I was thinking about my early days as a songwriter. Reflecting back on the antiquated, tedious process I worked with
for almost 6 years. Hard to believe what I went through every time I needed a drum track for a new song!
That being said, when I listen to those old recordings, I’m amazed at how well some of them turned out.
Hopefully the details of that process make for an interesting article.
*Examples of those old recordings are available throughout the article.
“Slow Down” - http://www.tune-smith.com/Slow_Down.mp3
My adventure as a songwriter & home studio aficionado began back in 1994. Digital home recording devices were starting to make their way onto the market, but analog was still the dominant force. It was also the more cost-effective of the two.
That being the case, I opted for a 4-track analog cassette style recorder…a Tascam 424 PortaStudio.
The PortaStudios were decent devices, but they had their limitations:
- No onboard effects or compression
- No phantom power
- Very few microphone inputs
To overcome those limitations, I purchased a number of supplemental devices:
- An 8 channel Peavey analog mixer w. phantom power
- A Peavey DeltaFex effects processor
- A DBX analog compressor
These were used in conjunction with the PortaStudio….providing me with reverb, compression, multiple microphone inputs & phantom power (overhead condenser mic.)
Without getting overly technical, here’s an overview of that setup….
- Drum set mics were fed into the Peavey mixer. Depending on the song, anywhere from 6-8 mics were used….Shure SM57’s with an EV condenser mic overhead.
- The Peavey EQ’d each channel individually, added a preset amount of reverb to each channel signal, combined all the incoming signals into one stereo signal, sent that 2-channel stereo signal out to its next destination.
- That next destination was the DBX compressor. It processed the signal, then sent it to the Tascam 424 recording deck. On its way to the Tascam, that 2-channel stereo signal was reverse-Y’d into a single mono feed, which was then recorded to high bias cassette tape.
Unfortunately, with only 4 recording channels available, that final drum track had to be mono. Eventually, that mono track was bounced over (premixed) & combined with the bass guitar track. Fact is, the majority of my analog masters are set up that way. The final drum & bass guitar recordings share a single mono track.
There were a multitude of issues associated with the process I’m describing:
- All drum mic adjustments had to be made pre-tape. That meant I had to balance each mic volume as best I could…accounting for bleed, make EQ adjustments per-channel at the mixer, set type & desired amount of reverb for each channel, adjust individual & master fader volumes to non-distorting levels. Needless to say, once these parameters were set, I made only minor adjustments from recording session to recording session. Essentially, I tried to improve whatever shortcomings existed in the previous recordings.
- Once a final drum track was recorded, it was set-in-stone. The BPM was locked in…mic volume, tone & effect were virtually fixed. If the ride cymbal was too loud or the snare sounded over-compressed, I had 2 options. The entire track could be re-recorded, or I live with the imperfections. Simple as that! The decision always hinged on 2 variables. How much imperfection was I willing to tolerate? How noticeable would those shortcomings be in the finished version of the song?
- Because of the need for premix bouncing, my bass guitar recordings were also fixed. I had to estimate what EQ settings might be best once the other tracks were recorded. Same was true for the volume of the bass in relation to the drum track. Once drums & bass were bounced over, the combined mono premix was fixed. Unlike digital systems, analog recorders didn’t offer virtual track storage. So….once a bounce was complete, both original tracks were erased. That opened up additional track space, allowing new instrumentation & vocals to be recorded.
- Since I worked alone, components that required monitoring were positioned close to the drum stool. In other words, I had to be able to see the meters while I was playing drums. Fortunately, once the initial parameters were set, the only thing I had to monitor was input signal to the mixer. That signal couldn’t venture too far into the red. The photo below shows where the Peavey was positioned. The recording deck meters were not in my line of sight, so I had to trust the accuracy of my preliminary settings. Playback was the only way to verify results. If something had gone wrong, the track was rerecorded.
* “Love Will Find Me” - https://soundcloud.com/tom-hoffman/love-will-find-me-throwback-track
As if that wasn’t difficult enough, there were other issues. Once a new song had been written, arranged & roughed-out…it was time to begin the final recording (keeper version). If the song had drums, they were always recorded first. As is the case with live performance, better results are achieved when everyone plays to the same rhythmic center…in this case drums. But getting them down first wasn’t a simple task.
- With the old cassette style recording decks, click tracks weren’t possible. Track bleed was so bad, that ghosts of the original click would remain audible even after complete erasure. That being the case, the logical alternative was to play to an electronic metronome. That gave me a timing center, but virtually eliminated the possibility of over dubs. Since the click was completely independent of the recorded drum track, there was no way to match the 2 for auto-punch patchwork. Bottom line…the vast majority of drum tracks were the result of start-to-finish takes. In other words, the entire part was played straight through.
- Another standard practice for drum-first recording is the use of a guide track. Guide tracks give drummers a basic outline to follow. That way they’re hearing a roughed out version of the music while playing along with the metronome (click track). It helps in remembering the feel of the song, where various sections begin & end, etc. Bottom line….I couldn’t use a guide track! The reason once again was track bleed. Ghosts of that roughed out guide were audible on the finished drum recording. So I became very good at memorizing new tunes, start-to-finish. By the time I was ready to record, I knew a song so well that I could hear it playing in my head all the way though. So….none of those analog tracks were played to music. The only thing playing besides the song in my head was the constant click of the metronome.
- 2 measure count-ins were recorded at the beginning of every song. This was an absolutely must! Since drums were recorded first, there had to be a way to accurately tell where the song started. How else would I know when to begin playing or singing as additional tracks were added? Obviously, that section of the tape was later erased. Since beginning sections were trimmed off in final production, track bleed really didn’t matter.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned thinking back on this whole process. The reason for my nostalgia was simple. A few months ago, I set up a new YouTube channel called “The Story Behind The Song”. Several of the songs used for the channel were early recordings. Some of those made passing reference to the fact that I had changed from real drums…to an electronic method of creation. The videos weren’t the proper format for an in-depth explanation of why. But I thought a blog article might be. If nothing else, it can serve as reminder of how much simpler things are for home recording enthusiasts today!
* I’ve included links to several Video Examples of these early drum recordings below.