by SAM CHITTENDEN
Eric Pitra of Landscape produces some weird and wonderful instruments: a small collection that is esoteric, beautifully crafted, and eminently playable. The second iteration of the Human Controlled Tape Transport is no exception.
The HC-TT is constructed entirely from immersion gold PCBs and sports a translucent, mossy green finish, handsomely adorned with gold contact points and control point outlines. Sky blue knobs are used for both the tape control and the HC-TT's tone and gain controls. It is a truly beautiful unit.
In keeping with Landscape's aesthetic, there is no text labeling on the controls and apart from the familiar position dots and directional arrows on the blue knobs, the HC-TT instead uses symbols to indicate each of its individual functions. Given the relatively small number of controls and I/O points, they aren't too difficult to remember [after a few quick glances at the online specs]. In addition to its tape transport, tone, and gain control knobs, the HC-TT features a few capacitive touch points: a momentary mute and two feedback pads. There are 1/4-inch jacks for both audio in and out and two 3.5mm outs for CV and Gate [both derived from the cassette's audio].
Each HC-TT comes with a random cassette to begin experimenting with, and inserting the tape is a straightforward operation. Just lift up each transport knob, slide the cassette in the slot in the front, and reseat the spindles. Surprisingly sensitive and responsive, the transport feels solid and smooth and gives nice tactile feedback when the resistance of the cassette is present.
Monitoring the audio directly from the HC-TT's 1/4-inch out reveals some fantastic vinyl-esque scratching sounds, warbly rumbles, and uneven croaking tones, and not surprisingly, it is quite difficult to "play" a cassette back with a consistency that renders anything like the original recording, which is the whole point—to transform, warp, degrade, and evolve something old into something new. Of course, the content and quality of the tape you are playing will affect the resulting output. With a bit of practice I was able to get discernible snippets of human speech [from a tape of spoken word], but recognizable musical passages were harder to come by. Touches on the feedback points yield everything from gentle, liquid chirps, to tearing, screaming static.
The HC-TT shines as a controller of sorts and as a sound source for other gear. Fluttery rumbles and high-speed tape screeches transform into lush soundscapes or dark washes when run through a chain of effects. The CV and Gate outs [labeled with a half moon and square, respectively], coupled with the audio from the tape provide an endless amount of modulation variation and are really fun to send out into various parts of a modular system. The CV and Gate levels and response are adjustable via the tone and gain control knobs. While the tone knob affects the audio by cutting out the bass when fully counter-clockwise and boosting it when turned in the opposite direction, it can also be used to add some glitchy audio cuts when sweeping it back and forth across its range. The gain knob will provide a bit of distorted warmth when fully up and helps to attenuate the CV and Gate levels when dialed down.
If you have a collection of different tapes or the ability to record your own, the possibilities for interesting and unexpected sound and control sources multiply exponentially. Rhythmic tracks, drones, field recordings, and voice will all produce varied, interesting, and useful results. Further mangling and chaos can be found when combining all of the above with the HC-TT's feedback points and momentary mute. If your finger drumming is on point, you can get a pretty sweet glitched out drum track going.
In addition to the tape's signal, audio fed into the 1/4-inch in can be processed by the HC-TT's feedback points and mute switch. The signal will also be fed through the circuitry and influence the gates and CV produced, allowing for a combination of external and tape-generated signal.
The HC-TT in combination with the humble cassette tape and a little practice, truly creates an infinitely variable signal source. Straightforward, well-designed controls and a few thoughtful extras add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and the HC-TT's design adds a performative quality to its mechanics, providing a fantastic tool to add humanization and welcome unpredictability to your music making. The quirkiness and unpredictable nature of human-powered cassette tape playback may not fit all workflows, but with an open mind and a propensity for exploration, the HC-TT will give back more than what you put into it. It is an instrument that is superficially simple, yet will nonetheless reward intrepid users with its intricacies and its idiosyncrasies. There is much magic to be found within this small green and gold box.