Given that cassette tape, as a recording medium, has inherent limitations in the low and high frequency extremes, would you still be able to record good loud hair metal tunes on it?
By: Ringo Bones
Whether from a live band or from a “realistic sounding” open-reel analog master tape, the lowly compact cassette really has inherent limitations when recording very low and very high frequencies at very loud levels. And yet during the heyday of hair metal – between 1980 to 1992 – recording studio mavens managed to make a significant number of recordings that managed to sound very good on the lowly cassette tape which during the time, was still the dominant recording medium and it wasn’t until the mid 1990s that CD players that can be described as both affordable and good sounding entered the market. Maybe it’s just for nostalgia, but here are a few tips on how to record a loud hair metal band onto cassette tape and make them sound relatively pristine.
Of all the cassette tape recording tips, the one that’s frequently overlooked is that audio cassette tapes can have a hard time handling very high and very low frequencies. In the low end, the lowest bass notes like the open E-string form a bass guitar – at around 40 Hz – can cause distortion if the level is too high. In the high frequencies, sibilance or “sss-sounds” can cause tape distortion via high frequency saturation so using a de-esser helps keep things under control during mastering onto cassette especially if the open reel master tape was recorded at 30 inches per second with gobs of very loud and pristine high frequencies. If you are already saturating cassette tapes from excessive high frequencies, boosting your high frequencies to create a ” brilliant timbre” cassette recording will only cause more trouble.
One tricked employed by 1980s era heavy metal bands in recording onto cassettes that resulted in a “brilliant” sound without resulting in distorted high frequencies is by mixing in more presence in the upper midrange / lower high-frequency range – from 2,000 Hz to 6,000 Hz – to mask the tape hiss of low-cost Type-I ferric cassettes. Giving more space between the microphone and acoustic guitars and cymbals will definitely help – especially back in 1989 where acoustic electric Ovation guitars with built in equalizers that were then in vogue when hair metal era heavy metal bands record power ballads often produce enough high frequencies to saturate Type-I ferric cassette tapes with ease.
When recording your master tape onto cassette, use a multi-band peak limiter with a built-in pre-emphasis before limiting, like the Behringer Combinator or Aphex Dominator or a high frequency limiter. The resulting cassette will be more open-sounding without sounding unduly dull in comparison to its open-reel master tape. Using a good high-pass filter to roll off very low frequencies definitely helps because cassette tapes tend to compress when recording signals below 50 Hz or so. Even up-market Nakamichi cassette tape decks produce “horrendous” harmonic distortion readings below 50 Hz.
Use a device that adds brilliance only to low-level signals. That is what Dolby B does in its encoding stage. The higher the input level, the less high-frequency boost Dolby B gives. The widely used cassette tape recording “plug-in” called the Aphex Aural Exciter with its “Big Bottom” mode and similar devices work similarly by adding low levels of high-frequency harmonic distortion. This is tricky because you generally want to push the cassette tape as loud as possible just to the cusp of distortion and saturation, but if you already have distortion in your mix – especially in the open-reel master tape – there may be a compounding effect. And if you want to avoid your drum-kit – especially the kick drum – from sounding like a 1980s era synth-samples, practice restraint when it comes to boosting low frequency signals below 50 Hz.