Warner Bros This week, Tegan and Sara appeared on the holiday episode of…
- Posted on Aug 1st 2012 4:00PM by Aaron Brophy
The Portland, Oregon band put together a (now sold out) limited edition reel-to-reel version of Port of Morrow that included the album on 1/4 inch track tape in a numbered box, arty postcards and an access card to get the songs on mp3, all for $109.99 US.
The whole notion started because Shins band leader James Mercer was looking for a cost effective way to do some analogue recording.
"During the recording of this Nik Freitas (Broken Bells) came into the studio and did some guitar stuff on the record, a bunch of cool guitar stuff, and he was talking about these Akai M8s, which are these terrific reel-to-reel machines you can use," Mercer tells Spinner. "They're tube-based, they're on eBay for $50 and you can use them as pre-amps, as tube pre-amps, a very important part of the recording process and which is usually a very expensive piece of equipment. So we were interested in that and I bought one off eBay for like $80. I plugged it in and it worked fine."
Musicians have used reel-to-reel for non-traditional recording purposes for ages. The cash register loop in Pink Floyd's "Money" was made splicing audio tape and running it through a reel-to-reel. Likewise, the weird effects on Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" were guitars and drums played backwards through a reel-to-reel.
It wasn't the tape player's value as a pre-amp or recording device that captured Mercer's imagination, though. It was the bonus inclusion of some actual reel-to-reel tapes and the related wave of nostalgia that struck him.
"The machine came with some reel-to-reel tapes," Mercer starts. "I had grown up with a reel-to-reel machine as part of our stereo system in our house. My dad he was kind of, y'know if you wanted to get the premium package back then in the '70s and '80s you would be getting a reel-to-reel tape. He did. And one of the good things is that it looks great. It's just cool looking, it looks really pro audio.
"And I was thinking about it and I was like, 'Man, it came with Sgt. Pepper on reel-to-reel, which had little postcards and stuff inside it. I just realized this was what premium packaging used to be, it felt like you were buying something that was from the actual studio where the Beatles had recorded or something. I guess back in the '70s or the '60s reel-to-reel tape was such a big thing, but it was only available in the studio, it's really pro stuff. So I was just thinking, 'we should do this.'"
Mercer deciding to "do this" was a pretty rare thing. After all, reel-to-reel has been a virtually dead format to popular western artists for over 30 years. The reeltoreelindex website, which attempts to catalogue every major album ever released on reel-to-reel, is actually quite a modest list, with only the biggest names of any given time period between 1960-'85 -- Bruce Springsteen, Abba, Bob Dylan, Barry Manilow, etc -- generally being big enough to get album releases in this manner.
Right now there are at least four companies still making reel-to-reel players of various types -- Otari, Denon, Nagra and Stellavox -- but most are being used as specialized tools in film, television or radio industries. Making machines to supply the retro beardo audiophile nostalgist market is decidedly not a priority for these companies.
Still, Mercer figures that as long as someone's still physically making the 1/4 inch tape to potentially create reel-to-reel albums, why not?
"Sony still owns Columbia [The Shin's record label], Sony still makes tape, so we should do this," says Mercer. "It's kind of fun and the thing is that Brian [Burton, Mercer's partner in Broken Bells, also known as Danger Mouse], he has a collection of strange premium packaging things from bands he likes, and one of them was like a Portishead relief that came with like an actual turntable, y'know with a thing that played the record... it's just crazy stuff. And I thought this isn't really about putting out anything that's functional necessarily, it's just about having something special that's a collectors item. So that seemed to justify a release."