There are many things to consider when you are in the market for a recorder. First, what sound quality do you need? Are you making recordings for friends or to submit to the music industry?
Another thing to consider is the number of tracks you need and the number of simultaneous recording tracks available.
If you are only recording one person and don’t intend to submit your tape, you don’t need anything fancy… perhaps just a small multi-track tape machine for building songs track by track will do. These little tape machines generally use cassettes, which also makes them easy and affordable. But it’s good to have certain features, such as a pitch control for changing the speed of the tape, and a high speed mode that provides more tape for the sounds being put there and hence better quality recording.
With this type of recorder, there are tricks that the digital machines are just now becoming able to do, like being able to have a song recorded with an instrument track in reverse. This is easily achieved by ejecting the cassette and reinstalling it upside down, then recording the track while all the other instruments are playing in reverse, then just flip the tape and listen back.
Besides the great little tricks you can do with tape machines, some say they are preferable to digital recorders simply because they have tape, which lets you get a hotter signal and greater frequency response than you get with digital machines.
When selecting a cassette tape for your recorder, you want the best sound quality you can possibly achieve, so, a cassette not over 45 minutes, and normal to high bias is going to work the best.
One generally thinks longer is better, but a shorter cassette will have an advantage often overlooked — the tape is shorter, but it is also thicker, and has more available material to more securely hold the magnetic fields created by the tape heads. Thicker tape, moving across the heads faster, is the ideal situation.
Have you ever noticed that sound quality that is lost when listening back to bounced or “ping-ponged” tracks? Every time you re-record a track, since you’re recording your recording, you lose a little.
Here’s a simple way ping-pong your analog tracks and keep the quality up. All you need is a digital VCR (most are digital after the mid 90’s). The tracks you decide you’d like to bounce to another track can be mixed and sent to the inputs on the VCR. It will digitally record them to the VCR. Then just send them back into the tape recorder onto a single track. They may not be quite as good as your original tracks were, but they will be better than if bounced from one tape machine to another.
One of the most important things to know about recording to tape is that you want to saturate the tape to give the recorded tracks their best possible quality. That’s why tape machines generally have meters with a red area at the peak end. When recording, you want the needle as near or just into the red zone as possible, without pinning at the top.
In other words, you want to be as close to distortion level as possible, without actually getting distortion. If you run it too safely, keeping it below the red zone completely, you’ll avoid distortion, but not have as rich a recording as you could have. The trick is to get familiar with your machines, so you know how high the needles can run without getting distortion.
Boosting Track Count
Today’s portable recorders offer a lot more than the original units did so many years ago. On-board effects, faders, and great sound quality are just some of the improvements. Many of the digital recorders even feature virtual tracks that greatly extend their functionality. Regardless of the number of tracks your recorder has, there is that inevitable moment that every engineer must face – the need for one more track than you have!
Three into one
Track bouncing is a time-honored method for getting the most out of a four-track recorder. To illustrate the process, let’s create a song that uses guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, lead vocal, and two background vocal parts.
To get stared, record the guitar, bass, and piano parts of the song on tracks one, two, and three. You still have drums, two background vocals, and the lead vocals to record, and only one track left for all four parts!
To gain three extra tracks, create a mix of your first three tracks, and record this mix onto track four – complete with effects. This is called “bouncing tracks.” Be sure you’ve got it right, because once you erase the original tracks, this mixed track is the keeper!
Two into one
You now have three free tracks to work with. Erase the first three tracks, and get ready for the next step. Record the background vocals on tracks one and two, and follow the same procedure as before – mix them, complete with effects, onto the remaining track – track three, and erase tracks one and two.
Two down, two to go
With these two remaining tracks, record your vocals on one track, and the drums on the other. I saved these parts for last for two reasons – the drums have a lot of high-frequency information in the cymbals and snare, and as every bounce cuts a bit of high end off the bounced track, this keeps the drums crisp and clear. For the vocals, a first generation take leaves the most important element of the song – the lyrics – clean and present! When you create your final mix onto a stereo recorder, add a touch of reverb to the lead vocal to give it dimension, and you’re done!
That was easy – too easy!
The resulting mix is a good monophonic representation of your song. But suppose you wanted to go stereo – can it be done? With some creativity, yes indeed!
Originally, we bounced the rhythm section from the first three tracks onto the fourth. To make a stereo version of the rhythm section, record the bass and guitar on tracks one and two, then bounce them to tracks three and four while mixing in a stereo keyboard part “live.”
Next, record your background vocals on tracks one and two, then mix the whole thing down to your stereo recorder. Pop a fresh cassette into your four track (keeping the original for another day), and re-record your mix onto tracks three and four while overdubbing the drums. You now have a stereo mix, with drums, and two free tracks left!
Add your lead vocal part on track one, a second guitar part, mix it all down to stereo, and you’re done. You’ve effectively doubled your track count!