Whilst doing research on reel-to-reel tape recorders, I stumbled across an unassuming Youtube channel by name “Brothers Nylon“. It featured multiple videos of 20-something year-olds making music in their bedroom on TASCAM audio gear from the 80s, like the 388 Studio 8 recorder, the Portastudio 244, and the M-308 mixer. Since much of the music suited my taste, I reached out to one of the brothers, Michael Rufolo, for an interview about how a group of guys had succeeded in making analog-centric music in the 2010s, all whilst displaying a considerable level of musicianship.
– Hi Michael. Your first Youtube videos from ten years ago feature a band called “Calico Galaxy” playing cover songs. Since then, you’ve released music under the name “Ranikade3” and “The Brothers Nylon”. Can you help me distinguish between these different bands you have?
Sure. “Calico Galaxy” was our first band from 2010, whilst “Ranikade3” was the name of the YouTube channel we created in 2007. Once my brother and I formed “The Brothers Nylon” with Shawn Lee, we changed the name of the YouTube channel to what it is now, and released our first album on Bandcamp in 2013, which was called “The Great 388” . Since then, “The Brothers Nylon” has been our official name, even though you might still see our older names on different social media channels.
– Your YouTube videos mainly feature people in their 20s who seem to have a music collective in their dorm rooms. Can you explain what this project is about and how it started off?
It’s essentially what you just described. Me and my twin brother started playing music at thirteen, and have been recording nonstop since we got our first TASCAM Portastudio. Our current music project was formed in our bedrooms at home, and was continued at our dorm room at Purchase College, and we later brought in other instrumentalists from among our high school and college buddies to join us. We just started composing random ideas together, and would track anything that sounded good. So things evolved from a regular home setup to dorm room sessions and into what you see now.
– Did you or your friends go to school for music? It would seem that way, based on the proficiency of the players.
No, not really. One of the trumpet players is called Matt Boose, and he went to school for political science. He never studied music, yet he adds so much to the tracks we make. “Do As You Please” is an example of that. But a few of our friends did go to school for music, like Nick Roberts, who also plays trumpet on a few of our tracks.
– And who’s the drummer? He’s pretty good.
That would be me (laughs). I play the drums and handle the engineering side of our recordings. There’s a lot of drummers out there who are great, but some of them have more flash than groove. I prefer to play in a way that’s musical for the track, with an emphasis on staying in pocket, which is why you don’t see me doing anything fancy in terms of technique. I’m not a trained drummer, although I’ve had a few lessons here and there, but I’m mostly self-taught. My brother and I take our inspiration from 70s music by artists like Soft Machine, David Axelrod and Carol Kaye, as well as library musicians from that period, and even the soundtrack music in Quentin Tarantino films. We try to replicate those songs a lot, and it’s really helped us with our creations.
– Your studio is stocked with quite a lot of gear for a bedroom setup. How were you able to acquire so many analog units for a home setup?
Well, I’ve been very lucky. My TASCAM 38 was handed down to me for a cheap price, and I found the 388 Studio 8 at a flea market for $200, which is a price that can’t be topped. It was working fine, and I didn’t have to fix anything in it. So I’ve been blessed to get a lot of gear for almost nothing, which is unusual for a bedroom artist. Most people have a Focusrite soundcard and a laptop with plugins, but we were inspired by Shawn Lee to buy analog gear like synthesizers and cheap Casio keyboards. Even our drum kit had a cheap, dorm-style setup, with the floor tom being used as a kick drum because we didn’t have a real one.
That came about from me wanting more gear. We’ve branched out from our dorm rooms to build a new studio in our parent’s garage, and so it made sense to upgrade to a bigger mixer and tape machine, rather than settle for a Portastudio vibe or a quarter-inch recorder. So we expanded to a twelve-channel mixer with the M312, and the Otari is a half-inch tape machine with a built-in amp.
– Given your lack of formal training, how did you acquire your engineering abilities?
I initially learnt how to engineer on Audacity. I just dabbled with that until I got the Portastudio 244, which I learned how to use by reading the manual. I also watched a lot of YouTube tutorials and read Internet forums. Tape Op was also a useful source of information. That’s where I learnt things like printing my recordings to tape as brightly as possible by boosting the high frequencies, and then cutting them as needed during the mix stage. So I’d pull up the highs by as much as +15 dB and then record with that boost. Stuff like that ended up defining the sound of the recordings you hear now.
– Some bedroom artists seem okay to settle for lackluster home recordings, perhaps because they’re happy to just be able to record anything at all, but you guys have been able to move beyond that to make commercially appealing records. How were you able to achieve such a polished sound, where most other bedroom artists end up with only demo material?
I never wanted to settle for crappy recordings, and always wanted to get the best out of my machines, even though I had to struggle with that in the beginning. I used to record my signals too low and the final result would sound horrible. But after a few times of getting it wrong, you get it right, and I always wanted my recordings to sound like my favorite records, and not like lo-fi music made in someone’s bedroom. Even with limited gear, you can get a big sound if you use the right techniques, like printing bright and recording loud; my VU meters are usually hitting at +3 dB when I record. When I used the 244, I would record at very low levels, around -10 dB, which gave me a poor signal-to-noise ratio. But once I started recording at levels of +3 dB to +6 dB, things improved significantly. The recordings sounded punchier because of the tape saturation that loud levels creates, although it doesn’t work as well on all sound sources. Drums and bass might sound great with that, but not necessarily synths.
I was always turned off by how much hard work it takes to get a good sound at certain commercial studios, yet when you record on a four- or eight-track at home, it sounds good if you do it correctly. That’s why I prefer to record on my own, rather than paying another engineer to do it. If you have to rely on another engineer to get your sound, it involves giving up a lot of control, and it offloads the hard work onto someone else. Personally, I liked doing that work myself.
– Why do you think “The Brothers Nylon” hasn’t garnered the kind of attention that other fusion/funk bands like Snarky Puppy have? You clearly have the talent, the studio and the recordings to make it happen. What do you think is missing?
I think networking is a big part of why we haven’t grown. We hardly have any music industry connections or the networking possibilities to promote ourselves. Part of it is also that we’re studio rats who don’t play many live shows. We have had a few reach-outs though. A guy in Germany released one of our records on his label, Resistant Mindz. He printed vinyl and manufactured cassettes for us, and paid for it all out of his pocket, which was great. Some other labels have contacted us about releasing 45s, but they always ended up backing out, and I’m not sure why. It could have been because some of the tracks we upload to Youtube lack commercial appeal. Whilst some of our music is accessible, some of it has no crossover appeal at all, and I think labels want to see consistency from the artists they work with in order to feel like the investment is worth it.
– Have you ever thought about reaching out to Daptone Records for a deal or a collaboration?
It’s funny you should ask. That’s our favorite label, but we’ve never hit them up. I should send them a sample reel to see if it sparks any interest. I love everyone on their label, from Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings to The Budos Band. I even see people commenting under our YouTube videos that we sound like The Budos Band, and that we have a heavy Daptone influence in our music. So we’ll probably hit them up in the near future about some kind of collaboration.
– I noticed in the YouTube videos that your studio with the 388 console had no acoustic treatment in it. Was that the case?
Yes, it was. We recorded without having any acoustic foam on the walls or absorption panels for the drums. To compensate, we used close micing techniques to minimize room reflections, and recorded the electric guitars and basses via DI. In fact, the guitars were DI’d into a Waves GTR amp plugin before being sent to tape on the 388. We don’t use that recording chain much anymore, but it worked well for “The Great 388” album.
– What was the total cost of building and running the studio that had the 388?
The cost was pretty small. The tape itself was the most expensive thing to buy, but even quarter-inch tape is only around $30. We also had to pay our parents $300 a month for the studio space, which wasn’t that much, and we had a day job to help cover those expenses. For our current studio though, we use half-inch tape from ATR Magnetics, which is $89 a reel, before tax and shipping; so it’s almost $100 total. But it’s worth it for me, as I don’t have much interest in recording to digital.
– Do you use any other brands of tape for your recordings?
We used RMGI for the Tascam 388. For the Otari MX-5050, we use tape from both RMGI and ATR. The tape from RMGI is cheaper, but it still sounds good, especially the SM911. But I prefer the ones from ATR because they offer more headroom.
– It seems like you got the TASCAM 388 in 2013. What kind of studio setup were you using prior to that?
Yes, I got the 388 in October of 2013. Prior to that, I was using digital workstations like Cubase and Adobe Audition, along with a PreSonus Audiobox 44VSL as a soundcard, which I bought from Sam Ash. I was trying to achieve an analog sound in my computer, but it just sounded sterile. Then I got the Portastudio 244, but the dbx Noise Reduction had a digital sound to it, and I couldn’t get any tape saturation from the cassette. That all changed once I got the 388 though.
– What kinds of mics and speakers were you using at the time?
We used to have a pair of passive dbx near-field speakers from the 80s. In terms of mics, I mainly used an 80s vocal mic called the Electro-Voice PL76b, a Shure 545SD, aka the “Unidyne III“, and an American-made SM58, all of which I bought at a yard sale for $1 each. I also used a Shure PG52 for my kick drum, which I got from a pawn shop. So I paid essentially nothing for a bunch of great mics, which was really lucky.
– What experience did you have recording to tape and using tape machines prior to 2011?
I had a PORTA 02 in 2009 when I was thirteen, which was a crappy four-track that only worked with normal-bias cassettes. It was good for recording demos, but didn’t get better than that. I discovered Audacity in 2010, which gave me sixteen tracks to work with, and I used that until I got the Portastudio 244 in 2012.
– What are your thoughts on recording to cassette? Is that a viable medium for someone wanting to make good-sounding records?
I very rarely hear good cassette recordings nowadays, and a lot of people I know who print to cassette end up with very hissy recordings. I think a lot of it has to do with the levels you record at. If you’re too loud or quiet, it doesn’t sound good; there’s a median point where you can make cassette sound similar to reel-to-reel tape. I’ve listened to cassette recordings that were indistinguishable from reel-to-reel recordings, so I know it’s possible, but it’s hard to achieve if you don’t know what you’re doing.
– Have you ever made an entire track using only the Portastudio 244?
No. We used the 244 for specific instruments, like drums, in order to converse space on the 388. So I’d record the kick, snare, hat and toms on the 244, which I’d bounce down to a stereo file and run through two tracks on 388, which leaves me six tracks to record on. But I’ve never done a full track on the 244 because the frequency bandwidth is limited on cassettes.
– Were all the drums run through the 244 for the “The Great 388” album?
Most of the cleaner sounds on the album were done on the 244, which you can hear on tracks like “Reel Metal” and “West is Better”. You can hear less tape hiss on those because we used the 244’s dbx noise reduction, and the drums also sound cleaner because the 244 doesn’t create tape saturation. But tracks like “The Great Gate of 388” have lots of tape saturation because we recorded directly to the 388 and we skipped the dbx, which allows you to retain more crunch in the recording.
– To what extent did you guys combine analog and digital tools whilst making “The Great 388” album?
“The Great 388” had plugins all over it. We used them prior to hitting the tape, which is different from how most people do it. Most people process the audio in their DAW after it’s been recorded, but we did the reverse in order to boost the signal levels. We didn’t have any outboard gear to distort or saturate with, so we used GTR and plugin compressors. All the spring reverb on “The Great 388” came from Softube’s Spring Reverb, which I bussed into an aux send on the 388 mixer. The guitars and bass were DI’d into the AudioBox. It’s not a great pre-amp, but it did the job, and I used it mostly to get the guitar DIs into my computer for processing. I used the standalone version of GTR, running it in real-time with the smallest buffer size, and outputting the signal into the 388 as we played.
The album was mixed down to a Zoom H2, which is why the recordings sound so upfront, as compared to our later albums; it’s because of the hard limiter that’s in the H2. I ran the two-track from the line-out of the 388 mixer into the line-in on the Zoom. I could have run it into my computer using the AudioBox, and used a Waves L2 or iZotope Ozone, but I ended up liking how the compression on the Zoom H2 sounded, and I used it for about half the album. I was inspired by The Bakery Studio to do that. They use a TASCAM 388 too, and record their mixes onto a Zoom recorder, either a H2 or H4, but without the hard limiting.
– What other recording consoles come close to the 388 in terms of functionality?
Sonically speaking, the Otari MX-5050 comes close. Additionally, it has a built-in amp that adds gain to the mic signals, although the mixer doesn’t offer much flexibility. There’s also the Yamaha MT400, which is a four-channel cassette deck.
– The 388 has been around since 1985, but I don’t know of many bands that made well-received records with it. Do you?
I know that Primus used the 388 to record their live album, “Suck On This” in 1989. The Black Keys also made “Thickfreakness” on the 388, and The Decemberists are a band that use it too. I believe Monophonics also recorded some of their albums with a 388, and they use it in conjunction with the TASCAM M-320 console.
– In the comment section for “Cold Monday”, you wrote, “Unfortunately I don’t have the tape of this mix anymore because I record over the same tape “. Why did you do that, instead of just buying new tape?
Because I was too poor to buy new tape (laughs). I wish I’d kept the old tapes, because I get a lot of requests by people to remix our older music, and I always have to say that I overwrote it. Unfortunately, I never backed up any of my old mixes, but now that I have the money to buy new reels, I tend to do that often.
– Can you take me through the process of recording a track on the 388, in terms of things like overdubbing and using effects?
Sure. I can use “Cold Monday” as an example, which was done all on the 388. The drum tracks were recorded first, with the snare on channel three, the kick on channel four and the overhead mic on channel five. All of them were later bounced down to channel six. Then we recorded bass on channel four and filled out the rest of the channels with guitars and keyboards, which I bounced down to channel seven. Ultimately, we ended up with six tracks of audio, and we used channels seven and eight for reverb and delay effects. I don’t like the effect sends on the 388 because they’re too quiet, so I dedicated two channels on the console just for that.
– Were all the tracks for “The Great 388” recorded the same way?
Well, “The Great Gate of 388”, was the first recording I did with the console, and I used a tape reel which had very low headroom, so that one was a bit different. The tape could barely handle recording a bass guitar before it started to clip because the headroom was only about 6 dB. Needless to say, I’ve never used that reel again. It was some kind of Scotch tape from the 70s.
– How do you go about transferring the 388 tapes into a digital format to sell online?
Tracks that were bounced to the Zoom would already be converted to digital. For other tracks we would send eight channels of audio from the 388 into the computer through the AudioBox. As long as I use 24-bit resolution, I think the sound transfers well.
– Given that you had both the 388 and the Otari, how would you compare recording to quarter-inch versus half-inch tape?
I do like the sound of quarter-inch, but I think the differences are most noticeable in the higher frequencies. Since half-inch tape stores more information than a quarter-inch, I can hear how both the highs and lows are diminished on quarter-inch, but mostly the highs, and there’s also more compression that occurs on quarter-inch.
– I’ve heard that your TASCAM 388 eventually broke and you had to sell it. What happened?
It came to a point where I wanted to get a different sound out of the machine, so I opened it up and began to work on it, and in the process I damaged one of the heads. It would create a low tone that printed onto tape with the music, which made it unusable. I wanted to take it to a service technician, but didn’t have money at the time, and so I decided to sell it to a company called Analog Audio Repair for the same price I bought it for, which was dumb in hindsight. I regret it now, but I’m grateful to have the Otari MX-5050. I use it as my main recorder now, whilst the TASCAM 38 collects dust. It has less headroom than the Otari and saturated too early for my taste.
– Talk to me about the Tascam M-300 series of mixers. Are these the same mixers as in the 388, but in a larger format?
Yes. They have the same EQs, frequency curves, and trim puts. The only difference is that the M-308 allows you to boost the line level with a dedicated knob. On the 388, you can only do that with the fader, but on the M-308 you have a trim pot for the line level. So if you run audio from the 388 to the M-308, you can add gain to the line input to get louder sounds.
– You have another album called “The Great 308“, which pays homage to the M-308 mixer. How was that album made?
The recorded audio was sent from 388 into a M-308 mixer. I’ve been getting a lot of comments about why I used the M-308 when the 388 has the same mixer, and it’s because of the line-ins. I could boost the gain of the audio even more as an additional gain stage. It also offered an additional aux channel to use.
– A lot of people talk about the sound of the 70s as something elusive and hard to achieve because of recording secrets that have been lost to time, yet you guys have been able to achieve something reminiscent of that. How did you succeed in that?
If you want your bass to sound like something from the 70s, then use a 70s bass and try to mimic the playing style. The same goes for drums. Granted, I don’t have a 70s kit, and I bought my snare at Guitar Center, but anyone can try playing like a 70s drummer into a mono overhead, and if it doesn’t sound good, then try close micing your kit instead. Things like that have helped us.
(Below from left to right: Nick and Michael Rufolo)
– Let’s go through the gear that was used for “The Great 388” album. I’ll mention some categories and you can tell me what was used.
Kick Mic: I’ve used the PG52 on the kick for six years, but at this point I’d rather have an Electro-Voice RE20.
Snare Mic: My snare mic has always been the Electro-Voice PL76b. Because it provides a big presence boost, I don’t have to print bright with that one. It has a lot of highs because it’s a condenser mic for vocals, so it captures the depth of the snare, as opposed to an SM57 which mainly captures the transient. Condenser mics on snares sound great.
What about the risk for SPL overload with condenser mics? Doesn’t that worry you?
That actually happened with my Oktava MK-319; it broke because I put it too close to my kick drum, so I had to learn the hard way. But the PL76b is an exception; even though it’s phantom powered, it’s not a 48V mic – it’s battery-powered, and so it handles SPL levels very well, as opposed to a large-diaphragm condenser. It was my go-to mic, and I used it on everything.
Drum Overhead and Room Mics: I’ve used the Oktava MK-219 as my overhead for years. I also used the AKG D19 as an overheard on “The Great 388” album, though I’ve since moved on from it. The D19 sounded very lofi, like a broken SM57, and it only captures what you point it at, like a dynamic mic.
I don’t use room mics on drums. I’ve tried it and was never able to get a good sound with that. The kit would always sound boomy and unpleasant. I used an SM57 once as a room mic, but the result just sounded boxy and thin.
Brass Mic: I like using an SM57 on brass, but my Unidyne III sounds so thin compared to the newer Mexican-made SM57s, so I sometimes use the PL76b on brass instead.
Double Bass Mic: I use the PL76b for that, although sometimes I might choose the MK-219 in order to capture more low-end. The MK-219 can be very noisy though, so I have to be careful when I use it.
Pedals: In terms of volume and distortion, I have a gain pedal that I mostly use with Rhodes because the output on the keyboard is so low. I also have a VFE Pedal’s Triumvirate and a Boss FZ-2 Hyper Fuzz, which sounds like an eight-bit fuzz.
I used to have a Boss FRV-1 ’63 reverb, but I recently sold it because I prefer the spring reverb in amps instead. I take them out of the amp and put them into a gain box that I use on an aux send.
For delays, I have things like the Boss DD-6 digital delay and a MemoryBoy. I also have the Pioneer SR-202, but I don’t like it anymore because it blends the dry and wet signal, which doubles the overall signal in volume when you use it on an aux send.
Drum Set: The one on “The Great 388” album was a Gretsch Catalina Club Jazz kit, with the floor tom mostly being used as a kick, and mic’d with the PG52 on the batter side, which captures the brightness of the kit, as opposed to micing on the resonant side, which is more boomy. Also, because analog tape adds more low-end, I felt it better to mic my kicks on the front side. The snare was a 14-inch Pearl Session snare that I got from in 2009, and the cymbals are Zildjian As from the 70s.
Bass Guitar: I play a four-string hollow-body Greco E bass.
I see you playing the Rhodes Mark 1 73 in “CAN MAN”. Is the speaker mic’d up?
No, it’s recorded with the line-in. I don’t use amps with that keyboard because it gets so loud and muddy.
Let’s go through a few of your older tracks before wrapping up. Tell me about some of the tools used to make”Alternative Debunking”.
Drum Mics: A PL76b was used on the snare and a PG52 on the batter side of the kick.
Double Bass Mic: I think I used the Samson C02. To be honest, I don’t like that mic. I was trying to make it sound good by EQing a lot, but the sound was always brittle and needed a lot of work to make it sound good. But I suspect that the PL76b was used as a second mic, because the sound seems a bit too good to be only the C02.
Keyboard: That’s the Williams Alegro, using the internal sounds.
Guitar chain: We used real amps for this one; it was a Crate 120W amp, though I forget the model.
How did you make “Final Fantasy VIII – Balamb Garden”?
That was a mix of things, mainly done on the Portastudio 244. I remember recording the horns through my soundcard, and whistling into the Samson C02. To be fair, the C02 is good for picking up ambient and room sounds.
What about “Earthbound-Battle against an Unsettling Opponent”?
That was all done with lots of plugins, like Soundtoys Decapitator on drums. Even the fretless bass had instances of GTR on them. I didn’t have a tape machine back then, so I tried using tape emulation plugins instead, even though I recorded everything through the AudioBox. The Samson C02 was used to record double bass and bongos.
How did you mix “Mentally Sentarded”? The different sounds on that track sit pretty well together and it all sounds very upfront.
The use of the Zoom recorder has a lot to do with upfront sound; the limiter really brings things to the foreground. As far as the mix, the GTR plugin played a big role in how things sound. It was used on the Greco bass, the guitar and the sitar to give each sound their own space in the mix.
I couldn’t help but notice that the upfront drum sound you had in 2013-2016 seems to be gone now. Why do the drums on tracks like “Head Hardy” sound more distant than on previous recordings?
Well, I recently lost my PL76b, and I use an SM58 as a close-mic now, which sounds different. Also, my new drum kit is bigger than the old one, which created unexpected recording challenges. With a 22-inch kick drum, you have to put the mic further away from it to get a usable sound, otherwise it just sounds boomy. So I’ve been experimenting with distant-micing the kit, which is why my drums sound further away now, and I also use reverb to make the drums sound more like what you hear in a real room.
There’s a Portastudio 244 in the video for “Recording Log: Day 2”. Was that used only on drums?
Yes it was. We made that track when I first got my 244. I first recorded the drums to cassette and then ran them into the computer for more processing, using things like the Voxengo Deft compressor and saturation plugins like the Decapitator.
Thanks for talking to me Michael. What’s next for The Brothers Nylon? Any plans on getting another 388?
I’d love to buy another 388, but they’ve skyrocketed in price to the point where I have to wait with that. In terms of our future plans, we’re just going to continue producing our music and releasing more albums. We’re doing an album with our friend Paul D. Millar, for which we’re using his Tascam MS16, in conjunction with my Otari MX-5050.