In the age of digital recording, I am one of those who continue to record in the analogue domain, insisting that the heart and soul of older music is due, in part, to the magic of magnetic media. I have two “old” Tascam 388 Studio 8 recorders in near new condition which I acquired by way of musicians who had determined that digital was the wave of the future.
The 388 is a songwriters tool by definition: It utilises 1/4″ tape and runs at a speed of 7.5″ per second. This unit is far outstripped by those high grade studio affairs which, in comparison use 1″ or 2″ tape and run at speeds up to 30 ips. The 388 makes use of dbx II noise reduction which was the cutting edge technology of the day. It really does a fine job of keeping the noise floor at an almost imperceptible level and, if the signal is kept nice and hot, the resulting recordings are quite detailed. It goes without saying that any engineer would easily be able to hear the difference between the sound quality of the 388 and a Studer battleship, but I have to roll with the dictates of affordability, availability and necessity. Work of mine which was done on the 388 has surprised some very discerning ears. It’s all about use and manipulation of the tools at hand.
Is digital better than analogue? I believe that it is a rhetorical question. The question should be: Better at what? Quieter? Sure. More flexible? Of course. More durable? Possibly. At least the digital machine won’t mangle the tape, rendering useless the song that you spent thirty hours on. But the digital equipment can ruin work in an instant as well. I am not writing out of ignorance or bias, as I had the opportunity to work with a DAW for some time before the Tascam came my way.
I was afforded the use of a friends’ Fostex unit, a little 16 bit, 8 track deal which recorded to a built in hard drive. It had the jog wheel and all of the buttons for cutting and pasting.. not that I’ve ever done any extensive tape splicing.. but, the Fostex made it look so easy, why not give it a shot?
The first thing I didn’t appreciate was the little high pitched buzzwhine sound that the unit made. I had to null out the bleed by turning my mic at the required angle and tightening up the noise gate to the point of it chopping off my acoustic guitar’s note decay as it closed. I wasn’t so happy about that. The next that I found disconcerting was that I couldn’t be satisfied that the damned thing was even running. Nothing was moving!
By now it is obvious to the reader that I’ve spent a lot of time in front of a tape machine and the transition was going to take some time. I could have stopped right there and used my bullheadedness as an excuse not to try and master the use of Tym’s machine, but I’ve always prided myself on being one of those who was always open to new and better things and besides, I was determined to use the device.
The thing that really turned me against digital recording was what I heard when I was moving the jog wheel either in forward or reverse: Tiny little ice cubes of noise, which, when listened to in rapid succession, sounded like music. It was crisp, and it was crystalline and transparent and all of those words… but it wasn’t embracing and warm and fat and consistent.
That is the problem that I still have with digitally recorded music, in a nutshell. I listen to the CDs that I made while using the Fostex and am immediately struck at how much of what I recorded is missing. I began to wonder if that isn’t why R&B and rock music has taken the direction that it has in the past ten or fifteen years with all of the mega-bass and the tuned-down guitars. Musicians are trying to recapture the very essence of what isn’t getting recorded. They are trying to inject the warmth back into the music that digital sucks out.
I cut one of my recordings up beyond redemption on that little Fostex recorder. Accidentally, of course. I was attempting to “move” a few bars in what is now neither “forward” nor “reverse”. I wound up trashing the tracks altogether. So where was the advantage to not having my tape eaten by an analogue machine? A moment of inattentiveness and everything still goes straight to hell. I could hear the splices. It occurred to me that I’d never attempted to splice anything on an analogue recorder. It simply wasn’t the way that I was used to working. I determined that I didn’t need to splice anything, anyway. Why didn’t I just re-record the entire track as I normally would have done? I realised at that moment that the technology had been sucking me in. It had been attempting to change me simply by existing.
It wasn’t long afterwards that the deal came through on the first Tascam. It arrived at the house in a pickup truck. It took two of us to carry the unwieldy thing inside and set it on the production table. It is four times as big as the Fostex and weighs twenty times more. The desk is built into the machine and flexibility abounds with XLR jacks, insert points and fully adjustable four band parametric EQs for every channel. It can be coupled with a wired remote, a time clock and has SMPTE/EBU capability. Unfortunately, it has no phantom power, but I direct all of my mics into preamps before lining in and they furnish the required 48 volts, so it’s no big deal.
I have to clean the heads and service all of the rubber and metal parts with two different kinds of lubricant. I have to replace belts. I had to locate a supplier up in Ohio for magnetic tape. Not to mention those expensive MRL calibration tapes. I have to take the machine apart from time to time and chase down every weary capacitor and resistor or other component and replace it. In short, I have had to become my own machine technician in addition in fulfilling the role as songwriter and “musician”.
And I wouldn’t change that for the world.
Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter and composer. And “musician”. And tape machine tech. And guitar and amp rebuilder.