Analog Tape Is Back!

Aug 4, 2010 4:28 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Dave Simon-Baker works out of Mission Bells in S.F.

Dave Simon-Baker works out of Mission Bells in S.F.

For San Francisco Bay Area–based engineer/producer/musician Dave Simon-Baker, whose recent work includes the latest albums by the Mother Hips (Pacific Dust), ALO (Man of the World) and Jackie Greene (Till the Light Comes), his return to using analog tape (with Pro Tools) was influenced in part by the arrival of a very special machine at the studio he calls home these days, Mission Bells in S.F.: a Studer A820 24-track that was owned by the notoriously audio-conscious Grateful Dead (and used to record their final two albums in the late ’80s). Greene, who co-owns Mission Bells with Mother Hips leader Tim Bluhm, acquired the Studer through former Dead bassist Phil Lesh, in whose band he played part-time during 2007/2008. The machine wasn’t working when it was lugged up the stairs to the second-floor studio, but some remedial work courtesy of ex-Grateful Dead sound wizard John Cutler and, especially, Krieg Wunderlich changed that, and now, “It’s the most amazing-sounding recorder!” Simon-Baker says. “That is a special machine. I’d used the Studer A80 a lot and liked it, but I didn’t realize until I started using this A820 that it has built-in Dolby SR card slots, so we did most of the Hips record and all of Jackie’s at 15 ips with Dolby SR and it sounds great; it just kicks huge ass. The clock is so amazing on it and the sound is so rich and full.

“I had stopped using tape entirely for 12 years and it wasn’t a conscious choice—it was economics entirely. People weren’t affording it; they didn’t want to buy it. So I found myself with a roomful of hard drives, and I felt like, ‘Where? Why?’ So when the opportunity came to use this beautiful machine, I fell back in love with it. It takes a little more time because of the transferring [back and forth between it and Pro Tools] and I know there are systems where you can avoid that, but we have it set up in a way we can work well with it.”

The Hips and Greene albums were being worked on concurrently (in fact, the Hips play on much of Greene’s album and Tim Bluhm also co-produced), and as economic considerations were important in both cases, Simon-Baker was careful not to use too much tape—not a problem given his recording M.O. “We monitor through Pro Tools, but we don’t actually record to Pro Tools until it’s been on tape. Then I transfer it over when the tape is full. The masters were all on Pro Tools. Then we’d just erase the tape when we were done and we’d keep going over the same tape. The Hips record and the Jackie record were done on a total of about four reels of tape.”

Greene’s album, in particular, has a somewhat ’60s psychedelic sound, but that’s mostly because of the arrangements and instrumentation—it’s rife with Rickenbacker guitars and bass, B-3 organ, even electric sitar on two songs (backward on one). “Tape helps get some of that feeling,” Simon-Baker says, “but more is the playing and the instruments and the amps. Jackie and Tim are staunch collectors and a lot of the sound is classic guitars through classic amps—a lot of Princeton amps and that sounds fantastic; Vibrolux; Super Reverb. That gives it more of that sound than the tape. We also have nice preamps—we use a lot of Neve and API stuff, and the new Mercury M72.

“But now that I’ve had this opportunity to get back to tape, I realize the sum effects of putting all those tracks down gives it a particular way of sitting together. It’s almost like a smearing effect where everything sits in a real warm and comfortable zone, and it layers a bit more naturally. It sits in a certain way and creates more of an illusion than the clarity of digital. And I like the sound of digital.”

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.

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