The argument in favor of analog recordings and their intangible magic is as old as the drum machines that nearly killed them. But for artists who developed a taste for the old way of cutting songs, tape will always be more than just the older, warmer way. There may always be increasingly cheaper, cleaner and easier ways of cutting records, but for some analog junkies, tape is their drug, their first crush — a memory just like the transcendent rush of young love. For steady power-popper, Detroit native and Nashville resident Brendon Benson, his first taste was unforgettable.
"I remember when I first got my tape machine," says Benson. He's speaking to the Scene by phone while en route to Nashville's Welcome to 1979 recording studio. It's there that he's finishing up vocal tracks for his fifth solo record, slated for a 2012 release. "All these records I love so much were done this way, so I was like, 'I can't wait to hear this sound.' I remember putting down a track of acoustic guitar, and anxiously winding back, and was kind of disappointed — was less than impressed. But I went on, finished demoing the song, and once all eight tracks were filled, I heard it. 'Bam, there's that sound!' I've been in love ever since."
That affection led Benson to shack up with the analog aficionados at Welcome to 1979, and what began as a mission to record this new album in a low-key setting has turned into a relationship that has Benson producing other artists (such as Britain's Leah Mason and Ireland's The Lost Brothers) on site and lending a helping hand in Nashville's flourishing analog scene. He now loans a considerable collection of his prized possessions — an MCI tape machine and console, an impressive bevy of vintage amps and keyboards and more — for studio use.
But if analog tape — the supply of which continues to dwindle, with only a handful of remaining manufacturers in the world — is a drug, then Chris Mara might be the city's premier pusher. Piling his arsenal of vintage audio equipment and consoles into a cavernous 6,000-square-foot warehouse north of Charlotte Pike, Mara opened Welcome to 1979 four years ago to rekindle his love for the process, sound and aura of these ancient machines.
While maintaining and rebuilding his tape gear on site (large-format multitrack tape machines have been out of production for over 15 years), Mara has laid down tracks for local garage revivalists and tape-lovers like The Clutters, and often finds himself landing jobs simply because of his gear — he's handled transfers, or digitizing the analog, for Paul McCartney and Wings. But he's more than just a believer. He's an analog evangelist. Mara attends annual recording summits, engineering hangs and listening parties, hooking more junkies and converting independent artists.
After catching wind of Mara's living shrine to all things analog, Benson sought his expertise to archive a tape of old songs from his Detroit days, and likens the warm-up period to early courtship.
"I finally got a hold of Chris, and right away I knew this guy got it," recalls Benson. "We worked out a deal where we decided to move my gear from storage into 1979 in exchange for me to be able to use the studio. It's kinda perfect and mutually beneficial. It's almost like moving in with a girl. Like, I brought over a coffee machine, an espresso maker and a rug and was like, 'Is this cool?' We were feeling each other out. It was funny, like we were dating or something."
Commandeering a section of the studio as his writing room, Benson holed up and surrounded himself with records, guitars and the brown wood and beige metal of these antiquated machines to cut his newest solo record to tape.
"The last record [My Old, Familiar Friend] I went with Gil Norton [Pixies, Foo Fighters] producing," Benson recalls. "It was pretty hardcore, half in Nashville, half in London. It was kind of brutal, actually. It's nice to be back in a studio that feels like home to me, and I can make myself at home there. The workflow is easy, and we can work fast on tape."
As a founding member of The Raconteurs and an established multi-instrumentalist and songwriter in his own right, Benson — who cites the access to old gear and studios as part of his reason for relocating to Nashville — doesn't need his involvement in this unique analog scene for the street cred. Currently, Nashville's tape scene is gaining momentum as a loosely connected but resilient network that features a blend of master technicians, restoration companies like Blevins Audio and Mara's own No Brainer Audio, devoted studios like Blackbird and cutting-edge technologies such as Endless Analog's CLASP system, a recent invention that bridges digital recording and tape machines.
Admittedly, analog recording has been relegated to these obsessed, devoted and ingenious shadows of its former self. But for the larger affiliation of old-school loyalists, Nashville has become a modern analog hot spot, keeping tape out of the ICU and still rolling on modern albums. After all, every new devotee only strengthens the resolve and ensures the process, and Benson's honorary membership certainly won't hurt the cause.
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