Musical artists turn to old tech for vintage sound
A recent innovation that addresses tape cost is Clasp — the Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor developed by Nashville-based Endless Analog. The $10,000 unit is essentially an analog front end to a digital audio workstation like Pro Tools, imparting analog’s warmth and the tonality associated with running the tape at various speeds — slower speeds like 7.5 inches per second are used to capture the low frequencies of drums and bass while vocals and guitars sparkle at 15 and 30 ips.
Clasp’s inventor, Chris Estes, says since the tape is used for processing the sound but not to store it, one reel of 2-inch tape can theoretically be used as many as 10,000 times, mitigating the high cost of the media. “The tape is constantly running, not being constantly stopped and restarted, which stresses and stretches the tape,” he says.Perry Margouleff, who owns the vintage-equipment fantasy land Pie Studios in Glen Cove, N.Y., which attracts artists like the Rolling Stones and Jimmy Page, says working in analog restores some of the talent filtering lost to the DIY ease of digital recording. “When you record in analog, the drummer has to play in time, the singer has to sing in tune, the guitar player has to nail the part, because you can’t go back later and fix it with a black box,” he says.Analog-recorded music is finding its way into films. Soul singer Sharon Jones’ rendition of 2009′s “Up in the Air” theme track “This Land Is Your Land” was recorded in the funky and analog Daptones Records studio in Brooklyn’s Bushwick section, where the basic tracks for Amy Winehouse’s Grammy-winning “Rehab” were also recorded.“The sound of the tape is a big part of the sound of the record,” says Gabriel Roth, Jones’ record producer and Daptone partner.Analog’s attraction lies in its ultra-high resolution capability, Spitz explains. Direct Stream Digital (DSD), the high-resolution digital disc format Sony used for its audiophile SACD format, is capable of 2.884,000 transitions per track per second, but a high-quality mastering tape contains approximately 80 million transitions per track second. “And that’s just for 1/4-inch two-track tape running at 15 IPS,” says Spitz. “The resolution goes up substantially with wider tracks and higher (tape) speeds.”However, don’t pull your tie-dyed jeans out the closet just yet, say musicians, producers and music execs. The entire infrastructure of professional music recording has been firmly entrenched in the nonlinear digital domain for more than a decade, and even basic tape deck maintenance such as headstack alignment is no longer part of the core curricula for aspiring engineers at media academies such as Full Sail U., SAE and Berklee College of Music.“Analog is great, but it’s just economically unrealistic to think you can use it all the time or even very often,” says David Frangioni, who has cut tracks for Aerosmith, Bryan Adams, Ricky Martin and Ozzy Osbourne. Aside from the cost of media and hardware, Frangioni says contemporary records need to have access to more tracks and nonlinear editing capabilities to be competitive on radio and at retail. “These days especially, you have to balance time and budget against the cost of analog.”Michael Lloyd, a record producer and exec at Curb Records in L.A., says while the cost of tape media may not be a budget-breaker for major labels, he wonders, at a time when music sales continue to decline, if recording technology even matters to consumers. “At the end of the day, it all goes out (on CD) or MP3. I’d rather see the concentration on good songs than on the technology. We have a good digital workflow in place.”Analog recording is expensive and exotic compared to digital systems and it will remain a niche. But its renewed popularity suggests some listeners may be tired of MP3′s squeezed sonics.