Although it’s hard to resist the convenience of a digital audio workstation, nothing beats the way analog tape colors sound. It’s a format that makes guitars, bass, and drums sound huge, while smoothing out the voice like butter.
It’s common for engineers to record to multitrack tape to reap the benefits of tape compression and tone, then dump the tracks into a DAW for tweaking and mixing. Unfortunately, tape is an expensive format to use in terms of the blank media—reels can cost as much as $250 each. Considering that you get only 15 to 30 minutes of recording time per reel (depending on tape speed), if you do multiple takes of each song, it can amount to quite an investment.
Nashville-based engineer Chris Estes has an answer. His company, Endless Analog [www.endlessanalog.com], has created CLASP, which, in a nutshell, bounces audio signals off of analog tape before going to disk, but without latency issues.
CLASP, which stands for Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor, combines a 2U hardware matrixing device with a native plug-in (VST, AU, RTAS) interface that, together, routes audio signals through your tape machine—onto and immediately off the tape itself—before sending the results to your recording software. The hardware box provides the no-latency monitoring environment, while the system time-stamps the audio files so that they are sample-accurate with the other tracks in the session, correcting for the amount of time it takes the audio to go through the entire signal path.
I attended a demonstration of CLASP at Studio Trilogy in San Francisco this week, where Estes was tracking a song by Bay Area band The Trophy Fire. It was easy to hear the difference of the tracks played before and after hitting the tape—that part wasn’t such a big deal. What really knocked me out was the efficiency of the workflow: The tape machine and the Pro Tools session were being controlled simultaneously from the computer keyboard as if they were one and the same. I was witnessing a major breakthrough in recording technology, but it was as if nothing special was happening: Everything ran smoothly. I kept thinking to myself, “This is how things should work.”
Of course, its not trivial to make something like this happen. Before I further describe CLASP, let me mention one important detail: you only need to rewind the tape when it reaches the end. The first thing you notice during a session using CLASP is that the engineer never shuttles the tape back and forth, or rewinds between takes. The engineer simply hits record on the DAW and the tape machine immediately begins rolling until the take is stopped. It doesn’t matter whether you’re recording an entire pass or doing a quick punch-in, the process is the same. The tracks you’re recording only use the tape media for a short amount of time—equal to the distance between the record and playback heads—before being sent directly to your A/D converters and onto your disk drive. (Of course, you can rewind the tape at any time by pressing the large rewind button on the CLASP Bridge plug-in in your DAW, but it’s not at all necessary.)
If you’ve used a tape deck, you know how much time is spent rewinding and how much wear that puts on the tape. With CLASP, you can play the tape from top to tail without multiple rewinds in between, so the tape lasts longer and you can reuse it for other projects. Wouldn’t you rather amortize the price of that $250 reel over several album projects?
The hardware/software integration behind CLASP is ingenious, from the signal flow to the control system. The input signals coming from your board are sent to the CLASP hardware unit where they are immediately split: one set of signals goes to the tape machine, the other set goes back to the monitoring inputs of your board (see Fig. 1). It’s these latter signals that give you the no-latency monitoring. Consequently, as you record, you’re not hearing what’s coming off the tape machine: You’re hearing the sound from the board. You can certainly audition the sound from the tape when you’re setting levels, but you’ll hear the straight analog signal as you’re tracking.
A single CLASP hardware unit handles 24 tracks, with analog I/O on D-sub connectors for input, tape send, DAW return, and monitoring. The system supports tape machines by Ampex ATR, Otari, Studer (800-827), 3M, Sony, Tascam, and MCI (JH-series), and an optical tape sensor is available for synchronizing the system with other playback machines.
From your DAW, you use the CLASP Bridge plug-in to control everything. Among other things, the plug-in keeps track of how much time you have left on the tape, and if you are not paying attention and the tape runs out, CLASP automatically rewinds the tape for you. The plug-in window and the hardware unit have countdown timers that display the amount of time remaining. Remarkably, if you change your tape speed, the counter updates automatically.
The ability to combine different tape-speeds in a single session is one of the interesting benefits of CLASP. In general, the faster the tape speed, the higher the fidelity. On the other hand, the slower the tape speed, the more old-school the sound becomes—rounded transients, beefier bass frequencies, and a bit more oomph. Because everything is, ultimately, sent to disk when using CLASP, you can do a recording pass of the vocals at, say, 30 ips (inches per second), and then do the lead guitar at 15 ips to fatten the tone. During the session at Studio Trilogy, Estes demonstrated the sonic differences that changes in tape speed make and the results were remarkable. It’s the kind of sound we all want from plug-ins, but never seem to get.
Mind you, the technology isn’t cheap. The street price for a CLASP system is $7,495, which isn’t surprising because Endless Analog is a U.S.-based, boutique pro-audio manufacturer, and CLASP systems are built by hand in short runs. “CLASP is a high-end piece of gear,” Estes explained to me. “We use the highest quality components available to support features such as our non-switching, dual-linear power supplies and our transparent audio monitoring signal-path.
“If you think about it,” he noted, “for studios or individuals who have made a substantial investment already in analog tape machines that have been in moth balls for many years, CLASP is a way to bring those machines out of retirement to recoup on the original investment, all the while getting the sonic benefits of recording on tape. Additionally, it gives commercial recording facilities something unique that people cannot get at a typical home studio.”
For less than the price of a Pro Tools TDM system, you get a device that eliminates the time you’d spend transferring everything from tape to disk, while increasing productivity and drastically reducing tape costs. Imagine telling prospective clients they can record to tape, but they’ll only need one reel.
Check out Kevin Becka’s excellent review of CLASP at mixonline.com, where he goes into greater detail about the features and takes the system for a spin at the Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences (CRAS) in Tempe, Arizona. But you really have to see and hear CLASP in action. Check the Endless Analog Web site for upcoming demos, which no doubt will include Mix Nashville in September and the AES convention in San Francisco this November.