Here at ATA Records we pride ourselves on the methods that we have chosen to make our music, mainly recording analog to tape and pressing up vinyl. Not only are we recording to tape we are using the equipment that sonically best represents the style of music we are recording. This involves a lot of vintage recording equipment and with that comes many hurdles. The pitfalls of such an endeavour on an almost non-existent budget have, at times, almost got the better of us and we find ourselves weighing up dedication to the process against actually just getting music made.
“Do you want to produce music or run a tape machine museum?” was a great question asked of me at the beginning of our first sessions putting together the material that would become the starting point for releasing music under the banner of ATA Records. I will get to the how and why that was delivered shortly, but first I am going to wind it back a bit further.
I have always had a drive to make music that is comparable to stuff that came out of the 60’s and early 70’s. There is a sound to it, in my opinion, that just can’t be beaten. I felt that the most obvious way to achieve that was by trying to create similar circumstances under which that music was recorded.
I have never really got on with computers when making music, although through necessity have got better at it. Cutting, pasting, looping and editing just seem to go against my core beliefs. I would much rather spend hours trying to get the right take. So, first step for me in this journey was getting a tape machine.
The first machine I got, a 1/4 Foster R8, was laughed at by many of my peers. I bought it from George Evelyn, better known as Nightmares on Wax, for £200. I guess that with recording having moved successfully to the digital domain my Fostex looked like an odd choice. I made some great music on that machine including an album with New Mastersound’s guitarist Eddie Roberts.
Once I got the garages where ATA came into existence I graduated, via a light romance with a Tascam 58 1/2” 8 track, to a rather excellent Otari MX70 1” 8 track. Oooooh that machine was a delight. Drop ins were so easy and the transport and remote were a dream to work with. I made a great album with that tape machine which carries the catalogue number ATA001 which, one day, will hopefully see the light of day.
At that time I had accrued some nice pre-amps, vintage Russian valve mics and a couple of RCA Varacoustics (at that time the poor mans RCA 77) and although the sound was great, for some reason I was not content with the vintage-ness of the sound. Not convinced I was itching to go further in.
My friends at Greenmount Studio in Leeds (amazing studio check them out, we share a love for 3m tape machines and at one point had around 10 machines between us!) had a lead on a 3m m56 2” 16 track from a guy they had bought a mixing desk from. They already had one of these machines and I loved the look of it the minute I saw it. When they played me tracks they had recorded on it I couldn’t believe how thick and solid the music sounded.
A brief introduction to the 3m m56 is that it is the tape machine you never knew existed. When I contact old engineers from the 60’s and it comes up in conversation their first reaction is to laugh and then say “what the fuck have you got one of them for?”. The 3m m56 was the first ever 2” 16 track. I think there were only 350-400 of them ever made. It has quite a crude transport and the tape path across the heads is unique to 3m and known as the iso-loop system. First coming out in 1968 it was very quickly usurped by about 1971 by its much flashier and much more reliable 3m m79 16 and 24 track. Now the thing is if you look at many pictures of studios at that time they all had 3m m56s. If you ever get the chance flick through the pages of the Great British Recording Studio and you will see them lurking in the background of many photographs. One of my favourite characteristics of these machines is how hot they get. Jamie from Greenmount Studios laments how he used to raise bread in the back of his. An ex-Olympic studios engineer told me that during a session they would get Wimpy’s hamburgers from across the road and place the uneaten ones in the back of the machine to keep them warm till they were ready to be consumed. Best sounding hot plate in the country if you ask me. Since they were very quickly improved upon as a machine and such low numbers were made they have slipped in between the cracks of our collective memory. Thing is though they were responsible for a lot of records you will know.
Through writing this I have remembered that the question I referred to at the beginning was put to me in somewhat similar wording by Roy Harrison a studio tech and a wise and experienced one at that. At the time of writing this Roy has almost 50 years’ worth of experience under his belt working with tape machines. One thing that most people who have worked with tape machines can agree on is that Otari’s are solid and reliable, so on hearing that I was about to replace one with an M56 Roy’s advice was to steer clear. “Do you want a museum piece or a workhorse” was his stance. He had my best interests at heart but in my mind I honestly thought “Both”.
So, I borrowed a van and drove from Leeds to Southhampton to pick up a tape machine from what turned out to be a giant of a man with a space ship from the sci-fi series Blake 7 in his yard.
On the outside the M56 looked great but on inspection we couldn’t get the machine to even power on, which I now know is one of the least serious faults on an old tape machine, and we settled on £800 for it. Next came moving the machine. I have the strength of Geoff Capes when lifting vintage recording gear and this guy was a giant but it was still hernia-inducing with just the two of us. It was situated in what I was told was once Fleetwood Mac’s mobile studio and the stairs from the back of the truck were a steep drop and about seven feet down. Two things I have learnt along the way with buying gear… if its got doors on it make sure they are securely fastened and don’t hand over your money until it is safely in your vehicle. Only one of these applied in this situation-the doors swung open at an awkward moment.
That night I had a gig in Birmingham playing guitar in an afrobeat band called Ariya Afrobeat Arkestra. The leader of that band was an old friend from college, Pete Williams, who at this point was unaware that we would be officially forming ATA records together in about a year’s time. There was also a heavy snow storm forecasted for that evening and there were moments when I didn’t think I was going to complete the journey. The incline of one hill just on the outskirts of Birmingham was winning against a van with not only a 3m tape machine but a C3 Hammond organ and Leslie speaker that we had decided not to take out before I had set off. I was stuck on this hill with the wheels spinning with my mobile phone dangerously close to running out. I made it in the end more than slightly frazzled by the trip.
After getting the machine back to Leeds Jamie from Greenmount studios lent me his m56 power supply and the machine fired up no problem with playback on most channels. After a few tech visits from Roy we had it recording and for the first time I was starting to hear back what I was looking for in a recorded sound.
It was a big change from the Otari, which regrettably was sold to pay for this cranky old beast. One of the first changes to get my head round was that the m56 does not have a counter. A few years down the production line 3m issued a mod that allowed you to fit a tacho type counter. I had one on this machine but the problem was it counted in feet and only went forward. After a while you got so that you could judge the beginning of tracks by listening out for a faint dip in the quiet sound of the audio passing over the heads at great speed.
Although the machine was running, problems started creeping out of the woodwork. One that made it on to record was on the track Old Ground which opens the second Ariya album ‘Towards Other Worlds’. We did two takes of this tune and had agreed that we thought that the second take was better. On playback there was only one take on the reel. Just towards the end of the first take the recording bias oscillator takes a dive and the machine craps out after which a portion of ‘These Days’ by Nico appears like a transmission from a lost dying satellite. I used to use this album to test the line up on the tape machine and the remnants hadn’t yet been wiped. However it turned out sounding really amazing so Pete opted to keep it in on the final mix of the track.
About a year on from this point Pete and I had began writing music that would form the beginnings of ATA Records. After many years of asking, a distribution company had told me that for them to take us seriously and consider distributing our music they would need to hear 12 months of releases. To us that meant 6 45’s over a year, so 12 solid tracks. Not too far into the actual tracking process the tape machine hit a massive fault. I could hear that there was a lot of wow and flutter going on which wasn’t too alarming but this was followed by the all too familiar smell of electrical burning. It wasn’t the first time that the machine had done this but this time it was much more serious than just a capacitor blowing as one of the reel motors had burnt out. This was game over and there was no quick fix for the problem.
I am beginning to realise that I am sometimes quite inflexible. The idea of recording music that was attempting to sit next to music from the 60’s on a computer meant that it would have no value or worth. I didn’t want to use plug-in’s to give the music a vintage effect so decided that we would have to wait a couple of months for the tape machine to be fixed. I happened to be complaining about this to an older and much more experienced producer when he managed to cut though all my anxious noise with a very clear observation “You have to make a decision. Do you want to produce music or run a tape machine museum?” In my mind I honestly thought “Both”……..only kidding, he had hit the nail on the head. I was too fixated on making music to the perfect standard that I had built up in my mind. With this awakening the tape machine was kicked into touch and we got on with making music.
One of the differences that I had noticed and had been taught about recording to tape was that you would set out to achieve the closest sound to a finished record before you hit tape. With common digital recording practices for people who don’t have the privilege of high end recording equipment it is almost the other way round - in other words, fix it afterwards. I feel that this change in approach has had a huge effect to the human element of making music.
At that point of the tape machine going down I had some lovely vintage microphones going into some very good 60’s Russian valve pre-amplifiers, hitting a drip electronics Fairchild 670 clone and finally going into a huge sounding input transformer on the 3m. It was a pretty solid sounding signal chain. When you played back what had just been recorded most people would be taken aback at how good it sounded and by this I don’t really mean how good a job I had done more how good/comforting/warm/supportive it sounded. The digital recording is a bit like looking at yourself getting changed in a fluorescent lit TK Maxx changing room in comparison to the warm soft focus of a beautiful camera lens of a professional photo shoot. This, I noticed, had a beneficial effect for the musicians recording - they felt confident in what they were playing as they knew they ‘sounded good’.
The TK Maxx changing room leads you to question or try to edit every tiny fault or inaccuracy in your playing, almost like audio photoshop. With the sound of my equipment mistakes or flaws sounded good and the tendency was to go with the best feeling take rather than a perfectly executed one. At a certain level trying to achieve an analog/vintage sound is as much about the performance as is it is about the medium you are recording to. But to get there you have to have the confidence in how you sound to achieve that performance.
Without the tape machine though how does one achieve that sound? First of all the right musicians… but this is more about the technical right so let’s forget about those losers!? Once I got the 3m I would notice a huge difference between the sound on tape and the sound of that tape transferred to computer. It was such a distinct sound that you would notice the loss, where as with the Otari it was a more neutral sound and the loss when transferred to computer was less noticeable. It was Lee at Greenmount Studios who led me to try a new piece of equipment with the Lynx aurora sound card. It made a huge difference to my recordings. One thing which was very clear to us all straight away was that the audio that we transferred from the 3m still sounded like the 3m once it had been moved to digital. They are incredibly transparent/true sounding A/D convertors, so with the sample rate up as high as I could manage I would not lose the sonic characteristics of the vintage valve pre’s and mics. I would also be running the audio through the signal path of the tape machine but not recording to tape (due to the duff motor and general tendency of letting me down) so still retained a quality of the 3m sound. With a strong, confident sound I would then employ the same approach to recording as I would with tape - try to encourage people to get the take rather than comp or fix it. This would not always go down well with the musicians as they knew that we were going to computer but I persisted. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. Overall though it worked and what we came out with was a body of work that nobody ever stopped to question wasn’t recorded to a tape machine or even done this century.
This album marked the beginning of our professional relationship with mastering engineer Lewis Hopkin of Stardelta Mastering who has to date mastered and cut all our records. He is as mad about tape as I am and knows a shed load more about it. He knew the process I had followed before I sent the finished tracks to him and one of his comments that stuck with me was “Its so weird to listen to as it sounds like a recording to tape but with none of the artefacts”. This comment definitely made me feel like I had done my job.
I guess that what I took from this time was that despite my obsessive drive to record the music in the most appropriate vintage setting possible it was the music that was more important than the medium that it was recorded on. We listen to our favourite records and believe that this is the the standard against which our music should be measured. There is a false equivalence which I think can often hinder people at the beginning of their careers from making music as at that stage we are only at the beginning of our journey and what we are measuring against is some artist’s’best moments at the peaks of their careers. Once we got going releasing music I started to understand that it is all a work in progress and that despite the hurdles I would get there in the end. But, when recording in the digital domain it definitely helps to think like a tape machine and don’t edit all the human characteristics out of the music you are making. Perfectly executed music doesn’t equal quality music to my ears.
By Neil Innes