Recap: Tape Camp at Welcome to 1979 (Nashville, TN)
For those who haven’t been following along with us on social media, we (Michael & Steve) headed down to Nashville this past week for the Spring 2015 Tape Camp at Welcome to 1979. This studio is run by Chris Mara of Mara Machines, and they focus mainly on the art of Analog recording. The studio has a bit of a retro feel to it (bearing that most of the gear hails from the 70’s), and has a TOTALLY awesome vibe. It wouldn’t be hard to lose track of time after stepping through the doors and fully immerse yourself in all that the space has to offer – both for the creative process, and the gear (of course).
So, what is Tape Camp all about?
Simply put, we spent a long weekend in the studio focusing solely on recording in the analog domain. Yes, you read that correctly. No, we did not use a computer all weekend. We aligned tape machines, set up for sessions with 2 different artists (using some of our favorite microphones from Telefunken Elektroakustik), recorded a 5-piece band live, executed live “punch-ins”, made tape edits to some country tunes, and played with all kinds of outboard analog processors and their MCI 400 series console. Needless to say, it was quite an experience, and is highly recommended to anyone interested in learning the ways of analog recording from the studio that’s single-handedly keeping the art alive.
Day 1: Alignment Day
While our beautiful tape machines may look (and sound) pretty, they do take a bit of TLC to keep them up to snuff, and Tape Machine Alignment is part of the usual maintenance required of such machines. This is where the record level, bias level, and EQ response of the machine is adjusted. It’s like a tune-up for your car, and this is all of the work that needs to be done under the hood to make sure it runs smoothly. While I don’t feel comfortable posting a step-by-step walkthrough of the process as described by Chris, you can find out more information on the things that may be done during a tape machine alignment in this article from Sound On Sound.
Now I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty details about what we learned on alignment day. I wish it was because I grasped enough of what we were talking about so that I could withhold that information from you all. But, in all honesty, most of it went over my head. But alas! Both Steve and I successfully aligned a JH-110 2-track 1/4″ mixdown deck solely off of the step-by-step notes we took, so we’re looking forward to applying the principles to our JH24.
Day 2: Basic operation and Session #1
So after a great first day in the studio (and a night out experiencing all that Nashville has to offer), the camp continued into day 2 where we started getting our hands dirty in a more practical sense. We spent the first half of the day going over the basic functions of the MCI JH24 2″ 24-track Analog Tape Recorder, the same model that’s housed here in our studio. We integrated several pieces of equipment to the signal chain that would eventually be used on a recording that afternoon. Welcome to 1979 has some great gear that gets used regularly in the recording and mixing stages, so we took the liberties of setting up a few effects to hear how they sound compared to the plugin counterparts that we’ve grown to know so well. We checked out tape delays, echo chambers, plate reverbs, vintage RCA 44 microphones, and eventually landed on a signal chain that would be used for our session that afternoon. We recorded 2 songs for a local singer songwriter, where we got the chance to hear our beloved tape in action. Chris engineered while we diligently took notes on the process, and we each got a chance to sit in the “hot seat” to have a whack at it ourselves.
Later in the afternoon, we learned how to make edits to audio that is already recorded onto tape. The task presented was to make an edit that would be seamless and unnoticeable, and all attendees passed with flying colors. For the most part, our edits made sense musically. However, being that Country music is “all about the lyrics & story,” the song didn’t make quite as much sense after we had shifted around verses and choruses for the sake of the exercise. Oh well. I’m sure a cowboy somewhere out there shed a single tear.
Lathe Night in the Vinyl Mastering Lab
After all day in the studio and a quick dinner/beer break to M.L. Rose with the gang, we headed back over to the studio to commence Lathe Night in the Vinyl Mastering Lab. Keeping in the spirit of old-school audio, Welcome to 1979 acquired a Neumann VMS 70 Record Lathe so that they could cover all of the bases under one roof – from tracking to mixing to vinyl mastering. In this studio, run by Cameron Henry, they cut Master Vinyl Records for artists all over the world to be used by the vinyl manufacturing plants to make pressing molds for mass production. In fact, the vast majority of records that have been released in recent years have passed across Cameron’s desk, and if you keep an eye out you may find his initials etched on a copy of your favorite Katy Perry album that you just bought to round out your collection.
While most of us had our minds blown by what the process of cutting a vinyl master to a blank lacquer entailed, Cameron did a great job of explaining the science behind what the machine does and the artistic touch that the vinyl mastering engineer adds to the process. We watched as a record was cut live using the lathe, and the result produced the sweetest sounding vinyl any of us had ever heard. We A/B’ed the digital audio to the audio playing off of the turntable, and the vinyl master produced a noticeably fatter sound, but still maintained the cleanliness and clarity (unlike the scratchy, dusty 45’s in your collection) that the digital counterpart produced.
Day 3: Recording a Live Band
We spent the morning of our third and final day of camp setting up to record a 5-piece band live. The group was called The Dead Deads, which is an all-female rock band that kicks some serious ass. We used what would probably be considered one of the most epic microphone lists of alltime (again, thanks to Chris and our friends at Telefunken) to mic up the various instruments. U47’s on Bass & Guitar cabs, C12’s on Drum Overheads, RCA 44’s as room mics, and an ELA-M 251 on Lead Vocals. And of course, everything was processed through the console and select outboard gear to eventually be recorded to 2″ tape.
Naturally, it sounded amazing.
We each got a chance to dial in sounds during the soundcheck, and eventually we were off without a hitch. The band recorded three songs, and each of the camp attendees got the chance to engineer, tape op, and assist the session. One thing that was made very apparent through the whole process was the importance of keeping good notes. Unlike the conveniences of a few mouse clicks in Pro Tools, the Tape Machine’s auto locator relies on the fact that you know where each section of the song starts on the timeline (Chorus starts at 1:30, bridge at 1:52, etc.), so it would be easy to get lost somewhere in the 2500ft. of tape spinning at 30 inches per second. This process, of course, relates to punch-ins as well.
All in all, the engineers and the band were happy with the results that we wound up with at the end of the day. Each of us attained a wealth of knowledge that we can all bring home to put into action in our own studios, and were given digital copies of the multitrack session to play around with. We certainly gained a lot through this weekend, and had the chance to meet and work with a lot of great people. We’re looking forward to working with Chris again sometime in the future, but for now, it’s time to put our own machine to work!
Tags: 2 inch tape, Analog Recording, Analog Tape, Cutting Vinyl, MCI Console, MCI JH24, Nashville, RCA 44, Recording Studio, Recording to Tape, Tape Camp, Tape Editing, Tape Machine Alignment, Telefunken Microphones, U47, Vinyl Mastering, Vinyl Recording, Welcome to 1979