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Hands On - Portastudios and Multitrackers (part 3)

We’re not actually quite ready to start recording yet, even if all your equipment is set up and ready to go. If the equipment is fresh out of the manufacturer’s packing then I’ll let you off the first task which is cleaning it...


Starting off

No, we’re not actually quite ready to start recording yet, even if all your equipment is set up and ready to go. If the equipment is fresh out of the manufacturer’s packing then I’ll let you off the first task which is cleaning it - on second thoughts perhaps you should do it for practice. Unfortunately, the materials you need for cleaning are not normally provided with the equipment so you’ll have to take a trip out to the shops. You can buy special head cleaner and rubber cleaner from the type of dealer that sells this kind of equipment (not usually from hifi shops or high street retailers) but most pros use cotton buds from the supermarket and isopropyl alcohol from the chemists. I buy isopropyl alcohol in 500 millilitre quantities which lasts for ages. Sometimes they ask me what I want it for since it definitely isn’t drinking alcohol! To clean the heads and tape guides, just look carefully inside with the cassette removed and clean all the parts that the tape touches. Press the play button to clean, carefully, the pinch roller and capstan as they rotate. Another worthwhile investment is a demagnetiser since as the machine is used the metal parts will accumulate magnetism which will have the effect of erasing high frequencies from the tape. Put it on your Christmas or birthday list and remember to follow the instructions very carefully when you get it.

While you’re in the shopping centre buying your cotton buds and alcohol, pick up some cassettes too. Not the cheapest, not the ones in the fanciest packing but the ones recommended in the machine’s instruction manual. You’ll be putting a lot of hard work into the recordings that will be going onto those cassettes so you owe it to yourself to get the right type. (If you don’t have the manual, TDK SA or SA-X will almost certainly be OK).

Now we are almost ready to record, but not yet! I know you’re keen but the one of the most important tasks in cassette multitrack recording is planning. When you have sixteen or twenty-four tracks at your disposal you can ‘improvise’ fairly freely onto tape, but when you are restricted to just four, you have to have a solid plan of action. This means that you need to work out how the song will be when it is finished, and it is actually a good discipline to do this because it develops the ‘ear’ of your imagination. Suppose you started out with just acoustic guitar and voice (a combination which suits cassette multitracks very well since they contain a lot of sonic interest in themselves without needing much embellishment), then you need to work out the drum track on your drum machine, and also decide what other instrumental and vocal lines there will be. As a typical example, let’s suppose you intend to have the following:

  • drums
  • guitar
  • bass
  • (guide vocal)
  • harmony vocal 1
  • harmony vocal 2
  • lead vocal
  • keyboard

Hang on a minute! This is rather more than four tracks, but that’s OK - we can cope. (In fact, manufacturer’s product literature often says you can record up to ten parts on a four track cassette. This is possible, but it’s a little optimistic to imagine that the result will be completely satisfactory). The list is actually in the order of recording, and you’ll notice that I have included space for a guide vocal which may make the harmony vocals easier (easier still to play the musical line of the main vocal on a keyboard so that it’s exactly in tune). You may be worried that this arrangement isn’t all that much like the type of music you produce, but hopefully you will see that I am going through a process of recording the backing parts, then the parts that fill the music out, then the main vocal line and the decoration. Your music will have components which perform the same four functions. Whatever your style, ideally you should be able to write down on paper the final arrangement of the music before you start recording.

By David Mellor Thursday January 1, 2004