Tips & Techniques: Getting Tape Hiss Off Your Air Waves

by Jerry Vigil

Tape hiss. It's ugly stuff, and the closer we get to digital radio, the uglier it's going to get. How can you get it off your airwaves? The best way is simply to go fully digital, from the production rooms to the dub centers to the control rooms. Eliminate tape altogether! Okay. Maybe that's not in your budget this year. The next best thing is noise reduction. Everywhere! But you knew that, and that may not be in your budget either. If these first two ideas can't transpire at your station, try some of the following tips on your analog multi-track production to help ease the hissssssssssssss-ssssss.

VOICE: When recording tracks for a spot or promo, you're dealing with one of three elements at any given time: Voice, sound effects, and music. Of these three, the voice is the most likely element to add to your tape hiss problems. 1) When at all possible, go directly to your multi-track with your voice. Don't put your voice track on 2-track first then transfer it to the multi-track. That just adds a generation of hiss to the mix. 2) If you have a DAT machine, use it to record voice tracks until you get that "just right" read, then transfer that digital track to your multi-track. 3) If you must lay voice tracks to analog 2-track first, apply any high end boost as you record your voice to the 2-track. That way you're not boosting the highs when you transfer to multi-track or when you mix. If you boost the highs of a voice track on analog tape, you're going to boost some tape hiss, too. 4) If there are a significant number of pauses between actual voice-over on an individual track (as with multiple voice spots or concert/record spots) use a noise gate if you have one. Most digital effects boxes do, and you may not even know it. Check to see if yours does offer a noise gate and use it. 5) If you don't have a DAT machine but do have a sampler with a good amount of RAM, consider using the sampler to record voice tracks. It's digital! Consider lowering the sampling rate to extend the recording time if you need it. 6) Always run your 2-track and multi-track tape machines at high speed. If it runs at 30 ips, put the pedal to the metal. 7) There are some pretty nice cassette decks on the market. Most of them have noise reduction on them. Now this may sound a little silly, but if your studio doesn't have any noise reduction, do a comparison. Is a voice track on a chrome or metal cassette with noise reduction cleaner than a voice track on your 2-track deck?

SOUND EFFECTS: If you're not laying voice or music to your multi-track, you're laying sound effects. 1) Again, use a noise gate if you have one. Since sound effects usually pop in and out of a piece of production, this is the most obvious place to apply a noise gate. Try and put all your sound effects on the same track or tracks for best results. 2) If you don't have a noise gate, consider riding the on/off switch of your sound effects track(s) when doing your mix. Plan ahead though, and make sure your hands will be free. 3) If you only have one or two short sound effects in the spot or promo, consider adding the sound effect while you're mixing. Not only will you eliminate that extra track of tape hiss, but you'll free up a track or two for something else if you need it. If you have a sampler, transfer the sounds to it first. They'll be digitally recorded and easier to trigger. 4) Apply any high end boost as you record the sound effect, just as with voice tracks mentioned earlier. 5) Most sound effects these days are in stereo, but do you really need two tracks of hiss for a barking dog? Consider summing the left/right signals from your sound effect source and using one track for sounds that just don't need the stereo effect.

MUSIC: Music will give you the least amount of tape hiss problems, but there are a few things that might still eliminate some hiss from music tracks. 1) Obviously, once again, if you're going to EQ a music track and add highs, do it when you record the track, not on the mix. Also, if you add more high boost than you want, you'll actually reduce tape hiss on the mix by CUTTING the highs at that time. (Also known as "nickel noise reduction." Will also work with voice and sound effects tracks.) 2) If you're only dealing with one cut of music, consider adding it during the mix. It takes some getting used to, but you eliminate two tracks of analog tape during the mix. 3) A lot of novelty music serves its purpose just fine in mono rather than stereo. Consider the same idea mentioned regarding stereo versus mono sound effects. Does that music bed really need to be in stereo?

As a general rule, record all your tracks to multi-track as hot as you can. Sure, as you're recording them and listening to the tape monitor mix, the tracks may be louder than you want them (unless you adjust the monitor mix), but when you do the mix and reduce the levels of those tracks, you'll also be reducing the level of tape hiss. This will apply most often to sound effects tracks first, then music tracks, assuming you're recording your voice tracks at pretty high levels to begin with.

If you mix to 2-track analog tape, don't have noise reduction, and your mastering machine is not the world's best, consider once again the noise reduction available on many cassette decks. It may be hard for some of you to believe, but there are probably some cassette decks out there that are quieter than some of those ancient 2-track machines!

Of course, the ultimate eliminator of multi-track tape hiss on the air is what is being done at way too many of our small market stations anyway (since many small stations don't even have a multi-track): Do your mix straight to cart! Have those hands flying, firing sound effects here and music beds there, while you're reading the copy LIVE TO CART! If you can put together some killer promos and spots like this, chances are you have all the talent necessary to make it big in radio production.

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