News From The Woods - October, 1991


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published October, 1991

"Setting Up A Personal Use Recording Studio"

Let's just start right off by congratulating Bill & Lesa Dees on their recent wedding. Bill is a songwriter and performer who was one of the Candymen, fronted by none other than Roy Orbison. Bill wrote "Oh Pretty Woman" with Roy, as well as some dozen or so songs on other Orbison albums. I have known Bill for only a couple of years, but I can tell you that he is a unique individual. He ad libs more good lyrics than would take me a day to write. I actually have seen Bill in a restaurant, singing a lyric line he just made up to the waitress. He has sung more songs over the telephone than a singing telegram service. Music and words just flow through him like an electric current. He plays guitar and piano equally well and can really charm and captivate an audience during a solo performance. He will actually stop in the middle of a song to sing something he has just thought of and then return to the other tune to finish it.

Unlike most of us aspiring songwriters, Bill gets too much input, making it difficult sometimes to concentrate on just one arrangement at a time. This situation became a topic of conversation over lunch some months back. Kent Jones is Bill's manager and one of my very best friends. Bill, Kent, and I were discussing what our options were. Bill constantly updates arrangements and lyrics, making it rather expensive to book studio time on a daily basis. We tried that a couple of times; the resulting songs worked out nicely, but I noticed Bill or Kent looking at their watches as the session wore on. In the end we all agreed that this was not the way. Bill needed to record his demo ideas with enough arrangement to get the idea of the song, but it was not cost effective to justify a studio rate without rushing through the recording process. I suggested to the two of them that they should consider some sort of portastudio. They seemed reluctant to discuss the notion as they felt they would be intimidated by the engineering aspects. Since Kent has been around Cedar Crest during recording sessions, he assumed that the same recording process would be used. I assured them that I could find user-friendly gear for the package. My idea was to set them up with a small 8-track system. They could then record the basic tracks. After evaluating several rough demos, they would choose the best material, then come in to Cedar Crest Studio, dump the basic tracks to our 16-track and add more tracks to "sweeten" the song.

My selection of gear included: Tascam 488 portastudio; Tascam 202WR double cassette deck for mastering and dubbing; ART Multiverb LT digital reverb; Rocktron Model 300A compressor/limiter/gate; A/T ATH-M2X phones; Boss DR-550 Dr. Rhythm drum machine; Fostex nearfield monitors with a Carver PM120 power amp; and an Ultimate Support equipment rack. And here was the method to my madness: the 488 is simply the easiest combination mixer/recorder on the market no patch bay to worry about and you can get master tape at Wal Mart, using a standard chrome cassette like a Maxell UD-XLIIS C-60.

The machine runs at twice the normal speed of a standard cassette, which means you can get 15 minutes of recording time on a 60 minute cassette (it uses all four tracks in one direction) and with dbx noise reduction, you have better than 80 db headroom. You get two cue points and return to zero with the transport controls. The mixer section is laid out simply, color-coded, and very user-friendly. It is a four buss system, which means that only four tracks can be recorded at the same time. I was very impressed with the sound quality, lack of tape noise, and its ease of operation. I selected the double cassette deck as the record side has Dolby B&C. After you mix your 8-tracks down to a stereo cassette, you simply move the master to the play transport and make either normal speed or high speed dubs. The ART Multiverb LT was chosen for two reasons: one, it has a low price tag and two, there are no parameters to change. What you punch up is what you get. The unit has about 160 various combinations of processing. The Rocktron was chosen to be used solely for the vocal track. The dynamics of voice make it extremely difficult to put to tape, as it varies from a whisper to a heavy metal scream.

I set up the compressing/limiting function specifically for a vocal microphone. We run a Shure SM-59 direct to the Rocktron's input. The processed input is then routed directly to track 8. I didn't use much of the gate function, just enough to cut the signal path when Bill isn't singing directly into the mike. This keeps room ambience to a minimum while keeping a common unity control on the vocal track. In short, this means that you will not have to constantly "run gain" manually on the mike. The vocal track will be consistent in volume levels during mixdown. The Dr. Rhythm drum machine is also perfect for non-tech types. You can program it to play what you want, but more importantly, its internal memory has a complete set of factory patterns to pick and choose from. This is great for someone like Bill who just needs a rhythm pattern to reference to.

The idea here is to choose a drum pattern closest to your song idea just to keep a beat for writing purposes, so you put the stereo drum track to two tracks, bass on one track, piano or guitar to a track, and a reference vocal to a track and there is your demo. It will give Bill and Kent a good idea of what is going on in the song. If it turns out to be a really good song, they just unplug the 488, book studio time at Cedar Crest, dump the 8-track down to eight tracks on the 16-track, and add up to eight more tracks (including a real drum track). Although "ping-ponging" is possible on the 488, I didn't advise it until they got a better grip on engineering. The entire installation took less than four hours. The equipment rack took more time than expected, as there were no installation instructions or even a picture of the finished rack for reference.

We tested the system right after dinner. I ran Kent through the procedure as we began to lay tracks. While Kent and I built the arrangement around our selected drum pattern, Bill started writing lyrics. We all finished about the same time, so Bill immediately added the vocal track. We played the 8-track back and sent our stereo mix to cassette. Everything sounded so nice and the reverb patch we selected gave Bill's vocal that "special" touch.

By this time it was about midnight, so our hosts bid us goodnight. Kent and I enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to start another track with the idea of giving us something new to play to the next day. This time, though, I had Kent engineer the board while I played everything so he could get the feel of the system. I decided as well to test the old "ping-pong" method. We had so much fun pinging and ponging that we lost track of time. I'm sure many of you have been there before. By the time we had committed to tape a stereo drum track, bass, three guitars, two keyboards, and a complete percussion breakdown, it was about 5 am. By the time I hit the hay I could see the sky lighting up in anticipation of sunrise. We got up by 10 am and went right back and played it back for Bill. On the third pass he ad-libbed a reference vocal. By noon he had refined the lyrics enough to master the tune. By the time I got back home, barely 24 hours had passed. Kent and I had driven to Springfield, Missouri, to pick up connecting cables, driven to Kimberling City, Missouri, and installed the entire studio system in Bill's basement, recorded two complete song demos, and driven the 130 miles back here to Mountain Home.

So if you asked me what I thought about portastudios, I would have to say "they've come a long way, Baby" since the original 4-track portastudio. Processing gear is less expensive, with better quality and performance features. The state of the art has definitely improved. When you shop, be selective and take your time. If you don't need the bells and whistles, why pay for them? Get just what you need, considering your budget restrictions. Learning the best way to use your gear is a lot more important than buying more expensive gear.

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