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Long Live Analog? Yes!

By Christopher Walsh. Not too long ago, I took the L train into Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood to visit Daptone Records. Home to Sharon Jones, house band the Dap Kings, the Sugarman 3 and several others, Daptone recalls another era in many

By Christopher Walsh.

Not too long ago I took the L train into Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood to visit Daptone Records. Home to Sharon Jones, house band the Dap-Kings, the Sugarman 3 and several others, Daptone recalls another era in many ways: a small, independent label complete with recording studio, running more on passion and dedication than big-money marketing hype or telegenic teen (or tween) idols.

I had learned of Daptone, the Dap-Kings and label co-founder/Dap-Kings bassist Gabriel Roth a couple years ago, when soul singer Jones’s career began to take flight, after many years in relative obscurity. This funk/soul outfit gained greater notoriety for its work on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. Most recently, they’ve been in the news for an upcoming collaboration with Rod Stewart on the next installment of his successful Great American Songbook series.

Unfortunately, this time Daptone was in the news due to a burglary that occurred over the President’s Day weekend. Items stolen from the studio and label offices include a Purple Audio “lunchbox” with four Purple Audio Biz mic preamps; a pair of Yamaha NS-10 monitors; several condenser and dynamic microphones; a desktop computer, laptop computer and external hard drive; a Sony CD recorder/player; Technics and ION turntables; headphones; and several instruments and amplifiers. At the time of the burglary, Daptone did not have insurance.

Fortunately, Daptone has enjoyed an outpouring of support from equipment manufacturers, fans and friends. Many individuals, says Roth, have lent equipment to the studio, ensuring its continued operation as it determined what was lost and put an insurance plan and security equipment into place. “It was definitely a big bump in the road, a big setback, and we’re out $20,000 worth of equipment, some of it irreplaceable,” Roth tells Pro Sound News. “But on the bright side, it was an opportunity to see how much support there is out there.”

I wasn’t surprised; if one thing is clear, it is that the music-loving public is responding to Daptone’s organic, genuine and downright funky music. As popular music trends ever-further into robotic and sterile territory, Daptone’s retro sounds, made by real, living musicians recording through analog equipment to analog tape machines, are a breath of very fresh air.

In a long conversation with Roth in Daptone’s control room, the subject of tape and the periodic difficulty in acquiring sufficient quantities came up. “The place I normally get it from is not stocking it very well,” he explains. “They say the demand is not there to keep [one-inch] in stock. That’s a bit frustrating. The prices for tape, since I’ve started recording, have gone through the roof, and we go through a lot of tape between Daptone and the Dunham Records imprint, and this family of musicians. But they are still making it.

“There’s a lot of people using tape,” Roth adds, “that work in the box, dump stuff to tape and then back in the box. But we don’t have any computers here. We’re tracking to tape, mixing to tape, and then we master from that. The first time it goes digital is when it hits the CD.”

Thinking about the relative rarity of a studio so committed to both analog recording and the aesthetics and craftsmanship associated with popular music’s pre-digital era, I placed a call to Don Morris of RMG International to inquire about the business from the manufacturer’s perspective.

As it turns out, tape enthusiasts have plenty of reason to feel good. “The Album of the Year [Grammy Award] was done on our tape,” Morris notes, referring to the T Bone Burnett-produced Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, recorded and mixed by Mike Piersante, mastered by Gavin Lurssen. “That was nice. About three weeksprior to the Grammys, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss went back into the studio in Nashville and rolled through over 70 reels of 2-inch on a project.

“And the Best Engineered record was done on our stuff, with Joe Chiccarelli and Vance Powell at Blackbird [Studio]–Jack White and the Raconteurs [Consolers Of The Lonely]. “Over the last year, Courtney Love has done some stuff on our tape. Smashing Pumpkins have done both of their new albums on our tape. Neil Young was at Legacy [Recording Studios] in New York, and I know we shipped him 30 reels of 5,000-foot 2-inch, which is the equivalent of 60 reels of normal tape. Steve Miller Band went through about 50 reels at Skywalker [Sound], almost a year ago; Jackson Browne went through a pile of it.”

At February’s Recording Workshop + Expo in Nashville, says Morris, “There were four or five guys I talked to that have just bought their first tape machine. There were at least that many walking through looking for one: ‘Where can we get them? I’m looking for a 2-inch, a half-inch,’ etc. And they were all young guys.”

Back at Daptone, several bulky and relatively cumbersome tape machines, including Ampex, 3M, Otari and Tascam models, were untouched in the burglary. Possibly the culprits were distracted by–and may even have left pieces behind in favor of–an exceedingly heavy safe. An exceedingly heavy, exceedingly empty safe.