The world is just going to continue to fragment, and that’s a great thing. We’ll be fine. Tiny Telephone will be fine.
With vinyl sales on the rise, home recording experiencing a renaissance, and no end in sight to the great debate of analog vs. digital, the music industry may seem more confused about its own identity than your college-aged sister. Half of us are retreating to the comforts of our record players while the other half stream Pandora on our iPhones, and, truth be told, a lot of us are doing both, so where does that leave the future of music as we know it?
Fearing for the eternal damnation of our sonic souls, The Rumpus turned to former four-tracker, sometimes digital recording guru, and all around helpful guy, John Vanderslice for some perspective on the mess that is modern music. Bringing his experience as a touring musician to San Francisco studio, Tiny Telephone, we asked John about the future of home recording, vinyl’s second wind, and future sex with robots.
The Rumpus: Tiny Telephone is an interesting name for a studio. It’s a reference to 4.4mm “tiny telephone” connector plugs, right?
John Vanderslice: Yeah, yeah. Did you Google it and find the connectors? [shamefully, I admitted to Wikipedia-ing it] Basically, they were used in the military and in elevators. They were also used in old phone lines, but later on when they modernized the phones, they used a much smaller connector – a tiny telephone connector. We used to have tiny telephone connectors, but then I bought this old Neve from 1976 and it came with this original brass patch bay, so we decided to go even more old school. The funny thing is that even engineers and techs don’t know what a tiny telephone connector is – people call them TT connectors. Engineers used to come by all the time and say, “Why are you called Tiny Telephone?”
Rumpus: Now, recording and engineering music is very personal. It leaves a fingerprint on the artist’s work. So, what shapes the fingerprint you leave? What is your earliest memory of music?
Vanderslice: I was living in Gainesville, Florida, and our babysitter brought over the soundtrack to The Who’s “Tommy” – not the actual record “Tommy”, but the soundtrack to the movie with Elton John and Aretha Franklin. I remember hearing it for the first time and it was so confusing. It was like waves and waves of unknowable and indescribable sound coming out of the stereo. And, you know, who doesn’t have a crush on their babysitter? I thought she was awesome! So I developed some aspiration towards rock music that was connected to my babysitter and this Who record. From that point on, I really thought about music in a totally different way.
Rumpus: From a love of music to a love of the intricacies of recording, what about the process and the aesthetics of audio gear really drew you into spending your life in this field?
Vanderslice: Well, I’m a collector, a tinkerer, and a tweaker, like a lot of people, and recording equipment is really easy to fetishize. For one, it gives us so many snapshots of eras of electronic equipment; the era of tubes, ultra modern transistors; the era of internet money coming into California, like Millennium Media, which was started by this guy who cashed out and left whatever he was doing to start this fantastic audio company. Also, a company like Ampex, who were based in Redwood City, had a lot to do with the history of audio in California. You can still see the Ampex sign from Highway 101. This was a very important company and they made some of the first multi-track recorders and fantastic sounding tape decks. The legend goes that Bing Crosby loved the bay area so much that he moved a lot of his operations up here and Ampex decided on being close to Bing Crosby. There are these historical ties that are so interesting. There’s also the collector angle, but then there’s also this incredible feedback loop that chefs probably get, too. It’s a very complicated process with a lot of variables, and it really does make a difference which tools you use. And to get into listening – it’s a skill – and it’s a really hard thing to learn. It’s very difficult to just concentrate and really listen so that you can figure out what the involvement of a piece of gear is in the whole audio chain. There’s also some interesting scientific stuff, both trial and error and experimentation that feeds into it as well.
Rumpus: Scientific stuff – that brings us to the age old analog/digital debate and your personal feelings about the quality of digital approximations of analog sound:
Vanderslice: The interesting thing about art is that “close enough” never matters, you know? That’s the great thing about obsessive personalities. They parse the differences between these things, the things that they feel really matter. Ultimately, the question, “does it really matter?” is a question of humanity. If you’re into the pursuit of fidelity, it’s a really interesting question. Personally, I don’t think digital sounds good, but that’s just my own feeling. It’s a very visceral and ingrained feeling that I would love to let go of, though. In fact, it’s in my interest to love digital recording, and I just spent a ton on a new digital recording system, so I speak from a place of heavy investment in both sides. Analog was perfected over 70 years, though. Digital will one day be fantastic. I’m sure of it. Making love to robots will probably be great one day, too. It’s just not a viable option right now. Probably 90% of records these days are all digital, though, and most projects at Tiny Telephone are digital, too. I have no stake in what other people do in here, which is great. It’s only one of many variables in a record, but all things being equal, the sound is not even close for me.
Rumpus: So you’re not analog purists. You guys combine digital and analog all the time.
Vanderslice: I would say 80% of the records here are digital or hybrid. The 20% of pure analog recordings are a large cross section of genres. There are some cutting-edge ultra-modern bands that actually record all analog, and then there are chamber musicians and bluegrass bands. It’s an interesting mix. And you can tell the difference between the recording methods if it’s well recorded. There are a lot of ways to fuck up a record, though. The real quality of the sound – the sound that you ultimately hear – is based on so many other things. The sounds of the tones coming from the instruments are by far the most important thing. it’s like the quality of the ingredients you use when you’re cooking. You can obscure the flavors and add a lot of different things to maybe minimize their impact, but you can never improve upon the quality of what you started with. The quality of the engineer is probably the second most important thing. But like so many other arts, say letterpress printing or film making, there are hundreds of other variables. It’s amazing how much these things matter when you isolate them and look at them up close.
Rumpus: Then what qualities have you chosen the equipment for Tiny Telephone based on?
Vanderslice: Well, one thing is that you’re bounded by cost to benefit ratio. If either I can’t afford it or it doesn’t benefit a wide enough segment of the studio, then I just can’t justify spending money on it. Also, we have really started shying away from old vintage pieces because of the tech issues. There are ever-changing sonic variations in a lot of that stuff. For instance, tube gear is very problematic. It’s unstable. Tubes get microphonic, they die, they degrade. Even the weather changes them. All of these things are constantly in flux, and in a studio, we just want stability in our equipment. That old stuff – when it works – when it’s on and when it does its thing – there can be nothing cooler, but if we’ve done anything in the past 5 years, it’s moving towards new gear, and there are stellar people making that gear now. One thing that has happened is a revolution in digital consumer recording, and overall, that’s a great thing for art, but parallel to that there’s been a revolution in boutique audio companies making excellent gear.
Rumpus: You mentioned that many records these days, including those recorded at Tiny Telephone are largely digitally produced. Despite that, sales of vinyl continue to rise and the analog aesthetic is seeing a lot of popularity. Would you attribute this to the recording end or the marketing end?
Vanderslice: Both of those things are tied into it. There is definitely a nostalgia, and I am very sentimental, so I don’t begrudge people for having sentimental feelings towards vinyl. The amazing thing is that right now we’re selling CDs and vinyl 1:1, when five years ago it was 20:1. It’s unbelievable how many people are buying vinyl now, which has even prompted some people to release records that are vinyl only. I think it’s really great. I like vinyl because it’s not quite random access. You have to pick up the needle, flip the record. I do think that an 18-20 minute block of music is sacred, and I can see why it’s catching on. I really don’t know if it will stay, but it’s such a bizarre world, I think it’s possible.
Rumpus: So, in many ways Tiny Telephone is no different in format than many other studios. Other than the expertise of the engineers, what draws musicians to record at TT rather than taking advantage of the digital consumer recording revolution and doing it at home?
Vanderslice: For one, it’s very helpful for bands on deadline to book a number of days at the studio and be completely isolated here. They know that when they leave here they will have a record that’s finished. It’s a deadline enforcer to have a recording studio. Also, There’s nothing like space and the ability to make unlimited amounts of noise at any time, especially in San Francisco. Lots of people will do basic tracking at home and finish it here or vise versa. I mean, I four-tracked in my apartment for a long time, but when you’ve finally got the space and there’s a Hammond organ and a grand piano…it’s like you’ve been let out of jail. There’s an enormous amount of freedom. Just being able to create sounds very quickly and perform live as a band. A lot of bands want to track live all together.
Rumpus: Where do you see audio recording technology moving in the future, and how will it affect the way musicians record and consumers experience music?
Vanderslice: The world is just going to continue to fragment, and that’s a great thing. We’ll be fine. Tiny Telephone will be fine. Bands will always need studios. The more people there are recording at home, the more people there will be who are going to need a studio. A lot of studios were upset, but I think the home recording explosion is a great thing. As a studio, you have to have a niche. You have to provide a service and there has to be a reason for your being around.
Rumpus: And finally, do you think that digital recording and digital playback will ever reach an acceptable approximation of analog sound, or even reach an acceptable level of sound quality without the issues that it currently faces?
Vanderslice: One day, digital will be it. Analog will just be another oddity, and that’s fine, too. I have no great misgivings about it, but there will always be something to analog. It’s the smell of the tape and all that visceral, physical stuff.
John and his band just got back from tour. When he’s not at Tiny Telephone or playing with his new kittens, he will be playing festivals and recording a new album at Tiny Telephone at the end of the year.
Rumpus original art by Miranda Harter