Tag Archives: Tascam

Elliott Smith’s early records: Roman Candle & Elliott Smith

There’s something really strange about Elliott Smith’s early solo records. They’re not like anything else I’ve ever heard. His later albums make all sorts of overt references to the rock canon: some McCartney changes here, some double-tracked Lennon there, a bit of Brian Wilson, a bit of Harry Nilsson, some Paul Simon picking. His early records just sound like himself.

That distinctive vocal delivery from his Heatmiser days is still there – a weird mix of Elvis Costello sneer and Ian MacKaye bellow – but it’s a whispered version of it. The song structures, the melody lines, the guitar playing, though – it’s a thing that Elliott Smith did that didn’t copy anything else and hasn’t been copied since. “Soft and gritty at the same time,” as Slim Moon (owner of the record label Kill Rock Stars) put it. Indeed, Smith is still occasionally playing the role of tough guy on these songs. About 16 years since I first heard it, 21 since it came out, I still don’t know whether his delivery of the verses of No Name #2 is awesome or unintentionally comic.

Concrete hands picked up the telephone ring
Do you know who you’re talking to?
No, and I don’t care who.
She whispered quiet terror news.
He didn’t give a hoot,
Said do what you have to do.

There’s a context to all this, of course. These records were made during the alternative rock boom that followed the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, a period where a lot of music got on the radio – a lot of music got taken to people’s hearts – that was unapologetically loud, ugly and fierce. An acoustic guitar was a signifier of something other. For a guy like Elliott Smith, who came out of a punk rocky, collegey milieu in Portland, Oregon, to pick up an acoustic guitar and play hushed, intimate songs broke with the orthodoxy of the day, at least in the Pacific Northwest; maybe it’d have been different if he’d come up as a New England coffeehouse guy. But Smith probably felt that his songs couldn’t be too pretty, at least not at first. And they weren’t – pretty, that is – except in short passages. His music wouldn’t acquire conventional prettiness until around the time of Either/Or, when an upgrade in the recording technology available to him was accompanied by the emergence of his 1960s and ’70s singer-songwriter influences.

Reviewers and fans have often compared Smith to Nick Drake: the early death, the sad music, the acoustic guitars… Actually, it’s a stretch. Tonally, the work of the two writers could scarcely be further apart. Drake was diffident, likely to underplay his emotions, even at the end. Smith’s music was always angry, always accusatory, from the first Heatmiser record through to the last song on From a Basement on the Hill. His solo debut, the 4-track Portastudio-recorded Roman Candle (particularly the title track, Last Call and Drive all over Town) is furious. When the torrid Last Call is followed by the instrumental Kiwi Maddog 20/20*, with its electric guitar overdubs and surprisingly fleshed-out drums, it’s a rare respite from all the anger. But it’s the calm of someone who’s raged at the world merely to the point of exhaustion, not to the point where anything’s been resolved. The darkness still hangs overhead.

His lyrics are parables and observations. The biggest mistake people make is assuming his songs are all confessional. It’s his own life, but it’s a lot of allegory. You see recurring characters in his songs.

Larry Crane, for Pitchfork‘s Keep the Things You Found oral history

That’s as maybe. Larry Crane knew Elliott Smith and we didn’t. Yet Crane has an interest in trying to correct Smith’s reputation as the downer king of 1990s indie rock. But this reputation isn’t founded on the lyrics alone. It’s the mood, the tone, the imagery and, of course, Smith’s own life events. It’s everything. And a lot of people are very invested in it.

And the thing is, they’re not wrong to hear it in the music, particularly the early records, and Elliott Smith is the one from which much of the “Elliott Smith” myth is derived. To address Crane’s point, whether the drug stories of Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town, The White Lady Loves You More or Single File were things that Smith had experienced himself at that point in his life or witnessed at close quarters or simply imagined isn’t that relevant; the point is that he was clearly fascinated by dope (the ritual of it as much as anything else), choosing to write about it again and again, and one way or another ended up using it. There’s never been any dispute about that.

Yet listening to Elliott Smith is not the gigantic bummer that listening to From a Basement on the Hill is (in full disclosure, I wish I’d never heard From a Basement, wish it hadn’t been released. There are three or four beautiful songs on there, but it’s not enough to stop me feeling thoroughly dirty each time I listen to it, and incredibly sad that someone as talented as Smith was reduced to junk like Strung Out Again). Elliott Smith burns with such fierce creative energy it’s actually a life-affirming experience to hear it. Every song sees Smith discover something new about his craft. Whatever his personal life was or wasn’t like at that time, as a writer he was in a state of grace that few ever achieve. This is what people continue to hear in Elliott Smith, why it’s still such a strong fan favourite.

He’d go on to balance the strengths of his early work with his deepening writing and record-making craft on Either/Or. But while he did become a stronger songwriter, he did become a slightly less unique one. Never sinking to the level of a mere pasticheur, nevertheless it became easier to find people to compare him to. The raw and intimate early records are essential for the fan because they’re so unadorned, so concentrated, so completely themselves.

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*For readers outside the US who aren’t sure what the song’s title signifies, imagine a beatific instrumental named after Buckfast Tonic Wine or Scotsmac.

The author’s own lo-fi one-take vocal-&-guitar doings:

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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!’

I May Hate You Sometimes – The Posies

Before prosumer digital recording gear became available, a home recordist working in rock or pop was a lo-fi artist whether they wanted to be or not. Whether you were working with a Portastudio or some kind of reel-to-reel machine was only part of the story: compared to the folks doing it all themselves at home, an artist hiring a professional studio had access to better tape machines, better microphones, better-sounding rooms, better consoles, the recording know-how of trained audio engineers and the technical know-how of maintenance engineers. A home-recording rock musician looking to get close to what could be accomplished in a pro studio would need to be committed, prepared to lay out some pretty serious money and possess the patience to learn a lot of technical skills that are quite far removed from the ones needed to write and perform music. And even then, they could only get so close. No home recordist ever made Rumours or What’s Going On.

Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the guitarists and co-lead vocalists of the Posies possessed the talent and tenacity needed to give it a go, and they had an advantage over their four-tracking peers in that Auer’s father had installed an eight-track home studio in his house (with a reel-to-reel eight-track machine, not a cassette-based one), which Auer and Stringfellow duly made use of to record their debut album as the Posies, Failure.

Between them, the two played all the instruments and handled all the engineering. My sense is that, since Auer was the principal engineer, the drum tracks and many of the bass performances are Stringfellow’s, although Auer is listed as contributing keyboards and bass as well as his usual guitar and vocals. Stringfellow’s work as an R.E.M. touring band member, during which time he handled piano, organ, bass, banjo and guitar certainly proves he’s an adept multi-instrumentalist, so it’s not a stretch to imagine he’d be a reasonable drummer too (and since I can’t imagine these guys ever got into analogue-domain editing of drums, which involves cutting the master tapes up and splicing them back together, he’d have needed to be). [See comments below for true credits, from a reliable source]

So Failure is an impressive achievement for a couple of guys barely out of their teens. But for all their skills and hard work, Failure doesn’t sound like a professionally recorded album, doesn’t have the richness, detail and texture that they created for their second album, Dear 23, which was recorded and mixed by John Leckie (who’s perhaps most famous for the Stone Roses’ debut, Radiohead’s The Bends and the first two Muse albums, but whose career stretches back to the early seventies, when he worked as a tape op on Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass).

The sonic differences between the two records – Failure and Dear 23 – are stark. While I’d love to hear Dear 23 remixed a touch drier, it remains a fantastic-sounding record, shimmering and clear as a bell. In comparison, Failure is bass-light and skeletal. But Auer and Stringfellow undeniably caught a vibe on that record, and the immediacy of its best tracks makes Dear 23 sound a little considered, a little fussy. No track on Failure is more immediate than I May Hate You Sometimes, the song from that record with the most mainstream visibility (having been included on Children of Nuggets and used over the credits of a Daria TV movie).

While much more clean and professional-sounding than much of what is traditionally considered lo-fi, like all the best lo-fi material the strongest songs on Failure bust through the limitations imposed on them by the manner of their recording, and seem to be animated from within by the excitement and sense of fulfillment attained by their creators. It was not easy to do what Auer and Stringfellow did in 1988, and for that and much more they deserve far greater credit and recognition than they’ve ever received.

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The Posies: Ken Stringfellow (hoodie) and Jon Auer (long hair, glasses), 1996.

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).

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.

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.

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.