X-15 Multitracker in Action
Making demos with the latest multitrack machine!
This new 'musical sketchpad' from Fostex has without doubt bridged the large gap between cassette decks and the more expensive porta-studios; and the budget-conscious newcomer to home recording cannot afford to overlook its potential. The following is intended as a run through of the general techniques involved in making a demo tape with the X-15, with some additional ideas for expanding its multitracking capabilities using a small stereo mixer.
Operation of the machine is simplicity itself and, as the literature suggests, you don't have to become a recording engineer to use it and this is the beauty of the X-15. In attempting to feature an example of successful inexpensive multitracking the emphasis would naturally be on low-cost but quality equipment. However, a passing MXR Drum Computer was ensnared for the laying down of the backing track! (Substitute your own TR606, KPR77 perhaps?). A typical recording procedure for laying the first track would be as follows.
After switching on, set all level controls to minimum and plug in your instrument or microphone, in this case the audio output of the drum machine.
Select Line on the input selectors and set channel A Record Switch to track 1 (channel B is left on safe). Good quality tape (which is naturally recommended) is loaded, and a pair of headphones plugged in (Sennheiser's HD 222 did their job admirably). All Monmix Pan controls are centred to begin with. The Pause and then Record button is pressed which activates the Record mode but allows you to set the input level before recording actually takes place. Press 'Run' on the drum machine and advance the three gain controls (1) channel A fader (2) Monmix 1 gain control (3) headphone gain control, until you have a healthy signal displayed on the vertical PPM readout and comfortable listening level. Note that the channel A fader and Bass and Treble controls together determine the level which will be recorded on tape. Monmix is used to adjust the individual level of track 1, and the headphone gain controls the overall listening level.
The relationship between the level (fader) control and the series of LEDs which act as a Level Indicator is not a parallel one. The object, according to Fostex, is to have the O VU LED lit most of the time, and the +6 LED flashing only on the loudest parts of the track being recorded, ie. the snare stroke. The drum machine in use was recorded flat (no EQ) though with only two channels (A + B) available on the in-built mixer, relating to tracks 1+3 and 2+4 respectively, it is important to prepare your EQ during recording as cut or boost added during mixdown will apply to two tracks.
The mechanical counter should be reset to 000 and the Pause released to set the recording in motion. When the first track is being laid down, it is vital to include a count-in (from a vocal mic usually) as an audible cue to facilitate overdubbing later. When the recording of the drum track is completed, press Stop. Immediately set the channel A Record Track selector to the centre 'safe' position to avoid any possibility of accidental erasure. Rewind to zero, press Stop, Play, and check the quality of the recording via the Monmix control. If there's too much distortion, try rerecording the drums again at a lower level; vice-versa if there's too much background hiss. It may be useful to make a mental note of the number of bars the drum machine is pounding out, as it is rather annoying to commence overdubbing and find that the patterns repeat incorrectly! Once you are satisfied with your first track, rewind to zero and disconnect the drum machine.
The bass line went down next and a punchy bass sound from the new Oscar monophonic synth, which was commandeered for the task, was routed to track 2 by setting the channel B input selector switch to Line and the Record switch to Record track 2. The first overdub is made using the same technique as for the first track, except it is now necessary to monitor the drum track whilst recording the bass line. This is achieved by switching channel A to remix and adjusting the Monmix 1 and 2 Gain controls as necessary to set a satisfactory relative balance between the two tracks.
When recording is completed, switch the record switch on channel B to the centre 'safe' position and check the recorded tracks via the headphone volume and Monmix 1 & 2 Gain controls. If the rhythm section is 'tight', further overdubs can be attempted, and it is advised to start keeping a written note of the track assignments from now on to avoid erasing tracks already recorded etc.
On track 3, I laid down some background strings, courtesy of a Korg Polysix, on the choruses, assigning the strings to channel A, track 3. When the background strings were recorded and checked, the adventure started! Since the verses were free, I felt that a pizzicato rhythmic synth line would best compliment the song and so this was recorded during the resultant spaces. Cue the 'oranges'!
Fostex supply optional punch in/out orange coloured foot controls that operate on the 'airline pump' principle. Gaffer taping the oranges to the floor and connecting them to the X-15 via the front sockets, it was a simple operation to punch in during the quaver rest at the end of each chorus, and punching out again when the verse synth line was recorded.
The procedure, which is identical to punching in/out to correct errors, is to pan the Monmix on track 3 to the left where it will now be audible on channel B on playback (input/selector set to Remix). Set the input fader for channel A to about 7-8 and turn Monmix 3 gain up so that a proper level is indicated and heard. Rewind to 000 and connect synth to Line In, Channel A, setting the input/selector switch to Line. Press Play, and simply play the new part along with the recorded strings and try to match the level indicator readings. This saves time and effort on mixdown, and makes for smooth corrections, as the recorded level of both parts on track 3 will be similar upon playback.
The timing for the punch in/outs should be rehearsed a couple of times before rewinding and setting the record track selector to track 3. When the cue for the first punch-in is reached on playback, press firmly on the 'orange' with your foot and the record and play buttons will be positively activated by the remote control. Once the verse synth line is completed, press the punch-out control to stop recording. Proceed to the next verse and so on.
This method can naturally be adapted to the correction of mistakes during a track but it is advisable to begin punch-ins between phrases or during a rest, and to mask any audible clicks that might result from punching in and out by activating the foot controls simultaneously with a strong rhythmic signal (ie. loud drum beat).
Bouncing, or transferring two or three recorded tracks onto a blank track is an effective way of increasing the overdub capabilities of the X-15. However, bear in mind that on each 'bounce' you will lose some of the recording quality of the original track. Again, planning bounces in advance on a 'track sheet' and keeping a record of track assignments is most helpful. The most prominent sounds should be left to last (ie. lead guitar, vocals, lead synth) to preserve their clarity as they would then be first generation recordings only.
Considering a full drum sound to be extremely important, I left track 1 alone, but decided on bouncing tracks 2 and 3 down onto track 4, combining the bass synth and strings/rhythmic synth onto one track. The gain controls of tracks 2 and 3 were therefore turned fully clockwise (on) and tracks 1 and 4 fully off (counter clockwise). It is important to turn the gain controls on tracks 1 and 4 off during recording in order to avoid 'feedback'. The Monmix pan controls 2 and 3 should be turned fully clockwise to the right position. Set the input/selector channel B to remix, press Play and set the relative balance between the two tracks by adjusting the Monmix gain controls 2 & 3. (As they are being recorded, they will be audible through the right ear). Set the overall level again with the fader, rewind and switch the channel B record track selector to track 4, not forgetting to place channel A in 'safe' mode. Press Record and on playback turn off all gain controls except for Monmix 4 and check the recording for quality and balance. (Remember that you will be recording over the original tracks soon!) Tracks 1 and 4 are now complete.
Tracks 2 and 3 were now available for the final two overdubs — main synth line and vocals respectively. Routing the Polysix through an Amdek DMK 100 analogue echo and creating a short slapback effect, track 2 was recorded followed by the vocals on track 3. Using an old but reliable Shure SM58 mic, the vocals were enhanced by a Fostex Reverb and much use was made of punch-in and outs! To summarise, the master now consisted of: Track 1 — drum machine; track 2 — main synth; track 3 — vocals; track 4 — strings/pizzicato synth & bass synth.
It is possible, with advance planning, to record up to seven good tracks using the X-15 only, but an external mixer allows you to add a live instrument at each track bouncing stage, giving 10 tracks effectively.
Once familiar with the operation of the X-15, various ideas using an external mixer (the budget-priced Seek 62) were explored. For the drum machine recording, the mono output (left) from the MXR was assigned to channel 1 of the small 6-channel stereo mixer. Individual outputs from the bass drum, hi-hats and handclaps were routed to channels 2, 3 and 4 respectively. The snare individual output was split — one signal being sent to channel 5, whilst the duplicate signal was used to trigger the noise generator of a Yamaha CS30 synth (via its external trigger input) and the resultant noise sent to channel 6. The drum sounds were then EQ'd separately, mixed and fine tuned. A Fostex Reverb unit, connected via the mixer's echo send/return, was used to treat both the noise shots and handclaps. The mixer output left was recorded on track 1 of the X-15 and overdubs made as usual.
One of the many variations on this idea is to replace one of the individual inputs with a bass synth and recording the mixer output L and R on tracks 1 and 2 of the X-15, ie. stereo drums and bass taking up two tracks! Tracks 3 and 4 are then free for overdubs. A recording duo could naturally add a synth line, guitar riff, or harmony vocal line at the first stage and further expand the overdubbing capabilities as follows.
While completing the two blank tracks 3 and 4, record a line each via the mixer to track 3, bounce track 3 down onto track 4 by routing it through the external mixer and adding two more lines. A further two lines of vocals, say, can then be recorded on track 3. It will be necessary to balance the instruments very carefully and perhaps rehearse the takes a few times. The same 'duo' idea could well apply to 1 man and his sequencer! Also, by recording the bass line direct to track 2, say, you can route the recorded signal through the mixer, double track the line, and record the output on a blank track. The possibilities for expansion are mostly limited by your creativity, equipment and friends!
Mixing the recorded tracks onto a master stereo tape is achieved quite easily by connecting the L + R Line Outputs from the X-15 to the L + R inputs of a stereo cassette deck or open reel deck. Again, use good quality tape for best results. Set both record track selectors to the centre safe position (avoid a disaster at this point at all costs!). Set both input switches to Remix and set all tone controls to centre (for now). Press Play and gradually increase the level of both main faders. Adjust the individual track volumes with the gain controls and position the tracks in the stereo field whilst fine tuning the Treble and Bass controls if necessary. Place the master stereo recorder in record mode, but on Pause, and adjust the record level controls to approximately match those on the X-15.
The first 'mix' can be recorded and checked, and it may be necessary to do a few mixes to get the desired effect. You can, of course, transfer the completed master mix to the Fostex X-15, where it will be audible on tracks 1 and 2 only, and overdub again on tracks 3 and 4. But that's probably taking things to the extreme!
For those that have been introduced to multitracking by the Fostex X-15, no doubt you have realised that technology will never take the place of talent, and completing a good demo tape is a combination of many skills — musicianship, songwriting, technical knowledge and creativity. Good luck!
The Fostex X-15 retails at £299, including VAT and is distributed in the UK by (Contact Details)