Home Studio Recordist
Reader Peter Forrest relates his delightful tales of woe.
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.
Home Recording isn't all 'sweetness and light' as is proven by reader Peter Forrest's delightful tales of woe.
From the time in 1972 when I scraped together the money (£22.50) for a half-share in an Akai 4000D, I've been hooked on recording.
Over the years since then, I've accumulated instruments and equipment in the usual haphazard way. The Akai was replaced by a Sony TC377, which was then supplemented by Akai's very rare 4-channel GX400DS, and a trusty Teac 3340. Small monitor amps and speakers arrived, a Teac Model 2 mixer (now the limiting factor in my set-up, with only six inputs and almost no EQ) and various bits of more or less noisy outboard equipment. On the music side, a 1952 Bird organ was superceded by a Wurlitzer piano, a Roland SH7 synth, and, most recently and pleasurably, a Korg Poly 800 - which is unbeatable value, whatever anybody tells you.
But after thirteen years, I've only just learnt what I now reckon is the most important lesson in home recording. Which is that there's only one way to get the most out of whatever stuff you're using, and that's to adopt professional standards of maintenance and setting up.
If big studios with all that expensive, superb quality gear still bother to do boring things like regularly cleaning and de-magnetising heads, running test-tapes and checking levels all along the signal chain, then surely we at home have got to be at least twice as careful as them. I know this from somewhat bitter experience.
Half-way through 1984, I finally got a break. Not the big break ("Someone called Horn on the phone for you, dear. Something about needing a co-producer for the new Frankie triple album.") but a little break, the chance to get my recording and my music actually published, and into people's ears!
By sheer luck, I got to know an educational computer software producer, and ended up co-writing his next adventure program. And that wasn't the end of the good news. First off, he turned out to be just about the best educational software producer around (don't trust my judgement, ask Educational Computing magazine); and secondly, he was all for including a dramatised story and some music as a stimulus for dance/drama in the package.
Pretty good, huh? Except that I practically blew it. And the reason was... poor studio discipline and technique.
I started off alright, or so I thought. I got some friends to do the acting and narration, and, although they were mainly amateurs, they did a superb job. My studio is fairly well sound-proofed, and I was using brand new tape, and a Realistic PZM microphone, which seemed to be producing a beautifully clean, bright sound. I did at least two takes of every part of the script - more if there were fluffs - and even remembered to get the actors to do some extra shouting and sound effects for some fight and crowd scenes I needed.
I can remember feeling pretty smug when it had all been recorded, and I was making a safety copy. But I'd already sown the seeds of a lot of aggravation for myself...
1. I'd had to record the narrator separately from the other actors. So to keep sound quality constant, I used the same reel of tape.
Bad news. That immediately meant hours of shuttling through tapes, and either risking losing vital bits onto the floor before splicing them into their chronological place, or re-recording them onto another tape, with the consequent loss of quality.
Moral: if you can't persuade everyone in a drama piece to be present at the same time, then record them on separate tapes.
2. I'd failed to notice that in the most exciting bits of the script, that the PZM had cracked up a few times. That meant shuttling between the various takes, trying to find the least distorted version.
Moral: your job is to concentrate on the sound every second the tape is running.
3. I'd noticed a little sibilance during the recordings, and irrationally blamed it on the noise reduction unit. So, just to be on the safe side, I'd recorded most of the second takes with the noise reduction switched out. Most, but not all. Fatal blunder. It just added hugely to the complication of the mixing process.
Moral: if you hear something a little bit wrong while recording, don't panic or jump to conclusions. You're just going to have to annoy your performers for a while, and ask them to help themselves to a coffee while you think things out slowly and logically.
4. My only decent pair of headphones had packed up just at the start of the first session, so I had to monitor on a pair with no bass response at all. I, therefore, failed to notice some induced hum from the PZM, where its lead had drooped down close to a mains transformer.
Moral: make sure you've got two pairs of good quality monitoring cans, just in case. You can't monitor what you can't hear!
5. The actors had made some small mistakes or left the wrong pauses every so often, and I'd completely failed to notice them. So more shuttling, tape changing and editing ensued.
Moral: just keep those ears open!
Add to these problems the fact that only the Akai recorder has an editing facility, so that I was constantly having to swap tapes and decks, and you have a vast amount of frustrating and unnecessary work.
By the time I'd practised my editing technique about (literally) two hundred times, re-patched leads in the back of the mixer about fifty times, and ransacked my safety back-up copy to replace vital bits I'd screwed up, and added music and the sound effects of (for instance) fifty dragons having a ruck, I was left with a master tape of dubious quality, and nowhere near enough time to do the dance/drama tape which was the other half of the project.
The rush that ensued meant that I was even more slapdash with recording techniques on this part. No time to get equipment mended, re-align anything, or (most important) just take utter care over recording levels and sound quality. Consequently, I ended up with an even worse signal-to-noise ratio on this bit which, with no speech and a lot less overdubs, should have been much easier to keep clean.
If you think that's the end of the tale of disasters, you're wrong. Before sending the master tape off to the cassette duplicators, I did the sensible thing, and had one last quality control check.
The tape hiss sounded as bad as ever, the mix was scarcely ideal, but in addition, unexplained and infuriating clicks had appeared. So I did the stupid thing. Out came the editing block and razor blade, and away went the clicks, along with half a word at a crucial place in the story. Back to searching through other tapes for a replacement. Quick, bung it in. Great, except it was on a different track of the tape. So if you're listening in stereo (which, luckily, a lot of schoolkids won't be), half a word zaps from centre stage to the left speaker!
It was time to bail out. I sent the tape off, warts and all, with a nice note to the duplicators asking them to do what they could for the poor thing as they made the one-inch master.
I haven't heard the finished product yet, and I can't say that I want to! It's bad enough listening back to your own music anyway - all the little slips and bum notes and slightly out-of-tune guitars, and so on - but when the whole thing stands as a monument to your ineptitude as a recordist as well, it's enough to put you off the whole business. Except that I start my next project tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to it like mad. Maybe this time I'll take the trouble to line things up, take care and really get the best out of my equipment. Would you?
The program the cassette is for is called 'Dragon World', and is available for BBC B disk or cassette, and RML 480Z. Available from 4 Mation Educational Resources, (Contact Details).