Making Low Down, Dirty Dub With The Almighty Cassette Tape: Q&A With Tapes

Making Low Down, Dirty Dub With The Almighty Cassette Tape: Q&A With Tapes

If you were born after 1990, you might not understand, but anyone who was raised with cassette tapes and doesn’t hold them close to their heart doesn’t have one. Considering the fragility of CDs and the general impracticality of vinyl, tapes were really the last hardy, portable physical format, and the fact that you could record anything you wanted on any tape made the interaction all the more personal. And beyond even all that, tapes just sound a certain way. Records and CDs begin to skip after overuse. Tapes just sound more and more distorted and awesome.

Jackson Bailey is a musician who never quite left the tape format. Under the moniker Tapes, Bailey creates minimal, lo-fi dub tracks that hearken not only the oft fuzzy format, but also classic synthesizers of past eras. When performing live, he DJs using two cassette decks and a few effects pedals, chained together in a wiry mess reminiscent of simpler times—no screens, no displays. His new single “Dungeness” an instrumental dancehall track with so much throwback charm the 7" is positively dripping the stuff. But wait, why would a guy called Tapes release his stuff on vinyl? We thought we’d ask him, and find out a bit about his production process and performance while we’re at it.

How did you get started with tape production?
When I was four my parents bought me a secondhand Japanese robot that couldn’t do much else but play back recordable messages via the cassette machine embedded in its chest. It died and later I discovered other machines. Dad never let me touch his vinyl stash so I grew up toying with tapes. Thought they were rubbish then… They still are but that’s part of their charm. Got a four track in my teens and the rest is history.

Did you move on to other modes of production and then go back, or have you stuck with tapes throughout?
Not really. I’ve dabbled in DSP and low level programming but never utilized it in any of my releases. I put serious computing to death a few years ago yet still use the odd tracker or stolen soft synth if needed. It’s hard for me to describe why I’ve stuck with cassettes throughout. There’s been times when I’ve felt creatively exhausted and thought, “Maybe it’s time I took another whack at this computer stuff,” but always ended up back in front of a tape deck, grinning. I love the character of cassette tape, how the recording’s personality changes from bias to bias, the machines, their history, even after sound washes out over the heads, there’s still some fragment of a tale only that deck can tell.

Video for "Oberheimer, B-side of “Dungeness”

Could you take us through your studio process for a track? Is it always tape, or are their digital phases in the process?
There’s no one way of doing things. I’ll sit down with a synth, drum machine, or processor, perhaps with an aim or outlook, slide a tape in the multi-track, press record and starting playing. Drums, bass, skank, pads, then smudge it all out. Punch in here, punch out there. Ping and pong. Invert and degrade. I may splice or later edit digitally, or not. Erase or overdub. I rewind, eject, label, and catalog. You could say I’m very hands on. Overall the aim is to capture these processes as a performance. To transcribe physical interaction into electrical energy, and physically present that energy as music.

Cassette tapes have seen a resurgence as a release format in the past few years. Do you think there’s a chance that they’ll ever come back in full force?
To be honest, I can’t see that happening in our current society. Music is now largely listened to and distributed digitally and global stocks of tape are running scarily low. One could imagine some big pop twat’s lame marketing team putting out a cassette edition of their new hit because tapes are retro and vintage sells, but the reality is it would flop in the wider market with the exclusion of prisons, where it would boom as its plastic shells would be melted down into shanks and its reels unwound for floss. Don’t get me wrong, I’d welcome a resurgence with open arms, but right now the future of tape is looking pretty grim.

Tapes live setup

How exactly do you DJ with tapes? What sort of equipment do you use? Do you pitch and blend?
My live setup is based on the same principals as you would find behind most DJ booths in your local venue. There are two tape decks, both have had their front fascias removed so you can always see what you’re playing but also slow—>stop the tune by applying pressure to the left capstan (like pressing stop on a 1210). The two decks run into a chain of processors such as EQ, Filtering, Delay and Reverb. This offers similar functionality as a normal DJ mixer, though the gain stages are better suited to dealing with volatility of 1/8" tape. My tracks are printed on mono C10 Cr02 cassette from home, so unlike vinyl DJs who want to play out their own cuts, I don’t have to wait days for dubplates to turn up in the post… and tape decks rarely, if ever, have grounding/feedback issues.

Why release these two tracks on vinyl and not on tape?
Because I can’t find a plant that can duplicate chrome cassettes and I don’t want my music released on standard bias cassette.

The tracks on this 7" display your affinity for the Oberheim OB-Xa. Any other classic machines that you love and care to mention?
I acquired a Synton Syrinx last year which is an amazing instrument. In June, I plan to start compiling a large body of work which this synth will feature heavily in. The only other influential machines I care to mention are those I have yet to hear in the flesh. Would you buy an all Buchla synth psychedelic dancehall record? I certainly would.

“Dungeness” is out now on Astro:Dynamics.