What Are Desk Tapes?

Back in analog days when bands ruled, it was common practice to have a cassette deck connected to the front-of-house mixing console to record the show.

Never considered good enough for commercial release due to their technical and mix limitations, some were given to the band at the end of the night as a record of the show or to check how their songs were working live. Many were left with the sound mixers, who kept them as souvenirs from better times, occasionally played but not often.

The technical limitations were due to the cassette medium. Small and convenient, cassettes produce good quality analog sound but the tape inside is narrow and travels slowly. Tape hiss is high compared to studio tape recorders and they overload easily. Small misalignments in the recorders cause audible artifacts and the heads and transport motors wear with use. On the other hand they were cheap, readily accessible, you could fit a whole show on a single tape. And they generally still play well after more than 40 years.

The mix limitations were due to the way the band interacted with the venue. Sound reinforcement is a good description of what the PA does in the average pub gig or venue. Bands are loud and make a lot of the sound themselves on stage, the audience hears that stage sound plus whatever the PA adds on top of that. The desk tapes were taken from the mixing console and only recorded what went to the PA. In a small venue the vocals and some drums might be the only things going to the PA, the instruments filling the room without extra amplification. As the size of the venue increases more of the instruments and drums need amplifying through the PA, so the mixing console balance becomes more even and the tape mix sounds more complete.

The cassette decks were also used for playing music before the show, the sound mixer quickly changing to a fresh C-90 cassette while the band walked on stage, hopefully hitting record before they start playing. But it didn’t always work that way and a feature of desk tapes is cut songs. The first song is easy to miss in the heat for the moment when the band starts, they also needed turning over after 45 minutes, which was often in the middle of a song, and of course simply run out of tape if it was a long show.

Despite these limitations desk tapes provide a unique audio view of the band. Stripped of all processing except for the effects added by the sound mixer on the night the sound is raw and intimate. Once the cassettes have been transferred and had a little digital fairy dust thrown over them they can sound surprisingly good after all this time, and the considerable nostalgic and historic value they have acquired over the years more than compensates for any technical shortcomings. Enjoy.

Mark Woods
12 sept 21