Adventures In Audio
Hands On - Portastudios and Multitrackers (part 1)

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

Thursday January 1, 2004

In the list of the most brilliant inventions the human race has ever come up
with, third only to the bicycle and grand piano, is the cassette-based multitrack
recorder otherwise commonly known as the portastudio. (Strictly speaking ‘Portastudio’
which is a Tascam trade mark. ‘Multitracker’ is the Fostex equivalent)
). Once upon a time if you wanted to take part in the glamorous world of multitrack
recording, you had to pay an arm and a leg to gain a few hours in a (probably)
ropey old studio and spend an immense amount of time and money learning how
to transfer your musical ideas from brain through instruments to tape. My first
session in a multitrack studio was in 1977 and I paid around £150 for
a day with a sixteen-track machine that wouldn’t erase properly. Although
I had spent a lot of time experimenting with tape recorders at home, I didn’t
realise how unforgiving the multitrack recording environment could be to a musician.
That £150, by the way, would be worth, according to my rough calculations,
something like £400 now. For the experience I gained it was worth it (I
don’t dare listen to the tape now!), but for the same money these days
you can obtain the means of getting all the experience you want for around the
same price, in the form of a cassette based multitrack mixer/recorder of medium
standard. Even in the £200-300 price bracket there are machines which
will test your musical ability to the utmost and provide you with the necessary
experience to progress into commercial studios where you really will be able
to compete with the big boys and girls. These days, early experience with a
cassette multitrack is essential for any budding musician, not just learning
how to operate the knobs, but how to perform for a recording and to gain an
understanding of the degree of effort required.

Although I see the main application of cassette multitracks as tools for self
education, they do have another serious uses. They are extremely handy as ‘notebooks’
for jotting down musical ideas and accompaniments to those ideas, or for working
out parts before venturing into a commercial studio. Even top musicians with
access to all manner of fancy equipment still use humble cassette multitracks
to capture their thoughts. Musicians who base their work on MIDI systems with
sequencers will always find tape tracks useful, and with the sequencer synchronised
to cassette multitrack there can be up to three tracks available for vocals,
guitar or whatever your imagination can devise. The quality available from some
cassette multitracks, particularly if they use a high tape speed and Dolby C
(or even Dolby S) noise reduction is extraordinarily good. Between selling my
eight track a few years ago and taking delivery of a Fostex E16 I recorded a
number of simple tracks on a mid-range Fostex Multitracker which are now on
CD as part of a production music library and have been used by TV production
companies the world over.

These are the uses, in my view, of cassette multitracks, but of course the
big question is, for many people, “Can I make a hit record with one?”
Well, if you are a Bruce Springsteen or a Suzanne Vega and can hum a bit and
pluck a bit then the chances are that you can (and good old Brucey actually
did). But if your work depends on a fuller ‘orchestration’ then the
chances are that the limitations of four track working (or even eight track
on some of the bigger Tascam machines) will hinder your progress. Having said
that, by the time you have proved me wrong you’ll have achieved some brilliant
multitrack recording experience that will stand you in good stead forever.

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