Sound advice

Tape Op, a magazine about the arcana of recording music, is Popular Science for studio heads

The cover of No. 29. Design by Bruce Licher, of Savage Republic, Scenic and Independent Project fame.

The cover of No. 29. Design by Bruce Licher, of Savage Republic, Scenic and Independent Project fame.

John Baccigaluppi touches a button and the room fills with music. Inside the control room of Monster Lab Audio, producer Eric Broyhill’s new mastering studio in the Alkali Flat warren of offices that recently housed Heckler magazine, Baccigaluppi wants to confirm a hunch that he’s stumbled across something unique.

Her name is Nadelle, and her dusky alto weaves in and out of violin lines, backed by a sparse acoustic guitar; her languid delivery comes across like Maria Muldaur might have sounded just out of her teens.

It was an old story. “She sent me a tape,” he says, confessing to be knocked out enough to bring her up from Oakland to record, with the idea that some independent label might be interested enough to bite. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve heard.”

Baccigaluppi once operated a record label, Mad Rover, out of the Alkali Flat address. He’s located a number of businesses inside the building, the second floor of a warehouse-like structure on a dead-end street—a bike messenger company, a couple of recording studios (one, The Hangar, is still up and running) and two magazines. The first of those, Heckler, is a lifestyle title organized around snowboarding. He and Heckler partner Sonny Mayugba built it up, sold it to a company called Transworld that was then acquired by Times Mirror, the Los Angeles Times publisher that was in turn swallowed by media giant Tribune. A year after Transworld bought Heckler, it sold it back to Baccigaluppi and Mayugba, who ended up unloading it again, to a local company called The Electric Page.

But Baccigaluppi’s true love, commercially speaking, is Tape Op, a magazine started by Portland record producer Larry Crane as a fanzine six years ago, for which Baccigaluppi now serves as publisher—which means that he sells ads, designs the magazine, deals with the printer and pays the bills. “It’s a fascinating time,” he says of the current recording milieu. “It’s really cool, the emergence of this strong underground. What the public sees is the really strong indie music scene, but right underneath that is a really strong indie studio scene.”

That underground originally emerged in the late 1970s when the bigger labels began to consolidate, then nearly got co-opted out of business in the 1990s when major-label consortiums, hungry for market share, signed every marginal college-radio act they could find. But now that the big labels, and the handful of radio chains they service, are in contraction mode and are concentrating on acts that sell a million copies and above, a healthy underground network of independent labels appears to be re-emerging. Jade Tree, a Newark, Delaware-based company Baccigaluppi names as a current favorite (which just released Visitor, the new album by former local resident and Far singer Jonah Matranga’s project, onelinedrawing) is one of the larger examples of those. Most, however, are tiny, artist-owned imprints with limited distribution.

And given the budgets of small labels and the acts that record for them, it would follow that large, expensive recording studios would be supplanted by a number of smaller, more reasonably priced ones. While Tape Op’s editorial mix might appear to be directed at those studios, Baccigaluppi isn’t so sure. “It’s hard to say who we’re targeted toward now,” he says, citing a paid subscriber base of 23,000, which he claims is growing by 1,000 to 1,500 new subscribers every two months.

How Tape Op’s three-person staff—Baccigaluppi in Sacramento, Crane in Portland and an ad rep in Seattle—manage to put a 68-page magazine, which sells for $3.95, out six times a year without excessive strain is a testament to Crane’s organizing abilities. “Literally right now in my computer, I’ve got 30 articles laid out, ready to rock, drop ’em in,” Baccigaluppi says. “Larry’s so fuckin’ on it, and people are so eager to contribute to the mag, because it’s a community thing. Which makes it easier—we’re not scrambling for editorial.

John Baccigaluppi looks like he might be dialing in one of those blunt “African dub” mixes inside the control room at the Hangar.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“Larry and I have a life outside the magazine,” he adds. “We’re both in the studio making records, and I can go surfing all the time, and skate.”

Sure, the current issue of Tape Op (No. 29) is heavy on the tech talk—this is a publication for the kind of people who live inside recording studios. But there’s enough meat here for any music fan with a rudimentary understanding of the recording process: A Q&A with producer Tony Visconti, who just finished a surprisingly relevant David Bowie comeback record called Heathen; another Q&A with Phil Ek, who records Northwest band Built to Spill. There are also Popular Science-style pieces on how to build your own gear, along with reviews of indie records under the rubric “Under the Radar.”

The most entertaining thing in the mag, however, is the reader response section at the front of the book; in #29, a number of engineers and producers weigh in on whether Steely Dan sucks or does not suck, prompted by recurring snarky asides from Crane in earlier issues. Steely Dan is, apparently, an altar before which Tape Op’s competitors uniformly bow down.

“A real big difference between Tape Op and a lot of other recording magazines,” Baccigaluppi says, “is that when you look at a lot of them and the people writing for them and running them, it’s like, can you find any of their names on any record, anywhere? And the answer is, pretty much, no. Whereas with Tape Op, I’ve got this studio here that I’ve had for 12 years and done a bunch of indie records; Larry just did his second record with Sleater-Kinney and worked with Elliott Smith and the Go-Betweens. So you’ve got a magazine that’s run and written by people who are really involved in what they are writing about. It’s not a magazine written by gear sluts—which is the industry term they coined for themselves—who are always salivating over gear.”

It should be pointed out that there are plenty of ads in Tape Op that could give a gear slut a serious woody. But the unifying text seems less directed toward foisting the latest whiz-bang gadgetry at the rubes, and more toward bringing together the various schools of studio recording, from vintage tube-amp gear to hard-disk software programs like Digidesign’s Pro Tools. As Baccigaluppi puts it: “The marriage of newer, better analog shit with the older analog shit, the computer shit, the home recording stuff—it’s really cool.”

A book, Tape Op—The Book About Creative Music Recording, compiled by Crane from the magazine’s articles and organized as a how-to recording guide, was published by Feral House in 2000.

If Tape Op is as much a community as a magazine, as Baccigaluppi asserts, then next weekend it will get a chance to show its strength. The first Tape Op conference, to be held May 31-June 2 at the Crest Theatre, will likely be the first and last in Sacramento; next year it will move to the more centrally located Chicago, arguably the indie-label capital of America.

The conference will kick off with keynote speaker Steve Albini, the veteran musician and studio master from Chicago. Albini may be as well known for his thought-provoking anti-major-label screed “The Problem With Music”—one of the more widely circulated documents on the Internet—as he is for the sides he’s recorded with the Pixies, the Breeders, the Jesus Lizard and Nirvana.

But, as this is a conference for recording professionals, it’ll cost you $400, or $500 if you walk-up register at the Crest, if you want to hang out with the studio-tanned likes of Albini, Baccigaluppi, Crane, Mitch Easter, Joe Chicarelli, Mario Caldato, Oz Fritz, Hillary Johnson, Dave Barbe, Craig Schumacher, Roger Moutenot, Jack Endino, Tony Visconti and a host of others. Locals Eric Stenman of Tinfed, Kevin Seconds and Eric Broyhill will also be on hand, as will musicians J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr fame, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy and more. Most of the conference is structured around panel discussions, with titles like “Making Money Making Records,” “The Future of Recording,” “The Use of Home in Home Recording,” “Recording Production Tricks,” “Mastering in the 21st Century,” What Does It Mean to Be a Producer,” “Digital Backup Strategies” and “Practical Studio Design on a Budget.” Not the stuff of dilettantes.

And, since most of us probably don’t have the kind of scratch lying around where we can buy Caldato a cold one to pump him for anecdotes on the making of Paul’s Boutique, we’ll have to settle for reading about it in a future issue of Tape Op.

But that’s OK. As one of the more interesting products with a local connection, Tape Op is worth checking now and again to keep tabs on a world most of us don’t know exists. Most of us merely know what sounds good. These guys can tell you why.