Home Recording Memories, Volume 3, 1983-1987

Once I had a four-channel multitrack deck, I could record piano, bass, and vocal, then bounce them to the fourth track and start again. And I did experiment with that for a while, it didn’t change my life.

The drawing below gives an idea of how you might start a recording session with a multichannel 4-track. By then I had an early digital piano, so I didn’t have to record the piano first, but if there was a piano on the song, I might. At any rate, you could get a pretty full sound just recording a part or two at a time.

Typical early steps for home recording with a 4-channel simulsync deck.  Click for bigger photo.

I stopped the drawing after the third track, because that was where you decided if you needed just a little bit more, or if you wanted a lot more.
  • If you wanted just a little bit more, you could add something on the fourth track, then mix the four channels down to a 2-track recorder.
  • If you wanted a lot more, you could “turn the mixer around,” feed the tracks you’ve recorded so far into the mixer and bounce them to the remaining track. Then you rerecord something on channel one and channel two, and bounce that to channel three. Then you still had two open tracks. In other words, you could get pretty crazy. A single brass player could easily add horn sections; a single string player could easily add multiple violins; or a guitar player could record a twelve-string to play on one side and a six-string to play on the other.
  • If you had multiple recorders and you didn’t mind bouncing tracks between recorders, you could even do four takes on the first recorder, bounce those to a single track of the second recorder, then archive your first tape and do all the work on your second tape.
You can see why gear like this was often targeted to people who had “more time than money.” And multichannel decks were a great “scratchpad” for people who wanted to work out arrangements, etc. But to get an optimum recording with even a simple setup, you still had to own a certain amount of other gear, including a good mixer, good microphones, and good monitor speakers, as well as reverb units, and other ancillary gear. And, above all, you had to know how to use your gear and you had to know the basic principles of getting a good mix. Lots of garage bands who thought buying a multichannel deck would be the answer to all their problems found out that, without knowledge, ancillary gear, and – above all – massive amounts of time, they were just one more rabbit hole.

The folks who had the most success with this sort of setup and process tended to be songwriters who just wanted their demos to sound a little fuller and composers who made backing tracks for things like industrial videos or theme park musical productions.

For myself, I got my Dokorder 8140 soon after our first child was born, and we went nearly a year without a good night’s sleep. Then I pursued a master’s degree and simultaneously became a youth director at a small church – both of which consumed a lot of time I might otherwise have spent on music. In other words, I played with the Dokorder enough to recognize its capabilities, but I didn’t begin to make use of them at the time.

When I finally did have a chance to think about my “studio,” and next steps, one of the first things I started studying was noise reduction. At the time there were two basic approaches, both of which were first developed for professional use, but which migrated to home use in modified formats that accommodated things like the comparatively limited frequency ranges of home gear. Both required “encoding” and “decoding,” which meant that you applied the process as the sounds went onto tape, and you reversed the process as the tape played back.

  • Dolby(r) was the least intrusive of the two. It made a number of adjustments to the program material, but the largest adjustment was probably boosting the frequencies where tape hiss was most likely to be present as the signal went onto the track, then cutting those same frequencies on playback. In theory, the music content in those frequencies would be exaggerated on the actual tape, but would go back to its proper dynamic on playback, reducing the effect of the tape hiss at the same time. Technically, Dolby(r) only reduced the noise level up to 6db, but it reduced it in the frequency range where it was most likely to be noticed. In addition, you could generally enjoy tapes encoded with Dolby(r) on things like car stereos just by turning down the treble a little. No, that wasn’t as good as having Dolby(r) decoding on your car’s tape deck, but it was doable.

  • dbx(r) took a more aggressive approach. It was mostly based around “compressing” all frequencies of the signal, which reduced the dynamic range by making the quieter passages almost as loud as the loud passages. On decoding, the quieter passages would go back to being quiet, lowering the “noise floor” overall. dbx(r) bragged that it reduced noise by 10db across the spectrum. But you couldn’t listen to dbx-encoded tapes without decoding them. And if your track had a passage with, say, a bass and a flute and nothing in the middle, the encoding/decoding process might do strange things to the flute.

As these technologies worked their way into home recording use, Dolby (r) tended to be the preferred solution on cassette, eventually being built into almost all home stereo cassette recorders, while dbx(r) tended to be the preferred solution on reel-to-reel, although it tended to show up as “outboard” equipment.

By the way, a few custom equipment manufacturers also advertised “noise reduction” equipment that worked on playback only by silencing any passages that dropped below an adjustable threshold, the same way the “squelch” knob works on a CB radio. Though that sounds like an easy solution, you had to be careful, or it would abruptly cut out the “tails” of things like the last piano chord of a song or the ringing of an echo. Later equipment called “expanders” could be programmed to do something similar more gracefully, say, reducing the quiet passages gradually, making the effect less obvious.

By the early 1980s, dozens of kinds of outboard, or ancillary equipment that had been used in professional recording studios were working their way into home studios. The term “semi-pro” rose to prominence. As an example, a “professional” compressor company whose tube compressors cost in the thousands, might issue a much cheaper, solid state version with fewer features that was also tweaked to compensate for the narrower frequency specs and higher noise floor of home equipment. One of the most consistent differences was the use of 2-conductor patch chords, using the same impedance levels as home stereo equipment, as opposed to the 3-conductor patch chords and low impedances of professional gear. (Today, most gear in the “semi-pro” class can go “either way” by the clever use of “Tip/Ring/Sleeve” phone plugs and jacks, so you may never have noticed the clear distinctions between “pro” and “semi-pro” that once occurred.)

During the years that I was experimenting with the 8140, I bought outboard dbx units, an outboard quad limiter, an early outboard digital reverb, and one or two other units. In retrospect, though, I didn’t use this stuff so much for my own music. I did record an “album” of songs for some friends.

Mark and Mollie Magee were friends from Wright State and my early Jesus Freak days. Mollie wrote songs, played guitar, and sang very well, but her most unique strength was probably her flute playing. When they sang together, Mark mostly played keyboards and sang harmony. When we recorded in my basement studio, I frequently added bass guitar and the third harmony.

The dbx 155, a quad encode/decode unit that couldn't encode and decode the same channel at the same time.  Click for bigger photo.
On that project, I used the Dokorder 8140, the quad limiter, and a strange little dbx quad outboard box.

If I remember properly, I was probably still using the Tapco 6200A for my main mixing “console.” Generally I was only sending two channels at a time to the deck, so the stereo output was all I needed.

The BiAmp quad limiter was simple to use - just set the threshhold above which all volumes get I also fed the channel patching outputs of the first four channels into a quad limiter I had acquired. Unlike a compressor, which reduces the volume of a track gradually as it approaches the overdrive point, that old limiter simply “flattened” the output of any channel that that exceeded the threshold. So if you were constantly exceeding the threshold, you could inadvertently create a track that was perfectly “flat” in volume. I’m guessing that the quad limiter, which I got second or third-hand, was originally designed to be used in a church or coffeehouse or club or some such, where both the people using the mics and the people running sound were relatively clueless. Since those days, I have been in churches, coffeehouses, and clubs where I wish they were using these. (Ironically, this may be the only piece described on this page that I still own – not because I haven’t bought better equipment since, but because I loaned it to a friend for his home studio and he later returned it.)

I tried to set the limiter so that each channel would only be engaged maybe 5% of the time, just to keep from overdriving the tape deck, although, during the course of playing and singing, the input volumes often got louder than what we expected, and a few of the individual tracks got “flattened” a little more than I expected them to. Fortunately, Mollie’s voice and flute and Mark’s keyboards were very forgiving on tape.

The outputs of the mixer would go into the “encode” inputs of the dbx 155, then the outputs from the encode stage of the dbx would go into the line inputs of the tape deck. The line outputs of the tape deck would go into the “decode” inputs of the dbx, and the decode outputs would feed a separate mono mixer that we used for monitoring only. That mix would go through an amplifier to feed our headphones. (I had made a box for listening on multiple headphones, which was shabby but worked for the most part.)

This represents the general setup I used to record the Magees.  I haven't attempted to show which channel I used first or where we overdubbed, because it was different on almost every song.  Click to see a downloadable full-page pdf poster of this picture.
Once everything was hooked up and typical levels were set, the big challenge was hitting all the right buttons between takes. On the tape deck, I had to pay attention to things like: which channels were in playback mode and which were recording? Which channels were in sound-with-sound mode (playing back through the record head)? Which channels were monitoring the input signal and which were monitoring the output signal?

On the dbx, I had to pay attention to which channels were being encoded, and which channels were being decoded.

Typically, we would record Mollie singing and playing guitar on the first channel. Then Mollie might play flute while Mark played keys and Mark and I sang harmony on the chorus, creating another mono track. Then we would add whatever else we thought was needed on the other two channels, usually me on bass and more acoustic guitar or something.

When we mixed it to a stereo mix on another tape deck, we were pretty satisfied for the most part. But Mark and Mollie decided that certain of the songs needed drums. In that era, most electronic drums we could afford sounded like somebody saying pooh, pooh, pooh over and over. So we put the mixdown tape back on the 4-channel, brought in a drummer, and recorded her drums in stereo on the other two channels. So that was the only “bouncing” we did, and the end result was very listenable, considering.

Years later, I was an observer when Mollie recorded another album in a sixteen-channel studio run by a fellow with a lot of toys and the knowledge to use them. It was a much nicer production, and I wish I could have done as much for them in our basement project. But I like to listen to the old tape, when I get a chance.

The dbx 150, a stereo encode/decode unit that could encode and decode the same channel at the same time.  I replaced my dbx 155 with two of these.  Click for bigger photo.Later, I replaced the dbx 155 with two dbx 150s, which could encode and decode the same channel at the same time so that reduced the number of buttons to push between tracks. About the same time, I started doing concerts with my friend Wesley Waldron, a violin player. Wesley and I recorded some tracks on the 8140, but I don’t recall ever producing a complete recording on the thing besides the work I did for the Magees.

Then we had a second child, and there was no way we were all going to fit into our little two-bedroom house. So we moved to a much nicer, larger home. The basement of the new home was too damp to use for a recording studio, so I built a little rack, bought a rack-mount mixer, etc., and set up most of my equipment in one corner of the dining room. Though I kept using reel decks for some years, another change was coming.

But that’s the next installment. – Paul

To go to Volume 4, click here.

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