Tape and tradition

This is a post about audio recording and tape that becomes a post about politics, tradition, and the reform of the reform.

Last week, I posted my recording of 74/75; I sent a copy to my parents with the observation that it surprised me that so much of the sound for which I’d been looking was tape, and that it must bemuse folks like Alan Parsons and George Martin that we now spend so much time trying to recapture the sound of equipment against the limitations of which they wrestled. My dad commented that I should perhaps, therefore, have tried to keep hold of his old reel-to-reel machine.

Well, not really, I said. I’m not all that interested in tape, per se, which is expensive and difficult. 74/75 was deliberately (whether successfully or not I can’t say) framed on vintage lines; it was tracked in a few takes with only a few edits, and mixed as nine tracks with the drums bounced to a single track (and it could have been done as eight tracks without violating the spirit of the project by ADT’ing rather than double-tracking the vocal—a Beatles/Martin innovation, I should have thought). For even an eight-track tape studio, however, one would be thousands of dollars into it before recording a second of tracking (the Studer A800, for instance, eats tape at between 7.5 and 30 inches per second) and making the few, simple edits that I made would have taken long mintues if not hours of patient work with razor blades instead of seconds with a mouse click.

So it’s not tape that interests me so much as it is sound—what is that magic extra ingredient in older recordings? Tape is a large part (although not the only part) of the answer. And happily, it seems that everyone else has already figured this out, and has done the work of analyzing exactly what that sound is (“never mind that man behind the curtain! It’s magic, I tell you!”), which means that there are various plugins that approximate the sound. The good ones aren’t free; some of the free ones aren’t bad.

More broadly, I’m interested in the question of which pieces of the past should be reclaimed and carried with us into the future? The sixties and early seventies seem a golden age of recording in hindsight; we got used to the sound of tape, and we forget what a nightware it was to work with and how limiting it really was. We discount how incredibly convenient digital is.

And this shades into an observation that on politics and postconciliar Catholicism: The conservative and the reactionary take similarly-dim views of change, and we both look to the last fifty years of radical change in the Church and society with dismay, but we disagree, I think, on what to do about it. The reactionary mistakes rose-tinted nostalgia for a golden age to which we can and should return, whereas the conservative, it seems to me, knows that this is impossible even if it might be desirable. (We differ among ourselves on whether it would be desirable; I tend to think that the 1950s, for example, might lack the gleam that some perceive if one should have been female, black, Jewish or Catholic, gay, etc., and it would be a serious error to suppose that the Tridentine Mass, for example, was always beautiful.) We know, as Clinton Rossiter put it, that “change is the rule of life among men and societies, but [w]e insist[ ] that it be sure-footed and respectful of the past.” We also recognize that it isn’t just a question of not setting aside any more, that some things were set aside and must be reclaimed now if they are not to fade from memory and experience and thus lose their organic connection to society (and society to them). As we look back at fifty years of change, we are not seeking, as the reactionary does, to turn back the clock, but to instead ask: Which pieces of the past should be reclaimed and carried with us into the future?