In a time before vintage gear became en vogue, Chris Mara opened his all-analog studio, Welcome To 1979, in Nashville and created a space befitting of its era-specific name. At the center of the studio, MCI tape machines restored by Mara have acted as a conduit for committing music to tape since the grand opening.
Rather than hiding his tape-spewing secret weapons, Mara has shared his love of MCI with the entire world. Attempting to keep the format and equipment alive, the freelance engineer and studio owner has added one more title to his long resume by rehabbing these classic tape machines under the banner of Mara Machines.
Vintage King recently sat down with Chris Mara and chatted about his start in the recording industry and how he first stumbled upon a MCI tape machine. Read on to learn about his love affair with analog, his attempts to use digital technology and how his team balances time between Mara Machines and Welcome To 1979.
How did you become interested in recording and working on gear?
When I was in high school I wanted to be a live sound engineer and had my own PA and lights. I went to school for recording because there weren’t any live sound schools. My thought process was that I would just learn what I needed to learn about the live sound gear and go on from there. As it turned out, I found recording to be really cool and ditched the live sound stuff altogether. The working on gear thing came later.
Did the analog approach always appeal to you?
Yes and no. When I moved to Nashville in 1995 to be an assistant, almost all of the records I was working on were recorded on analog because that was the most reliable technology to track with at the time. When it came time to engineer records on my own, I found that I wasn’t needing all the DAW tricks, so I went back to recording on tape.
Was there ever a fleeting moment where you worked solely in digital?
Oh yes. As an assistant, I spent several months tuning vocals on a few records. I decided that’s not what “making music for a living” meant to me, and if I was going to be in front of a computer hating my job, I could make a whole hell of a lot more money doing something else.
Do you remember the first time you used an MCI machine? Was there an immediate interest or did it take awhile for you to develop an affinity for MCI products?
Yes, it was at the studio I interned/assisted at. At first, it was just another Studer, Otari, MCI... They were all over Nashville at the time and were simply machines people used for recording, a tool. After a few years of using all the machines (and having issues with all of them), I found that the MCI machines were way easier to get a grasp on how they worked, and how to get them going during a session. Plus, they sounded better. So when it was time to outfit Welcome To 1979 with a tape machine; MCI was the only choice. Ironically, that was the birth of Mara Machines since I restored that machine.
Talk a little about the people you work with at Mara Machines. Who helps you on a daily basis?
We have a real tight-knit group of seven people who absolutely love recording music, listening to music, tape and vinyl. My wife, Yoli, runs the business side along with Miranda, Jessica books the studio, Cameron cuts vinyl masters in our lathe room, Nathan and Jane toggle between assisting on sessions and working on Mara Machines.
What’s the overlap of Mara and Welcome To 1979? Are team members working dual positions at both companies or are they completely separate entities?
Everyone has a specific job, but there is overlap by nature of having closely related businesses. Cameron cuts all of our lacquers, and he engineers sessions when he has the time. Nathan and Jane both are either assisting or working on machines. Mix days in the studio where an assistant isn’t needed every moment, both are in Mara Machines. Nathan has also been trained to cut lacquers for a "second shift" on the lathe during our most busy months to meet demand.
It’s critical to me that people working in Mara Machines also know how to use the machines in sessions, [since] knowing how a machine should work often helps identify and solve problems. Conversely, knowing how to troubleshoot a machine really helps in a session.
In Part 2 of our conversation with Chris Mara, the head honcho of Welcome To 1979 and Mara Machines talks about his meticulous process of restoring equipment and some of the unique places he has pulled them out from.