I've just taken delivery of a fairly ancient piece of kit: a Tascam 424 MkII four track tape recorder (see picture above), which dates back to the mid-nineties - a lifetime ago in terms of recording technology. Back then I was a teenager recording some (very bad) songs on a similar device which had cost me a small fortune to buy. To pay for it I'd spent a whole summer selling tickets for bus tours of Dublin out of the back of a glorified wheelbarrow on Grafton Street (yes, think of all the Molly Malone jokes I was subjected to by tourists); and, tonight, running my fingers over the play and record buttons of my new (old) purchase, I am instantly taken back to October 1995, where I eagerly unboxed my shiny new four track portastudio and microphone, and prepared to embark on a multitrack audio adventure.
This adventure continues today; I now record (hopefully much better) songs on a shiny Apple Mac, using a program called Pro Tools. By comparison to Pro Tools, the old four track I've just bought is primitive - whereas the Pro Tools software allows you to record a virtually unlimited number of noises onto separate 'tracks', this only allows you to record four instruments individually. Options for processing the sound are very basic - you get four faders, a basic EQ and that's about it. That said, that's more or less what a certain well-known group called The Beatles had to play with when they recorded the likes of Revolver and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. They had bigger and better tapes to record onto (my four track uses simple cassettes) and experienced engineers like Geoff Emerick to work with, but the basic recording functionality and challenges involved were the same.
So why did I part cash for this relatively ancient piece of kit? Was it just to wallow in audio nostalgia? Nope (although I must say I have indulged in a bit of that). It's because when you record stuff onto a machine like this, you get a magical sound that is very hard to achieve with digital gear. It's the sound of tape, which virtually all my favourite songs were recorded onto, back in the 60s and 70s (and actually tape was still used fairly regularly up until the late 90s). Granted, the tapes were wonderfully huge reel to reel affairs, sonically far superior to a cassette...but still, when you record onto a four track portastudio, you do still get some of that sound, particularly as far as bass is concerned.
So far, all the album's bass tracks were recorded onto one of these four tracks (kindly lent to me by my ex-bandmate Andy Fleet) and then fed back into Pro Tools, where they join a lot of digital stuff. It's involved a bit of jiggery pokery and editing, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that the taped bass lines sound gorgeous compared to the versions that I recorded straight onto the computer. A subtle effect called 'tape compression', (which you get when record an ever-so-slightly too loud signal onto the tape) comes into play and it imparts a bit of that deep, fat sound that you associate with the classic records of yore.
Now that I have my own four track again, and more time to play with it, I shall be experimenting with recording other instruments onto tape before transferring them into the digital world. I am sure that some sound engineers would conisder me bonkers for doing this - after all, I have some far more professional gear in my studio to work with, which delivers a technically 'better' sonic result. But I like this way of working - and above all, I love the sound, warts and all.