Home recording heroes.
The first time I ever saw the word "Portastudio" was on a printed-in-Japan leaflet for their original 144 machine that I picked up towards the end of 1979.
Despite all the tortuous translations — "Whatever the direction of your musical aspirations, the Portastudio is certain to become one of your most indispensable creative tools" — and an initial feeling of uncertainty, I eventually realised that here was something special.
Indeed, the phrase that Teac in Musashino, Tokyo chose to hang boldly over that first leaflet — "A complete four-track recording studio in one compact package" — sums up the idea perfectly.
Getting on for four years later, the four-track cassette idea has prompted a minor revolution in home recording, and is relatively commonplace. Teac are now putting Tascam on the nameplate of their upgraded 244 model. Fostex replied to the earlier 144 with their 250 Multitracker, and now have the truly-portable, honed-down X15. Cutec have a machine, and as I write we are promised four-track cassettes from Clarion, Yamaha and others.
But what of the users? How does it feel to be in the driving seat? Just what's it like to deal with that "compact package"?
I spoke to a range of Portastudio owners in an investigative attempt to answer these and other burning questions that concern all of us who have ever shut the door on the cassette housing and pressed the record buttons.
Dave Stewart, hit-maker with Barbara Gaskin and no mean keyboard player, has used his 144 for a couple of years. He bought his machine because he thought it sounded "sort of interesting", and as a development from his previous bouncing back-and-forth home demo recording method, achieved then on a trusty Hitachi cassette deck and Akai 4000 reel-to-reel.
What Dave wanted to retain from that scheme was the ability to put things down in stereo — he uses a stereo-chorus to enhance his keyboard sound and naturally feels decidedly unkeen to render this ineffective in mono.
"What I tend to do is put down maybe four tracks on the Portastudio, usually two stereo 'goes', a basic track and an overdub, and then I'll mix all that down to a stereo cassette, or on to Barbara's Portastudio on tracks one and two. Then she can take it away and do vocal stuff on the other two tracks — that's the main thing we use our Portastudios for really, trying out vocals."
Guitarist Kevin Armstrong, ex-Local Heroes and the Passions, currently working with Tom Dolby, uses his 244 primarily for writing. "I've got a drum machine, a synthesiser and a guitar lying around, and I make thumb-nail sketch demos," he explains.
Meanwhile, sax player Gary Barnacle, teamed up with Ross Middleton as Leisure Process, and a widely-heard session player (Blue Rondo, Level 42, Soft Cell etc), has also found that his 144 has opened up the world of writing: "Using a cheap drum machine and a Casio keyboard I was suddenly able to build up these tracks, whereas before I'd had to work with other people — guitarists or piano players. All of a sudden I could build up these fantasies on tape at home."
Our fourth raconteur is Wah-shaped Pete Wylie, an enthusiastic anti-technician and pro-Portaperson. "There's limitations, but I think sometimes these limitations can make you force creativity, or your imagination at least, to come up with something on four tracks — comparatively low-tech," he says. "I've had my 144 about two years. We've got a Fostex eight-track in Liverpool now, but I still use the Portastudio at home and when I come to London, in the flat, in case I have ideas. At the moment I use it whenever I have an idea, just to knock it down right away, so it's stored. I also use it to experiment with sounds, and to do rough arrangements."
First of all, though, you've got to use a decent cassette on the machines. Any preferences, lads?
Dave Stewart: "TDK SA tapes seem to be about the best quality for it, but I must add that most cassettes in that price range are crap anyway."
Kevin Armstrong agrees on both counts: he doesn't find any trouble with TDK SAs, but "as far as I'm concerned the technology of the machine is much better than the technology of cassettes... the cassettes themselves are unreliable."
Gary Barnacle concurs with the SA lobby, while pitching in for Maxell UDXLII. He's also given the improved SA type from TDK, the SA-X, a whirl, and found it "a brighter sound — you seem to retain more quality if you're going to bounce tracks." Pete Wylie professes to use anything and everything to capture his ideas: "If I want to do something, I've got to have it."
But enough of this preamble — what about some hot tips, you cry? How about passing on some user-oriented operation scenarios? No problem. Mr Stewart kicks off again. "The things I find very valuable," confides Dave, "are the pitch control, which is good if you maybe think a demo's a bit slow or fast — there are very few machines outside studios that have a speed variation control — and the ability to hear things backwards just by turning the tape over. Pretty amazing that: with other systems it can take a long time to set up a sound backwards; with a Portastudio you just flip the tape and there it is."
Press pause button while all four-track cassette owners listen to all their tapes backwards. Meantime, Kevin Armstrong almost misses his Dolbied Townhouse session by revealing to me that at one time he used to try to get as much on to his narrow bit of rust as he could, even resorting to using two Portastudios at one time.
"But in actual fact the more intricate you try to be with it, the less successful you can be," he now finds. "If I'm going to record a reasonably good demo on it, I never bounce more than two tracks together, and I never do live bounces — usually I record something on to track one, something on to track two, and then bounce it to track four, and so on. That way you can go back if it isn't right and do the bounce again, to get it perfect.
"I've tried bouncing on and on; sometimes you can bounce three things into a track and it can be satisfactory, but you have to be really careful. If you wanted to bounce that track again, forget it. It would sound awful — distant and fuzzy.
"The only way you can retain any sort of thump to the tracks is basically to record everything as flat as possible and only add eq in the mix, unless of course there's some horrible overtone or something like that you want to get rid of. So keep it flat, be careful at every stage, and never really try to bounce more than two tracks together."
Gary Barnacle comes up with a suggestion for duos who use the Portastudio together — a tried-and-tested Leisure Process formula (Leisure Formula process?) that makes two players worth more than just the obvious advantage of having someone around to bounce ideas off. In fact bouncing is largely out in this method, as Gary explains.
"With me and Ross using it I found that you get really good quality if you put down, say, a bass line at the same time as the drum machine goes down, on to the same track, rather than just doing the drums first, then the bass on another track, and have to bounce things down straight away. I eq'd it and got a reasonable balance as we did it.
"You know what it's like if you try to bounce drums or bass lines, they tend to be the first to lose that quality and punch that they've got fairly early on. On our first lot of demos we did very little bouncing at all, just put two things down at the same time on each track. I found that when we played them to people they couldn't believe that they'd been done at home on a Portastudio, because of the clarity of it all."
Balanced against this relatively technical fare is the philosophical Wylie, who makes a more general suggestion. "I think the main thing is to use your ears — it teaches you to judge things. When you get into a studio with great big monitors and all that, specially if its your first time, it can be very deceiving. Whereas by using a Portastudio you're getting used to the studio system without actually being in it, judging sounds and putting sounds together.
"I recorded a really over-distorted guitar on a demo of a track called 'Remember', and I thought it sounded like heavy metal. And then by placing it lower in the mix it completely changed it, it was no longer anything like heavy metal, more an effect almost. So it teaches you that you have to mix things right too — it can be the difference between being Twisted Sister or Robert Fripp, for example."
Another pointer for those chasing quality — push the pitch control to the fastest speed. Kevin: "If I want something top quality I'll do that — faster tape means better quality." And Gary: "It does make quite a bit of difference to the quality — but it means you have to know you've got the right tempo because you won't be able to speed it up later on, you'll only be able to slow it down."
From agreements to differences. Dave finds the return-to-zero function on his 144 "so handy — to hit rewind and go straight back to the right place is really good."
Kevin, however, finds his 244 less exacting: "It's so annoying if you've got to wind back, even if you reset it — it loses time. It always returns to somewhere south of zero."
Dave says you really have to keep an eye on VU levels with Portastudios, more so than with other tape recorders he's used. "If you so much as go into the red a bit you'd hear it clipping — on other machines I'd start by going into the red and then see how far I could go beyond that. With my Portastudio, once you hit that red you're in trouble."
Wylie counters with a less precise air: "If things overload sometimes, it doesn't matter. You know that thing 'One man's meat is another man's poison'? Well Pete Fulwell, me partner and manager, he said to me once, 'One man's distortion is another man's music.' I love things taken a bit to excess."
But perhaps excess is not the most desirable virtue when faced with the inevitable restrictions of a four-track cassette. Summing up for the defence is Gary Barnacle.
"I think people tend to try to do too much on Portastudios," he says. "With keyboard parts, for example, you don't really have to track them up loads of times for a demo. I've found that by using reverb on a keyboard, for instance, you can get a pretty good sound off the one track. And I've found that people might track up all the superfluous things to the detriment of the drums, which end up sounding like a little clattering noise in the background.
"As long as the main lines on a demo are strong, anyone with a modicum of vision in a record company can hear what it would sound like with the full treatment."
Full treatment it may not be, but the four-track cassette is here to stay. Question is, can they squeeze eight tracks on to a cassette? Well, I laughed when I first saw that leaflet back in 1979...