Thanks to a few television series that show complete restoration jobs in convenient half-hour episodes, many might think that bringing a tape machine back to life isn't complicated. For Chris Mara of Mara Machines, the act itself may not always be easy, but the reward of giving life to 50+ tape machines yearly makes it all worthwhile.
In Part 1 of our conversation with Mara, the freelance engineer, studio owner and tape machine wizard talked about his start in the audio industry. The focus now shifts toward the specifics of Mara Machines, how his restoration process was developed and the amount of work that is put into each of the pieces that comes out of his shop.
How do you find the machines that you restore? Do they often come to you or do you have to go looking for them?
Now they find me. People who have them for sale, or know of people who have one for sale tend to call or email me. People know I buy a lot of them, so the word is out that I’m a good guy to deal with and my checks don’t bounce.
Any horror stories when it comes to finding a machine? Maybe pulling it out of a destitute location or finding the machine in really horrible condition?
I bought a machine from a guy in St. Louis one time, several years ago. I was in town, so I went to pick it up; around 8 or 9 at night. He was a huge guy and the machine was in the basement. He said, “You go first,” so I did. About halfway down the stairs I realized I was basically in a scene from Silence Of The Lambs and that I had failed a serious life test. Don’t worry, I lived.
What’s the process of restoring a tape machine like?
It’s really fun. I love to take these things that aren’t being used and get them back in great shape so they can do what they were designed to do – make music. These MCI machines were built right and built to last, so it’s mainly a fun restoration process. Over the years, I’ve got it down to a step-by-step system with the majority of the time spent resoldering/replacing things prior to even turning the machine on. The goal is to fix things before we find them, and fix the things that will most likely fail a year or two later.
How long does it take and how many on average do you do a year?
Three to four weeks per machine. We did 50 last year!
What are the highlights and pain points of these projects?
Highlights are when you get one working perfectly. It’s really fun to hear a mix back from a freshly restored machine. A pain point is when it’s 98% right and several days are spent trying to fix that one last thing.
What about tape machines makes them something that you like to work on daily?
I love to tinker on things. Tape machines give me the outlet to do that with a specific goal that happens to involve music. Plus, I know that these are going to someone who’s going to love it. I always put a sticker with the machine’s new owner’s name on the machine so we know who it’s going to and we call it by the owner’s name. “Hey, I just got done with final alignment on Catherine V!”
How has the resurgence of vinyl and analog impacted both Mara and Welcome To 1979?
It’s been very nice. As I mentioned, we have a lacquer cutting facility within Welcome To 1979, which is directly affected by vinyl taking an upswing. There’s a great deal of synergy between the businesses, since people who buy Mara Machines and record on tape are more likely to release their recordings on vinyl. They come to us for that. Same with the studio. We get a lot of people who book time at 1979, then buy machines, or hire me to mix projects they’ve recorded on Mara Machines or book 1979 to track on a Mara Machine so they can do overdubs at their own studio on their Mara Machine. It’s all good!
Where do you see Mara Machines going in the future?
I’m actually planning on sticking firm on MCI tape machines, and only MCI tape machines. I get calls all the time about other machines, and even consoles, but I have no interest in widening the groove I’m in when it comes to Mara Machines. We do them well, and know a lot about them. We work really hard on keeping the costs down on machines so the cool people that have been buying them can continue to afford them, but I do see prices rising due to us having to do more work on each machine.