Analogue Heaven Day 1

The premise of the project this week is learn how to make electronic music using entirely analogue means. That means magnetic tape, analogue synthesisers, reverb chambers, tape delay… and all that that entails. Hopefully by the end of the week we will have developed skills enough to make some interesting pieces.

It took a while to get going this morning for various reasons. First, we were hoping to have 3 reel-to-reel tape machines but we only had 2. Then could only get one to work. But that was OK as one is enough to record and play on, and we also have two cassette decks which we could use to bounce down the mixes and layer up different sounds.

The first part of the day was spent getting to know the equipment. We worked out how to connect the inputs (eg. microphone, synthesiser) into the mixer and direct that to the tape recorder; how to send the tape signal back into the mixer and out of the monitor speakers; how we could use this setup to make basic recordings and then make delay lines for an echo effect.

Delay – as the tape moves through the machine in ‘record’ mode it passes several tape-heads. The first erases anything already on the tape, the second records the input signal onto the tape and the third reads the tape and sends the output signal to speakers. The small gap between the ‘record’ and ‘play’ tape-heads means that there is a small time delay between the actual live sound and the recording of the sound coming out of the speakers. If you then make the tape machine listen to itself as well as the live input as it records, this echo effect  will also be recorded onto the tape over and over again, getting gradually fainter until it can’t be heard any more. The speed of the delay can be adjusted by changing the speed of the tape.

The morning activities were not without their mistakes! After making a long loop out of a recording of playing inside a piano, we couldn’t work out why the machine would no longer play. On closer inspection we discovered that the tape had been somehow hooking round part of the mechanism and jamming the motor! In the end it was not too hard the fix but that bit of taped as chewed up and ruined and it’s not cheap! Understandably from then on we made sure to make copies of everything we worked on in case it was ruined by the faulty machinery.

The first sound we recorded this morning was a loud chord being played on the piano which lasted for about 4 seconds. Later, I decided to use this sample to make a pulsating loop. The recording was made at 7.5 inches per second. I divided the tape into 0.5 inch strips using a ruler, chinagraph pencil and razor blade. I then shuffled up the pieces. The next step was to cut an equal number of the same length strips of leader tape (plastic tape with no sounds on it) and to splice the two together types of tape together. This doubled the length of the sample and made it pulsate.

As the original recording started with a loud attack which gradually faded away, the final result was a pulsating rhythm where each pulse has a different dynamic level. This process took approximately 3 hours of painstaking work! I was rather happy to have finished and, listening to what I’d produced, am pretty pleased with the result.

I’ve got lots of ideas for how to use it. The first thing to do then was to make a copy of it onto cassette tape. Then I connected the ends of the strip to make a loop which also sounded great, especially when using the variable speed adjuster to change the speed and therefore pitch of the recording. Tomorrow I’m planning to record the loop at various speeds to make a piece with a cyclical structure…


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