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How to Maximize Tape’s Limitations & Embrace Music’s Humanity
And Why Over-Editing in the Digital Realm Dehumanizes Art
When most people think about analog tape, they often romanticize about its rich tonal properties. For me, it’s all about embracing the humanness of music.
The primary reason I record to tape is that it disarms you of the tools required to wander far from the truth. It captures the artist as they currently are, stripping away the ability to separate their performance from the moment in which it was recorded. The limitations inherent in a linear medium like tape naturally preserve human information – tiny flaws which give you an insight into the character of the artist. These flaws make up a large part of what we perceive as vibe or feel.
“There’s no better random generator than a human being, with all those little inconsistencies, faults, and random things that happen in your voice and fingers. Those are the things that give personality, character, and vibrancy to music, which makes you want to listen to certain records over and over again.” –John Frusciante
Of course, not all mistakes are welcome. The art of knowing which ones to keep requires a sensitivity to music, to intuitively trust what your ears are telling you. With the introduction of the modern DAW, what used to be primarily an aural-oriented decision making process is becoming increasingly visually-oriented. The ability to retain every take of a performance encourages the comping of a master take – a highlight reel of sorts. This visual, non-linear approach to editing promotes the removal of human information simply because it might not conform to a grid or looks out of place.
“So many of us modern engineers learn to record with our eyes. While working with tape, you still use your eyes to ensure proper gain staging, but you’re not staring at a screen. Following and trusting one’s ears ensures a good recording.” -Eric Palmquist
Tape, like vinyl, is a linear analog medium. In essence you are capturing and reproducing a moment in time from beginning to end. While tape permits simple edits such as punch-ins or splicing, the very act of editing a linear medium is quite a foreign concept. In the case of splicing tape, one must destroy the medium in order to manipulate it. And when punching into a track, one must commit to the possibility of erasing pre-existing work. Without the safeguard of Ctrl-Z, editing tape can be just as much a performance as the recording itself.
“There is a particular level of focus that happens when you are punching-in on a tape machine…There’s no undo button, there’s no trimming regions, you are just totally screwed if you hit that button at the wrong time. I actually kind of miss how serious that made moments in the recording process.”- Eric Valentine
Much can be said about the relationship between art and constraints. The last 30 years of music technology have been about the removing of constraints – the liberation of the artist. Yet some of the most influential pop albums of our time were crafted on four tracks or less. Working within the constraints of a modest track count forces you to make creative decisions early in the recording process. It relieves you of the temptation to plug every hole with sound, a hallmark of over-production.
“As a maker you tend to put in twice as much as you need as a listener. It’s a symptom of contemporary production. Old records don’t have that problem.” -Brian Eno
Exercising restraint in the art making process leaves room for interpretation in your work. Other art forms such as poetry or photography leave much unsaid, allowing the observer to fill the gaps with their own imagination. But to the artist, restraint is often perceived as the inhibition of expression.
Every artist wishes to be free. Free of the chains of limitation that impede the realization of their works. But true freedom lies not in the breaking free of these chains, but in the ability to accept one’s constraints and find peace within them. Analog tape offers a finite set of tools to achieve your vision. And if the enemy of art is the absence of limitations (Orson Welles), then a tape machine would be a very good friend indeed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Renato Repetto is the owner of Winston Tones – Analogue Productions based in Australia. Winston Tones offer music production services with a workflow designed to retain the integrity of the artist’s performance. He has toured nationally with award-winning productions as both a drummer and guitarist. Outside the studio he enjoys film photography and performing his own compositions live. For more information, visit www.winstontones.com.