Black Light / Black Death–Part the First: Tracking

We haven’t figured out how to get pictures or video off of Mrs. Smash’s “too-smart-for-its-own-damn-good” phone, and as a result there is no material for any Peter Murphy concert followup.  Yet.  So instead, I thought I’d update you all on the recording project I’ve been wallowing in since last September.

Part the First:  Tracking the Album.

Unidyne III, right up on the grille.

Unidyne III, right up on the grille.

As you may or may not recall, the project started out as a 48-hour project that rapidly turned into a 96-hour mess when extenuating circumstances arose (i.e., a tropical storm that raised flooding concerns and drownded our car over on Crime Alley and Uzi Street).  There was a worser disaster than all this, though. I started to like the songs.

I’ve expounded on this elsewhere.  If you’re doing a time-limited project and you start to like your songs, you’re screwed.  Skuh-rewed.  Because you are now stuck in a horrifying morass of expectations for a project which–by design–has left you unprepared to produce quality work.

Fortunately, my mental parameters (unintentionally) allowed for just this circumstance.

My original intention was to record using the Velvet Underground’s White Light / White Heat, recorded in two days during 1967, as a starting point.  I used mic types and techniques available at the time.  Gear was harder to come by in 1967, so I used a limited  number of instruments.  I followed Mo Tucker’s lead, and focussed on writing drum parts which didn’t lean heavily on the cymbals.  I used keyboards.  And although I could not duplicate the live-recording techniques used by the Velvets, I could go with them in spirit by trying to use the earliest renditions of the song, warts and all.  

The drum setup: three mics on my 1946 Gretsch. Large diaphragm condenser mic out in front of the bass drum; cardioid dynamic on the snare-side, omni overhead. The fourth LDC mic (at the top left) was not used for tracking drums. I used it for vocals.

The drum setup: three mics on my 1946 Gretsch. Large diaphragm condenser mic out in front of the bass drum; cardioid dynamic on the snare-side, omni overhead. The fourth LDC mic (at the top left) was not used for tracking drums. I used it for vocals.

When I set my parameters, I did not realize that White Light / White Heat was itself recorded under extenuating circumstances.  But I quickly found out that when they recorded the album, the Velvets were surfing the ragged edge of self-destruction.  The band was wracked with internal strife; personal lives were in a state of chaos.

Wow, did that ever resonate.  I was in a death-spiral of my own.  Perhaps–like an aircraft in aerodynamic stall–I could generate lift by generating speed, and generate speed by diving.  I decided to throttle in–to give my darker impulses free reign.   The project would be called Black Light / Black Death.

The newly-minted (at the time) and never-been-dropped (at the time) Martycaster.

The newly-minted (at the time) and never-been-dropped (at the time) Martycaster.

I went down to the basement and started writing.  Words flowed from my pen.  Terrible words comprising awful lyrics, which were gradually refined to “barely usable.”  Everything was quickly recorded, all in one room, all using the same setups.

The songs began to take shape.  “Black Death Girl” made its way to wholeness fairly quickly (with Larry Lentz at the controls), and in its second iteration became quite usable.  “She’s Haunting” came about even quicker.  A third song was tracked with drums, bass, and keyboards, but didn’t make it much farther.  And the fourth song–entitled “Black Light”–really resonated… except for the lyrics.  And the non-existent guitar leads.  And the awful, sing-songy vocal melody of the verses.  They were just horrid.  And yet, I utterly loved the song.

Then Friday came.  It was time for band practice, which meant that it was time to tear everything down (so I could set up for the Hotrods).  I only had four songs, and only one reel of tape full.  The reel was chock full, but even so that’s about 32 minutes.  Not long enough for an album, too long for an EP.  What to do?

I have, in my back catalog, a large number of songs I’ve always meant to record but have not.  Reasons vary–they may be too weird, use the wrong instrumentation, have exceedingly dumb lyrics, and so on.  One of these, “The North Shore,” initially sounded like a horrid, fugitive out-take from Peter Murphy’s Deep.  (I should have known he’d work his way in here somehow.)  The original recording of the song sounded nothing like any of my other stuff, and could not be amended to do so either.  And of course, the drum machine I used did make the song sound dated.

Worse still, I had to worry about lyrical puffiness.  I wrote the song during the height of my seminary days, and the lyrics included an ancient Babylonian proverb.  That seemed like a good idea at the time, although I had since developed doubts.  Even so, in its original form the song had been written and tracked in about 3 hours, so in some sense it did fit the time parameter.  And it had the added benefit of sincerity.

View from the vocal mic.

View from the vocal mic.

Why not?  What could be better?  The project is, after all, about trying to push limits.  Why not throw this song into the sonic meat-grinder and see what comes out?

The mood and tempo of the song totally changed; the song took on a new life.  Very uplifting compared to the other four, but not inconsistent with them either.  I tracked the song very quickly.

And bam.  It was time to stop.  One way or another, the core tracks of the album were finished.  I was woefully dissatisfied with the results, but it existed.  And the only way a song can truly suck is if it doesn’t exist.

I packed the reels away without much hope for development.  And then this thing called life reared its ugly head… and the dust began to pile up.

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A Light Can Shine in the Darkness, and the Darkness Will Not Overcome It.

So… we’ve “killed the fatted calf” for the year.
Peter Murphy played in Buffalo on Saturday night, and Mrs. Smash and I were there.

Now, we’re both big Peter Murphy fans (I mean, who isn’t?), but as much as we love Mr. Murphy, he’s not enough of a draw to cause us to bleed our finances dry like that.  Rochester?  Hell yeah.  Buffalo?  That adds like $50 to the overall cost in gas money alone.  That’s pretty substantial, when you consider that this $50 is almost our whole entertainment budget for the year, gas money or no.  But this was no ordinary Peter Murphy tour.  This was Peter Murphy’s “35 Years of Bauhaus Music” tour.

There’s some history between us and Bauhaus concerts.  I didn’t become a Bauhaus fan until well after their initial breakup.  And when they got together again for a reunion tour in 1999, I made us miss it.  TWICE.  Despite the fact that they played RIGHT HERE IN ROCHESTER.  I’ve been utterly lamenting this ever since.  So there was just no way I was going to miss this new event, even if it meant multiple trips to the plasma bank.  (Speaking of which, does anyone know of anyplace local where I can sell my plasma?)

The show was at the Town Ballroom.  Entry cost a whopping $29 per, but we were lucky enough to find truly great on-street parking for free.  The Town Ballroom is in what looks like a converted movie theater, and is a really great venue.  Nice bar in what used to be the lobby; organized, mostly-friendly goon squad (just goony enough to make things feel controlled); an entry system that would be tough to beat.

I had hopes of getting by without having to buy a T-shirt (because Peter Murphy T-shirts are usually far too “arty” for my tastes)–but those hopes were dashed as soon as I saw the “Peter Murphy 35 Years Of Bauhaus Music” t-shirts (in white, on black, WITH Bauhaus “face”  logo).  That shirt didn’t look good on me (the logo sat too low on the chest), but the more “arty” shirt did.  This shirt has half of Peter Murphy’s face, and half of the Bauhaus Face Guy face, and is in blue on black… not my typical choice, but Amie insisted.  I’m glad she did, because as it turns out it was utterly appropriate.

IMG_4095

You know how Peter Hook and The Light have been doing the “post-Joy Division” thing for a couple of years now?  It’s cool, because they’re not Joy Division, they’re not New Order, and they’re not trying to be either.  They’re just Peter Hook and The Light, doing what they like to do.  And what they like to do is ass-kicking versions of the songs that Peter Hook helped write.

Peter Murphy & Co. were doing the same thing.  They were not Bauhaus (as Peter pointed out several times), and they weren’t trying to be.  And that was not a bad thing.  In fact, during the show I found myself wondering whether Peter Hook’s success with The Light might not have provided some inspiration.  So, yeah.  I’m glad I didn’t go with the “Bauhaus reissue” T-shirt, because this was something greater than that.

Anyway, we got to stand right above and behind the sound board, with a clear view of the whole stage.  (I honestly don’t think there’s a bad spot in the house.)  There was a nice little half-wall for us to lean against.  The only challenge was not drooling on the sound guys as they worked their Midas 56-8-2-1 board with sweepable everything on the EQ.

The sound was OK.  I don’t think the house (or maybe it was the crew in general) was having a particularly good night… vocal compression was a bit too grabby, bass was a little over-prominent, and backing vocals were kind of absent; there were a couple of fairly serious SNAFUS on the part of the stage crew, one of which threatened to derail the show for a minute.  (This last one caused Peter to pitch a little bit of a fit, which was kind of embarrassing and kind of funny at the same time.)

Ever since catching Mission of Burma in May of 2011, I’ve tried to make it a point to write down the set lists of shows I’ve been to (and if possible, to get a copy of the set list as well).  I will therefore attempt to recreate this list for you here:

  • King Volcano
  • Kingdom’s Coming
  • Double Dare (with minor lyric changes, which was cool)
  • In The Flat Field
  • A God In An Alcove (hot damn!)
  • Boys
  • Silent Hedges
  • A Kick In The Eye (wow)
  • Adrenalin (off the amazing 2008 LP Go Away White)
  • The Three Shadows Pt. 2
  • Burning From The Inside (*wow*)
  • Bela Lugosi’s Dead (**wow**)
  • The Passion of Lovers
  • She’s In Parties
  • Severance (a song which I’ve never heard before.  Peter Murphy described it as “a hymn,” then said something like “So I believe in God.  What the f*ck, you lot?”  🙂  )

There were two encores.  I didn’t write down song titles for the first encore, but we got it all on video on Amie’s smartphone.  I believe it included Hollow Hills and The Spy In The Cab, but I’ll have to fill you in on that later.  I’ll try to include pics as well.

But the second encore… it was only two songs.  But was a real mind-blower.  Of course, they ended with Ziggy Stardust, as is only appropriate.  But the first song… I recognized it the second they got started, and couldn’t believe my ears at first…

It was Transmission, by Joy Division.

I almost passed out.  It was a very faithful version.  Peter even did Ian’s “panicked-toy-soldier” dance, with a vulnerability that echoed what I’ve seen of Ian’s.  It was heart-wrenching.  It was stunning.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve had a psychic link to Ian Curtis since I was 12–when I learned about suicide, post-punk, left-of-the-dial radio, and the enduring value of a high-quality church service all on the same day.  For a long time it seemed like a mixed blessing, but over the last couple of years it’s been a real source of strength.  People tend to focus on Ian as a tragic figure, but in doing so miss the larger lesson.  There was a lot of strength in Ian, and a lot of collective will to life on the band as a whole.  Joy Division sought to rise above the darkness, not embrace it.

And maybe that’s why Bauhaus always seemed to have drawn a line between Joy Division and themselves:  the transcendence of Joy Division’s art came about in spite of the darkness; Bauhaus’ art grew out of it.  Maybe that is why it took 30 years for Peter Murphy to what he’s doing now:  it seems like Peter’s music seeks to transcend his own personal darkness–check Deep–and it’s hard to do that when the music you’re playing embraces it.  Not impossible.  Just not very easy.  And it requires a strength of character all its own.

To fuse these two impulses… it was pure magic.  Spiritual phase cancellation.  A healing act of redemption that can only spread and grow, disproving the very darkness it embraces.  An act providing a future for the present moment, even as it anchors itself firmly in the past.

That’s a lot to get, even with a price of admission that rivals my weekly income.

Totally worth it.

Totally.

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Shootout at the Oxide Corral IV: The Results Are In!

GOOD NEWS!!

If you’re a dork like me you’ll love this next bit.  ‘Cause this is where it all comes to a fine, fine point.  Of course, there’s bad news, too.  The bad news is that if you love this next bit, that means you’re a dork.

Shiny blue tape on the Gibson Girl splicer.

Shiny blue tape on the Gibson Girl splicer.

For those of you (normal people) who really just want me to cut to the chase, I’ll do that first, and save the gory details for after.  But first, please bear in mind that there’s a whole lotta “subjective” in these results.  This isn’t a very clinical trial.

Any “real” engineer will tell you that you need to re-bias your deck for every formulation–and possibly every single reel of tape.  I’m not going to do that.  My test deck–an Otari MX-50 with very low milage–was set up for +6 right from the factory, and I’m leaving it that way for now.  After all, it was a pretty common strategy back in the day to try to ‘snipe’ another company’s formulation–make your tape sound better than the other guy’s tape at his settings.  I’m sure I’ll be fine.

So.  Here they are, in order of my personal preference:

1.  Quantegy 456.
2.  3M 996.
3.  Quantegy/Ampex 499.

These top three tapes are all spectacular, and none of them is really any better than the others, just a little different. The 996 actually sounds a little “better” than 456, but it’s getting knocked down a peg due to reported problems with sticky shed.  Likewise, 499 sounds almost exactly the same as 456, so that might give you some idea of just how tight the field was.

4.  The Mystery Tape.
5.  Quantegy/Ampex 632.
6.  Maxell XLI.

This second category is a little sketchier.  The Mystery Tape has a crisper, more technical sound, directly competitive with 456, but less “exciting.”  The same goes for 632, only it’s more… organic, and tape-y. XLI is another story.  It’s got the excitement and crispness of 456, but gets a little mushy in the lower mids.  

So it kinda comes down to overall effect:  If I want a sound that’s very precise, I want Mystery Tape.  If I want a sound that’s got more of a “vintage” tone to it, I’m looking for 632.  And if I want a sound that’s more like 456… I’ll just go with 456.  Sorry, XLI, you didn’t make the cut.

7.  3M/Scotch 206/7.
8.  3M/Scotch Classic.
9.  Maxell UD.

These last three really don’t pass muster for studio use.  They may (and do!) sound great on stereo gear, and all the tapes were dead-quiet on this deck.  But at 15 ips on a pro-grade deck?  There’s better stuff out there.  Even so, I started mixing my most recent project to 207, and I’ll probably finish it on 207 too.

I have to say, I’m a little surprised at the UD.  Maybe I shouldn’t be, since it’s primary attribute is that it sounds good on everything.  You know, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”  I’m a little disappointed in the XLI, too, although that probably has more to do with unrealistic expectations than anything else.

21 splices total.  Here's one of 'em!

21 splices total. Here’s one of ’em!  I suspect that this one is between the Classic and my Mystery Tape.

And here’s the gory details in all their glorious, boring-osity.

Test One:  I Listen to the recording.

This involves recording a song I’m familiar with onto the test tape, then playing it back to hear the differences, compare the differences, and decide whether or not I like sound of any given tape.

As it turns out, I’ve got Reel 1 for the Black Light / Black Death project on “the big deck.”  Juni Moon has been helping me out with some voice-work, so her dulcet tones were my guide through this process.

I sent the test-reel down to the basement for a few moments with Mr. Bulky, came back up to the studio and hit the record button.  Spent a few minutes listening, comparing each section of tape to the section before it.  This was a direct comparo, with one strip of tape challenging the next.  So it’s “1 vs. 2, 2 vs. 3, 3 vs. 4” and so on.

      1. Opener:  Ampex 632.  There is nothing wrong with this tape.
      2. vs. Maxell UD 35/90:  levels drop, mids are more prominent, but the overall sound is a little muddy by comparison.
      3. vs. 3M 207:  Not very different from the UD, but a little more clarity all around.
      4. vs. Mystery Tape:  Much cleaner, better lows, clearer upper mids.
      5. vs. Ampex 632:  Very similar to the Mystery tape; handles the upper mids differently, but I can’t say if it’s better or worse.
      6. vs. Maxell XLI:  More mids, crisper sound, sounds… better.
      7. vs. Maxell UD:  Smoother overall tone, maybe, but levels are lower, and the overall effect is mushier than the XLI.
      8. vs. Mystery Tape, which has more highs, better lows.  Clearer.  Better.
      9. vs. Quantegy 456:  levels up slightly, upper mids seem more solid.
      10. vs. Ampex 632, which I find less crisp, with less prominent highs, but with a pleasant “tapey” mellowness.  It’s very obvious that 456 and 632 are related.
      11. vs. 3M 207, which has lower levels, decreased clarity, and somehow seems a little less cohesive.  Doesn’t exactly sound bad, but my ears are less happy.
      12. vs. Quantegy 456, which sounds surprisingly similar, but is brighter, crisper, louder, and just overall better.
      13. vs. Ampex 499:  There is no difference.  Or wait, there’s a little more depth and separation.  The mix sounds a little more 3-D on the 499.
      14. vs. 3M 996: has better highs, less of a low-frequency bump-up, and yet has somewhat more satisfying lows.
      15. vs. Quantegy 456:  which stands up surprisingly well.  Mids are more prominent; tone is marginally more solid.
      16. vs. XLI: Flatter response overall; but there’s a worrisome sloppiness in the low mids.  Somehow seems less distinct than the 456.
      17. vs. Mystery Tape:  Flatter still, less low-end bump, but overall just clearer, and better.
      18. vs. 3M 996:  levels up overall–about the same… but better(er).  It’s just like the Mystery Tape, only more so.
      19. vs. Scotch Classic:  Levels down.  Less lows.  Less highs.  Everything’s mushier.
      20. vs. Mystery Tape: just better, in every respect.

Test Two:  I listen to the TAPE.  Another visit to Mr. Bulky.  Then, record the song.  While recording, toggle back and forth between monitoring the input to the tape deck and the tape itself.  This one really separates the wheat from the goats or whatever.  Rated on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being “eeeewww,” and 5 being “I can’t tell the difference.”  Since I had multiple samples of most tape types, I was able to take an average.

      • 632:  3.6
      • UD:  1
      • 207:  2
      • Mystery Tape: 3.75
      • XLI:  3.5
      • 456:  5
      • 499:  4 (highs jumped out a little compared to the original)
      • 996:  5  (I actually became confused as to which source I was monitoring)
      • Classic:  2

Conclusion:  And… if you’ve been intrepid enough to actually read this far (you poor fool)… WHAT is the purpose to all of this fuss?

I am going to buy a bunch more of the Mystery Tape, and fund the purchase by selling off my remaining stocks of UD, XLI, 206/7, and Scotch Classic.    The End. 

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Arright, you tapeheads.  It’s time for some action.

But first, some unfinished business:  the final member of our cast of characters.  It’s time we got to know our challenger.

The Mysterious Stranger:  He’s small.  Just over 8 minutes of recording time on a tiny little 5″ reel.  And he’s obscure.  Nobody would even know he was there, if they weren’t looking specifically for him.  And he’s got a “low print” reputation.  But the quiet ones are the ones you have to watch out for.  In a way, The Mysterious Stranger is the Owen Meany of analog tape.

He bears a strong resemblance to The 3M Boys, to look at him.  A resemblance, but not exactly the same… thinner in the caliper, perhaps.  That resemblance could be a good sign, but it might not be.  Some of those 3M Boys have been getting a little squeally and squirrelly in their old age.  Does The Mysterious Stranger suffer from these same maladies?

And there’s those 5″ reels… could a professional-grade tape really come on a 5″ reel?  If so, which profession are we talking about?

So… How Did We Get Here?

I stumbled upon The Mysterious Stranger whilst digging through some serious, hard-core magnetic tape arcana.  Flipping through musty old websites covered with dust-crowded pixels.  What I found was a series of numbers.  Numbers which hinted to me at the capabilities of The Mysterious Stranger.  Numbers which came with a name…

I cross-referenced that name, only to find out that it has been re-used by the (still-extant) corporation that created it.  And basically, every by-name reference I found dealt not with The Mysterious Stranger, but rather with his namesake… a completely different product.  The one reference I found that actually referred to The Mysterious Stranger had only bad things to say… but bad things which didn’t make sense to me, considering the numbers I’d encountered during my arcane web-tunneling.

The Mysterious Stranger was still available, and for a song… but the problem was bringing him to town.  Shipping was prohibitively expensive.  But the price.  The price.  In the end, I decided to take a chance.  In for a penny, in for a pound.  I bought a whole mess of the stuff, just to keep the price per unit low enough that–should this prove to be a disaster–I might have some small hope of recovery.

And so, early this week, The Mysterious Stranger rolled into town.

Preliminary tests provided mixed results.  The first, least intrusive test involved fast-forwarding and rewinding the tape several times, to see if this Stranger brought the deadly Sticky Shed to down with him.  And sure enough, there was some goo on the tape guides.

But that resemblance to 3M… 3M made some dirty, dirty tape.  The first time I used a reel of Scotch 250, it left little piles of oxide beneath every contact point along the transport.  It was alarming at first, but eventually the tape cleaned itself up and worked just fine.

Also, there was–at times–a faint squealing… another shadow of that 3M back-coating legacy, perhaps?  Was this tape good, or not?  I wasn’t sure what to think.

I kept running the tape back and forth.  Goo deposits kept getting smaller and smaller.  The tape kept running more and more smoothly.  Eventually I worked up the guts to play-test it.

The tape played fine.  The heads were much dirtier than I like to see after the first run-through, but by the time I finished run-through number 3 there were no problems to be seen at all.

So how did it sound?  I played a little sample of the song I’m currently tracking on The Big Deck.  Sounded good.  I spliced a little Scotch 207 on at the beginning for comparison’s sake, and recorded again.  Sounded very good.

Meanwhile, voices from The Mysterious Stranger’s hometown were barking at me.  Do I want more?  In for a penny, in for two pounds?  I wasn’t sure what to do.  I’ve got so many decent tape formulations on tap… many with stellar reputations (as yet untested by me)… and a few spectacular formulations that I know and love.  If this Mysterious Stranger outshines any of these other tapes, I might be able to use it to replace one of my other stockpiles.  I can then sell off this now-obsolete stock, and reclaim some of the outlay.  (That’s a crucial factor, because these days I basically can’t afford to do anything unless it’s cash-flow neutral at worst.)

Obviously, it was time for…

The Showdown

I got out my Gibson Girl splicer, and the blue spicing tape which I got from Splicit Reel Audio Products a while back.  (It’s some GREAT splicing tape, even if it’s narrower than what the Gibson Girl really goes for.)

And so, the bloodbath begins.

White paper leader tape (NOS 3m, from Reel Deal Pro Audio–they may be out of the NOS stuff by now, though).  Followed by 20 seconds (or about 25′) of Ampex 632, spliced directly onto about 20 seconds of Maxell UD, which was in turn spliced to the same amount of 3M 207.  Then the first showing of our Mystery Tape.  And then straight back to the 632.  All the supposed +3 tapes lined right up on top of each other.

From there, into the Danger Zone:  632 to Maxell XLI.  And from XLI straight into it’s  cousin UD.  And from UD straight back to the Mystery Tape.  You heard me right.  I don’t f*** around.

And then on to the +6 big boys.  Mystery Tape to Quantegy 456. 456 back to 642. 642 into 207–hashing out any +3 rivalry, once and for all.  207 to 456–we’ll see about that underground reputation.

456 to 499. Is there really a difference?  Ampex 499 to 3M 996.  996 to 456.  I love my 456, but if the 996 is really better, I want to know.

Straight out of the 456 into the XLI.  We shall see, Maxell XLI, we shall see just what you’re made of.  XLI back to our Mystery Tape.  Mystery Tape into 996–deliberately outclassed.  Again, we shall see.

And then… out of the blue… a new contender.  Scotch Classic, beloved by the audiophile community despite its propensity for Sticky Shed.  The stats bear this love out… but is it f’real?  The audiophile community is rife with anecdotes and misinformation.  And then, since the numbers are so close… back to the Mystery Tape.

Things wrap up with some red RMGI leader tape, which is also awesome, and which also comes from Splicit.

(The leader tape clings nicely to a plastic reel hub, which can make reel-loading much easier, although it does have a tendency to “change its mind” and cling to some other nearby surface instead.  It doesn’t have as much traction on the reel as paper leader does, but it doesn’t rip either.  And it’s convenient to be able to code the head and tail of a tape–these days I go with white at the head and colored at the tail.)

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There it is. 20 kinds of tape in one seven minute package.

Seriously, it took me like two full hours to organize this mess and cob it all together.

Next up:  The Evaluation Begins.

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Shootout at the Oxide Corral Part II: The Stranger

A waxy smell like crayons fills the air. A fine, powdery oxide dust of powdery oxide coats everything.  Gunky residue hangs from tape guides and rollers.  Tiny angular flakes of unused tape flutter in the deathly breeze and pile in drifts like black snowflakes. Flecks of splicing tape congeal on the ground.  The bloodbath continues.

A few days ago, a stranger came to town.  Like all strangers, this stranger was a mystery–a vast, unknown entity who refused to reveal his true name.  And yet, he seemed strangely familiar, bearing a familial resemblance to some pretty tough customers.  And he came packing heat.

O how cruel was the wind that day!  O how the crows did gather and caw!  A lone buzzard circled the sun, a pair of Sennheiser headphones hanging like a noose around his neck.

Obviously, it was time for a showdown.

Today’s increment:  the cast of characters.

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Their haunting visages gaze at you from across the vastness of time itself.

The Quantegy Clan:  For decades, the Ampex corporation was Top Dog in the tape production  world.  That is, until a ghost from their past came back to haunt them.  Their tapes–especially 456, The Gold Standard for the recording industry–began mysteriously going bad, turning to goo for no apparent reason.  Other quality control issues started to plague the company.  In the late ’90s, Ampex spun off their tape division, re-naming it Quantegy and moving to Opelika, Alabama. Quantegy stopped making audio tape entirely in 2005, then began again for a couple of years before calling it quits, possibly for good.  Quantegy tapes don’t seem to suffer from the same liabilities that the Ampex stock did, although tape produced after their re-start has a reputation for inconsistency.

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Ampex 632. They really did polish the surface of the tape, which produces better high frequency response and saves wear and tear on the heads, too.

Ampex 632:  A holdover from the days when it paid a man to polish his tape.  A +3 duplication tape which refused to die.  A grizzled old veteran of countless radio production rooms, a tape which “knows a thing or two” about how to squeeze some nice, crisp highs out of a generic formulation.  A tape on intimate terms with the transport.  A tape that knows how important it is, when things get sketchy, to cling close to the head like there’s no tomorrow.  The specific piece of tape in this shootout is literally 21 years old, found in a case in a warehouse in the Pacific Northwest.   

Quantegy 456:  Born under a bad sign, Quantegy 456 has tried to run from its sordid past, even going so far as to change its name.  456 may be a bad tape gone good, but it’s still Ampex, through and through.  456 may have done the impossible–shed its evil ways–but there will always be those nagging doubts…

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Ampex 499: is it really just a +9 version of 456?

Ampex 499:  What’s better than the gold standard? This +9 tape is “better than the best,” managed to avoid the sticky-shed problems of its +6 brother (456), and is in many ways the ‘pretty boy’ of the Ampex gang… but like a ‘pretty boy’ one must wonder:  does it have the chops to back up its reputation?  Early reels of 499 made in California were notorious for dropouts and other inconsistencies–another quality control issue the Quantegy Clan tried to put behind them in their move to Alabama.

Ma Scotch and the 3M Boys:  In some ways, 3M and Ampex were  the Hatfields and McCoys of the audiotape world.  Where Ampex had their “Irish” sub-brand, 3M had “Scotch” (which, yes, went on to make transparent “Scotch Tape,” which was originally designed for splicing audiotape).  3M also had trouble with sticky shed, but due to their decentralized production model these problems were not as consistent.  3M came out with some really spectacular tape in the early 90s, but by the late 90s they had moved on to other things and sold Quantegy their tape-making stuff.

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Scotch 207. It’s back-coated, which is why the back of the tape (on the right) is darker and has a matte finish, while the face of the tape (to the left) is shiny and oxide-colored.

3M Scotch 206/207:  When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.  Scotch 206/207 doesn’t know whether it’s a lawman, or just a hired gun.  All it wanted was to be the best +3 tape it could be.  As  it turns out, that was pretty good.  A real ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ 206/207 was just as comfortable hangin’ out on the farm as it was carrying weight in some pretty pro circles.  But it’s been a long time.  This test used 207, the thinner, less-gutsy, longer playing version of the standard-length 206.  Can 207 live up to itsreputation as an underground tough guy?

 

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3M 996. Even at +8, it’s the baddest of the bad.

3M Scotch 996:  Having set out specifically to compete with Ampex 499, this tape quickly earned a well-deserved reputation as the baddest of the bad.  It’s thick,  stout, brawny, and back-coated.  Rumor has it that when Quantegy bought 3M’s stuff, they bought the formula for 996 and tried to produce it themselves.  That’s some pretty bad-ass tape, right there.  It’s designed for +8 bias, so you know it’s no joke. 

MAXELL:  The real outliers of the bunch, ruling the roost in the arcane underworld of the audiophile community.  If this were the Old West, they’d be the renegades in the hills.  If this were Firefly, they’d be Reavers.  Maxell does not live by our rules.  Maxell does not need our rules. Sticky Shed?  What is this “Sticky Shed?”  We’re a Japanese company.  We can even use whale oil if we choose to, bitches.  They don’t even use the same designations as the rest of the world.  Even now, used Maxell tape stock commands premium pricing.  And you will pay as much for a sealed reel of 35-180 on eBay as you will pay for a brand-spanking-new reel of RMGI or ATR Magnetics stock.  Why?  Because it NEVER GOES BAD.  NO MATTER WHAT. That’s right.  Go ahead and shudder.  Sometimes fear is a natural thing.

UD 35-90:  The standard tape of the rank-and-file of the audiophile world.  Is it a +3 tape?  +0?  Does it even matter?  No matter what kind of deck you use this stuff on, it’s not going to sound bad, that’s for sure.  It’s popular, and it knows it’s popular, and it’s got the shiny packaging to prove it!  When Maxell stopped making tape, they recommended Quantegy 632 to replace it.  

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Maxell XLI. Few have seen it and lived.
Well, actually, plenty have seen it and lived. In fact, most everybody who’s seen it is still alive, well, and says hello to yer mom.

XL-I 50-60B:  This is something mysterious–arcane and special.  Legend has it that when Maxell stopped making tape they recommended BASF LPR-35 as a replacement… and LPR-35 is just the thin version of SM-911… and SM-911 is the tape BASF made to compete with Ampex 456.  Could it be that this XL-I is actually a +6 tape?  It’s thick, like 456.  (That’s what the “50” refers to.)  It’s back-coated, so it’ll track better.  If Maxell had chosen to enter the pro-grade end of the market, this stuff would have been it.  But they didn’t.  Why?  Who can say?  But XL-I even became standard fare in schools, radio production rooms, and God alone knows where else.  Can this stuff really hold its own against 456?  Stay tuned and find out.

Mr. Bulky:  The bulk-eraser of doom, escaped from the very portal of Hell itself.  60 seconds in the pulsing, magnetic grip of this thing will wipe any tape as clean as the day it was made, assigning any recording directly to perdition.

And last but not least:

The Mysterious Stranger:  Looks suspiciously like one of them 3M boys… More on him later.

 

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The Incremental Path of the Great Dorktacular Die (or, Shootout at the Oxide Corral)

Lately I’ve been seeing this post on Facebook… something like, “Never discourage anyone who is making regular progress, no matter how slowly.”  

Does that mean we should discourage people who are not making regular progress?  ‘Cause the progress ’round here sure doesn’t seem too regular. 

I get started onto something exciting, and I want to post about it, and I get distracted onto the thing itself, and forget to write.  Or I get so caught up in writing a blog entry that it takes me 3 days to write about 45 minutes worth of activity, and I get frustrated, and don’t want to write.  Or worse still, I get too ambitious and don’t know what to write about… and as my mental parameters expand to the far horizon, my ability to focus on anything long enough to actually write about it dwindles to near nothing… or worse still, a string of vaguely interconnected, needlessly rambling Facebook posts.  However it goes, the end result is seemingly the same–eight months pass without a single update.

Bleh.

Well, I’m gonna try again.  Only this time I’m gonna try to be a little more disciplined.  Not necessarily about how often I write, though.  That’s too much pressure, and I already know what too much pressure does to me.  (And it ain’t good, let me tell ya.) 

No, I’m going to try to be a little more disciplined about what I don’t write.  90% of what goes on in my life these days happens in little tiny increments.  So I’m going to discipline myself to avoid trying to take on the major issues of  life, the universe, and/or everything, and instead focus on the increments.  Why not?

Of course, the idea didn’t come to me until I was already hip-deep in today’s increment.  And having blown off eight months worth of blog-time, I feel obligated to catch things up at least a little.  And here we are, six paragraphs into a blog entry about something other than what I want to be writing about.  See how it goes?

Fortunately, I’m still mired in the 48-week–I mean, hour–project that I had just started with the last journal entry.  (Thus a free object lesson in the meaning of “peril.”)  So there’ll be a little continuity there. 

But that’s not what’s important right now.  What’s important right now is Today’s Increment:  I believe I may have stumbled upon a new “secret weapon” tape formulation.  One which sounds great on my equipment, but is cheap as dirt.  It’s cheap as dirt because a) no one knows what it is, so no one knows to go looking for it, b) it’s got an undeservedly bad reputation, and c) it’s got another undeservedly bad reputation.  

Hoping that I was wrong about items b and c above, I bought 20 five-inch reels.  I will probably buy more, inshallah. 

But before I can buy more, I need to know how much more I want to buy.  And that means I will be wanting to establish some parameters.  I’ve got a lot of tape here.  Most of the tape I have, I actually want to have (which is something of a sea-change for me).  So the question is, which tape do I want to sell, so I can get ahold of more of my “secret weapon” tape?

And you know what that means.  That means it’s time for a shoot-out.  A direct audio duel TO THE DEATH.  Losers walk.  

But THAT is not today’s increment.  We’ll save that for next time. 

I’ll lift the curtain this much, though:  The opening volley of the shoot-out has already happened, and blood (OK, oxide) has been spilled.  Whose?  And how much?  Even I don’t know that.  But the Great Dorktacular Die has been cast.  One way or another, it’s all over but the cryin’.

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The New 48-hour Project Part Deux: Peril Awaits Me in the Basement.

It’s interesting to see how this thing has developed, as compared to last year’s Judas Jetski project.  Partly, as I mentioned before, this is due to the difference in musical style.  Not only am I being forced to produce material, I’m being forced to produce a style of music with which I am essentially unfamiliar.  Just for the record, this is not a preferred M.O. for getting good results.  In general, 48-hour projects are not intended to get good results.  They’re intended to produce results.  The quality of those results is utterly irrelevant.  

Maybe a better way to put this would be to say that the definition of “good” has to migrate.  If your definition of “good” is “sounds pleasant to my ears,” you’re doomed.  Because it’s not going to sound good.  There’s just no way.  (If there is a way, you’re giving yourself too much time.)  No, if you’re doing a time-restricted project, its point is to exist.  So in this scenario, “good” = “extant.”  The only results that are bad are the results that don’t exist.  

Well, actually, there’s a Malebolge worse than that.  If you’re doing a time-restricted project and come out with music which sounds good, and that makes you very happy, you’ve truly begun your descent into the depths of hell.  Because the one biggest point of a time-restricted project is to do an end-run around perfectionism.  If you set out to do an album, and wind up doing a song, and that song sounds really great, you are absolutely SCREWED.  Because this will only fuel your perfectionism the next time you try to do anything.  As soon as you run into any trouble you’ll find yourself thinking, “what’s wrong with me?  I should be able to do this.  Last time I got awesome results, and it only took me 48 hours!”  NOTHING kills creativity faster than a big, ugly old “SHOULD.”  NOTHING.  

In this context, the Judas Jetski project was a qualified success at best.  Because I kinda like it, even if it is sorta dumb and derivative.  And it’s less than 25 minutes long, which means I put too much emphasis on quality, and not enough on quantity.  

The news isn’t all bad, though.  I was able to really hit my songwriting stride on at least a couple occasions–“Unconventional War” most notably–and it was another legitimately used reel of tape to put on the “finished projects” shelf.  My musical productivity and creative output has taken a nosedive since my entire personal life went to shit a year ago last April.  It’s been extremely comforting to look at the row of completed projects and know that it’s still growing, even if it’s growing ever-so-slowly.

Which brings us around to this project.  I’m a little nervous about this project, because–much to my surprise–I really like the songs, and I want to do them justice.  That’s dangerous terrain for a time-restricted project.  

I’m not ready to throw the towel in yet.  As I mentioned, my creative output has been terrifyingly low for the last 18 months or so.  Three gigs.  No new Hotrods releases, a backlog of unrecorded material, and fairly pathetic thrashings-about as our only efforts at tracking.  There is another danger besides perfectionism.  There’s the danger that my mind will just move on to other things, and a whole generation or two of musical development will be lost.  (That’s a bigger deal to me than it is to the world at large.  I have no illusions about my influence on the world around me, except perhaps that it should be greater than it is.)  (There’s that word “should” again.  Red flag.)

So rather than having an army of small, unimportant, cannon-fodder material to throw out there with nary a care in the world, I’m stuck with four songs which I actually want to sound good.  And which actually has the potential to sound good, since I took much greater care with setup this time around.  And the number of songs–four–is even worse, because it’s long enough to be an easily-ignored EP, and too short to be taken as seriously as an album.  EPs are for demonstrating potential.  And there’s no actual potential in this project as it stands.  It’s just me in the basement, writing and recording creepy songs with a minimal amount of talent.  (Trust me on the minimal talent. There are keyboards on all four songs.)

So.  Four “adequate” songs which are hook-y enough to get stuck in my head, plus sketchy performances, minus a reasonable place for them to fit into the greater scheme of things… is a recipe for disaster.  I can’t just bulk-erase the tape and pretend it never happened, because those songs will haunt me like that chick haunted Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.  

I only see one way out, and that’s through.  

I think I’m going to have to do it AGAIN.  And perhaps even a third time, so I have enough material that I can afford to cut out the stuff which truly sucks & have a usable product.  

Peril.  This is peril, I tell you.  Peril.

 

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A New 48-Hour Recording Project

As those of you who follow me on Facebook may already know, I’m hip-deep in another 48-hour recording project.  This one’s a little different than the Judas Jetski project on a number of levels.  The most obvious is that it’s not going to be ’80s hardcore.  More of a Velvet Underground ca. 1968 kinda thing, taking White Light/White Heat as an intellectual starting point.  I’m not exactly trying to emulate.  It’s just a point of reference.  So I’m not being fair to myself when I say “we’ll see how badly I’ve failed in a few weeks,” but of course, that’s exactly what I’m thinking (or more correctly, trying not to think).  

I’m using the 1946 Gretsch drum set, an unusual (for me) mic setup, and the newly refurbished Martycaster for a guitar.  Tentative title is Black Light / Black Death.  

I’d say more, but I really don’t want to get wrapped up in a big long post right now… seeing as how I’m “supposed to be” recording.

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Vous ne vous souviens pas. Or, You Don’t Recall.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m bouncing around a bit as I blog about the Judas Jetski EP.  I intend to blog the entire thing eventually, but I’m not guaranteeing even coverage. Instead, I’ll just move on to the next song I feel like writing about, which is “You Don’t Recall.

You Don’t Recall” is, of course, the last song on the EP.  And well it should be, because thematically it’s probably most important. (That or the aforeblogged “Unconventional War” is, and it’s second-to-last.) YDR goes out to all those fine folks who are so quick to make decisions for other people, and yet for some reason can’t seem to figure out why folks don’t like it when things go wrong.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  God save us from those who would save us from ourselves.

Snotty’s never been my strong suit.  Painfully direct is usually a more comfortable fit for me, but it takes a lot of time and patience to be properly situated for painfully direct. Maybe I’d be happier if I put a little more effort into snotty.

Anyway, of the songs I recorded for I Don’t Wanna Go To Camp, I probably had the clearest conceptualization of this one going in.  I didn’t have more than a line or two lyrics, and I certainly didn’t have a chord progression in mind (either one would have been cheating).  But I knew the mood I was shooting for from the outset.

However, I didn’t start actually writing the song until fairly late in the process.  And by this time, I was beginning to realize that I was going to run short on time.  That is to say, I began to fear that my 28-minute album was in danger of winding up as a 16 minute EP (which it did).  It was at this point that I had the wondrous revelation that the easiest way to make my songs longer was to include a guitar solo… or a bridge.  It seems obvious in retrospect.  I mean, Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” rambles on for more than two full minutes after the last meaningful lyrical content, and it’s been out for more than twenty years.

See, “Jeremy” is actually about 2:33 of actual content.  There’s 2:22 of rambling at the end of the song.  AND there’s a 24 second lead-in, so that’s 2:46 tacked on.  The rest is all “oohahwoah” and crap, and I guess a second guitar solo or something, and it goes onlonger than the actual song does.  Think about that.  Does the phrase “blah, blah, blah” come to mind?  I don’t hate the song particularly, but sheesh.

Why didn’t I think of that?

‘Course the thing with me is, I’m a firm believer in a tight song structure.  I’m not sure how that came to pass, given the vast library of artrock that’s carved into the hard-drive of my brain through repeated, obsessive listening, but there it is.

So I realized partway through the process of writing this particular album that it would be clever of me to stretch my songs a little with some nice blathering.  And so, “Unconventional War” wound up with a guitar solo.  And “You Don’t Recall” wound up with a nice little bridge.

Maybe more a culvert than a bridge.  But it does nicely, or at least I think so.  So here’s me, trying to cram as much content into a song as I can possibly manage.  Like General Mills, trying to cram as much fiber into their cereal as they possibly can.  (Seriously, Fiber One‘s got like 57% of your daily RDA of fiber.  I’ll bet it’s also got as much sugar as your average candy bar.)

And there you have it.  From songwriting to healthy digestion in ten short paragraphs. Bon apetít!

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It’s SO Unconventional…

TIME FOR ANOTHER BLOG ENTRY.  I know, I know, it’s been a while.  I was away. Camping.  Tent camping.  It was an adventure, but as I did not wind up half-eaten by lynxes and stuffed in a tree, I really can’t complain.

But I’m back.  And it’s time to write about another song. This time it’s Unconventional War.  I’m not going to bore you with the details of guitar tone this time.  I’ve got something way more interesting to bore you with.

AS I MAY HAVE BELABORED ELSEWHERE, I undertook to complete this project using the most ‘ghetto’ tools I gots.  Of all the sleazy tricks I used, my favorite was my choice of mixdown tape.  ‘Cause guess where this tape came from?  That’s right, the trash.  Okay, it was intercepted on its way to the trash, which is much easier on the icky.  And it was radio station trash anyway, which is somehow less disgusting than other varieties.  Best of all, I didn’t have to do the actual trash picking–Jim Schreck took care of that for me.  (Thanks for the hookup, Jim!)

The tape came to me on tiny little 5″ reels, full of outdated commercials.  Most of them only had four to six minutes of tape at radio speed, which comes out to more like two to three minutes at studio speed.  It ain’t much, but it’ll do… and believe me it adds up.

TAPE’S NOT CHEAP, especially when you’re essentially giving away thousands of four-minute reels of the stuff (which is essentially what people who make commercials do–or did, anyway).  By and large, they used the crappiest tape available, since crappy tape is cheap tape.  But even in the world of crappy tape, there are points of distinction. ‘Cause there’s two ways to get crappy tape:

1) make it crappy from the get-go
2) try to make good tape, and fail somehow.

Variety one isn’t the best choice for recording.  It’s liable to stretch; it may not sound right on good equipment; it’s usually kinda noisy.  Fortunately for me, the tape in question is variety two.  Which sounds spectacular, when it works.  Which it doesn’t, always.

And when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.  Parts of the tape won’t record maybe, or it’ll get quiet all of a sudden, and then get loud again.  Or you’ll play the tape, and oxide will fall right off it in huge clumps, proving ye olde adage “you get what you pay for.”  But for the most part, the stuff’s at least OK.  And as long as this tape is working, it falls under the rubric of another old adage:  “It’s not just good.  It’s good enough.”

BUT OF COURSE THERE’S A CATCH, and that’s sticky shed.  A drawback of old tape is that the ‘better’ formulations are (or were, anyway) susceptible to a form of degeneration known as ‘sticky shed.’  On tapes of a certain age, there can be a kind of chemical breakdown which causes some types of formerly high quality tape to turn to useless goo. Without letting you know.  Your first sign is usually a huge, crappy mess all over the heads of your big, spendy tape deck.  It’s awful.  If you’re lucky, it doesn’t do permanent damage.

There’s no reliable way to tell which reel of tape is going to go bad, either.  Some formulations are more likely to go bad than others, so it helps if you know the brand. But none of the stuff Jim hooked me up with was clearly identifiable.  So there was only one way to be sure:  In the weeks before I began this project, I spent hour after painstaking hour playing each and every reel.  If it pooped all over the place, it went in the trash.  Reel after five-inch reel of tape, two minutes at a time.  Needless to say, I did not use my best tape deck for this.

I wound up keeping about one reel in three.  It was an adventure.

A lot of effort, perhaps, for two or three minutes of tape at a stretch.  But as it turns out, two minutes is about perfect for recording crappy punk songs.  And shaky stereo image (due to dropouts) isn’t a big problem when you’re recording in mono.

Each two minute scrap got a piece of white leader tape at either end, before being wound onto a big 10.5″ aluminum reel (another radio station discard).  Each song has its own little band on the reel.  It looks like little tree rings.  See?

Look! I record like a tree grows.

I forgot to bulk-erase the tape I used to record Unconventional War.  So guess what that little noise is at the beginning?  That’s right, the back-end of someone’s commercial, playing backwards at double-speed.

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