The anatomy of a 4-Track (or, "The Making of Mike Post's Revenge").

I had the occasion to put together a “Dave Special” the other day: a four-track recording on my old Tascam Porta-1, with me playing all the instruments.  There’s a whole history tied up in this machine - up until 1998 or so, it was the only way that any of my compositions saw fruition.  Without the ol’ Tascam, Copper Man music existed as parlor readings, on piano with vocals either too loud or too quiet.

Given that I spent so much time working with the Tascam over the years (since I bought it second-hand from my friend in 1989), it turns out that I’ve gradually built up something of a technique with it.  I sort of surprised myself with the speed and ease of this particular recording, given that it’s probably been about two years since I tried something similar, but, really, I shouldn’t be.  I spent so much time producing crap on it over the years that I finally learned how to use it well, practically as a survival instinct.  Just in time for that particular skill-set to be rendered completely obsolete by the advent of home-pc recording.  It’s a bit like arriving at the 2005 Gamers Con as the World Champion of ‘Burger Time.

The beautiful thing about working with an analog device over something digital is that, barring really extreme circumstance, even if your machine is ready to rattle itself apart, you can usually find a way to record with it.  Almost any technical problem can be overcome with very little effort and thought - which is good, because I don’t like exertion or thinking too much. 

This particular recording was no exception to the ease-of-use principle: right off the bat, I discovered that I was missing some pretty basic parts necessary to record.  3-pin to quarter inch microphone cable adaptors.* 

*For the laymen: As with all technologies, audio equipment has several dozen different fittings for connecting equipment.  The garden-variety mic cable ends in a ‘male’ 3-pin connection.  That’s made to plug into a P.A., which has a 3-pin ‘female’ socket.  Yes, it’s all very Freudian.  The 4-track, on the other hand, relies on the old standby 1/4” jack, such as can be found on most common stereo systems and guitar cables.  To get around this, it’s very easy to procure an adaptor

I’ve had several adaptors over the years, and I keep losing them.  I bought two back around Christmas, and they still managed to turn up missing when it came time for me to record the drums.

Blah.  Everything else, I could D.I. (Direct Input) to the Tascam, but the drums had to be mic’d.  And I was all ready to go.  I’d gotten the mic’s set up, my headphones were ready, I’d found about fifteen minutes of space on an old jam tape, so I didn’t even have to leave the house for a fresh cassette.  But how do you record when you can’t even plug the mic’s into the 4-track?

Well, Dave, what if you run the mic’s through the P.A., and then send a line out to the Tascam?

Okay, Dave, it just might work.

It worked.  And it worked better than if I’d done it the traditional way.  Normally, you plug each mic in to one of four ‘line in’ jacks on the 4-track, which seems to give me more white noise than I like.  The P.A. allowed me to set the individual volume and e.q. (equalization, the amount of high, middle of low-end in a signal), which is easy enough to do on the Tascam – but the P.A. has a much fuller sound AND let me put in reverb, which is a big pain in the ass to do on the 4-track.

So, I did a few test runs, using three mic’s, rather than four – I was feeling lazy.  One for the snare, hi-hat and rack tom (and, supposedly, the crash cymbal)**, one for the kick drum, and one for the floor tom and ride cymbal.  After a few tests, I got the sound I wanted, and laid the drums down passably on the fourth take.

**This is why the crash is so quiet.  Sue me.

Next up, the bass.  Since the bass is almost ALWAYS recorded D.I., even at a professional studio, it really was just a matter of tuning, plugging in, and pressing ‘record.’  My bass is a Fender Jazz, Mexican manufacture.  It’s a little noisy***, but you can defeat that by turning the high e.q. on the 4-track all the way up while you record, and them dial it out during the mix-down.  This also cuts back on having the bass sound too twangy, which is good.  The bass took two takes. 

***Electrified guitars (and basses) use coiled wire magnets called ‘pick-ups’ set under the strings to carry the sound to the amplifier.  These always have some quiet hum or static that’s not noticeable when the instrument is loud, but when you’re D.I., it’s pretty loud.  Or you could spring for ‘humbuckers,’ which are pick-ups that supposedly reduce noise, and cost more than I’d like to pay.

Third, the Rhodes.  Being a vintage instrument (mine was built in 197-), the Rhodes has a lot of quirks that you need to be aware of, but it does deliver if you know how to keep it in shape. 

I kind of know how to keep it in shape, so mine kind of delivers.

No matter what you do to 'fix' a Rhodes, it always seems as though there’s one key out of tune, or slightly ‘dead’ sounding, or whatever.  A quick way around this is to run it through some kind of effect.  The effect of choice for the Rhodes is ‘vibrato,’ and it’s use is so common that some models have it built in.  I use instead a Boss Tremolo pedal.  It’s also a little noisy, and I couldn’t seem to get that down – that’s the source of the hiss you hear.  The Rhodes was probably done in one take – that’s the part that I was used to playing in practice.

Lastly, since the song doesn’t yet have lyrics, but does have a melody (pretty common series of events, for me), I decided to play the melody on another vintage keyboard of mine, a Moog Source.  The Moog is monophonic (only one note at a time), so it’s ideal for things like this – just a melody, but a nice tone to sell it.  This took me something like eight takes, because I first experiment with getting the right sound, and then I realized that I had no idea how to play the melody, so I figured it out as I went along. 

I ran the Moog through a Boss Delay pedal, which helped to accent it’s mournful sound.  Just a sad, lonely sounding instrument.  Odd that it’s also the sound of the 1970’s game show – how do these things connect?

Normally, there’d be more than four instruments on a recording, which is why they started to develop 8, 16 and 24-and-more track studios back in the late 60’s.  In the case of a single four track, that means that you remix a couple of previous tracks together onto one new track, freeing up those other tracks.  They call this ‘bouncing,’ or ‘ponging,’ or ‘reducing,’ or any number of names.  These are all euphemisms for ‘sucking.’  This is usually where four-track recordings go south, because once you mix the two tracks together, that’s the way they’re going to stay.  In other words, if you mix the bass and drums onto one track, from now on, anytime you want to hear the bass louder, the drums are going to come up, too.

Anyway, the best way to bounce is to do it very carefully, over a speaker that you trust (NOT headphones), and just be patient.  And try not to screw it up.

In this case, I cheated – I just used the original 4-tracks, with no bouncing, and mixed each track individually to the final.  In my case, I mix digitally, so I plugged the Tascam into my steam-powered Mac G3 (System 9.2!) and mixed it into a multi-track program called “Digital Performer.”  Digital Performer does allow you to do all sorts of things, like effects and fades and e.q., but I decided just to leave it as is. 

Performer makes proprietary files that you can’t use as audio CD files, so I brought the mix it into a program called “Peak,” where I edited and added fades, and then burned to disk using “Toast.”

Of course, I did the mix on headphones, which violates my cardinal rule of mixing, but it came out okay.  Because above my cardinal rule of mixing is my cardinal rule of laziness, which forbade me to grab the stereo and speakers from the living room and go through the extreme hassle of plugging them into the computer.

So there.



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