Thinking back to my early days as a songwriter & the antiquated process I worked with for almost 6 years, it’s amazing that I toughed it out as long as I did.
Thing is, it didn’t seem like that big a deal at the time.
*Links to several audio examples have been placed in this article.
Please feel to open in a new tab & listen as you read.
My adventure in songwriting began in 1994. Digital home recording devices were making their way onto the market, but analog was still the dominant force.
It was also the more cost-effective option. That being the case, I decided on a 4-track cassette style recorder (Tascam 424 PortaStudio).
The PortaStudios were decent devices, but they did have limitations:
- No onboard effects or compression
- No phantom power
- Very few microphone inputs
To help overcome those limitations, I purchased several supplemental devices:
- An 8 channel Peavey analog mixer w. phantom power
- A Peavey DeltaFex effects processor
- A DBX analog compressor
These were used in conjunction with the PortaStudio, providing me with reverb, compression, multiple microphone inputs & phantom power for my overhead condenser mic.
Without getting too technical, here’s an overview of my setup back then…
- Drum set mics fed into the Peavey mixer. Depending on the song, anywhere from 6-8 mics were used (Shure SM57’s + EV condenser overhead).
- The Peavey EQ’d each channel individually, added a preset amount of reverb to each channel signal, combined all incoming signals into a single stereo output and sent that 2-channel signal to its next destination.
- That next destination was the DBX compressor. It processed the signal, then sent it to the Tascam 424 recording deck. On its way to the Tascam, that 2-channel stereo signal was reverse-Y’d down-to a single mono feed, which was recorded to high bias cassette tape.
Unfortunately, with only 4 channels available, that final drum track had to be mono. Eventually, that mono track was bounced over (premixed) & combined with the bass guitar track.
Fact is, most of my analog masters are set up that way. The final drum & bass guitar recordings share a single mono track.
As you might expect, there were a multitude of issues associated with the process:
- All drum mic adjustments had to be made pre-tape. That meant I had to balance each mic volume best I could…accounting for bleed, make EQ adjustments per-channel at the mixer, set type & desired amount of reverb for each channel, adjust individual & master fader volumes to non-distorting levels & balance the kit. Needless to say, once these parameters were set, I made only minor adjustments from session to session.
- Once a final take was recorded, it was set-in-stone. The BPM was locked in and mic volume, tone + effect were virtually fixed. If the ride cymbal was too loud or the snare sounded over-compressed, I had 2 options.
1. The entire track could be re-recorded
2. or I could live with the imperfections
Simple as that!
The decision always hinged on 2 variables.
1. How much imperfection was I willing to tolerate?
2. How noticeable would those shortcomings be in the finished version of the song?
- Because of the need for premix bouncing, my bass guitar recordings were also fixed. I had to estimate what EQ settings might be best once the other tracks were recorded. Same was true for the volume of the bass in relation to the drum track. Once drums & bass were bounced over, the combined mono premix was fixed. Unlike digital systems, analog recorders didn’t offer virtual track storage. Once a bounce was complete, the original tracks were erased. That opened up additional track space, allowing for new instrumentation/vocals to be recorded.
- Since I worked alone, components which required monitoring were positioned as close to the drum stool as feasible. That way, I had line-of-sight to the meters as I was playing. Fortunately, once the initial parameters were set, the only thing I needed to monitor was the mixer input signal. That signal couldn’t venture too far into the red. The photo below shows where that Peavey mixer was positioned. The recording deck meters were too far away to see, so I had to trust the accuracy of my preliminary settings. Playback was the only way to verify results. If something had gone wrong, the track was rerecorded.
As if that wasn’t difficult enough, there were other issues. Once a new song had been written, arranged & roughed-out…it was time to begin the final recording (keeper version).
If the song had drums, they were always recorded first. As is the case with live performance, better results are achieved when everyone plays to the same rhythmic center…in this case the drum track.
But, recording them first was no simple task !
- With those old cassette style recording decks, click tracks weren’t possible. The track bleed was so bad, that ghosts of the original click would remain audible even after complete erasure. That being the case, the logical alternative was to play to an electronic metronome. That provided a timing center, but virtually eliminated the possibility of over dubs. Since the click was completely independent of the recorded drum track, there was no way to match the 2 for auto-punch patchwork. Bottom line -the vast majority of my drum tracks were start-to-finish takes. In other words, the entire part was played straight through with little or no patch-work.
- Another standard practice for drum-first recording is the use of a guide track. Guide tracks give drummers a basic outline to follow. That way they’re hearing a roughed-out version of the music while playing along with the metronome (click track). It helps in remembering the feel of a song, where various sections begin & end, etc. Bottom line – no guide tracks were possible! The reason…track bleed. Ghosts of the roughed-out guide were still audible on the finished drum recording. So, I became very good at memorizing the structure & flow of new tunes. By the time I was ready to record the drum track for a new song, I knew it so well that I could hear it playing in my head, beginning-to-end.
- 2 measure count-ins were recorded at the beginning of every song. This was an absolutely must! Since drums were recorded first, there had to be a way to accurately tell where the song started. How else would I know when to begin playing or singing as additional tracks were added? Obviously, that section of the tape was later erased. Since beginning sections were trimmed off in final production, track bleed didn’t matter.
OK, I’m finished whining about how hard things used to be!
The reason for this bout of nostalgia is simple. A while back, I set up a YouTube channel called “The Story Behind the Song”. Several of those videos were based on early songs/recordings.
A few made passing reference to the fact that I’d transitioned from real drums to electronic creation, but they don’t talk much about the “whys”.
This blog seemed a good way to do that! If nothing else, it may serve as reminder of how much simpler things are for home recording enthusiasts today.
* Video Examples of early drum recordings:
"About Me" Muse Member pg.