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Reel-to-reel Tapes may Soon Become a Thing of the Past

When Tara Rodgers records onto two-inch reel-to-reel tape at Mills’ Center for Contemporary Music, she is well aware of how unique this experience has become.

Rarely taught anymore, analog recording is “one of the reasons I chose the MFA program at Mills,” says Rodgers.

Music and non-music majors alike have grown up listening to sound stored on analog tape. From your favorite albums to movies to the space shuttle, it has been the standard in audio recording since World War II.

And while cassette tapes have all but disappeared from store shelves, recording engineers and librarians have continued to count on the larger-width professional-grade tape for its rich sound and storage stability.

But the era of reel-to-reel recording may be coming to an end.

Analog devotees were dealt a major blow at the start of the year when Quantegy Inc. – at the time, the world’s only remaining manufacturer of high-end magnetic tape – declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, spurring a tape-buying frenzy among such disparate groups as NASA and local indie-rocker John Vanderslice.

According to the national audiophile magazine Tape-Op, “almost the entire stock of recording tape in the USA was sold in two days.”

Luckily for students like Rodgers, Mills was sitting pretty on top of a large donation of tape they received a year ago. “We’ve got enough to keep going for a decade,” says Les Stuck, technical director of the Center for Contemporary Music.

Meanwhile, NASA was scrambling to secure 20 reels of tape for future shuttle missions. According to Federal Computer Week, NASA has relied on high-quality tape to store shuttle temperature and pressure information since the beginning of the program.

In response to the medium’s uncertain future, other government agencies such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration are now beginning the switch to digital storage despite analog’s 60 years of proven archival quality and digital’s potential problems with decay.

These studios will now move into the annals of music history, as the source of analog recording masterpieces by musicians from Ray Charles to The Rolling Stones have.

Despite all this, Vanderslice put $7,000 worth of tape on his credit card for use at his studio Tiny Telephone, voted “Best Place to Record Your Analog Indie Rock Masterpiece” by the SF Bay Guardian.

Now one of the last havens for digital revolution refugees, San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone will “eek out and provide analog recording until the last second I can pull it off,” says Vanderslice, whose studio is consistently booked with such critically acclaimed bands as Death Cab for Cutie and Mates of State as well as local acts Deerhoof and Erase Errata.

Purists like Vanderslice are committed to what they believe is the sonic superiority of analog. These afficionados often claim it sounds “warmer” while digital sounds “colder.”

While he concedes that “something about analog sound is a little more pleasant,” he thinks that today, “having all the possibilities of editing is more important than subtleties of sound.”

Revolutionary when it first appeared on the scene, reel-to-reel recording is clunky and expensive in comparison to the ease of digital recording technologies, which allows users to record multiple tracks directly onto their hard drives and edit with the click of a mouse.

Professional-grade analog recording requires a relatively massive multi-thousand dollar machine, and just one reel of two-inch analog tape, which provides 15 minutes of space, costs around $150.

And while programs such as Pro Tools, the current industry standard, allow for virtually instant editing, analog requires a lot of time simply in rewinding and deliberation over cuts to the actual tape.

Maggi Payne, department head and co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music, uses the Studer A-80 24-track two-inch tape recorder in three of her classes.

She believes that analog and digital are “both very valid ways to work in sound,” but said that students should still learn analog recording techniques because “it gives tangibility to an entity that’s anything but tangible. Sound is vibrations in the air. It’s really cool to show this process where sound gets stored on magnetic tape and played back.”

Senior Ashika Narayan says that taking Payne’s Sound Techniques class changed her life.

“When I was working with the Studer, it was heavy reel-to-reel. I was getting to feel it, touch it, and work with the big mixing board. It sounds kind of corny, but I felt the whole process becoming part of me because it was so physical. I wasn’t just sitting in a chair.”

While Quantegy appears to have secured a buyer interested in restarting production by April, and two other corporations have announced plans to begin manufacturing analog tape, many still see the company’s struggles as emblematic of audio tape’s slow demise.

While the Mills music department may be slightly ambivalent about the continuing importance of analog tape recording, most seem to agree that it’s not over yet.

Said Payne, “Digital is the wave of the future. There’s no question about it, but there’s still wonderful – beyond nostalgic – use of analog tape going on.”

Just as DJ culture revived vinyl, analog tape recording may continue in a more rarified fashion. “Hopefully, indie bands and contemporary musicians will keep this going. Even if it’s a small group of people who believe in analog, I think it’ll be there,” says Narayan. “I’m hoping for a revival.”