Way the heck back, in issue #19 ofTape Op, we interviewed Chris Walla, then an integral part of the up-and-coming Death Cab For Cutie. Now Chris is off on his own, and his first music expedition (and second solo album) is the beautiful and soothing Tape Loops.
Where was Tape Loops recorded?
Tape Loops was recorded at my studio, Hall of Justice, in Seattle. My instrument set was the studio Kawai SK-3 piano, a Wurlitzer 200A electric piano, a Korg MS-20, a Korg 707, an EMS VCS-3 (The Putney), and Nord Lead 2 synthesizers.
What was the main recording equipment?
Initial performances were captured on a 1/2-inch Ampex ATR-102 [reel-to-reel tape deck], and I determined initial edit points and loop lengths on it. Once the loop was cut together, I moved it to a modified Tascam ATR-60 4-track machine for playback, additional treatment, and recording — the stereo track from the 102 [became] effectively four tracks on the Tascam deck. I usually preserved the performance as recorded on the 102 on outside tracks 1 and 4 on the Tascam deck. Those tracks were sent to outboard processing and recorded back to the Tascam on tracks 2 and 3; sometimes with the tape reversed, and sometimes not. Outboard processing for this record was primarily one or two Lexicon pcm 41 [digital reverbs], the AMS rmx 16 [digital reverb], an Eventide H3000 [harmonizer], the Moog 500 series Analog Delay and Ladder Filter, an Altec 9067 Filter, a Urei Cooper Time Cube delay, an AKG BX20 spring reverb, and using a Chandler Universal Mix Controller for mixing. Sometimes I recorded new, secondary performances onto the loop on the Tascam. One piece of semi-critical equipment for this project was the Roland SN-550, a single-ended noise reduction box. Sometimes it's pretty invisible, and sometimes you can really hear it working. It's sort of like a robot bandmate. I've really come to enjoy it. Once the loop was treated and felt "complete," or "right," or such, I transferred the four tracks from the Tascam deck — sometimes with more additional live processing — to a 24-track Studer A820 (at 15 ips, +3/250 nWb/m with CCIR EQ, and Dolby SR in). Once on the 24-track machine, composition and work progressed much as any multitrack session. I recorded click tracks as guides and overdubbed additional instruments to build and flesh out arrangements. Mixdown was through my Quad Eight Ventura console back to the ATR-102 (15 ips, +6/185 nWb/m, CCIR EQ, and no noise reduction). I think I had the Crane Song STC-8 on the mix bus.
In what way were actual tape loops used for composition and recording?
Most of these pieces were recorded initially at 30 ips on the 102, but played back as loops at 15 ips. Once on the loop deck, they usually got slowed down further with varispeed. In the case of "Flytoget," the playback to the multitrack deck was an additional 2 semitones down from 15 ips, about -12%, and the playback from the Studer for the guitar, bass, and Wurlitzer overdubs was also varispeeded down an additional 2 semitones. Most of the ghostiness and fog of this record comes from the instability of the loop on the Tascam when recording. If you think about it, there are two layers of pretty substantial flutter if you're sending from a playback track and recording back to another — the warble is magnified on playback and cemented on capture. Sometimes I would apply a bit of pressure to the loop when adding secondary treatments. You can hear a bit of this pitch effect in the first 25 seconds of "Kanta's Theme." I also re-edited a few of these loops once they were on the Tascam. Typically I'd listen for a few hours, sometimes for a day or two, before committing them to the multitrack deck. I find it really difficult to make focused, conscious decisions about these kinds of compositions. The big annoyances pop out right away, but the smaller tics and pitfalls don't reveal themselves until at least hour three.
How long was the longest loop and how did you support it?
"Goodbye" is comprised of two unrelated loops of different lengths. The piano loop is about a minute and 50 seconds, if I remember correctly, so probably around 135 to 140 feet long. The Tascam loop deck is oriented vertically, about five feet off the ground, on top of an equipment rack. I've built a few additional guides into the Tascam deck for support and initial roughing-in of the tape path. I've found that two mic stands on the feed side — one at knee-level, one at about shoulder height — are sufficient to support the tape on its way to the deck. A third stand on the dump side of the deck, at about waist height, helps to guide the tape back to the ground with a little bit of grace. Figure about ten feet of tape are in the air in transit to the deck at any given time, and the other 130-odd feet are in a wad on the floor. It's not elegant! Sometimes the loops sort themselves out, and I can just hit play. Sometimes though, if there are any crinkles in the tape, or if one of my edits isn't tight or flush, the loop will catch on itself and send a rat's nest up toward the machine, which must get untied before it reaches the initial path. It can be a little like keeping a new kitten off the curtains. The pieces on Tape Loops break down into three categories: 1. Loops augmented with overdubs on the multitrack deck as noted above ("Kanta's Theme," "Introductions," and "Flytoget"). 2. Live multitrack performances augmented with loops (I "Believe In the Night"). 3. Loops only, or non-coincident loops ("Goodbye" and the LP bonus track, "The Barkley Marathons"). In the case of "Goodbye," the secondary synth loop was fade- and mute-edited and processed additionally, but the integrity of the loop timeline was not compromised.
Obviously Brian Eno's [Tape Op #85] Ambient #1: Music for Airports springs to mind, as far as technique and feel.
Yes! "Flytoget" started as an exercise — I was literally attempting to reverse-engineer that piece ["1/1"] from a technical perspective, just to see if I could figure out how it was made. I really didn't think I was making a record. In the period between Eno's Another Green World and Music for Airports, there's quite a lot of shared audio, recycled material, and bits co-opted and composed from other sessions — mangled, reconstituted, and repurposed. I've always loved this idea.
Are there other albums that inspired this approach?
Yes, a handful of albums; primarily from this same era. The Gavin Bryars piece, "Jesus's Blood Never Failed Me Yet," is a fantastic example of what can happen when a loop is left to permeate in a long form piece — it seems as though it's changing, and maybe it is a little; but it's not changing as much as the listener's perception and relationship to the music. It can be really unnerving. More than music though, the inspiration for this record came from bits of writing and film I've stumbled into in the last few years. Alain de Botton talks about ritual quite a lot in Religion for Atheists, but one quote stood out to me for its poignancy in relation to the consumption of music: "[secular society] associates repetition with punitive shortage, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information — and therefore, it prompts us to forget everything." I found this fascinating, because I have never consciously associated repetition with punitive shortage. The world of repetition is filled with wonder — the turrets of the Great Wall, the statues of Easter Island, the cycles of day and night, Andy Warhol's soup cans, Steve Reich's [Tape Op #15] phase music, whale migration, your breath, and so on. To me, it's the intersection of these things — these non-coincident loops — peppered with the one-time events of birth, death, creation, and destruction that make the world go around. Perhaps literally.
Did you visit various permutations or concepts of mixing these tracks?
It's hard to make changes to a piece that's been playing for 12 hours! Usually I'd commit to the working mix on the console at the end of the day, print one to the 102, take some rough notes about placement, levels, and effects, and walk away for a week or two. I think I mixed "Kanta's Theme" five or six times. "Goodbye" is the rough mix — I tried to beat it for months, but it was never sad enough when I revisited it. The hiss and grit are part of what makes it work for me, but I had to clean it up a few different times to discover that.
Who did the mastering and why were they chosen?
Ed Brooks at RFI mastered the tapes, and Roger Seibel at SAE cut the lacquers for the vinyl. I suspected this would be a tricky record to master; it's very thick and dark, and there aren't a lot of go-to reference pieces that made sense. I've always liked Ed's work, but it was specifically Lemolo's album, The Kaleidoscope, that pushed me in his direction. The piano transients all feel so intact and physical, even when it gets loud. Meagan Grandall's playing and Shawn Simmons' recording are obviously a huge part of that, of course. As for the vinyl, Roger is simply my favorite cutter around. His work is "how records are supposed to sound." He's a treasure, that guy.