Tape op

Tape Op

Assistant engineers, sometimes called second engineers or 'tape ops', traditionally learnt the ropes in the studio by starting and stopping the tape machine whilst observing the first engineer at the recording console. They listened more than they asked questions.

Although operating a tape machine sounds simple enough, tape ops were often put under pressure. Peter Mew, a mastering engineer I interviewed at Abbey Road Studios in 2013 before his retirement, described how classical producers would ask him to 'go back four bars' during playback sessions even though bar numbers weren't marked on the tape itself. The task was one of translation, working out how far to rewind according to the tape speed and tempo of the performance. 

It wasn't just classical playbacks where these sorts of requests were made. There is alarming footage of the studio sessions for John Lennon's song "Oh Yoko!", held in the summer of 1971, which shows Lennon berating engineer Philip McDonald for repeatedly dropping him into the wrong part of the song. Phil Spector remains quiet as he sings backing vocals alongside Lennon but the tension is palpable. Weathering the tantrums of artists is just one of the occupational hazards of the recording studio.

Buena Vista Social Club

Though Ry Cooder's work with the Buena Vista Social Club has received criticism from some quarters, there is no denying the recordings he produced in the late-'90s and early-00's were beautifully crafted. The band was effectively a collective of current and retired Cuban musicians, most of whom have now passed away, who alternated with each other depending on the style, genre and requirements of each track.

The studio was EGREM, a dilapidated yet well-equipped facility in the heart of Havana. Cooder's engineer was Jerry Boys, an EMI stalwart who cut his teeth at Abbey Road in the mid-1960s. Tantalising glimpses of footage from the sessions can be seen in the Wim Wenders film Buena Vista Social Club, which shows a fantastically tuned live room being used to its full acoustic potential by the band. Classic German microphones by Neumann and Sennheiser are placed close, but not too close, to each instrument and voice. Boys dispenses with headphones and isolation booths. These are musicians who spent decades recording local radio hits and know how to perform into a microphone without artificial aids.

The overall sound is blended, mostly by the bleed between microphones and performers, and what I find most impressive is the sumptuously full bandwidth achieved by purely acoustic instruments. From the warmest lows of the double bass up through the honky mids of the decrepit piano, so touchingly played by the late Rubén González, and the haunting Spanish voices, to the highs of the laser-like trumpets and an incredibly satisfying percussion section, tracks like "Chan Chan" and the self-titled "Buena Vista Social Club" are a tribute to old-fashioned recording methods standing up for themselves in a digital age.

The icing on the cake is the use of a Studer reel-to-reel tape machine, which softens the record's transients like butter. However, this medium was chosen not because of some retro fetish but simply because the studio only had tape to hand. Boys, who worked in his teens as a tape op on sessions by Yehudi Menuhin, Manfred Mann and The Beatles, was the perfect candidate for the job.