Home Studio Recordist
Reader Mark Lowman tells of his X-15 exploits.
Calling all home recordists... Here's a golden opportunity to pass on those brilliant tricks you've discovered to turn your cassette deck into a fully-blown 48 track recorder!
Well, not quite... but these columns are devoted to what you, the reader, have to say about your own method of recording, your equipment or maybe your experiences in a pro studio. So write and tell us about these or any other aspect of your recording and you may well find yourself occupying these pages.
This is the first feature you've looked at in this month's edition, isn't it? We're all the same, constrained by our tight budgets (which could explain our pained expressions!), all eager to find a simple and above all cheap tip which can squeeze that little extra from our home recordings..
It used to be so simple. Tape recording used to mean an omnidirectional microphone connected to a mono reel-to-reel stuffed in the budgie's cage. My first tape recorder, a Philips 4307, had a parallel track function used for applying commentaries over music. I can remember trying for hours to 'synchronise' the two tracks by trial and error, marking the outside of the spool with strips of insulating tape. It nearly worked, too!
For some years after those heady days, recording took second place to playing and performing. But by this time, boredom with other people's material had driven me to write my own. The desire to convert what were simply long patterns of guitar chords into some coherent, finished product, drove me to purchase a Sony TC-377 stereo tape deck with a built-in sound-on-sound facility. This helped me to escape the acoustic guitarist's syndrome of everything coming out sounding the same.
The year was 1976 and your 'star quality' was still your greatest asset. I dreamed of selling a song to a publisher and so set about the soul-destroying task of sending my SOS demos, copied in cassette form, to all the relevant addresses I could find. Result - enough rejection letters to paper my bedroom!
I had overcome the hideous build-up of noise incurred with SOS in every possible way - special position tape, higher 7½ ips tape speed, recording the less critical bass and rhythm patterns first etc. My instrument lineup at the time comprised home organ for drums/bass, plus acoustic and electric guitars. Echo/reverb effects were obtained by taking the multi-layered backing track out onto the Philips mono recorder and then re-recording it (two generations later - cringe) onto the same channel of the Sony, while at the same time setting the remaining channel to echo mode and recording the lead vocal on it.
One serious limitation was that the lead vocal could not be monitored while it was being recorded without the vocalist developing the most embarrassing stammer! Further - more, the final master recording ended up split between the two stereo channels and had to be played back in mono. I have never been a prolific writer, but using this method managed to commit eight finished songs to tape. I am pleased to see that years later, SOS remains a low cost alternative to multitrack - witness the new Tascam 225 Syncaset.
Feeling discouraged at my lack of commercial success (my finest hour being when BBC's 'Play School' kept an early song on file) and preoccupied for three years with the task of getting a degree, I let the recording slide. I emerged in 1981, broke and unemployed. But changes had taken place - home multitrack had arrived. Expectations of home demos had risen. I had a new batch of songs to record but was severely limited by money. The Sony was duly dusted off, demagnetised and a further six songs were recorded. But somehow the end result no longer justified the hard work.
It was 1983 before the Fostex X-15 arrived on the scene. Here was a four track cassette at half the price of the competition and truly portable. Its compact form meant that my other limitation, that of space, was no longer a headache. Furthermore, by spending half the amount on the X-15, money was still available for extras. I think this important point is often overlooked by many enthusiastic recordists.
I have now been using the X-15 for a little over a year and in that time have also been able to upgrade my other equipment and instruments, even managing luxuries such as a noise gate. The first three months were taken up in getting to know the X-15, and being continually amazed at what could be achieved with it.
But the playing had to stop and the serious recording begin. I set about re-recording the best of my early material - I was familiar with it and could concentrate on getting the best recording down without worrying about song form and content. One of these new versions, Will She Love Me In July?, was placed in the finals of the recent HSR/Soundcraft competition. I have since recorded three songs for my sister, an active musician, and we hope they will soon be broadcast on hospital radio.
Although I remain essentially a songwriter, I have become more and more interested in the technical side of recording through magazines like HSR. I have also educated my ears to be very critical of professionally released recordings. In the near future I am also attending a three-day recording course at the University of Aston Triangle which was advertised in HSR's recording course feature (July 1984).
The limitations of the X-15 have become apparent in use but whenever I get frustrated by it, I simply play one of my old sound-on-sound tapes! In the future I would like to upgrade to a 'bigger' four track cassette, as I am sure the higher speed would make a great difference to overall sound quality. Other items on my shopping list include a programmable drum machine, possibly the new Korg digital, and some kind of analogue delay device.