The machine wasn’t working when it was lugged up the stairs to the second-floor studio, but some remedial work courtesy of ex-Grateful Dead sound wizard John Cutler and, especially, Krieg Wunderlich changed that, and now, “It’s the most amazing-sounding recorder!” Simon-Baker says.
Analog Tape Is Back!
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For San Francisco Bay Area–based engineer/producer/musician Dave Simon-Baker, whose recent work includes the latest albums by the Mother Hips (Pacific Dust), ALO (Man of the World) and Jackie Greene (Till the Light Comes), his return to using analog tape (with Pro Tools) was influenced in part by the arrival of a very special machine at the studio he calls home these days, Mission Bells in S.F.: a Studer A820 24-track that was owned by the notoriously audio-conscious Grateful Dead (and used to record their final two albums in the late ’80s). Greene, who co-owns Mission Bells with Mother Hips leader Tim Bluhm, acquired the Studer through former Dead bassist Phil Lesh, in whose band he played part-time during 2007/2008. The machine wasn’t working when it was lugged up the stairs to the second-floor studio, but some remedial work courtesy of ex-Grateful Dead sound wizard John Cutler and, especially, Krieg Wunderlich changed that, and now, “It’s the most amazing-sounding recorder!” Simon-Baker says. “That is a special machine. I’d used the Studer A80 a lot and liked it, but I didn’t realize until I started using this A820 that it has built-in Dolby SR card slots, so we did most of the Hips record and all of Jackie’s at 15 ips with Dolby SR and it sounds great; it just kicks huge ass. The clock is so amazing on it and the sound is so rich and full.
“I had stopped using tape entirely for 12 years and it wasn’t a conscious choice—it was economics entirely. People weren’t affording it; they didn’t want to buy it. So I found myself with a roomful of hard drives, and I felt like, ‘Where? Why?’ So when the opportunity came to use this beautiful machine, I fell back in love with it. It takes a little more time because of the transferring [back and forth between it and Pro Tools] and I know there are systems where you can avoid that, but we have it set up in a way we can work well with it.”
The Hips and Greene albums were being worked on concurrently (in fact, the Hips play on much of Greene’s album and Tim Bluhm also co-produced), and as economic considerations were important in both cases, Simon-Baker was careful not to use too much tape—not a problem given his recording M.O. “We monitor through Pro Tools, but we don’t actually record to Pro Tools until it’s been on tape. Then I transfer it over when the tape is full. The masters were all on Pro Tools. Then we’d just erase the tape when we were done and we’d keep going over the same tape. The Hips record and the Jackie record were done on a total of about four reels of tape.”
Greene’s album, in particular, has a somewhat ’60s psychedelic sound, but that’s mostly because of the arrangements and instrumentation—it’s rife with Rickenbacker guitars and bass, B-3 organ, even electric sitar on two songs (backward on one). “Tape helps get some of that feeling,” Simon-Baker says, “but more is the playing and the instruments and the amps. Jackie and Tim are staunch collectors and a lot of the sound is classic guitars through classic amps—a lot of Princeton amps and that sounds fantastic; Vibrolux; Super Reverb. That gives it more of that sound than the tape. We also have nice preamps—we use a lot of Neve and API stuff, and the new Mercury M72.
“But now that I’ve had this opportunity to get back to tape, I realize the sum effects of putting all those tracks down gives it a particular way of sitting together. It’s almost like a smearing effect where everything sits in a real warm and comfortable zone, and it layers a bit more naturally. It sits in a certain way and creates more of an illusion than the clarity of digital. And I like the sound of digital.”