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NASHVILLE SCENE – The Innovations Issue

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010 10:37 am

Reel Time

Note to all audio engineers: Hope you held onto your tape machines, because as they languished in garages around the country as digital advancements won the day, Nashville engineer, producer and musician Chris Estes was scheming to make them relevant again. Two patents issued last month are proof he may have just blown the dust off a nearly extinct breed of deteriorating gear.

His invention: the CLASP system, short for Closed Loop Analog Signal Processing, or a fancy way of saying that he figured out how to make the predictable but clinical Pro Tools and the unreliable yet thrilling vintage tape play nice. Previously, merging the two in the studio was a lot like Elizabeth Taylor and men — a big hit in theory, but incredibly time-consuming and tedious in real life, and almost always regrettable.

Many studio folk consider two-inch tape the recording medium of the gods, but when Pro Tools took hold in the early ’90s, it bewitched with its more efficient, dependable and cost-effective appeal. In short, it made analog look like your grandpa’s way of doing things. But music aficionados still mourn the loss of analog’s more honest sound, in spite of its high-maintenance reputation.

CLASP, which Estes spent some five years finessing, not only promises all the benefits of analog’s pleasing electromagnetic charm, but throws in digital’s speed and ease of use. Plus, it extends the working life of tape, now in shorter supply with only two manufacturers worldwide and a price tag of $289 a reel.

"”With CLASP, tape is no longer linear or destructive,” Estes says. “You’re not actually storing on it. It’s just used as the medium.”

With tape as the puppet and digital as the master, it’s the best of both worlds. And it couldn’t come at a better time: Artists like Jack White still champion analog’s superior sound, and vinyl sales just jumped 33 percent in 2009 from the previous year, proof that just when you thought the analog vs. digital debate had exhaled its dying breath, it’s been resurrected.

Estes already has a number of marquee clients, with the likes of Lenny Kravitz using the system in his Gregory Town Sound studio, Taylor Swift producer Nathan Chapman and Neil Young producer Niko Bolas on board, and a few dozen clients on the coasts and overseas.

It’s been adopted by a handful of Nashville producers, but CLASP has been met with skepticism and befuddlement from some locals. Perhaps Music Row — itself slow to embrace Pro Tools once — is now so devoted to digital that it isn’t sure if there’s enough room for both formats in town. Not so with engineer Brian Kolb.

"”It’s a dream,” Kolb said on a recent visit to studio The Mix Dream, owned by producer Dave Brainard, where Kolb was in the midst of recording Ray Scott, a country crooner coming off a Warner Bros. debut. Kolb’s been recording in Nashville for a decade, using Pro Tools for eight of those years, and can recently boast the mixing credit for Jerrod Neimann’s third studio album Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard last month.

“We were cutting at Ocean Way, and our drummer came in, who’s one of the best in the world,” Kolb recalls. “And he smiled when he saw the tape machine and said, ‘I’m gonna have to play good today, aren’t I?’ And I said, ‘Well, of course you are, but we can still punch,’ ” he says, referring to the process where the artist re-records a specific part of a take. With tape, when you punch, you lose the previous version, for better or worse. With CLASP, you can record a new take (or portion thereof) while preserving the old one, and you have the freedom to do it over and over. “He said, ‘Really?’ And the other guys were just like, ‘What?’ We still had all the benefits of tape, but we weren’t confined to it. We could still try things.”

Kolb figures Nashville’s resistance is fear of trying something new. Or maybe they just can’t understand how the thing works — Estes’ patents were initially rejected twice by the patent office; it took an in-person demonstration in D.C. for them to understand that he wasn’t just creating a new tape machine.

"”A world-class engineer at a studio took me out in the hallway and argued with me for half an hour saying it was physically impossible,” Estes recalls. “He said I must have invented the flux capacitor for this to work.”

That’s because the real trick of Estes’ innovation is time stamp manipulation of each digital audio file. Just don’t ask what that means unless you want a lesson in engineering, physics and a little time travel.

"A demonstration from Estes with an acoustic performance by Ray Scott had Scott’s voice, a mischievous baritone, go from Randy Travis to Johnny Cash with the flip of a switch. Or as Scott puts it, “All I know is he makes me sound better. Digital stuff slams, but it loses all the feeling.” Lucky for him, he’ll never have to choose between the two again.

—Tracy Moore

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Endless Analog - Digital Controlled Analog Tape Recording