Another tape vs. vinyl experiment: in which I enlist the ears of a friend to see if she’s as bowled over as I am by The Band’s ‘Stage Fright’ from The Tape Project

You might be wondering why there hasn’t been a review of anything from The Tape Project here so far, given that they were arguably the first label to start issuing classic albums on tape and should probably be credited with playing a key role in the R2R revival.

Well, it’s not for want of being a fan of their work! I bought 12 of their tapes way back in 2016 all of which are excellent. But clearly I wasn’t the only one to think so and, since nearly all titles rapidly sold out I figured I should wait till they came back in stock to review them, otherwise it might seem a bit mean (“look what I’ve got, it’s brilliant, but you can’t have one”!).

In October I got wind that The Tape Project’s managing director and mastering engineer, Paul Stubblebine, had been running off some new batches and I got very excited… not only did this mean that I could review some of my earlier purchases, but also there were several more tapes that I didn’t manage to get hold of last time around which had gone out of stock, and I’d been keeping a close and coveting eye on them ever since.

The Band

Among them was The Band’s 1970 album Stage Fright. I wasn’t planning to review this one first, but then I mentioned it to a friend who’s a fan of The Band and when she came over for a coffee and a listen, it gave me an idea for an experiment, which then became two experiments…

I already had Stage Fright on vinyl, as well as three other albums from The Band and, of the four, Stage Fright is the one I’ve played the least. Not because it isn’t a great album – it is, it’s really rocking. But there’s something about the sound that I’ve always found a bit ‘dense’.

A bit of a mix-up?

The album was engineered by a then up-and-coming Todd Rundgren and produced by the group themselves for the first time. But who mixed it? Now there’s a question. Thanks to Wikipedia I learn that two different mixes were prepared in London, England, one by Rundgren at Trident Studios and another by Glyn Johns at Island Studios and there seems to be considerable disagreement about which mix was used for which of the album’s various releases! Rundgren then later said he had to engineer a third set of mixes with the band in New York after some members expressed dissatisfaction with both of the earlier mixes. (Later still, when Robbie Robertson produced a new reissue for the album’s 50th anniversary, he supervised a brand new mix with Bob Clearmountain, as he was reportedly unhappy with the original LP mix.)

With a bit more digging I find a very interesting and more detailed article, Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary, on a blog devoted to record collecting. It takes more digging still to find out who’s behind the blog: a chap called Peter Viney, an English Language Teacher, who “has written many articles on The Band, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, as well as album reviews. He is currently working on an encyclopaedic guide to record collecting and British record labels”. ( Vine doesn’t always cite his sources, but the article is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in exploring the history and evolution of the album.

Among other things, Vine writes that “The 1970 vinyl version used three Glyn Johns mixes (The Shape I’m In, All La Glory, The Rumor). All the other mixes were by Todd Rundgren.” And then, “Three tracks exist in different mixes on later vinyl copies,” and also “The CDs are different mixes to the earlier vinyl copies.” There’s also some revealing extracts and quotes about the relationships between The Band’s members, as well as with Todd Rundgren and Glyn Johns, at the time, all of which sounds pretty messy (not least since different articles and interviews seem to contradict each other in places). I guess that’s showbiz for you.

Anyway, all of this left me wondering what exactly was the issue with the sound I was hearing here on my 1970 UK original vinyl pressing ( and would it be resolvable by a change of format to tape or not? Time for a tape versus vinyl listening session…

Two experiments in one: vinyl versus tape, and a ‘non-audiophile’ ear

At the same time, I was curious to know whether, if I did hear a major difference, it would equally be heard by my friend. She’s a music lover, goes to lots of live music events (or did, before the pandemic), loves The Band and knows their music well, but would never describe herself as audiophile. (Frankly, she despairs of how much of my living room is taken over by hi-fi kit!).

So, the two of us sat down together on a grey winter afternoon to flick between the vinyl album and the tape and see what transpired.

On vinyl: “Not the easiest album to listen to”

We kicked off with track 1 on vinyl, the funky ‘Strawberry Wine’, with Levon Helm on vocals. Within minutes my friend was having a similar experience to the one I’d been having with the vinyl version. “It feels like there’s too much information,” she said. “It seems a bit jumbled, like there’s lots of sounds – different vocals and instruments – vying for my attention. Somehow they don’t seem to hang together.” She looked slightly confused. “I don’t understand it, The Band are always so tight. I wonder if it’s my post-pandemic brain fog, sometimes I find I can’t process things in the same way lately…”

I agreed (about the sound, not her brain fog). I’ve always felt that this isn’t the easiest album to listen to. The sound seems quite ‘thick’. There’s little sense of space or background silence, which is possibly why my friend was getting an impression of ‘too much information’. Also, some reviewers at the time felt that the album lacked cohesion, but I was never quite sure how much of that was down to the music versus the recording.  I mean, there’s a lot going on in The Band’s music, here you have five guys who pretty much equal each other in terms of musicianship and their compositional talents, so they’re constantly playing off each other, inventing, experimenting, riffing. Normally it’s electrifying, but for some reason, as my friend said, it just wasn’t hanging together here.

Track 2, ‘Sleeping’ fronted by Richard Manuel sounded better, as its nostalgic and reflective tone is slower, more emotive and more musically sparse and so there’s more room here, so we began to wonder if perhaps we’d been a bit hasty. But then as the opening guitar rhythms and vocal harmonies of track 3, ‘Time to Kill’, kicked in, we were back to the feeling of something missing. Now, the sound seemed a bit thin. To me, there was too little information rather than too much. I could hear the guitars holding the rhythm and the vocal harmonies, but to pick up anything else I had to really listen hard.

So at that point, we switched to tape.

“Once you hear it on tape, you can’t go back”

Honestly, it was like we were listening to a whole different album. I know I spend my time here waxing lyrical about the joys of tape but here’s the thing: my friend, who’s not much bothered about the format of recorded music, was in total agreement. “It’s weird,” she said, “all of a sudden it’s like there’s way more information, not less, but it doesn’t argue with itself any more, it hangs together, it sounds right – it’s The Band!”

She’s spot on, there really is way more information. As we flick back and forth between tape and vinyl to check our impressions, it becomes very clear that in the vinyl version, the bass guitar and drums tend to dominate and a huge amount of the noodling, the riffing, the detail, the richness, is all but lost. On vinyl, I have to really listen for that detail, almost to the point of straining which can get quite fatiguing. But on tape it’s just there in all of its multi-coloured splendour.

“You can’t sacrifice that detail,” says my friend, “that’s what The Band do, it’s who they are, it’s essential to their sound.” As we continue to listen, she gets more and more drawn in. “There’s a lot more going on in the midrange,” she says as we listen to ‘Time to Kill’ on tape again, “that’s where I’m hearing so much more detail.”

Side 2 opens with ‘The Shape I’m In’, which my friend has heard “a million times” and adores. “I can’t believe how much space there is in the track,” she says of the tape version. Initially she’s not sure if she likes it that way, having got so used to other versions. “There’s almost too much space for my taste,” she says, “I’ve lost the sense of being in some smoky underground dive bar, it feels too airy and clean-living!” But I disagree. To me it’s much more rhythmic as I can hear every instrument’s contribution to that iconic rhythm, rather than it being led and dominated by guitar and drums. We listen a couple more times and then flick back to the vinyl version. “Oh yeah,” she says. “I see what you mean. Once you hear it on tape, you can’t go back, can you… it’s like going from a duo in a dive bar to a full orchestra out in the open”.

“I can see them in the room!”

“Now I get why tape fans can get so evangelical,” says my friend. “Each time we switch back to the vinyl, it sounds flatter, thinner, fuzzier, like a radio with a dodgy signal in comparison to the tape.” I point out that she’s listening to the vinyl on a system that ranks among the best available and she rolls her eyes. “I hate to imagine how it’s going to sound to me when I get home and stream it on Spotify!” she laughs.

After a while we stop the comparative listening and just sit back and enjoy the tape, getting off on all the musical details and layers, and the sheer funkiness of this album (how can something be so complex and richly layered, and yet feel so smooth and effortless to listen to all of a sudden – music never ceases to amaze me!).

And then at one point, my friend says, “I can see them! I can see them in the room. It’s so 3D! Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko are up front on vocals, guitars singing and feet tapping. I can see the dynamics between all five of them, the way they’ll constantly look at each other and spark off each other, the mischievous grins they flash each other, sometimes playful, sometimes more provocative, and other times just enjoying the heck out of themselves and the music.”

This is a studio album, not a live one, and I don’t know whether the recording was made with The Band playing all together in the room, but I know what she means, this suddenly sounds far more like a live event than a studio session. It feels like being up-front at a gig, right in front of the stage. The sound is big and the energy of the band is in-your-face present.

“I can feel it in my body”

I’ll admit that I’m feeling kinda smug now, since my friend often raises her eyebrows at me when I say that an album sounds live. “No,” she sometimes says, “live isn’t a sound, it’s a feeling, a whole body and mind experience. You have to be there.”

And yet here she is, saying “I can feel it in my body. Like, that piano, it’s somewhere here in my ribs.” I think that’s what struck her most of all, how much more she can feel and experience while listening to the album on tape.

As for me, a confession: part-way through side 2 I actually shed a couple of tears. I’m serious! Why? Because I feel like I’m a part of something. The fact of being able to hear every beat, every detail, every tiny little nuanced note that’s played somewhere at the back, it makes me feel like I’m party to an improvisation, a process of live, in-the-moment composition. Like I was ‘with the band’. And I know that might sound a bit daft, but here’s the thing: after two years of a vastly reduced life amid this damn pandemic, to feel like you’re part of something ‘real’ unfolding ‘in the moment’ is a very special feeling indeed.

Anyway, I’m going to leave you with my friend’s words rather than mine… “I’ve always said that if somebody offered me one shot at time travel, I’d either go back to Woodstock or I’d go to The Band’s final gig, The Last Waltz. I’ve seen the film of the gig loads of times, most memorably at the British Film Institute in London with really good, big sound. But this is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing how it would actually feel to be in a room with them. It’s like they’re here. I can feel their presence, their personalities. I can feel their humour. I can feel the camaraderie between them, and also the jockeying. It’s like they’re right in front of me, like I could look up and try to catch Robbie’s or Rick’s eye.”

Steady now…! Actually on second thoughts I’m going to have the last word, if only to say that of the four albums by The Band that I own, Stage Fright will now go from being the least played to the most. If you’re a fan of The Band, I’d get a copy on tape now if I were you, as it’s in danger of going right back out of stock. Here’s where you need to go to get one: (if you’re too late, be sure to hit the ‘Join Waitlist’ button to flag your interest).

By way of a P.S… The Tape Project’s Paul Stubblebine is a very busy man and so, when I asked him about what’s coming next, he was loathe to say too much as he’d “hate to make any promises I can’t keep.” Fair enough, Paul. But he did say we could have a chat in early 2022, which I’m very much looking forward to.

In the meantime I’ve got my eye on Nat King Cole Nat King Cole sings/George Shearing plays and I’ve hit the ‘Join Waitlist’ button for Jerry Garcia and David Grisman and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Fingers crossed!