By Frank Wells
The CLASP hardware controller bridges audio and tape machine control to marry analog recording to a DAW with the simplicity of a plug-in.Nashville (August 18, 2008)--While plug-ins modeling analog processing elements have replaced many legacy products, complete digital emulation of the complex sonic character of analog tape recording has remained ellusive and the interface of analog tape recording within a DAW centric recording project can be cumbersome and expensive. So, what if recording a true analog record path were as simple as using a plug-in?
"Being able to work the normal workflow that you're used to with your digital audio work station, but getting the true sonic benefits of real tape, of a real tape machine, of the analog circuitry in the tape machine," are the stated goals of Endless Analog founder Chris Estes. As a producer, Estes preferred the sound of analog tape, but worked in a DAW-dominated world. Some five years ago, he had what he calls his "eureka" moment, and began the quest to realize his vision of seamlessly marrying analog and DAW recording. "This has never been done before," says Estes, citing the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. "I wanted to be able to use tape, 'cause that's what I started out on--I think we all started there, and I wanted to get back to the sound of real analog."
This graphic illustrates the interface and control of CLASP with a DAW-based recording environment.In mid-August, at a meeting of the AES Nashville Section, Estes unveiled the physical manifestation of his quest: CLASP, for Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor. The two basic components of the CLASP system are a hardware interface and control unit, and a companion VST plug-in. Rather than making analog connections directly to the A/D converters feeding the DAW, the signals are first connected to CLASP, which is interfaced with an analog tape machine. When a track is armed inside the DAW, the VST plug-in automatically sends track-arming and transport control information via MIDI Machine Control (MMC) to the tape machine through the CLASP interface. The engineer works inside the DAW as normal, operationally ignoring the tape machine. When any DAW track is armed, pressing Play on the DAW rolls the tape machine, and when Record is punched in, corresponding tracks on the tape machine enter record. Armed tracks are recorded on tape and the playback head signal is then immediately fed to and recorded by the DAW. "The plug-in--," says Estes, "the only thing that it's doing, is communicating what the mix engine needs to do to sync things up," such as automatically adjusting for analog record path latency. A direct path through CLASP allows zero-latency monitoring. "If you're using a digital console," Estes says, "or even a digital headphone distribution system, those devices always have some sort of inherent latency that they introduce to [the signal path] and everybody just kind of deals with it. With CLASP, you can enter that information, and it'll compensate for that as well."
Estes undertook the R&D challenge himself, learning programming and circuit design, and forming Endless Analog, along the way. Before CLASP, says Estes, DAW users were turning to various emulation plug-ins to try and attain the sound of analog recording. "I figured you've got all these great tape machines that cost tens-of-thousands-of-dollars that are just collecting dust, and nothing beats the real thing. People would love to use tape, but the traditional method of using tape is such a headache. CLASP solves all those problems; there's no headaches anymore."
Estes cites a number of the problems associated with that "traditional method." On his list: "having to use SMPTE time code; working with synchronizers; having to have your digital audio work station chase your analog recorder as opposed to the other way around; the cost of tape--having to buy multiple reels of tape to do an album project; the sound of tape, after it sits around for a while, it looses its energy and it doesn't sound the same as when it's first recorded; not being able to hit Undo--that's a big one--everybody has gotten used to being able to hit undo, to work really fast.
Endless Analog founder and CLASP inventor, producer Chris Estes."I've used it on numerous sessions," says Estes, who's worked with a prototype for over a year. Rather than accumulating a stack of analog tapes during the course of a session, he says, "with CLASP, you can do your entire album with just one reel of tape"-tracks are recorded off of analog immediately, with no need for later synchronized dumps to DAW. In this mode of working, the only operational differences CLASP adds to the DAW methodology are short reel time remaining warnings and (automatic) rewind time "In fact," Estes adds, "sometimes during sessions, we've forgotten that the tape machine was even there--you're not paying attention, and all of the sudden it's rewinding." An additional feature is the ability to change tape speed at any time with a push of a control panel button. Estes also says it is simple to do hybrid sessions--bypassing the CLASP path on select tracks.
Thus far, CLASP has reportedly been used with a Studer A827 and A800, an Otari MTR-90, and even with an Otari MX5050 two-track. Estes says as long as a tape machine has a rear panel control port, all Endless Analog needs to know is the machine type and they can ship CLASP with the appropriate cable. The complete CLASP system--the control chassis, interface cable and plug-in software--are expected to run around $7000.00. CLASP is DAW system agnostic, as long as the DAW supports VST (either directly or via a wrapper) and the system has a MIDI port available for MMC. Rear panel audio interface employs 25-pin D-sub connectors using the widely adopted eight channel pin-out per connector. Endless Analog will begin taking orders mid-September from its new headquarter space in the Emerald Sound Studios building on Nashville's Music Row.
Estes says the goal for CLASP is "to bring analog tape back into the music production world to improve the sound of recordings. The main thing that people have to understand is that it's not a plug-in that simulates tape--this is really using tape. It's going to, hopefully, start an analog revolution. I'd love to get people excited about using tape again."