EVERYTHING OLD, NEW AGAIN
Filipetti is well known for his ability to take classic recordings and remix them for compilation/boxed set release. One of the biggest challenges with projects of this nature starts before the first song has even been brought up on the console. It begins with the condition of the original analog tapes. Filipetti reports that most of the tapes recorded from roughly 1973 through the mid-’80s were done with Ampex low noise, high output formulations. With a considerable number of these tapes, a common problem involves the chemical that bonds the tape backing to the magnetic material. After sitting on a shelf for 20–30 years, this chemical frequently ends up oozing onto the recorder/reproducer’s heads the moment playback begins — gumming up the transport in the process and bringing the entire project to a grinding halt before a single song has been transferred to a newer medium.
Rectifying this problem sounds more reminiscent of a Julia Child cooking class than it does anything studio related. “You take the entire reel out of the box, place it in a convection oven — not a microwave and not a standard oven — and bake it at 120 degrees for a good seven or eight hours. At that point, you pull the baked tape out of the oven, let it cool down briefly (it’s not that terribly hot to begin with), and then play it while simultaneously transferring to hard disk.”
The tapes will usually play successfully for at least one or two plays before the formulation starts to, once again, break down. It’s important to note this problem occurs not just with the big, unwieldy 2-inch tapes, but can just as easily manifest itself with quarter- and half-inch tapes from the same period. Filipetti adds that Scotch, BASF, and Agfa brands generally don’t exhibit anywhere near as many problems, nor do tapes that were manufactured in the ’60s. And in case you’re wondering what oven is best for this purpose, Filipetti recommends the Farberware convection oven. “These are the best ovens for the job,” he reports, “and many studios have them specifically to deal with this issue.”
Joe Travers, Frank Zappa’s longtime friend, engineer, and guardian of the Zappa library, has been meticulously transferring many of Frank’s analog tapes to Nuendo format, with each multitrack tape equaling one session. Joe uses a system whereby each session is the equivalent to a particular tape in the vault — with labels, time code, and track numbers corresponding perfectly to the originals. The tapes from this 1974 concert were originally recorded on 2-inch, 16-track at 30 ips.
With the music safely archived in a random access format, Filipetti is now able to work in the digital domain. While his Euphonix R-1 continues to serve him well as a dedicated hardware multitrack, he has been making a gradual transition to DAW recording so as to take advantage of plug-ins, and for this, his tool of choice is Steinberg’s Nuendo.
“I’ve been working with Nuendo because I prefer its sonic quality over Pro Tools,” said Filipetti. “Nuendo also has several features I can’t get with Pro Tools — chief among these being the ability to easily open and work with multiple sessions simultaneously. The Zappa concert took place over two nights and totaled 16 Nuendo sessions (tape reels). By being able to open multiple sessions, I could work with each night’s material in the same session, determine which performances I wanted to use, and then compile a master without having to import tracks from each individual session as I would with Pro Tools.”
Digital recordings are, by nature, far quieter than analog recordings, and people have become accustomed to this characteristic. While one may be inclined to eliminate all the noise associated with analog, Filipetti suggests a far more cautionary approach.
“I’d rather hear a little noise than risk losing harmonics,” says Filipetti. “I find it distressing that some engineers get so preoccupied with eliminating noise that they end up losing the ‘air’ at the top end. While there are tools to remove hum and other extraneous noises, you need to be careful. With Frank’s recordings, I’m trying to bring the listener into Frank’s world, and that approach demands an allegiance to fidelity first, noise second. I tend not to concern myself with noise problems unless they intrude on the vibe.”
“You don’t get something for nothing,” says Filipetti, “and everything you do affects something else. In trying to eliminate noise, you’re invariably going to eliminate some of the good stuff as well, like low level harmonic content, ambience tails, etc., which I prefer to keep. If a little bit of noise seeps through, so be it. For the noise that just has to go, I’ve had great success with a number of Waves plug-ins — among them X-Click, X-Crackle, and X-Hum.”