Handsome Audio’s Langston Masingale on the Zulu Band
To know the band is to love the band, and Langston Masingale knows the band. Founder of Handsome Audio, Langston is the creator of Zulu, an all-analog passive tape simulator designed to give digital recordings the depth, life and vibrancy of magnetic tape.
There’s no shortage of digital recreations of tape sounds – plugins or effect options you can find in DAWs, hardware samplers, stompboxes and other gear. But the Zulu is alone. Langston’s inventive feat of engineering bucks the digital trend, recreating the sound, flexibility and feel of tape recording in a convenient device that requires no additional power source.
The dominant recording medium from the 1940s through much of the 90s, magnetic tape has many properties that today’s digital producers still want on their tracks, even if they don’t have access to a real tape recorder.
At more standard settings, the tape faithfully captures a recording while adding subtle richness and glue. When hit with a warm signal or when a tape machine is running at different bias currents, tape can overdrive your sound in pleasing ways, from mellow overdrive to gnarly crunch. And there’s a whole rich range of sound qualities depending on the type of tape or the specific tape machine you’re using.
Langston’s Zulu puts it all in one self-contained device, a big desktop rig the size of an oversized pedal. It lets you choose between different tape types, machine types, bias and calibration settings, and the available headroom of your tape simulation, all with analog circuitry.
How did he do it?
Grow with tape
“My first piece of memory equipment was a reel machine my mom had in our living room on some cinder blocks,” he tells us. On tape and vinyl, they listened to Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas & The Papas and lots of other music from his mother’s Baby Boomer generation. But musical instruments were more difficult to find.
Langston Masingale. Photo used with permission.
“We were very poor, so for me, I wasn’t really around musical instruments as a kid, just because of the means or the exposure, but I been exposed to electronics,” says Langston. “I used to play with broken TVs, broken radios and other things on the side of the road in my old hood.
His mother, who has a master’s degree in psychiatry, assessed him at age two as “obsessed with electronics”. Langston says, “I’ve always had this affinity for what I call the circuit city” — the pathways of wires, components and connections inside electronic equipment.
By the time he started making music, he already had years of experience building and repairing equipment. At age 16, he began working in his uncle’s studio in New Jersey, recording rock, jazz, rap and gospel, which sparked a long line of work in and around recording studios. , while simultaneously working in education. These two hats – music and education – have accompanied him throughout his adult life.
Having gained analog experience just before the onset of the digital age, he didn’t care for the newer, cleaner sounds coming out of modern recording studios. “When the digital age took over, I didn’t like it very much,” he says. “I learned. I learned to use a digital multitrack as soon as it came out. I learned to use the computer and the computer sound card, then Cubase, Pro Tools, Cakewalk… to finally settle on Reaper, which is my favorite platform.”
All the while, even when mixing digital tracks with analog outboard gear, everything that tape once provided was still missing. “It still didn’t look like what I remembered,” he says. But it would take some time to figure out exactly how to get it back.
In 2009, Langston helped start JJ Audio Mics, a still-running boutique company that modifies mics and creates its own tube and FET mics inspired by Neumanns, AKGs, and similar classics.
There they made clones in the style of the U 87, 87is, 251 and C12. With the Akita, Langston says, “We were the first company to successfully clone the C-800G, circa 2010, 2011.”
As for low-budget or mid-market clone brands, Langston says they were “the first to roll with the punches, to try to really convert people to this culture of ‘you can make gear. at an affordable price while having it deliver well above its pay grade “. .”
His time at JJ also allowed him to meet vendors and other makers in the industry, including the late Tom Reichenbach of CineMag and the late Oliver Archut of AMI. “Oliver hurts Transformers for everyone and their mom,” Langston says. “He took me under his wing and taught me the mystery and dark magic of transformer making.”
The beautiful Zulu audio.
He says his relationship with Tom started with Langston’s regular phone calls and questions, first about the equipment they were working on at JJ’s, but then about Tom’s processes and his deep knowledge of transformers.
“I’m a person who when older people talk, especially knowledgeable older people, I’m a bucket waiting to be filled,” Langston said. “Tom realized that I really dug into this stuff, and besides, to Tom’s credit, it’s not like I forced him to be my mentor. Tom did that with all those who listened.”
Langston began developing his own product ideas, talking – perhaps a bit like Tom – to anyone who would listen, which had unintended consequences.
“A lot of my ideas were sort of taken away from me, because I have a big mouth,” Langston says. “I’ve developed microphone capsules, transformers, overdrives, summing and all sorts of things, and I see them being produced by other people.”
Throughout those early years of his career, Langston said potential employers wouldn’t give him a chance. As a black man trying to work in the music and recording industries, he found his skin color to be a disadvantage, or in Langston’s words, he continued to find himself in situations where “my appearance mattered more than my skills”.
He had thought that maybe he would develop Zulu and sell it to another company to make it, but ultimately he decided if he wanted to do it the right way, “I need my own fucking business.”
With Tod Levine, a business partner and friend, Langston was able to put the funds in place. They took two years to fully develop the Zulu concept into a reality, sending the Zulu to be made in a high-tech factory in Arizona.
“I went from my dining room table, from the garage of my old recording studio, to being in this world of class [manufacturing] facility that had a campus – and that’s where Zulu was being made.
Zulu in practice
Langston demonstrates Zulu with a variety of audio examples.
Taking the same philosophy they had at JJ mics, Langston wanted the Zulu to be built with precision and care, while remaining affordable. According to Langston, it’s “a quality that most people don’t hear for the price.”
It’s transformer-coupled input and output, made in the USA, and it features spring-loaded mechanical rotary switches so you can always press and recall the exact setting of each knob. When you hold the Zulu in your hands, you can almost tell its quality in an instant. While still light, it has an unexpected heft, and no part of the speaker or the buttons feel cheap in any way.
The Zulu comes with the playing cards of the professional engineers and producers who approved it. People like Sylvia Massy, Hank Shocklee, Dave Hills and other heavy hitters. While the Zulu shines during mixing, letting mixing engineers select just the right amount and color of tape simulation, it’s also possible to use it during recording and performance.
For recorders using inexpensive interfaces, you can use the Zulu between a pre-mic and your interface, allowing you to run your pre-mic louder in the Zulu than your interface’s AD converter could handle, or allowing you to classify some lesser quality gear. And synth players can also use it to add band coloring to their mono or stereo signals, as there is plenty of headroom available on the device.
Importantly for Langston, and his memories of backbreaking work, it can also fit in a backpack. “I’ve had to buy an 827 before, a 24 track Studer – those things cost hundreds of pounds. Even a simple 70s 2 track machine is heavyheavy, heavy, heavy,” Langston says. “The Zulu weighs six pounds [laughs].
What’s next for Syracuse
Back home in Syracuse, Langston recently started workshops for black and brown students to learn about building technology. “I want to be able to give young people in my community in particular the chance to learn certain skills, whether it’s electronics assembly, schematic design, small signal amplification or running a business. he says.
It’s a way to pass on the mentorship and lessons he’s learned to build his own business and career. But it’s also a way to ensure that the knowledge and skills needed to make analog music gear don’t die.
Langston now measures his own success not just by the continued demand for Zulu, but by how his creation resides in the same spaces and studios as legendary audio gear.
“As a black-owned brand, I’m really proud of this, because it’s a difficult area to break into in the first place – there are myriad factors that contribute to something like this happening,” Langston said. “But to be able to be mentioned in the same sentences as Neve or AnaMod… come on, I grew up in the fourth poorest city in the country, and I was among the poor, and now I’m here with my gear just being mentioned next to stuff that’s $8,000 and people say, “I think [Zulu] is the best way to go.'”
Students who go through his workshops, even if they do not get into music, can still acquire a skill or a state of mind that will allow them to flourish in other fields. As for Handsome Audio, Langston is developing a few more products to join Zulu in its lineup, but it’s TBD when they hit the market. In the meantime, experience Zulu for yourself.