Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Old Four Track

Tascam Portastudio
I don't know if there's any technical merit in revisiting the days when the four track cassette machine was the sole means of multitrack recording available to the aspiring teenage musician. There probably aren't but I'm feeling nostalgic so that's where we're going today.

How many of us spent our high school days banging out cover tunes and maybe even daring to write an original out in the garage or down in the basement. At some point the dreams of rock and roll fame got to be too much and we got our hands on a four track tape machine. There was quite a bit of satisfaction to be had when a month's pay was finally shelled out on that second hand Tascam or Fostex. You felt like you were in the big leagues.

Then it was time to get down to business and try to sort out how to cram the whole band on there. Drum track, bass track, guitar track vocal track, record the whole band live and be done with it? Or you could go the route of using the rehearsal PA to get a stereo mix going of the whole band and coming back later to overdub vocals and solos like the big boys. If you got really creative you could use all the mics you owned to do a huge drum session and bounce that down to two, then keep adding tracks and bouncing down. You could wind up with a decently wide stereo mix at the expense of several generations of crappy dubs.

The problem was that four tracks on a quarter inch of tape was just too much in too little space. There literally wasn't physically room on there for any serious amount of dynamic range. And as for that "tape warmth" that people ooh and ahh about these days, there just wasn't any on those machines. The inputs sucked, the EQs sucked, the heads sucked, and even if you spent all your paper route money on classy CrO² high bias tapes, you still just had a big pile of hiss that if you were lucky something mildly intelligible came out of.

Which brings to light the second problem. Nobody making music on one of these things had the slightest idea what dynamic processing was. If you played too loud it clipped out and if you played too soft it all got lost under the high hat. Oh, the misery that a single channel of dbx compression could have alleviated!

The really interesting thing is how the cost of home recording has diminished over the years. When TEAC released the first Portastudio in 1979 it cost $1200 (in 1979 dollars!). In the early nineties you could get a mini disc based eight track machine for that kind of money. Now days, for $1200 you can get a pretty bangin' laptop, a student edition of Pro Tools, a USB interface with pretty decent pres in it, and still have a couple bucks left over for a mic or two.

There you go Brethren of the Knob and Fader. An excuse to look back and sigh (or shudder) at the technology of days gone by.  Let's hear it for progress!

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