Back to Basics: Denton Bands on Tape and Vinyl

It's no great secret that vinyl has made a huge comeback. In a 2015 piece for Newsweek, Lee Barron shared some compelling hard data: “In an era in which even digital album sales have fallen, vinyl has bucked the trend. In 2014, record sales grew by more than 50% to hit more than a million, the highest since 1996,” he writes.

The lowly cassette tape has enjoyed renewed popularity, too. Jason Evangelho’s article on Forbes, published in March of this year, provided some impressive stats as well: “In 2014 National Audio Company, one of the largest and busiest cassette manufacturers in the US, produced more than 10 million tapes. In 2015 their duplicated cassette sales increased 31% over 2014. So far in 2016, according to a company spokesperson, they’re well ahead of 2015.”

It’s tempting to simply chalk these numbers up to the usual suspects (hipsters, fashion, humankind’s enduring need to practice nostalgia, what have you.) But to do so would be to dismiss several other possibilities, including what musicians and sound engineers have to say on the matter. And if you’ve visited Mad World Records or Recycled Books recently, it’s clear that Denton artists and listeners are embracing the trend—whether it’s a fad or a paradigm shift.

Denton band Particular People is one group among many that have released an album on vinyl. Members Will Sherrod and Charlie Beaman cite several factors that convinced them to choose vinyl over the alternatives. “The sequencing is more exciting. You get two lead tracks and two closers,” they explain. Additionally, there are added benefits for the album artist: “Having a large physical copy is also nice. The artwork you get to choose…is more prominent since it’s a larger canvas.” This certainly makes sense. Why spend $15 or $20 on a CD when you could spend a few dollars more for something sizable?

Lots of Denton bands have released cassettes, including Bad Beats and Pearl Earl. Brack Cantrell of Dojo Baby Records (who is also the bassist for Bad Beats) assisted Pearl Earl with the tape for their first record. “We found the right place to do the tapes for them for the right price,” he says—a company based in Canada, to be exact. One of the reasons Bad Beats chose to make a tape was the band's desire for a specific effect. “The album Tough Luck was recorded live in the living room, but then we dumped everything to tape to give it some saturation. Some more color,” Cantrell says. “Then we put it back in the computer.”

Israel Nash bassist Aaron McClellan has experience dealing with both mediums; in fact, the band’s process involves the use of one in order to produce the other. “What we’ve done with [Israel Nash] is recorded to tape, directly, and then mixed and mastered. We send it directly to vinyl. Then that’s reproduced,” he explains. This allows for a nuanced sound that can’t be gotten any other way. “The idea is that an analog sound is very specific and very warm-sounding. People know that sound and generations have always known it, and they can tell the difference when they hear something recorded digitally,” McClellan says. “For that reason it can be very nostalgic, because you want to hear that warm sound that you were raised hearing.”

But from McClellan’s perspective, nostalgia isn’t the end-goal of tape and vinyl. It’s a side effect. “The nostalgia is secondary…it’s considered an art form to be able to record to tape and have an analog recording,” he tells us. “It’s very meticulous and you have to have someone who really knows what they’re doing, who can literally touch tape and cut it and splice it. It’s a really difficult process.” To be sure, the application of any specialized skill results in heightened value—but there’s also, again, the physical aspect. Just by virtue of existing in three-dimensional space, a product that can be seen and felt may be far more appealing than one that exists only in digital space. Cantrell echoes this sentiment. “You can spend all this money on analog hardware that sounds fucking amazing. You can also use digital plugins…but at the same time you hesitate to spend as much money on a plugin as you would on a solid piece of gear,” he points out.

For Sherrod and Beaman, the choice to go to vinyl was actually a very practical one. As they told us, “Bands like to sell hard copies of their work. The CD has been falling out, so vinyl seems like the right move.” But one has to consider whether the analog revival has an expiration date. After all, most bands (Particular People included) still include digital download codes when they sell records and tapes. For Cantrell, allowing tape and vinyl to coexist with digital albums and CDs is non-negotiable. “It has to be both [digital and analog.] You can’t just put out a tape—I mean, you can, but you’re limiting your audience,” he says. And from another, very different practical standpoint, getting an actual record made is incredibly time-consuming. “They're so popular right now, it’s really hard to get anything pressed to vinyl. All the plants are backed up,” Cantrell notes.

Digital media is obviously a necessity. Cantrell, although he has been involved with multiple tape and vinyl projects, admits that he doesn’t have as much time to spend with physical media as he’d like. Like most people, much of his music is on the go out of pure necessity (it’s not exactly practical to lug a turntable or boom box around in your car.) That’s what makes listening to a record special to him. “It’s something to savor, that physical thing. You can pore over it,” Cantrell tells us. “You can absorb it way more as a whole package…whereas online, you can jump from Bandcamp to Bandcamp and fast-forward through the songs. It almost loses a bit of its meaning and charm.” The argument could be made that listeners lose an album's context this way too.

McClellan has sensed this as well. “A lot of people are very passionate about physically holding an album and then listening to it from front to back,” he says. This is one of the reasons Israel Nash uses such a complex recording process: the band’s goal is for their live shows to mirror the feeling of hearing one of their records. Since it’s tough to jump from song to song on a record, most people take vinyl albums in as linear works—“Just like people did years ago,” he says. “And then we go out live on tour and play it front to back. So that’s how they hear it live…the idea is to replicate that exact experience.”

Maybe the tape and vinyl revival is indeed a fad. After all, every piece of outmoded technology eventually falls by the wayside—there’s a good reason why you don’t see many functioning gramophones in American living rooms these days. But all cynicism aside, there’s just something neat about analog media. Unlike the svelte, iridescent CD and the totally intangible MP3 file, you can look at a record or tape and know that what you’re seeing is an object whose 3D physical features actually create sound in real time. The grooves in a vinyl record’s wax are responsible for the sound that comes through a receiver; the magnetic coating on a cassette’s ribbon is detected by the tape player in order to produce noise. And when you consume art using a physical medium, you’re given the opportunity to develop physical relationships with said art—as Sherrod and Beaman point out, “It’s a more intimate listen. You gotta be around to flip that record.”

Header image design by Jason Lee