I recently put out an email to my music friends referencing my post about multitrack recording. In it I talked about how I dreamed of copying my musical heroes and multitracking. I’d never set foot in a recording studio, so I tried to approximate it by using two ghettoblaster cassette machines, one recording the output from the other. Then I discovered the Portastudio existed.
In my email I asked what history other people had with multitrack recording, and I got a few replies which made interesting reading.
David in Edinburgh:
Reel to reel then Tascam 4 track. Lots of studio stuff then onto Boss multi track digital. And now Mac.
Scott, also in Edinburgh (I think):
This one triggered strong memories for me.
When I was 19 (in 1985) I started multitracking using two stereo cassette tape machines. In those days I had a microphone, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass and a home computer making basic synth and percussion sounds.
One of my friends had been using this two recorder approach, but he’d had to retune his instruments between overdubs as his two cassette machines didn’t go at exactly the same speed. Neither did mine (in most cases cassette decks have inconsistent speeds). I wasn’t very confident that I could retune instruments by ear and came up with the following method – I hope you find this interesting:
I’ll call my cassette decks machines A and B.
1. On machine A I’d record computer percussion on the left channel and guitar on the right.
2. Then I’d play back machine A into a small 2 channel mixer I’d built myself – this would give me a chance to get a good balance between the percussion recording and the guitar. It’s very hard to get and maintain a good balance before or while recording, so “post-mixing” those two tracks afterwards was a real advantage.
3. On machine B I’d then record the mix from A into the left channel while adding another instrument, perhaps bass or another guitar to the right channel.
4. Then I’d repeat the process: I’d connect machine B’s playback to the mixer and mix the “bounced” backing against the new track, then feed this into machine A’s left channel while adding a new instrument into the right channel.
The speed difference was not an issue as I’d always be playing back on the same machine I’d used for recording, although speed instability (tape “wow” and “flutter”) can build up during increasing overdubs.
Of course, as the process went on the instruments recorded earlier became more muffled due to the number of times they’d been copied. But if I was careful I could get what amounted to a full band arrangement in a listenable format.
It was quite a few years before I was able to afford my first portastudio (a Yamaha MT4X) – when I got this I really thought I’d graduated to Sgt. Pepper technology. I soon realised, however, that Abbey Road’s amazing collection of microphones, preamps, compressors, mixers, plate and chamber reverbs were more of a factor in the recording results than the number of tracks available. And then the skills of the musicians, engineer and producer invariably also influence the sound to a greater extent than the track count.
Still – it was happy days, and I treasure those old recordings which I now have archived on hard disk.
These days I like doing both solo-multitracking and “proper” band recording. As you’ve mentioned, they each have their own advantages.
Best wishes and many thanks for provoking my dusty memories,
Gary in New Zealand:
I came to music late in life.
My first multi-track recorded was a Zoom Hard Drive recorder with a built-in CD burner, wow! It was a steep learning curve!
My friend and I couldn’t play the guitar very well, we were more Bass and Keys players. I remember we had trouble playing a slide guitar so we came up with a solution.
I’d pick the strings and he would control the slide.
I recently revisited that early recording and redid the vocals added strings and polished it up in Logic X.
But it still has the ‘two-man’ Slide Guitar!
Gary sent me a link to the song in question and it’s great. You’d never know it wasn’t a competent slide player on the track:
I can’t close this without mentioning another response I had, this time to a post about my first guitar, from David in the USA.
My first guitar
What a great story! thanks for sharing. i met my friend Robert Crotty when i was 10 and he was 8. he had a Stella acoustic guitar! i was in awe of it.
We snuck into his house through the small cellar window so he could show me. it was magical. His dad came home and called out ‘who’s down there?’…and asked how we’d gotten in. He didn’t believe that the door was unlocked. We caught it for telling a lie, but it was as worth it! a guitar! My first followed about a year later. I bought a baritone uke off my friend’s brother and learned to play on that.
Unfortunately Robert passed but we spent many years playing music and have fond memories of those first guitars.
I listened to some of the songs on the link David gave to Robert Crotty’s music on Bandcamp. Having had a couple of family bereavements recently I’m sensitive to the idea of legacy and what people leave behind. Most of the tracks are live recordings and a bit rough, but they leave the impression of someone who could put on a great blues guitar gig. His voice is vulnerable and never more so than on this short cover where he seems to really feel the song.
You can hear more of Robert at https://familyvineyard.bandcamp.com/album/robert-crotty-blues-reissue