Monthly Archives: July 2013

Experiment, part 4 – Conclusions

I undertook this experiment to see what level of fidelity a Portastudio was capable of, if used by someone with a bit of knowledge about tracking, which I definitely wasn’t when I was using a four-track recorder regularly between 2000 and 2006 (strange to think I’ve been recording digitally longer than my analogue period lasted).

I should clarify at the start that I am not particularly ‘pro’ digital or ‘anti’ digital, and neither am I ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ analogue. There are a few things I have observed in relation to the debate and that for me are truths:

1) Modern records do not, speaking generally, sound very good to my ears.

2) The problems I hear are not necessarily related to the fact that the songs were recorded to hard disk rather than tape. They have more to do with persistent and unmusical use of tools such as compression, EQ, pitch correction and quantisation in a manner that would be close to impossible in the analogue domain.

3) Continued use of 16 bit/44.1 as the digital standard in this day and age strikes me as daft. Ditto MP3s. As hard drives get bigger and bigger, lossless files could easily replace MP3s (they could have done already). The sticking point seems to be the replacement for many people of the dedicated MP3 player with multi-purpose smartphones, with smaller hard drives and more kinds of media content competing for the limited space. I don’t know the size of the hard drive in my Samsung Galaxy, but it sure ain’t the 120GB in my iPod Classic (a form of iPod that Apple now seems to consider entirely obsolete, damn them), which allows me to carry around a significant percentage of music in WAV format.

4) Most of my favourite records sonically were recorded to tape. But not all. I can think of many digitally recorded albums/songs I think sound very good, some of them going back to the Soundstream days (my beloved Tusk).

5) I recognise the flaws digital has as a long-term data-storage solution (the main point Steve Albini makes against digital nowadays – it’s a point well made).

6) My attraction to lo-fi when I was younger had (I now think) a definite self-conscious, purist aspect to it, but also grew genuinely out of a conviction that simple presentations allow the song to shine through.

So to specifics, then. Funnily enough, the thing I’m least satisfied with about the four-track version of Find Out In Time is the 12-string acoustic sound. The drums do their job well enough. The snare drum doesn’t have the focused crack I look for at the front of the stroke, but that’s probably to be expected since there was no close snare mic. The floor tom gets lost a little bit but it’s only hit during one fill – the placement of the kit mic at the front and middle of the drum set, pointing at the snare, was always one that would lead to compromises. I made the choices I thought best given the part I intended to play. Overall the drums sound decent enough.

The bass (Fender Jazz through Laney amp), is OK, although boy would I have liked a little bit of compression on the track. The vocal’s mixed too low, as is my habit when mixing my own songs, but it sounds OK – listened to in solo, everything’s audible and the vocal sits way above the noise floor without getting into crunchy territory (accomplished by recording the verses first, then resetting the gain levels and doing the choruses separately).

But the guitar? It sounds kind of warbly and has an unpleasant hardness to it in the upper mids that really doesn’t sound like my guitar sounds normally do. The mic, the instrument, the room and the player were the same as I would normally use – the only different element was the Portastudio. I’m not saying that those unpleasant qualities are definitely from the four-track, and if they are, with practice I’m sure I could develop techniques to get around them and find a way to get something closer to ‘my’ acoustic sound, but of all the elements on this recording, the acoustic guitar is definitely my least favourite.

Of course, tastes vary. Some people might hear this and prefer it to the digital version I made last year. While that version’s sure not as good as it could have been (I recorded it in D after trying and failing to hit the harmonies satisfactorily in E. In retrospect, I wish I’d stayed in E and either persevered with the high harmonies or found someone else to sing them), it better captures what I want the song to be than the four-track version does.

I don’t know whether I was expecting to find the Portastudio capable of greater or lower fidelity than I encountered during this experiment. I think it unlikely, though, that I’ll be recording much on analogue tape again until such time as I can work on some real-deal gear.

soundstream

This is the Soundstream digital recorder, invented by Thomas Stockham in, would you believe, the late seventies. Stockham also played a crucial role in bringing down Nixon. Good dude (Stockham, that is. Not Nixon).

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Experiment 3 – The results

After starting again, for the third time, yesterday morning, the Portastudio mix of Find Out In Time is now finished.

The drum track was recorded with two mics (one for the kick and one overhead, to pick up the rest of the kit), and I used a click track after failing to get a steady enough tempo without one. There is one track of bass and one of 12-string acoustic guitar. After they were recorded, I bounced the drums, bass and guitar together to make enough room for the lead and harmony vocal. There’s also a guitar solo on the same track as the harmony vocal.

After all the parts were recorded, I connected the 414 up to my laptop and recorded the track into Cubase in mono, running the levels of the lead vocal as best I could, which I’m really out of practice at, and doing a little tweaking on channel 2 to bring up the solo and fade it down again (to take out any punch-in and punch-out noises).

The finished version can be heard here:

The digital version, for comparison:

 

If you’d like to hear some more home recordings, here you are:

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This is a Tascam 414 mkII. Ask your dad.

Pride – Hüsker Dü

The first time I read about Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was in a column Jawbox’s Bill Barbot wrote for Guitar School in the mid-nineties. He was writing about how to make ‘a brilliant recording without spending a military budget and the rest of the decade in the process’. Zen Arcade was his Exhibit A.

Zen Arcade is the kind of album that doesn’t get made now. The most tangible change in record-making wrought by the advent of affordable digital recording gear is the drawn-out, accretive nature of the process as it is engaged in by many (perhaps the majority) of artists. When you have your own gear and in effect your own studio, and when you are your own producer and you’re not footing the bill for an engineer, why not go slowly, at your own pace? Why not weigh things up over days, or weeks, one element at a time?

In 1984, Hüsker Dü couldn’t do this. They worked quickly because SST couldn’t afford for them to work slowly. When they decided to make a double album, that meant doing twice the work in the time allotted, not doubling the amount of studio time. Zen Arcade’s 23 tracks were recorded and mixed – at Total Access in Redondo Beach, which wasn’t, and still isn’t, an amateur facility, contrary to what a lot of Hüskers fans have assumed – in 84 hours. The last session comprised 40 straight hours of mixing. The whole enterprise cost $3200 (about $7000 in today’s money), which is not a lot for a double album people still sing hosannas to 30 years on.

However, the sound of Zen Arcade certainly has its detractors – Robert Christgau observed drily, ‘It wouldn’t be too much of a compromise to make sure everyone sings into the mike, for instance, and it’s downright depressing to hear Bob Mould’s axe gather dust on its way from vinyl to speakers.’ But Zen Arcade is an album that demands to be taken for what it is. Greg Norton’s bass may be largely devoid of actual bass frequencies,  Grant Hart may sound like he’s playing ‘paper drums’ (The Posies – Grant Hart, 1996) and possibly a different song to the one Mould’s playing on guitar, and Mould’s buzzy, fuzzy guitar is a real love-it-or-hate-it kind of sound (it’s nothing I’d model my own guitar sound on, but somewhat predictably I love it), but the sound of these guys tearing through their songs with absolute conviction and vein-bulging ferocity is one of the most thrilling experiences in rock’n’roll. Almost everything else sounds effete in comparison.

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Hüsker Dü, ©Michael Ochs. Yes, Greg Norton had a handlebar moustache. Yes, I believe he still does.

Experiment, part 2.1

48 hours later, I’m back where I was on Thursday night. A tolerable drum part and guitar part. Not that I’ve been slaving over this all day, but still progress could be quicker.

Bass next. Wonder if I could hire Lee Sklar?

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Leland Sklar. Bass ‘n’ beard.

Experiment, part 2

A couple of years ago my computer was being fixed (blue screen of death, unmountable boot volume – it was a grim) and was in still in the shop when, one evening, I wrote a new song I quite liked and decided I wanted to demo quickly. Without a computer, I had to dig out Old Mr Four Track, who nowadays makes disconcerting clicking, clacking, groaning noises whenever you ask the thing to play something back.

Nonetheless, within ten minutes I was outgroaning it, when I got to the end of a flawless guitar performance, only to have my brain freeze on me. Unable to recall where my fingers should go, they tried to go in a couple of places at once, and I played a chord never before heard by mankind. It dawned on me that – in the analogue domain and with this equipment – I couldn’t begin to make a seamless edit of the correct chord. That kind of edit, on tape, in such an exposed piece of music, would certainly be audible. At least, with my level of skill. Ken Scott could probably do it easily.

I’d only been recording digitally for a few years – five at most – but already I was thinking like a digital recordist. And couldn’t believe how unfair it was that I had to play a whole perfect take all the way through in order to get something I could live with later. That’s the most insidious thing digital recording does to you. But after a few minutes of cursing, I decided to knuckle down and get on with playing the take over, as many times as needed, and that in future I’d work harder on actually playing good parts and resist the temptation to use digital editing like a crutch. My guitar and bass playing have improved a lot from that: a simple, unglamorous improvement that probably no one but me notices.

Boy, has all of this hit me again in the last couple of days, as I prepare to record the drum track of this song for a third time. The first take: solid, but too slow. The second take (to which I already added guitar and bass before deciding I couldn’t live with it): speeds up.

For the third one, I’m resorting to the horror of a click track. So maybe my time hasn’t improved so much after all.

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Despair, Edvard Munch. Four-track recorder not pictured

A little experiment

I’m going to spend a decent proportion of my free time over the next week kicking around some ideas regarding lo-fi music.

It’s a wide term – lo-fi – more difficult to pin down than I imagined before I began this post. Some folks will happily define, say, early 1980s hardcore as lo-fi, or the records Jack Endino made for Sub Pop at Recriprocal. Others will say ‘lo-fi’ and mean the sort of home-recorded cassettes released by folks like Robert Pollard and Lou Barlow. I’m happy to work with a pretty wide definition of lo-fi and will use it to refer to any music made on equipment below that of professional standard (in any given era), and if a song or record under discussion is a marginal case (mid-fi, so to speak), I’ll say so. But it’s worth acknowledging that when a lot of people discuss lo-fi music, they refer exclusively to home recordings made using Tascam Portastudios and the like.

These were/are machines that combine some of the functions of a mixing desk and multi-track tape machine into one small box, allowing the user to record two, four or sometimes even eight tracks to metal cassette tapes. Once recorded, the user can alter the volume and EQ of the tracks independently, and even add effects, to create the desired balance. (Digital Portastudios are still manufactured, and many people hang on tenaciously to their old analogue machines.)

Cassette multi-tracks provided a means of recording home demos several wide notches above playing into the built-in mic of a boombox, but several notches below older consumer reel-to-reel machines like my grandfather had. These sounded quite a bit better (because of their higher tape speeds) than Portastudios, but the most common ones among home users were mono machines, which precluded overdubbing. But what cassette multi-tracks did was allow musicians, whether amateur or professional, to record home demos and try out arrangement ideas at the same time, because of the overdubbing facilities.* Famously Bruce Springsteen used an early Teac (Tascam) machine to record what became Nebraska – just his voice, guitar and harmonica, and a few touches of organ, tambourine and glockenspiel, all played by Springsteen himself.**

All this is quaint by today’s standards. For the same sort of money my Tascam 414mkII cost in 2000 (by which time these analogue machines were being superseded by digital multi-trackers), today you can buy a USB audio interface, capable of recording 24bit/96k, with four mic/line inputs. It will be theoretically capable of zero-latency monitoring. A ‘light’ version of a DAW (digital audio workstation) will probably be bundled with the hardware, and this ‘light’ software will give you at least 48 virtual tracks (possibly more, maybe even unlimited), bussing capabilities beyond the wildest dreams of anyone using a 414mkII 15 years back, the ability to work with virtual instruments and MIDI, and 8 inserts and sends per track (yes, per track).

It’s a very different world now.

Yet something very like lo-fi still exists. People still make music that sounds like lo-fi. People still self-identify as lo-fi artists. Which leads me to wonder how much of the lo-fi-ness of lo-fi is actually an aesthetic choice, how much is a product of letting the untutored loose with equipment they don’t really know much about, and how much is a product of the equipment’s limitations. I’m planning a series of posts on lo-fi, some focusing on specific artists and engineers, others more general or philosophical, but I wanted to begin with a little practical experiment.

Since I moved over to digital recording for home demos in the mid-noughties, I got bitten hard by the recording bug. I’d always been interested in it, I’d always recorded friends as well as myself, but in the last four or five years I’ve worked a lot harder at recording and mixing. I’ve learned a lot about the history and theory of recording, interned in a local digital/analogue studio, done some freelance work out of another local studio, picked the brains of every engineer I’ve met, studied other people’s records for hours on end and generally tried to pull myself up to a level where I could make respectable recordings of any sound source put in front of me. So I’m in a much better place now to evaluate what a cassette four-track machine is actually capable of, given a bit of know-how, some moderate musicianship and a bit of care and attention, than I was when I actually used these things regularly (when really I was fumbling around cluelessly in the dark).

To that end, I’m re-recording an old song of mine on my 414: bass, drums, guitar and vocal, no bouncing (so that everything stays in the same generation). This is a song I’ve recorded a couple of times before: once with my old band and once on my own playing all the instruments. And since this song is around seven years old, I’ve even got my original, very slapdash, four-track demo, recorded in Marsala Road, Lewisham, late summer of 2006. It’s one of the last songs I wrote before going over to the digital domain.

I’m a geek, so I find the process of recording – whatever the medium – endlessly fascinating. If you don’t, check back in a week or two, when normal service will be resumed. If you’re interested, I hope to have finished the Portastudio recording of this old song by the end of the weekend. Let’s unravel the mystery of lo-fi together!

If you want to hear it for context, the one-man-band, mid-fi, digital version (I’d call it hi-fi but for the horrific lossy MP3 compression and the addition of Soundcloud’s own artifacts), is here: https://soundcloud.com/rossjpalmer/find-out-in-time-acoustic-mix

414

My precious… It was old tech even in 2000, but I was devoted to my Tascam 414

*In his recent South by Southwest keynote speech, Dave Grohl demonstrated a means of ‘overdubbing’ with two tabletop tape recorders he used as a teenager in his bedroom. I’m sure he wasn’t the only kid doing this back in the day, but it’s pretty sweet in its ingeniousness. The video’s on youtube. He demonstrates the technique about 10 minutes in.

**Bruce was a wealthy man even in 1982, and he could easily have put together a studio space in his house that was semi-pro or even genuinely pro, with proper 16- or 24-track analogue machines and a real desk, but perhaps the novelty of this little Portastudio appealed to him, or perhaps he wanted to take it on tour to demo new songs on the road.

Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams – a relistening

Listening to Tres Chicas last week in order to put something together on them for this blog led to me to spend some time – for the first time in a long while – with Whiskeytown’s records, Whiskeytown being the band that Caitlin Cary is best known for, the band that introduced David Ryan Adams to the world. These are records I’m well familiar with, having listened to them extensively around a decade ago, when I first became interested in contemporary country-rock music (two terms I won’t use to describe this stuff: ‘alt.country’, ‘no depression’. A third: ‘Americana’).

I’d heard some country music growing up, on a couple of Music for Pleasure cassette compilations that my parents played on car journeys sometimes: Crystal Gayle, Billie Jo Spears, Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, Glen Campbell, Jean Shepherd, Linda Ronstadt, Bobbie Gentry, some Willie Nelson (anyone that they could get the rights to, which led to the same artists getting featured over and over). But, being young, I didn’t get the nuances, the difference between the artists, the voices, the arrangements. It didn’t seem odd to me that Crystal Gayle’s ballads entirely forsook fiddle and pedal steel (not that I’d have known what a pedal steel guitar was, let alone what countrypolitan was) in favour of string sections and harps. I couldn’t hear that Anne Murray’s voice was different to all the other singers’ because she was Canadian. And so I grew up with a specific, context-free idea of what country was. Country music encompassed everything from Blanket on the Ground to Talking in Your Sleep, Hello Walls to When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman, and all of this was country, because the cassette sleeves said it was.

I didn’t know then that country was also Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline and Slim Whitman. I didn’t know that, say, the Eagles had made a species of country music – I’d heard them, but they weren’t on these cassettes, so evidently they weren’t country. A child’s mind is wonderfully literal.

So when I started looking into contemporary country music I didn’t want to hear the modern equivalent of that old stuff I heard when I was a kid (which probably would have meant Trisha Yearwood or something similarly polished and Nashville) – I was interested in hearing the music that was being spoken of as the carrying on the legacy of Hank Williams, or of the Outlaw artists from the seventies. Music that was rough, gritty, rootsy, melancholy, beautiful but not necessarily pretty. Music that reeked of beer and cigarettes and desperation. A college student’s mind is touchingly romantic.

Whiskeytown were considered one of the foremost examplars of this new old-school country music, so I had to hear them. What I realised soon enough is that Ryan Adams wasn’t the pure-bred country musician I thought he was. He was a former punk rocker who formed Whiskeytown five minutes after being introduced to the records of Gram Parsons and George Jones by Skillet Gilmore, who gave Adams a job in the Raleigh, NC, bar he ran and became the first drummer of Adams’ new country band.

Adams was a consummate student of music, a writer with an extraordinary gift for mimicry. This was already obvious by the time Whiskeytown released Strangers Almanac in 1998, where Adams’ debts to the Rolling Stones and Paul Westerberg began to be revealed as clearly as his Parsons love, and over the course of Pneumonia (the band’s final album, retaining only Adams and Cary from the first record) and his first two solo albums (Heartbreaker and Gold), Adams wrote songs that cribbed from Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elton John, Alex Chilton, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen. No wonder Uncut loved him.

Many of these songs, to be sure, were great: Adams has a lot of talent, a very keen ear and the sense to surround himself with musicians who can help him get to where he wants to go (a cast list that has included Ethan Johns, Bucky Baxter, Mike Daly, Jennifer Condos, Cyndi Cashdollar, David Rawlings and Catherine Popper). But when I fell out of love with Adams and his work, I fell out hard, as he simply hadn’t given me what I was looking for, and at the same time that I was listening to him I was becoming more intimately acquainted with the work of Dylan, Young, Van and Chilton, to say nothing of Gram Parsons and Hank Williams.

For me, it’s not a damning criticism of Adams to say that he works essentially by emulation. Certainly not at this point, where I’m basically over the idea of authenticity and originality as having much bearing on the quality of art. However, the amount that Adams owes to his influences is often so clear as to become distracting, particularly on Gold, where practically every song is a love letter to one artist specifically. On a couple, Adams even sang the song in an imitation of the inspirator’s voice, to make the debt entirely clear for those who weren’t paying attention at the back. While one had to applaud the scholarship, it became a little wearing.

While his work in the decade since Gold has been uneven, it is surprising how far his critical esteem has dropped, and the degree to which he has receded from the indie consciousness. His 2011 album Ashes & Fire passed me by entirely (its single Lucky Now was essentially Daddy was a Bankrobber played slowly on acoustic guitar, and was pretty dispiriting to sit through) and generated none of the hype and anticipation that a Ryan Adams record would have done six or seven years before (love them or hate them, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Love is Hell got him a lot of press coverage).

And when I saw a video of (and was blown away by) Mandy Moore singing a live-in-the-studio version of Merrimack River, I couldn’t help but think about how long it had been since her husband (Ryan Adams) had written a song half as good, or indeed sang anything with that much emotional commitment.

There’s lots of excellent songs in Adams’ discography and he may yet end up as an Elton John figure – someone who made no faultless albums but who drifted in and out of songwriting form over several decades and cut enough great songs for an excellent double-CD best-of. There are certainly worse fates for a recording artist. Nevertheless it must be somewhat galling for him that he’s now so out of favour critically that when Laura Marling rewrote New York New York (from Gold) as Sophia, with Ethan Johns in the producer’s chair, no one who praised that song thought to mention how big a debt it owed to Johns’ first big-name client.

If you’ve never listened to the man’s work and want to give him a fair hearing, I can recommend Heartbreaker and Pneumonia without hesitation, and give qualified thumbs ups to Strangers Almanac and Gold too. And I do genuinely hope he puts out something to rival them one day.

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Whiskeytown, circa Pneumonia

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Ryan Adams, in a park