Music

The Return of Gear

A new generation of musicians and music listeners is discovering the joys of the older analog formats and equipment. Dust off those cassettes.

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The committee that decided which words to add or cut from the 2011 Concise Oxford English Dictionary incurred a backlash when, to make room for new definitions including those of "sexting," "mankini," "cyberbullying," and "retweet," it removed "cassette player" and 200 other entries from the dictionary's newest edition.

Angus Stenson, then head of Oxford's dictionary projects, defended the excision to reporters, saying words qualified for removal if, among other reasons, they referred to "obsolete technology." Who could blame the committee? Without forewarning in 2010, the 30-year anniversary of its venerable Walkman, Sony had announced to retailers that the completed shipment of the iconic music players would be its last. Automakers provided more justification. A 2010 Lexus was the final car to be factory-equipped with a dashboard cassette deck. Periodicals predicted that in-car compact disc players would soon disappear too.

"We went from radio to tape to optical and then to flash memory or a hard disc drive, and now we're moving away from memory and to storage of our tunes in the cloud," Sony's mobile electronics director told The New York Times in 2010.

Physical manifestations of music were increasingly seen as obsolete. But then a funny thing happened. A new generation of music listeners discovered the joys of the older analog formats and gear. That has set in a motion a resurgence of interest in LPs, cassette tapes, reel-to-reel recording equipment, and other tangible musical gear.

Cassette tapes and player-recorders sell in growing numbers at stores like Urban Outfitters, and younger first-time car owners are buying cassettes to play in their late 1990's Subaru music decks. As recently as December, Amoeba Music offered no in-store cassette players for sale, but by April the San Francisco store prominently displayed steampunk-style standing players with Bluetooth, SD card, USB inputs, and slots for cassettes. San Francisco's Tunnel Records, which opened in 2017, is freshly painted, buzzing with customers of all ages, and sells just vinyl albums and cassette tapes — but no compact discs. "There's been no real need for them," owner Ben Wintroub said of CDs, "no real demand."

Meanwhile, the Oakland cloud music platform BandCamp, created to help musicians sell their music online, has gone fully terrestrial — opening a retail location on Broadway called Bandcamp IRL (i.e. "In Real Life"). The store stocks and showcases a sparse selection of 99 vinyl albums, provides turntable listening stations, and opens the location in evenings as a live venue to performers. The company is "definitely" expanding its retail selections to cassettes "in the next few months," General Manager Sarah Sexton said. Both artists and fans have been asking the store to carry cassettes.

"We want the store to be a representative of all the music and formats Bandcamp, and just as with the vinyl records we carry, we see artists and labels from all around the world get really creative with the format and offer beautiful, unique and collectible art, and they're an important part of the Bandcamp ecosystem that we really value and appreciate," she said. "We also regularly have artists and fans ask both in the store and online when we plan to carry cassettes."

There are reasons for the return of analog technology beyond just a hipster fetishization of old media and gear. As tech investor David Sax observed in his 2016 book Revenge of Analog, once he'd moved his music collection to his iPod, then iPhone, then the cloud, gradually divorcing his collection from physical reality, he realized that he wasn't listening as much anymore. "All those albums were hidden in my hard drive, nestled between old e-mails and various other files, beyond my sight." He'd returned to vinyl-only listening at the time his book went to press.

Meanwhile, music creators who once abandoned dials and faders for mouse clicks and screens too are now embracing a hybrid mixture of the old and the new. Hybrid tech — screens and knobs, tape reels and software, digital discs and paper liner notes — gives fans and musicians something to grab onto. And a generation of musicians who grew up sampling and looping preexisting digital recordings are now looping live performances of real instruments for their cutting-edge compositions.

As a young record buyer in Seattle, the aspiring musician Carmen Caruso limited her total spend to fit her 'tween budget: she would always buy one CD and one cassette in her visits to the record store. For some reason, she found herself taking more to the cassette recordings. She remembers playing Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon "over and over" in her bedroom's CD-cassette combo portable. "There's something gluey about tape that fattens up the sound," said Caruso, who is now the songwriter, lead vocalist, bass player, and producer behind the San Francisco psych-rock band Agouti.

In 2015, Caruso started buying vintage audio equipment off the internet and refurbishing them in her maker-heaven Sunset District home recording studio, alongside her husband's 3D printer and an immaculate drawer array of tiny transistors and varying-sized capacitors. She eventually bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder that she connected to her iMac ProTools Digital Audio Workstation. It's a TEAC A-3440, a model known for historically famous recordings and widely available enough to make replacement parts easy to find on eBay. Her deck uses ¼" tape, a width that fulfills her required "four minimum channels to record drums," she said, and one she can afford to buy on a regular basis.

But as a musician, Caruso is indifferent to the cassette but she does enjoy working with tape as a medium. She scoffed at the idea of using cutting tape with razors in composition when she can use her trusty 2011 iMac and Pro Tools to edit the sound from her TEAC. "By the time I was working with tape, computers were always used in conjunction with a tape deck," she said. "So I never cut tape with razors. ... I can achieve the sound I want without having to learn antiquated techniques of the past."  

The three single releases from Agouti's album Nodes emanate a dimensionality that demonstrates Caruso's 1970's influences. The opening symbol crashes of the track "Dragons" brighten the expectations of a psych-rock listener. Choruses climb after the bridge, and it's a reporter's guess whether one instrument is a continuous analog synthesizer, or resonant chimes expanding a multipiece drum kit (it turned out to be the synthesizer). The psych-rock track is contemporary, sophisticated, and reaches follicles dormant from years of hearing primarily digital percussion. Two other tracks are just as textured. One single not yet online is "Naysayers," with a descension that Caruso tried and failed to create with Pro Tools. She eventually succeeded by manipulating her TEAC.

Agouti's anticipated May release of a Nodes LP in colored vinyl, packaged as is now standard with a digital album download code, will be pressed at Oakland's Second Line Vinyl, the first plant in town since Victor records closed in the 1930s. "Vinyl is more marketable," Caruso said. "A lot of bands say vinyl makes more money than a CD. ... You can't even give CDs away. They're tinny; they scratch easily."

That point is seconded by former record label A&R representative Tom Vickers, who started his career in the Bay Area at Rolling Stone. Vickers calls physical music "hard goods," and said they earn more money for artists and record companies than anything else — including live performances, radio, and, of course, streaming. He said Nashville still has the most "hard goods" music sales in the country, because everyone there is driving in trucks listening to CDs.

Hard goods such as cassette tapes played an important role in music creation. With little to look at on a cassette deck except the play, record, stop, and rewind buttons, musicians' ears were in charge while recording and their eyes were subordinate. Producer Nick Silvester once told Pitchfork that musicians who knew that their recording sessions were going to be released strictly on cassette faced a less-pressured studio atmosphere, one that "lets the id back in the room." Susan Rogers, a professor at the Berklee College of Music, said in a widely-viewed webcast that the visual cues found on computer screens in today's recording process can distort musicians' judgment. "Be careful," she said. "Vision trumps sound."

Oakland's Meric Long, half of the acoustic group The Dodo's, embraced 1980's instruments for his solo recording project, FAN, after he inherited his late father's 1980s-era analog synthesizers. His father's passing inspired Long to cut a throwback-sounding album, Barton's Den, that incorporated sounds from the synths alongside samples from Prince and old video games.

The upbeat track "Fire" was built from sound snippets that Long created and then fed into his father's Korg MS-20 synthesizer. The song opens with space surrounding Long's rounded, powerhouse vocals; alternates with bursts of electric guitar; and after a rapid synthesizer bridge builds to a layered section of all of the above. It fades out in sounds that could have come from a classic John Hughes movie.

Yet even though Long is a master of analog instruments, he records in updated recording studios using digital tools. "Garage Band is not adequate," he said.

Agouti performs with Cave Clove and Battlehooch on May 3 at Cafe Du Nord.

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