Nick Johnson began to see his musical dream clearly taking shape only after finding about 30 beer cans under the floorboards of his bathroom.

Not any beer cans, these. From the 1930s, they were rare, cone-shaped cans with cork toppers. Johnson sold them to a collector for about $15,000.

Johnson, 42, decided to use the money to build something he’s wanted for more than 20 years: a recording studio that uses bulky, expensive reels of tape and 30-year-old equipment considered obsolete by many. He wants a completely analog recording studio, the kind that mostly exists today in movies about the 1960s. With the beer can money, he bought a restored 1980s-vintage Studer 24-track tape machine, once used to record the rock band Smashing Pumpkins, as well as an Otari mixdown tape machine and a used analog mixing board. While digital mixing of an album is done with mouse clicks, Johnson’s mixing board is about 8 feet long and has dozens of knobs and levers.

Johnson has also secured a studio space, on Anderson Street in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood, and has started construction. His goal is to open his nonprofit studio, Prism Analog, in mid-February. But now he’s out of money, and beer cans, so he’s started a campaign on to raise another $12,000. The one-month campaign began Dec. 3 and by Thursday about $390 had been pledged.

While some studios in New England still offer tape recording, often as supplement to digital, Johnson’s will be one of the few focusing on just tape and analog. Nationally, digital recording has been the standard for professionals and DIY music makers for more than 15 years. The one-time cost of computer hardware or software is much cheaper than the cost of tape, about $300 for 15 minutes worth. Tape machines require a lot of maintenance, and you can’t simply fix hisses or unwanted sounds like you can with digital editing.

But retro technology is cool right now, with lots of people raised on the sounds of CDs and MP3s discovering the “warmer” tones of vinyl records played on turntables. Soul singer Leon Bridges, 27, drew raves for the retro sound of his debut album “Coming Home” in 2015, which was recorded on tape and mixed with all-analog gear. Even listened to on the radio or in digital format, Bridges’ album sounds very different than most pop music today.

Johnson, whose day job for Apple involves helping schools use iPads, thinks the time for his studio is right as society comes out of a decades-long “digital convenience coma.”

“I’m on a computer all day long, so I really just have this idea that I’d really like to do something more hands-on,” said Johnson, who lives on Munjoy Hill in Portland with his wife and two children, ages 6 and 8. “I’ve always loved big old machines, stuff that moves.”

Johnson loads a reel of audio recording tape.

Johnson loads a reel of audio recording tape.


Early in the 20th century, sound was mostly recorded on cylinders or acetate disks. But when tape became a viable medium around World War II, it dominated the recording industry into the 1990s. The technology used for tape recording is analog, most simply explained as a continuous set of sound waves. With digital, the audio signals are converted into a stream of numbers and recorded. This allows for very precise editing of the recording.

No one debates that digital is less expensive and easier to work with. But the debate over which sounds better is ongoing.

Bob Ludwig, a Grammy-winning mastering engineer based in Portland, has worked on the recordings of Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, the Rolling Stones and hundreds of other artists in a 45-year career. He says that for people who work in music, tape versus digital is a personal choice. Ludwig understands that some people like the sound of tape because it can “glue a mix together in a most musical way.” But mixing engineers he works with usually prefer the “razor-sharp accuracy high resolution” of digital recordings, he said.

Within The Studio on Casco Street, another Portland music industry hub, there’s some disagreement about the nature of analog. Owner Tim Tierney doesn’t necessarily hear more warmth from tape and analog. And because they listen to music on compressed mp3 files and ear buds, most listeners wouldn’t hear it either, he said.

But Steve Drown, who has worked with several Grammy-nominated artists as senior engineer at The Studio, wishes more of his clients wanted to work with tape and an analog mixing board. As a recording professional, he likes that with tape he has to make decisions – more bass, less guitar – as the recording session happens. With digital, all that can be done afterwards.

“I love analog. The sound is definitely different,” Drown said. “You can make your stuff sound like 1950 if you want.”

Todd Hutchisen, who runs Acadia Recording on Hanover Street in Portland, says he doesn’t think a lot of musicians today have the work ethic needed to record on tape. Musicians need to be ready to get the sound they want in one or two takes, with no digital manipulation later. He says people ask him about using his tape and analog equipment (he does most of his work on digital) but he’s not sure they would really like it.

“There’s so much hype today about analog this and an analog that. But I think a lot of people couldn’t handle it. They’re not rehearsed enough,” said Hutchisen. “People today say (to recording engineers) ‘Can’t you just fix that?’ But (with tape) I have to say ‘No, I can’t.'”

Proponents of analog recording also say that getting a master recording on magnetic tape in its entirety is the best way to preserve it for the future. Magnetic tape is “basically indestructible” said Steve Albini, a Chicago-based producer and recording engineer who counts Nirvana, the Pixies and Cheap Trick among his clients. Albini only records on tape, with analog technology. He’s a rarity, and he’s become a sort of spokesman for tape, being interviewed about it often.

“My reasons for staying with analog are about the cultural permanency of the music once you get a master on tape. Whatever changes in music consumption come along, the master tapes will preserve the sound of that recording session,” said Albini. “With an analog session, you work to get the recording to sound as much like the performance as possible. With digital you can do a lot of butchery afterwards.”

It’s hard to say how rare an all-analog studio like Albini’s is. Many studios maintain some analog equipment, in addition to digital recording equipment. There were about 1,700 sound recording studios listed in the U.S. Census business data in 2013. Of the several hundred in a studio directory put out by Music Connection magazine, a third or so list both analog and digital equipment. According to that directory and local music industry people, no studio in Maine advertises as an all-tape and analog studio. Acadia Recording in Portland can do an analog project, but Hutchisen says he only gets a handful of those projects each year. At least three studios in the Boston area offer an all-analog option.

Nick Johnson, who plans to operate an old fashioned tape recording studio in Portland, sits behind a recording console that he picked up in New Jersey.

Nick Johnson, who plans to operate an old fashioned tape recording studio in Portland, sits behind a recording console that he picked up in New Jersey.


Johnson says he first became enamored of making music with tape and a mixing board when he was in college, at Augsburg College in his native Minneapolis, Minnesota. He played guitar and wrote songs but soon began to realize he enjoyed the engineering part of music more than songwriting. He experimented with his 4-track Tascam Portastudio at home. On campus, he built an audio studio, around 1993, in the college’s under-used TV studio.

“The live room there looked like Abbey Road (where the Beatles recorded) with great tall ceilings and wonderful room reverb,” Johnson recalled.

Over the years, while he started his career in technology and began raising a family, he read with interest about some studios and performers who were analog holdouts. Some of those studios held onto to tape equipment, until now, making them affordable to someone like Johnson.

“In 1993, this Studer A800 would have been worth more than my parent’s house,” said Johnson. This year, he was able to buy it and a mixing board, and a mixdown deck, for his $15,000.

The money came to Johnson unexpectedly. His family was living in an old house in Deering Center in Portland, and they began doing renovation work a little more than year ago. He was tearing up floorboards in a first-floor bathroom when he came upon the cans, from forgotten brewers like Dawson and Krueger. The cans were just lying under the floor, not in bags, not in boxes. They were covered with dust and perfectly preserved.

“It seemed like whoever was building the house was drinking the beer and just swept the cans there and put the floor over them,” said Johnson. “They were in great condition, no light had gotten to them, no extreme temperatures.”

Johnson did some research to see if the cans were valuable and ended up selling them to one collector. Then he thought about what to do with the $15,000. He knew the “reasonable” thing to do was just bank it. But, because the money came to him so oddly, he just felt like he should do something more interesting with it. He considered starting a drone photography company. But eventually he came back to his dream of a recording studio, something he knew would sustain him as a hobby for a long time.

And it will be a hobby. He’ll keep his day-job while running the studio. He hopes to find local musicians who want to use it, for a rate of about $50 an hour plus the tape costs. His studio is only for recording. A musician would still have to take it somewhere else to get it mastered and put into its final form, whether that be digital or pressed onto a record.

Johnson also thinks he may contact community groups and schools who could use, and learn from, the studio. His rates and more information about the studio are available on his website,

Johnson says he’s had offers from people to help with work in the studio, maybe repairing equipment, in exchange for discounted rates. Based on interest from musicians, he feels he’ll get enough customers to keep the studio going “at least as a hobby for me.” He’s the only engineer, and he says his costs, besides upkeep of the equipment, are minimal.

Johnson has been in touch with other studios and with local musicians, to gauge interest and to let people know his studio could soon be open. Many are intrigued by the thought of making records in a more hands-on way, one that might be more about musicianship than computer wizadry. Several say they can’t wait to record there.

“I prefer tape, if I can afford it. You get the nuances. There is clarity and depth I don’t think you get with digital,” said Pete Albert, 38, a Gorham rock and jazz guitarist. “I absolutely want to record there, even if I have to save up some money to do it. It’s something, for me, worth investing in.”

Will Wysowski, 29, of Windham, plays guitar in a local soul band called Those Electric Nights and also performs solo acoustic music.

He first met Johnson online more than a year ago, when both were interested in buying vintage audio components.

Wysowski plans to record in Johnson’s studio. He purposely buys albums from artists who use all analog equipment, including the funk and soul band Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.

“I’m probably on the young side for someone who’s interested in analog, so this is all new to me,” said Wysowski. “I know people who mic up their tape recorders (to record the sounds from it digitally) just because they want that sound. The warmth of analog is unparalleled.”


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