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The Great Analog Gamble 

Wednesday, Jan 13 2016
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"It was political, but also totally aesthetic. There were these interesting parallel realities," he says. "It made total sense to me and I bought into it naturally and passionately within five minutes of being there. Chez Panisse is a physical shrine to an idea, and it's an obsessive, totally extreme position."

In many ways, the ethos of Chez Panisse are reflected in Vanderslice's approach to Tiny Telephone, which has a relaxed, lived-in vibe that he describes as "not a shit-hole, but not built with Daddy's money either." It's full of reclaimed wood and a carefully curated selection of gear: a 1921 Deagan Marimba, the Studer tape machines. He often takes instruments out of the hands of musicians as they walk through the studio door and replaces them with ones he thinks will record better. The studio emphasizes simplicity and efficiency — musicians should come in prepared and able to record their part in a few takes. And it's dedicated to a philosophy than runs counter to the mainstream: That recording on tape is almost always superior to recording on a computer. He often uses the philosophies of organic farmers and artisan chocolate makers as a touchstone for his own ideas about the craft of recording and the importance of attention to detail.

"The profit margin is so low that it's got to mean something to you philosophically," he explains. "I despise the laziness of Pro Tools engineers so much, and the short cuts, and the ease at which people forget how much better tape machines sound, that it's like a political mission."

Over the past decade, Vanderslice has become one of analog recording's most vocal proponents. He first fell in love with tape after buying a Tascam four-track when he was a teenager, but describes his purchase of an Ampex MM 1000 16-track at age 31 as a major turning point. Ampex tape machines were developed in Redwood City in the '40s with financial support from Bing Crosby, who is often referred to as one of Silicon Valley's first "angel investors." The white Ampex sign is still visible from US-101, although the company is much smaller and now develops a variety of audio products.

Digital recording was introduced in the '80s and exploded over the next decade, becoming standard protocol for both home and professional studios. It allows engineers to save large amounts of data and easily cut and paste together the best sections of multiple takes without the laborious process of physically splicing tape. But Vanderslice and other digital detractors argue that the sound quality of digital still lags behind analog.

"Digital is going to be great one day, but having a robot boyfriend or robot girlfriend may be great one day, too," says Vanderslice. "That doesn't mean I want one now."

Merrill Garbus, leader of Oakland indie pop outfit tUnE-yArDs, considers herself a hybrid user of digital and analog. She recently joined the Tiny Telephone roster as a producer and describes the sound of tape recordings as having "a roundness to tones, a subtlety that's not there in recordings that are only digital. The idea that you're getting a range, all the spaces between the ones and zeros."0x2029It's not just the sound, however, that's kept Vanderslice and other Tiny Telephone engineers devoted to analog. For engineer Jamie Riotto, it's not even the sonic distinctions that interest him as much as tape's "ethos of recording," which forces musicians to up their game and create better music. "There's a feeling of, 'Okay, this engineer's not going to piece together my performance from 14 different takes. Like, I've got to actually do this.'"

Crews, who also works as head engineer at Figure 8 Recording in Brooklyn, works in both digital and analog and has seen the way bands "turn on" at the site of a tape machine.

"It makes the studio environment more special, which makes the band have a better time, which makes the whole process go better," he says. "You have this enormous machine that looks like it's from NASA or something in the corner, and it's got all these flashing lights and moving parts on it, and it just increases the importance of what's happening."

Oklahoma singer-songwriter Samantha Crain, who recorded her last two albums with Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone, appreciates how tracking to analog forces a singer to ditch the oft-used digital practice of recording vocals one phrase at a time and then pasting them together.

"I never realized how strange that is until I started doing the one-or-two takes sort of thing," she says. "It just felt so much better, and when you're listening to it, it actually feels like someone singing a song instead of some pieced-together GPS system or something."

Even musicians who don't plan to convert to analog recording for life often enjoy the challenge of making at least one record using the process. Oakland's Astronauts, etc. recorded its last record with Riotto at Tiny Telephone, even though singer Anthony Ferraro had recorded the project's first few albums at home on a laptop.

"The limitations, in terms of time and the physical medium, force an ethic of efficiency and spontaneity on you," Ferraro says."It was a really healthy experience for us and a nice contrast to my previous experiences recording, which were fraught with a lot of hemming and hawing and walking away from the computer and trying to distract myself."

There's also no denying the "cool factor" of analog — the romance, nostalgia, and mythology of working in the medium of so many classic records. "There's a lot of juju about making recordings and a lot of mysticism about what it takes to make a great album," Garbus says. "If the magic of tape and the world that tape kind of brings into a studio has something to do with that, then that's fine by me."


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