Moving Up To Eight Track
The problems and pleasures of home studio upgrading.
There comes a time in every man's life when he wants to go from four to eight. Jon Lewin is that man, and this is the story of his first encounter with another foursome of recording capacity. Oh, and a bit about the Fostex E8.
EVERYBODY who has ever used a portastudio has dreamed of upgrading to an 8-track. No longer would you have to suffer those portastudio frustrations; no more running out of tracks, no more panics over accidentally dropping into four channel record, no more incorrectly bussed bounces...
So what's it like, moving from 4-track cassette to 8-track reel-to-reel? Very expensive, is the first reaction, the prices don't even compare. But disregarding the expense and technical stuff for a moment, does it really make any difference to the way you work? Your creativity? I had the opportunity to find out, using a Soundcraft mixer and the new Fostex E8 tape machine.
For songwriters, an 8-track is the ultimate musical notepad. As the excellent Fostex manual puts it, "You end up spending almost all of your time concentrating on your music." The second most obvious difference between yer 8-track and a portastudio is that you need a mixing desk. The desks most commonly found with 8-track machines are 16-8-2, or 12-8-2; these have 12 or 16 inputs, which are mixed down into eight sub-groups. These sub-groups are the eight outputs that go to your tape machine. (They can further be mixed down into two channels, should you wish.)
Having more inputs than channels is a big advantage, as the new six-input portastudios are proving. All those extra channels with Effect Sends and tone controls give you much more flexibility in adding EQ — to each individual output from your drum machines, for instance. It also means that the effects can be routed to their own channels and EQ-ed accordingly, rather than sent through the ordinary Effects Returns.
The E8 runs on ¼in tape at 15 inches per second, and can record all eight tracks simultaneously. Each channel has a bar LED, and its own Record Track button that readies the individual track for recording — simpler than its 4-track cassette-based brethren. The meters are easy to use; I had no problem setting level.
In fact, I had very few problems at all. Once you've mastered the relative complexities of the desk, and discovered how you monitor both the out-going signal as you record it, and the recorded signal coming back off tape at the same time, it's easy.
Imaging trying to write on a matchbox, and then being given a full sheet of foolscap; that's the difference that moving from portastudio to 8-track made to my song writing efforts. I still mixed the drum machine (now plus reverbed snare, gated bass drum, room-sized toms, etc) down in mono, and assigned bass guitar and sequence to one track, but I was left with six others to explore various melodic possibilities. Having the option of putting down a vocal line, then mixing it out while I tried another, and another, was such a delightful luxury. The 8-track actually made me more adventurous in my approach to arrangements.
One major distraction that I found to begin with was the temptation to put everything down in stereo because it sounded so good. This is partly a factor of headphone monitoring, and it can lead to you being so seduced by the individual sounds that you lose sight (hearing?) of what you're working towards.
The sophisticated tape transport system on the E8 has three memory functions: like most portastudios, it will rewind to zero (as indicated on the hours/minutes/seconds LED); it will also locate any two positions that you have locked into the memory, and automatically play the section between those two points over and over. This enables you to practise difficult overdubs without touching the recorder. Useful.
The actual dropping-in can be done either manually, by hitting Play and Record simultaneously, or with a footswitch, which isn't supplied. The accuracy with which you can get in or out is obviously down to your dexterity, but is made easier by the 'intelligence' of the machine.
Of course, you can use an 8-track in much the same way as you'd use a portastudio, bouncing down and combining tracks, via the desk, though the E8 manual nobly warns against bouncing onto immediately adjacent tracks (they give a crosstalk figure of 55db/1kHz). This way, you could manage the equivalent of at least 20 tracks without appreciable decline in sound quality.
Which leads us back to particular disadvantages inherent in 8-track systems. You pay for the increased quality and versatility, and not only in the high cost of the recorder and desk: wiring the two together is also expensive (unless you have a Tascam 388 unportastudio, which is an 8-track already built into a desk). Then there is the connecting of outboard effects into the desk. Many mixers have balanced inputs/outputs, and require XLR plugs, which do not come cheap, and may have to be made up specially. How are you with a soldering iron? And on top of leads, reels of tape are themselves uncheap: a 10in reel of Ampex 456, as supplied with the E8, costs £18.16 (inc. VAT).
Obviously, a direct comparison between a £750 portastudio and a £3000 8-track is not exactly useful. But if you could leave financial considerations (keep praying) aside, there are a surprising number of creative advantages that distinguish the larger machine. Portastudios are convenient but limiting; an 8-track is a bulky investment, but as a way of enhancing creativity (and did it need enhancing), I can happily recommend the system; it behaves in exactly the way that all the best pieces of technology do, making life easier. I want one.
The Fostex E8 is available by special order from Bandive 01-202 4155 at -gulp - £2994.60, inc. VAT.
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Feature by Jon Lewin
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