The second guest Jimmy is Rob Jones of Trilemma. The bee in his bonnet – today’s particular bee in his hive of a bonnet – is the disrespect accorded to tape these days, especially when it’s got so much to offer for making demos at home. (Jim)

Tape Heads
(4th April 2002)

Tape is dead, as Nietzsche might have said had he been around long enough to see the Dawn of the Digital Age. But I for one am not going to take it lying down.

Tape? That really thin plastic stuff coated with ferrous oxide or whatever it is? Get outta here ya Luddite throw-back! Cassettes are for recording Dad-Rock comps on.

You can see what I’m up against, but I won’t give in. No, I’m not going to take the Death of Tape lying down – and that’s not just because I’ve got 10,000 more-or-less knackered cassettes ‘stored’ in shoeboxes all over my life, and replacing them would involve erasing important chunks of experiential adolescent development. I say to all the non-believers: listen to me you wankers! Tape still has an irreplaceable usefulness (aside from road-trip soundtracks) and this is primarily in the service of home demo making.

Imagine the scene. You and your crew have just come back from Argos with your Strat copies and are planning to record those songs/sounds you’ve been humming for two months. What follows is your guide to the pitfalls. It must be read. It could save you hundreds of quid, several good size chunks of disillusionment and one or two painfully protracted arguments with studio engineers.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve finally come to realise just how ace, easy and (best of all) potentially cheap the DIY route to recording can be. Say you’ve all been practising for a good few months and you’ve played a few decent gigs and you know which songs go down well, and which inspired the snooze-core genre. Time to book that first recording at the local 16-track recording ‘suite,’ right? Corr-wrong. Let’s just chuck in a few back of the envelope calculations here: you’ll be looking at an average of 100 a day, for a start. And you’ll more than likely be wanting 2 days. The first for putting down drums, bass, guitar and maybe vocals, the second invariably for any remaining vocals, frilly bits and mixing. So that’s 200 large ones already and you can probably double it, depending on where you are and what gear is available. Not that cost is the only problem with this route, mind you. But I’ll cover ‘sound engineers’ in a bit.

But let’s stick with the 200 figure. For that kind of money you can set up an extremely viable means of making your own recordings. For instance, how much do you reckon you’ll pay for a small, portable, tape machine these days? 250? 200? 150? 100? In fact, even less. In Sound On Sound magazine there was an ad by one of these really big, mostly mail-order based firms that was selling a new four track recorder for 69 (it was a Porta 02 mk1.) What this machine does is basically allow you to record 4 things separately – e.g., drums first, bass after and so on and it uses, fanfare please, the humble audio cassette.

OK, just getting a 4-track won’t be enough. Once you’ve recorded you’ll need to ‘master down’ on to another machine, preferably a decent tape deck with manual record levels, but if you haven’t got one already you can probably borrow one or get a decent one second-hand.

Of course, you’ll also need microphones. But these needn’t be dear either. Maplins Electronics sell something called a Yoga BM26 for about 26 quid. They’re not as good as the old PZM mics made by Realistic which were sold at Tandy but they’re OK really. If you can afford two, so much the better – two is a distinct advantage when you’re recording the drums.

Many will baulk at this method, and tell you it results in such shite quality recordings that it’s not worth bothering with. But they’re very wrong, and have basically been sucked into the dominant ideology of music recording that insists on prioritising ‘fi’ over ‘feel’, deadly silent digital against warm analogue, and high-gloss soulessness above character-retaining performances. Here I’m going to cite my favourite book from last year: Tape Op – the Book About Creative Music Recording by Larry Crane (ISBN 0-922915-60-1, 15.) A truly essential purchase, not least because of the evidence it provides with regard to the view that you can DIY your stuff. He looks at lo-fi methods used by Elliot Smith, Grandaddy and Guided By Voices, and I for one couldn’t believe that these and other characters have been releasing such beautiful and compelling records on such small budgets. But I digress.

Probably the most crucial issue in all this is the time factor. One thing you can’t do in the ‘pro’ demo context is mess about, get your performances good and relax into the whole recording thang. If you’ve been to a proper studio you’ll already be aware of this, and how it always seems like you’re at least two hours behind schedule. Then there’s the engineer. He (yes, it’s invariably the male of the species) is usually more than unsympathetic to your sound and songs, perhaps because he’s spent the last few years working on various forms of ear-piercing speed-meckle.

But let’s not cut him any slack. It’s primarily due to the fact that you’re not the quasi-Genesis progosaurus rex band that is his bag, man. And I’ve also noticed a tendency amongst engineers to be overly dominant, dictating when something’s not quite in time or tune. And while it might be a good idea to tune up before takes, don’t let anyone bully you into playing to click tracks, or re-doing anything you’re convinced is not in keeping with your (ahem) vision.

Keep the Home-fi Burning

I’m not suggesting that multi-tracking is dead easy. But it’s certainly not bloody rocket science, and if you’ve got a bit of time and are slightly inventive you can do good stuff very quickly. Or look at it another way. Considering you can get set up for about 100-150 you probably have nothing to lose. After all, having pooled, say, 30 or 40 each, the band can always flog the multi-tracker when everything goes horribly wrong. You’ll almost certainly have more trouble trying to recoup money spent on studio time.

As a parting shot, I’d also just say that if I could go back in time a few years I definitely would’ve got a cassette multi-tracker loads sooner, if only to record band practices and jams, etc. It goes without saying that the quality would’ve been about a squillion times better than the stuff I did record via some radio-cassette thing of my mum’s. Plus I really wish I’d saved more of the stuff we’d played, just for personal reasons (mainly because so many of the pro recordings seemed to lose so much of the spirit of the practice based performances.) So, let’s put the big pro-demo studios in the sky in the hands of the receivers with a home-fi revolution. And if you’re after some tips for home-demoing via cassette and tape, stay tuned because I’m currently trying to badger Jimmy P into letting me do a kind of ‘how to’ piece (be prepared for some unscience).

(Rob Jones)

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