It's all done by Planning (Part 2)
Once again our Cardiff correspondent gives us the benefit of his experience by describing how he put together an efficient and cost effective home studio for the recording of electronic music.
In part two of this short series we look at basic methods of recording on to tape, and examine ways in which you can most effectively use the available tracks.
If you're planning to purchase studio equipment, I won't presume to recommend specific items as I'm not here to advertise specific products. I would advise you to check out the reviews and make a nuisance of yourself in shops (but don't tell them I sent you)! For a more in-depth appraisal of something, you could hire it for a day or two to see if it suits you and who knows, with a bit of arm twisting, you might be able to get the shop to deduct the hire charge from the cost. Alternatively, if you find that the item is not suitable, you might save a few quid anyway by going for something less sophisticated and less expensive. When choosing gear, you must ask yourself exactly what you want, what you need and what you can afford. You may want a Fairlight, when you only need an Akai sampler. It's worth buying the best you can afford so that you don't feel you have to trade it in a fortnight later when you want to do something more ambitious.
When I first started recording, I had two inexpensive stereo tape machines, a small monosynth, a mixer and a few cheap effects pedals but that didn't stop me producing music of a sufficient quality for professional work such as TV, radio, theatre and film. My method of recording was to record a basic backing track onto one machine. Having done that, I would transfer that on to the second tape machine whilst adding some overdubs and then I'd repeat that process again. At first, to be honest, the results were far from perfect, but with experience I found that I could get a fuller, better sound than had I been using a 'proper' 4-track. By placing as much as I could on each transfer and carefully balancing, planning and adding effects as I went, I could get quite a lot of music on the tape. The major drawback with this method is of course that once you have overdubbed, you are unable to remix earlier transfers, but you do get to anticipate what will sound good when further overdubs are added.
The other major problem is tape hiss, as this is increased with every 'bounce', but there are a few ways around this. By recording at as high a level as possible you can preserve a fairly decent signal-to-noise ratio and by boosting the treble on each instrument to an almost unnatural degree when you do your final transfer, you can cut the treble back so that everything is back to normal with the advantage that tape hiss is cut back at the same time. This technique will also counteract the muffling effect you get when transferring from one machine to another.
My next step was to get a 4-track reel-to-reel. The most obvious procedure is to allocate one instrument to each track for total control during mixdown but, with the techniques I learned from using my more modest set-up, I was able to get a lot of music on to one track, predicting a suitable balance as I went and by the time I had filled up all four tracks, I could have as many as 16 instruments on tape. The treble boosting technique also helped to keep noise levels down when mixing down to stereo and it was not uncommon for me to add a few more overdubs when mixing onto the final stereo tape. To prove the point of how successful these techniques were, on one occasion a BBC sound engineer presumed I had used a 16-track studio! With care and attention and a bit of planning, the final results can be very impressive indeed and there is no reason why you cannot utilise these techniques on larger multitrack systems. Even though I now have full 8-track facilities on 1" tape, I still hark back to 'the good old days' and plonk a whole pile of stuff down onto one or two tracks and so effectively double my multitrack facilities. Now that I have considerably more sequencing facilities (a Roland MC4B MicroComposer 'playing' the ARP 2600 and ARP Avatar, clocking a TR606 which in turn triggers some E&MM Syndroms with the MC4 also triggering the sequencer in the JX-3P), I can get practically the whole piece down onto a few tracks, whereas using more conventional recording techniques, all eight tracks would have been used and I would have to mixdown and bounce back on to the 8-track to make room for further overdubs. Unfortunately, a mistake in balancing the instruments on those two tracks means that you either have to do the whole thing again, or live with your mistake. For what it's worth, putting the tracks through a simple stereo graphic EQ can enable you to effectively boost or cut a particular instrument in the mix. I've retrieved many a lost bass drum in this way.
Instead of actually recording all those instruments onto two tracks of my 8-track, I may lay down a sync code on to one track and run all the sequenced parts off that. I could then lay down some overdubs on the remaining tracks and later, during mixdown, I could run the sequenced parts off the sync code and mixdown the recorded parts as normal. This way I can effectively increase my tracking capabilities to 16 instead of eight. Unfortunately, I don't have enough channels on my mixer to accommodate the seven tracks of the multitrack, the seven or more sequenced parts and all my effects so I tend to record all my programmed parts onto two tracks. One way round the problem of having to anticipate a mix of these instruments on the two tracks is to lay down a sync code and record a very rough mix onto the multitrack. When all other overdubs have been added, I can then re-record those two tracks and balance the instruments against the overdubs. After that I can mixdown in the normal way.
This all sounds extremely flexible but some of you may be puzzled as to what a sync code is. Every sequencer has an internal clock, as does every drum machine, and this clock determines the tempo of the piece. Overriding the internal clock with an external one allows us to sync two units together. It would seem obvious that taking the clock output and recording it on one track of the multitrack would allow you to sync your sequencer or drum machine to tape. Unfortunately, this is not normally possible as a clock's output is usually in the region of a good few volts so as a result, many manufacturers are equipping their gear with sync-to-tape facilities. The usual practice is to send a tone (at audio level) on to tape, which is then fed back into the unit where it will replace the internal clock and thereby set the tempo of the whole piece. This code is called FSK (Frequency Shifted Key) and is an audio tone shifted between two frequencies by the unit's internal clock. Unfortunately, not all sequencers and drum machines have this facility and so an alternative method of getting the clock onto tape must be sought. The MPC Sync-Track is a nifty device that converts your clock output into an audio signal and then back into a clock signal for syncing your device to tape. At about £35, it does have a few limitations: it is far more prone to crosstalk from adjacent tracks than FSK and this can throw your stuff out of sync if you're not careful. Also, it's not possible to sync another unit to it unless that unit's clock is compatible with that of the device that generated the original code but then that applies to FSK code as well. In fairness, the MPC Sync-Track is an extremely useful thing to have lying around, even if you have FSK facilities, as it allows you to sync anything with clock ins and outs to tape.
SMPTE is the new buzzword in the world of tape syncing (though its been used in the film industry for years), but at the moment it's still quite expensive (£900 for the Roland and about £3,000 for the SRC FriendChip), but no doubt it will get cheaper. It is an extremely accurate method of syncing things and is not dependent on the tempo. Once a SMPTE code is down on tape, the SMPTE interface lets you set the tempo for your overdubs in a variety of ways. As yet, it's early days but I'm sure we'll start seeing it getting used more and more - in fact, it's now being fitted as standard to the new Emulator 2, the new Drumulator 2 and the new Linndrum machine/MIDI sequencer.
There is another use of a sync code other than playing pre-programmed music. You could, for instance, use the new breed of MIDI-equipped effects units so that you can pre-program changes in your reverb types and echo speeds, flanging rate, depth and so forth, and then by using a MIDI sequencer synced (or is it sunk?) to tape, automatically switch through the programs for a wide variety of ambient and special effects. Of course, as MIDI is multichannel, you can run several effects at once as well as having musical parts 'played'.
Another technique I hope to explore in the future is a computer mixing facility. By routing the outputs from my 8-track via seven VCAs (bearing in mind that one track is used for the sync code) I will be able to program level changes into my MC4 with its VC outputs for an effective automatic mixing facility. The option of manual control via the mixer's sliders will be available, and I'll also be able to 'save' a mix onto digital cassette for remixing at a later stage.
So those are the advantages of using sync codes. But what track saving facilities are available to those of you who actually 'play' your music?
By connecting several synths together, MIDI allows the layering of sounds quite easily. As a result, playing one keyboard can get a lot of parts down onto tape in one go. These parts could be mixed down onto one or two tracks if you are sure of what you want. Alternatively, if you are at all doubtful of the sound you want, you could put each synth down onto separate tracks and then decide on the sound you want to use later when the overdubs are added and you have a better idea of what you want. That latter idea doesn't save tracks but it will save time, because you won't have to keep re-recording a part - one take will be enough. The MIDI based effects we talked about a minute ago could also be usefully employed in such circumstances as you could have (for instance) different delay speeds programmed to change whenever you changed sounds on your synth. This would save a lot of hassle during mixdown.
The whole concept of making music is changing drastically and I wouldn't even be surprised if new techniques are developed by the time this article gets published, such is the speed things are developing. The technology is getting cheaper all the time and I envisage that in the not too distant future we'll see the introduction of a computerised mixer with a built-in multi-channel sequencer and synth system, programmable digital drum machine and effects units and possibly a built-in multitrack and mastering machine (digital of course!) - all for a reasonable price. How well this will compare with building up a system to suit your own needs from separate items I cannot tell, but I'm sure it will prove to be very popular. In the meantime, we have more than enough technology at our disposal to create our own music to a high standard - and all in the privacy of our own home. Isn't science wonderful?
Feature by Steve Howell
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