ROCK’N’ROLL REAL TO REEL

Brent Little captures musical magic on analogue tape in a digital world

  • "I probably listen to 10 albums a day," Brent Little says in the control room of his East Nashville recording complex, Cream Puff Studios, "and this is the type of gear that those old classic records were cut on. Being an all-analog studio, I probably run off 80 percent of the music business, but I've always loved tape, and it just sounds right to me."
    Looking around the room, a small, darkened flat-screen monitor on the recording console is the only hint that you haven't stumbled through a time warp and ended up in 1973. Every other piece of equipment in the room is from the classic era of analog sound. Bulky recorders with spools of magnetic tape — quarter-inch, one-inch, two-inch — sit ready to capture the music that will be banged out in the adjoining room. Meanwhile, Little continues to extol the charms of 
    analog recording.
    "I have a lot of happy accidents," he says. "They're inherent in running these machines. Two-inch tape is $320 a reel, so it gets reused. Sometimes I buy 'lightly' used reels from other studios. I was recently recording a band, erasing the music that had been on the tape while I recorded the new, but you always leave a little space between songs. In between songs there was 10 seconds of this big lavish orchestra playing classical music. It sounded beautiful coming out of the speakers. We ended up using that at the start of a song. It was free orchestra — it would have cost us a thousand bucks! I've stumbled on to that type of thing many times."
    In an age ruled by digital manipulation of music, Auto-Tune and pop stars drawn from central casting for their sex appeal, recording music in the old-style, analog method might seem the result of stubborn nostalgia or hipster contrarianism. Why make music in an antiqued prison when technology allows unlimited freedom? But old-style, analog "tapeheads" like Brent Little understand that working within those limitations can generate a special freedom all its own. As the saying goes, "Rome wasn't built in a day," and neither are successful businesses or satisfying and lasting music careers. But sometimes, the most rare musical magic can be captured in the studio, playing live, in just one or two takes straight to tape.
    A native of Fargo, N.D., Little's love of music began at an early age. "We had a console hi-fi at my house," Little says. "The sound of it was just glorious. My big sisters had records by the Stones, the Beatles, Elvis — all the classic stuff. I remember being a small kid, not even in kindergarten yet, opening that big lid on the stereo, putting a stack of 45s on, and I would play my baseball bat to it." Bitten by the rock 'n' roll bug, Little progressed from a baseball bat to an electric guitar in just a 
    few years.
    "When I was about 12, I got a guitar and started picking up songs from records," he says. "My dad let me practice in the basement, and the first time I ever played with some guys, I knew right there, 'This is what I'm going to do.' By the time we were in the eighth grade, we were playing high school parties. Dad would haul us around in the station wagon and we would bring our own PA column. It just kept growing. By the time I was in the 11th grade, I got in with some older fellows who had an old school bus for touring. We played Canada and the Midwest and that continued all through the '80s.
    "I moved to Nashville in 1990, thinking I was going to play my own music," Little says. "I started a band, the Ripple Kings. We played for about five or six years, and when the band split, I decided I was really going to concentrate on recording and production. That's when I started investing in the nicer, pro-style machines and consoles."
    Although Little had been trying his hand at recording since his high school days, starting on simple four-track cassette machines and working his way up through more sophisticated equipment, the lure of mixing boards and tape decks grew irresistible. But it wasn't the cutting-edge digital technologies of the '90s that spoke to him, it was the clunky, out-of-favor spiritual brothers of that old console hi-fi that had first fascinated him in his preschool days.
    "Everybody was getting rid of their old tape decks," Little says. "ADATs were coming in and the digital thing was starting up, but I always knew it was tape for me."
    Building a studio in his house near Centennial Park, Little staked his claim on analog ground in the middle of a digital gold rush. "A lot of my clients were personal friends," he says. "I knew a lot of people from other bands and they were the people that I was recording. A lot of us still loved the sound of tape."
    Just like the "happy accidents" inherent in analog recording, Little soon stumbled on a rather unusual name for his studio. "I had recorded this band," Little says, "and we were listening back through the big house speakers. The bass player was lying on the couch listening and she said, 'I love it. It sounds like a big cream puff!' We all started laughing and it just stuck. I get mixed reviews about the name, but I've had it over 20 years now. People get it wrong — powder puff or something — but I guess I'm just going to stick with it."
    With the arrival of the 21st century, Little continued his devotion to the recording technology of the previous era, and he also found a new home for Cream Puff, when he and his wife Nanette relocated to the East Side. Purchasing a pre-war stone Tudor house close to Shelby Bottoms, Little began converting a large portion of the main floor into his personal analog recording playground.
    "We moved here in 2001," Little says. "The East Side was just starting to take off, but we got a good deal on this house. I liked the old neighborhood, and I still do. It's quiet, you have big yards and good people."
    With the main studio in the living room and a second tracking room in an adjacent, enclosed side porch, a Cream Puff recording session invokes fond memories of a high school garage band jam session, held in the home of the hippest parents in town. But in this case, Little has the equipment and know-how to capture those magic sounds.
    "My philosophy of recording is, 'Come in with a band and everyone plays together,'" Little says. "The more guys that are playing at the same time, the quicker it's going to go. Play the first take, second take, third take and just get it. If you're not getting it after that, maybe it's time to move on and come back to it, because the best sounding takes to me are the ones that are fresh. That's really what's important. If the guitar is a little out of tune, that may be OK. There are a lot of classic hits where a guitar was a little out of tune."
    That back-to-basics philosophy and keep-it-simple work ethic also extend downward into the lounge and break room in Little's basement. Surrounded by the unfinished stone and brick walls and nestled below ductwork and water pipes is a home bar, vintage sofas, an amply stocked selection of classic LPs and 45s, and as Little dryly describes it, "fine dining" in the form of a small pizza oven and hot dog roller grill — basically the dream "clubhouse" of every teenage, rock 'n' roll malcontent.
    "I show the basement to everyone that is thinking about recording here and the next thing you know they're booking the place," Little says. "After about four hours, everyone wants a pizza and a couple of chili dogs. I provide that stuff on the house. Then after we're done, we hang out, have a few beers and listen to records."
    Little's mastery of analog recording combined with his easygoing, good-times attitude is a winning formula for his longtime clients like Asheville, N.C.-based glam popsters The Cheeksters and blue troubadour Ron LaSalle, as well as up-and-coming acts like local Western dreampop duo The American Dream. Although Cream Puff has the capability to convert basic tracks and final mixes to digital files, Little prefers to keep the bulk of the process in analog.
    "The East Side has a lot of similar analog studios," he says. "They record on analog, but end up mixing digitally. For me, tape is just easier. I understand tape machines. I can work on them. It's like if you have an old '50s Chevrolet. You can open up the hood and tinker on it. Computers — that's not the case."
    Although his studio has remained his main passion, Little works a day job at a local auto body shop and plays bass with local blues rockers Super Honk. That means much of his studio work involves night sessions or weekends. His long-term plan of building an independent studio piece by piece, and session by session, might seem laborious for younger, we-want-the-world-and-we-want-it-now rockers, but Little has found tremendous satisfaction in the scenic route to success.
    "Basically all the money I made in the studio went back in the studio," he says. "That's how I got a little better this and that over the years. I'm at the stage now where I'm really content with my equipment, and I'm not really shopping. Now all the money I make from the studio is going to home improvements and paying the bills. I hit 50 this year in May. I'm hoping this will be the year when I get out of my day job and just do studio work and occasional live gigs."
    That patience and willingness to operate within self-imposed limitations — whether it's building a business over 20 years or recording music with nothing but instruments, amps and the whirr of a magnetic tape recorder — leads to its own kind of freedom. It's the same kind of freedom that can be found locked in the grooves of classic rock 'n' roll records, recorded with technological limitations, pressed on a permanent, unchanging format, and revealing magic in three minutes or less per song.
    "This gear really does one thing — that classic warm sound," Little says. "You only have 16 tracks so you have to commit to having limitations on what you can do. Everybody that comes in here realizes that. Some people don't want those limitations, but if you want that tube and tape sound, it's the only way to get it."