The private press labels on Bandcamp continue to surprise me at every turn. One reddit comment about my Indonesian tape haul turned into a quick recommendation for Aural Canyon. Now, I’m a fiend for new age ambience and various transient noise bursts. If you are as well, Aural Canyon has quite the showcase for you. Since launching in 2017 with a Planned Parenthood Benefit, the 50+ Aural Canyon titles have exemplified a patchwork approach to deep listening. From the Texas underground stalwarts like More Eaze and Andrew Weathers to the improvisational harp music therapy of Andrea Cortez, each release is a distinct sonic and artistic addition to the label.
So of course I had to see if I could score Matthew for a quick interview to muse on new age and how things are going for the Austin, TX based label general. As one thing led to another, I invited Joshua Bradshaw, Aural Canyon’s tape dubber/”analog shaman,” for an intensive discussion on the dubbing process and what sets Aural Canyon’s tapes apart from your standard DIY label.
At what point did you suddenly realize, “I’ve inadvertently started a tape label?” Was there any kind of DIY involvement beforehand or a book/ band that piqued your interest in doing it?
Matthew: I have always loved tapes. I still have most of mine from my childhood. I’m definitely a collector. I love their buzz and warm fuzzy tones. I used to make mixtapes for my friends. My 1st tape was either Hooked on Classics or Van Halen’s ‘Jump.’ I had always wanted to start a record label and in 2017, I did just that. I love it!
Josh, when you started dubbing for Aural Canyon, what were you listening to and how has the label affected your listening habits?
Josh: My listening habits have been pretty varied for awhile, although in the last couple years I’ve been more prone to listening to indie stuff via Spotify or KUTX at work. Back in 2012 or so I got really into tape labels. Matthew and I met through a mutual acquaintance, Cody McPhail. I had been friends with Cody online for years via the forum WATMM, really dug his music, and eventually put out two tapes of his work on my own little DIY label, Wood Between Worlds. Cody mentioned Matthew lived in Austin and we met IRL and bonded over appreciation over similar music. Matthew’s taste and knowledge was well beyond my own and he’s been connected to many in both local scenes and in the broader tape label community.
Originally I considered releasing tapes on my own label and he put out digital stuff but that seemed cumbersome. It was best for him to do both with his label. He’s had a very clear and tactful vision of AC’s direction and scope so I’ve been happy to help with the dubbing. The hard work and nitty gritty is the artist’s communication, artwork, etc. I just help dub the tapes locally and with more direct quality control. It’s been really neat hearing both new artists he’s introduced me to as well as dub tapes for artists I was a fan of already.
What do you use to dub tapes and who is your cassette supplier? Has COVID impacted the ability to tape dub? Also, have there ever been any interesting abnormalities that have occurred in any dubs?
Matthew: In 2017, I started out using NAC (Springfield, MO) for custom blank tapes and quickly branched out to places like AtoZ Audio and duplication.ca.
Josh: Basically, Matthew gives me .wavs from the artists. I play them out from a laptop through a Tascam audio interface, into a realistic tape control center 42-2105. That thing splits the signal to the three Nakamichi CR-1As decks (recently I’ve added two more decks by using the outputs from two decks that are being dubbed into).
I could daisy chain more in theory but it gets harder to get the levels all consistent and likewise to press record on all of them manually. But it does the job. Dubbing on proper decks at 1x speed helps a lot with sound quality. I don’t mess with EQ settings or any mastering, I just make sure the peaks match up with the tape decks when they hit the red [Lietoc note: the handful of tapes I have from the label never hit the red]. That way at the loudest part of the music they aren’t too hissy and quiet nor cranked up in the red and distorted. I use Dolby B as well.
(A picture of a Nakamichi CR-1A from Reddit)
Dubbing also sounds INCREDIBLY time intensive and meticulous (especially when going at 1x)-how has COVID benefitted or detracted from the process?
Josh: It is and it isn’t, setting up the levels is the more meticulous part but it’s fairly straightforward with .wavs. I’ve also pretty much worked through the kinks I had when I started off. It’d be a lot harder if I was doing this 100% analog (i.e. a master tape) as others did decades ago. I work from home now so my turnaround is better and easier. I just set a timer for when each tape needs to be flipped over.
Matthew: COVID hasn’t really impacted our ability to dub. At first I thought it would. But due to the lockdowns I’ve had more time than usual to crush through our release schedule. In fact, I began 2020 saying that if we didn’t go in a certain direction I was wanting, I would probably switch gears with the project and concentrate on more important things outside the music realm. This has been our most successful year so far. The only abnormality I can think of isn’t necessarily regarding the dubbing process but the depletion of the stock of type II chrome tapes throughout the US a couple of years ago. The quality of tape dubbing & longevity was the best. Analog perfection.
What audio characteristics are absent in Type Is that Type IIs (now in a perpetual shortage) afforded?
Josh: Type II is great for more dynamic and less bass and beat heavy music which is often the case for ambient and drone. You can dub into the red more as well. That also gets into more “audiophile” territory that goes well beyond the typical listening habits and often not fully realized with many people’s cassette players or decks. Type I recorded well with a decent deck and played back in a similar deck is pretty damn good. Likewise a good recording isn’t going to sound good in a cheap player nor will a crappy tape sound better in a hi-fi tape deck.
Honestly, the biggest jump in quality is from high speed duplicators to using stereo cassette players. That’s why I enjoy dubbing tapes for AC, they sound a lot better than the mass produced tapes many people use bigger duplication services for. Ironically stuff NAC dubs for big indie releases often sounds noticeably more hissy/lo-fi and yet those can sell for a big mark-up. But then again many people who buy those are more interested in supporting the artist or getting a physical release that isn’t a CD or LP so often they have no qualms with sound differences.
I’m continually reading pieces about New Age and a lot of it centers around Los Angeles (I’m thinking of the Simon Reyonlds piece in particular). While the label has put out it’s fair share of pleasurable ambience from acts all over the world, Aural Canyon feels like a Texas operation, first and foremost–I could have sworn I saw the tapes promoted at Antoine’s when I was last in Austin in November.
How big has the state’s artists that have passed through the roster shaped what the label is putting out? Are there any Texas artists you are hoping to work with soon?
Matthew: That was a great article. So many influential artists are in it. And yes, New Age definitely has roots in LA but a lot of other cultural areas give nods to the New Age “movement.” The pulse of those areas are highlighted and sprinkled with elements of New Age while injecting their own twist and vibrations to the ever-expanding cauldron. We love Texas but I would say about half of our releases are actually from other countries, which I never thought would happen.
I usually don’t put our tapes in stores because I like to cater to the Bandcamp world and I’m only dealing with a very limited amount of tapes to begin with. Usually no more than 100 tapes per release. In regards to our “roster,” I am releasing tapes not signing anyone so it gives me more freedom to work with artists I actually consider my friends versus people I make money off of. Because we all know there isn’t much money in this biz, it’s a labor of love.
If I had to choose an artist from Texas I would like to work with, it would have to be Dallas Acid (and my favorite is The Spiral Arm). I’m sure it will never happen, but I can dream. My, but everything they do is gold. Definitely my favorite live Austin act as well. Super nice people!
I’m curious to know how large of an audience for Aural Canyon is coming from out of the US?
Most of our audience are from the US but we also have a decent amount of deep listeners abroad. I’ve sent tapes all over Europe, Thailand, Korea, Russia, Japan, Australia, South Africa and even Indonesia. Tape culture is a global thing.
Aesthetic wise, the label has been eclectic and quite open when it comes to tape art. How is Aural Canyon (or the artists) approaching tape art? Would you ever consider packaging tapes with other ephemera?
Matthew: I always ask the artist to submit the art to be used for the tape release. I am a curator for the label but I am also just a simple listener, not an “artist.” Aural Canyon is just the connection between the artist and the deep listener. Some artists are very specific about the art while others are more concerned with the vibes contained in the frequencies. The artist has done the hard part by sharing a piece of their soul. It’s up to me to figure out those connections and bring it to reality. I would definitely consider packaging our tapes with other ephemera, as not everyone has a tape player.
Have there been any releases in particular that you are fond of or looking to the horizon with?
I’m extremely fond and proud of all of our releases. They are like my children. I do have a couple of extremely close friends I’ve worked with before who I plan to work with again and I’m very excited about that. New horizons. Stay tuned. [I’ve left some recommendations at the bottom!]
Finally Matthew, a rat is going to jump into your mouth. Head or Butt?
Mark McGuire-Earth Star Musick: From Editions Mego to Dead Oceans, Mark McGuire’s post-Emeralds work scattered across various labels and formats is a vast catalog that deserves its own primer. Yet, that should not stop one from dropping into his amalgamation of synthesizer bursts recorded in 432 Hz between 2015-2017 and released just this April! The whole tape has a way of taking the music of an upscale 16-bit shopping mall and stretching it towards an open drift towards horizon lines.
Pulse Emitter/PJS-Split: The Pacific Northwest sonic polyglots united for 40 minutes of music. They must have been taken from a live field recording off of Installation 04, as both of their 20 minute pieces have that feeling of complete bliss of being in a Forerunner elevator in Halo. Talk about luxury!
Electric Sound Bath-Inner Travels: An early, classic Aural Canyon release with emphasis on Piccolo Bass Guitar, Modular Synth, Singing Bowls and time (the best element of them all). Spacious and astral, without leaving you in the complete void. Plus, plenty of rushing water and bird sounds that give a real headrush. Down to its last two tapes!
Interview conducted by Matty MWane Lietoc.