Made using recordings from Ólafsfjörður, Iceland.
Embracing decay, the resurrection of tape
By kate carr June 25, 2013
Published at Cyclic Defrost Magazine
Two thousand and thirteen marks exactly fifty years since Philips launched the compact audio cassette at the Berlin Radio Show, and more than 20 years since the format was widely considered to be in its death throes at the hands of the mighty CD. But a funny thing has happened lately. The cassette, so long derided for its sound quality and dismissed as outdated, is making a resurgence. From cassette shaped iPhone covers, to tattoos and even the rediscovery of the Walkman, tapes are turning up everywhere, and not just as fashion accessories. In the ambient scene in particular, cassettes and the broader tape format have been enthusiastically embraced both as a tool for creating particular aural outcomes, and as format for releasing music.
Perhaps one of the most well known exponents of tape in its many guises is Portland musician Marcus Fischer, who performs live with giant suspended tape loops and drew heavily on the medium for his album Monocoastal, which was released in 2011 on 12k. Like many of us, Fischer says tape played a huge role in his childhood. “As a child I felt like the stuff we had on tape was my domain. Records for the most part either belonged to my parents or my older sister. For whatever reason, my dad always had a lot of tape recorders stashed away in his closet and a seemingly unending supply of blank tapes so I often helped myself to both,” he said.
But is it just nostalgia which has brought us back to tape? In the recent BBC Radio 6 showcase on the medium, Samantha Urbani from Brooklyn band Friends states that she hates CDs and has managed to find a second hand Walkman to listen to music on. Nicholas Jaar, the pin up boy for hipsters everywhere, is well known for his hatred of CDs, having gone so far as to release music on a shiny silver cube to escape the tyranny of the silver disc. Taking aim at this contemporary embrace of kitsch items, Christy Wampole, in her divisive New York Times opinion piece, ‘How to live without Irony’, which looked at the rise of the hipster, wrote: “Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the moustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone).” It would be easy to add cassette to this list of outmoded mechanisms.
CDs have become deeply unfashionable it seems, but can this along with a widespread embrace of the ‘outmoded’ account for the rise of the tape? Or is there something more to it for ambient musicians in particular? Fischer for one seems a bit bemused by the ascendancy of tape in the ambient scene. “I’m not sure what it is that triggered this renewed interest in tape and why it seems to resonate so much with the ambient music community,” he stated. “I think it really feels like something of a trend at the moment. Maybe it is a reaction to the very cold and processed sounds that seemed so popular in electronic music several years ago … or maybe people are just getting bored with the sound of Max/MSP or Ableton Live. Who knows?”
That hissy hazy sound
One thing most people seem to agree on is that tape has its own unique sonic fingerprint, one which is both instantly recognisable and yet unpredictable.
UK musician David Newlyn released his album Deterioration last year on my own label Flaming Pines, basing it on an exploration of recording techniques ranging from cassettes to dictaphones to camera mics. He says nothing can quite compare to the distinctive sound of tape. “I began multi-tracking my own music using the two cassette recorders. Sounded awful usually, but I always found the hissy, hazy-sounding instruments quite fascinating,” he explained.
This interest in degeneration in some ways echoes the earlier glitch movement, which began with Yasunao Tone’s Solo for Wounded CD in 1985, and revolved around scratched and skipping CDs.
According to Kim Cascone, the glitch which reached its apogee with Oval’s albums full of softly skipping sounds, was characterised by an aesthetic of failure. In his oft quoted article on the genre he wrote back in 2002, “… failure has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them.” He and other theorists noted glitch’s celebration of error and malfunction. But while tape decay too is about damage it is not so much an anomaly or deliberately introduced error like a scratched CD, but a characteristic of the medium, and an authentic marker of use and age. Like a well-worn book, a loved tape becomes slightly damaged every time we use it. On a tape our favourite songs, like our favourite pages in a book bear the tiny signs and scars of our affection. Newlyn stated: “the most compelling sound of tape to me is the gradual degeneration of the sound when you use a tape to record a tape. The way the original recordings become more muffled and distant and the hiss of the tape on tape becomes more prominent. I love that sound.”
Furthermore, unlike glitch which used digital tools to investigate deliberately introduced digital failures, the tape movement represents a shift away from the digital realm altogether. Tape is an unwieldy medium, full of limitations. It is unpredictable and impermanent; it wears out in random and subtle ways that have no digital equivalent. 12k founder Taylor Deupree says he returned to tape when he began taking more interest in mastering, and has grown to appreciate it more and more. “It can be a little unpredictable, which I like,” he stated. “It just sounds really good … different than digital,” he said. According to Deupree, using tape adds ‘non-linearity, warmth, idiosyncratic effects and imperfections’ to a recording. ”Tape distorts certain frequencies easily, so you have to be careful about resonant peaks but it has a very nice rounding of higher frequencies that is so much more effective than a plug in,” he says.
For Fischer, the physical properties of tape provide the means to ‘blur the boundaries between texture and melody’. “One thing that is amazing about our minds is how it can fill in the gaps in the details of what you are hearing, much like how memory is an imperfect thing. Some of my favourite recordings I’ve made play with this quite a bit,” he stated. “In the lower fidelity recordings that I often use you can start building up beds of pretty dense tones that start fuzzing out and changing shape. Once you achieve certain relationships between sounds, you can sometimes think you hear overtones or harmonics that aren’t really there. That is something that I’ve never been able to do digitally.” It seems almost perverse that at a time when faster computers, better sound cards and cheaper mics have opened up vistas of sound quality almost unthinkable in a home studio even five years ago, many musicians have rediscovered the virtues of mediums like tape, but this is what has happened.
Like other musicians here, Seattle’s Seth Chrisman is revelling in tape’s limitations just as much as its strengths. Chrisman, who releases music under his own name and as Widesky, cites the tape’s unwieldy noise floor, limited frequency response, compression, saturation and slight variances in playback speed as just some of the reasons he loves the medium. Tape is not just a tool in Chrisman’s work, but the end product at well. He founded Holyoak! Resounding, a tape-only label last year, which has two releases with runs of just 43 and 50 copies so far. “Obviously a minority of people are listening to music on tape, but I really love the medium and try to release work which specifically caters to it,” he said. And in an era when releasing music can happen as quickly as uploading to Bandcamp, Chrisman’s Holyoak releases take him several months to put together, as he individually dubs each cassette and painstakingly packages it.
I want to get physical
The computer and advances in software gave many people the tools to dabble in sound, who in the past perhaps would not have been able to. At first perhaps a drum machine or stand alone synth was needed as well, but now nothing more is required than a very average laptop to pick and choose from an entire symphony of sounds. Yet just as the laptop stood on the precipice of musical domination, offering near limitless access to different sounds, ambient and experimental musicians, many of whom were the first to embrace the possibilities offered by digital music, have begun to abandon it. Some have fled into the arms of acoustic instruments, others analogue pedals and homemade effects, and still others, as has been explored here, towards tape.
Deupree offers a vivid example of this shift. Starting out making acid techno with Prototype 909 before moving into ambient music, he launched 12k in 1997 and quickly carved a name for both himself and his label 12k on the cutting edge of synthetic minimal music, which was largely produced using computers. Yet now Deupree says the album he would most like is one using just guitar and his voice. Faint released on 12k in late 2012 wasn’t that, but it did chart his continual evolution towards real instruments, and physical as opposed to digital tools. As for its final mix down, he opted to do it to cassette.
Fischer is another musician who was initially seduced by the computer, only to slowly turn his back on it. “I tend to lean toward more physical tools in my music, pedals instead of plugins,” he said. “Tape feels like an extension of that idea. I love being able to manipulate tape with your hands, pushing and pulling the sounds. I feel like I stepped away from tape briefly when I first really got into making music on a laptop but quickly realised that a hybrid approach felt much more true to who I am musically.”
The importance of touch and physicality is something many of the artists interviewed for this article returned. Newlyn for example said he found the point and click required to make music on a computer ‘uninspiring’. In its place he has adopted an elaborate recording process using tape recorders without output jacks, so the sounds have to be re-recorded with mics aimed at the on-board speakers. “I just enjoy the process and it gives me more of a sense of achievement creating my own odd sounds,” he said.
Did music making simply get too easy? Or was it just that the endless choice offered by the net and powerful computers got too hard? For Chrisman, it was the latter. Overwhelmed with options, he said he opted to distance himself from the digital realm in order to make things a bit simpler. And he seems determined to make things simpler still, saying he is now considering going back in time even further than the stereo tape, and exploring mono recordings. “I really like the dense sound that mono recordings can lend, and being held to one channel of audio provides another self-imposed limitation, which I’m always a fan of,” he said.
This desire to slow down, disconnect and take stock also forms part of Chrisman’s rationale for founding Holyoak! Resounding, and how the label has embraced physical formats. “I personally was overwhelmed with the amount of music in my iTunes library, and felt a sort of ‘MP3-fatigue.’ I’ve always been an album person, and have found that listening to music is more meaningful for me when I disconnect from the distractions of my computer or iPod and focus on absorbing a record in its entirety, taking the time to flip sides on the record or cassette,” Chrisman said.
In this age of instant digital access to almost anything, musicians it seems are among the first to start thinking about the importance of having less and taking their time. In an interview with Fluid Radio last year, Deupree cited the psychological weight of his laptop as one motivation for trying to abandon it, particularly for live performances. “The laptop to me is this box that has my emails on it, 12k’s accounting on it and all this stuff. It feels just bloated and heavy and in a way this box represents just so much of my life and it’s perhaps too much of my life,” he stated. “… when I can play with my pedals, my microphones and instruments, it’s very pure: it’s all I’m using to create.”
Like Chrisman laboriously dubbing his tapes, Deupree, Fischer and Newlyn’s approaches offer the ultimate rebuke to the efficiency of the computer, and the ‘new is best’ motto of the digital age more generally. They are taking more time than they really need to, using far older equipment than they have to. These musicians have opted to do less with more, and to do it slowly.
Scarcity, imperfection and time
In the Radio 6 tape documentary, Mike Skinner from The Streets said that while it is wonderful to be able to access any song you want by clicking a button, it has eroded the emotional intensity we used to attach to music we spent a lot of time and energy desperately searching for. “There is no scarcity any more, you can have any music you want all the time … it is what we always wanted was to have any song you want. “But this situation of abundance has come at a cost and according to Skinner and has eroded the value we place on music. “The scarcity of tapes just means that you put more time in and probably have got a better relationship with the songs you did like,” Skinner said. “You don’t get so sort of obsessed with things now because you can get it out of your system too easy.”
By going offline and resorting to older tools like tape, the musicians interviewed here seem to be attempting to find a way to re-value music in the digital era by re-introducing imperfection, physicality and time into their work. The endless re-takes, flawlessly executed melodies and quantised beats of digital music combined with unlimited access to the world’s music catalogue has strangely enough left some us feeling a bit empty and lost. For some, this search to find a place in such a complex and overloaded musical landscape has led to the embrace of tape, a recording medium that by its nature offers slight imperfections and uncertainty. As tape stretches and pulls, catches and flows through old spools and dirty heads, it perhaps offers us a glimpse of some of the virtues of a time now past – where music took a long time and was crafted by bodies and instruments, recorded imperfectly and played back on vinyl or cassette. Fragile mediums, which like us, change, age and have to be handled with care.
Photo courtesy Marcus Fischer.