Bending Reality: Reel-to-Reel

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Bending Reality: Reel-to-Reel
by Tom Newton

~ from ‘Nostalgia: Meditations on Physicality and Geography” ~
A Collection of Essays
edited by
Stephia Madelyne Kascher

When I was eight or nine I acquired a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I don’t remember whether it was a gift or if I expropriated it. I do remember that it had an olive green plastic shell with beige trim and I was aware that it was a machine full of the latest possibilities. It was a mysterious and exciting feeling which has stayed with me all my life.

My first recordings were a kind of audio narrative about a fly or a bee, which buzzed around insanely for a few minutes and ended up exploding. I buzzed into the microphone with my voice while simultaneously impeding and releasing the reels with my hands. On playback, the changes in tape speed translated into variations of pitch which gave life to the fly in a very satisfying and amusing way. The explosion was created by scrunching up a paper bag directly over and around the mic. The results were truly amazing. I can well appreciate the joys of foley. Though I would not have used these words at the time, the explosion showed me that the tape recorder was a reality-bending machine. You put one kind of reality into it and a different one comes out. It is transcendent.

After that, I began to record music with a friend of mine. We stretched plastic bags over metal garbage cans and made drums and I banged around on my father’s piano. We recorded it all.

As I grew up, I started to play in bands. In that era (late ‘70s London) recording sessions in studios were rare for a kid my age, being prohibitively expensive and not ubiquitous. The recording studio was for me a magical sanctuary, somewhere between a palace and a temple. This is why today I call my home studio “The Palace of Materialized Dreams.” I have lost no reverence in that regard.

Today there is so much more music around that people take it for granted, along with the process used to create it. In a similar way, we walk into our apartments and turn on a light switch without thinking of the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution which has led to that moment and the people and technology involved in making the system work.

Before the advent of recording technology, a musical performance was a one of a kind thing. It was only witnessed by those present in the location it occurred (and it could only occur in one location). Though the same piece of music could be performed many times, no performance was exactly the same. When it was over, all that was left for the people who had witnessed it were their memories, and no two memories were exactly the same.

When recording technology came upon the world everything changed. Though in some ways the pre-recording era of music has its appeal, that era is gone. We could think back with nostalgia to the time before nuclear weapons, but the technology cannot be uninvented and its impact upon the world and our societies cannot be undone.

Recording allowed a musical performance to be heard again and again, by many people, possibly at the same time, all over the world. That is a vast difference. At first music was recorded as if it were a live performance, everybody playing together; no over-dubs. The piece done in one complete take. The engineer would place some mics in front of a group, who would play just as if they were performing in a venue – and there is nostalgia for this, as well.

Over time the technology improved and became more specific. So too did the perception of recording change, as well as its relationship to the performance. And the performance changed in its relationship to the recording process.

During the mid sixties – the time I got my reel-to-reel, incidentally – The Beatles, along with their engineer Geoff Emerick and producer George Martin, began to push the envelope regarding the relationship between musical performance and the recording process. I would say a threshold was crossed round about that time.

Thereafter, the recording became part of the music. You could also describe it as a higher level abstraction, something that has parallels with other technologies and their impacts on human culture. Maybe higher level abstractions are a natural process.

With the advent of digital audio, things drastically changed still further. Now the ability to record fairly good quality music is affordable and therefore available to large numbers of people. The process has become democratized and not surprisingly recording studios are having trouble staying in business. The old music industry paradigm has virtually disappeared.

Digital audio, among other things, allows for very quick, easy, and accurate editing. Therefore people edit more and the recording process has become even more enmeshed in the musical performance. You could say it has become the musical performance.

This brings me back full circle to the day I got my reel-to-reel. Digital audio has made it possible for me to spend thousands of hours manipulating sounds, which was what awed and intrigued me as a child.

Interesting vestiges of the old technology remain in the new. For example, the icons on tape and cassette players denoting: play, stop, fast-forward, reverse, etc., and more importantly the use of tape loops (pioneered by Brian Eno among others), has led directly to sampling, which is the mainstay of much music today.

I still feel that the tape recorder, and therefore modern digital audio, is a reality bending machine. It provides an infinite puzzle which has no set solution. The pondering of possible solutions gives me an affirmation of consciousness and makes me happy to be alive.

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© StephiaMadelyne & Tom Newton, 2013
from ‘Nostalgia: Meditations on Physicality and Geography”

 

 

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