Handsome Audio's Langston Masingale on the Zulu Tape Simulator

To know tape is to love tape, and Langston Masingale knows tape. The founder of Handsome Audio, Langston is the creator of the Zulu, a passive, all-analog tape simulator built to give digital recordings the depth, life, and dynamism of magnetic tape.

There's no shortage of digital recreations of tape sounds—plugins or effects options you can find in DAWs, hardware samplers, effects pedals, and other gear. But the Zulu stands alone. Langston's inventive feat of engineering bucks the digital trend, recreating the sound, flexibility, and feel of tape recording in a hands-on device that requires no extra 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 machine.

At more standard settings, tape faithfully captures a recording while adding a subtle richness and glue. When hit with a hot signal or when a tape recorder is running at different bias currents, tape can saturate your sound in lovely ways, from sweet overdrive to gnarly crunch. And there's a whole rich array of sound qualities depending on the kind of tape or the specific tape machine you're using.

Langston's Zulu puts all of this into one standalone device, a hefty piece of desktop equipment the size of a super-sized pedal. It allows you to choose between different types of tape, types of machines, bias and calibration settings, and the available headroom of your tape simulation, all with analog circuitry.

How'd he do it?

Growing Up With Tape

"My earliest recollection equipment was a reel-to-reel machine that my mother had in our living room on cinder blocks," he tells us. On tapes and vinyl, they'd listen to Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas & The Papas, and lots of other music from his mom's Baby Boomer generation. But musical instruments were harder to come by.

Langston Masingale
Langston Masingale. Photo used with permission.

"We were very poor, so, for me, I was not really around musical instruments that much as a kid, simply because of means or exposure, but I was exposed to electronics," Langston says. "I used to play with broken televisions, broken radios, and other objects on the side of the road in my old hood."

His mother, who has a master's degree in psychiatry, assessed him at two years old as being "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 gear.

By the time he got into making music, he had already had years of experience in building and repairing equipment. At 16, he began working in his uncle's studio in New Jersey, recording rock, jazz, rap, and gospel, which set off a long run of working in and around recording studios, while also working concurrently in education. Those two hats—music and education—have been with him his whole adult life.

After picking up analog experience right before the digital era began, 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 how to use a digital multitrack when it first came out. I learned how to use the computer and the computer soundcard, then Cubase, Pro Tools, Cakewalk… eventually settling on Reaper, which is my preferred platform."

All the while—even when mixing digital tracks with analog outboard gear—he still missed everything tape had once provided. "It still didn't sound like what I remembered," he says. But it would take some time to figure out exactly how to get it back.

Transformer-tive Education

In 2009, Langston helped start JJ Audio Mics, a boutique firm still in operation that mods mics and creates its own tube- and FET-based mics styled after vintage Neumanns, AKGs, and other similar classics.

There, they made clones in the style of U 87s, 87is, 251s, and C12s. With the Akita, Langston says, "We were the first company to successfully clone the C-800G, which was around 2010, 2011."

As far as budget or middle-market clone brands go, Langston says they were "the first to take the beatings, to try to really convert people to this culture of 'you can make equipment affordably and still have it deliver way above its pay grade.'"

His time at JJ also got him acquainted with suppliers and other makers in the industry, including the late Tom Reichenbach from CineMag and the late Oliver Archut from AMI. "Oliver wound transformers for everybody and their mama," Langston says. "He took me under his wing and taught me the mystery and black magic of making transformers."

Handsome Audio Zulu
The Handsome Audio Zulu.

He says his relationship with Tom started with Langston's own regular phone calls and questions, first about gear they were working on at JJ, but then more about Tom's processes and deep knowledge of transformers.

"I'm a person that when older people speak—especially knowledgeable older people—I'm a bucket waiting to get filled up," Langston says. "Tom caught onto the fact that I really dug this stuff, and on top of that, to Tom's credit, it's not like I forced him to be my mentor. Tom did that with anyone who would listen."

Langston started developing his own product ideas, talking about them—perhaps a little like Tom—to anyone that would listen, which had some unintended consequences.

"A lot of my ideas were kind of taken away from me, because I have a big mouth," Langston says. "I've developed microphone capsules, transformers, saturation boxes, and summing mixers and all types of stuff, and I see them getting produced by other people."

Throughout these earlier years of his career, Langston says potential employers wouldn't give him a chance. As a Black man trying to work in the music gear and recording industries, he found his skin color to be a detriment, or in Langston's words, he kept finding himself in situations where "my appearance mattered more than my skill set."

He had thought maybe he'd develop Zulu and sell it to another company to make, but finally, he decided if he wanted to make it the right way, "I need my own damn company."

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 off the Zulu to get manufactured at a high-tech plant in Arizona.

"I went from my dining room table, from the garage of my old recording studio, to being in this world-class [manufacturing] facility that had a campus—and that's where Zulu was getting made."

The Zulu in Practice

Langston demonstrates the Zulu with a variety of audio examples.

Taking that same philosophy they had at JJ mics, Langston wanted the Zulu to be built with precision and care, and yet still be affordable. According to Langston, it's "a quality that most people don't hear for the price tag."

It's transformer-coupled on the input and output, made in the USA, and it has spring-loaded mechanical rotary switches so that you can always hit and recall the exact setting on each knob. When you hold the Zulu in your hands, you can almost tell its quality in an instant. While still light, it has some unexpected heft, and no piece of the enclosure or knobs feels cheap in any way.

The Zulu ships with playing cards of the professional engineers and producers who have endorsed it. Folks like Sylvia Massy, Hank Shocklee, Dave Hills, and other heavyweights. 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 during recording and performance.

For recordists using inexpensive interfaces, you can use the Zulu in between a mic-pre and your interface, allowing you to run you mic-pre harder into the Zulu than your interface's A-to-D converter might handle, or letting you class up some lesser-quality gear. And synth players can also use it to add tape coloration to their mono or stereo signals, since there's plenty of available headroom on the device.

Importantly to Langston, and his memories of some back-breaking work, it can also fit in a backpack. "I've had to pick up a 827 before, a 24-track Studer—those things are hundreds of pounds. Even a simple 2-track machine from the '70s is heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy," Langston says. "The Zulu is six pounds [laughs].

What's Next From Syracuse

Back home in Syracuse, Langston has recently launched some workshops for Black and brown students to come learn about building technology. "I want to be able to give youth in my community in particular the chance to learn certain skills—whether it's electronics assembly, schematic design, small-signal amplification, or if it's how to run 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 make sure the knowledge and skills it takes to make analog music gear don't die.

Langston measures his own success now not just through the continued demand for Zulu, but in the way his creation resides in the same spaces and studios as legendary audio equipment.

"As a Black-owned brand, I'm really proud of that, because it's a hard field to break into in the first place—there's a myriad of factors that goes into making something like this happen," Langston says. "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 here I am with my equipment being mentioned right next to stuff that costs $8,000 and people are like, 'I think [Zulu] is the better way to go.'"

The students that pass through his workshops, even if they don't get into music gear, might still learn a skill or a mindset that will let them flourish in other fields. As for Handsome Audio, Langston is developing a few more products to join Zulu in his lineup, but it's TBD for when they'll hit the market. In the meantime, check out the Zulu for yourself.

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