Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve been fascinated by old–especially mid-20th century–technology. Especially aircraft. Since I got to climb around in an abandoned DC-3 at a Florida airstrip in the late 1970s, the sights and smells of sculpted metal, sun-baked plastic and cracked wiring have fascinated me.
What’s this got to do with recording music? To my eyes–and nose–nothing comes closer to that experience than fooling around with old audio gear, especially tape decks. The smell of heated glass vacuum tubes, machine oil, and old fabric insulation is a direct link to that ancient airplane I got to investigate.
I’m of the age that got to experience the end of the analog-only era. (I still say that I’m “taping” a rehearsal when I use a modern digital recorder, for instance.) Nothing is more evocative of the “old way” than a tape deck. Even people who grew up entirely in the digital realm yearn for “that tape sound,” or what it symbolizes.
Lest you become too enamored of “hitting the tape REAL hard,” a telltale phrase that can indicate the presence of an audio blowhard, it’s interesting that many recording and mastering engineers prefer digital formats. In clinical terms, it’s preferable for the output–the recorded music–to match the input.
I can certainly appreciate that on a technical level, but I am always a bit tickled when a piece of antique gear–I’m thinking of the respected Revox G36 tube-powered tape deck in particular–is described, negatively, as being “euphonic.” In other words, the fact that it imparts pleasing qualities to the music is seen as a fault.
Anyways, back to me. A few years back I became interested in the Ampex 600 series of portable tape decks. They are a classic of ’50s American engineering; Alan Lomax did much of his best work with this deck. More recently, John Mellencamp recorded an album on one of these ancient–and mono!–decks. Though I’ll never forgive him for implanting “Hurts So Good” in my memory, I’ll admit I was impressed.
Anyway, over the years I would buy one of these decks whenever I chanced upon one for cheap. I had dreams of recording onto one of them, and I still may one day. But for now, they’ve proven to be more useful as preamps.
Of course, they need work, sometimes a good bit of it. Old parts need to be replaced, unneeded tubes and their associated components removed, and voltages adjusted and regulated accordingly. They’re designed to send a strong signal to tape too, at a much higher level than our purposes require. Removing a gain stage brings the output down to a usable level, and affords the opportunity to insert a master output control so the unit can be “driven” like a guitar amp.
It’s a true joy to work with such old machinery. They were truly rugged and capable machines for their day, built to endure the rigors of recording in harsh conditions. Oh, and as an added bonus, they sound great! They’re versatile and clean enough to be used on lead vocals, or for smashing electric bass through the DI input. Wish I had a few more of them lying around the shop, to be honest….
Back to the airplane: I remember climbing the dusty cargo deck slanting up towards the cockpit, and sunlight slanting through the loading door my father had hoisted me through. The cockpit was clearly the most exciting part of the plane, where the pilots had sat with their banks of switches and controls. But as I approached the door to the cockpit, a sickening thought occurred to me, one I couldn’t shake: That the skeletons of the dead pilots were still in the cockpit, and if I opened the door they’d lurch back to life. Despite my father’s encouragements, I slunk back to the hatch and gratefully climbed back down into his arms.