That hissy hazy sound
One thing most people seem to agree on is that tape has its own unique sonic fingerprint, one which is both instantly recognisable and yet unpredictable.
UK musician David Newlyn released his album Deterioration last year on my own label Flaming Pines, basing it on an exploration of recording techniques ranging from cassettes to dictaphones to camera mics. He says nothing can quite compare to the distinctive sound of tape. “I began multi-tracking my own music using the two cassette recorders. Sounded awful usually, but I always found the hissy, hazy-sounding instruments quite fascinating,” he explained.
This interest in degeneration in some ways echoes the earlier glitch movement, which began with Yasunao Tone’s Solo for Wounded CD in 1985, and revolved around scratched and skipping CDs.
According to Kim Cascone, the glitch which reached its apogee with Oval’s albums full of softly skipping sounds, was characterised by an aesthetic of failure. In his oft quoted article on the genre he wrote back in 2002, “… failure has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them.” He and other theorists noted glitch’s celebration of error and malfunction. But while tape decay too is about damage it is not so much an anomaly or deliberately introduced error like a scratched CD, but a characteristic of the medium, and an authentic marker of use and age. Like a well-worn book, a loved tape becomes slightly damaged every time we use it. On a tape our favourite songs, like our favourite pages in a book bear the tiny signs and scars of our affection. Newlyn stated: “the most compelling sound of tape to me is the gradual degeneration of the sound when you use a tape to record a tape. The way the original recordings become more muffled and distant and the hiss of the tape on tape becomes more prominent. I love that sound.”
Furthermore, unlike glitch which used digital tools to investigate deliberately introduced digital failures, the tape movement represents a shift away from the digital realm altogether. Tape is an unwieldy medium, full of limitations. It is unpredictable and impermanent; it wears out in random and subtle ways that have no digital equivalent. 12k founder Taylor Deupree says he returned to tape when he began taking more interest in mastering, and has grown to appreciate it more and more. “It can be a little unpredictable, which I like,” he stated. “It just sounds really good … different than digital,” he said. According to Deupree, using tape adds ‘non-linearity, warmth, idiosyncratic effects and imperfections’ to a recording. ”Tape distorts certain frequencies easily, so you have to be careful about resonant peaks but it has a very nice rounding of higher frequencies that is so much more effective than a plug in,” he says.
For Fischer, the physical properties of tape provide the means to ‘blur the boundaries between texture and melody’. “One thing that is amazing about our minds is how it can fill in the gaps in the details of what you are hearing, much like how memory is an imperfect thing. Some of my favourite recordings I’ve made play with this quite a bit,” he stated. “In the lower fidelity recordings that I often use you can start building up beds of pretty dense tones that start fuzzing out and changing shape. Once you achieve certain relationships between sounds, you can sometimes think you hear overtones or harmonics that aren’t really there. That is something that I’ve never been able to do digitally.” It seems almost perverse that at a time when faster computers, better sound cards and cheaper mics have opened up vistas of sound quality almost unthinkable in a home studio even five years ago, many musicians have rediscovered the virtues of mediums like tape, but this is what has happened.