Tape Hiss: Taking the Hiss Out of Analog Recording?

While debate and tension between digital and analog recording remain constant in the recording space, so does the tape hiss of an analog tape machine. NRG’s wide array of modern and vintage gear makes us no stranger to tape machines and its characteristic hissing on the playback. The ‘hiss’ is usually the key way to identify an analog recording or to differentiate an analog recording from a digital one. As such it has become the calling card of the vintage analog sound. It’s constant humming and buzzing is so recognizable and so familiar that this simple splash of white noise can transform the mood of entire compositions and recordings. In terms of technology, tape hiss is analogous to the soft, black & white graininess of old-timey cartoons or old Charlie Chaplin films. This video brings it all home; the accompanying visuals for six entire hours of tape hiss “analog noise” has a cheap grain filter applied all the way through. But in the music recording world, tape hiss is more than likely the ultimate source of all that “warmth” and “color” you hear traditionalist engineers sing about when they talk about their obsession with analog tape machines. Not only does it dampen musical notes and keys, but it also very comfortably fills up space in the lower frequency range. Tape hiss is like a blanket: occasionally softening, occasionally distorting, and always identifiable.

In fact, the hiss is so apparent and–in certain cases–so desirable to some audio engineers and audiophiles that a variety of “analog” and “tape” plug-ins emulate tape hiss to be integrated into digital recordings. While all of this may simply be a result of time making everyone wax nostalgic over tape and other analog devices, the demand for analog-type tape hiss and similar noise blankets endures. Even in fully digital spaces, the warming quality of tape hiss can find its place in any modern engineer’s repertoire.

One thing important to note, however, is that tape hiss plays by the same rules as any other of the aspects of analog recording. That is to say, tape hiss can be influenced, altered, or otherwise entirely affected by every other subtle moving part in the tape machine: tape speed, cleanliness and overall condition of the tape heads, alignment of all the moving parts, etc. The simple fact of the matter is that most tape is so sensitive that each separate instance and recording may as well be using a completely unique brand of tape in its own right. Individual tape machines themselves–even of the exact same make and model–can sound entirely different. The body of each hiss is a different beast each and every time. A visual representation of Dolby and dbx systems can be found here. The assembly of all these factors results in a hiss that is, although recognizable, completely unique every time. Whether or not everyone’s plug-in of choice can emulate this properly, is a matter of personal opinion.

All of that brings us to the most crucial crossroads of the whole discussion: who the hell even likes tape hiss? Mastering your analog recording will force you to confront this question firsthand. Whether your interest in analog recording is brazen enough to champion the hiss of tape loud and proud via actual tape or a selected plug-in on a digital foundation or if you’re an engineer strictly of the modern era, all styles confront the full dynamic range. And in that regard tape hiss is generally an unavoidable consideration, especially if you’re looking for an older, vintage sound.

All things considered, it’s important to realize the mood carried by that not-so-subtle hissing throughout recording history. If it’s your prerogative to eliminate the hiss in a digital format, more power to you. Otherwise, feel free to embrace the warmth.