Tape Op Magazine
Larry Crane, Editor
Reviewed by Jonathan Sterne
Thursday, May 4 2000, 1:07 PM
Tape Op was started in 1996 by former Vomit Launch bassist Larry Crane, a highly regarded studio engineer in Portland, Oregon who now runs Jackpot! Recording Studios. It bills itself as a magazine about "creative music recording" and each issue comes packed with interviews, home recording ideas and reviews of recordings made by readers. Beginning its life as a hand-stapled 'zine in the punk rock, Do-It-Yourself tradition, Tape Op has evolved into a full-length, semi-monthly magazine -- glossy cover and all. In order to pull it off, they've taken on advertising, but at least to this reader, the ads haven't had a noticeable impact on Tape Op's mission.
To understand the beauty of Tape Op, you're got to take a look at the landscape of recording magazines available today. If you open the pages of Electronic Musician, Recording Magazine, EQ Magazine, Home Recording, and Mix magazines, you'll find all sorts of discussions of recording techniques and gear. The difference is that these magazines help cultivate the lust for the latest, greatest recording equipment. In an age of digital technology, recordists run the cycle of planned obsolescence at blinding speed. Digital recording has made incredibly powerful and good sounding recording devices like Pro Tools systems and Minidisc eight track recorders within the reach of the home hobbyist (though of course you've got to learn how to use them in order to make a recording that sounds good). At the same time, digital audio recording devices go through the same product cycles as computers -- and if you're reading this you probably know plenty about the planned obsolescence of computers. In other words, perfectly functional audio recording devices become "obsolete" very quickly. Each year new equipment and software is invented, upgraded, developed, and promoted as an absolutely essential replacement for whatever you already have.
Though some of the writers for these big-league magazines will lament the commodity mania that's running rampant in the industry, mainstream recording magazines promote a lust for new audio equipment simply by covering it so heavily. Each major recording industry meeting is covered in great detail, and each issue highlights announcements of new products at the beginning of the magazine (some these products being announced 6 months or more in advance of their actual release date.) I feel it every time I open the pages of one of these major magazines, and I'm far beyond a rank amateur at recording.
Of course Tape Op also features plenty of talk about gear. Any good engineer will tell you that microphones, mixers, and signal processors are as variable as musical instruments. But most of their pages discuss making the best of what you've got, and that's what makes Tape Op so fresh. In fact, this is Crane's motto, and as he is getting more attention for Tape Op, Crane is bringing this message to a larger audience. Tape Op takes cheap cassette-based recorders as seriously as the latest computer-based technology. They have articles on how to find and modify inexpensive microphones, places to find stuff that other people may have thrown out, and how to modify the equipment you already own. Tape Op also interviews artists who have made careers out of recording in their bedrooms.
Tape Op's interview format is particularly important to its success: recording is discussed as a lived experience. Even interviewees who are obsessed with the gear in their studios talk about it in the context of how it's used, how they've recorded this or that, how they got their start in audio engineering. They talk about their likes and dislikes, their approaches to music, how they relate to the people they're recording, and their favorite tricks. Personal favorites include a story about the time the highly fetishized punk producer Steve Albini left the bathroom without wiping his ass during a Man-Or-Astroman recording session (in fact the whole article is great;) a recounting of selected musicians' recording studio nightmares; a 70-year old woman running a rural recording studio, and -- in this month's issue -- a tale of a relatively uneventful recording session for Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland.
Tape Op is also refreshing because it's not a promotion vehicle for major label recordings and million dollar studios. Since Tape Op is an independent 'zine, independent music gets a good deal of coverage. Now that Tape Op is a little bigger, they are able to pull in more big-name interviews. But Tape Op does it's part in promoting independent music: the bias of the 'zine is clearly toward indie rock and punk, but there are plenty of forays into other genres.
The magazine is great to read, but it's also inspiring to get accounts of real people making real music. Part of the problem with nearly every major recording magazine is that they always assume everyone wants the same thing: major label success and high-falutin' production values. For instance, writers for Recording Magazine regularly compare their readers' tapes to major label recordings. Tape Op begins with a love for recording and an enthusiasm for music. Everything develops from there. So while Recording magazine runs a feature on how to expand your studio business by being a better salesperson, the latest Tape Op has a recipe for making an "incredibly good sounding" $20 microphone.
I'm warming up my soldering pencil.
For more information, check out the Tape Op web site