Tubes & Tapes

…or the episode in which we drank the kool aid.

 I was super excited when I bought my first actual all tube mic preamps. Like everyone, I'd been obsessed with recording for years, had bought into the valve mythology and there was only one way to find out - to drink the Kool Aid! They arrived, looked gorgeous, retro…but didn’t sound as dirty or “moldy” or indeed vintage as some of my clients would describe what they’d imagine how valve gear might sound...they just had a really nice smooth top end, more so than the slightly harder, or punchier sound than the desk preamps had. Hm.

At the time in the studio I had a Peavey AMR 2400 desk. Impressive right? Before you sneer, god-like producers Daniel Lanois and Don Was both said nice things about it (or were at least paid to, or given a free one, or both), and I came across one at the right price. Apparently Peavey had a little misadventure into the pro audio market, and this was the result. It worked really well, was a nice big size, never broke down and both looked and worked like a mixing desk. Balanced everything, inserts everywhere, solid as a rock. Plus it was so insanely heavy it was impossible to steal, this being a key selling point as the last desk, yes - got stolen. English people will steal anything. Here I should mention the value of perception and brand. Your Peavey desk isn’t going to hold its value or impress clients. I put a piece of black electrical tape over the brand of a piece of gear I liked more than once, and this was one of those cases. The "Peavey" part got covered, and the desk became an Audio Media Research. People then instantly liked it a lot. I've seen more than one ART tube compressor modified that way too. You know the one. Never be afraid of using things that sound good or work, no matter the brand or what people think - your gear is a set of tools. The thing that DOES matter is value - a classic piece of kit will not lose you as much money, or may even increase in value over time. None of your computer gear EVER will, and neither will anything cheap or mid-level. It is money that you will lose over time, so plan accordingly. However, some of your clients will not be able to get past this perception thing and sometimes there’s nothing you can do. “If you don’t have an SSL bus compressor…and I meant real SSL, you’re not a serious guy.’ Those guys. Never mind that you have something else which works better for you, there's nothing you can do.

Somewhere deep in the jungle of gear lust I got my hands on a 16 track, a 2” machine - the ultimate analogue format in most people’s eyes. Of course not being happy to stop there this machine was even more unique; it had tube record and repro amps - 32 glowing valves of room heating electricity guzzling joy. It was built by a British madman/genius called Steve Wadey in the early 70's, and used actual cut-down brake pads probably made from deadly asbestos from a Mini (yes, the equally badly made British car) to slow the reels. It was a beast, and defied all sense. So what. It’s even more analog that YOUR tape machine could EVER be! It didn’t even have tension arms, so not only would the tape speed probably change depending on where you were in the reel, you had to be very, very careful with your button pushing on the behemoth referred to as a remote. You needed to press rewind to slow the machine from fast forward. Get it wrong, the tape spewed onto the floor. Generally unless you love misery you don’t enjoy that, so you get very good at this operation. That said, the nice semi-vintage MCI 2” at the next studio did the same sometimes, and was a real tape machine, depending on who you talked to. I still love to track to tape, if I can. Get into a studio with a Studer, well…now you were sailing. This beast however was so idiosyncratic that bass sounded best on channel 10. Kick on 3, and so on. It was THAT kind of machine. So was tape better? Well….harder. And yes has a SOUND which is generally nice unless you screw it up. Basically it still came down to performances over the dream. I love the idea of it, the small of it, and yes, the tone, but for modern record production it gets to be tricky, I still track drums to tape if I can, but generally nobody can afford it. It’s $350 a roll before we record a note! I pushed the analog adventure as far as I could, made some records for some 60’s fetishists …then got the hell rid of it. It was just TOO much of a pain in the ass. I got Pro Tools.

Yes, the guy who writes this is Bald, English and mixes records at baldenglish.com

Adam Whittaker