Getting The Most From A 4-Track
An A-Z of stuff that'll help you to get better sounds
An A-Z of portastudio tricks. John Peel gets crafty with the cassettes.
CALENDERING — Got you with this one, no? The term comes from paper-making, where it is given extra smoothness by being run through special rollers. Tape gets the same treatment by the head/pressure pad and capstan/pinch wheel points. But the first time you use a new tape (you DO use a new tape for important recordings, DON'T YOU?), it hasn't had the benefit of this treatment. And excellent though modern tapes are, a few plays will smoothen their surface still more, as well as shaping them to your head layout (all right! your recorder's head layout).
So play the tape two or three times before you use it. This also encourages any loose bits of oxide to shed themselves (good news), so give the heads and pinch wheel a good clean afterwards. It's a boring business, so get it over with while you're doing something equally boring, like watching TV or listening to the Smiths...
CANS — Pretty much essential for home recording, but no matter how good the quality, they really won't help too much with balancing EQ or mixdowns. Cans just don't present the same image as speakers, and that's why all studios use speakers. Cans are fine for monitoring and foldback, but trust them no further.
Having said that, it's pretty obvious that it isn't worth spending a fortune on cans. One of the questions I'm most often asked, apart from how I come by my incredibly good looks, is what are the best cheap cans? For my money or even yours, I've never heard anything to touch Sennheiser's HD40s. They cost all (!) of £17, and most £40+ cans can't even start to compete. OK, they won't produce over-high levels or ultra-ultra-deep bass, and being 'open-back' types, they produce too much spill, causing foldback problems for vocalists, but everyone I know who's bought them, loves them. End of plug.
CLEANING — Yes,everybody knows that recorders need keeping clean. But how often, and how? How often depends on your recorder and tape, but something like every five to ten hours of use is about right. Remember that in a single recording session you can easily make fifty passes over the tape, so the shit soon builds up. But don't use Andrex to clean it off, and be suspicious of so-called head cleaners that look like cassettes — some of them are so abrasive they can do more harm than good.
First give the cassette compartment a quick blast with one of those compressed air sprays sold by photo dealers, then grab a pack of cotton buds from Boots. Without touching the cotton ends (fingers are greasy!) wipe the front of both erase and record/play heads thoroughly, checking that you haven't caught any of the cotton in the tape guides at the top and bottom of the heads.
You can buy bottles of 'special' cleaning fluids, but many of these are just isopropyl alcohol, which is much cheaper from your local chemist. Still, unless you've been daft enough to stick your fingers on the heads, a cotton bud should be all you'll ever need. Though alcohol will remove the inevitable oxide buildup from pinch wheels, the drawback is that it can harden the rubber compound they're made from, making them less flexible (bad), and even creating cracks (disastrous and expensive).
Believe it or not, the best known cleaning agent for pinch wheels (but not heads) is good old spit. Set the recorder playing (without a cassette in), spit on a piece of writing paper, and hold it gently against the pinch wheel for a few seconds. Then wipe off the gunge with a cotton bud, rubbing it up and down to cover the whole surface. Always do the cleaning on the right-hand side of the capstan, otherwise the cotton may be tangled up with said capstan, which is not good. Repeat until the pinch wheel is completely clean. Then leave to dry for five minutes. If the capstan itself is dirty, just give it a quick wipe with a cotton bud.
DEGAUSSING — Just as oxide dirt builds up on the surface of your heads, magnetic muck builds up inside them, causing added noise. A head degausser should be used on the rec/play head about every thirty hours, but be sure to follow the instructions exactly, or you'll end up worse off than you started. Old fashioned types look like a stubby soldering iron. If you buy one of these, be sure the prong is plastic-covered, or you will almost certainly scratch your head. Modem types look like a cassette, are easier to use, but more expensive (look for TDK's HD-01, £9.95).
EXTRA EQ — This only applies if you've got a recorder that features sweep equalisers. As you'll know, they're far more flexible than ordinary bass and treble controls, and well worth their extra cost. But there are times when two equalisers per channel just aren't enough. So how'd you like four, or six, or even eight? Sexy, yes? Well, it's easy, and the most it'll cost you is a few quid for Y adaptors and extra leads.
The idea is simple. Just split the input so that it feeds two or more channels, and then all the EQs can operate on your signal. Use the channel/track routing switches to remix the channels onto a single track, and the faders to set their relative balance. The effects can be truly surprising and useful, but of course, there is a catch. Depending on your recorder's mixer section, you may have fewer channels available for inputs as more tracks are recorded and needed for fold-back cueing. Usually though, you can spare at least two input channels, even on recorders that don't have separate input and monitor sections. It sounds simple, it is simple, and it does work.
(One little word of warning: don't set all the equalisers for full boost of the same frequency. Using four equalisers, this could give you 60dB of boost. In plain English, this means that if your monitor amp was previously producing one watt, you'll suddenly be asking it to produce just over one million watts...)
FUZZ — Lots of keyboards have super-clean sounds, but if you want to add some distortion, there are two cheap ways to do it. The first is appallingly simple, and the results are pretty appalling too. Just plug you line level signal into the mic input, or if there's only a single input, bring the trim control to mic level. Then set the main fader to between -20 and -30dB to avoid overloading the tape. Fine tuning these two controls will vary the amount of distortion you get. Because of the way electronics work, it will be mainly treble, which can product some interesting dynamic effects. If your original signal is at mic level, use a second channel to boost it to line level first, then use an aux send or the channel insert point to feed into the main channel at line level.
The more refined method uses two channels for line signals, or three for mic sources. Assuming it's a line signal, channel one gets set up in the normal way, and channel two gets treated as above. Route both channels to the same track. The great advantages of this method are that you can apply different EQ to the straight and fuzz channels, plus the channel faders make it easy to alter their relative balance.
Used subtly, it can add extra 'bite' to lots of sounds. Applied more fiercely, it can make even otherwise laughable keyboard guitar imitations sound really quite convincing. Watch for hiss.
MONITORING — Books have been written on the subject of monitoring. All that needs saying here is that, not surprisingly, most people use their hi-fi amp and speakers for the job. That's fine if you're making tapes for your personal pleasure. But, funnily enough, if you want to make sure your demo will sound good on someone else's kit, the best guarantee is to have a second pair of cheap speakers to hand.
Take a tape you know, and audition the £20-£60 models made for use with Walkpersons (you'll be able to feed them from your multitrack's cans socket without disturbing your hi-level monitoring system), alternatively a stereo radio/cassette will do fine. Having made your choice, force yourself to listen to your favourite commercial records over them, so you get used to their sound. Then when you're EQing and mixing down, switch to them fairly often. If it sounds right on your hi-fi, but wrong on the mini-monitors, then think again, because it definitely means your mix is wrong. Really.
PANNING — The first time you get to grips with multitrack, it's tempting to go berserk with every knob in sight. You'll soon find out that over-EQing is gruesome, but there are less obvious dangers with panning. It's standard practice to place any instrument with heavy bass at the centre of the stereo stage, so maybe you're tempted to be different. Don't be. Although the historical reason for this centre placement lies in the mystique of disc-cutting, a more practical reason is that, when played back at high volume, deep bass really pushes the old woofer to its limits. By centering the bass, you're letting both speakers share the strain.
The other Very Important Point about panning is that someone, somewhere, someday, may play your production in mono. If they do, sounds recorded at the extreme edge of the stereo stage just won't sound right (ask any radio recording engineer). You'll get all the stereo effects you want, without this problem, if you treat extreme left as nine o'clock on the pan control, and extreme right as three o'clock.
REHEARSING/REPLAY — Tape is like a car engine. It needs running in (see Calendering), then it should be fine for a while, but sooner or later, just like engines (and Editors), it gets old and tired. Most plays occur during rehearsing new tracks/punch-ins, plus of course playing back to impress yourself/friends. So do your master tape a favour, and produce a quick mixdown to your stereo deck, then feed the playback in to mix for rehearsals/ego-trips. This way you could (if you need as many rehearsals and balance as half-deaf arthritic old me) reduce master tape wear by as much as 80%...
STANDS — You've got all your kit, but you want to set it up so that it's easy to use. The industry-standard nineteen inch racks are, surprise, perfect for nineteen inch rack units, but won't accommodate your multitrack, your monitor amp, and other vital gear like your mixdown cassette deck or graphic EQ. Most hi-fi stores will offer you a "midi" cabinet for £30-£40. But they've got daft features, like smoked glass doors to kneecap you, and limited rear access for cables.
The best answer I've found is made hy a company called Qube (geddit?), and you can geddit from Argos (£24.99, Cat No 610-2847). With a solid steel frame, castors, easy back-access, and four shelves deep enough to take even that deepest of four-tracks, the Fostex 260, its only drawback is that it's fiddly to assemble. Keep permanent cable in place on the hack of the steel uprights using gaffer/insulating tape. Screw a distribution board and suppressor to the back of the bottom shelf, and your whole system will run off just one mains socket. Neat.
STEREOISING — This is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the book, though you need a graphic EQ (ideally with eight or more bands per channel). It works best on signals that need a bit more 'life'. Split the channel/tape out signal to feed both channels of the graphic. Keep the EQ on both channels the same up to about 200Hz, then experiment, cutting midrange on one channel and boosting treble on the other. Feed the results back in on stereo aux returns/line or buss in.
TREBLE — All analogue recorders lose treble in copying. By boosting it first, you can help preserve it without needing boost at mixdown, which only adds hiss. Many treble controls are calibrated from -5 thru +5. Set the EQ on your main and mini-monitors (see Monitoring), then add a half or full point of treble boost for every time you think you'll have to bounce or copy the track. If you've got sweep equalisers, target around 8-10K. Without them, experiment. If in doubt, apply extra boost (you can always cut it back at mixdown), but remember that if you've got VU meters, they won't show the extra treble properly. Either test-record and play first, or cut the record level by two or three dB.
Feature by John Peel
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