Barton Carroll and producer/engineer Graig Markel set out to record Carroll's 2009 album, Together, You and I, entirely to a Tascam 34 4-track tape machine. Carroll, who has toured and recorded extensively with Eric Bachmann's Crooked Fingers, is a studio specialist and a fan of folk and jazz from the World War II era to the late '60s. Together, You and I, needed a classic organic sound that only tape could provide. But as time, budget, and the process wore on, he and Markel discovered how hard it is to stay out of the box these days. Together, You and I is a confessional of lost love, found love, and yearning. It's folk music, plain and simple, that cuts a frayed swath from open fields to lonely bar rooms.
Why did you and Carroll decide to record to tape?
Barton is a storyteller with an affinity for writing songs that are tributes to a particular era. He is a stickler for detail and wanted to stay true to that older '60s folk and jazz sound, which comes from tape. Also, with recording to tape, you are able to capture the actual performance of the musicians playing together rather than building them through Pro Tools editing. These songs were played all the way through. We had upright bass right next to drums in the same room. There's bleed and feel, and that's what Barton wanted. A real sense of his song writing comes through.
Did you use Pro Tools at all for Together, You, and I?
Yes. We used Pro Tools to monitor both input and playback from tape. I routed the four output channels of the 4-track into four inputs of the Pro Tools Digi 002 hardware. I set up four empty tracks in Pro Tools and armed them as needed to use for monitoring tape. As we filled up tracks on the tape machine, we dumped them into Pro Tools and synced them with previous tracks we dumped. We'd make a reference track, dump back to tape, record three more tracks on tape, and repeat the process. Any tracks that we had built up and synced in Pro Tools were bypassed, because we were compiling them to be mixed later. We only tracked to the one reference track from tape, and three empty tracks on the tape machine.
What did you designate the initial four tracks four?
For the first series of takes it was drums, bass, and a click or scratch. One mic on the kick, one on the snare, one for the stand up bass, and one for scratch guitar or click. Some additional scratches such as vocals sometimes went to Pro Tools. Other scenarios were three mics on drums and one on bass, or two on drums and two on bass, scratches going directly into Pro Tools. We recorded them all together in a small room, with plenty of glorious bleed. Most of the background vocals were recorded together as well.
How was it working with the Tascam 34 tape machine?
The tape sounds are so warm and deep, especially the acoustic guitars. There's no better compressor than tape. I hardly compressed anything during tracking. The tape just gives you this magical marring quality that's nicely compressed yet very subtle.
What proved to be the biggest challenge with working to tape?
Syncing. Syncing was incredibly hard to do. The tape deck plays back at slightly varying speeds, depending on where you are on the reel and possibly voltage fluctuations. The variance of speed was never enough to noticeably affect pitch, but it gradually slides out of sync throughout the song. It took three or four times of tweaking tape speed to get it in sync. I eventually just started manually nudging tracks when they slid out of sync. I was apprehensive to do this at first, because one of our goals was no Pro Tools editing. But there was a schedule we needed to stick to. We only had 10 days to do all the recording. Barton had musicians and vocalists coming in from out of town and I didn't want to waste time. I was rushed trying to keep everything moving along, so I made some exceptions.
As the producer and engineer you were feeling the pressure?
Definitely. I didn't want to waste Barton's money. The computer sitting in front of us started looking more and more attractive. It was amazingly difficult to not cave in and just do it in Pro Tools. We'd ask ourselves, "Are we really going to keep doing this?" Eventually, we found out little tricks that would improve...