Tag Archives: four-track

How I Made My Millions – Radiohead (repost)

Really early on in the life of this blog I wrote this, which seems like it naturally belongs with my other posts on the technicalities and aesthetics of lo-fi.

Every school-age Radiohead fan knows that Thom Yorke recorded this ‘No Surprises’ B-side at home on a four-track while his partner chopped vegetables and did the washing up. Home recording, for musicians, is a commonplace idea, and more and more people seem aware that in the contemporary music industry, a lot of records are home-made or semi-home-made. But imagine what it was like back in the Jurassic era (OK, the mid-1990s): I’d been playing guitar for, I don’t know, a year or so when I read a round-up of six or eight portastudios in a guitar magazine. While even £300 for a basic Tascam 414 model was way beyond my means at 14 or 15, it was the first time I realised that a musician could make some sort of recording at home. I’d come across the term ‘lo-fi’ in a book, but I had no idea what ‘lo-fi’ sounded like, or how it was achieved. This new knowledge, that recording had been somehow democratised, came to me with the force of a revelation. As my musical tastes and knowledge widened, to include such artists as Elliott Smith and Lou Barlow, I developed a definite taste for the lo-fi.

There’s a scene in the film Ray where Ray Charles and Margie Hendricks spontaneously write and perform ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ while in the middle of a furious argument. It’s the single most risible incident in a film that stretches credibility much too far much too often. But maybe that scene is true to the way non-musicians imagine that songwriters work. Maybe it isn’t that big a stretch for a general audience to believe that songs do burst fully formed into life like that. If so, perhaps what Radiohead fans treasure about this recording is that sense that they’re hearing Yorke play the song for the first time; perhaps they imagine they are hearing the moment of creation, not a moment several hours into the process when the writer has pulled the words and chords and notes into shape and taken the time to set up a microphone to record an early version of their new work. The four-track demo suggests an authentic, unproduced creative moment, when in fact a four-track recording no more spontaneously happens than a pencil sketch for an oil painting spontaneously happens. It still takes time and preparation to put a sketch down on paper, however rough the sketch.

Thinking back to my adolescence, I did believe that lo-fi records were somehow more authentic – and morally purer – than high-budget, mainstream records. Certainly the lack of production options inherent in working in a DIY setting back then ensured that self-recorded songs, almost without exception, had simple arrangements and that little mistakes stayed in unless the musician could play a whole take flawlessly. So I can’t mock a Radiohead fan who feels that in How I Made My Millions they have the opportunity of being a fly on the wall during Thom Yorke’s creative process, because as a 16-year-old I believed something very similar myself.

But for sure it does take a skilful and single-minded musician to drag his or her music through the modern production process without it losing something vital. Records that still contain the initial spark of inspiration are rarer nowadays, at all levels of the music industry, as some of the tools of hi-fi recording (or at least mid-fi recording) have become more widely available. In January 1998 ‘How I Made My Millions’ gave younger Radiohead fans a taste of the vibrancy and spark that is more readily perceptible in records in the fifties, sixties and early seventies than in the rest of Radiohead’s oeuvre, and which they perhaps hadn’t heard before, and that likely explains its status as one of the most beloved of Radiohead B-sides.

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Thom Yorke says, ‘Keep your hands off of my stack!’

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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.

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

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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.