I had the fortune of visiting Real World Studios recently, where I met producer and mixer, Ali Staton.
He was tracking a new album for Turin Brakes while I was there, courageously working on two-inch. “Just the drums to tape and then into Pro Tools for the rest?” I asked. Nope. He was tackling the entire tracking process on tape.
It is automatically assumed that the choice of recording to tape, with its increased cost and lack of flexibility, is simply one of sonic benefit, but I gathered from Ali that this was only half the story. We talked about the process being cathartic, imposing limitations, making decisions as you go, and not having to look at a computer screen. The tape workflow had a history. He was returning to his roots and to the roots of production.
The debate of audible quality has been beaten to death but one thing that isn’t often mentioned is the cultural shift of switching to non-linear systems. When I started engineering, analog tape had already begun to die. I had a taste for it in the beginning of my career, but the bulk of my early years were spent on tape-based digital systems.
When non-linear DAWs became the standard, everyone marvelled in the immediateness of the workflow. No longer were we slaves to reels of tape spinning back and forth. Like the taste of elixir from the fountain of life, we could reclaim those precious minutes once lost to the tape-reaper. But I think it can be debated that this is one of the flaws of new-millennium technology. Where the smartphone has enabled us to rid ourselves of all that troublesome free time that we once had, so too has the DAW eradicated it within our studio lives.
I suspect that 'rewind time' – the time it took for us to get back to the head of the tape – was more than just a function of the medium. It was a forced time out. It was a breather, a moment to rest your ears, your fingers, your voice. It could be communal, or personal. It gave you a chance to reflect on your work, deliberate and make sure the project was on-track. We didn’t really see it as important at the time, but maybe it was. I am by no means a technology contrarian – quite the contrary actually – and I fully admit that most times it’s incredibly advantageous to 'go again' immediately to capture the spark of performance. But I think we should at least acknowledge what we’ve lost.
So next time you jump back to the beginning of your session immediately after a take, or decide to do some quick edits while the artist takes a smoke break, consider taking a breather instead, if only as a moment of silence to mourn our free time.
For more info on Ali Staton or Turin Brakes' new album We Were Here, please visit www.alistaton.com or www.turinbrakes.com.
Ryan's website: www.bitcrushing.com
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