Cassette Multitracks (the beginning of the home recording studio)

I remember back in 1992 (literally 26 years ago as I write this), I got a Tascam Porta-03 multitrack/4-track (the original one, not the MKII) for Christmas. It was $250 and I had to bug my parents to get it for me… I had to get great grades and had to have my shit together for them to even consider it. 25 years ago, $250 was basically like $400, today. That’s a hefty Christmas present.

 

Anyway… this 4-track (above)…. it was kind of a piece of garbage. It was amazing, but it was so…. basic. It had 2 inputs and could only record to 2 tracks at once and had basically nothing. Gain, level, and pan. Turn it on, and go. I remember how limited this felt to me. Sure, I made a ton of recordings with it (mostly garbage, as I had no idea what I was doing, guitar-wise, drum-wise, or anything-wise)…and it was FUN for a while (at least for 6 months)…but eventually, the limitations drove me nuts. I yearned for something like either of these (Tascam 414 / Tascam 424), which were exactly $500-800 at the time:

And then… the technology just…. went at light speed, from 1996 to 2000. All of a sudden, computers (Windows PCs I should say) were powerful enough to record audio, as well as MIDI (which they’d been able to do since the mid-to-late 80s). Audio? On a computer? Holy…. crap. Pro Tools (Mac-only at the time) basically became popular in 1997, which allowed 24 simultaneous tracks of audio, in 24-bit quality). But it was fucking expensive, then ($10,000-$20,000). Amazing how that happened literally two decades ago. But… once other computer and software companies caught on…. the 2000s brought the pro-studio quality to people’s bedrooms, for dirt cheap, relatively-speaking.  So, I wound up selling my Porta 03. In 2001, I started missing having a 4-track, so I bought a Fostex X-34 which was great (and had XLR inputs!). So easy to use, too. Lent this to a friend in 2010… she misplaced it, saying her mom’s boyfriend trashed all of her stuff….

I had been recording audio on a computer since at least 2001…. which was awesome. So, there was no need to own a 4-track. Besides, I wound up transferring most of my tapes, as WAV files in my computer (but a recent box discovery showed me I didn’t transfer at least 50 tapes of recordings… whoops!)

So, cassette recording is a ton of fun. Springsteeen recorded Nebraska on one. The first Iron and Wine album (The Creek Drank The Cradle) was recorded on one. Bee Thousand by Guided By Voices. Elliott Smith’s Roman Candle. Cassettes are back, make no mistake. but… what about the people out there who want crystal-clear digital recordings, and a lot of available tracks…. especially if they record bands? Well… check this out…

16-Track Home Recording Studio On The Cheeep!

I’ve never been an expert on recording studio gear. I know enough about a lot of stuff, but when it comes to patch bays, 500-series mic pres, 3-column racks that sit behind the engineer…………………..

…….I know very little. I just don’t have the budget for any of that shit. I never have, and likely never will. That shit’s dope… but…. considering what has been recorded and professionally-released in the last 10 years alone….. that gigantic rack could be (in certain circles) regarded as a giant waste of money and space. Oh yeah, the gear in those racks is useful… no doubt. But…. it’s 2018. It’s almost 2019 as I write this. And you can get hella good recordings on the cheap, if you research enough. Let me try to help you out.

It all starts with your computer and free software (Garageband for Mac people, Reaper for Windows, and Mac people). And then you need a USB audio interface. A lot of common ones are only 2-input (2 simultaneous tracks). But if you dig a little deeper….. you find the 8-channel ones (and used models, for half or less than half of the price).

A year or so ago, I picked up a used Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 8-channel USB 2.0 audio interface (the 1st Generation of these…. Focusrite is now on 2nd Generation) for only $250 (sells new for $500). Now, this thing is pretty nice. I can use it in my main studio upstairs (desktop computer), or I can use it as a portable rig with a laptop, for recording drums downstairs… or better yet, I can bring it somewhere else and track drums with it there (such as the school I’ve taught lessons at, since 2007).

An 8-channel interface is great if you want to record a small group of musicians (excluding a drummer), or if you want to close-mike a drum kit, which is arguably the “ideal” way to record drums (a lot of YouTubers who do “drum covers” record their drums this way, with a simple 8-channel interface, like this dude (fantastic audio and great drumming):

Oftentimes you don’t really need more than 7 channels total, for miking a 4-piece drumkit: kick mic (inside, or just outside the front head), snare top, snare bottom, rack tom, floor tom, two overheads. If you have an extra floor tom, you’ll need the 8th channel, or if you want to mic your hi-hats with a separate mic, that uses up the 8th channel as well. But, if you mic it the common way, as I first mentioned, the 8th channel can be used by a guitarist, bassist, or keyboardist, providing some melodic backbone, for the drummer. But that doesn’t leave enough channels or inputs for other band members (all playing/recording their stuff live), especially if you want to run a home studio from your parent’s basement (like several students I know do), or from your house (if you are old enough to live in your own house). Let’s assume this band you want to record has 5 members:

  1. Lead singer / rhythm guitarist
  2. Lead guitarist
  3. Bass player
  4. Keyboardist / harmony vocalist
  5. Drummer

7 mics/channels needed for the drum kit. 1 mic needed for the rhythm guitar amp. 1 mic for the lead guitar amp. 1 mic (or direct input) for the bassist. Stereo inputs for the keyboardist (if she uses just one keyboard). Total inputs needed: 12. What do you do, if everything out there is only 8 channels? Enter ADAT!

ADAT properly stands for Alesis Digital Audio Tape. But it’s not exclusive to Alesis products and it’s not really tape. It’s a very intuitive way to connect a multichannel mic preamp (such as the Behringer ADA8200, Focusrite OctoPre, Mackie 800R, or similar), to a proper USB audio inferface (that has an OPTICAL INPUT). Optical basically means the same thing as ADAT.

You can connect any of these ADAT-compatible preamps to an ADAT-compatible USB interface using an Optical (also called a TOSLink) cable…. and double your available channels / tracks, instantly. Let’s do the math, as far as the investment goes. Let’s say you have a decent computer, already. Ok…. $0 invested so far…. (chances are, if you’re reading this, you have a computer).

You picked up a Focusrite 18i20 (1st Gen) used for $300 (they average around that price, most of the time). You also picked up the critically-acclaimed Behringer ADA8200 for $200 new.

Total investment: Only $500 so far. You just built a 16-channel home recording studio (at least the computer/tracking part).

Ok, but now, you need mics…. (and yeah, they CAN get expensive)…. but do you need expensive mics? No. How about a CAD 7-drum-mic kit for only $199 new? It’s hella good for the money and gets the job done. Awesome. you just got enough mics to mike most drumkits. Check out this informative vid:

What about a studio-quality vocal mic? Can’t go wrong with the MXL V67g, especially for the price (usually only $75 new). I record vocals with this mic about 95% of the time. Female vocals, my vocals, friend’s vocals. Never sounds bad. Ever. Pro engineers swear by these, even when going against the big boys (Neumann, AKG, Shure, Sony— one of their mics is $10,000, FYI), etc.

But you need some mic cables, too…. crap. They can add up. Try to grab 10 XLR mic cables (female-male, which is the standard) for like $100 or so max (15-20 feet should suffice for most applications especially if your rig is near the drum kit and the band). You might not need a ton of mic stands, as that CAD drum mic pack comes with clamps that attach to the drum rims. You’ll need a few boom stands for the drum overheads, and a small stand for the kick drum. Add another $75 or so bucks.

So, where are we at now, total-wise? $950. Fifty dollars less than $1,000 bucks.

You need a few guitar amp mics… the standard is a Shure SM57… BUT, the Pyle brand makes an SM57 clone called the PDmic78 for only $15. Pick up three of these for a total of $45. Now we’re still under a grand ($995).

You have:
Computer $0
Software $0 (yes, Reaper is technically free…. it nags you to buy a license if you open it a lot and have used it for the months… but it works fully and completely, and always will, even if you don’t buy a license)
16-channel interfaces (the USB 2.0, plus an addition 8-channel mic pre connected via ADAT) $500
Mics, cables, mic stands (total: $495, including ALL the drum mics).

Less than $1,000?

Oh man. You’re living in the best time, period. You are also lucky as fuck. You have no idea the huge, huge investments all these pro studios made in the 70s, 80s and 90s, only to basically close (or at least, most of them)….. and the struggle of trying to get decent sound-quality… from a cassette (the whole charm of tape IS that it’s lo-fi… and it doesn’t work or sound right for a lot of music). If you want to provide bands the modern/clear/full sound (with very little tape noise/hiss, etc)…. this is how you do it. For less than $1,000. Sure, you might need a few other things like blankets, acoustic panels, this and that….. but… $1,000. How the fuck? Technology. That’s how.

 

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