I came up with the idea for this series of articles when I found myself answering questions about home recording equipment from the early 1980s. Each explanation led to another question, and it occurred to me that some folks might appreciate an account that puts this gear in context. I’ll start in the days before 4-channel consumer tape decks and long before MIDI, and bring such topics in to the timeline when I got my hands on them. Please keep in mind that in 1967, where this article starts, there WAS no home recording industry, and the record companies considered home recording of any kind as a threat to their welfare.
Also, I’ll be including examples of recordings I made with gear that is – by any account – obsolete today, and which – in many cases – was bottom-of-the-line then. Some are a little embarrassing to listen to now, but it gives you an idea of what could and couldn’t be accomplished with the setups being described.
About 1967, while I was still in high school, my older sister Tess bought a Concord 727 reel-to-reel recorder with two detachable speakers and two cheesy little microphones. After all, in the mid-to-late 1960s, reel-to-reel was the only way to record music live, and to play music without worrying about folks scratching your records. Like a number of early stereo consumer decks, the Concord allowed you to record on one – not two – channels at a time. The idea was that if you were recording, say, a board meeting, you didn’t need stereo, and that way you saved tape. But the Concord let me do something that not all tape recorders of its era would permit – listen to one channel while I recorded on another one in sync.
Ironically, that was something you couldn’t do on better consumer tape recorders. Three-head tape decks typically had one head for erase, one head for record, and one head for playback – because optimum record heads and optimum playback heads had to be designed a little differently. So even if you could play back one channel while listening to the other – something that was impossible on most consumer 3-head decks, your second recording would be out of sync with the first one. The signal being recorded on the second track would be a half-inch or more behind the signal being played on the the first track, several milliseconds at least. (BTW, this technique WAS used in professional studios in the 1950s to produce “slapback” echo.)
On Tess’ cheap 2-head deck, the same head was used for play and record so there were no sync issues. I could record guitar and voice on one channel, then record banjo and voice on the other channel. Little did I know that studio pioneers like Les Paul had taken this technology to extremes decades earlier.
By the time I was about 18, I was already playing in rock bands and writing songs. By the time I was about 19, I was determined to write and play music for a living. No, that didn’t work out. But it motivated me to expand my recording efforts. By that time, multichannel recording – the ability to record four or more channels in sync – was standard in recording studios. But there were no home units with this capability until Tascam’s prohibitively-priced 2340s and 3340s were released in 1972 (the year I turned 20).
In the meantime, to get something like multichannel recording capabilities, I bought my own (second-hand) Concord 727 and some cheap, battery-powered Radio Shack mixers. (Don’t laugh; I had dropped out of college to play Rock and Roll and was working as a fast-food cook.)
Too clever by half, as the English say, I took to planning each recording out in advance in my notebooks. If there was going to be piano, it always came first, since I could tune my guitar and bass to the piano track but not the other way around. More often than not, I would sing lead on the first track.
Then I would play both tracks back through the little mixers and add, say, guitar and another vocal harmony, recording onto a borrowed reel-to-reel (which didn’t have to have sync capabilities, since I was recording to stereo on both tracks at once). That became my “master.”
If you want to see a full-page downloadable poster that shows all three steps on one page, click the little thumbnail photo to the right.
Outboard equipment, at the time, consisted of a Gibson Echoplex that I had bought from a country singer during my second R&R stint, when we were playing a lot of oldies stuff that could use a “slapback” echo. The Echoplex worked exactly the same as the old reel to reels, on which slapback echo was invented. The erase head erased anything that was left on the tape from the last pass, the record head would record new sounds (such as voice), then the playback head would play those sounds back a moment later. The amount of time that passed was adjustable by sliding the playback head farther from or closer to the record head. You could even feed the playback back through the record head and get multiple “slapbacks,” each quieter than the previous one.
I had also bought a few Shure microphones for use in the band, and those made my voice and sax sound better on recording.
If the last step in the drawings above looks like it would load lead vocals and piano on one side and bass on the other, you’re right. Don’t laugh – in the early days of stereo, folks used to mix that way before they realized that things went better when the bass, bass drum, and lead vocal were in the middle. After a few experiments, though, I bought a second little mixer and crosswired them so I could mix the lead vocals, piano, and bass in the “middle”.
Then, since I was still singing out with acoustic trios and the like and was always running into really bad sound systems, I bought a couple used Tapco 6000R mixers. They had the advantage of having a built-in spring reverb, as well as bass and treble knobs that somewhat flattered my voice. For mixdowns (as in Step 3 above), I crosswired them to get a true stereo mix.
Some folks may wonder why I stopped at, essentially, three takes. Why couldn’t I mix the first two tracks down to one track of the second recorder and add another part on the other track, and so on? Besides the “losing your mind” problem, there were two limiting factors.
- Every time you rerecord an analog track you lose about 3K of frequency response off the high end. If the first two takes each had frequency response up to 18,000Hz (very possible with consumer tape recorders), when I dumped the first two tracks to the second deck, the resulting track would only have good frequency response up to about 15,000. When I “duped” from the three-take master recording to make demo tapes, etc., the “dupe” would only have frequency response up to about 12,000. Any lower than that, and you reach the point where you can’t tell the sound of, say, a violin, from a saxophone, because the information that lets you tell such differences between instruments is almost all above 10,000Hz. Now such loss of high frequencies doesn’t affect electric guitar, since electric guitar amps tend to lose anything over 10,000Hz anyway. but I was playing mostly acoustic instruments, and the tracks would lose their “edge” and “freshness” in a hurry.
- Every time you rerecord an analog track, you double the tape hiss, at least. Remember, we had no noise reduction on these units. Keeping in mind that these consumer decks ran at half the speed and had half the track width of the decks the professional studios used, they were noisier than pro decks anyway. And that noise seemed to multiply when you started rerecording tracks. Think about it, on the demo tapes I was making, the lead vocal and piano was a recording of a recording of a recording.
Commercial equipment, which used wider tracks and could record up to 23,000Hz, just, frankly, had a lot more “room to work.”
At some point, I sold my Tapco 6000Rs and bought a used Tapco 6200A mixer, which made the stereo mixdown process much easier. I even rebuilt a discarded speaker’s podium to mount it at the right height for mixing while I was standing up, so it looked real professional. If I remember correctly, it had individual sends on each channel, which allowed me to plug in outboard gear after the preamps. Also, when I finally did get a 4-channel multitrack deck (described in the next volume), I could use the sends to feed the deck directly.
By the way, the Tapco mixers were engineered by Bob Mackie, who went on to start his own line. They all had specs that approached professional and were built like tanks. And I loved using them when they were in good condition. Unfortunately the lubrication paste in the pots would harden up over time. I tried everything including relubricating, repairing, and replacing the pots, but eventually enough of the pots came close enough to freezing up to make the boards useless for my purposes.
If you want to hear a song I recorded this way back in the 1970s, click here. Yes, there’s a yawn in one of the choruses, and it’s not balanced all THAT well, plus it’s hardly my best singing effort ever (what did you sound like in 1976?). But that’s me playing two guitars and a harmonica, and singing lead. I did record a slightly cleaner version in the 1990s, when through the magic of MIDI, I could add bass guitar and Loren Hall’s drum part to the track. That said, you can still hear how the original “stripped-down” version influenced the more elaborate separate version. 🙂
Although Teac/Tascam’s 2340 and 3340 were introduced in 1972, I had gone back to college by then and was in no position to buy a tape deck worth more than my car. So, even as I added better outboard gear, including compressors and limiters and better microphones, the basic setup with the Concord 727 and my Mackie 6200A mixer remained my “bread and butter” home studio until about 1981, when I finally found a 4-channel deck I could afford (a used Dokorder 8140, first introduced in the late 1970s). I got enough use out of that device to introduce it properly in the next volume, though.
To go to Volume 2, click here: