The Jump To 8-Track
to 8-track, what's involved
And so to bigger things... the secret, sleep-ruining infatuation countless Portastudists have for their own eight-track studio. Ahh... he dreams, biting the mattress, if only I had another four tracks, the world would beat a path to my auxiliary sends.
However eight-track studios are not Portastudios with a weight problem. Though many of the techniques and sound skills learnt with the cassette machine can still apply, you're into quite different areas of outboard gear, monitoring and miking. The other big variation is money. If you're going to have a system that doesn't short change itself — ie, one sophisticated tape machine acoustically vandalised by shoddy effects — you're talking about thousands of pounds (well, two or three), compared with the hundreds pertaining to four track cassetting.
Thus we deliver a few tips. Your first two major purchases will be an eight-track, reel-to-reel deck, and a mixer. Decide what you're going to use them for. If you're a bedroom based, one- or two-man, home demo maker then you'll be building your songs slowly, perhaps using only two or three tracks at a time and overdubbing. In that case a four-buss tape deck and mixer will be sufficient, meaning you'll only be able to record a maximum of four tracks at one go, then come back for the rest. However, if it's live recordings of whole bands you're interested in then an eight-buss system is de rigeur if everyone is going to have a channel of their own to muck about with on mixdown.
Common recommendations are the Fostex A-8 deck and 350 mixer (both four-buss) for the songwriter, the Fostex A-8 LR (the eight-buss version for another £150) if you may be doing some occasional live work, or the more rugged and expensive Tascam 38 (eight buss) ½in for frequent live work. Professional eight track studios putting in loads of hours might go for something tougher still such as an Otari.
Two things to remember when putting your hand in the pocket — since you've admitted a serious interest in multi-track recording, accept that however unlikely it seems now, you may one day want to upgrade to 16 track. Be prepared to spend a bit more for ancillary gear so that's it's not junked when that day comes. Some shops will strongly advise that you invest in a 16-channel desk. The rationale behind this is that the monetary difference between eight and 16 channels on a desk is far less than on a tape machine. When the time comes you'll be able to concentrate all your cash on the best tape machine and for now, especially if you've got several synths, sequencers and drum machines MIDI-ed up, those 16 channels are useful to squeeze the most onto your eight-track reel-to-reel.
Now that your mixer and tape deck are in two separate chunks, you'll need leads to connect them, and reliable ones, not the crackly jobs that double for the drum machine on/off footswitch. You might spend 20 or 30 quid there, and since you now have many more inputs, a jack field could be handy if you're the sort who's constantly plugging new things in and out. It's a free standing box that localises your outputs and insert points, be they for input or effects signals. For general use, look for the 'normalised' type which makes the common connections (say mixer output to tape input) without anything being plugged in.
Tape will be more expensive than you're used to and you'll get through a lot of it (standard A-8s run at 15ips). You'll have a wider frequency response and dynamic range... well, that's what you wanted... so your signal will have to be considered more carefully. The old Kolaha string synth which sounded fine on the Portastudio might grow buzzes and hiss on the day the eight-track moves in.
Incidentally, Fostex recommend Ampex Grand Master tape for the A-8s. And don't feel wimpy if the idea of lacing up a tape machine seems awkward. User friendly cassette machines have got most of us out of that habit.
Your reel-to-reel will need closer attention and maintenance than the cassette recorder, not because there's more to go wrong but because your higher expectations will quickly notice slight degradations (especially H.F. loss) due to dirt, mud, leaves in the transport, etc. Regular demagnetisation is in order for heads, guides, tension arms, etc, in contact with the tape — once a week is not excessive if the machine's in constant use. Careful cleaning of the heads goes without saying but you'll now be introduced to technical problems such as azimuth (the alignment of the heads with the tape), and bias (briefly, a high frequency signal imposed on the record head to help it get the material onto tape). Both can wander, and six monthly services are often proposed unless you're brave or boffin enough to try it yourself.
It's commonly agreed that the biggest trap for the eight trackist is the purchase of effects and the temptation to go for several cheap ones. Don't. First priority ought to be a good reverb unit, preferably stereo, followed by one decent delay and one or two compressors. Such a restriction in quantity might slow the recording process but your ears will thank you for the carefully spent dosh.
Yamaha's R1000 digital reverb is presently very popular (£566). If you want to move further up the scale there's the Lexicon PCM-60 (£1500, bandwith 10kHz), and making a bid for the I'll-keep-it-until-I-go-24-track market is the Stargate at £2,150. We're told that many recordists fall in love with it because of the comfortable 15kHz bandwidth and its ability to catch the up-front feel of very live, small rooms. Of all the effects you're likely to buy, this will be the one with the most applications for everything you do.
Digital delay lines are more common and sometimes cheaper than reverb alternatives, but think cautiously about the facilities you want. Not much point in a programmable model, for example, because you'll have plenty of time to set up the sound in your studio, and have you ever known an engineer be satisfied with yesterday's memorised setting? — he always twiddles to match today's mood.
Next year's fashion is almost certain to be syncable delays — essentially 'sampling' machines with their bursts of stored sound triggered by tape or drum machine. The Bell BD80 at £650 is an example. It's expandable to a maximum of eight seconds, but when we reviewed it back in July, Bell had yet to think about putting CV and gate or MIDI sockets on the back so a keyboard could play the 'sample' at different pitches. That's the way things will go, he predicts, sagely.
Compressors and gates are workmanlike and sadly unexciting, but once you've got them you'll never know how you managed without, particularly if you're working live. A good one will last for years in many applications so think of spending in the £200 to £300 bracket. Drawmer do some pleasant little units. Cheap compressors are the gadgets you'll most frequently see thrown in by a shop asking a couple of grand for a complete eight-track package.
Then the salesman will puff on his cheroot and spill the well re-fried beans: "Course, your studio's only as good as your monitors". A good piece of advice, even if he later substitutes the words, 'microphones', and 'acoustics' for the word 'monitors'. But it is perhaps the most personal decision you'll make. The rest of the hardware (mikes excluded) concerns twiddling and technology. Monitor speakers are about tone and the quality of sound you prefer.
Before coughing up the cash, reflect on how much room you have physically — no point falling in love with a four foot wide JBL if the cloth of your bedroom is cut for a set of Walkman headphones. Bookshelf speakers are the obvious choice and not necessarily comprised because of their size.
Most shops will have a demo tape or two for you to listen to, but it's best to prepare your own. Divide it into three sections:
(1) 'low' — bass guitar and the bottom end of a drum kit only to see how the speakers reproduce the fundamentals.
(2) 'high' — vocals and a high hat, are they clean?
(3) 'everything' — can the elements you liked individually in (1) and (2) survive when played at the same time?
Don't be tempted to let your hi-fi double as the monitoring system. Your studio deserves separate consideration; it's new whereas the hi-fi is probably ancient. Anyway, it's relaxing to be able to lock the door on a misbehaving backing track and listen to some music. Tannoy Stratfords are popular for combining compactness with relative cleanness and an affordable price — £117 a pair.
Finally to mikes. Why bother forking out, say the dedicated D.I. persons? Because if all your direct injected drum machines, synths, sequencers, etc, are perfect, you want your one acoustic track to sound acoustic, not mechanically induced... remember, it will probably be your voice.
With the A-8 and 350 mixer you don't have the option of phantom powering so it will be one or two fine quality dynamics — AKG DE320s are nice and bright, good for vocals at £84, quiet too; the D191 is smoother and less brilliant at £49; or there's always the favourite — a Shure SM57 for £138. Bear in mind their stage application as well. The above examples are all strong with solid suspension — you have to go much further up market before worrying about wrapping the mikes in cotton wool on frosty nights.
With the Tascam 38 it's likely that you will have phantom power from the desk so plan on dynamics for drums and vocals, capacitors for overheads.
And finally, finally, envisage your own comfort and working conditions. Do you have a sturdy table to stand everything on, a comfortable chair for long hours of listening back, a room away from too many extraneous noises, somewhere to put down guitars, flugelhorns, etc, so you won't trip over them, lengths of curtain and strips of carpet to tamper with the acoustics of your chosen squat, a friendly bank manager? If so, pass Go and collect a recording contract worth £2 million.
Bedroom Bouncedown - Home Recording
Feature by Paul Colbert
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