Tape Hunt Notes (part 1)

Frank Portman
14 min readJan 22, 2019

As you know if you’ve been following my stuff lately, I’ve been enaged for the past year or so in the huge, rather daunting project of trying to track down, organize, and inventory all my old tapes. There are some unfortunate gaps, but at least with regard to the mixed two-track masters, it’s mostly there, with all the major releases extant in at least some usable form as far as I can tell. We engaged an archival sound engineer to do high resolution digital transfers of these tapes, which was successful. This will be the source material for the eventual Mtx fovever compilation and, we hope, some subsequent re-issues. (Though in many cases I’m hoping to be able to remix, which is whole ‘nother can of worms: in the case of the multi-track masters, the archive is a lot patchier, as you’ll see below, and the technical problems for transfer much greater.)

this be the hard drive

As I’ve been listening to these transfers, I’ve been making notes and posting some of them on the social internet. And, as per my usual complaint, stuff you post on the internet like that gets immediately buried and can be extremely difficult to find even a few days after the initial post. So that’s why I’ve gathered this material, edited and augmented a bit in certain cases, here. It’s the best I can do at the moment.

Anyway, for people interested in this sort of thing it will probably be of interest; for those not interested, it won’t, I daresay.

Everybody’s Entitled to Their Own Opinion

This is the Everybody’s Entitled to Their Own Opinion (DR-001 / LK 39) mix, both sides on one 1/4" reel. It was left in George Horn’s room at Fantasy when he cut the Lookout re-issue in 1990, and only exists today because it was kicked under a couch (and thus not disposed of when they cleared out all their tapes a decade ago.) And because I started this “tape hunt” a few months before Fantasy closed down, I’d guess. George seemed as astonished as I was to have found tapes when I emailed him about them. “I don’t throw away masters,” he said. Good man.

(The other one under the couch was the three reels comprising the remix of the Night Shift LP that Lookout released in 1996 along with its bonus tracks: so I suppose that means the actual time of the “kicking” of would have been done sometime around that time when they had been stacked together for a pick-up that never occurred?)

By the way, George Horn also said, when I mentioned that the other label potentially involved in our stuff was Rough Trade, that at some point over the past twenty years, Rough Trade carted away a whole bunch of tapes in a big truck. It’s possible one of those was the still-missing Big Black Bugs remix, but probably none of the other missing stuff, since that was all mastered and cut by John Golden.

Anyhow, we didn’t remix EEtTOO for the re-issue, figuring it “was what it was” and mainly of historical interest anyway. The whole thing was very slapdash and quick, recording and mixing, not really meant to be permanent, but more like self-released demo for our friends and such. But then it got played on college radio a bit (largely because of “Danny Partridge”) and sold a lot of copies and such. Now that we’re talking about re-issues, I would kind of be interested to see what might happen if we took more than a few hours to mix it, though maybe whatever improvements there might be wouldn’t be worth it. Since the basic plan is to start with things that were never released on vinyl, and then work backwards, we’ve got a long way to go to reach this one and plenty of time to mull it over.

(Original post is here.)

Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood

— Rough US 68: the original mix for the Rough Trade 12" still exists; the remix we did for the Lookout re-issue 10" and CD has disappeared.

Making Things with Light

— Well, as life proves time and again, the secret to true satisfaction is low expectations. The lower the better, really. I approach these tapes with so much trepidation and pre-emptive cringing that the reality tends to be a pleasant surprise because, how could it not? For a lot of this material I am basically listening to it for the first time since it was recorded (and even then I didn’t always listen very closely.) And in some cases it’s almost like it’s stuff done by a different guy entirely, that’s how distant I am from some of it.

Case in point, Making Things with Light: “I Don’t Get It”. I don’t know this song at all, really, other than the vague impression that it was a total misfire. Now, I’m not gonna say it’s a great song or anything. It’s obviously not great. It’s got lots of flaws. But, I get what that over-earnest, pretty confused guy is getting at, and I didn’t expect to.

Sonically MTwL on 96k 24bit transfer from tape is really surprising as well. The record and especially the CD sound tiny in comparison. It’s actually really not all that bad (though I’d still like to remix it, especially “Parasite” which sounds a bit “strangled” here as well.)

Milk Milk Lemonade

— "See It Now”: I remember when we were still working this one out we did a bit of it on stage during a sound system breakdown at Gilman just to have something to do. Afterwards Tim Yohannan came up to me, rather exercised with emotion, and said “what the fuck was that supposed to be, Mott the fucking Hoople?” And I kind of stared off into space at the rafters, lost in thought, saying to myself, “mm, Mott the Hoople… yeah…” And I think he flipped me off as he walked away. Good times.

I've got all sorts of complaints about this record sonically, but the master does sound better in many ways. The CD of this — from which this is ripped — is appallingly bad, despite liner notes to the contrary. (See further comments on FB.)

— The Case of the Missing “Love American Style”: Most of the archive’s mislabelling issues have to do with missing information, e.g., no tracks listed, no date listed, wrong contents listed, illegible contents listed, or just: absolutely nothing at all written on anything anywhere (those are the fun ones.)

In this case, though, it’s a little different. I’ve been aware of this tape, the mix for the 1991 “Love American Style” 7", for years and always considered it fortunate to have it in case it were ever needed. Until just now, listening to the hi-res transfer, I hadn’t realized that: the A-side song “Love American Style” isn’t on it!

What seems to have happened is that song was cut from this reel and spliced into the sequenced reel for Milk Milk Lemonade side B. I can’t think of any other reason for this to be missing, or anywhere else it might have been spliced to. But I’d always assumed the one on the album was a new mix because it sounded so different on the LP vs. the 7". Listening closely though, I think the difference may well have been in the mastering. (Sometimes it can be hard to tell. Sound is elusive, and it can drive a person nuts to try to assess with ears alone subtle differences from A to B, especially if B is only something remembered, not extant.) Anyway, I’m glad some version of this exists. It’s among my favorite recordings we ever did.

This is another one, though, where the remix done in ’97 for the Big Back Bugs re-issue / comp. really rocks, and far, far outclasses the original (if such this be.) Those tapes have just disappeared, which is a real bummer. We can’t do any remixing for this project, but if we ever do manage a MML remix, well, that’ll be the time.

— “Book of Revelation”, alternate mix: the original mix, actually. The one that is on the record was a last-minute remix that really accentuated the horrific snare sound and has always bugged me. (I remember Kevin saying, of the new mix, that it sounded like he “took a blanket off the mix”; well, we had different tastes in blankets, and snares, I suppose. He drove it down to LA to substitute it in at the last minute.)

While the sound of the extremely ill-advised piccolo snare is still there, it sounds a whole lot less crazy, and this is definitely the one we’ll use for the comp. (And for any Milk Milk Lemonade re-issue, but I still have dreams of a total, snare-mellowing re-mix when the time comes — this track is the worst offender though.)

Our Bodies Our Selves

— The sad story of Our Bodies Our Selves:The Our Bodies Our Selves LP mix survives only in this form, a 1630 digital… tape cassette I guess you’d call it. There must once have been a 1/4" tape version (from which this derives) but it has disappeared. And (from the archivist/engineer): “Some dropouts. Multiple playbacks resolved most of them.”

Listening and trying to assess… but, this is one where the higher definition reveals unpleasant truths rather than unexpected new contours of glorious sound. There are things I like a lot about this recording, especially the thick, slightly “dark” guitars. It evokes a consistent mood, which you can’t say about every recording. However, the drums really irk me, and they’re even more irksome on the capture I’m listening to now.

And you can really tell when “More than Toast” (which was recorded and mixed in a different session for a different release) comes on right after “I Feel Love.” It’s a vastly better treatment, and after half a dozen songs of that snare and all those washy highs, it comes as a huge relief. Maybe the true analog would sound better but we may never know. We should be okay for the comp, but this needs work if it’s ever going to be re-issued per se. We’d bit off more than we could chew as usual, and I’m sure the mix was rushed also as usual. I sure don’t remember it like this.

Unfortunately, most of the multitrack masters are missing as well. There is one reel labeled “MTX 6/93 album #6” (with no other notation at all on it) — that’d be at least some songs, but obviously not all of them. The Gun Crazy reel exists (unlabelled, but with contents construed from track sheets from Polymorph Studios where we did some of the remixes for the Lookout CDs) and it may well contain another song or two. But best case scenario, only a partial remix will be possible, assuming we can even find a good machine to play the tape. If you’re not interested in the gory details, sorry, and just move on. I started documenting and can’t stop myself. I know a lot of people love this album, and I do too in my own way. We’ll figure out a way to save it.

— Guitar solo on “I Feel Love” is pretty sweet (further comments: here.)

Love Is Dead

— Twelve mixes of “Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba”: basically, these are single mixes, though no actual physical for-sale single was ever manufactured. There was a promo CD, I believe, though I don’t know which of these was used. The variations are slight, but some sound better (to me) than the one used on the album. The “TV” mix has the guitars a bit more centered rather than severely panned as usual because stereo guitars tend not to sound loud through TV speakers (or something like that.) I like it best this way, in fact. It sounds heavier.

btw, the current voting “top ten” includes three Love Is Dead songs: this, “Dumb Little Band,” and “I’m Like Yeah, but She’s All No.” “I Fell for You” and “Deep Deep Down” are well down the list, to my surprise.

— This is reel 1 / side A of what became LK 134 Love Is Dead. If there were a Nobel Prize for Labelling (and there definitely should be) there would be no better candidate than Bernd Burgdorf, who was an in-house engineer at Hyde Street when we did the Love Is Dead mix. All the tapes, masters, out-take reels, and automation floppies are meticulously, clearly, comprehensively, and unequivocally labelled, dated, and organized: it even appears that he went back and retroactively labeled the multi-track reels as well (which were recorded elsewhere and might otherwise have been lost.)

This is mainly why the Love Is Dead archive is so complete (and how you can tell) while much of the rest of the MTX tape archive is utter confusion and chaos.

e.g., here’s something from my inventory notes on LK 232, Alcatraz:

“MTX REEL 2 [written in sharpie on spine, no indication of contents]: Quantegy 499 2 inch reel, no other info. This was in a bin next to (likely) Alcatraz masters and is the same brand of tape and box with similar sharpie writing, so this may well be an Alcatraz master as well. If so, that means there are in fact two Reel 2s. Confusion.”

This whole thing makes me want to purchase one of those embossing tape label makers (do they still make those?) and label absolutely everything there is to label, just in case. Anyway, god bless Bernd.

Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You

— LK 180 mix, reel 2: Reel 2 of the Revenge Is Sweet mix. Fortunately, John Golden tended to label things clearly, unlike us. (The multitrack masters of these songs are largely missing, because, I suspect, they weren’t labelled or identified in any way and no one knew whom they belonged to to even try to return them wherever they may have been left; possibly they’re in someone else’s tape archive with no way of knowing. Or, in landfill. I wish I’d paid more attention to this labelling issue at the time, but, you know, it wasn’t my job.)

Anyway, as you can see “You Alone” was originally in the album sequence, and was replaced with “I Don’t Need You Now” (which was recorded later, in Bob Couver’s laundry room, probably a last-minute addition.) I don’t recall exactly why it happened but I’m glad it did, if only because of the slight sonic diversity that resulted. Also it’s a good song. But “You Alone” is pretty good too, and it was fine as one of the B side tracks for the “…and I Will Be with You” single.

We’re gonna have to figure out something to do with all those non-album tracks that are going to be “orphaned” as well… you know, they’re shards as well, basically.

(Original post is here.)

The Miracle of Shame

— LK 254, The Miracle of Shame e.p. AD 2000. It’s quite an odd release, I know, especially since till Yesterday Rules came out four years later there was nothing, leaving this as an awkward apparent “swan song.”

In fact, it hadn’t been meant to stand alone like that for so long. It was intended to be a precursor to a followup album, and a sort of test as to how well it might work to take tracks I’d recorded at home and import them to a real studio and make them sound all big and proper. (Which pretty much did work at least to some extent, for what it’s worth, which ain’t much as I am well aware.) Now I think this is the norm, to an extent, this bouncing and sharing around tracks and patching them together, but then it was still pretty weird. And cumbersome. We had to sync up my ADAT machine to the reel tape deck when we did the drums at the real studio, e.g., and we didn’t know what we were doing which didn’t help.

The planned album was to be a rather deliberately grandiose “art pop” album, probably too ambitious for a guy like me execute all the way, as usual. And I knew everyone was going to hate it. Somehow I took a sort of grim satisfaction in that prospect. In the event this e.p. didn’t go over all that swimmingly, though I hear from people who say they like it now. At any rate, we did a tour of Europe with the Queers in late 2000, and then everything (band, self, label, world) disintegrated and all thoughts of recording an expensive, ironic magnum opus deliberately engineered to be unsuccessful went out the window, quite properly one might say. By the time we regrouped in 2003 with a new line-up, the next step seemed better cast as a rock and roll album, hence Yesterday Rules.

As I said, we used a lot of the tracks I’d recorded on ADAT in my bedroom. We did the drums and bass and some guitars at Sharkbite on tape. For the vocals, as an experiment and to keep the costs down, we borrowed a fancy Neumann mic and did them in my kitchen, with Kevin Army sitting on the other side of the door in the bedroom. Much to the annoyance of the upstairs neighbors, whose knocking protests can actually be heard in the mix in at least a couple of places. “I’m sorry Dr. Frank, but I just can’t hear that song again,” was what she said during one frantic clomp down the stairs, and I could well understand. All in all, a pretty weird way to do things, but the album would have been interesting, if only to me. (Peace and Conflict Studios is the name we gave the apartment by the way. It cracked me up a bit to see on discogs just now.)

There are a whole lot of alternate mixes on DAT, some sounding quite a bit better to me, at least on first listen. This was one of three items never released on vinyl so it’s near the top of the list for re-issues if and when that plan gets off the ground. I’ve grown to look on them as good songs, cursed. I’m looking to choose at least one of these for the Mtx forever comp to include, as this is the sole recorded iteration of the Frank-Jim-Gabe line-up. In any case, never was it said truer: it is what it is.

(Original post here, and some comments here.)