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How to Do "Backwards Tape" in the Digital Age

August 20, 2014
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THE BEATLES USED IT. SO did the Stones, the Byrds, Pink Floyd, and a zillion other bands during the psychedelic era. The “backwards tape” process reversed instrument notes so that instead of fading out from an attack, they faded in to an attack.

Doing this with tape required flipping the reels so that the tape traveled in reverse, from the end of the song to the beginning. You’d then play along with the reversed sound, and record your playing on a spare track. Flipping the reels back restored normal tape travel, but also reversed the instrumental part.

The golden age of tape is behind us, but it’s easy to reproduce this effect today. Most DAWs have a DSP function that reverses audio, and it’s useful for more than just creating subliminal, backwards satanic messages. Reversing audio is invariably a destructive edit in the sense that it’s not real time, but instead alters a piece of audio for playback.

Because the backwards tape effect isn’t particularly rhythmic, you can often get away with just noodling around, reversing the part, then sliding the audio on the timeline until it more or less fits the rest of the music. But for “gourmet” backwards tape, here’s a recommended procedure for lead guitar:

[1] Record a lead guitar part that sounds really good and fits the music well.
[2] Create a premix of your existing tracks, including the guitar solo. Mix the solo higher than normal.
[3] Use DSP to reverse the premix.
[4] Solo the premix.
[5] Play along as closely as possible to the guitar solo, which is now reversed. It won’t be easy, but the objective is to remember that the solo’s structure needs to be reversed. For example, if the solo builds toward the end by going up a scale, when recording the part to be reversed, you need to start with the highest note and go down the scale. Often a dry guitar part is best—not a part with distortion or sustain, because any sustain will work against a dramatic backwards effect when the part is reversed.
[6] Turn off solo for the reversed premix track and mute it.
[7] Reverse the guitar solo using DSP, and shift its position on the timeline to line up with the scratch guitar track.

It likely won’t line up exactly, but tweak the track position so it lines up as rhythmically as possible with the song. This often involves having the reversed attacks line up with the beginning of beats.

Adding some echo or reverb can be very effective (and these effects often augmented backwards tape parts in the ’60s). You might also find when recording dry guitar that the backward effect is too pronounced, leading to an excessive amount of “snap” at the reversed note’s end. The fix is to use a transient shaper effect, which can soften the part’s attack somewhat, prior to reversing the part you recorded.

Craig Anderton has played on or produced more than 20 major label releases, mastered hundreds of tracks, and written dozens of books. Check out some of his latest music at youtube.com/thecraiganderton.

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