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MIX MAGAZINE – Analog Tape Is Back!

Saturday, August 14th, 2010 12:09 pm

Bryan Lenox: “You’d be amazed with the difference in Michael [W. Smith’s] singing because of hearing himself analog in the playback.”

Bryan Lenox: “You’d be amazed with the difference in Michael [W. Smith’s] singing because of hearing himself analog in the playback.”

Nashville-based Bryan Lenox has extensive engineering, production and programming credits in the enormous Christian music community, including several albums with top-selling artist Michael W. Smith. Until recently, all the albums Lenox had cut with Smith were recorded digitally, but for Smith’s next, still untitled album (due this fall), the engineer made the bold move back to tape—sort of. Actually, Lenox is one of a growing number of people who have adopted the Endless Analog CLASP (Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor) two-rackspace box that, as Mix’s technical editor Kevin Becka explained in a rave review of the product in our June 2010 issue, “offers an easy, cost-effective way to integrate analog tape into digital production workflow by literally turning any tape machine into a DAW plug-in processor.”

“This has been life-changing in terms of how I view recording,” says Lenox, who has his own mix room called the Bird House in a larger facility known as The Coop, owned by another popular Christian artist, Toby McKeehan (better known as tobyMac). “CLASP is a device that allows you to record to analog tape by taking an instant virgin transfer off the repro head [of the recorder] into your DAW, whether it’s Pro Tools or Nuendo or whatever, Mac or PC. And the way it works, your mic pre’s and your inputs come into CLASP, and it splits it—one’s a hard-wire split that goes straight to your mixing console as you’re playing, if you were on ‘input’; the other split goes to the 2-inch machine or 1-inch or whatever you’re using and it takes it off the repro head so the amount of time the sound is on the tape is very, very brief. It only stays on there as long as it goes through the record head and out the repro head because then it’s instantly transferred into whatever DAW you have. But it’s on there long enough to get the benefits of tape compression and whatever it is that sort of glues the sound together.

“Another thing that’s been remarkable,” Lenox adds, “is back in the old days, without the CLASP you had to choose either 30 inches per second or 15 inches per second, and that’s it; you’re locked in at that tape speed. Well, CLASP allows you choose to record the drums at 30 ips in the verse and 15 ips in the chorus if you want, or you can go down 7½ or 9 or 12; whatever you want. So for the first time you’re able to really use any speed you want and you can quickly compare between the speeds and choose the one you want. We’ll audition as we’re going along and it’s remarkable for the guitarist or bassist to be able hear how it sounds at different speeds.

“You’d also be amazed with the difference in Michael’s singing because of hearing himself analog in the playback. We’ve also lowered some of the keys so his voice is bigger and he’s a lot more expressive. All in all, it’s had a huge impact on the performances—we’re making a much more emotional album.”

Smith was evidently impressed, too. He bought the CLASP box after the sessions and now it can be an ongoing part of his (and Lenox’s) recording arsenal.

“I use tape every day,” says L.A. producer/engineer/musician Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings, Brooke White, Oak Ridge Boys). “It’s funny because I was one of those people who about eight years ago slowly stopped using tape. I thought digital sounded fine, you can work faster, more conveniently. But the records that have really inspired me the last couple years have been very, very tape-centric. I think Jack White is kind of killing everybody right now—he’s the guy who is making the coolest-sounding records around, whether it’s the Dead Weather or The Raconteurs; he’s the guy to beat right now. His records sound honest and real, and in a way he’s making something that is very traditional sound modern and exciting again.

L.A.-based producer/engineer/musician Dave Cobb says he uses tape every day.

L.A.-based producer/engineer/musician Dave Cobb says he uses tape every day.

“I just did a record in Nashville by these two girl singers—the Secret Sisters [Laura and Lydia Rogers of Muscle Shoals, Ala.]—and the whole record is supposed to sound ‘period,’ like it’s from 1957 or something. So, of course, I wanted to go analog on it, but if I turned in a budget that said ‘12 grand for tape,’ people would have a heart attack. That’s the way it used to be—you would allot $10,000 or $12,000 dollars for tape. Nobody gets that anymore.”

For Cobb, too, CLASP aided his return to the sonics of analog tape. “It’s changed my work flow dramatically,” he comments. “CLASP allows me to use the same tapes—my favorites are these old [Ampex] 456 reels I use over and over—and dump each take I do immediately to Pro Tools. I like to do pre-production in the studio where tape is rolling the whole time while bands are working out the songs, and I couldn’t do that if I strictly stayed on tape unless I had a huge budget and a big pen to mark down the times between each take and what was special about them and all that. The CLASP allows me to run tape, keep creating playlists inside Pro Tools, and then when I’ve got what I need I just comp it together.”

For the Secret Sisters’ forthcoming album, which was cut at Blackbird, Cobb also enlisted ’50s Nashville players like steel player Robbie Turner and pianist Pig Robbins for that extra dose of retro authenticity, and he used “old-school” tape effects: “One thing I don’t ever go without is tape slap,” he comments. “I use a lot of slap and feedback slap and distorted slap and reverse tape stuff and flanging. I have two 2-track machines in the control room so I’m constantly messing around with those. For instance, a 15 ips slap always works with any tempo of any song for some reason. I don’t know why it is, but you can put it on the drums or it will help to tie a vocal with a track. Even if you barely hear the slap and it’s buried, it still has a way of making the vocal sit. My heroes are people like Geoff Emerick and Glyn Johns and Andy Johns, who really pushed the limit with tape effects. I think there’s nothing that beats them. There’s no digital box you can buy, no plug-in that sounds like a tape slap.”

ATR Magnetics

Blair Jackson is the senior editor of Mix.

Endless Analog - Digital Controlled Analog Tape Recording