Today’s gear isn’t “hot” in the sense of “really really great”. Indeed, in the great continuum of electronics, especially electronics available today, it’s a comical throwback.
But 20-odd years ago, it was the stuff of dreams.
Not long after I started playing guitar, I started having delusions of grandeur. The delusions were not unlike the ones I got shortly after starting this blog, things like “getting back into talk radio…” – well, you get the picture. My delusions back then centered around “being able to dub multiple instruments onto the same piece of tape, so I could make records without needing a whole band”.
Sort of like “Multi track tape” – reel to reel tapes with many “tracks”, each with its own record and play heads, so you could record and synch many instruments and vocal tracks – without having to spend what it took for a multi-track tape recorder back then.
Which was a lot. A four-track recorder was usually well over $1,000; eight-tracks were pushing $2K, as recall, and 16, 24 and more tracks were the province of recording studios that cost more than most houses I grew up around.
So money was an obstacle. So was my own lack of technical ingenuity; my first attempt at recording more than one instrument involved playing a guitar track into a cassette recorder, then replaying it as I played along and recorded the whole thing onto another cassette recorder. It worked, except that the first track was buried in playback noise from the first cassette player; by the third “track”, the background noise from the multiple layers of cassette players made the whole production sound like “guitars playing in a gale”.
In college, I experimented with “bouncing” tracks back and forth on a reel-to-reel player, which had two tracks (known to most stereo-listening laypeople as “left” and “right”.). It worked, sort of – I got four instruments down, once – before the overlaid layers of track noise overwhelmed the instruments.
There had to be a better way.
And in 1984, it came along.
Now, there’d been cassette-based four-tracks since the early ’80s; Bruce Springsteen recorded his Nebraska album on the first of them, a Teac “Tascam” four-track cassette; the unit cost about $1,000, which was still a
little lot too spendy for me.
But in ’84, along came the answer, the vehicle to my megalomaniac recording dreams:
The Fostex X15 was the first “inexpensive” ($400) cassette recorder. It let you record on two tracks at a time, mix down four tracks into a stereo two track mix…
…and, since it had an internal monitor circuit, allowed you to record tracks to other tracks. Which meant you could “bounce” mix two or three tracks onto one, to clear a track or two for more recording. This was a common technique in high-end studios in the sixties, when the four-track reel-to-reel was high technology (Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded on four-track decks, although “decks” is plural).
And so in January of 1985, I sat down in the pump room at my college chapel with a drum kit, a 1916 Steinway, and my guitars and bass and a Farfisa organ I’d found under a stack of old programs, and started recording entire band arrangements of songs.
My pride and joy? One song where I…:
- laid down a metronome track
- played the rhythm guitar part to guide the whole song
- Laid down a drum track
- Cut a bass track
- Bounced the bass and drums over the metronome on track one
- Played a big, broad piano part
- Bouned the piano and rhytm guitar together
- Played an organ part
- Did a last with the vocals (with the lead guitar fitting in where I wasn’t singing).
I think I worked on it until 5 one morning. And listened to it the whole next day. It sounded…
…cool. LIke I could actually do this recording thing.
I went on to work wtih much bigger, better recording gear later on. And of course, today you can record on your computer across dozens of tracks (with the aid of a decent sound card, at least) for a fraction of the price of an old reel to reel player.
But the Fostx made it all possible for me.
I still have it, somewhere…