A Music Geek's Dream 

Hundreds of people--from fans to producers to well-known bands--are descending on Tucson for TapeOpCon 2006

For someone with little interest in the technical aspects of the process of recording music, a perusal of Tape Op Magazine can lead to instant narcosis.

It features arcane articles about microphone positioning; interviews with owners of boutique sound-gear manufacturers; talks with producers and bands about how they got "that drum sound" on a particular song; and complicated illustrations mapping out things like the "power supply for modified capacitor microphone(s)." But for those who actually embark upon the process--be it on a budget-minded professional level, a hobbyist level or somewhere in between--the magazine has become something of a bible, an indispensable fount of knowledge about all aspects of the pursuit. Its like-minded readership refers to itself as "the Tape Op community," and each year for the last four years, that community has gathered for a conference called TapeOpCon.

The fifth annual TapeOpCon will take place this weekend in Tucson.

The magazine was founded in 1996 by Larry Crane, now 43.

"Home recording started, really for me, when I was a teenager," he says. "I had little mixers and things I had built, synthesizers I'd hand-built; I was really into electronics, so I understood that more than I understood music initially."

His friends and family pooled their money to buy him one of the first four-track cassette recorders that came on the market, and later he attended California's Chico State University, where he played in the band Vomit Launch (which was far better than their name might suggest). But he remained hooked on the idea of professionally recording music, as well as having a place to record his own music.

About 12 years ago, he decided to build a studio in the basement of his home in Portland, Ore., and started devouring all the information he could get his hands on about the process of recording.

"There were books and things, and I would read them all," he says, "and some magazines and things--and I would read them all. And my feeling at the time was, 'Wow, I found all this information, but a lot of it's not exactly relating to what I'm trying to do,' and most of it was not about the making of the records I was interested in. It would be about, say, the making of a Steely Dan record or something like that, and telling you how great this record is that I knew I didn't like. And I don't even hate Steely Dan that much; but to me, Steely Dan represents the idea of someone spending seven years meticulously making an album that sounds too sterile.

"So I wanted to read about the making of records that I found interesting, and kind of explore the idea of people who are working on budgets--like the records that me and all my friends had been making for years. We didn't see articles like that, about going into a cheap studio or making records in your house."

Crane decided to take matters into his own hands and create a forum for just such articles.

Tape Op had rather humble beginnings. The first issue, which came out in April 1996, was photocopied at a friend's workplace, where Crane would sneak in on weekends, bringing his own paper but using the company's toner. Employing the lure of free beer, he gathered a group of friends at his house to help him with the stapling. The first five issues were produced in this manner before it occurred to Crane that with the amount of time and energy he was expending, it made more sense to simply pay to have them printed. At this point, the magazine's distribution was somewhere between 800 and 1,000 copies, which included issues being sent for free to those on a list Crane had compiled--including musicians he knew, record labels, other magazines and friends who owned small studios. He secured distribution for the remaining copies to be sold in stores.

"I figured I'd get distributors, get the magazine out there, get reviews of it in these other magazines," he says. "I never called Tape Op a zine, because I thought that meant more of a personal ... thing, and I always thought Tape Op had the potential to reach a lot of people like me."

Although the magazine's audience continued to expand, it still wasn't turning a profit. "I had opened a recording studio (Jackpot! Recording Studio, in Portland) as a commercial venture in 1997," Crane says, "and I was making a living doing that, but also Tape Op was taking a big toll financially." After three years of financing the production of Tape Op with a credit card, Crane was almost ready to throw in the towel; instead, he took on a partner.

Crane had met and become fast friends with John Baccigaluppi, when Baccigaluppi recorded two records by Vomit Launch. By this point, Baccigaluppi was working on another magazine, Heckler, which covered skateboarding, snowboarding and music. According to Crane, Baccigaluppi said, "Well, we're already doing this one magazine; it would be really easy to do another under the same umbrella." Eventually, Heckler folded, and Baccigaluppi became a 50-50 partner with Crane in Tape Op.

Says Crane, "John came along, and he said, 'Look, we can take this up a big notch.' At this point, I had never had a recording-equipment manufacturer take an ad with me; I had never even really tried to break into that market--I just worked outside of that whole world. And if you looked at other magazines that wrote about music recording, they were full of ads for recording equipment. Mine didn't have any. It had ads for Matador Records, things like that. So there was this big step when John came aboard and became a partner, and we went from 2,500 issues every three months to 25,000 issues every three months, and soon after that, every two months."

With Crane listed on the masthead as editor, and Baccigaluppi as publisher and graphic designer, Tape Op's current distribution is 40,000 copies and growing.

If the thousands of people who have learned from and been inspired by the Tape Op community, perhaps no one has been more affected by it than Tucson's Craig Schumacher, who got started recording bands as a partner in a studio called 7 and 7--named for its cross-streets--in 1989. Though the studio's name was changed to WaveLab Studio in 1993, it remained in the same location until 1998, when Schumacher could no longer afford the space.

"I was in the old studio," he says, "and it was pretty close to the end there, in the fall of '98--I could sort of sense the impending doom, because my finances were so bad at the time, and I knew something was going to give. And I honestly was contemplating giving up, selling everything and going back to being a plumber. I was seriously like, 'My marriage is suffering because of this; I'm broke, I'm really not happy.'

"And the phone rang, and I answered it, and it was Adam Selzer of (the studio) Type Foundry and (the band) Norfolk and Western, and he was calling me to do an interview for this thing called Tape Op Magazine. And I was like, 'Tape? Op? What?' And he said, 'I want to ask you some questions about these records you've made. You did (Richard Buckner's) Devotion + Doubt, that OP8 record, that Black Light record (by Calexico).' And I was like, 'You know about these records? Somebody from Portland, Ore., is calling me who knows about these records?' And he said, 'I love them. They're my favorites,' and he did this interview, and it just struck me at that moment that I'm making a difference of some kind. Somebody noticed and reacted to it, so maybe I should stay in this, hang in there and give it another go. And it sort of rallied me from this whole personal thing of, 'Oh, nobody cares; why am I doing this?,' this whole martyr thing, into, 'Oh, you know, maybe I am doing something good.' So then I got my complimentary issue, and I'm in the same issue as (noted producer) Steve Albini, for God's sakes, and Roger Moutenot. I was floored by that. I was like, 'Holy crow!'"

It was enough to encourage Schumacher to start looking for a new location for WaveLab. He began scouring the classifieds in the Tucson Weekly and found the space where his studio now resides, at 125 E. Pennington St., where he's recorded albums by the likes of Neko Case, Steve Wynn, Giant Sand, Greyhound Soul, DeVotchKa and Luca, whose Nick Luca works as an engineer at WaveLab.

Shortly after the article on Schumacher appeared in Tape Op, he and Crane began talking on the phone, bonding initially over the fact that they used the same tape deck in their respective studios. "I started calling him for tape-deck advice," remembers Schumacher. And in 2000, when Crane was asked to moderate a panel about recording at the now-defunct North By Northwest music conference in Portland, he invited Schumacher to participate. While in Portland, Schumacher stayed at Crane's house, and they became fast friends.

"Hanging out with Larry, we realized we had a lot in common," says Schumacher. "We were basically running parallel businesses in the same sort of environments. ... So right away, we're sharing survival tips with each other, and telling war stories and all that."

The next year, Crane was again asked to moderate a panel at a music conference, this time at South By Southwest, in Austin, Texas, on the specific topic of how to make records on a budget, and again, he asked to have Schumacher on the panel.

"I reasoned that the people who were going to be in our audience were probably musicians who didn't have a lot of money to make records," says Schumacher, "and were coming to this to get those answers. 'How do you make records on a budget?' The two of us are running studios where we make records in a very short amount of time on a regular basis, and the panel is full of all these big industry guys who never make records on a budget! They have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on records! ... And the audience members wanted the information that we wanted to give, but it was totally lost on a panel where everyone has a voice, and no one should really dominate. But it's like, when you have a guy on this panel who's working with Elton John, I don't think he has a lot to say to some indie rocker who just traveled in a van for three days to get to Austin to play some little showcase."

Adds Crane, "You've got someone talking about spending two weeks with U2 mastering their record, and it's like, 'I did four albums in the time it took you to master that record.'"

Schumacher recounts an incident in the green room prior to the panel in which a big-shot producer was asking the panel members where they were from. When Crane said he was from Portland, the man sniffed, "Oh, there are no world-class studios in Portland, are there?"

"I almost punched the guy," Schumacher says. "Here he is, talking to Larry, who's recorded Sleater-Kinney, The Go-Betweens, Stephen Malkmus--records that are being heard by people around the world! But there's no 'world-class studio' in Portland?"

For context, consider the fact that one of the first songs Crane recorded at his Jackpot! Recording Studio was the late, great singer-songwriter Elliott Smith's "Miss Misery," which appeared on the soundtrack to the film Good Will Hunting, and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1997. (It lost to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," from Titanic.)

"So after the panel, we went back to our hotel room," recalls Schumacher, "and we're drinking a few beers and just reflecting on how goofy the whole thing was, and we realized, gee, you know, there just isn't really a forum for what we wanted to do. And I said, 'Larry, Tape Op needs to have a conference.'"

Crane thought he was joking at first, but when Schumacher explained that he'd had a side gig helping his friend and mentor, Roger King, run multi-level marketing shows in hotels across the country, Crane realized he was serious. He remained skeptical, but not so skeptical that he didn't fire off a round of e-mails to some of the more respected producers and engineers who he had gotten to know via Tape Op, because, as Schumacher explains, "We knew, in the first year, coming out of nowhere, we'd have to have some horsepower behind us."

Due to various connections to the city, things began coalescing around the idea of holding the first TapeOpCon in Sacramento, Calif. "We had this idea of making a hybrid," explains Schumacher "What would happen if we took this idea of panel discussions, added a music showcase--like a little version of South By Southwest--and added in a trade show? We basically cherry-picked from all these other events that people were doing to create our own little idea. And we decided that at the trade show, all of the companies would have equal space to show their stuff, so that the bigger companies couldn't out-buy the little guys, which is a big problem with the bigger audio trade shows."

On Sept. 10, 2001, a meeting was held in Sacramento. Hands were shaken, and the conference was scheduled for Memorial Day weekend in 2002.

"And, of course," says Schumacher, "I go home the next day and the whole world falls apart."

After waiting a respectful amount of time, another set of e-mails was sent out to gauge interest, given the circumstances. Surprisingly, interest in the conference hadn't waned. The first-year attendance at TapeOpCon was about 270 people, with nine companies renting tables at the trade show, and a total of seven panels.

"But a funny thing happened," Schumacher says. "We met all these people from all around the country who had little studios like we did. And what do you know? We all have this thing in common, and we're all learning and socializing together, and it was a lot of fun, just really simple."

The pair learned some lessons from that first conference and tried to adapt and improve it while keeping some of the successful elements in place. Much of the Sacramento incarnation was held in a theater, and both thought it provided a much better forum than a lifeless, cookie-cutter hotel ballroom. But they also decided, after speaking with first-year attendees, to delve a little further into the nuts and bolts of the technical side of recording. And they decided that in order to draw people from other regions, the conference should change locations each year, while taking into consideration the financial roadblocks that would prevent it from occurring in a major city like New York, Los Angeles or Boston.

The second TapeOpCon was held in Portland, and the third was held in New Orleans, which the pair say was such a perfect fit that they were planning on making it the conference's home for the next four or five years.

Then came another tragedy. After Katrina, New Orleans wasn't an option.

Schumacher and Crane, the conference's primary coordinators, considered canceling the conference altogether, until a friend suggested they move it to Tucson. When Schumacher realized the Fox Tucson Theatre was currently up and running, he scheduled an appointment. "I walked in the door, checked it out and called Larry immediately," he says. "'We've got our theater. This is it. This amazing theater just popped up in my downtown, and we can pull this off.'"

While the Fox will play host to the evening activities--The Not-So-Late Show with Larry Crane, for example, a variety show modeled on late-night TV talk shows--the bulk of the conference will be held during the day at the Hilton El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort. That's where you'll find panels with titles like "What Do Artists Want?" and "Records That Made Me Want to Record"; workshops covering just about every angle of recording you can imagine, e.g., digital equipment, software recording platforms and how to build an equalizer; and the Pot Luck Studio, an actual working studio in which producers can demonstrate their recording techniques in real time, then play back the results.

Buses will bring people back and forth from the foothills resort to downtown, and following the full schedule of activities, most conference registrants--and, one would imagine, an awful lot of locals who couldn't care a whit about the conference--will take in a rather jaw-dropping lineup of bands and artists, both local and national, playing on two stages at Hotel Congress, including Cracker, M. Ward, The Beta Sweat, Jason Lytle from Grandaddy, Loveland, American Music Club and about 20 others. Congress' David Slutes largely coordinated the music showcase.

The entire weekend looks to be something of an audio tech and music geek's wet dream, and registration is hovering around 800 people.

"Tape Op is almost like the outcast club in high school," says Crane. "We're definitely not the mainstream face of music recording, so we just pull everybody else in with us."

Or, as Schumacher puts it: "The conference has turned into a kind of real-time extension of the magazine. With beer."

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