Home Recording Memories, Volume 2, 1978-1982

This is a follow-up to my story of home-recording on a dime, starting in about 1967. In 1979, Shelia and I got married, and we moved into a tiny ranch with a full basement in Kettering, Ohio. My recording stuff, and a lot of other stuff went into the basement until we got the house under control. Eventually I got it set up. The Tapco 6200A mixer went on the little podium I described earlier. The tape deck, and most of the outboard gear I was accumulating went onto the top of a big old wooden bar that someone in my neighborhood was selling at a garage sale. At the time, only a few pieces were rack-mountable, and the cost of racks was prohibitive, so the bar worked, because it brought the “table-top” equipment up to a level that allowed me to use it easily while standing or sitting on a bar stool.

For a time, I was still singing with an acoustic trio that consisted of me, Dennis Vance, and William John “Rusty” Pietrzak, both of Dayton, Ohio and friends from my first Christian fellowship (the House of the Risen Son, in Englewood, Ohio). We were playing out about once a month, mostly at “Christian Coffeehouses,” but CCM as a whole was getting away from its Folk roots and getting more rocky. So we brought on a drummer, Norman Gearhart, and did a few gigs with more of a rock band format. We also made a number of recordings as a group. I didn’t overdub so much when there were four of us, because we generally had guitar, bass, and drums and three vocal parts covered.

For an example of a song sung by Dennis Vance, written by Dennis with suggestions from Mollie Magee (who comes into this story later), click here. Norman Gearhart on drums, Rusty Pietrzak on acoustic guitar and harmony, me on harmony and the acoustic guitar with the piezo pickup and chorus pedal (okay, it was about 1980). The original tape is long gone – the recording I uploaded was made by my sister Tess tracking down an old home-made cassette to HD.

For an example of a song we did multitrack, also sung by Dennis, and written by him, click here. Again, the original tape is long gone, but you hopefully get the idea. You have to wear headphones or sit so you can hear both speakers, though. I’m on the electronic piano, bass, and harmony, Rusty is on acoustic guitar and harmony, a young lady named Darla is singing and playing flute. Except for the lead singer’s voice being entirely in one channel, it’s not too bad for a two-channel recording. A real studio could have made this song fantastic. BTW, Dennis Vance holds the copyright on both of these songs.

Then I got a better job and the other guy’s lives were changing as well, so the group dissolved. In 1981, Shelia and I had our first daughter, and she left her job at the bank. So that was another change. I still sang “out,” if anything, more than before, since I didn’t have to work around other people’s schedules. I was still writing songs, but I don’t think I did any demos for a while, though.

In early 1982, with more income and a place to set it up, I was delighted to see a used Dokorder 8140 come on the used market locally. Dokorder’s 4-channel decks, the 7140 and 8140 had similar specs to the Teac/Tascam 2340 and 3440 I had been lusting after, but they were a lot less expensive. Later, of course, I learned that they were also higher maintenance, but that wasn’t my top concern when I finally realized I could afford to do four takes on ONE tape and mix down to a master without creating a recording of a recording of a recording.

Before talking too much about consumer 4-channel decks, it might be helpful to review a little about tape recording history. The inventors of the first magnetic recorders experimented with wire, steel ribbons, and paper tape coated with iron oxide. They were too expensive to be adopted widely at first, but wire and tape recorders were widely used by both sides during World War II.

A commercial wire recorder, postwar.  Click for bigger photo.After the war, companies experimented with both wire and tape recorders to replace the phonograph-based dictaphones that businesses had been using. On a wire recorder, a sound would be converted to an analog electronic signal, which would be sent to an electromagnet that the wire was streaming past. Then the wire would be streamed past a “pickup” that read the magnetic pulses back from the wire and converted them back to an analog signal and thence back to sound. That was fine for voice recording, but there was an upper limit to the frequencies that could be recorded.

After a great deal of competition between wire and tape formats, it was determined that microscopic iron oxide particles glued to an acetate ribbon would not only give a broader area for the record and play devices to access, but would also allow higher frequencies to be recorded.

Record companies eventually replaced direct-to-lathe recording with tape recorders for studio recordings. Those original monsters used 1/4″-wide acetate ribbon coated with iron oxide streaming past the (mono) record and play “heads” at 30 inches per second. Then as electronics improved and a bit of miniaturization became possible, someone figured out a way to get almost as good a signal by using only half of the tape (so the track would only be 1/8″ wide).

The speed of 15 inches per second was also introduced as a tape-saving alternative to 30ips.

But how to use those “half track” recorders? One way was to record a mono signal going one way, turn the tape around, and record a mono signal going the other way. But, with stereo recording on the horizon, that was soon superseded by what we call “half track” recorders today. The recorders would record TWO tracks, each 1/8″-wide, simultaneously. In fact, that format proved so successful that, between 1965 and 2000, the vast majority of master tapes for recordings of all kinds were made in “half-track, stereo” format.

Les Paul and Mary FordAbout 1949, the very clever Les Paul rewired a half-track recorder to record on one track and play on the other. He would, say, record his guitar and Mary Ford’s voice on one track, then play that back while he added another guitar part and Mary added another vocal, recording onto these second track. By the way, recording a track that includes material previously recorded on another track of the same tape is called “bouncing.” So Les would “bounce” tracks back and forth on his half-track until he was afraid the signal would start to deteriorate, then he would mix both tracks into the phonograph lathe, since the record would be mono anyway. The end result was unlike anything recorded before or since. To see a performance of the duo performing their hit “How High the Moon” along with their multitracked recording (shown by a tape recorder running behind them), click here.

Four Studer J37s like this one were used in making 'Sargeant Pepper.'  Click for a bigger photo.Of course the potential of bouncing multiple tracks was not lost on the record companies and huge recording studios. Soon there were 4-channel recorders using one-inch or half-inch tape. The Studer J37 shown to the left used 1″ tape to record four channels. Back when George Martin ordered four of them for the Beatle’s next project (Sargeant Pepper), they cost the equivalent of $180,000 in today’s dollars apiece.

Then, as technology improved, there were 8-channel recorders. Then more channels. Almost all of these tape decks were more-or-less custom built and prohibitively expensive. But the things were great time-savers in the studio, since you could do things like balance the drums or cut out an offending wrong bass note after everyone else had gone home and it was just the engineer and producer in the room. Eventually other uses for those extra channels were developed. For instance, “comping” vocals or instrumental solos. The part would be recorded multiple times, then the best parts of each take would be bounced to a single track. Because of the ability to “fix” problems after the band had gone home, the big studios could make even the lamest band sound good on their singles. (Unfortunately, that also led to a “fix it in the mix” mentality which has given a lot of studio engineers headaches over the years.)

I never actually made any records myself, but the illustration below might help put the role of multichannel tape recording into perspective. If you click on it, you’ll see a full-page PDF version.

Analog Recording Chain, circa 1967.  Click for full-page downloadable PDF version.

At the same time, home tape recorders, which originally recorded mono tape in two directions, migrated to stereo. The 1/4″ tape would carry four channels – two going in one direction and two going in the other direction. Yes, each channel only had 1/16″ to work with, but solid state technology had evolved to the point where that was sufficient for home recording, at least. They also went from 15 inches per second to 7.5 inches per second maximum, with 3.75 inches per second for less important recordings. Again, since most people were just recording radio shows or school plays to listen to later, the recordings were usually sufficient.

The chart below shows the most popular recording tape formats at they evolved. I say “approximate chronological” sequence, because some of these formats were tried, then more or less abandoned for a few years, then tried more successfully as other technologies made them more feasible.

Recording Tape Formats, in approximate chronological sequence.  Click for printable poster version.

The Teac/Tascam 2340, a consumer-quality deck with four-channel multisync capabilities. Sorry, I don't have a bigger photo at this time.  The 3340 photo below has a blow-up, though.When I started using my home tape recorder to “multitrack,” the only four or eight channel alternatives would have cost about four times as much as my parent’s house. But a Japanese company named Teac reset that equation in 1972. The Teac/Tascam 2340 was based on Teac’s best home stereo recorder, the 2300. They redesigned the heads to record four tracks in the same direction, and they put a boatload of switches on the thing. The most important, perhaps, were the “simul-sync” switches. These turned each record head channel to a playback channel temporarily so that you could record the next track while listening to the track(s) you had already made. Remember, this wasn’t necessary on my 2-head recorder, but these were 3-head recorders. If you forgot and left the previously recorded channels in normal mode (using the playback head) when you recorded, the new tracks would be out of sync. Of course, $790 in 1972 would be about $4,500 in today’s dollars. And that wasn’t going to happen on the salary of a short-order cook. Or a gas-station attendant, or a Radio Shack salesperson or any of the other jobs I worked in the 1970s.

To add to the confusion, “Quadrophonic” sound was coming onto the scene. That was a technology that provided true surround-sound by adding two separate channels that would theoretically be routed to speakers behind you. Remember that The Akai 1730DSS, a discrete four-channel tape deck that, unfortunately, did not have any multichannel recording capabilities.this was before the days of subwoofers, so you would get the best effect if you had four matched speakers. Unfortunately, such a setup would cost almost double what a similar quality stereo would cost, and relatively few quad recordings were ever made, so it died of natural causes. But not before Akai and several other manufacturers had released true four-channel reel-to-reel recorders that you couldn’t use to multitrack. You could use them to play BACK a multichannel tape, but they usually recorded on either four tracks at a time (for “quad) or two tracks at a time (for “stereo”). They had no sync capabilities at all.

The Tascam 3340, every wannabe's dream machine from 1972 until the late 1980s.The “mothership of home-recording 4-channels was the Teac/Tascam 3340, introduced in 1971, costing $1200 (about $6900 in today’s dollars). It had the same features as the 2340, but with a much more robust transport mechanism that would handle 10” reels and 15ips speeds.

The 3340 was also the unwilling hero of a strange urban legend. By the time it came out, most professional recording studios were using 16-channel machines, and some were using 32-channel machines. So a frequent question from wannabes considering a single purchase that cost more than their car was “how much can you really accomplish with just four channels?” Someone, somewhere in the United States apparently answered, “Well, the Beatles recorded ‘Sergeant Pepper’ on a four-channel deck.” At any rate, I’m guessing that’s how it started. Within a few months of the 3340’s introduction, pretty much every audio store salesman in the United States was telling his prospective customers that the Beatles had recorded 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper” on a Tascam 3340, which, of course, was released four years after “Sgt. Pepper.” In fact, the Beatles used FOUR 4-track recorders, all of which had substantially better specs than the 3340, plus they had a world-class studio, one of the world’s best record producers, several engineers and techs on call, and access to the best microphones, mixers, and outboard gear money could buy. Yes, they did overdub the daylights out of some of those tracks. But they had the option of “bouncing” tracks among multiple 4-channel units. At one point George Martin even synced two of them together, providing up to eight simultaneous channels. So, yes, if you had multiple 3340s and a million dollars worth of other gear, plus unlimited time and money for engineers and orchestras, and an insane level of talent, you might be able to record an album like “Sgt. Pepper” on Tascam 4-channel recorders.

Here’s another curiousity: Because Tascam wanted folks to be able to use them as home stereo machines, and to play back tapes made on home stereo machines, they numbered their tracks the same way the home stereo machines did. You’ll remember that home stereo reel decks recorded two tracks in one direction, and then recorded two tracks in the opposite direction.

The Tascam 3340, every wannabe's dream machine from 1972 until the late 1980s.For some reason those tracks were interleaved. On home reel decks, tracks 1 and 3 went in one direction. Tracks 2 and 4 went in the opposite direction.

If you wanted to use these decks to record or play back conventional home stereo tapes, only tracks 1 and 3 would be used. If you used these decks to make or play quadrophonic recordings, tracks 1 and 3 would go to the “front” speakers, and tracks 2 and 4 would go to the “back speakers.” Okay, this is trivia. But if you ever come across one of these decks and try playing back tapes someone else has made on one, you’ll find this information handy. The Tascam 3440, successor to the 3340.  Click for bigger picture.

By the way, in 1979, the Tascam 3440, successor to the 3340, abandoned the “Front” and “Back” labeling on its channels. Of course, the fact that – to all intents and purposes – Quad was dead may have had something to do with that. It certainly simplified the “user interface.” That said, if you wanted to play tapes recorded on standard stereo tape recorders, you still had to remember to listen to tracks 1 and 3.

Even if the 3340 was not used to record “Sgt. Pepper,” it soon gained imitators. The Dokorder 7140, an imitator of the Tascam 2340 line with similar features and specs, but lower cost.The most successful early imitator was Dokorder, who introduced a basic 4-channel with multichannel recording capabilities in 1978. They called their version of “simulsync” “multisync,” but it was the same basic thing – the ability to temporarily switch one or more channels on the record head to playback mode, so any new content recorded on another channel would be in sync.

Dokorder had introduced a more professional model – the 1140 – in 1976, but at a price equal to the Tascam 3340, it didn’t exactly make a splash.

Ironically, a low-budget version of these could easily have been made without all those switches by just making a 2-head version, but Dokorder and the later imitators wanted to show that their recordings were as good (or nearly as good) as Tascam’s, and that was hard to accomplish on a 2-head deck at the time.

By 1980, used Tascams were turning up on the market, but they still cost more than I could afford. In 1979, I saw a used 7140 for $275 ($900 in current dollars) and almost bought it (but we got married and bought a house instead).

The Dokorder 8140, an upgrade to the 7140 with a 'look and feel' more like the Tascam units but less robust and at lower cost.About two years later, I saw a used Dokorder 8140 for $225 ($616 in today’s dollars) and bought it. I sold the Concord 727 to a younger fellow to recoup some of the expense, and started learning to use a real multichannel deck.

Here’s a funny “flashback” to that era. Rolling Stone has republished a late 1970’s article about home recording using 4-track multichannel decks, called Kids: Make Big Records in the Privacy of Your Own Home

Though I did record some of my songs with it (usually starting with piano, as always), I hadn’t got far before I realized that the relatively low signal-to-noise ratio on these things translated into “Every channel you record and bounce adds more tape hiss.” Which led to research on outboard noise reduction units. Which inevitably led to learning more about other outboard gear. And that’s another story. – Paul

To go to Volume 3, click here.

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