What Lady Gaga Finds Appealing in Reel-to-Reel
What’s an analog album? Since the late nineteen-nineties, when Pro Tools recording software became widely accepted, the vast majority of music has been recorded digitally onto computer hard drives. The advantages of digital recording are obvious: Pro Tools allows for endless editing and manipulation of sound, from pitch-correcting vocals to splicing up ten takes of a song into one seamless track. Cheaper versions of the software let amateurs record in their homes, which makes music accessible to many more people. Pro Tools also helped create new genres, like modern electronic dance music, mashups, or the stripped backbeat that powers much of today’s hip-hop, by artists like Drake.
Analog preceded this. It is music recorded on reel-to-reel tape machines. The only way to edit tape is by slicing it with a razor and attaching it to another piece of the tape, an irreversible process that restricts after-the-fact manipulation. Despite these limitations, over the past several years, a number of musicians, from well-known pop stars to young independents, have begun seeking out studios, producers, and engineers who have the skills to record albums with the tools of the pre-digital era. Early advocates included Gillian Welch and the Foo Fighters (whose 2012 Grammy-winning album, "Wasting Light," was recorded on vintage equipment in the lead singer Dave Grohl’s garage), as well as analog’s high priest, Jack White, whose Third Man Records not only produces albums in White’s analog studio but regularly records concerts live to vinyl masters, which they press and distribute. This return to analog (which mirrors the revival of vinyl records) may have begun with rock and indie albums, but it is increasingly found across genres. Recent analog albums include work by the neo-soul star D’Angelo, the Wu-Tang veteran Ghostface Killah, Ryan Adams, the Black Keys, and Arcade Fire. "Joanne" is not completely analog, but “at least three songs were recorded to tape,” according to Mark Ronson’s manager.
The reasons that musicians record on outdated, archaic, and less flexible equipment are, in some sense, surprising. The assumption is that they want to capture a certain audible sound quality—the oft-mentioned warmth of a tape recording. This is a factor, but is not as significant as people tend to assume. Today’s professional digital recordings offer a sonic quality that only the most discerning audiophiles can distinguish from its analog equivalent, and today most people consume music through tiny headphones, regardless of how the album was originally recorded.