organs feature), any chorus effects are too quiet to be heard, and looks like an afterthought in an attempt to make the instrument more appealing to a younger generation and to non-organists who know what a Chorus pedal does, but not what vibrato is. It would have honestly been better if they didn’t include it: A Vibrato On/Off tab, as in every other organ before them, and a variable speed Vibrato control would have been the perfect set up.

Compensating for the useless Chorus, the YC has 2 more- yellow – sliders. In the original YC, the yellow color was reserved for the Strings slider, that is, for the slider producing the most exhilarating, delightfully ear-piercing sound. The meaning of the color coding remains the same: Reface’s 2 yellow sliders (labelled “Effects”) are Distortion and Reverb, do a great job in roughing up things.

Reverb was a feature in most upmarket organs in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most were using a variation of the Hammond design (made today by Accutronics), and it was included in order to imitate the sound of either the Hammond or the Cathedral organ, but used to a totally different effect from rock musicians. Of course, in the Reface case we are talking about a digital reverb, as there would anyway be absolutely no space to fit a spring reverb unit in this tiny machine. It has a warm, dirty sound, bassy enough to fill the mix, but not enough to muddy it, and the slider seems to control both intensity and duration of the reflections. It is a very useful addition, since most keyboard players tend to hook the organ directly to the mixer than to use an amp, and it helps shape the sound.

The Distortion effect is mostly an Overdrive to be honest, since a real distortion would have created a total mess over the harmonics-rich sound of an organ. It very nicely set up as to warm up the sound significantly, but not to the point of forcing the musician to use power chords. It was designed as an imitation of the Hammond tube preamp overdrive, which gave a characteristic warm color to the sound, but, as with most other features of this organ, it goes beyond that: Adding it to any other wave – especially to the F, creates a dirty, fuzzy, buzzy, irresistible mix, putting the fun in organ playing, and making this little organ achieve the impossible: To stand next to a vintage Farfisa, Gem, or Vox organ in regards of how fun it is to play.

In a world where accountants have an equal say in designing a musical instrument as the actual designers, where efficiency is prioritized over personality, and practicality over fun, Yamaha offered the best thing possible: A product that can keep both the accountant happy and the designer proud, but most of all an instrument with a sound that will make a musician excited, while being cheap and really, really portable – two more reasons for excitement.

The Evolution of Tommy Tallarico

One of the fun parts of watching the technology scene is watching the same names come around through different generations. One massive surprise, at the same time Atari is trying to drag its hardware corpse back from the dead, is Intellivision having another go at arcade fame.

The project is led by Tommy Tallarico, a name that should ring a bell for any 16-bit gaming fan. He’s the audio brains behind Earthworm Jim 2, NFL Blitz, Batman: Revenge of the Joker and many more.

The recent news that he has acquired the rights to the Intellivision brand and plans to relaunch it shows how much love people have for even the oldest technology. Intellivision was famous for its numeric keypad and the $299 console sold millions in its early years.

Expect more news on this in October, when the project goes live. You can sign up to the website for more details.

When he’s not composing or launching new businesses, Tallarico is famous as the leader of the Video Games Live concerts. Perhaps the best way to see games music live, Tallarico will often take to the stage to play his hits from Earthworm Jim and others while the games play on giant screens in the background as a full orchestra belts out the tunes.

Not a bad encore for a guy who mostly has “sound designer” on his resume. Check out a full rendition of Video Games Live here.

Diving back into his personal archive, Tallarico has over 300 games to his credit as composer or sound designer.

At Virgin Games, his first job was on the Game Boy Version of Prince of Persia, bringing the sound of the orient to Nintendo’s curious mix of a pair of pulse wave generators, and a PCM 4-bit wave sample plus noise generator. It’s not the most thrilling of soundtracks, but helped get Tallarico out of his game tester role at the company and into the music side of the business, where he promptly formed his own company.

Things hit the big time with the Cool Spot soundtrack, a game tying into the 7-Up brand. Opening up with a version of the Beach Boys’ Wipeout, this was always going to be a hit game and the antics of the red blob hero made the game a big seller.

Moving things up a big notch, as new systems came to market, came the chance to work on the Terminator Games for the Sega CD with its full-strength audio capabilities.

Tallarico’s orchestrating capabilities came to the fore with epic renditions set around the cyborg anti-hero’s arcade shooter. These helped highlight his prowess with the guitar and synth.

With more freedom to choose projects. Tallarico’s studio won plaudits for MDK an all original title that packed in an hour’s worth of creepy, spacy sci-fi tunes with a hectic pace to keep up with the shooting action.

The great work continued with a BAFTA Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design nomination for Nintendo’s Metroid Prime in 2002.

His work continues in the modern era with Advent Rising on Xbox given a full orchestral soundtrack with vocal contributions from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The game’s sales may have failed to live up to the epic soundtrack, but truly demonstrated the class of the composer, and likely led to the ideas for Video Games Live which also started touring in 2005.

Tallarico also started releasing albums of his gaming work. Starting with Virgin Games Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 in 1994, helping create the market for game music in the west.  Albums covered MDK, Bond game Tomorrow Never Dies and an Earthworm Jim Anthology.

For more, check out a recent interview with the man, always good for name-dropping his cousin Steven Tyler!

What is the Demoscene?

Demoscene may be a word you have not heard before. Reading it or saying it aloud conjures different associations depending on your background or interests.

One may summon thoughts of band demos, promotional, raw versions of songs that the band may send to record labels or event co-ordinators. However, that’s not it at all. It does have something to do with music.

Are you into computers? You may be familiar with game demos, which are promotional versions of a game featuring sneak peeks or tidbits. Demoscene is, in fact, software that has been coded to produce audio-visual artworks.

Origins in Digital Graffiti

Demoscene is a genre that sprung up in the very late 1970s/early 1980s as a result of the emergence of computer technology. Coders or “crackers” would hack/crack into games to remove their copyright protection and would add their own visual presentations to the games. These began as introduction screens with plain text listing the crackers.

These were known as signatures, the way a graffiti artist may go around and tag walls with just their name/initials or symbols. It was rather a way of showing off their ability to have cracked the game. Sometimes these intros were more technically advanced than the games themselves.

Eventually coders and viewers lost interest in the games and began making their own stand-alone demos: thus Demoscene was born.

The thrill came from creating things with computers rather than simply playing games on them. Viewers went from passive audience to active creators.

Early Days

Back then, all computers had basically the same hardware, so any changes made were fully credited to the programmer rather than one computer having better hardware than the next. This bred a very competitive atmosphere, challenging coders to create better effects than their counterparts.

In the early days, demo-making was borne of disbelief at the things computer users would see on the screen. Demo-makers would then play around to show their skill at what they could do with a computer. A large motivator has always been and continues to be the quest to find new and interesting ways of rendering graphics.

It was in 1980 that Atari, Inc., caught onto this new craze and began using a demo, on loop, that gave both visual and audio effects to show off their Atari 400 & 800 computers, which were available in stores.

Five years later, they released a demo for their newest 8-bit computers, which featured a three-dimensional walking robot and flying spaceship set, of course, to music.

It was in 1986 that Demoscene was created: or at least given a name. The original demo groups were 1001 Crew and The Judges, both from Denmark.

Demoscene remains to this day largely European and male-centric. These groups competed in 1986 with highly involved and impressive demos comprised of their own graphics and music. In the late 1980’s, the demo scene began to rise, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Demoscene Today

Demoscene is largely enjoyed by coders because of its possibilities. It enables coders to follow a system or create abstract works, making it a very popular international computer art subculture. They can – and will – work to get every last bit of performance out of their computer, since they work to produce visual and audio works. They will even extract techniques and effects not intended for the original hardware. The resulting artwork is one that shows one’s ability to program, as well as the visual and musical component. This subculture has a large following online (as you may have surmised), where users share their creations.

Demoscene to this day is mostly competition based, where the artists – whether working individually or within groups – compete to show both artistic and technical skill. Everyone in the scene must follow the implicit rules such as creating entirely original content, making the effort to figure out answers rather than ask for help and to make contacts within the scene. It is subculture that prefers to stay underground without mainstream attention. It is estimated there are about 10 000 participants.

The goal of the demoscene video is to create an experience similar to watching a music video, one that provides entertaining visuals to the sound of pleasing audio music, all entirely generated by software coding. It is also common for coders to work with musicians and graphic artists to create the demo. Most demos are created by a very small number of people.

Essentially the goal is enjoyment from start to finish: coders enjoy the artistic creativity and the technical challenge, while creating a finished product that is both entertaining and pleasing to watch.

So who are these coders? They do not go by their real names so as to avoid the attention of law enforcement, but demoscene is more about self-expression than its origins in cracking copyrighted software. Therefore, their stage names are more about the theatricality than the legality. It should be known that demosceners tend toward legal activity. Individual demosceners will have their own names, and their groups with have a name, so the demosceners will be known as (illustrated example) My Name of Certain Group.

There are often voting parties where difference demos are presented to the public and then the public votes. Traditionally they would have voted for the more technical side of demos but now the emphasis is more on overall impact or mood. Of course the subjectivity of the public is not reliable and so in recent years, Scene.org Awards has gathered a jury of renowned members to vote on the best productions. The scene was more social and casual in the 1980s with demomakers meeting to create and share their software, while the competitive side emerged in the 1990s, taking focus away from illegal activity and putting it into competitions.


Demoparties take place typically over a weekend where demosceners can socialize and partake in competitions, where they design demos all day and then show them at night. Often the visitors bring their own computers, but the party will provide a large space with tables, internet and of course, electricity.

Demosceners typically socialize more than they work on their computers when attending demoparties. These events are most often found in Europe with nearly a party every week, while in the United States, for example, there may only be two or three demoparties per year.

The events typically gather visitors from a single country, with the average attendee list from dozens to hundreds of people. Larger international parties also take place, hosting thousands of people.

Attendees will bring gadgets and decorations to set up at their workspace for the weekend. They will sleep either under their desk or in appointed rooms on air mattresses.

Female attendance at these events makes up less than 20% of the total attendee population; they usually get in for free, which is meant to encourage their participation.

What is Dark Ambient Music? History, Characteristics, Artists, and More

Dark ambient music is a sub-genre of ambient music that features dark, sometimes grinding / sometimes soothing, foreboding post-industrial soundscape dirges that speak to themes of isolation, embattlement, guilt, pain, torment, fear, suffering, hatred, shame, betrayal, disassociation, resentment, paranoia, anger, neglect, and…you name it, if it’s on the negative end of the spectrum, it’s probably in there! 

The music also is informed at times by the same occult imagery and themes that occupies darker types of metal, such as the teachings of people like Aleister Crowley (Satanism), as well as various forms of mysticism, religion, and magick.

(cue music)

…but also more positive things like beauty, reflection, exaltation, and dare I say some sort of escape and / or release do at times find their way into dark ambient music – in essence, it is a reflection the human condition itself, in all its terrible majesty. (cue picture that sums up human condition)

That said, calling the genre ostensibly negative and obsessed with evil themes is not a fair or balanced assessment of this music, I do not think.  The reason being is that emotions, even if they are strong or negative, if pushed through, somehow turn into a hard-earned positive, which is, I believe, part of the philosophy of dark ambient music.  Mind you, this is my theory only.  It may in fact be the true essence of darkness with no light at all.  I choose to be cautiously optimistic, however.

The term “dark ambient” was said to be coined by Roger Karmanik (aka Brighter Death Now), Swedish record producer for label Cold Meat Industry, sometime in the 90’s. 

To say that dark ambient is a post-industrial genre, is to suggest that once industrial music was established with bands like Ministry, KMFDM, Coil, Frontline Assembly, Einstürzende Neubauten, Skinny Puppy, in the later 1980’s and early 1990’s, dark ambient was born out of this genre as part reaction, part extension to the genre.  They are definitely of the same ilk, I believe, although I would venture to say they are the flipside of each. 

Industrial music is certainly not ambient because it is too full of sounds and conventional instruments.  Take away the guitars, drums, basses, and synth lines, and add in sounds not native to rock but perhaps more relevant to forms of worship, and this atmosphere of post-industrial is basically the essence of dark ambient, with other elements making their way in.  

Here’s Too Dark Park by Skinny Puppy, which is not at all dark ambient, but definitely a relative, and something I am compelled to place here for reference due to its tangential influence and inherent greatness.

If you were to picture a visual representation, dark ambient music might evoke a yawning void into which one might hurl oneself, and, once inside it, you start to make out shapes in the fog as you are falling into the abyss.   

Often times, dark ambient music seems to create a feeling of dread that just won’t leave you.  But it is not simply creating fear, it is also about facing fear, and almost learning to…admire it?  I’m not sure, but in listening to the music, there is a certain appreciation for the sonic textures found within.  

Despite reaching for the outer limits as it does, and the music being fairly niche, meaning the fanbase isn’t the same as say electropop music, however, the fanbase for this type of music is only growing.

History of Dark Ambient Music

Dark ambient dates back to 1960’s and 70’s, with its gnarled roots planted firmly in a few different musical genres, including ambient music, as well as krautrock, prog rock, free jazz, industrial music (as mentioned), synth pop, and even such concepts as ASMR.  I will qualify these influences shortly.  As in now.

To begin, we must include a band like Popul Vuh, and their album Affenstunde from 1970.  Popul Vuh is a pioneering synth-based band who used both moog synths and ethnic percussion in their music, hence helping to launch an entirely new and uncharted era that would become the sprawlingly diverse ambient genre as a whole.

At a relatively later time, musician Brian Eno (formerly the keyboard player for Roxy Music) started making purely ambient music, starting with Another Green World (1975) and culminating with his famed Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978). 

Music for Airports I think is largely credited with being the first full-length album of pure ambient sound which seems to leave behind the trappings of progressive rock and actually embodies the spirit of true ambient music, although it is hardly dark in theme. 

Despite not being particularly dark in mood, this album certainly informed what dark ambient would become, with its sprawling soundscapes that never really leads to any climax, but is itself just one long climax (or anti-climax). (cue Ambient 1: Music for Airports)

Many artists in the 1970’s were experimenting with synthesizers, as they were becoming more affordable in price to the average consumer.  Still, it was a select few who knew what synths were worth getting, and could use them effectively to create highly emotional music.

Tangerine Dream, for instance, had mastered the art of the full length synth-based instrumental album long before Eno dabbled in it, being closer to the time of Popul Vuh, and their masterpiece Zeit from 1972 is evidence of this mastery of which I speak. (cue Zeit)

Zeit and much of Tangerine Dream’s work in general is a better stylistic fit for what would later become dark ambient music, but the debate as to who actually spurred the movement will be debated forever, no doubt.  Still, it is interesting to examine who did what and what impact it had.  Another band you might want to check out would be the band Can.

At the same time as synths were becoming a major force in the musical landscape for the first time, progressive rock was beginning to explore much darker themes than had ever been presented previously. 

Bands like King Crimson were experimenting with sounds that were not previously part of popular music’s lexicon, and, not only that, but the arrangements were different – longer, more unsettling, and traversing into territory that confused some but thrilled others. (cue Larks’ Tongue in Aspic Part I)

That said, it was bands like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and others that were in the process of creating vast soundscapes of raw emotion that were, I think, meaning to express another dimension to human emotion that the typical rock bands of the time were not only not capable of, but other people who may not have had any emotional investment in music up until that time started to take notice.  The outcasts, the geeks, the weirdos, the shunned, etc.  But also, the intelligent, the particular, the discerning, the free-thinking.  

Some of these people would become musicians themselves and create what would become dark ambient,  while others would become lifelong fans.  The only pre-requisite was that you had to be ready to accept new forms of songs, and new emotions set to music.  

With all of these things going on, it wasn’t until until the late 70’s and bands like Throbbing Gristle came along and changed the trajectory of music forever, with their album D.o.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle. (cueD.o.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle)

The Beginning of Dark Ambient

This was the true beginning of a different direction for music – the direction that dark ambient music would eventually come to inhabit and elaborate upon.  With found sounds, un-nameable discordant noises, strange babbling voices, drones, sirens, a genuinely unsettling effect is created that was perhaps more untamed and less pretentious than anything previous.  This album is something you might hear played in an insane asylum, or if someone from an insane asylum was given a recording studio, they might make this.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this album has been used as a backdrop to any kind of mental health documentary.  That said, it is a perennial favourite of mine. 

Around this time, the world was paranoid about many things, including all out nuclear war, and it was finding its way into society via games and movies, with many movies of the day being genuinely terrifying, ie. The Exorcist, The Omen, and then followed by the slasher films.  The world was getting more filled with terror by the second, and much of the music was reflecting that as well.  New and exciting nihilist bands were forming all the time, beneath the surface, just as synth pop and MTV were becoming more mainstream.

Whether The Third And Final Report was the first or the most important album to help define this new sound, it doesn’t matter.  It was certainly a signpost on the road, and an album helped to create a new format for albums which opened the floodgates for both a new type of musician and a new type of fan.  In some ways, this composition by Throbbing Gristle is more sound collage than it is any kind of music, and yet it was presented as music, as accepted as such.  It got the gears turning.  

As mentioned in another article, the tendency for artists to use synthesizers to create popular music splintered off into what would become electropop and synth pop, while some artists went in a darker direction, creating genres that were darker and less mainstream, but still upbeat, such as synthwave

Still others went down an even bleaker path towards what would become industrial music and eventually dark ambient music. (cue Prime Mover by Coph Nia)

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

And so, somewhere between the mid-80’s and today, dark ambient music was born and began to grow and evolve.  In my recollection, ambient music didn’t register (with me at least) until artists like Aphex Twin became famous for his Selected Ambient Works albums.  From there, I became interested in where the genre came from, and the directions that it had been going. 

That was simply my entry point into the ambient genre as a whole, with dark ambient being one highway to drive down after taking many detours through all of the genres I’ve previously mentioned – industrial, ambient, progressive rock –  to arrive at a genre with its own distinct characteristics which does exhibit certain trademarks, but seems as well to have no visible / audible limits.

With dark ambient artists like Oöphoi, Coil, Aghiatrias, CTI, Deutsch Nepal, Hafler Trio, Rapoon, Klaus Wiese, Lustmord, Coph Nia, Nocturnal Emissions, PGR, Thomas Köner, Zoviet France, Lab Report, Akira Yamaoka, Robin Rimbaud, Endura, Controlled Bleeding, Vidna Obmana, Daniel Menche, Lull, Hwyl Nofio, and so many others creating and having had created so many epic and deeply affecting and emotional albums, dark ambient is a rich and vibrant community of artists that exist mostly on an underground level, and yet making some of the most epic music possible.  

To hear some more recent dark ambient music, check out our playlist below…

What Is Electropop Music? Characteristics, History, Popular Artists, and More

Electropop, as a musical genre, has existed since electronic synthesizer-based music fused with pop music to create a new genre that is now widely known as electropop. 

In other words, if your music has synthetic elements, and yet aims to be popular, it could be considered “electropop”. 

But this is too simple an explanation – let’s dig a little deeper and explore the history, some of the characteristics, and popular artists working in the genre right now.

History of Electropop Music

The genre found its footing in the 1980’s with all sorts of electronics-based pop bands who were finding mainstream success, such as New Order, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Pet Shop Boys, A Flock Of Seagulls, Aha, Soft Cell, Simple Minds, Erasure, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Depeche Mode, and countless others.  Back then, it was known as synth pop. 

Remember this classic synth pop song from The Breakfast Club Soundtrack – Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me)?

There was no “electro pop” label around this time in the early to mid-80’s, but there was electro-punk music.  However, “electro-punk” I believe referred to groups like Suicide, maybe Devo, and even early Human League. 

The whole “electro” label just wasn’t used widely yet during the 80’s, they apparently liked the word “synth” better. 

My guess is that “electro” still reminded people of electric instruments, which were already widely in use, so they needed to differentiate.  Who’s “they”?  The writers who wrote for music periodicals, of course.  Rolling Stone, NME, etc. 

Influencers of Electropop

The bands that influenced all of these new synth-based pop music were far more progressive in nature than what amounts to electropop today – back then, it was synth pioneers like Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, even Pink Floyd and Bowie – these were some of the very earliest synth-based songwriters who experimented with the technology and became widely known as masters of that technology before anyone else.

Here’s Jean-Michel Jarre, with Oxygene, Pt. 4 – a song that came out well before even synth pop emerged in the 1980’s.

Synth-based pop music artists, who started their careers in the 1970’s, and who were really hitting it big by the mid-80’s, showed us that electronic pop music could become just as widely accepted as many of the larger rock bands of the day. 

The rise of synth pop was surely to the dismay of some rock bands and out of touch record company execs at the time, who didn’t want to have to deal with a whole new batch of weirdos wielding instruments that didn’t look very exciting (futuristic pianos), and people that moved in a more “unnatural” way.

A good example of this new type of “weird” music could be summed up with a band like Devo, who looked more like geeks and dweebs than any type of typical rock star. 

However, if you were around in the ’80’s, you knew that movies by the likes of director John Hughes and others were presenting social outcasts in a new light. 

It was “revenge of the nerds” out there, folks, and all sorts of people who were formerly cast aside were starting to become more generally accepted in society.  Life imitates art, they say. 

This clip from the Revenge of the Nerds movie shows the influence of electronic pop bands at the time on popular movies, which were seen in theatres and on video cassette by millions throughout North America.

With synth pop on the rise, and its more fringe elements starting to align with the concerns of Western society, the music loving public was now willing to accept synth-based music as a legitimate form of music, just as they had accepted rhythm and blues before that into the cultural lexicon.

Synth Pop’s Mass Appeal 

In terms of why synths caught on in the first place, I think that once the prices dropped for certain synths, which were, prior to the early 80’s, too expensive for most musicians to afford – well, these now slightly affordable synths eventually were within reach of more “normal” people, and more and more musicians started using them for songwriting purposes. 

That’s when synth pop / electro-pop bands started to surface, as people got a hold of the synths needed to make the music. 

Here’s a popular synth pop track from the time, which many of you might remember – Take On Me by A-ha.

I’ll throw in a personal anecdote at this time to corroborate some of this information I’ve been saying.  In 1984, when I was 7 and in Grade 3 here in Canada, I remember we had an assembly in the gym where a number of synth pop bands came to our school and played synthesizer music for us. 

I believe they came from the high schools, and it was just an event to show us smaller kids what was happening in the world outside.  All these teenagers had weird hair (ie. mohawks, hair dye, giant rat tails and mullets), and played various types of keyboards that looked like pianos but didn’t SOUND like pianos at all.  I remember being slightly confused, but very impressed. 

The point is, by the mid-80’s, kids were getting synths for Christmas and were putting their piano lessons to use by forming synth pop bands, some of whom had just watched movies like The Breakfast Club.

As the 80’s progressed, synth pop bands around the country started hauling these large synths out on stage for live performances, and that’s when critics took note that bands started looking and acting different, being quite suspicious of these bands at first. 

After all, most concert goers and editorial writers only knew rock ‘n’ roll for the longest time, and had yet to catch up with the paradigm shift that a large part of society had already experienced. 

These stuffed shirts and yuppie types who were accustomed to things being a certain way all the time, certainly weren’t ready for people like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper – these total freaks that were also female, to boot!  Scary!

For some people, having their daughter take after Madonna was their worst nightmare.  Still applies today!

As mentioned, “electropop” as a descriptive term for a style of music still hadn’t been born yet, and the terms around this time were synth pop, new wave, and electro punk.  Even Madonna, who was one of the biggest musical stars ever by the end of the ’80’s, was still referred to as a pop artist, if anything. 

Also around this time (mid-80’s), hip hop was beginning to develop out of New York, with artists like Afrika Bambaata, and it too was based mostly on electronic elements with some help from Mr. James Brown.

Still, no genre of music was really being referred to as electropop at the time, as it was still filtering its way into the deepest levels of society. 

By the 1990’s, “pop” was a common way to describe a lot of music that was in the charts.  If it wasn’t rock, it was pop, unless it was jazz, or blues, or something else. 

In fact, if memory serves, all of the electronic music that was being written in the ’90’s and was considered groundbreaking such as Underworld, Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, Orbital, etc. 

Their music was called just that – broadly labelled as electronic music, and was still considered a fringe element along with the venues in which electronic music was played – raves, festivals, dark clubs, and such.  Even though these types of events were becoming far less fringe and more appealing to the masses.

In retrospect, this, of course, was the rise of DJ culture, and as such, most rock people and even people who were accepting of synth pop in the ’80’s wasn’t exactly prepared to accept rave culture into their homes.  That is, until they had to because it was just too damn popular to ignore any longer.


If you ask me, electropop didn’t become a specially used term until the 2000’s, when all of the electronic music and all of the pop music finally merged to create a single definable style with certain characteristics.

Artists like Lady Gaga, Calvin Harris, Ke$ha, Hardwell, and The Chainsmokers have been dominating the charts now for years and their music could easily fall under the umbrella term of electropop, even though their music would also naturally fall into other sub-genres as well.

Let’s have a look at and a listen to perhaps the queen of electropop – Lady Gaga, from back in 2008 when she performed on Ellen.

To define electropop, it doesn’t have to be complicated, and yet it sort of is.  It is a style of music that is often heavy on synths, but avoids certain cliches that a genre like synthwave might embrace.  For instance, electropop is modern, without being retro-futuristic if that makes any sense. 

To explain, a similar genre like synthwave music harkens back to the days of synth pop and retro electronic sounds from the 60’s / 70’s / 80’s, typically of the progressive variety.  Electropop, on the other hand, is music made for this moment, is influenced by all sorts of world music styles but especially hip hop, and doesn’t rely on any sort of dystopian futurism for it’s stylistic cues. 

Which means, electropop isn’t usually very dirty production-wise or overly dark or sinister theme-wise.  Rather, the themes of electropop tend to be more eternal – love lost and found, and more relatable themes of that sort.

Check out this classic Calvin Harris track from 2009 called I’m Not Alone.  It has some guitar, yes, but it also builds around some epic synths, making the whole production sound huge.

Electropop now is like synth pop was, or pop music in general always has been – meant to be timeless.  Instead of using a lot of standard rock instrumentation (which it reserves the right to if it wants), electropop music itself can be built up with synths so long as the synths aren’t too retro-sounding. 

They can be retro, but not past say, the late 90’s, or it gets into that territory of 80’s synth pop which is does try to consciously avoid, I think. 

I would say that the synths used in electropop music sometimes has to play down their synth leads, due to the inclusion of vocals, whereas more experimental styles of electronic music don’t have the pop vocal performance to worry about as much (my highly generalized take on things, I know).

While electropop has been described as robotic and artificial by some (in terms of production, if nothing else), electropop music still manages to dominate most pop radio stations today, as electropop artists tend to write songs specifically to be catchy and have mainstream appeal. 

Other similar genres to electropop will opt for a more underground appeal, which serves to legitimize them more with certain fanbases, whereas electropop always goes for the largest audience possible, because it is “pop”, after all. 

Cue “Fireflies” by Owl City.

That said, the genre can still be experimental music in nature if it so chooses, as it is perpetually trying to be cutting edge and modern, attracting the slickest producers in the game, as well as some of the most talented artists in music right now. 

And, at the same time as it tries to be cutting edge, many detractors of electropop will claim that the genre is to music as the Twinkie is to nutrition – as in, devoid of any real value due to it’s assembly line production style.  In the end, all views are subjective, and tastes obviously differ from person to person.  

Like it or not, electropop is a dominant force in music today because it is one of the remaining musical genres where the success level can still be huge, as evidenced by artists like Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Owl City, Passion Pit, and others. 

And, with the accessibility of recording software and hardware, it is easier than ever for an artist to write an electropop song by themselves with no help from anyone, and make it sound like it was written by a million-dollar producer.  So, what are you waiting for?  Go do it.  If the Owl City guy can do it, why can’t you?

What Is Synthwave Music? History, Characteristics, Artists, and More!

Music these days has splintered off into a thousand and one sub-genres.  Who can keep track?  Me, I guess.  With the genre known as synthwave, there is the added complication of there being two different incarnations, with one appearing in the late 1970’s and lasting for another decade or so, and the other being much more recent, starting in the 2000’s and continuing to this day.

If you are new to synthwave, we will try to describe the difference between the two genres, and clarify what exactly synthwave is now. But first, we’ll dip into the history of the genre.

History of Synthwave

What synthwave is and what it was are basically two different things.  The original genre of synthwave was also called synth-pop or sometimes electropunk.  It was never really called synthwave actually, or even “synth wave”, specifically.  If I recall correctly, it was referred to as synth pop, but some writers may have called it synth wave at some point.  For our intents here, we will distinguish between the first wave being called synth wave (note the space), and then the second and most recent incarnation being synthwave.  Get it?

Before we go further, here’s a taste of some old school synth wave from one of my favourite 80’s movies, the 1981 John Carpenter classic, Escape from New York with Kurt Russell starring as Snake Plissken as…ah, look it up if you feel like it.

Escape from New York doesn’t exactly “embody” the genre of synth wave aka synth pop, but no one song or soundtrack does. 

The essential premise of the original wave of synth-based music, under the umbrella term of synth pop (but was not really synth pop at all), is that it involved any music that contained a lot of synths, was used for a sci fi or action movie soundtrack, and combined it with a type of futurism, with the result being a type of music that best used for scoring films and video games. 

Synth pop was part of this “wave” of synth-based music, but synthwave, or what would become synthwave nowadays, was sort of an undefined type of synth music that was becoming popular due to the proliferation of the technology, plus the types of movies and games that were permeating pop culture at the time.  Speaking of pop culture, I remember in 1987 when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was in theatres, and this song, called “Oh Yeah” by Yello, came on the screen at the end.  By this point, you knew (or can see in retrospect, at least) that pop music and offbeat experimental electronic music had finally melded into one.  


Who influenced the first coming of synth wave?  Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, and Vangelis are some of the essential first wave synth proponents from the ’70’s, not to mention all of the retro gaming music composers like Rob Hubbard, Matt Gray, and countless other old school retro video gaming music gods.  

These guys had their roots in classical, jazz, and prog rock, so they weren’t exactly mainstream hitmakers.  In fact, they weren’t part of the mainstream at all, although their sound was so powerful that it attracted new fans left and right.  

There were still most often vocals in these original synth wave songs that became hits in the 80’s, like any other pop song of the day, but often songs had no vocals to highlight the soundtrack nature of some of the songs, as shown in the above examples for instance.  It was always a dichotomy, with some songs going straight for the pop jugular, and others being steeped in obscure references and progressive music from the past.  

Here’s a synth pop song with vocals that was aiming for mass appeal, from classic synth pop band Depeche Mode.

In many cases both the bands who performed synth wave, in the manner that people still play it today, represented “the future” in one way or another, either performing as robots, cyborgs, (ie. Kraftwerk) or some type of futurist (often dystopian). 

Of course, if they were more on the new romantic side of things, they might just be sharp dressed individuals with some type of distinctive “look”.  Hair was always something to check out on these artists.  Think Duran Duran circa 1984.  They still had guitars, but synth was a big part of their sound and they went on to be one of the biggest bands the world has ever known.

Here is a band that informed the original synth pop bands a great deal – the legendary Kraftwerk.  This was back before they really modelled their look after dystopian futurism, in 1975.  They went on to call it “machine music”.

Divergence of Synth Pop and Synthwave

It is also worth noting that when it comes to categorizing music in general, the acts that were considered “synth” groups in this original period of the 70’s/80’s were more so labelled as such by music journalists who were having a hard a time figuring out what to refer to these new and different bands as in music magazines. 

Music industry people had never seen bands like these before, nor were they familiar with synths in general, so no one really knew what to call these types of groups.  Should they be called synth pop, new wave, synth wave, electro punk?  Synth pop, to my knowledge, was the prevailing term of synth-based bands at the time.  Synthwave, as we now know it, was still at this time more of a loose concept than a formal term, and embodied the more experimental aspects of synth pop.

 Here is the group, Yazoo (AKA Yaz), with their hit, “Only You”, written by synth master Vince Clarke.  Undoubtedly synth pop.

The bands themselves didn’t always refer to themselves by any such label, ie. “synth pop”, or anything else at the time.  That said, once the term synth pop had caught on, bands realized they could benefit by billing themselves as such, and so they did later on, once the term had been firmly entrenched in mass culture as a whole.

Many of these synth-based acts, while reaching their peak in the 1980’s, still started their careers in the 1970’s, when synthesizers were becoming more accessible to musicians by virtue of slightly lower prices at music stores. 

What Is Synthwave Now Vs Then?

The relatively “new” breed of synthwave music is not really referring to the old guard of acts who once embodied the genre like Depeche Mode, and the rest.  Synthwave (no space this time) began in the early 2000’s, and, like the synth pop of old, certain tracks were instrumental only, while others feature vocals prominently.  This has never been the deciding feature of the genre.

Let’s kick this section off with some Mitch Murder and his classic track, “Remember When”, which flashes back to the ’80’s and some of the great nostalgic memories from movies of that time including E.T., the Karate Kid, the Breakfast Club, and more.

Modern synthwave, while it does sometimes target mainstream listeners, generally is more of an underground self-aware type of affair, with only a select group of listeners who care about old movies, video games, and synth pop caring about very much. 

That said, while its crowd is currently somewhat selective, I think it is also fair to say that synthwave has elements that appear in all forms of modern popular music in terms of radio hits nowadays, because most radio hits love to incorporate synths more now than ever into their song arrangements. Still, this type of music would now be considered electropop, not synthwave.  

Regardless of which demographic it is aimed at, this new form of the genre takes everything that happened in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, including video games, movie soundtracks by famed directors like John Hughes and John Carpenter, and, of course, the original bands that inspired the name (pop, experimental, or otherwise), and mash it into one glorious cocktail of sounds to give us what is the essence of “synthwave” now. 

Let’s have a listen to the track Ghost Dancers Slay Together, by Perturbator, which definitely throws back to some serious old school vibes featuring a dystopian cyberpunk aesthetic.

It was in the 80’s that the music business and fans as well realized how much they loved the sound of dystopian futurism, and it became bigger in some ways than anyone might ever have dreamed. 

Not to name drop Depeche Mode again, but in recent years their world tours have generated more money than almost anyone else, and even though they typically are thought of as synth pop, they too have strong synthwave elements – go figure.  

The new synthwave really makes no bones about where it comes from – it honours the past while also playing with it, then serves to experiment and forge new ground where it can.  It is not a limited genre, but, like all genres, it follows certain trends and cliches which everyone loves and are tried and true.

Equipment Used in Synthwave

The driving principle behind the music described as synthwave now is – surprise – using lots of synths.  Whether it’s an actual analog synthesizer, or a VST (Virtual Studio Techology) which replicates old school synth sounds, synthwave tracks generally feature these sounds, as well as synth drums.  Big, evil basslines are also found in synthwave music, courtesy of the right analog gear or particularly juicy VST’s. 

Retro elements from old video games and movies are definitely taken advantage of as well, in the form of certain familiar tropes.  At the same time as the music has a retro feel, it uses modern production to update the sounds which, in their original incarnation, may have been more contained and sparsely produced, can now be blown up to sound huge and, more suitable for today’s larger than life global culture.  Since synth users were always considered more geeky than their rock guitar playing counter parts, it is no surprise that they seem to have a better insight into musical production, if I may generalize.

Check out this epic track by Gunship, called Art3mis & Parzival, which successfully combines all the elements that make synthwave what it is – dystopian futurism, retro gaming, soundtrack music, but it combines it with more modern elements as well.

Another element of synthwave today is the “open source” nature of the sounds themselves.  Creators of certain tracks are apt to share various patches with other creators in order to create certain sounds.  This, in a way, makes the “sound” or “effect” the star just as much as the artist.  Because, once artists become aware of a particular patch as being a good one, the community will rally around it and actively mention it and promote it.

But synthwave is now more than just music.  It is also wrapped up in culture itself, with synthwave style art also being somewhat definable.  Just drop by any platform that features a visual component (instagram, etc), and you’re bound to see some synthwave style artworks.

Unfortunately for those of us who would like to keep things simple, the rabbit hole that is synthwave goes far deeper than just simply defining the genre and being done with it.  Synthwave grows tentacles in the forms of sub-genres like vapourwave, futuresynth, retrowave, and outrun, to name but a few sub-genres. 

If you were a kid in the ’80’s, you might know “outrun” as Outrun, a popular driving video game.  Yeah, it’s that, but it’s also a genre now too, thanks to the 2013 album by Kavinsky that produced fast-paced synth music perfect for driving. 

Speaking of synth-driven driving music, the successful 2011 movie Drive, featuring Ryan Gosling, also helped to bring synthwave to the fore.

Today, it’s shows like Stranger Things and the 2017 version of Blade Runner that have helped to keep synthwave popular.

Another feature of synthwave music that is particular to these times is the fact that it is self-produced, and is effectively an underground movement.

With platforms like Bandcamp, Youtube, and Soundcloud being huge incubators for new ideas, they tend to draw in synthwave artists because there is no barrier between the artist and releasing their work to the public.  And these days, you never know what will be popular next, although many artists are content to exist in their dark little corner of the web as well, as not all artists crave the adulation of the masses.

We hope this clears things up a little bit as to what synthwave is all about.  

WesAudio DIONE Analog Bus Compressor Review

As my mixing has progressed over the years I have found my mixes started to translate a lot better with some master bus or parallel compression, or both.

Not to say my mixes were bad before, but I realised after a while that the mix is often as important as all the sweating you can do to your rough mix. I was an avid user of SSL style compressors and I loved the smack of the sound of them, but this was always a software version.

To be honest, for a long time, I made the mistake of putting a L1/L2 compressor on the master bus and left it at that. To get a really nice, punchy upfront and radio-friendly sound, you can’t do better than a SSL style or Neve compressor on the master to stick it all together. 

I’d been looking for a SSL style bus compressor for a while, and had been looking into a number of outboard compressors to put on my mix bus, but had been generally turned off by the price being about the $1500-2000 mark and the fact I would have to print my mixes back in. I have always been a big supporter of the waves plugins and had purchased the SSL bundle for the same purpose about 3 years ago.

Before using the Waves SSL bundle, I used the original Avid Impact plugin but this was discontinued when Pro Tools went to 64 bit. I generally like to put a VCA style compressor on my mix bus for glue type duties, it tends to stick everything together nicely, I had for quite sometime used a McDSP AC1 analogue channel for some analogue warmth (essentially doing some harmonic distortion) alongside this but nothing really compares to going outside the box.

I also realised that the tape style emulators do have a nice sound but tend to smear the mix a bit and make it a bit well, tape sounding.

So, after many years of using this system and being quite happy, I couldn’t resist looking into the hardware options and seeing what was about.

The Solid State Logic brand stuff is not cheap and I have heard from several sources they vary in quality depending on the model and the vintage. They have a propriety X-logic series, the original series, a one rack unit version, and of course the new and ever popular API 500 series style.

There are several single rack unit devices around but I have wanted to get into 500 series for ages, it’s a really nice way to get a broad range of really nice studio channel devices at a reasonable price.

I knew I would get into 500 series at some point, and for me it makes a lot of high end quality in a really accessible format. The list of wants grows and grows but I’ve got my eyes on the clariphonics, the Maag and a few others.

There is so much new equipment in this format, it’s very easy to get lost drooling for EQ’s Compressors and Pre-amps. I like the idea of a small format device that doesn’t cost the earth and serves a purpose in a studio that is always downsizing rather than growing.

The explosion of this format is similar to what has happened with Eurorack modular synth stuff, it gives you great flexibility and enables studios to differentiate and create their specific sound.

In the SSL style compressor (500 series) marketplace alone there are several options with things like the SMART C1, The Dramastic Obsidian, the BC1 and more recently the DIONE. 

I was surveying the reviews and prices of these devices for several months and really liked the up and coming companies putting resources in to cheaper alternatives. The c1 is probably the top of the tier and competitive to SSL itself, but the others are pretty similar in price. There is an excellent comparison of the different units around on an episode of Produce Like a Pro here:

The unit I decided to get was the Wes Audio Dione. It was not for the fact that it was cheapest, not because it sounded way better than the others.  No, actually these style of compressors actually sound quite similar and really only differ slightly in features like side chain input, mix knob, THD and a few other things.

I bought this one because of the story behind it and the people who made it by hand. Wes Audio are a small company out of Szczecin, Poland, they have about 4 people working on these and other outboard analog modules, all built by hand.

Perhaps one of the best features is the fact that you can control this device via USB as a plug-in.  In other words, it’s the best of both worlds. You see if you do decide to go outboard one of the pet hates is the need to store settings or write them down somewhere, so if you do need to make changes to a mix you can re-create it easily.

The best feature with the DIONE is the plug-in runs as a dummy controller and re-set your device when you open up the session, voila’ total recall!  The device is punchy as hell and in A/B tests with software versions it left them for dead.

I do have to print my mixes in real time now but for the sake of a few minutes and the sonic quality it imparts its all worth it.

Now if I could just get some money together for a master bus EQ…

Analog Tape Recorders – An In Depth Look at their History and Evolution

Fritz_Pfleumer tape recorder

Here we will take an in depth look at the history and subsequent development of the device known as the “tape recorder”, starting with its analog roots and moving beyond into the realm of digital. 

Tape recorders, in some ways, have gone out of style, and yet they still persist into the 21st century for their practical uses, simplicity of use, as well as their aesthetic not to mention economically advantageous charms for both consumer and prosumer alike.

This is why they remain an essential part of how we capture sound for archival, and also entertainment, purposes – to this very day!

Old tape recorder

According to Wikipedia, the “Magnetophon” was noted as the first fully functional reel to reel magnetic tape recorder – was originally a trademark registered by AEG in 1930, based on an invention by German engineer Fritz Pfleumer. 

That said, while this may be true, tape recording technology definitely pre-dates Pleumer’s invention by many decades, a journey which we’ll be exploring presently.

Table of Contents:

  • The First Analog Sound Recordings
  • de Martinville’s Phonoautograph
  • Charles Cros’s Paleophone (“Voice of the Past”)
  • Edison’s Phonograph
  • Oberlin Smith and the invention of Magnetic Tape Recorders
  • Valdemar Poulsen’s Telegraphone (Patent Application #661,619)
  • Pfleumer’s Magnetophon
  • Development of Magnetic Tape Recorders
  • Tape Recorders and the Nazis
  • First Classical Concerts Recorded
  • Reaching the General Public
  • History of the VCR
  • Nagra Portable Crank Handle
  • How a Cassette Tape Recorder Works
  • Reel Diameter
  • Adjusting the Magnetic Heads
  • Connection Sockets
  • Record Setting
  • Removing Clocks & Snoring
  • Recording and Playback Times
  • Monophonic or Stereophonic
  • Advantages and Disadvantages of Long Durations
  • Professional Tape Recorders
  • Comparison of Cassettes
  • Maintenance of Magnetic Heads
  • Analog Tape Conservation, Transfer, and Archiving
  • Tape Recording Tricks
  • Superposition in Re-recording Multiplay
  • Echo and Reverb
  • Main Manufacturers
  • Portable Mobile Recording – Nagra Portable Recorder
  • Uher
  • Misc. Manufacturers
  • Evolution Summary
  • Switching from Analog to Digital
  • The Digital Tape Recorder (DAT)
  • Computer Data

The First Analog Sound Recordings

To understand the origins of analog sound, we must first understand what exactly is an analog signal.

In essence, an analog signal doesn’t need to be sound per sé.  It can be any measurable expression of energy, in a variety of forms. 

analog signal

An analog signal is a continuous signal in constant flux which is expressed through a device of some kind, such as a thermostat (temperature), scale (weight), speedometer (speed), or tape recorder (sound signal).  

de Martinville’s Phonoautograph

There are countless analog devices that have appeared through the past several centuries, but in terms of recording devices, the first such device was technically Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s “phonoautograph”, dating back to 1860.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

The first recorded sounds, called phonoautograms (after the device), were done by de Martinville himself, singing the French folk song, “Au Clair de la Lune”, and have made their way to Youtube, so you can hear them below.

It is worth noting that while the phonoautograph did technically record sound, it was never meant to play it back. 

The device was created more as a replica of the human ear, where the results of the recording were meant to help visualize sound, in terms of being able to compare the sizes and shapes of waveforms and study musical pitch.

Charles Cros – Paleophone (“Voice of the Past”)

For the first playable groove, we can look to the French poet and inventor Charles Cros, who envisioned a way to play back airborne soundwaves, based on the concepts introduced by the phonoautograph.

charles cros

In 1877, he described the process of playing back sound that he conceived of, thusly to the Academy of Sciences in Paris (translated from French): “A lightweight armature is fixed to the center of the face of a vibrating membrane; it ends with a sharp point, which rests on a lamp-blacked surface.” 

Sound familiar?  This could very well be the idea for the first record, but Charles was picturing more of a cylindrical shape, and suggesting in his letter various ways of inscribing the vibrations of sound onto a surface with a durable but fine-tipped object.

Now, before Charles Cros could create a working model of his Paleophone, the first Phonograph arrived on the scene, courtesy of one Thomas Edison…

Edison’s Phonograph


This device was the first to feature audio recording playback, and it was a “hit”.

But what exactly is a phonograph?  The phonograph was a mechanical device also called a gramophone, invented and trademarked by Edison in 1887 that was able to record sound, and also reproduce it, via a record. 

But first, airborne sound waves needed to go into a horn-shaped receiver, in order to be captured via the recorder.  You may recognize this famous picture below.


More on the process: “Sound vibration waveforms are recorded as corresponding physical deviations of a spiral groove engraved, etched, incised, or impressed into the surface of a rotating cylinder or disc”. (Wikipedia’s Phonograph entry).

Here is a phonograph in action below…

Oberlin Smith and the invention of magnetic tape recorders

Oberlin Smith

Enter Oberlin Smith, New Jersey machinist.

After meeting Edison at the Centennial World’s Expo in Philadelphia, 1876, Smith and Edison became acquainted and Smith managed to get his hands on an actual phonograph, which Edison gave to him, in April of 1878, which Smith then began using, as one would.

Around September of 1878, Smith came up with ideas for potential improvements to the phonograph, which involved magnetic tape.

According to oberlinsmith.org, Smith “outlines the possibility of magnetic sound recording on a magnetizable medium of tempered steel which is magnetized by a short helix. Playback by means of induction. Advantages: cheap, simple, “delicacy”.”


These improvements were submitted to the Cumberland County Clerk by Smith, and marked the invention of magnetic tape recording as an idea, if not yet fully applied.  

Oberlin Smith also submitted some of his ideas to a magazine called The Electrical World, which saw some of his ideas published in 1888, September, as “Some Possible Forms of Phonograph”.  Here below is a copy of The Electrical World from 1887.


Despite his ideas being published in The Electrical World as a reader letter where he explains “the elongatedly drawn coil as an error in illustration and refers to his experiments with a single-pole transducer”, and despite ordering several buttons of “mercury-impregnated carbon” from Edison, Oberlin Smith would not be the man to first actually patent or build an actual magnetic tape recorder.

Valdemar Poulsen’s Telegraphone (Patent Application #661,619)

The first successful filing of patents for the first magnetic tape recording was by Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen (pictured below) in 1898, who created what would be called the Telegraphone (Patent Application #661,619), the first functional magnetic tape recorder.

This device was then debuted at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, where he recorded the voice of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, astounding the crowd there.

valdemar poulsen

For years, Oberlin Smith challenged Poulsen’s patents, apparently having met him some time earlier, and not receiving credit from Poulsen, to which he got no response.

Eventually, however, Smith was credited by Emile Berliner at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia as being the first to propose the idea of magnetic tape recording, and publicly brings into question whether Poulsen was dependent on Smith’s ideas, or not. 

Dying in 1926, Smith is credited with the Autofono, an automatic record changer, just weeks before his death.

Pfleumer’s Magnetophon

A collaboration between AEG Berlin an BASF Ludwigshafen, along with the ingenuity of Fritz Pfleumer, sees the emergence of the “Magnetophon” at the Berlin Radio Exhibition, in 1935, which is a huge success and it is at this point where tape recorders, as well as recordings, begin to find their foothold in global recording culture. 

Fritz_Pfleumer tape recorder

Plfeumer, for his part in this story, is the man who was able to bind powder to tape, upon request of BASF, while he was developing a cigarette filter.

This resulted in what is considered the first truly practical tape recorder, although the sound quality was still rather grainy.

Development of Tape Recorders

AEG then embarked on an extensive program of research and development on magnetic heads, tape transport mechanisms, and amplifiers to perfect their new model for the tape recorder.

At the same time, work on the magnetic strips were carried out at the IG Farben plants in Ludwigshafen (now BASF).  The collaboration we mentioned in the last section was beginning to take shape.

At the beginning, the strips were not extremely durable. They are 5 mm wide and run at 1 m / s. The quality, at this point in time, was still mediocre and breakage was common.

In 1932, AEG expanded the band to 6.5 mm and decided to work on a new, stronger support: the first acetate bands were born in 1934.

They were, at this time, covered with carbonyl (carbonyl iron). Still, the size of the particles did not allow for high quality recordings, and the DC pre-magnetization made the medium very linear.

The few musical recordings from this era are of a disastrous quality.  That said, things were on the up and up.


IG Farben perfected the band in 1936 by replacing the carbonyl with iron oxide Fe3O4 which was black in color.

The scrolling speed is then reduced to 77 cm / s (which the Americans will round off in 1945 at 30 inches per second, or 76.2 cm / s). It was not until 1939 that the brown iron oxide Fe 2 O 3 was used for better sound quality.

High fidelity was only possible in 1941 with the use of high-frequency pre-magnetization (although discovered in the 1920s, it will remain ignored until a recorder produces records of unsurpassed quality: pre-magnetization with direct current had oscillated).

Tape Recorders and the Nazis


Adolf Hitler and his party go on to make extensive use of the tape recorder for their radio speeches: public speeches like those of the Reichstag were systematically recorded.

Other speeches were pre-recorded and broadcast from studios after Hitler had left the premises, allowing for the proliferation of Nazi propaganda all over Europe.

The quality of the amplitude-modulated radios of the time (4,500 Hz bandwidth) rendered the sound of the tape recorder indistinguishable from that of him speaking directly.

These events just go to show that technology, when it falls into amoral hands, will of course be used for such deeds.  Once the technology exists, the cat is officially out of the bag, as they say.  Anyone can use it – even a misguided and malevolent dictator.

First Classical Concerts Recorded

early classical recordings

As early as 1939, AEG worked on a head with two air gaps to record two tracks on the same band.

Initially, it is only to capable of recording the same signal in push-pull fashion, but this method does not succeed.

The first stereophonic recordings were made in 1942. Most of the concerts were recorded as early as 1941, of which more than 250 were recorded in stereo.

In 1945, the Russians seized about 50,000 bands of all kinds, of which only a little more than a thousand were returned to Germany in 1991.

Among them, there are a number of public concerts directed by Furtwängler, Karajan, Knapertsbuch, and more than 600 bands of lieder (Schubert, Schumann, Mahler) with Michael Raucheisen on piano. 

Here is a very early Beethoven recording, where the quality is surprisingly high.

Tape Recorders Reach The General Public

Tape recording became widespread as early as 1946 in America where Bing Crosby made his shows on tape before pressing them to disc.

Ampex will dominate the market for several decades.

The first tape recorder sold to the public in 1947 is the Brush’s Soundmirror BK-401, which also produces its own tapes, initially made of paper and then made of plastic.

Soundmirror BK-401

Scotch launched in tape in 1948 with tape Type 100 (paper) followed by 101 (plastic).

History of the VCR

As early as 1950, the Americans worked on a method of recording the television image on tape. The VERA system is functional, but too greedy in terms of the amount tape needed.

It is Ampex who will produce the first video tape recorder 2 inches (quadruplex system). The machine will be functional as early as 1956 and will even work in color as early as 1957.


The phonographic industry will also use the tape recorder to replace the wax patches that did not allow for any editing.

The companies Deutsch Grammophon and Telefunken will be the first to use the AEG tape recorders to record their 78-turn discs (and later microphones).

France will start using tape recorders for radio in 1948 and tape recorders will begin to attract audiences in the early 1950’s.

Nagra Portable Crank Handle

In 1951, the Nagra I (miniature lamps and crank winding) was the first very small (1/4 inch) magnetic tape recorder (30 x 18 x 10 cm) and revolutionized the recording of radio reportage.


The Nagra climbs to the highest level (above sea level, that is), accompanying an expedition on Everest and sinks into the depths along with the bathyscaphe of Professor Piccard.

In the early years, amateurs used their tape recorder more to record their family affairs than to record a record or radio (what the novices did sometimes by microphone in front of the loudspeaker with very little sound fidelity, lamps with few connection sockets to a tape recorder).

How A Cassette Tape Recorder Works

A cassette tape recorder had a central device in which the tape was made to pass from the transmitting coil, consisting of a left-hand guide, a head for erasing any previous recordings, a head a recording head, a recording head (or a single recording / playback head), a driving assembly carried out by the capstan on one side, a rubber roller performing the pressure on the other, and a straight guide, before joining the take-up spool.

panasonic rq2101

Each of the two spools was held by a small central spindle with 3 triangular spikes, arranged on a small circular horizontal support plate (unlike a 78-spindle or micro-spindle disk, the central cylindrical spigot and simple adhesion and weight (except soft discs) on the non-smooth surface of the tray was sufficient) to ensure rotation of the take-up spool, the speed of the belt being controlled by that of the capstan, as well as that of the transmitter and receiver for fast winding or rewinding.

tape recorder mechanism

In order to pass the magnetic side of the strip on the side of the heads, and not the other way round, the strips being brown on both sides (color of iron oxide) and then dark brown in the 1970’s, of spotting was the frosted aspect on the magnetism side, and shining on the other side.

In order to maintain sufficient band tension on the left and right transmitting and receiving coils, a motor drives the take-up spool forcefully at a slightly higher speed than the maximum rotational speed, as well as the slightly revolving transmitter.

Reel Diameter

The coils were plastic or metal, and similar to movie projectors 8mm.

The most common diameters were 8 cm (dictaphones and portable mobile equipment), 13 cm (mobile portable equipment), 15  cm and 18  cm (domestic equipment) and 27.5 cm (professional equipment). The typical length of a 13 cm diameter coil was 1 hour .

The amateur recorders were placed horizontally, initially with 13 cm reels, then up to 18 cm from the 1960s, and often vertically from the 1980s, with 26 cm reels, which were much easier to handle.

The first devices were tube, monophonic twice a track, then stereophonic, and gradually “transistorized” on integrated circuit boards.

Adjusting the Magnetic Heads

The positioning of the heads was adjusted and calibrated at the factory so as to be perfectly rectilinear, but it was often the case on the amateur recorders that there was an angular offset between the original recording and the reading giving an “oblique” signal and especially a phase shift between the two stereo signals.

This gave some clipping and distortion, especially if they were subsequently monophonized, appearing first by a loss of treble (but which could be compensated by a tuning screw, which was adjusted to the ear on the sharpness of the treble).

Connection Sockets

The tape and cassette tape recorders had a number of shielded cable connectors (sold in shops, but also in kit that can be welded by the operator):

A microphone plug, 2-pin DIN (signal + ground), then 3-pin (dual stereo microphone), then large format jack since the 1980’s.

tape recorder connector sockets

A connection socket to a HIFI or other compatible device, input / output (recording or playback), DIN 3-pin mono then DIN 5-pin stereo, then 4 American RCA since the 1980’s. A listening jack for control over headphones, large format jack or small format.

The transition from DIN to RCA in the 1980’s introduces a difference in impedance compatibility, with the recording becoming weaker, and an upgrading of the devices was required by the operator.

Record Setting

The recording volume was adjusted by a button, then for some tape recorders a slider or rotary potentiometer, associated with a control galvanometer called “vu-meter”:

Recorded above a certain volume, the magnetic oxide particles could no longer deviate further, and saturated. This saturation can also exist on a microphone, the width of the groove being limited, as well as on a CDR or mini-disc.

MITSUBISHI DT-30 3Motor:3Head

Recorded at too low a volume, it required “pushing” the playback volume, which also amplified the band blast.

The first amateur tape recorders indicated the volume recorded on the tape using, until about 1965, as in lamps, a “magic eye”, which retracted more or less, until disappearing completely at saturation with the optimum volume being at the retraction limit).

Both the left and right channels, 2 needle galvanometers, using a green zone, used a yellow “best efficiency zone” (better signal-to-noise ratio) and a red zone indicating the saturation of the recording of the magnetism of the bands.

magnetic tape recording mechanism

Until the 1970’s, only the volume of recording was indicated by the galvanometers, then in the 1980s they also displayed the volume recorded at the time of reading.

A few appliances used “LED” indicators from the 1990s.

Removing Clocks and Snoring

Other improvements include the switching noise known as “clocks”, which is spurious in a fraction of a second, caused by the lighting and extinguishing of the red lights signalling the opening and shutting of the microphones. 

This happened particularly in the studios broadcasting (and on their doorstep the prohibition to enter), very clear on the direct but attenuated by the addition of capacitors, or on the first magnets to reels (and cassettes) until the beginning of the Sixties.

At the start and stop of the recording, audible in reading, by the sudden pressing of the magnetic head and the reaction of the electronic circuits, and then possibly the same sudden stop (unless using the “pause” , rather than “stop”), which the manufacturers succeeded in mitigating, and then disappearing completely over the years on all tape recorders.

The possible slight “snoring” of the sector in the background at 50 Hz, in recording and / or reading, due to the lamps of the tape recorders of the 1950s (as on tube stations) disappeared with transistorization and progress low frequency “filters”.

Recording and Playback Times

From the “standard” thickness of the strips, the quality of the supports made it possible to progressively reduce this thickness, so as to propose, from the 1960s, durations up to 4 times greater than those of origin for the same speed (which was also the case of cassettes, ranging from C30 (2 times 15 min) to C180 (2 times 90 min)).

At a speed of 19 cm / s (7.5 “/ s), called” fast “at the time by the” amateurs “, on a reel of 18 cm , on the total of the two recording directions and in stereophony , the durations (as indicated on the housing boxes) were approximately:

  • Standard time (360 m): 1 hour
  • “Long” duration (540 m): 1 hour 30
  • “Double” duration (720 m): 2 hours
  • “Triple” duration (1080 m): 3 hours
  • “Quadruple” duration (1440 m): 4 hours

The above durations are depending on the scrolling speed.

sound tapes

These times also being inversely proportional to the speed of travel, and proportional to the length of the belt, and therefore to the square of the diameter of the coil (less the approximately proportional diameter of the central hub) , with respect to 19 cm / s (7.5 “/ s) (fast speed) :

  • Multiplied by 2 to 9.5 cm / s (3.75 “/ s) (average speed)
  • Multiplied by 4 to 4.75 cm / s (1.87 “/ s) (slow speed)
  • Divided by 2 to 38 cm / s (15 “/ s) (” Professional “speed)
  • Multiplied by 8 to 2.37 cm / s (0.94 “/ s) (adopted on Uher laptops for conferences)

These speeds are depending on the diameter of the coils.

In the same way, these durations could be compared to a coil of 18 cm:

  • Multiplied by 2 for a 26 cm reel
  • Divided by 1.5 for a 15 cm reel
  • Divided by 2 for a 13 cm reel

Monophonic or Stereophonic

Of course, on 4-track stereo tape recorders (2-way playback), recordings made in single monophony could, by being recorded on each track, multiply by 2 the duration.

The tapes could be returned at the end of recording to ensure a second session (some tape recorders were even self-reversing at the end of tape).

The same bands were used for full track recordings, 2 tracks and 4 tracks , but the recordings were obviously not compatible. One of the tracks recorded on a 2-track recorder was played lower on a 4-track.

SONY TC-U5 Stereo Cassette Deck

Conversely, a 2-track tape recorder playing a 4-track recording gave an inaudible result, consisting of the mix of the two tracks at the location and the other two tracks of the adjacent piece in reverse, unless only 2 of 4 tracks were initially recorded.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Long Durations

Note that when the durations are increased, they have certain advantages:

  • Saving the recording time on the same medium, combined with space saving
  • Obligation to change face or coil less frequent,
  • Reduced rewind time to search for recording at lower speed,
  • Magnetic smearing and less rapid friction wear of heads at low speed

But in return have several disadvantages:

The finer the band, the more fragile it is, increasing the risk of fracture, twisting and tangling, especially during fast winding or rewinding.

broken cassette tape

Below a certain thickness, the reduction of the “deep” bass spectrum (20 to 60 Hz) is required to reduce the magnetic layer a little to manufacture.

Proportionally larger purchase price, as these bands are more difficult to manufacture.

A crying on certain magnets at the end of the band at “fast” speed, due to a “skating” between the capstan and the roller on a band that is too fine polyester, no longer being able to compensate for the inertia of a transmitting coil with a small central hub, almost empty and having to turn all the more quickly.

For slower recording (especially at 4.75 cm / s ):

Loss of fidelity in the sharpest treble (10 to 16 kHz), leaving better place for the blast or “white” noise of the band, due to the “sliding” of the strip between the roller and the end of the capstan.

In case of non-rectilinear azimuthing of the recording / playback head, multiplication by 2 or 4 of the clipping or even the distortion in the treble, from one magneto to the other.

Professional Tape Recorders

It goes without saying that professional tape recorders, especially for recordings recorded on discs or for broadcasting in public concerts, were of optimal quality:

“Full Track” for a monophonic or “2-track” recording for stereo recording, and even using much wider bands to perform the muti-track mounts before switching “Stereo” over the entire width of the band (not returnable, it has given in this case the music or the lyrics backwards …), are, of course “standard” thickness.


High speed recording: 15 “/ s (38 cm / s), or even 76 cm / sec (30” “/ sec)

“Open” coils on the upper side (not needing to be turned upside down), to minimize possible noise and static friction.

Azimutage perfectly adjusted in phase with 3 separate heads : Recording, reading, erasing.

The quality of the tapes and appliances improved over the years, and a “correct” recording at 9.5 cm / s and mediocre at 4.75 cm / s in the 1960s became almost 9.5 cm / s as good as 19 cm / s and correct at 4.75 cm / s in the 1980s.

Amateur recordings, especially made with “inexpensive” (and without dolby) tapes or cassettes, were accompanied by a slight loss of treble, this loss added to each possible postponement, which was compensated by accentuating the treble to the listening, but also the breath.

Magnetic tapes have historically had two supports:

Acetate: This tape was inexpensive to manufacture, but withstood very poor mechanical stresses (sudden stop, for example), and forced to introduce delicate tape tension control mechanisms into the tape recorders.

The risk of breaking bands remained high if different transmitter and receiver coils were used (due to the different inertia of the coils);

Polyester: More expensive to buy, it had a much better mechanical strength and finished in the 1970s by completely dethroning the acetate, relegated to the establishment of only “disposable” recordings.

maxell SA-X90 super avinlyn high res

In 1985, Maxell produced some 26 cm “chrome” magnetic tapes for a better quality of treble, but much more expensive than iron, and tape recorders with this setting were unlike cassette recorders, which were very rare and not compatible.

Comparison of Cassettes

It should be noted that cassette recorders adopted from the outset the standardized speed of 4.75 cm / s , using, moreover, bands about twice as narrow and twice as fine, and, therefore, even less theoretically faithful in quality, to succeed to be incorporated in these “mini-boxes”

That said, the technique had already progressed since, and continued to progress with the improvement of the acute by the strips called “Chrome” then “Metal”, and the reduction of the breath by the “Dolby” systems B, C then S.

Some larger cassettes were also manufactured for a few years, with the width and thickness of a band of coils and a speed of 9.5 cm / s for better sound fidelity (speed also used for convenience on some magneto- cassettes).

The “standard” cassette format, which is more practical, less cumbersome and has more recording capacity, has been constantly improving and has therefore become too busy for too many years commercially so that these cassettes are sufficiently interesting, moreover, they were in quality and duration, that the equivalent, more practical of use, but more bulky, of a reel of 8 cm.


The “quadruple durations” (as well as the C180 cassettes), which were too fragile, were only manufactured for a few years, and even triple durations (as well as C120 cassettes) were not recommended unless necessary for broadcasting purposes. example.

Maintenance of Magnetic Heads

The magnetic tapes always wear a little bit when passing the heads, depositing a thin layer of oxide on them, requiring regular periodic cleaning of the heads with a cloth or cotton swab impregnated with alcohol or a suitable solvent harmless, failing which the oxide was a screen leading to a progressive loss of acute.

It was sometimes necessary to also clean the main mechanical parts such as the capstan and the roller which could also be covered with oxide disturbing the speed.

Another small common defect is a sharp “grinding” caused by the rubbing of the old bands coming in “resonance” on the metallic guides, the latter appearing less on plastic guides of the cassettes, some of which cheap sometimes creaked at the winding.

When the heads were somewhat shifted in “depth” adjustment, or even the band deformed slightly over time, this slight offset could occur when listening between tracks, with the overflowing rear center track being added as a “Fading” where you could hear the basses slightly upside down superimposed on the desired tracks which they became a little weaker when listening.

Over time, old or even reused tapes, even if stored in good conditions of temperature and hygrometry, and protected from light, have become brittle, the oxide ending in decreasing, becoming sticky when winding to the next (even polluting and poison), sometimes resulting in an irregular volume of sound, then a permanent loss of the treble.

Analog Tape Conservation, Transfer, and Archiving

The INA, anxious to preserve valuable archives testifying to the preceding epochs, preserved for this reason (as it did for films, especially those called “flame” in celluloid!), by transferring them to more and more modern supports.

Reprints on CD of old recordings since the 1950s take back where possible the bands of origin (if not more and more, the microphones), by remastering them, fortunately these professional bands were originally an excellent quality, then carefully preserved.

storing magnetic tapes

As early as the 1960s, the strips were preceded and followed at each end by a frosted plastic stripe of about 60 cm (often green and red to identify the faces without inverting them), followed by a small band bonded to this leader tape preceding the magnetic tape.

Besides the advantage of being thicker to insert it in the receiver coil, it allowed to start the first piece and to finish the last one more precisely.

The tape recorders were then equipped with an automatic “stop” device, which, when passing through the metal band, stopped the assembly, avoiding that once the tape was completely terminated, the take-up reel and possibly the transmitting reel to rotate in a vacuum at high speed, which frequently happened before in the event of the operator not being monitored.

As with cassettes, when there was no longer enough tape on the transmitter coil to record a final new song, the operator would either let it cut “net” or “shunted progressively to” fading decrescendo “Or prefer to leave a” blank ” if he did not want a cut piece (the” cleanest “choice). Subsequently, the auto-reverse allowed the continuation of the entire piece, but with a mini-cut of a fraction of a second.

cutting magnetic tape

Mounting kits, with 2 rolls of green and red leader strips, a roll of metal strip, a roll of adhesive tape, a plastic guide and a cutter were sold frequently for amateurs.

It was common to perform entirely “manual” assemblies (similar to those performed for film films), by “marking” a mark on the bold pencil strip at the precise location of the connection, ( the support being clearly thinner and more flexible than a film film which used a special heat-dried adhesive ), is carried out by means of a longitudinal adhesive of 4 cm approximately.

This bonding was of course also used in the event of breakage of the strip, frequent on those in “acetate”, breaking much more easily, especially over time with heat.

On the other hand, editing has become practically impossible on the cassettes, too thin and small, editing by “carry” recording with very little loss of quality becoming preferable from the 1980’s.

The dissociation of the 2 tracks (4 with each side of tape) in separate mono, and so the Multiplay process, although feasible, did not exist on cassette tape recorders either.

All these assemblies have become extremely easy in recent years, with the emergence of digital and computing, by means of the most complete and practical editing software, many of which are accessible to amateurs.

Tape Recording Tricks

Tracking high-speed tracks – It was common to spot a sequence or piece of music at high speed on the tape recorders remaining in playback (certainly very sharp) when rewinding front or back (this option was also offered in the “Cue” mode on cassette tape recorders ) .

Octave higher than double speed – It was also possible to “juggle” with the speeds, a recording performed at double speed taking a double frequency, thus located musically one octave above, and vice versa at half speed, thus allowing certain “tricks” in the sounds of a ” (which was also possible by changing the speeds of record players, but these did not have this ratio of “2”, except between 33 t 1/3 and 16 t 2/3 (1 octave), and close to 4/3 between 45 t and 33 t 1/3 (1 quarte) 6 ).

Many amateurs thus enjoyed themselves talking or singing in the family, having as a quick voice a “mouse” at double speed, or slow “bear” at half speed.

Repetitive announcements (made today by computer or CD) could also be done mechanically by running a very short loop around the reading set (special cassettes of this type were also made).

Superposition in “Re-recording Multiplay”

The “Multiplay” technique, available on some “modern” tape recorders on the Grundig tape recorder since 1967, also allowed: to record in mono with an instrument or a voice on track 1, then to carry it on track 2 by adding an instrument, then do the same with another instrument or voice on track 1, and so on, up to the equivalent of a major orchestra or choir performed by only one or a few people (which is also currently available on synthesizers).

Echo and Reverb

In the 1980’s, if the reading head was “downstream” of the recording head, the almost simultaneous reading (known as “Cue”) was possible during recording, allowing the result to be verified directly.

The “Echo / Reverb” mode was added, with a greater or lesser offset depending on the distance between the 2 recording and playback heads and the speed.


Some reissues of old monophonic recordings, even 78 laps, as in Pathé, used this method in the 1970’s, thus recreating a relief of “false stereo”, but this one too artificial and degrading a little the sound “Natural”, a real good “mono” was re-adopted later.

Main Manufacturers

In the 1950s, many individuals and teachers discovered the thousand and one possibilities of magnetic recorders:

Specific in the pedagogical use of language learning, dictation, dance and music, private amateur, to record radio, records, family or sound editing their slides or amateur movies.

The market is then dominated by the following brands:

  • Netherlands: Philips (which also manufactures tape recorders in France and Austria);
  • Japan: the inescapable Sony , but also Akai and TEAC . The fleeting appearance of Dokorder in the 1970’s. More discreet manufacturers like Crown, Nivico (JVC), National are trying to establish themselves in the portable recorder market;
  • Belgium: Acec, which launched Sonofil in the 1940s, launches the Lugavox range and the very original Carad R62, R53, R66 and R59 series;
  • Norway: In 1970, Tandberg Audio, also a specialist in language laboratories, took over the cross-headed heads device, which contributed to the renown of Akai, recording synchronization beeps by a polarized ultrasonic signal in a magnetic head slightly offset from the recording head;
  • Switzerland: Studer ( Revox ), Stellavox, Nagra  ;
  • West Germany: Braun , SABA , Saja (Sander & Janzen), Maihak, Grundig , Telefunken , AEG , Uher
  • Germany (East): VEB Messgerätewerk Zwönitz;
  • Czechoslovakia: Tesla;
  • Poland: Unitra.

Portable Mobile Recording – Nagra Portable Recorder

Invented by Stephan Kudelski, Polish-Swiss of about twenty years, it quickly becomes synonymous with portable tape recorder for all professionals of the information. The Nagra mark comes from the Polish word, which means “it will record”.

Robust and quality-minded, Nagra will be the basic tool for journalists and the majority of film sound engineers.


It will also be the machine of choice of explorers of extreme and instrumentation embarked, in particular for aeronautical research.

The Nagra are standardized to the standards of the studio machines and have many modules and accessories for specific needs, such as special inputs or cinema synchronization devices.


In the 4000, 4200 and 4400 series, without looking for the robustness of the Nagra, these 13 cm reels were very popular among amateurs. A Uher 4200 tape recorder is shown at the beginning of James Bond’s Thunderball movie .

thunderball uher 4000

The CR124 will be the first cassette recorder standards HiFi DIN 45500 at the time. His successor, the CR210, will accept chrome cassettes.

Miscellaneous Manufacturers

  • Stellavox  (en)  : Swiss manufacturer, specially oriented to the film industry.
  • Nakamichi  (in)  : Japanese manufacturer.
  • Studio recording [ edit | change the code ]
  • France: Tolana, Bourdereau, Schlumberger / Digitec
  • Germany: Telefunken / AEG
  • Switzerland: Studer / Revox
  • Japan: Sony , Otari , Fostex , Tascam
  • US: 3M , Ampex , MCI  (in) , Scully, Soundcraft
  • Great Britain: Ferrograph, Brenell, Leevers-Rich

Evolution of Cassette Tape Players

In 1963 , the cassette launched by Philips more convenient to handle, will gradually replace the strips in the coils during the 1970’s, although the tape parallel magnetos continued throughout the time of the magneto-cassettes, as always remaining higher technically in quality, especially for professionals.

This miniaturization due to the cassettes with respect to the reels will allow to develop new devices of all sizes ranging from the compact walkman to sophisticated cassette recorders with 3 motors and 3 heads. Larger, the DC system supported by Grundig and Telefunken, will not impose itself despite its sound quality at the top start.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Philips cassette became able to reproduce recordings of high fidelity, thanks to the appearance of bands with magnetic properties superior to iron, such as chromium in 1973, then metal in 1979; of the bottom pink noise reducers of the band, mainly the Dolby B in 1968, then Dolby C in 1980, the Dolby HX Pro in 1982 and Dolby SR in 1986.

Other types of tapes were quite ephemeral, such as the 8- track car radio cartridge in the United States, 4 x 2 tracks on endless but often jammed, and Sony’s Elcaset faithful, with a strip of 1/4 “to 9,5  cm / s , but arrived too late in 1976 and very expensive.


Switching from Analog to Digital

The arrival of digital in the 1980’s of greater flexibility, with the compact disc then the internal electronic memory players put the analog tape recorder back, although the listening and recording qualities of it remain superior.

billy joel cd 1982

Indeed, the bandwidth of the analog band can reach 50 000 Hz while the current digital formats are limited to 20 000 Hz.

However, according to Shannon’s theory, the sampling frequency must be at least twice the highest frequency to be sampled.

The end of the 1990s will see flourish ads for cheap sale of high-end Studer Revox tape recorders , their owners discovering that their PC equipped with a good sound card is even more convenient.

The tape recorders were used extensively by sound professionals, the best performers to deal with multiple tracks at the same time, making it possible to modify the sound balance during the mixing phase ), and in general fashion in the 1960s to 1990s for their portability.

Manufacturers have even extrapolated video recorders or video recorders and later camcorders.

The Digital Tape Recorder (DAT)

The tape recorder has also evolved and in the early 1990s it became the Digital Audio Tape (DAT) tape recorder and the ADAT multitrack recorder.

Studio Recordings – The digital tape recorder was used extensively by professionals to record commercial discs from the 1980s on:

The recordings were more and more recorded from digital tape recorders and sometimes engraved at half-speed for better fidelity, especially for classical music, bearing the label “DAA” or “DDA” (Digital- Digital-Analog (the analogue being the engraving on micro-chip)), then

For recording on compact discs , the label indicating on the disc and / or the booklet of the CD:

ADD (Analog-Digital-Digital): use of an analog recorder during recording sessions, then digital for mixing and / or editing and burning, or

DDD (Digital-Digital-Digital, the best of high fidelity): use of a digital tape recorder during recording sessions, mixing and / or editing and burning.

Computer Data

The same principle has been widely used for the recording of computer data by bit and byte, but with very different bands: those used for audio quality had to have as little hysteresis as possible.

Those used for the digital recordings had to have a high hysteresis, in order to differentiate as clearly as possible the states 0 of the states 1, the intermediate values ​​being of no interest.

Replacement by hard disks and then computer memories – Since the generalization, from the years 2000, digital recording on hard disk , then on memory card, SSD ( solid-state drive ) or others, the tape recorder and the recording of digital data on magnetic tape have become obsolete.