Back Track

A scientific oven isn’t a standard item in a recording studio, but for 54 Sound in Ferndale, the device is an essential element of preserving the voices, instruments, and yes, the imperfections of some of the greatest songs released between 1962 and 2000.
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Sound Waves - A Neve 8028 soundboard at 54 Sound in Ferndale, right, is one of a few still in use. To the left of the Neve is a recorder the studio uses to digitize master tape recordings. // Photograph by Sal Rodriguez
Sound Waves – A Neve 8028 soundboard at 54 Sound in Ferndale, right, is one of a few still in use. To the left of the Neve is a recorder the studio uses to digitize master tape recordings. // Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

A scientific oven isn’t a standard item in a recording studio, but for 54 Sound in Ferndale, the device is an essential element of preserving the voices, instruments, and yes, the imperfections of some of the greatest songs released between 1962 and 2000.

From Eminem to the Clark Sisters to Funkadelic to Northern Soul, Joel Martin has acquired thousands of master recordings captured on magnetic tape. The challenge, however, is the 1-inch tapes recorded in succession as technology improved — 4 Track, 8 Track, 16 Track, and 32 Track — are deteriorating. 

As a last measure of preservation, Joel Martin, owner of 54 Sound, and his team bake each reel-to-reel tape in the oven — similar in size to a mini-fridge — for eight hours at 129 degrees. Once the process is completed, engineers play back the reels on a special recorder that transfers the songs to a digital format.

“Once the tape cools down, you can get one or two playbacks and that’s it,” Martin says. “The oven reheats the emulsion coating on the tape and lubricates it for a very short amount of time. We’ve baked 600 reels already, which represents thousands of songs. Once they’re digitized, they become part of our library that we make available to producers, musicians, and vocalists all over the world.”

In a digital format, Martin and his team can isolate what are known as recorded stems, pulling the drums from one track or the bass guitar from another track. Not only are the isolated voices and instruments preserved, but they’re also available for use in new songs. Martin likens his library to the DNA of master tapes.

“It’s a different approach to use isolated music in new recordings,” Martin says. “People think they can only create music on a computer these days, and they’ll have the best sound. But the master tapes we have were specifically created by engineers who knew how to get everything out of a recording in relation to the tape equipment of the day.

“You can literally hear a guitarist strum the strings, and he or she may give a slight tap on one string to create a unique and cool sound. You can’t do that on a computer. Because of our contracts, I can’t say which artists have used the stems, but they are contained on new songs that you would recognize instantly.” 

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