Saturday, 9 June 2012

Old Masters...

A blast from the past

Now of course I'm not talking about the painters here, but rather my old master tapes from many a year back. Hang on, did you just say tape? - Yep, and cassette tape at that!

A recent request by my Nephew for a copy of the backing track of one of my old songs so he could do his own version of the song had me digging out my old Tascam 424 four track tape machine and a whole stack of master tapes going back over 20 years!

Tascam 424 - Sepia toning seemed fitting somehow

Now I'm a sucker for listening to old recordings. You always find that forgotten track, idea or take that makes you smile, and quite often makes you think "What on earth was I doing!". Every time these old tapes come out I end up losing hours just enjoying the sheer innocence of the ideas they contain. They come from a younger me, a me who had all the time in the world to just play, create, programme and record music. From a me still learning about recording, songwriting, audio engineering and sound. That's not to say that I don't still learn something with every recording I make today, but the technology I was using back then made every recording a true learning experience.

Decisive days

For me these were the days of tape. The earliest recordings were made without the use of sequencers, meaning entire parts had to be written and rehearsed before being played live and committed to said tape. These were the days of track bouncing while adding new live parts to maximise the track count from the limiting 4 presented to you.

Most of all the were the days of decisions.

Once you had bounced 2 or more tracks together there was no going back. No calling up a new softsynth or patch. No tweaking the mix of the parts bounced together, no macro edit screens to hone every 'event' (we used to call them notes!), and definitely no multiple 'undo' button to fix your mistakes! You were forced to work with what you had and move on.

These may seem like bad things, but in many ways they are a fantastic positive force on your music making,  by forcing you to have the courage of your convictions and commit the idea and move on. Too often in these days of DAW's we defer our decision making for a later date and never really 'finish' anything. Every session can be recalled and tweaked and remixed endlessly making the final version of something all too elusive. This modern working method leaves little room for the happy accidents which all to often could lead a track in a new direction.

What's that noise?

That would be tape hiss. Or maybe it was the old keyboard's output stage, or the cheap poorly designed mic preamp, or any number of other items in the signal chain all of which hissed, hummed and buzzed in various musically unpleasant ways! It is such an eye opener to hear how clean and quiet the outputs are on  even the budget gear we have today when compared to gear from 15-20 years ago. Your ears compensate so you quickly don't notice what you are hearing after a while, and it's only when you put the two in direct contrast that you see, or rather hear the difference.

Hearing one of the later songs on these tapes reminded me of the day I was recording it. I remember completing the mix for the backing track which was all running from MIDI sequenced keyboards, and wanting to lay that down to 2 tracks of the recorder. However, every time I played back the newly recorded backing track from tape I was dismayed at the loss of clarity and tone in comparison to the live MIDI mix.

There was no real way to avoid this, you just had to accept it as a limitation of the medium and move on.

Never go back!

Say's it all really - Would I trade in my DAW with it total recall and macro editing, my high bit rate audio interface and it huge dynamic range and minimal noise floor, my softsynths and plugin's and the 1000's of patches and variation of sound they give my? Not on your life! The technology we use today frees us and makes all sorts of creativity possible that simply could not have been achieved back then.

But the one thing I take away from it all is this:

Sometimes you need to finish your idea first. To write the song or part before trying to record it. To choose a sound or patch and commit to it. Make at least some or your decisions early on and stick with them to give you a foundation to build your track on top of.

Of course, if you want to come back later and do a Dubstep/Metal /Country remix mash-up then nothing is stopping you  - least of all the technology.


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