Layback Mastering with the Ampex ATR-102

The Ampex ATR-102 has remained a essential piece of gear in major recording and mastering studios worldwide since 1976…and I’m proud to say that it is also a fixture in my studio. I picked up this machine from Burbank, CA and just before I bought it their studio tech went over the components with a fine tooth comb and replaced all of the heads with new flux heads from ATR, and I’m happy to report that the machine that is in pristine shape despite being 30 years old!

The ATR is available for tape transfers, but it is also a great tool for layback mastering– an additional step before the final master that gives a track a little mojo if it has only existed in the digital realm. The process of layback mastering is pretty straightforward: you take the mix, run it out of the DAW and into the input of the tape machine. The input preamps and the actual tape give the mix the analogue sound. Specifically, the tape adds nonlinearities and it can also compresses the whole mix (more or less depending on how hard you hit the tape). The result is an overall Ampex ATR-102warming effect, a more 3-D soundscape and sound stage, and a bump in the low frequency while also preventing high frequencies from getting harsh. ATR machines are especially known for a 60 cycle head bump of about ½ dB. I prefer to run my unit at 30 ips (but it can also run at 3.75, 7.5, and 15 ips), because that tape speed results in an almost flat frequency spectrum apart from the head bump.

Because the particular sound out of this unit is so sought after, UAD has also developed a digital plugin designed to mimic the effects of the ATR-102, but there’s nothing quite like running it though the actual tape machine…

Take a listen for yourself to hear what the ATR-102 can do to a mix. First, listen (through nice monitors or headphones for more effect) to the original mix of Signs, a track from Leverett‘s upcoming album:

And here is that mix run through the ATR-102. This is not the final master, but the first step before I bring the track back into the digital world and finish other elements of the mastering process. For this track the ATR really helped tighten the bass and kick drum and brought the guitar and vocals more forward in the mix.

If you’ve got a mastering project and want to add layback mastering into the mix, I’ve got THE machine for the job!