Behind very tightly-closed doors – ones that can only be described as ‘belonging to a major London recording studio’ to allay any suggestion of endorsement – Chris Estes set up his hybrid analogue/digital recording system for its first demonstration in the UK earlier this week. Part of a demonstration tour of Europe, Estes describes the Clasp system as an exercise in ‘manipulating time and space’.
‘The hardest thing is explaining what this does,’ he begins, before talking his way through an entirely new approach to analogue multitrack tape recording that could redefine its place in the digital recording studio and return tape’s sound characteristics to mainstream music releases.
In short, Clasp (Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor) is a means of integrating an analogue tape deck into a Pro Tools set-up. But instead of using a sync track and bringing traditional tape transport issues into nonlinear digital working, it turns the tape machine itself into a random access device. Quite apart from eliminating the shuttling common in multitracking and overdubbing, this gives the tape deck – any of those machines that we have started to regard as either outdated or destined for purists only – a new role in present-day recording.
‘Everybody likes the sound of tape,’ Estes asserts, ‘but it can seem so complicated.’ And he’s right, especially to those who have grown up with digital workstations. Clasp makes tape easy to sync and non-destructive in operation, allowing workstation-style workflow but with the option of running audio through a sample-accurate tape stage. Almost invisibly. And with the ability to use different tape speeds within a session. The tape itself is handled much more gently than when overdubbing, can be readily reused without losing the recordings it has been used to make and there are no issues with print through. Clasp even sidesteps Pro Tools monitoring…
This isn’t the first time that analogue tape has been adapted and adopted to new uses. Over the past 80 years or so, it has changed beyond the imaginings of Fritz Pfleumer or Les Paul, and may be ready to give Todd Rundgren and Prince further pause for thought.
Magnetic tape has given us home recording, Sgt Pepper and Pet Sounds, delayed television broadcasting, sound and video archives, home multitracking, computer data storage, the Walkman and the VCR, among other socially significant innovations. It even played a bit part in its own demise during the MiniDisc-Digital Compact Cassette tussle of the early 1990s – for, while we listened to Sony and Philips-Matsushita debate the appeal of their respective replacements for home cassettes, we stumbled into the perceptual coding systems they employed (ATRAC and PASC). Am I alone in thinking that we now have a generation of music lovers who regard MP3 without despair? Of course I'm not...
Back in the recording studio, the artifacts that give analogue tape recordings their character have not escaped the attention of digital processing specialists. Various outboard boxes and plug-ins claim to be able to replicate tape saturation, frequency linearity and so on. But it’s a claim that Chris Estes laughs off: ‘It’s too random to model,’ he says. ‘What really happens with an analogue tape recording is very complex.’
And his argument is gathering momentum. In the 12 months since the commercial launch of Clasp, it has secured almost 100 sales to the likes of producers Nathan Chapman, Chuck Ainlay and Dave Brainard, or Lenny Kravitz and Green Day, and can be found in studios from its home in Nashville through Europe to Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. And its London demo certainly caught the interests of the engineers there. ‘Everybody gave up on analogue; nobody wanted to do anything about it,’ Estes says. ‘I had a “lightbulb moment”, and I went and did something about it.’
Estes’ inspiration has – so far – given us a single, proprietary means of taking tape with us into our nonlinear working world. But that didn’t stop Dolby, and it may not stop Estes.