One of the phrases I use most often when reviewing tapes is, I’m afraid, a rather hackneyed one: “it’s almost like being there” (or some variation on that theme). I make no apology for it, because this (for me) is without doubt the most soul-stirring aspect of tape as a format for enjoying recorded music – the fact that you’re not just listening, you’re experiencing, with multiple senses. There’s a sense of direct presence and involvement, in contrast to the sense of distance and passivity that comes with many other media.
So, when I was recently alerted to a new venture called straight2tape and their ‘Attended Analog recording Sessions’ concept, I was thrilled to discover something that’s seeking to take the notion of presence and involvement to a whole new level.
Based in Switzerland, straight2tape is the brainchild of Ralph Zünd of boutique analogue recording label 2INCH-RECORDS. Ralph spent 20+ years as a touring live sound engineer working in clubs and festivals, while also building his own all-analogue recording studio – which might sound like a dream career to many of us, but Ralph hit a point when he could no longer see a way forward.
“The music industry has changed so much in recent years,” he explains. “Recorded music is now instantly available, anywhere, and at ridiculously low cost. This has an impact on the perceived value of recorded music, which in turn of course effects the livelihoods of everyone involved in creating it – from the artists themselves to everyone in the chain of production and distribution. Being in the production business, I found myself in a situation where it became increasingly difficult to justify the costs of creating an album in the traditional way.”
“To be completely honest, I hit a real crisis point and seriously considered giving up and selling everything – my studio, all of the equipment – and doing something totally different in another (easier!) industry.”
“But then it occurred to me that it would be crazy to throw away two decades of experience and know-how, an amazing space, a raft of superb quality kit – and a job that many people would kill for! So, how could I make it work – for me and my team, for the artists I work with, and for music lovers…”
Pioneering a whole new concept
Fortunately, Ralph came up with an answer, and straight2tape was born.
straight2tape actively seeks musicians and bands who have an existing fan base on vinyl, and who are talented and seasoned performers. A recording session is arranged, and fans are invited to participate – really participate – so, not simply attending, in an ‘audience at a gig’ format, but getting right in there, in the studio, sitting beside the musicians, hearing exactly what the musicians are hearing through their headphones, being part of the recording session – an insider experience. The resulting session recordings then become available a few months after the session, on limited edition vinyl and on custom-made master tape.
“Our goal is to break through the boundaries and to unite musicians with music lovers,” says Ralph.
I have to say, it’s a goal I wholeheartedly applaud. In fact, I’ll give it a standing ovation. The whole notion of separating ‘artist’ and ‘audience’ is so endemic in our culture that we take it for granted and mostly don’t even notice it. And yet, in music perhaps more than anywhere, a great experience is dependent on everyone involved. You can go to the most amazing performance in the world and have a mediocre time if the vibe of the audience isn’t on form, or the venue isn’t right, or whatever. Here, Ralph is bringing everyone together to share, to co-create, an in-the-moment experience. Yes, some of those people are ‘artists’ and some are ‘audience’, but everyone’s involved in creating the moment, nobody’s a passive recipient. The more I think about it, the more brilliant it is. And I think it’s needed, in a world where we’ve become more and more separated from each other by everything online, virtual and commercial. What we have here is a collaborative, live experience like no other. It’s also a very positive solution to a problem that almost saw Ralph quitting the industry forever!
“This way, everyone benefits,” says Ralph. “Every single contributor to the process has an active and enriching experience. And nobody’s making an easy buck while everyone else has to show up almost for free!”
Taking it further still
And there’s more… straight2tape now offers 3 versions of its unique proposition.
First there are the original Studio Sessions, as outlined above. Then there are Road Sessions, where Ralph and his team pack up theentire analogue studio such that the whole thing becomes mobile and can be set up anywhere – “in breath-taking locations”, says Ralph. “Industrial buildings, castles and aircraft hangars are all possible”. Importantly, all sessions are still performed, recorded and mixed (on a Midas XL4 console) in real-time, 100% analogue, and all recorded to ¼-inch tape. “After the last note is played, a song is finished and can be neither edited nor modified later.”
Finally, there are also Private Sessions: a fully customisable, on-demand option in which the sky (or, more likely, your budget) is the limit.
Here’s Ralph with a great peek behind the scenes and talking more about how straight2tape came into being. He also takes us on the journey of his team’s first Road Session – it’s well worth a watch – the sheer scale and boldness of the project is quite something, and the enthusiasm of the various crew, musicians and audience members who are interviewed is pretty infectious!
You can be sure I’ll be signing up to the website to get the heads-up on future events and recordings – the thought of actually ‘being there’ is extremely enticing for sure. In the meantime, I quizzed Ralph with a few questions.
How do you find your musicians?
Often they find us. Or else we go to concerts and if we’re convinced and taken by what we see and hear, we contact the musicians directly after the gig. Usually, they find the project very appealing after a short explanation. Also, YouTube is a rich source. If we find some great act there, we try to contact them via Facebook Messenger or something like that, because we want to get in touch with them – the artists – directly. As soon as the musicians understand what it’s all about, they tend to become rather enthusiastic and they absolutely want to do it. By this point, their management usually thinks it’s great too.
What are your criteria for working with an act?
This may sound a bit strange, but after making sure that the craftsmanship is spot on, there comes the interpersonal stuff. straight2tape exclusively works in cooperation – so egomania has no place here and would most definitely fail! The musicians that this recording concept appeals to have spent hours and hours on their instruments, have perfected their skills and are able to express their emotions musically. That’s why they get involved in such an adventure with great pleasure, and they love the idea of ‘directly from the musician to the music lover’.
What’s the format and audience capacity for the studio events?
We usually arrange the sessions on Sundays and there are three studio sessions in a row. There’s room for 60 visitors for each session along with the band and the tech crew in the studio. It’s a bit cramped and so it tends to become very hot inside, but the up-close-and-personal atmosphere is priceless. Each guest has their own set of headphones and individually adjustable volume, which is much appreciated! And you’re always sitting comfortably in the front row. You can book your seat online and choose which musician you want to immediately sit next to. The band plays side A, then there’s a short break. That’s when you can change your seat if you want to – and then you’re ready to enjoy side B next to another musician in another room. The adrenaline is very high for everyone involved, finally the tape is rolling, and the recording is on!
This concept allows 180 music lovers to be part of the production and to experience something truly unforgettable. While the abovementioned 60 guests are in the studio attending the session, there’s another 120 guests waiting next door at the studio bar or at a number of booths where manufacturers and suppliers present the latest audio ‘toys’ (turntables, in-ear monitoring, speakers, tape reels etc). Of course, there’s catering serving a variety of simple but local delicacies for the physical well-being too.
What determines whether you do a session in the studio or take it ‘on the road’ to a specific location?
This really depends on the artist or the band. The location should fit the sound perfectly. A rock band could play in an airplane hangar, or a jazz combo might want to perform in an old watch factory. It’s important to us that the location really does speak the same language as the music.
Do you focus on any specific musical genres?
Above all, we like to make solid, handmade music without frills and without computer gimmicks. Blues, rock, jazz, or an interesting mixture like progressive metal or blues-rock – we’re open to everything. The main focus should be fun and emotions.
How do people hear about these events and buy tickets?
A small but strong and dedicated fan community has been emerging over the past 5 years. Those who sign up for the newsletter (on our website) receive the latest information 2-3 times a year, right before it appears on our social media platforms. We don’t much like the fast moving online platforms – others do it better – nevertheless, we use the worldwide visibility of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
What’s the approximate price of tickets?
We want to make our ticket prices as fair as we can. It should be possible for everyone to experience top-class music up-close, so we keep the ticket prices moderate thanks to sponsors from the music industry. For a still unknown (but very talented!) band, a ticket costs around CHF 65 (around £57/$69). For a nationally known band around CHF 80 (£70/$85) and for international acts maybe around CHF 120 (£105/$127).
For each Sunday session, the area opens around 2pm, the barbecue is hot and the beer is cold… and direct conversations between musicians and music lovers take their course. As soon as your session starts, you’re called in so you don’t miss the show. These are really relaxed Sundays – not to be compared with a big concert.
In addition to all of the sessions on master tape and vinyl, we now also offer gift vouchers in our online shop – so you can share the joy with your friends.
I noticed that your website emphasises that the tapes you sell are original master tapes, not copy masters. Can you explain what you mean by this – how exactly are they made?
Usually, we fill about 20 x 1/4″ tapes by recording runs and rehearsals only. During the recordings, we agree on a rating of 1 – 5, which allows the musicians, the guests and yours truly to classify the track immediately after the respective take. In that way, we’re all still in the right mood and we won’t have to listen to everything again afterwards to judge and classify the track. Only the best versions make it – but the ‘best’ are not always the most perfect. We focus on the ones that felt the best while playing. Recording and mixing in one go! These session tapes (comparable to a multitrack tape from a 24-track session) are then edited together by hand and played back for high quality (and fully analog) mastering.
The final master is recorded on a Studer A80-R, Studer C37 or Studer A810 (depending on the music and sound direction). So this is the tape that contains the most information – it’s the master tape. This is the one that will go to the pressing plant for the vinyl issues. When a customer orders a master tape from us, we take the edited session tape and repeat this entire process as meticulously and exactly as possible. This is of course an insane amount of work, but this way every single customer gets a real master tape.
What are your plans and hopes for straight2tape over the next few years?
Personally, I hope that the world will recover and that music will contribute significantly to this. I think good music can heal and it will, if we let it, in a very natural way. We have just got the concept for the two new session formats “The Road Sessions” and “The Private Sessions” up and running and are in the final wiring of the mobile set-up. Some preliminary talks regarding upcoming Road Sessions are just getting underway… which of course brings substantial negotiations with sponsors! The music format of straight2tape is capable of so many beautiful things, we’re incredibly excited about where the ride will take us with this journey…
If you want to get aboard, head over to www.straight2tape.com and sign up to the newsletter. It’s an excellent website full of information, as well as (of course) a catalogue of the recordings currently available, which you can order direct online.
You can also check out some session trailers and longer recordings on straight2tape’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/Condecta/videos
Image credits: www.straight2tape.com