Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Case For Recording With Tape

With the onset of digital recording, the use of tape has fallen by the wayside. But there’s no reason to leave it in the hands of eccentrics or diehard vintage enthusiasts. After all tape has been around a long time and works much the same as it ever did. And there’s a certain desirable audio quality that you only get from tape. Some say it’s that tiny bit of hiss in the background, acting kind of like a ride cymbal, that gives it what is most commonly referred to as “warmth”

Look at all those great recordings Les Paul made. And his gear, though pretty good, wasn’t nearly as good as what came later on. Elvis’ first records on the Sun label (some say his best) were done on modest tape machines. By the time the Beatles came along, 4-track tape was state of the art. The Doors albums, some of the most spontaneous and live studio cuts ever laid down, were recorded on 4-track tape. Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland, with the help of Eddie Cramer, seems to have squeezed the most out of tape. Although, The Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers album is probably the most impressive album ever created on tape.

Portable multitrack recorders hit a highpoint in the ‘80s, with the arrival of the Tascam 246 Portastudio, which weighed about 20 pounds and sold for a little over $1000. Even though the cassette format could be argued to have less fidelity than quarter inch reel, or the half inch stuff found at EMI or Abbey Road, the 246, with built-in 6 channel mixer and DBX noise reduction, got the home recording musician right up there with The Fab Four in terms of what could be done with four tracks of tape. Pat Metheny recorded his New Chautauqua album on a Tascam 246 Portastudio, playing all four tracks himself.

Today, a Tascam 246 Portastudio can be found for under $200. Yes, the belts and pinch roller will need to be replaced, and the heads will need to be cleaned regularly. You can still get parts from TEAC/Tascam USA, along with a service manual, which you’ll need to safely get around inside. Some might say it’s not worth messing with, when it’s so easy to just plug into your computer.

But, then there’s that sound thing again. The joy of making music without a whirring power supply fan and trading the glare of an LCD for the dim glow of a VU meter should count for a lot and maybe come as a relief. There’s a certain excitement when the tape begins to roll, a little tension perhaps, in the quest for a perfect take, knowing you can’t cut and paste with a mouse click. What you get with tape is a sense of putting together a song the way John and Paul did. Would they have embraced all the computer recording capabilities we have today? Of course. In that respect, you can always use your computer to master your tape and burn a CD. But if you’ve never used tape, give it a try. You might be pleasantly transported to a place with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

$160 Multi-Track Computer

You want to get into multi-track recording, but you can’t justify the cost of a new DAW or new software to add to your PC. Here’s a solution.

This PC was found at a yard sale for $60. It’s ugly, and it’s old, but it has a P4 3ghz CPU on an ASUS p800 board, onboard video and sound, a 40-gig Western Digital drive, 1 meg of ram and XP. It’s not great, but more than adequate for getting some music tracks down. Next, came a Samsung DVD/RW from New Egg for $25 and an older version of Cakewalk’s Sonar was found on Ebay for $45, along with a midi to USB cable for $30.

And there you have it. No, you’re not going to be able to run all of those new VST plugins, and you’re not going to have a myriad of effects on each audio track. But, after tweaking XP for best performance, and ASIO 4 All (a free audio driver that works with almost any soundcard and gives very low latency), was set up, this machine is capable of 6 tracks of simultaneous audio with reverb, along with 16 tracks of midi. And that’s pretty good for a hundred and sixty bucks.

Now that XP is 2 generations removed from the latest Windows, old P4’s with XP are turning up at prices that will appeal to the budget conscious musician. Just because the technology is dated, doesn’t mean you can’t produce quality music. Remember, this stuff was once cutting edge. It worked when it was new, and still works. So, go scrounge up one of these old PCs and make some music.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Water Song

Water Song music video on YouTube. A short commentary on water as a precious resource set to classical guitar from the album While We Are Here by Clarence Foss.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Reed Revival - Make Them Last Longer

Let's face it, the cost of reeds is getting pretty dear, and will probably continue to go higher in the future. If your gigs aren't paying you more, then you'll need to make those reeds last longer. You're already using a reed-saver to store the used one's in (aren't you?), but that's not enough. Enter the reed-trimmer.

Reed-trimmers have been around since Charlie Parker jammed in his first Kansas City club, and the design and operation is basically the same as when they were first made. You simply take your reed with the chip on the end, that you would have normally thrown away, place it under the clamp, adjust the position so that the flawed tip is beyond the blade edge, then press down or lift up, depending on the design of the trimmer, and clip the end smooth.

Obviously, with the reed trimmed, it's going to be a little shorter and therefore a tiny bit stiffer. Some players have chops to blow right past this difference. For those of you who want it the way it was, take your reed rush (which you'll buy when you pick up the trimmer) and a piece of 1000 grit sandpaper, lay the reed on a piece of wood, flat side down, and gently (very gently) make a few strokes with the sandpaper, rubbing from the thick part toward the tip. Once you feel you have the thickness you want, rub the reed rush over it, again from the heart toward the tip, to make the surface smooth and ready to play. That's all there is to it.

The cost of the reed-trimmer, reed rush and a sheet of sandpaper, is about the same as a box of reeds. So, after you trim your first box, the reed-trimmer has paid for itself. There's simply no reason for a clarinet or sax player to not have this kit in the case or gig bag.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Welcome to the Coolcat Music Blog

Here is where you will find articles and postings on:
- Musical instrument repair
- Little tips on keeping you instrument in shape
- Multi-track recording (both analog and digital)
- Musicians and artists
and other topics of musical interest.