Tag Archives: fidelity

Out-of-print Book Report: “Making 4-Track Music,” John Peel (TRACK pub., 1987)

Download a seven-page scan of some interesting hardware on offer in “Making 4-Track Music,” Track Publishing 1987:

DOWNLOAD: 4trackMusic_JohnPeel

Includes advertisements for Yamaha MT2X, DX100, and RX17 drum machine; Akai MG614 four-track machine, Tascam Porta2 4-track, Fostex 160, the Boss Micro-Rack series (RDD-20 delay, RPS-10 pitch shifter, RCL-10 compressor, RRV-10 reverb, plus a ton more), and KORG’s multieffects.




First-things-first: I have no idea if the ‘John Peel’ to whom this book is credited is the John Peel, he of legendary status as a DJ and taste-maker for an entire generation of rock and pop music.  There is nothing whatsoever in this 98pp paperback volume (found in a Manchester OXFAM back in the early 00’s)  that offers any indication pro or con.  A third option would seem to be the ghostwriter scenario.  Anyhow.  “Making 4-Track Music” (h.f. “M4TM”) is an A5-sized paperback that attempts to introduce readers to the equipment and processes of using 4-track recorders.

The 4-track recorder, for those unfamiliar, is a category of product first introduced by the TASCAM corporation in 1979 with their model 144.

The 1979 TASCAM 144.  Bruce Springsteen recorded his greatest album on this small plastic machine, believe-it-or-not.  (Image source)

TASCAM already dominated the home-recording market with their 3440 1/4″ open reel tape recorder and the associated mixer-units that were marketed alongside it.   These systems had a rather high cost of entry, though: they cost much more than a good used car.  The 144 brought the basic concept of multi-track audio recording and mixing to a far lower price-point by using consumer cassette tape rather than 1/4″ open reel tape as the recording media, and by combining the audio-recording device and the audio-mixing apparatus into one single item.  This made for a much more affordable system and it also made for easier use: no wires to hook up, no redundant or unnecessary features.  Just the basic technology needed to record a performance and then add 3 additional performances in perfect synchronization while retaining the ability to control relative volumes and treatments of each track.   With a creative user, the 4-track machine is capable of much more, but this is the basic concept.

“M4TM” covers all of this, and more; there is an explanation of the various recording and mixing features that the consumer would encounter in the marketplace, plus good treatment of the various types of additional processing equipment that a 4-track owner might like: digital time-based effects (delay, etc), compressors, gates, EQs., etc.

The aesthetics/art of making recordings is not really considered at all; there is a lot of talk about money, costs, (e.g., KORG’s above-depicted rainmaking) and the improved ‘recording quality’ that such expenditures can deliver but no mention of improving the presentation of songs and sonic ideas via any of this technology.  Here’s a typical passage:


As someone who’s work is largely based on the commercial recording studio that I own and operate, I find it rather… alarming/offensive that the prime benefit of making a recording in a pro studio is the sound-quality, to extent that this benefit could be completely undone by several generations of tape-duplication.  Jesus.  I like to hope that I give my clients something more than a good signal-noise ratio and even frequency response.  The passage above kind of makes it seem like it’s the EQUIPMENT in a studio that is doing the work, rather than the engineer…   is this how most musicians feel about studios?  Is this how I used to feel about studios, when I was 4-tracking at home at age 19?

(me at home, age 19: via Tascam Porta 03, Boss Micro -Rack effects): 07 The End

Furthermore, M4TM does not even entertain the aesthetic or artistic possibilities of all of this ‘4-track’ equipment.  Rather, the emphasis is very much on ‘making-a-demo’ en route to possibly getting a ‘record deal,’ and all that this will entail (presumably the “Riches and Fame” for which you will have KORG to thank).   The idea of possibly creating a compelling piece of artwork with this equipment is simply absent.

I wonder when this changed.  By the time I started recording heavily on a four 4-track machine, a mere 8 years later (1995), musicians like Bill Callahan (aka SMOG) and Jeff Mangum (aka Neutral Milk Hotel) were already getting attention specifically as masters of 4-track recording.  These guys did not appear too interested in making a ‘real record’ in a ‘pro studio.’  The 4-track medium, with its attendant tape hiss, awkward usage once you went past four tracks, and total absence of any sort of editing ability, was a huge part of the artwork that they created.  Artwork that has truly endured.

(image source)

I went to see Jeff Mangum perform last week here in CT.  He did a solo set at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven.    Jeff Mangum has not released a major album of his own in 13 years.  The Shubert was nearly sold-out to it’s 1591 capacity.

(image source)

Have a listen (above) to “Naomi” from Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1996 4-track masterpiece “On Avery Island.”  Would these songs have been rendered any more compelling had they been tracked and mixed in a studio?  I think we all know the answer to that…  Ultimately, though, what Mangum’s solo-acoustic-gtr-and-voice performance at the Shubert last week demonstrated to me was more the fact that it probably honestly didn’t matter how he had made those seminal recordings: the songs themselves are so good and his voice and affect are so well-wrought that their properties can impress regardless of the presentation.

Perhaps I am reading into this all too much…perhaps my ideas and taste are a bit ‘off’ and therefore I have ‘niche’ values.  Mangum seems, to me, to be a very straightforward singer/songwriter.. but perhaps my appreciation for artists like Jeff Mangum simply indicates that I have ‘weird’ taste, that I am out-of-step with ‘mainstream’ values…  Goggle seems to think so.   Here’s what you will see if you play a Neutral Milk Hotel song on Youtube:

Is your significant-other cheating on you?  Maybe you need to lose those glasses: improve yr appeal?  Fuck it, man, you’re a GEEK.  Face it.  Geek geek geek.  Date another geek.

I am so confused.

1987/2012:  Maybe our John Peel simply wrote “M4TM” in a lost era, simple as that… an era when there still was a vigorous economic basis for the music-recording-industry and therefore the idea of recording music as INDUSTRY rather than EXPLOIT was still the dominant theme.   It’s also interesting to consider that around the time of the first Neutral Milk Hotel album we also saw the introduction of Tape Op magazine, the first (that I am aware of…) widely-distributed publication that embraced the ethos of home-recording as a serious art form.   And all of this happened just-in-time for the introduction of the first affordable DAWs (e.g., Pro Tools LE), which completely changed both the technique and the aesthetics of audio recording forever.  You still need to be able to write a good song though.  That much hasn’t changed.

 Previous 4-track coverage on PS dot com:

Fostex recorders of the 1980s

Musician Magazine 1976-1999

The Tascam Series 40 tape machines of the 1980s

Download the complete twelve-page Tascam Series 40 catalog, c. 1984:

DOWNLOAD: Tascam40series1984

Products covered, with extensive text, specs, and photos, include: Tascam 42 1/4″ stereo tape machine, Tascam 44 four-track 1/4″ tape machine, and Tascam 48 1/2″ eight-track tape machine.

above: Tascam’s various data recorders of the early eighties. 21-track 1/2″ anyone?

Tascam helped create the category of ‘home-recording-studio’ in the 1970s with their 4-track reel to reel machines.  The 3440, Teac 3340, and Tascam 40-4 and 80-8 tape machines were the backbone of thousands of home studios and project studios.  This line-up was improved in the 1980s with the introduction of the Series 40.  The Tascam 42, 44, and 48 tape machines offered better performance than the older models, plus standard features such as balanced i/o, varispeed, and confidence monitoring (IE, they are all three-head decks).  The battleship-grey finish of the series 40 lets you know that these are commercial/industrial machines, and the 70/80 lb weight reinforces that idea.   (N.B. – Tascam also offered a series 50 with even better specs; i have no direct experience with these machines tho…)

The Tascam 48

Many years ago I inherited a couple dozen pro reel-to-reel machines from a media company that had updated to DAT.  Otari 50/50s, Tascam 22s and 32s, Technics 1500s, etc…  The best unit of the bunch was a Tascam 44.   The operational characteristics and sonics of that machine were incredible.  It is long gone now, like all the others, sacrificed to pay-the-rent in late 90’s Williamsburg.   It’s one of the few studio pieces that I really regret selling.  I don’t think I would ever go back to analog tape as a working production format, but as an effect of sorts analog tape has a quality that nothing else can deliver.  Just yesterday I was in the studio with E’s Marantz dual-cassette deck, bouncing some submixes onto a Type 1 Sony cassette and then back into Pro Tools, trying to get just the right amount of high and low end breakup.  I got it right after about ten attempts with different level settings.  A three-head machine would have been very useful in that situation… especially one with varispeed.

Anyone still using a Tascam 44 or 48 for music production?  Drop a line and let us know…

Magnecord PT6 c.1950 used in contemporary music production

It never ceases to amaze me how many people navigate to this website as a result of searching for Magnecord tape-machine information.  Until I bought a pair of PT6 machines last year, I had no awareness of them; since then, I am continually discovering more and more evidence of the role that Magnecord played in mid-twentieth century broadcasting and recording in the United States.  Moreover, my two machines (previously owned by the University of Connecticut; purchased by me last year for $25/each) now work great after I performed some restoration work.  This is no mean feat for sixty-year-old tape recorders which were subjected to the harsh treatment of student-recordists for untold decades.  Anyhow, you can hear some early test-recordings that I made with the PT6 shortly after I restored them:  listen here and here.    Since I recorded that version of “Hallelujah,”  my two PT6’s  have been parked in the entryway of our studio Gold Coast Recorders.    Clients often inquire about them, surprised to learn that they are in fact functional; but it was not until last week that they actually got used on a session.   Take a listen to the track below and you can hear some of the wonderful music of Keith Restaurant.  Keith’s been a frequent visitor to Gold Coast since we opened our doors in April and he makes music that you might call minimalist, or noise music, or process music;  it’s inherently impossible to categorize.  With this sort of ‘organized sound,’ every listener needs to find his/her own way in.  The following piece is from a set he recorded called ‘computer music.’  You are hearing a single live take of several performers manipulating the harddrives and power supplies of live laptop computers, amplified with induction mics and guitar amplifiers.  The Magnecord PT6 is the primary recording medium, and several generations of re-amping and re-tracking (via our UREI 809 studio playback monitors) in the big live room at Gold Coast were layered to create the overall piece.

LISTEN: KR_CmptrMx_Track2.mp3

Since the sounds that composer Keith Restaurant organize in this music have essentially no reference point (I.E., none of them are sounds that you or I would have heard before), every element of the production process is incredibly important in creating meaning.  In this way, the Magnecord PT6, with it’s peculiar frequency response, distortions, and flutter, is being used in a very significant way; it is a primary component of the sound, rather than an ‘effect.’  This contribution is intensified by the multiple-generations of recording and re-recording via the PT6.  It is also interesting to note than even in the longer (4:00) piece, the PT6 deviated less than 250ms over 4:00 relative to the Pro Tools safety copy.  This is great news for anyone who wants to fold one of these into their working process.

You can learn more about Keith Restaurant at his blog.


Time (part one)

Have you ever entered a long-abandoned space; a time capsule?

Not like a cave or a forest or a wood; those are natural places which exist independent of any time-keeping, in a vast seamless stretch.

I am referring instead to places touched and crafted by humanity, once; and then left, sealed up, like a pharaoh’s tomb.  How do you think Howard Carter felt when he first entered King Tut’s tomb? What do we feel when we enter these ancient spaces?

They are filled with unfamiliar objects, layers of dust (matter once organized and differentiated, now becoming undifferentiated), and what else?  Ghosts?  What is a ‘ghost’ if not the /voice/ of a departed individual that still /speaks/ to us through the discourse established by their abandoned objects/spaces?

Our bodies can move freely through the three dimensions of space, unless shackled by disease or coercive force; but most people intuitively feel that we cannot move freely through time.  This restriction on controlled movement through time is tolerated, at best, and suffered deeply at worst.  Most feel that we move forward through time, at a rate that does seem to vary with activity and age; but backward through time?  Can we access the past?  Do we ever feel that we are using the force of a prior moment?

The future holds possibilities, certainly; but the past does as well.  Just as we can chose our current actions from a certain set of possible actions, and therefore chose our futures to a degree, we can also chose our pasts.  We can chose which elements of the past we incorporate into our lives.  There is an essential difference, for instance, between filling your air/space/life with the music of Led Zeppelin and the Beatles vs filling your life with the music of Jim Ford and Pearls Before Swine.  While Led Zeppelin and the Beatles are certainly two of the finest musical groups to ever make a record, the great success that they experienced ensures that they will become part of the fabric of all subsequent musical culture.  They are already baked-in, as it were, to 99% of rock music that you might experience on any radio station or television show today.  This does not make them bad: but it does make them inevitable.  Experiencing the legacy of Zeppelin and the Beatles is not a choice; it is mandatory.  On the other hand, when we chose to heavily involve ourselves with forgotten, cast-off bits of history, we can actively re-shape our own contemporary reality.  Obscurity, as a preference, is not simply motivated by a supposed hierarchy of accessibility or a badge of time-spent-in-the-trenches; when we engage ourselves with the entombed, the brilliant-but-dead-end bits of history, aren’t we really crafting a unique present moment for ourselves?


The films of Quentin Tarantino are often described as post-modern because he mixes cultural signifiers of many different eras and subcultures in a non-heirachical way in order to arrive at a new and unique meaning.  Consider Samuel Jackson’s character in the clip above: The suit of a jazz musician from the 50s; jheri curl hairdo from the 80s; the highly charged speech patterns of the 60s civil rights movement; driving the 1970s sedan.  What year is it again?  Tarantino is making films for a wide audience, so none of these are particularly obscure references in and of themselves; he wants to entertain you, not send you to Google after the movie to look up what the hell was going on.  But the overall affect is still achieved through a kind of time-play.  This demonstrates that yes the past, as well as the future,  holds immense expressive possibilities.

When we’re working in the studio, and we record a vocalist with an ancient microphone, what exactly are we doing?  What effect are we creating?  It’s not likely that we’re trying to trick anyone into thinking that this pop song was recorded in 1932.  We’re generally not even trying to reference the historical period 1932 via the recording.  But we do have the potential to build a new space that exists along a different axis entirely.  Not a past-plus-present but a denial or refutation of single-vector linear time.  I don’t think this actually happens very often; we can use all sorts of audio equipment from the entire 100-year history of recording technology and still easily end up with ‘just a pop song,’ be it a genius one or a terrible one.  But there is real possibility in this.

If you are reading this website right now, you are probably involved in the recording of music in some way.  You probably own or admire antique or ‘vintage’ recording equipment, and use it in your work.  Why do you do it?  What is the benefit for you? What expressive power does it have?  Are you taking full advantage of those possibilities?