Wednesday, July 3, 2013

I bought a what...?

I just backed myself into a corner where I had to purchase a device unfathomable in modern audio and which supports a long-dead media format. Hooker bought a cassette recorder!  Yes, it's true.

Let me explain why I sunk to such noisy, fluttery depths of desperation:

I have been on a 6-year-long kick to back up my entire digital life.  I have converted and archived every file all the way back to my first Commodore-64 computer from 1982 (admittedly, the C64 files went from 5-1/2" floppy to 3.5" Mac floppy back in 1986).  Now, I have no way of opening or using those older files but they are part of my digital existence and history.  As I get older I feel the need to preserve digital "me". My entire digital existence fits on a 4TB drive...  including every massive ProTools session, mega-huge Photoshop file and pilfered internet video that has ever loaded into one of my computers.  I also transferred every one of my DAT tapes (42 of them) digitally into ProTools and those sessions are part of this mess.

This process of digital archiving made me think about preserving my analog past.  2 years ago I dusted off my open reel deck (a very well-maintained Otari MX5050-B3) as part of the UCI Critical Listening class.  I have sound designs from about 25 theatre shows on 2-track 1/4" tape.  Every one of those was also transferred into ProTools (96K, 24-bit); that involved a lot of baking tapes in a modified convection oven to reset the binder from a sticky, sheddy mess into something playable.  (I am a victim of the tape chemical crisis of the late 80's where every batch of open reel tape was shit... thank you Ampex and Agfa for not announcing your formula change).  But the baking endeavor was successful. I have digressed, sorry!

I then decided to tackle my cassette library...

I have over 200 cassette tapes, not of mix tapes and album dubs, but of music projects from teenager up to my mid 20's.  I also have recordings of 6-year old me playing the piano (and I was better at it back then) and even high school jazz band concerts. As a professional recording engineer in the late 80's and early 90's, I would take rough mixes of projects out of the studio and into my car - via cassette.  My cars were my comparison monitors and a big part of checking my mixes. If the mix sounded good in my car it was probably stellar on anything else. I am a pack-rat and kept every tape.

I learned how to do multitrack recording in high school when my parents bought me a Yamaha MT44 4-track cassette recorder for my 16th birthday (that was 1982!).  In its day, the MT44 was a killer little machine and I kept it all these years.  25 of those cassette tapes are 4-track sessions from my bedroom studio in the house where I grew up.  So... I dusted off the Yamaha, connected it into ProTools, stuck in a tape... and it played! I transferred every 4-track session into ProTools.

The Yamaha wasn't the only cassette machine in my possession.  I saved a Sony cassette machine circa 1990.  The headstack got stuck with a tape in it and I had to break it apart to get the tape out. It went into the trash last week. But the Yamaha also plays regular cassettes and I started to use it to transfer the remaining 175 tapes. About 5 tapes in, it slowly started suffer from awful flutter and was getting progressively worse.  I cleaned the heads, pinch roller and guides but nothing changed.  This meant the problem was either lubrication or bad belts.  The thought of restoring this thing made me think of the dozens of other summer projects that would have to be set aside.  I gave it a little hug and lovingly put it back in the garage.

And so began my search for a new cassette deck!

Only one company is still making decent cassette decks -- that would be the venerable Tascam/Teac corporation. Cassette decks are ridiculously expensive now and not stocked in any LA stores.  That led me to the stalwart   I loathe Amazon but they have cassette decks.  I chose the Teac AD-800. It looks like a 90's vintage deck but with a CD player taking up half the front panel.  This thing was designed to dub CDs to tape.  But it has something odd on the front -- a USB port!  There is an A-D converter built into this thing. Mind f*ck is the only phrase that can describe my feelings at this point.

Nothing has changed in cassette tape technology -- or sound quality.  Same old mechanical transports, Dolby-B noise reduction that doesn't track properly, slow rewinds, and that saturated, inter-modulated, hissy, unstable and warbly analog sound. I have to admit (with some shame) that I LOVE it!  I'm about 40 tapes into my noisy past and reliving the glory of cassettes one tape at a time - and in real-time.  And I have some sticky and shedding cassette tapes that won't play - I'm thinking the Betty Crocker treatment in my convection oven might just fix them, just like those old reels.

Now I'm pondering the day when ProTools dies a long-deserved and painful death, and all those archived sessions become unplayable... or when 64-bit audio becomes the standard. What will people think when they hear I was a 24-bit junkie? Or the ghastly fact that I used ProTools.

Another odd side note: with the analog additions, my entire media life now requires more than 4TB.  Not sure if that's brag-worthy or not... but I'll let you know how big when it's all done.

-Mike Hooker