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The Great Analog Gamble 

Wednesday, Jan 13 2016
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Vanderslice rented the Oakland space for two years while engineer Garry Creiman restored the Neve. (A console basically intercepts the data from the microphones and allows an engineer to manipulate the sound before it's tracked onto tape or a computer.) Buying the console, offered to him via email, turned out to be Vanderslice's major motivation for the new studio.

To many, the Neve consoles made in the '70s have become the holy grail of vintage gear, renowned for their craftsmanship and large, warm sound. Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl declared his love for the Neve in the 2013 documentary Sound City — which a thankful Vanderslice says came out a few months after he purchased his Neve for $165,000 (several hundred thousand dollars less than the owner's original asking price of $450,000).

This console has a rich history. Before landing at the Sausalito Record Plant in the early 2000s, it was the main console at the Record Plant in L.A., home to sessions by Neil Young, Tom Petty, Nirvana, and Metallica. As Vanderslice holds one of its 64 hand-wound modules in the palm of his hand, he explains that this Neve was created at the peak of the big-budget recording studio era, when companies like Helio, Trident, and Neve were racing to make the most beautiful-sounding console.

"All we can do is go back and pull the best of what was really the peak and rebuild it," Vanderslice says. "It's maybe a little bit crazy, but I think that it's also strangely intoxicating to be like, 'We know that this is the best that was ever done, and we're going to re-enter it, and make a pact with the geniuses that came up with this idea and keep this going.'"

He adds, "We did the same thing with tape decks, and it's maybe not the smartest thing financially, but if it was about money we wouldn't be in the art thing anyway, right? We'd be working at a fucking startup. Or a tech company. We'd be on the bus."

Investing in expensive gear has been a mainstay of Vanderslice's philosophy as a recording artist and studio owner. He released his first solo record, Mass Suicide Occult Figures, on Seattle label Barsuk in 2000 and began touring extensively shortly after. He recalls coming home from one of his first tours, spreading all the cash he made on his bed, and blowing it all the next day on a new microphone.

To buy the Neve and build a third studio from the ground up, however, has required spending other people's money and has been an "incredibly painful" undertaking at times, Vanderslice admits. His only bank loans are in the form of a few credit cards; he raised $115,000 on Kickstarter and was also offered a few large low-interest loans from clients ("bigger bands") and other members of the Bay Area music community. On Dec. 9, he tweeted, "If I survive this studio build I will be one strong motherfucker."



There are at least a half-dozen analog studios in the country, including Steve Albini's Electrical Audio in Chicago, The Bomb Shelter in Nashville, and Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic in Olympia, Wash. Chris Woodhouse, who has engineered analog records by Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, specializes in analog recording in his Sacramento studio, The Dock, and Tim Green of Louder Studios in Nevada City, Calif., records almost exclusively to tape. Most studios have tape machines on their list of gear. (There is also a swath of local artists, like Jessica Pratt and Kelley Stoltz, who have made notable recordings using lo-fi tape machines.)

Still, most engineers employ a hybrid model or work in tape very little. Many don't have bands asking for analog, while others don't feel it fits into the workflow or budget of the modern, digitally minded studio. It's also expensive: There is now only one tape manufacturer in the country, ATR Magnetics. Vanderslice estimates that Tiny Telephone spends about $5,000 a year on tape.

Engineer and producer Michael Starita, who serves as president of the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy and has worked with Childish Gambino and Spearhead, agrees that tape can motivate better performances in theory, but when it doesn't, an engineer needs to use whatever tools are necessary to make the track sound professional, even if it means combing through 50 versions of a guitar solo to find the best one.

"If you're using tape, nine times out of 10, people are still going to come in and maybe not play as well as they should," he says. "Then you're sitting there with something that sonically might sound good, but performance-wise might not be there, and you're sort of restricted in what you can do."

Only about one in 10 bands asks for an analog experience, says Crews. He often encourages them to work with tape at some point though, either in the tracking or mixing stage, to add some analog warmth. But he takes umbrage at the notion that tape sounds better in absolutely every case.

"It's not better, it's different," he says. "I wish it were always consistent because then I could just say, 'We're always mixing to tape,' or 'Fuck tape. It's not worth the extra effort and cost.' But it's kind of a case-by-case basis for me."

There is also the argument that the sonic advantages of analog are lost on a world that now consumes the majority of its music online on sites like YouTube or SoundCloud. But Vanderslice argues that musicians shouldn't be making music for the average listener: They should be making it for the best possible listener.

"I don't think Brian Wilson was like, 'We don't need [drummer] Hal Blaine on this session because maybe some people can hear that his feel is unbelievably good and some people can't,'" he says. "This never ends, this line of thinking. We have tons of bands who are like, 'Why should I spend money on mastering when everyone is going to listen to my record on earbuds?' It's like, why not lie down in front of traffic because you're going to die one day?"

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