What Lady Gaga Finds Appealing in Reel-to-Reel
A week ago, Lady Gaga released her fifth album, “Joanne,” which has a stripped-down sound that is quite different from her previous efforts. She has promoted the album with performances at small night clubs and dive bars, a coming home of sorts to the days when a young Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta would tear up a West Village bar with nothing but her voice and a piano. Beyond Gaga’s performances, what’s unique about “Joanne” is how some of the songs were made. When she announced earlier this year that she was recording an album with the producer Mark Ronson, the press began calling it her analog album.
What’s an analog album? Since the late nineteen-nineties, when Pro Tools recording software became widely accepted, the vast majority of music has been recorded digitally onto computer hard drives. The advantages of digital recording are obvious: Pro Tools allows for endless editing and manipulation of sound, from pitch-correcting vocals to splicing up ten takes of a song into one seamless track. Cheaper versions of the software let amateurs record in their homes, which makes music accessible to many more people. Pro Tools also helped create new genres, like modern electronic dance music, mashups, or the stripped backbeat that powers much of today’s hip-hop, by artists like Drake.
Analog preceded this. It is music recorded on reel-to-reel tape machines. The only way to edit tape is by slicing it with a razor and attaching it to another piece of the tape, an irreversible process that restricts after-the-fact manipulation. Despite these limitations, over the past several years, a number of musicians, from well-known pop stars to young independents, have begun seeking out studios, producers, and engineers who have the skills to record albums with the tools of the pre-digital era. Early advocates included Gillian Welch and the Foo Fighters (whose 2012 Grammy-winning album, “Wasting Light,” was recorded on vintage equipment in the lead singer Dave Grohl’s garage), as well as analog’s high priest, Jack White, whose Third Man Records not only produces albums in White’s analog studio but regularly records concerts live to vinyl masters, which they press and distribute. This return to analog (which mirrors the revival of vinyl records) may have begun with rock and indie albums, but it is increasingly found across genres. Recent analog albums include work by the neo-soul star D’Angelo, the Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface Killah, Ryan Adams, the Black Keys, and Arcade Fire. “Joanne” is not completely analog, but “at least three songs were recorded to tape,” according to Mark Ronson’s manager.
The reasons that musicians record on outdated, archaic, and less flexible equipment are, in some sense, surprising. The assumption is that they want to capture a certain audible sound quality—the oft-mentioned warmth of a tape recording. This is a factor, but is not as significant as people tend to assume. Today’s professional digital recordings offer a sonic quality that only the most discerning audiophiles can distinguish from its analog equivalent, and today most people consume music through tiny headphones, regardless of how the album was originally recorded.
“I think the sound quality is one of the smaller reasons why people chose analog,” Chris Mara, who owns a Nashville analog recording studio called Welcome to 1979, said. Mara, an experienced recording engineer, opened the studio eight years ago in a former record-pressing plant, and his business had doubled pretty much every year since.
The bands and musicians who seek him out—as well as a growing cluster of other producers who have sprung up around Nashville—tend to be younger and are looking back in time to get away from the heavily manipulated, overly polished sonic atmosphere of modern pop. These musicians want their albums to sound like those made by Led Zeppelin, Sam Cooke, and Bruce Springsteen—not Justin Bieber. By recording like the legends of the twentieth century, they hope to create something new. Another analog studio engineer in Nashville summed it up in simpler terms: “The old shit’s the best shit.”
For Mara, the power and flexibility of Pro Tools—with its limitless edits, corrections, and effects—has drawbacks, particularly because it brings with it the endless potential for distraction. “When I’m recording in digital, I’m constantly futzing with reverb and other variables on the computer,” he told me when I visited his wood-panelled studio two years ago to speak with him for my book “The Revenge of Analog.” “Where with analog, I turn the vocals up and it’s there,” he said. “The music just reacts to the tape.”
Recording in an analog studio demands more from musicians. After each take, the band, engineers, and producer decide whether what they just recorded was the best version, or whether they should record the whole thing over again. Because of the time and cost involved, Mara said that analog recording sessions tend to be more tightly controlled. Decisions have to be made as the session moves along because mistakes cannot simply be fixed in post-production. “People think limitations are a bad thing,” he said, “but it moves the process forward in a good way. You can easily get lost in the process. It’s easier to stick to the plan when you have limitations.”
Sound effects and editing are possible, but they require significant effort, and are used sparingly. Welcome to 1979 has an echo chamber, which is a long concrete hallway with a microphone at one end. Reverb is achieved by playing the music back through a door-size vibrating metal plate that weighs hundreds of pounds. On Pro Tools, both of these effects can be achieved with a few clicks of the mouse, which means they’re deployed all too frequently, along with other plugins, like Auto-Tune and beat correction.
Scott McEwen, another analog recording engineer in Nashville, who owns the studio Fry’s Pharmacy, suggested that Pro Tools makes musicians lazy. They settle for a decent take, he said, safe in the knowledge that it can be fixed later. “With tape you just have to man up and do it. It instantly makes you play better. It makes your blood boil in a good way. It makes you nervous.”
Just as the choice of technology ultimately influences the way a record sounds, it also shapes any kind of work. By making certain things easier, and offering limitless options, software can be simultaneously liberating and paralyzing. Sometimes the least efficient option, such as paper and pen, leads to better results, or at least uniquely imperfect ones.
Ken Scott, a legendary recording engineer who crafted the sound of the Beatles, as well as David Bowie and Pink Floyd, told me that the iconic albums he worked on were all the products of the happy accidents that the analog process imposed—mistakes, screwups, and forced improvisations of the type that can be instantly corrected today in the studio. “We humans cannot achieve perfection,” Scott said. All we can do is embrace our best, imperfect efforts, and move on.