I’m always on the lookout for other engineers’ and composers’ writings, so when I stumbled upon Chris Ruggiero’s Preservation Sound, I was doubly excited: In addition to his work restoring and designing audio gear, he’s a busy composer with an eye towards integrating vintage analog audio gear into the modern studio environment (sound familiar?). I’m pleased that he’s our guest blogger today, sharing his love of 4-track cassette decks and a “case study” of a shimmering, evocative instrumental track to boot.
The Tascam 134 4-track Cassette Recorder, circa 1990
By Chris Ruggiero
I’m a film composer and music producer by profession, so I spend a lot of time working in Pro Tools (hf. “PT”). I was introduced to PT while in college during the mid 90s, and when the Digi 001 came out a few years later I quickly boxed up my Opcode Studio Vision Mac, SMPTE sync box, and ADATs and dove ‘into the box.’ Over the past 15 years I’ve owned nearly a dozen PT systems. We currently have two P/T systems at our studio Gold Coast Recorders — an HD3 Accel in the main room, and a PT11 box in the production room — and I have another two PT systems in my home-based composing studio. I am a fan. I couldn’t work as nearly as effectively or efficiently without PT, especially for my film and television work, with its necessary cycles of edits and revisions and picture changes.
All this being true, I first fell in love with the art and craft of music production via the humble cassette 4-track. We always had a couple of these things around the house as kids, and with a borrowed Sennheiser 421 and super-cheap BOSS 1/2 rack reverb unit and compressor unit, I made a lot of tracks that still sound pretty good. Just as important perhaps as the sonics of the machines was the fact that they required me to really plan out what and how I was going to put a production together, and then actually perform all the parts myself on whatever stuff we had around! This process could be frustrating at times, but it went a long way towards giving me the focus and skills that I now use to earn a living.
A few years ago, shortly after I started Preservation Sound dot com, I started wondering if there was somewhere out there a major collector or collection of 4-track cassette machines. The sonics and workflow of these devices was a major influence on my development as an artist, and I can’t be unique in this regard. For musicians my age (b.’76), they really seem like they are one of the crucial McLuhan-esque “tools that make us.” Someone needs to be keeping the legacy of these things alive! Failing to find anyone doing this noble(?) work, I’ve started hoarding the most interesting examples of these devices that I can find. Virtually any model of cassette multi-track machine can be purchased for $20-$200 if one is patient; virtually all of them need (at minimum) a new capstan belt and heavy spray-cleaning (easy and cheap to do yourself if you are patient+handy); and all of them have slightly different features that push the user into different directions.
At this point I am up to six restored and properly working machines. I started my “4-track experiments” series on PS dot com a couple of years ago with this Yamaha MT44 jam; recently I’ve posted work made on the Vestax MR44 and the Sansui MR6 (which is a 6-track, yes, but close enuff). Today I’d like to share with you a new track made on the ultimate, the uber, the pinnacle of 4-track cassette machines: the Tascam 134.
The 134 dates from around 1990. It’s rackmount, 3-space, with Dolby B and C, double or single speed; it has a rudimentary mixer with i/o level controls and pan but no EQ or facility for bouncing within the machine without external cabling. There is a variety of i/o, primarily 8 RCAs on the rear. It’s a heavy-duty, professional deck, and was likely intended to be used in a studio patched to an actual mixer. It has a 3-point autolocator section that seems to be exactly the same as that present on the same-era Tascam 238 cassette 8-track and our old friend the TSR-8 1/2″ 8-track. I paid around $150 for it on eBay, and I think anywhere shy of $400 is probably a fair price for a perfect working unit. I don’t know what this thing cost new, but it had to be in the neighborhood of $2000 2016 dollars.
NEways: enough talk. Here’s what I did.
I’ve been wanting to make a track based around a drum-machine ‘performance’ on this Seeburg “Select-A-Rhythm” ancient drum machine that I found it at the flea market this summer. I say “performance” because the most interesting thing about the Seeburg is that the user can press down as many buttons simultaneously as they like; some awful shit is possible, but so are some great polyrhythms. The sounds, too, are really unique; much different from the Roland and Korg beatboxes of its era. Since the Seeburg has absolutely no sync in or out possibilities, it went down first on track 1; I performed all the change-ups live. It went in direct.
Next was the box-drum. I wanted the track to start off with solo box drum (I have no idea if that’s the proper name for this P/O/C child’s toy, which happens to sound amazing and is super-expressive), and in general I tend to emphasize a particular combination of analog synths + acoustic hand percussion in my music, so I put down a 1/4 note part for the duration of the Seeburg track. The drum was mic’d with my trusty Neumann KM184, which is just a great microphone for pretty much anything other than vocals. For a preamp I use the Symetrix 528 channel strip that I keep in the composing studio. It’s not the greatest preamp in the world, but considering that these currently street new for $1100 yet go for $150 on eBay every week, u kinda can’t afford not to buy one. The compressor is fairly useless for anything other than vocals and horns but the preamp is very clean, very, quiet, and the EQ is powerful.
I had to get these two percussion tracks down first since they will work together to determine time in the track; now it’s time to establish the harmony. Let’s lay down some chords! I’ve been super-into the new Electro-Harmonix Mel9 Melotron-emulation pedal; especially when used in conjunction with a cassette machine, the accuracy is incredible. I like to play it with a synth instead of a guitar, since it seems to make the attacks and releases a bit more consistent and ‘keyboard-y’; the only poly hardware synth with full-sized keys that I have in my composing rig is a DX7, so that’s what we’re using! Interestingly enough, the Mel9 sounds way different depending on what sound you use to drive it — another reason why its probably better to drive it with a synth than with a guitar. I usually just flip thru the DX7 programs until I find one that gives me the timbre and dynamics that suit the part and tempo I’m at. For this pass, it looks like ‘strings 6’ was the winner, driving the “high choir” setting on the Mel9.
Now it’s time for bounce 1. Ordinarily I would put down a 4th part while the bounce was running, but I couldn’t do that here because I had to ‘perform’ the muting of the Seeburg track while the bounce was running; I didn’t want wall-to-wall Seeburg, just some in the middle, but I initially had to put down a full pass of it in order to have something to play the box-drum in time to. I added some selective reverb while bouncing, and EQ’d the unnecessary top-end off the box-drum and Melotron tracks via the lil Mackie 1220i that I was mixing thru. I used an old TC300 Multi-Effect for reverb; it’s one of the cheapest that you can find, but so long as you roll all of the high end off of the reverb it sounds totally fine. And I like my reverbs very dark anyway.
OK! So now we’ve got an “edited” drum machine, box drum, and Melotron chords on track 4. I then added a pass of Tibetan Singing bowls (played with felt mallets, mic’d with the KM184, some compression via the Sym 528) to track 1, a Yamaha CS01 PWM synth lead to track 2, and bounced to 3 while adding a pass of Minibrute bass. Since I needed to add a part while bouncing this time, I had to ‘perform’ all the volume adjustments on the CS01 while tracking it, since it does something very different at the head and tail of the track versus the feature role it plays in the middle (doing that big arpeggio-style melody). Playing the CS01 melody was the most time-consuming part of the process. I’m not a very facile keyboard player, probably thanks to decades of midi-and-audio-fixing in the DAW, and the mini keys of the CS01 make it even tougher to get a solid performance. I did about 20 takes before I got to the pass you hear in the mix, which sounds totally fine to me. I also added some rhythmic echo via my Yamaha E1010 analog delay to the synth into the bounce.
So now we’ve got drums and pad on 4, synths and bowls on 3. I wanted a simple but prominent electric guitar part to mark the chords in the track. My main guitar for film and TV work is the Les Paul Custom. I have a late 70s model in Silverburst. I like it for score work because it is very quiet and well-shielded, plays extremely well, stays in tune forever, and the notes are unusually consistent in timbre and volume all over the neck. I play it thru a (get ready to gag…) Line 6 POD XT pro, which is a cheap preamp+FX that can be had for around $150 on eBay. The factory sounds suck but with much tweaking I’ve arrived at some very effective patches, and when I add the Eventide Space on the output… The Space really is the best. I can unequivocally say it’s one of the wisest purchases I’ve ever made. The weakest part of the Line 6 stuff is the reverb, and with the Space, I can skip the Line 6 ‘verb entirely. Here I am applying a bit of chorus and compression with the Line 6; in the final mix the guitar was panned a bit left, and echo (via the E1010, again) was applied in the stereo mix panned a bit to the right. I wanted a stereo feel on the guitar track, which is why I had to wait until the end to lay it down. If I had more tracks available I would have double-tracked this guitar part, but this dry/wet scenarios is effective enough I think. The final track, going down on #2, was another pass of Mel9 Melotron; this is the “Low Choir” Melotron part that you hear most prominently in the track, and I manipulated the ‘attack’ knob of the pedal while tracking the various sections in order to achieve the correct effects.
So that was it for tracking! With just 4 tracks coming off tape, and just two effect sends on my lil Mackie (TC reverb and E1010 echo), the mix was very easy. A single stereo pair in PT was my ‘master recorder.’ This was the first time that my tricked-out MacBook Pro was opened up all day. It was, and is always, so nice to spend a few hours in the studio without looking at a goddamn screen once. No toggling over to emails, no typing, no looking at visual representations of audio, just listening and performing and then adjusting and then performing better.
Once in PT I applied some basic EQ to the stereo mix file. First off, I added a 12db/oct lowpass filter and started sweeping down from 20k until I found the point where it sounded worse rather than better. I don’t know what the actual frequency response of this 134 is, but it can’t possibly extend to 20k, and neither do most of the sources that comprise the track. So why keep that noise in there? I’ve found that carefully low-passing cassette pieces really ties the mix together like nothing else. For this particular track it worked best at around 12.8K. For most of my other 4-track experiments, the low-pass point was a bit lower, but the Seeburg snare is really remarkably full-range and lost a bit of its character if I cut anymore. BTW, remember that the Seeburg pass is second-generation here — testament to the incredible quality of the Tascam 134. After pulling off the unnecessary hi-end, I swept around with a tight band-boost and found an annoying upper-mid that I cut a few DB (somewhere in the 2K – 5K ‘hurt’ region) and then added a tiny bit of low-shelf boost. After the EQ I inserted a Massey L2007 to even out the level, taking off around 3-4db at most.
There is a bit of distortion in the track that happens when the Minibrute sub-bass drops in the bridge. It might have happened in the bounce while I laid that part down; tape machines don’t necessarily respond to extreme frequencies in a linear way, and I haven’t used this one enough to know the ‘right’ metering level for sub-bass. I really don’t mind it, though. Notably, there is a magic that happens to the drums and drum-machine especially via the tape deck that I have not been able to capture any other way, and the whole process of tracking with the tape continues to lead me to pretty strange and interesting compositions. As someone who has spent decades making music day-in, day-out on a DAW, these cheap 4-track machines have given a whole new life and new dimension to all the stuff in my composing studio, and they have helped sharpen my listening and performance skills as well. I have gotten so good at being able to very quickly digitally post-fix anything — pitch, timing, or timbre-wise — that I feel some of the intangible benefits of actual performance are sometimes lost. I’ve also been aware that although the sound and capabilities of 4-track cassette machines have not changed in 30 years, the aesthetics of music have changed greatly, as have our expectations of recording systems. The process of trying to effectively execute 2016 music on a very limited 1986 platform will necessarily thrust the composer/producer in a pretty unique space; neither 1986 or 2016… but where? That’s up to the user to discover. The next challenge: finding a way to incorporate this outdated-but-inspiring technology into my film-scoring workflow, with the schedule/revision realities that such work necessarily entails.