Have a seat my little whipper-snappers and I’ll tell you the tale of a day when electronic musicians didn’t have fancy things like MIDI, computers and digital recording. All we had were some vacuum tubes, a couple of wax cylinders and a brick. It wasn’t a very nice brick either…… Ok, so perhaps I’m not THAT old, but I started recording electronic music just around the advent of our current modern miracles of electronic music, so let me put my teeth back in and I’ll tell you all about it.
The year was 1983. Roland and Sequential Circuits had just spent the last year discussing a nifty new concept where keyboards, sequencers and computers could share the same interface. They called it MIDI. At the time keyboards and sequencers could talk to each other, but it was a proprietary thing. Pretty much only units built for each other, or made by the same manufacturer could interface together. It seems pretty backwards now, but yup, that’s how it was.
The very first commercial keyboard that featured MIDI was the Prophet 600 by Sequential Circuits, soon after came the Roland Jupiter 6 and Yamaha DX-7. Several years later of course almost every keyboard on the market had a MIDI interface. I, being all of 15-16 years old at the time, couldn’t afford the Prophet 600. Nor could I afford a sequencer or computer to plug it into. No, I had to begin my recording life playing by the old school rules. And, because I didn’t have money to burn, I had to make a few rules up on my own. So this is where my recording story begins.
I started recording some of my first songs the way many do. I’d gently place a microphone in the center of the room and plug it into a cassette tape deck. I would carefully make sure everything was ready, then I’d hit record. As quietly as I could I’d creep over to another microphone and shout “ONETWOTHREEFOUR!” which informed the rest of the punk rock band to begin beating the hell out of their instruments while I continued to shout even louder. The end result was, well, frightening. But it worked.
My “studio” at the time consisted of a boom-box, a stereo microphone, a Custom 6 channel PA and a handful of really bad vocal microphones. When my friends and I visited the local music store, they drooled over the guitars and drum sets -but I didn’t join them. I was busy leaking my saliva on the fancy new keyboards and getting my dirty paw marks on all the drum machines. I was taken back by their sounds, their lights, and all of those knobs that seemed like you needed a license of some sort to operate. I had to own one,. or twenty.
I managed to scrape up enough money to buy a brand new Moog Rouge -and then later a funny little Yamaha MR-10 drum machine- and began the task of making noises that go “blooop-bleep” and “thacka-sssh-thacka-sssh”. Wow I thought, what fun sounds. I should turn these sounds into songs and record some of this. Oddly, the old punk rock studio no longer fit the bill.
Considering the Moog was monophonic and the drum machine was slightly thin sounding, playing a song that consisted of only those two parts was a terrible form of self-torture. And forget singing while I played. I was still figuring out how to turn those knobs the correct way, at just the right time, to make the Moog go “BwwwAaawAAaawAaAwaaA”, which of course WAS the desired sound. I thought I better look into ways to multi-track record this stuff. To my surprise, I couldn’t afford one of those fancy new cassette four-tracks. Actually, let me take that back. I wasn’t surprised at all. I KNEW I could afford one because I had just spent everything I had on the Moog and drum machine. I spent the next few months praying to the gods of multi- track recording for their blessing. Sadly the gods said “NO” and wanted offerings of 250 greenbacks (and I think they mentioned something about apple pie). Being young, dumb and full of sounds that go “BwwwAaawAAaawAaAwaaA” I cursed the gods and went on my merry way.
Somewhere along the line I figured out I could fake multi-track recording. I called it layering. Later I learned the scientific name was Pingapongorus, or more commonly, ping-ponging.
Here’s how I worked it. The Moog, drum machine and microphone went into channels 1, 2 and 3 of the PA. I set the PA to send it’s output directly into a cassette deck -we’ll call that the recording deck. With that recording I’d play something like a bassline on the Moog with the drum machine tap-taping along. When I was finished playing the entire song I’d remove the cassette tape and place it into another cassette deck -we’ll call this the playback deck. The playback deck output would go into channel 4 on the PA. While the tape with the bassline and drums were playing, I’d add my next synth line. This entire mess was being recorded on the recording deck on a different cassette tape. When that layer was done I’d swap tapes and do it again, and again, and again. If you ever wanted to know what the exact opposite of non-linear, non-destructive digital recording was,. now you know. The process was slow, frustrating and the end result was not very good.
By the time I was done, the first layer (remember the bass and drum lines?) ended up having the audio consistency of warm rice pudding. All the dynamics were gone and I was left with something muffled and mushy. The lush rich tones of the Moog were beaten to a pulp by the angry gods of multi-track recording. And to add further humiliation to the situation, the gods cursed my music with the tape hiss of a thousand locusts. Remember how cassette tapes added hiss to the recordings? Well, I had 5 or more layers of said hiss on each song. But I was stupid and didn’t know any better. I raised my fists at the multi-track recording gods and shouted “no pie for you” and continued on my merry way.
Over the next few months I learned quite a bit about the limitations of cassette tapes. I also learned if I recorded all the higher frequency sounds (like snares, hi-hat parts, and higher note synth lines) on the first layer, they had a much better chance of not being converted to warm rice pudding by the time I was done with the song. If I wanted people to understand any of the vocals, all vocal lines were reserved until the last layers. Around this time I also figured out the joys of tape loops and one-shot cues. My analog versions of the modern day sampler.
At the time you could buy endless cassette tapes loops manufactured for the use of recording your outgoing message in your answering machine. These tapes came in 5 seconds to 30 second loops. They also made longer ones but they were of little use to me. The tape itself, was in fact, a complete circle. It wound itself around several different poles and wheels inside the cassette case. The only problem with these tapes was the leader. There was a short half inch leader of non- recordable tape in this endless loop that instructed the answering machine when it was to stop playing your outgoing message. This of course had to be removed if I wanted an almost seamless loop of, well, whatever I wanted an almost seamless loop of. I used these tape loops much like people use loops today, but these were much more difficult to create. I had to time everything before I started recording and I had to stop recording the loop at just the right time otherwise I’d get a skip or pause in the looped beat. Sometimes it would take 10 or 15 tries before I’d get something I could work with. But the end result was worth it. These tapes proved most useful in experimenting with odd percussive lines created from everyday household events, say, my drunk roommate falling down a flight of stairs. After discovering tape loops I soon realized all the rhythms that appear in everyday life. Or better, all the rhythms I could try and loop and use in a song.
One shots were kind of the same thing. I’d find a sound I wanted to use but couldn’t record it in the studio. I was partial to hitting an old oil refinery with hammers. I’d take my trusty boom-box and stereo microphone down to the refinery and record the sounds of me denting it. These recordings were taken back to my studio and I would pick out just the right sound. Perhaps an especially loud “thwack” sound that would make a nice accent. This single “thwack” sound was transferred to a one of my modified one shot cassettes. These were cassettes where I had removed the leader tape -the 5 seconds of clear tape on the start and end of cassettes. I’d rewind the tape and record the sound at the very, very beginning of the tape. When the part in the song came up where I wanted the accent, I’d hit play -THWACK!- then rewind the tape real quick and get ready for the next accent. THWACK, rinse, repeat.
I was so proud of myself. I raised my fists in the air again and said “as for you, the gods of digital sampling, who have not been created yet.. no pie for you either!”
(Yes, I know. The Fairlight and Synclavier were around by then, but I liked the way that sounded so I went with it. It was dramatic and defiant and lacked baked pastries.)
Oh happy day! There I was years later sitting in my slowly improving studio looking at my new sequencer. The Yamaha QX-21. The year was 1987 and I’m just entering the MIDI Generation. Yeah yeah, I know. I’m a few years late. But I had a real job by then and I could afford it. Well, not really. But I didn’t mind living off somen noodles and not having heating oil for the winter. I was still young, dumb and full of sounds that go “BwwwAaawAAaawAaAwaaA”. Only now, I was better armed. Not only did I still have my Moog and my stupid Yamaha drum machine, I had also acquired a Roland D-50, a Korg DDD-5 drum machine and a small army of “stomp box” effect petals. It took many, many pies but a year or two later I bought a ½ inch 8-track reel to reel.
And the gods of multi-track recording smiled.
Perhaps, if you kids are good, I’ll tell you about those days later. But for now just bring grandpa his slippers and pipe. Oh thank you. What fine kids you turned out to be.
If you care to enjoy the shear power behind the Yamaha MR-10 drum machine, there is an almost fully functional one at this website.
And yes, I still have my Moog Rouge and stupid MR-10 drum machine. I might even have some of those tape loops around here someplace.