Getting the Best from Your Portastudio
Recording tips for this popular machine.
The Teac 144 was, of course, the original Portastudio, and I'm sure that most of us are familiar with the concept of multitracking on cassette, if not on that particular model.
There is of course a lot more to getting good results from a machine of this type than just the techniques of track-bouncing etc; and we shall be looking at the best way to record different types of instruments and vocals. But first, let us consider some of the limitations of recording with this format.
1) Deterioration of second generation signals.
When transferring sounds from one track to another, as in mixing down, track bouncing etc., the original signal will lose some of its clarity and attack, each time it is re-recorded. Therefore it is essential to plan carefully in advance exactly what will be recorded on which track and when, thereby enabling signals which are required to be prominent (vocals perhaps, or lead instruments) to be recorded last of all.
2) Effects of noise reduction.
On machines which have the popular types of noise reduction built in (Dolby, dbx etc.), we will find that occasionally the noise reduction system can be caught out by fast transients, such as drum sounds, plucked strings and so on, thus producing the unwanted 'pumping' effects associated with these systems.
3) Tape saturation.
Cassette tapes, even when running at 3¾ips and with noise reduction, have a fairly limited dynamic range (ie. the difference between the quietest sound recordable without tape noise, and the loudest sound recordable without distortion), compared with live music. Although care must be taken not to exceed these extremes, most tape/machine combinations exhibit a natural compression effect towards the upper limit which can occasionally be used to advantage.
Bearing in mind the above points, let's take a closer look at recording the various instruments most likely to be used in the home recording situation.
KEYBOARDS/SYNTHS. Probably the easiest to record, as most have a fairly constant output level and can be connected directly from their 'line out' sockets to the Portastudio's inputs.
Experimentation will be necessary to determine the best recording level, but generally speaking, most of the less strident sounds can be recorded at a fairly high level, taking advantage of the previously mentioned compression effects of the tape itself. This is ideal, of course, when the synth signal is needed fairly low down in the final mix, and can be recorded early on with a minimum of tape noise.
ACOUSTIC PIANO, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish altogether, and will require a lot of patience in trying different mic positions and EQ settings. If resources are limited a reasonable piano sound can be obtained with a single mic positioned at some distance from the strings (4 or 5 feet) and pointed slightly more towards the higher registers. This will allow a good overall sound, at the same time picking up some of the natural room ambience.
Particular attention should be paid to tape overload and distortion, especially from the bass strings, and it is advisable to leave the piano as a first generation recording, otherwise a lot of the subtle overtones and harmonics will be lost.
ELECTRIC GUITAR/BASS. If the reader has access to a compressor, it will make life a lot easier in getting a good clean guitar sound, although going through effects pedals etc. will sometimes help to smooth the signal peaks out a little.
If connecting directly to the Portastudio's inputs, the bass guitar is probably the easiest to get a good sound from, providing one is careful not to overload the tape. I would advise recording no higher than -3dB on the VU meters, bearing in mind that a fair amount of treble cut can be used on mixdown to counter tape hiss and noise if apparent.
When using six string guitars, care must be taken if recording both lead and rhythm parts on the same track, as the difference in signal level between a full chord and a lead line played perhaps on the higher strings can be quite dramatic. Again, be careful not to overload the tape. A little bass cut may well be useful here. In both cases, a little practice will help to get you playing at a fairly constant level (which is good musical discipline in any case).
ACOUSTIC GUITAR. Again some experimentation with mic positioning will be required. Usually, a distance of about 12-18 inches from the front of the body will give a good result, but try not to point the mic directly at the sound hole, as this could result in a boomy, muddled sound, especially on chords.
If using a plectrum, this can produce a lot of transient energy which can overload the tape and sound 'splashy' if care is not taken with recording levels. Try recording a short section first as a test of sound quality.
ELECTRONIC DRUMS. Most rhythm units will record well and produce an acceptable result.
As mentioned previously, some snare drum sounds, especially, will catch out the noise reduction system and produce a 'breathing' effect. This can, in fact, be used to thicken up the sound of the snare if you record at a fairly high level, but take care with the bass drum sound as this can easily overload the tape.
A little added reverberation can make a rhythm machine sound much less mechanical. If you do not have access to a reverb unit, a good sound can be achieved in the following way: Connect the rhythm machine direct to one channel of the Portastudio and adjust level and EQ controls. Leaving the Portastudio in the cue mode, take a line out to the monitor amp and speakers, and adjust the amplifier to produce a good clear, bright sound without too much bass. Mike up one of the speakers from a distance of no less than 6-8 feet, and feed the signal back into another channel of the Portastudio. Mix the two channels together for desired effect and commence recording.
Obviously this will work better in a fairly live room.
ACOUSTIC DRUMS. Obtaining a good sound from acoustic drums may well depend on the facilities available to record it.
If you do not have cupboards full of microphones and stands, then the simple approach can often work well, with one mic set up fairly high and a good distance from the kit, with perhaps just one more for the bass drum.
VOCALS. Firstly, you must use the best microphone you can afford, as no amount of subsequent signal processing can make up for a poor mic sound.
A lot will depend of course on the voice in question, but don't get too close to the mic, and try not to use any EQ unless absolutely necessary, as this can produce phase anomalies which are especially noticeable on vocals.
If you intend to use more than one voice on the song, record the backing vocals first and then overdub the lead vocal last of all, keeping this a first generation recording. A little practice will ensure that you keep within the dynamic range capabilities of the machine, and a little added reverberation can work well, but don't overdo it. If in doubt, leave it out!
One of the most important aspects of working with a four track cassette machine, is to plan what you are going to do in advance, and be well prepared when you come to record. If you are not, a lot of time and effort can be wasted trying to get a good 'take', which can start to turn your performance a little stale. Also, try to keep things as simple as possible, and remember, that the space between sounds is as important as the sounds themselves, so don't try to cram too much into one song.
Remember, at the end of the day, the recording technique is there to enhance the performance, not the other way round.
Feature by J. Ashbourn