Otari Compact 8-track 1/2″ format c. 1989. Also, SECK mixer.
Toa 8-track cassette format
…and you better bet TASCAM made one too.
Above: some short-lived “more-than-four” home-recording formats that were available between the 4-track cassette and ADAT eras. It’s kind hard to imagine how significant an issue ‘track count’ (IE., the number of available tracks of a particular multi-track recording machine) was just a short while ago. It’s not unusual at all these days for me to make a production for an artist that has 80 or even 100 tracks. And I am not talking about some crazy orchestral or prog-rock epic; I am talking about just a well-produced indie pop song. Modern music means layering. Lots of it. When I, and many other folks started doing this, we dreamed of someday having more than 8 tracks to work with. Well, as it turns out, ‘more’ didn’t mean 16, 24, or even 48: it meant infinite. “Be careful what you wish for…”
What will be the next technological barrier to fall in the world of audio production?
I wouldn’t mind seeing all those goddamn wires go away, for one…
From an AES journal circa 1961. It’s interesting to see how the meaning of ‘audio engineer’ has shifted over the past half century. An ‘Audio Engineer’ circa 1961 would almost certainly be called a ‘tech’ or a ‘broadcast engineer’ today, while the circa ’61 ‘audio technician’ would almost certainly be called an engineer or mixer today.
I was reading a 1961 AES journal when I came across this piece by Phillip Erhorn of Audiofax associates in which he details “New trends in stereo recording consoles.” Erhorn will let you have your channel EQs and compressors, but only very begrudgingly.
Here’s Erhorn describing how he feels the trend for extensive channel EQ developed:
I mean, yeah, I agree, many condenser mics are hyped in the high end. But why the hostility, buddy? Oh and about all those channel compressors?
Remember what I said a few posts back about The Pre Rock Era? How long did it take for our culture to shake off the idea that ‘verisimilitude to an actual acoustic event is the fundamental function of audio’? I’ll remind you that in only about 3 years’ time, EMI staff engineers would be pushing their modded’ Altec compressors hard to get the sounds that helped create the Beatles’ success. Oh the times they are a’changing.
Let’s get back to those swell-looking Audifax consoles tho…
Above, the same 12×3 desk, inside and out. What a work of art this thing is! Someday. I . Will. Build. My. Own. Console.
Another Audiofax console.
I am going to take a bit of a left turn here. Not exactly like Jung’s Left Hand Path but… Let’s get back to the hostility towards this new idea of audio-as-sound-modification-technology (as opposed to documentation-technology) that we read in the passages above. Erhorn was/is obvs a very talented man who cared deeply about music or he would not have gained the skills/drive to construct the intricate pieces we see above. So his views can’t just be written off. Which begs the question: If Erhorn’s views as an accomplished audio professional were, in 1961, slated for imminent obsolescence, then which of our current paradigms are headed for the dustbin? I don’t think the answer has anything to do with fidelity or even any particular kind of recording technology, necessarily. In 1961, the history of audio trends was simply an upward vector. Higher fidelity was ‘better.’ Frequency response and distortion % was always getting ‘better.’ Progress towards increased fidelity was the paradigm, and any deviation from this progress (such as the need to ‘EQ’ a mic to achieve a supposed marketing prerogative or the need to compress a loud, ‘music-less’ but sale-able band of youths) was bad, right?
Well, the ‘fidelity problem’ was pretty much solved by the late 1970s… the high-end of professional and consumer equipment available at that time is as close-to-perfect, in terms of sheer audio performance, as any user is likely to need. Which is why the manufacturers turned towards the convenience problem instead. This brought us the Walkman, the CD, and ultimately, the MP3. So with the ‘fidelity problem’ solved, and all of our attention now collectively focused on the ‘convenience problem,’ we abandonded the paradigm of the upward vector of fidelity and instead enter an age of fidelity-trends. High-fidelity sounds are in vogue for a while; and them low-fi and distorted sounds become popular. We then tire of the low-fi and artists start making slick-sounding records again. Etc., etc. Now, there are real moments in the culture that precipitate each of these shifts, but the pattern seems likely to keep repeating. The point is: neither hi-fi nor low-fi are going anywhere. We now have a plurality of acceptable approaches to the generation of recorded musical performances. So what’s to obselecse then? Which viewpoint is about to become hopelessly outdated?
It’s my current feeling that the answer has something to do with copyright, ownership, and fair use. Not fidelity, not any particular recording technology, but copyright and the idea of what kind of ‘use’ of existing recorded materials constitutes a valid new work. I really get the sense from younger artists, as well as my students, that existing recordings — audio-masters made and paid for by other people — are fair game for use in their own productions: no credit or compensation necessary. Of course ‘sampling’ occurred in hip hop for ten years before rap artists had to start paying fees to use recognizable samples in their tracks, but I am more talking about the newer trend of simply lifting an obscure existing song, performing some tweaks on it, and calling it your own production. And maybe it is! Who is to say, really. And that’s kind of the point I am trying to make. If you are a young contemporary musician, what is the material that you work with? What are the compositional elements that you are concerned with? It is the notes E2 – E6 on an electric guitar? Or is anything and everything that you can download for free from the internet? If you want some concrete examples of the kind of music that I am talking about, check out this thread on Hipster Runoff. If you are unfamiliar with HRO, the tone might take a little getting used-to, but the musical examples that the author presents are very valid. Listen to the tracks. Be aware that these are some of the most popular, most relevant rock-music acts in the world today. And ask yrself: how do you feel about this? Can you accept the paradigm shift that is emerging? Can you appreciate that this paradigm shift is taking place at the precise moment that the economic base of the century-old Recording Industry is almost fully collapsed? And while you are pondering that, recall the Marxist relation between base and superstructure, this idea that economic conditions necessarily construct cultural conditions?
Here’s those free music-production apps you asked for. Now go… make some music.
The next few weeks at Preservation Sound: we bring you: in no particular order: some of the state-of-the-art in studio recording equipment of the early 1960s. A period that I like to refer to as the ‘pre-rock-era.’ As-in, Rock And Roll existed, but Rock? That was at least one Ed Sullivan show/protest song/freedom march/long haircut/draft card/Godard film away. Also of note: the period 1960-1963 was also the end-of-the-line of the first Golden Age of vacuum tube audio development. Although new valves and valve-operated products were still being introduced, it was only a short while before Solid State became the defacto state-of-the-art.
Enjoy the material, and as always… if any of y’all are using this kit in the studio these days, drop us a line and let us know…
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 theJohn 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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
The article is primarily concerned with studio-editing applications of the then-novel ‘magnetic tape recording’ technology, with some interesting bits regarding techniques for capturing greater dynamic range in disc-recording. Article was researched at Reeves Sound Studios in NYC, a five-floor facility that seems to have been primarily a sound-for-picture studio but which hosted at least one commercially-released Coltrane session. Reeves used Fairchild 30 ips tape machines which look very similar to the industry-standard Ampex 300s of the era.