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Off The Record: Analogue Technology

Music & Recording Industry News
By Dan Daley

At both the production and consumption ends of music, analogue is making a comeback.

One aspect of music’s infrastructure that’s been getting a lot of attention lately is analogue technology. This retro trend is part of the machinery behind the resurgence of vinyl, which, says market metric maven Nielsen, has boomed to sales of about 12 million units through retail portals in 2015, up from just under a million records a decade earlier. The RIAA translates that into $416 million in sales in 2015. The numbers add up when you realise that vinyl LPs can cost between $25 and $40, depending on the artist and the demand. And when non-conventional sales are factored in, at gigs and out of the boots of cars, those numbers could increase by 50 percent or more.

Off The Record: pen writing signature.However, all of that growth is coming out of a manufacturing base that’s tiny by comparison. There are fewer than a dozen vinyl pressing plants in operation globally, and even the newer ones, like Independent Record Pressing, which opened last year in Bordentown, New Jersey, are using record presses that were built over 40 years ago. And as if to further underscore how tightly LP manufacturing is squeezed, one of IRP’s owners is a consortium of independent record labels, a cohort that’s often been frozen out of pressing capacity by the three remaining major labels during holiday sales periods. Things are so tight that they had to buy a stake in manufacturing to assure themselves some time on the presses.

This infrastructure squeeze is evident at the recording end too, in the community of studios that have proper multitrack and stereo tape machines, plus the consoles and outboard to complete the all-analogue environment for those die-hards that want to immerse themselves in the full, Westworld-like experience (after the classic film in which modern-day wannabe gunslingers holiday in the Wild West).

Tape Man

You may have to travel to Slovakia or Hungary to find an extra vinyl-pressing machine hidden under a defunct Soviet tank, but analogue’s basic medium isn’t quite as hard to find. There are two main sources for professional analogue tape in North America these days. ATR Magnetics reproduce the former Ampex/Quantegy formulations and RMG International do the same with the European equivalents from BASF/EMTEC and AGFA. Don Morris, president of RMG International, told me from his base in the Chicago area that quarter-inch tape sales have been exploding in recent years, as more studios add it as a mix format, and a few audiophile enterprises, like the Tape Project, use it to release recordings for consumers who want to go one step beyond vinyl. Tapes arrive regularly at RMG by the pallet, and are distributed through a network of nearly 30 domestic dealers, such as Guitar Center and Vintage King.

A reel of two-inch tape goes for a bit over $200 these days, up from the $135 or so they’d sell for in 1996, when analogue was still the dominant recording format. But that’s actually considerably less when you account for 20 years’ worth of inflation. It’s not so much cost but availability that makes analogue a bit of a chore. The machines they play on are having similar experiences. Chris Mara, whose Nashville-based Mara Machines refurbish between 40 and 50 MCI multitracks a year, says the 24-track decks not only cost far less than they did when they were new — an average of about $8000 now ready to run — but actually cost about 50-percent less than 8- and 16-track decks, mainly because those headstacks are more rare.

But both the tape and the machine suppliers agree that their businesses are being driven by individual aficionados — Morris says it’s not unusual for producer T-Bone Burnett to order 40 reels of two-inch tape at a time on projects — and by a young cohort that wants more out of the recording experience than digital can offer. “They’re tired of looking at music through a computer screen,” says Mara. In fact, he adds, when bands call local commercial studios to inquire about recording to tape, he’s heard that many facilities try to talk them out of it, citing the additional cost and time involved. ”It’s for people who really, really want to record on tape,” he says.

Spools Rush In

So the infrastructure for a fully analogue production environment is robust enough to sustain itself for some time to come, for those willing to ferret out the pieces. Morris says he’s seeing more hybrid situations — studios and individuals acquiring multitracks and using one- and two-inch tape to record bass and drums and then transferring to Pro Tools. In many ways, tape recording is thriving as much as vinyl itself is. However, both share similar clouds on their horizons: while finding record-pressing machinery is a challenge and finding multitrack decks somewhat less so, finding knowledgeable people to operate them is. Aligning a 24-track deck is as much an art as it is a precise procedure and Morris says only a few of the recording schools still offer that skill.

The supply and demand equation for analogue at the production level appears reasonably balanced. The tape makers and the machine renovators derive enough revenue and/or satisfaction from it to remain engaged for at least the foreseeable future, and the ongoing demand for vinyl LPs will likely continue to spur interest in analogue recording. How long this lasts is anyone’s guess. The decline of teaching the operation of high-end multitrack tape decks in schools may be a harbinger; on the other hand, more and more makers of plug-ins are emphasising the degree to which they can make recordings sound like they were made on analogue gear.

They may be on to something. Done well, digital can come very close to approximating an analogue environment, and one in which tape heads never need to be cleaned or relapped, tape never stretches or drops out, and media storage consists of nothing bigger than a jewelry box. Think of it as Westworld but with indoor plumbing. Meanwhile, those who hanker for the real thing have enough actual analogue infrastructure in place to indulge themselves, at least for now.

Published January 2017