Direct-to-Disk Recording Session with Naxatras

On January 17, 2016, a very interesting experiment in sound recording technology was conducted at Magnetic Fidelity. Around that time, Naxatras were occupying the studio for a direct-to-master-tape recording, which crystallized beautifully shortly thereafter in their released EP.
 

The setup consisted of several microphones, each with a suitably selected microphone preamplifier, mixed together on the fly, using a vacuum tube summing mixer, with the resulting stereophonic mix going through a vacuum tube equalizer and a vacuum tube compressor.
For the main session, the output of this chain was connected to a Telefunken M15A stereophonic tape recorder, and tracks from this master tape made it to the EP.
 
 
During a session break, we were having a discussion about the impact of the recording equipment on the sound of the recording. This is a fairly common discussion and a lot of people appear to believe that the sound is mostly defined by the choice of equipment: Analog vs digital, tube vs solid state, FET vs BJT, Tape vs Disk, 60’s vs 70’s, and so on.
 
Naxatras Direct-to-Disk Recording
Photo Credit: Elina Verikiou
So, we decided to test the limits of this concept, by recording some extra tracks after the main session was done, using the exact same setup described above, the exact same backline and the exact same musicians, but replacing the tape machine with something radically different!
 
The Telefunken M15A was disconnected and replaced by a disk recording lathe!
But not just any disk recording lathe! We hooked up a seriously vintage Fairchild lathe designed and manufactured in the 1930’s, which J. I. Agnew had restored a while back. To keep it period-correct, the outputs of the recording chain were summed to mono and we used an equally vintage magnetic cutter head, manufactured by RCA during the 1930’s, rebuilt by J. I. Agnew in 2015.
 
This system represents a typical setup from the very early days of electric recording, and was already considered rather crude by 1950! By then, moving-coil feedback cutterheads had effectively replaced magnetic (moving-iron) transducers, offering much less distortion, a much wider frequency range and a more transparent sound. The magnetic cutterheads are as “colored” as it gets, having a distinctive sonic footprint.
 
To put this experiment into historical perspective, mechanical disk recording was invented in the 1880’s using acoustic means. This means a horn with membrane and needle attached to carve the acoustic vibrations directly onto the disk surface. Electrical disk recording, with a microphone, electronic amplification and electromagnetic cutterhead, came about in the 1930’s. Magnetic tape recording as we know it was invented during the 1940’s in Germany and was commercialized and popularized after the end of the war. However, tape machines were very expensive, even more so than lathes, so most small studios in the USA kept on recording direct-to-disk even up to the 1960’s, unable to afford a tape machine. Up until the end of World War II, direct-to-disk was the only practical form of sound recording for most purposes. Early rock’n’roll was mostly recorded direct-to-disk.
Sam Philips used a Presto 6N lathe to record in 1953 Elvis Presley at Sun Studios in Memphis, TN.
So, shouldn’t this setup then make the recording sound like a 1930’s recording? Well, the results speak for themselves:

Download the full size versions for best quality using the following links:

Direct-to-Master-Tape PCM 192 kHz/ 24 bit

Direct-to-Disk PCM 192 kHz/ 24 bit

The master tape was reproduced on a Telefunken M15A connected to an A/D Converter to create the digital version. The disk was reproduced on a Thorens TD160 mkII, fitted with a Thorens TP16 mkIV tonearm and a Stanton 881S cartridge, connected to a NAD series 20 phono stage, hooked up to the same A/D Converter.
 
There are clearly audible limitations to the 1930’s system, but the overall result sounds surprisingly modern, considering what it was recorded on! In fact, one can certainly hear how close it comes to the session recorded on tape, a medium not even invented in its current form until 20 years later!
 
 
First of all, the music itself sounds more modern. The backline was mostly 60’s and 70’s equipment. The recording techniques were similar to what was practised during the 1960’s and 1970’s and the recording chain consisted of technology that has been used from the 1950’s to the present day.
 
Evidently, the music, backline and recording techniques are far more influential in defining the feel and sound of a recording, than the recording device itself.
It is not enough to just buy vintage gear, you also need to take a suitable approach to how you record music to achieve the desired result.
In other words, it is a mistake to think that your 67-track digital multitrack session with three equalizers and a limiter in each track, will suddenly sound like it was done in the 70’s just because you bought a vintage microphone! If you want to achieve the sound of a certain era or scene, you need to consider how they used to record at the time, and you need the right musicians!
 

The “sound” of recording directly to a stereophonic tape machine like Naxatras do, or even direct-to-disk using a high-end stereophonic disk recording lathe in contrast to multitrack recording, is not imposed by the choice of equipment or medium. The choice of equipment, however, also implies a choice of workflow and techniques, as well as a sense of self-discipline in committing to a certain method of working, accepting that this will offer a limited set of options. Experienced engineers do not need to rely on having a lot of options, they usually know from the onset what needs to be done and how to implement it. They choose equipment that will do just that.

It is worth remembering that while a Swiss army knife may contain a knife, a screwdriver, a file, and a magnifying glass in a compact and relatively inexpensive package, the specialist craftsman will certainly choose a dedicated knife, a set of several high quality screwdrivers of all sizes, multiple files, and different optics, in case it is actually needed, ranging from a small magnifying glass to an elaborate microscope, instead in relying on any type of all-in-one gadget.

The choice of recording directly on a stereophonic tape machine or lathe mainly means that the musicians are of high calibre, well-rehearsed and able to perform their music live, and the engineer has already decided in advance to limit the options to a small selection of microphones, mixed on the fly, while the musicians are performing.
It also betrays a level of expertise, since tape machines and lathes are not easy to use. They require commitment, a decent budget and a long learning curve.
It is mainly these ingredients that will define the sound of the final product. A 67-track over-processed production will still sound like a 67-track over-processed production, and a mediocre performance will still sound like a mediocre performance, even if bounced to tape for effect.
The artefacts of analog recording equipment are quite subtle, compared to the overall choice of recording style and technique, and even more importantly, the performance itself!

 

 

No amount of equipment is going to create the magic that is not there to begin with. Most of the magic of music is in the interaction between musicians, the spontaneous, unpredictable and often unrepeatable little variations that set apart a great performance from an average performance.
 
There is simply no way around great musicians, great composers/songwritersexperienced engineers, and appropriate technique.
 
If reading this has inspired you to experiment with different recording techniques, or if you already know that what you need is a disk recording system, we would be happy to supply you with such machines or parts.
 
In fact, the Fairchild system used in the aforementioned experiment is now available for sale, either with the RCA cutterhead, or with a modern stereophonic feedback cutterhead. Please contact us for further information. Training on the use of disk recording lathes can also be provided.
 
The Naxatras EP is available in various formats directly from the band, through their bandcamp page, and on DSD through Magnetic Fidelity Records on Native DSD. It is rumoured that 100% analog vinyl records and reel-to-reel tapes will be available soon as well….
 

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