As a teenager in 1985 I slaved away all summer as a prep cook to buy a $500 Tascam Porta One 4- track cassette recorder. I proceeded to do what a lot of musicians of my generation did: record like crazy. All I needed to know was that the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's... had supposedly been done on a 4-track (though I had no idea which kind). That's all it took before I was off creating manic bedroom opuses, ones thankfully no one ever heard. But there was an unexpected by-product of this medium; inevitably sounds were created on the Porta One that could never be reproduced in a "real" studio. Were we all crazy, or was there really an intimacy and immediacy being bottled which could never be recaptured? I love my Tascam Portastudio 424, and have kept using it to record certain tracks on albums and singles to this day. Seeing as cassettes have pretty much died out, and no one uses analog 4-track recorders much anymore, I wanted to list some reasons why we shouldn't rule them out just yet.
Ten Reasons to Keep Using 4-Track Cassette Recorders:
1. Cassette tape compression. These tapes are 1/8-inch wide. If you stop and think about the old classic records you love, think about the fact that they were all mixed to 1/4-inch tape. We're talking about Led Zeppelin and The Who — you get the picture. It's only a hop, skip and a jump to 1/8-inch! I've heard a persistent rumor for years that Sticky Fingers was mixed to cassette because it was a novel medium in 1971. The Stones wanted to squeeze it even harder. Whether it's true or not, it makes perfect sense when you think of how it sounds. Another great story I heard was that Oh Mercy was mixed to cassette because Bob Dylan was taking home rough mix tapes and didn't understand why the final mixes being pumped out couldn't sound like what he heard at home.
2. Bouncing is fun. Come on, if you've never bounced your drums, bass and shaker down to one track to make room, you haven't lived. Whenever you're about to do it, you always get that pang of stage-fright thinking that you'll lose crucial balancing and fidelity; but you're always happy as hell with the sound of those three crudely recorded elements squashed together sounding all washy and fat.
3. Limitations. I've recorded a lot of other artists on 4-track, whether for demo-ing purposes or just for fun. I asked Sarabeth Tucek, whose cassette recordings have made it onto albums, why she likes it so much. She says, "I think having less choices helps me get to the essence of the song." Many artists agree with her and there is a reason; in this day and age of computer-aided recording it gets tougher and tougher to make decisions. Therefore many find themselves working against artistic impulses. Cassettes keep options in check.
4. Some really classic albums have been made on 4- track cassette. Among them are Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Ween's The Pod, Elliott Smith's Roman Candle, Guided By Voices' Bee Thousand and Iron & Wine's The Creek Drank The Cradle.
5. It's affordable! One can achieve the glorious sounds of extreme acoustic guitar squeaks, popping P's and tape hiss for a mere $50 on Craigslist. Throw in a few cheap cassettes, some rubbing alcohol, Q-tips and a Shure SM57 and you too can take a sizable chunk out of your life indulging in stoned analog kitchen experimentation. Hell, I found a Portastudio for $10 at a sidewalk sale the other day.
6. Tricks. Yeah, you heard me, "Tricks." Wait until you hear what the pitch control on a Tascam 424 does. Record a drum beat onto track 1 at top speed then slow it waaay down on playback. Some serious (yet manageable) bottom end, eh? Now flip the cassette over and listen back on track 4. Holy crap, it's backwards! It sounds like Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?"! If you record on a used cassette, weird, random stuff shows up backwards. Now bounce that to track 2, but really overload it like crazy. It's a really good distortion! Now throw it onto track 3 along with some echo. The Beatles had to do that in order to utilize multiple effects and so do you.
7. Limiting. As some of us older folks might remember from creating mix-tapes for our sweethearts back in the day, we had to try and record songs to appear to be same volume. We were like a whole generation of unwitting mastering engineers. Your editor, Larry Crane, remarked to me while transferring some old tapes recently, "It reminded me of how the cassette limits the audio really hard, but in a cool way." That's what I'm talking about. And this happens all the time in 4-track recording, whether you like it or not.
8. Vibe. The original so-called "lo-fi" movement of the'80s and '90s was really a result of lack of funding. However, there's no denying that it created a mood and atmosphere to some of the music, which was missing in a lot of the overly slick stuff of the time. Anyone remotely acquainted with the field-recording quality and desolate sounds of early 20th-century records cannot deny the spookiness it conjures up when coupled with the right song. Often this essence is stumbled across in some of these lo-fi cassette experiments, such as Michelle Shocked's The Texas Campfire Tapes or Smog's Sewn to the Sky.
9. It's portable. This is what I like the most about the aptly named Portastudio. I've recorded drums in an auditorium, a pipe organ in a church, a grand piano at a friend's house and vocals in my shower — all on one song!
10. It really can be hi-fi. I have found that some the best sounds I ever got were captured on a 4-track. This was either a result of using some really nice gear or due to plain resourcefulness. Either way, you can't fake a good sound. I used a Neumann mic through a UA 1176 compressor into a channel on the 4-track recently and it sounded amazing. I've used AKG 414s, Shure SM7s and even ribbon mics. Sometimes lo-fi instruments come off very hi-fi on accident. On my first solo record, Lowdown World (recorded entirely on 4-track cassette), there is a song called "Seven" which was really a demo I recorded immediately after a gig late at night because I didn't want to forget it. I didn't have a mic available, so I used a cheap pair of Radio Shack headphones to record the vocal. It was a very dark song done after a very emotional night when a friend almost OD'd backstage. I captured a vocal sound I have never been able to duplicate. When I finished the demo, suddenly a live recording of my band came through the fadeout backwards through effects. Coupled with the only instruments I had lying around, an old Wurlitzer and a Univox drum machine from the '70s, I had created a recording that could not be bettered. It consisted of mood, emotion, strangeness and an intangible aura that could never have been recorded at Abbey Road.