Music Technology

A Brief Look at My Home Recording History

Two weeks ago, I did a blog on the Mattel Synsonics Drum Machine and how it was my first drum machine that helped me record demos ( Well, that got me to reminiscing about my personal history of home recording and how much things have changes, as well as how stubborn I still am in a way.

When I was a teen and learning electric bass guitar, home recording was still in its infancy. There were a number of reel-to-reel four-track machines on the market, most notably the Teac 2340 and 3340 models. These retailed well over $1,000, and you could never find one used, Add to that these RTR machines were high maintenance, and tape costs were high. Anyone who had one of these puppies, as well as a basic mixer, could make money recording demos for bands.

I was poor, but I made do with what I could. I used my brother’s stereo cassette and saved up for another deck (Detroiters, do you remember Highland Appliance?) that I would bounce recording back and forth between the two decks. I had lots of homemade audio cables, abused my brother’s headphones, and worked with less-than-quality microphones from budget stores. Forget any type of compression or effects, although if I wanted to get creative, I could get some reverb by miking myself in the bathroom. My bible was Craig Anderton’s book Home Recording for Musicians.

Radio Shack, Olson Electronics, and a few mom-and-pop surplus electronic stores in the Detroit area were my hangouts. I built a basic mixer from plans in a electronics book from the library. Recording was done mostly when I had the house to myself, which was a rarity. However, I learned a lot about audio technology and recording techniques during this time.

In 1979, Tascam (a division of Teac) came out with God’s gift to home recording for musicians. The Tascam 144 was a four-track recorder/mixer that used the readily available cassette tapes. It only allowed recording of up to two tracks at one time, but mixdown of four signals into a mono or stereo demo was now easy to do with a machine the size of a small suitcase! It retailed for just over $500, so only the musicians that had some extra cash laying around could get one. It seemed like a novelty until news had it that Bruce Springsteen recorded his Nebraska album on a 144. Suddenly, every songwriter needed one of these machines. Soon branded under the Portastudio name, Tascam later marketed the 244 model (allowing all four tracks to record at once), and the 234 four-track cassette deck.

A company called Fostex, which had developed a somewhat affordable A-8 eight-track RTR recorder, came onto the market with its own version of the 144 that they called the X-15. Very similar in operation as the 144, it also retailed around $500. However, my local music store Wonderland Music would often have “Crazy Clarence” sales, and I got one of these for $299! This was my pride and joy for a number of years.

During the 1980s and 90s, other companies such as Yamaha, Vestax/Vesta Fire, and Marantz offered variations of the home recorders. I secured a few Yamaha four-tracks over the early years. Their first endeavor was the MT-44, which was an actual tape deck that recorded four tracks instead of stereo. It came with a small mixer that, if I remember correctly, had a crappy reverb/echo built in. I got that set used, and gave it to a singer in one of my old bands so that she could record demos. After the X-15, which I sold to another musician, I purchased the Yamaha MT-100. This machine allowed me to record all four track at the same time, so recording band demos became a breeze.

My thirst for home studio recording could not be quenched, so I saved up and purchased the Tascam 238 Syncaset. This machine recorded eight channels onto a cassette tape. This was as big as a normal cassette deck, but had the capabilities to record all eight tracks at once, so band demos were like the pros! Its only drawback was that bleed-over from adjacent tracks was common, especially when recording loud guitars or drums. I also got myself a Fostex 812 12-channel to 8-channel studio mixer. I was able to make some money back by recording other bands’ cheap demos. I also picked up some rack-mount effects at this time to make my recording much more professional. I used this equipment to record a compilation album on my own record label called Boombacoustic!, which consisted of ten local bands performing an acoustic song at a bar in Hamtramck, That CD was nominated for a Detroit Music Award back in 1988.

Around that time, I was contributing articles about recording and building DIY recording projects like simple mixers and direct boxes for a magazine called Home & Studio Recording. I also put out a quarterly newsletter called Home Recording Quarterly that I distributed around Detroit.

Then, digital recording began to take over, and I actually lost interest in following the trend. I stopped recording bands, and because people were interested in digital recording, my knowledge and interest in analog recording was not popular any more. I also saw that getting chrome cassettes for recording was now difficult, so if I wanted to continue to record even my personal songwriting demos, I would have to get with the program. I eventually purchased a Zoom MRS-4 four-track digital recorder. This machine is basically a digital version of the old X-15, but does have a lot of built-in special effects. For mixdown, I have a Tascam DR-03 hand-held digital recorder, which allows me to record in mono or stereo, as well as in WAV or MP3 format.

Cleaning out the house, I found the MT100, the 238 and the 812 board stored away. I will probably sell them off for a less than they are worth, but other than the mixing board, these machines are pretty much obsolete. Heck, the MRS-4 is close to obsolete as well, since the memory cards that it uses are hard to come by.

Last year, while at a large rummage sale in west Michigan, I came across a Tascam Portastudio DP-02CF digital eight-track recorder/mixer. It didn’t have a power supply, so I took a chance on it and bartered down to $25. I ordered a power supply, and it tests out as working. I have yet found time to record any demos on it, as my time cleaning the house is priority. I also still find the ease of the MRS-4 on the kitchen table to be sufficient. However, I hope to get more into recording with the DP-02CF by the end of the year.

Chew on it and comment.

Folk Music Musical Instruments

Hillsdale Fiddlers’ Convention/World’s Longest Garage Sale

Saturday I made my yearly trek to Hillsdale, about a two-hour drive from Detroit due west, to attend the annual Michigan Fiddlers Convention & Traditional Music Festival. Hillsdale has no interstate near by, so to get there, most of the travel is done on US-12/Michigan Avenue. That actually works out for the better, as this same day is the World’s Longest Garage Sale, in which there are hundreds of garage/yard/rummage sales along the two-lane highway from Saline to New Buffalo.

The weather was terrible to say the least at the festival. Previous day’s forecasts stated rain would come in the late afternoon. Well, the rain started as soon as I got to the fairgrounds. And it did not let up. The morning workshops were held in some of the outbuildings, but other events for the day were cancelled. Thus, I was only at the festival for a few hours.

Roger Plaxton teaches fingerstyle guitar at Hillsdale
Mike Gleason instructing fiddle improvisation at Hillsdale
Dave Langdon performing Michigan old-time fiddle tunes at Hillsdale

The rain let up a bit as I hit the road back home, which was to my benefit. I was able to stop at a few of the garage sales to see what junk was available. If I had the time and money, I would probably hunt at these sales every weekend and end up like Mike Wolfe on American Pickers. However, I pretty much narrow my scope to music-related items. This includes records/CDs, musical instruments, vintage stereo equipment, and music books/videos. Even so, I have to remember that space is limited at my mom’s house (I’m still moving stuff out of my house for eventual selling of the place).

It seemed that all of the guitars, violins, amplifiers, and stereo equipment was priced way out of touch. There were a lot of no-name electric guitars that were way overpriced. A Fender Squier Affinity Strat in an obvious used condition that the owner was asking $125.00 was passed on by me and a few others, since I know that a new version can be had at Guitar Center for a few bucks more. As I expected, there were no albums or CD that I was interested in.

I came across one tent that the man was selling a lot of music equipment. The amplifiers were about right for the price, but I am shying away from electric guitar equipment unless it is a really good bargain. I first grabbed some bluegrass-related music books for a dollar each, then saw that he had a Tascam DP-02CF 8-track digital recorder/mixer. As he didn’t have a power supply for it, I was able to negotiate to a selling price of $25.00. A power supply can be had for about $15.00 from eBay, and I already downloaded the owner’s manual from Tascam. So if this thing works, I got a great 8-track recorder for $40.00. If it doesn’t work, I am not out that much, considering that this thing sold for a few hundred bucks new.

Of course, the heavy rain in Hillsdale never made it to the Detroit area, so my garden didn’t get the watering it needed, and I am off to doing it myself. Saturday was also the Blissfield Bluegrass Festival, which is sponsored by the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association. I would have attended, but they always seem to schedule it the same weekend as the Hillsdale fiddle festival, and I am committed to attending that, taking archival photos for the Michigan Old-Time Fiddle Association. I haven’t talked to anyone about Blissfield, but from looking at Saturday’s weather radar, it looks as if that event was hit heavily with rain as well. It is the chance any organizer takes when scheduling an outdoor event.

Last week’s Milan festival and this weekend’s Hillsdale festival were the only festivals I have been able to attend this summer due to a number of factors. Right now, the only other event scheduled for the rest of the year is the old-time fiddle contest in New Boston on October 3rd. It will be difficult to get back to the larger crowds for a lot of these minor events since the pandemic lockdowns have killed attendance. I try to find out what is out there and attend what I can. I hope that 2023 will be better for me and others. I am planning to attend the SPBGMA convention in Nashville in January, I am just waiting on exact dates.

In the meantime, I am going to see what demo I can record on the Tascam 8-track.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music Musical Instruments

Yes, It Is Time To Sell Some Music Stuff

Yes, I have to face the facts. In my 20s, 30s, and even into my 40s, I was obsessed with making music. Thus, my house was full of musical instruments and recording equipment. At one time, I had about 30 guitars and basses, along with a few mandolins, a banjo, and a dobro. The fiddle came later, after the guitar count went down by way of selling, trading, and theft.

Look, I’m 57 now, a diabetic, overweight, a bit arthritic, and my knees aren’t in the best of shape. I don’t see myself hitting the stage of some dive bar banging my Stratocaster through my Twin Reverb amp playing with others who are in the same questionable shape, to an audience that would rather drink than listen to us. While my listening tastes have not changed much over the past 40 years, my playing tastes have dwindled considerably.

It hit me a few days ago. My blog last week talked about the baritone guitar that I built from an old Fender Squier Telecaster. I pulled the guitar out of the closet and plucked around on it for a few minutes. I realized that I am never going to play it again other than what I was doing then and there. Why should I have this thing gather even more dust when I’m now trying to clean out my house for sale as well as take a load off of my mind?

I looked around the house at other equipment that I have. Lots of vintage recording equipment. I’ll never use it again, as I have no desire to be in a rock band nor record one. Everyone is going digital anyway, and I use a small digital 4-track for my demos. At the time I bought it, the Tascam 238 8-track Syncaset was the go-to recorder for making decent band demos. I also have a Fostex 12-channel mixer and patch cords galore. Maybe someone out the is interested in that vintage stuff.

A couple of amplifiers that I have are worth something. The already-mentioned Fender Twin Reverb from the mid-70s is still sought after by guitar tone freaks, as well as a super-vintage Ampeg V4 head. I got them both at reasonable prices, so I should be able to make some money getting rid of them.

I also have a few old Kustom roll-n-tuck amps and speaker cabinets from the late 60s. I was totally into the Kustom stuff years ago. I sold a few things off, but it’s time to rid myself of the rest.

I’ve been only playing bluegrass these past few years, and even then, mostly songwriting. I ‘ve jammed a few times with others, but I have lost interest in being in an actual bluegrass band. As a songwriter, I am interested in hearing my work performed. However, most bluegrass musicians tend to want to just play the same 20 standard songs.

I have a lot of acoustic instruments, especially guitars. I have bought a few of them to do lutherie work on, and will probably sell them off much later in time. I do want to keep some PA equipment, at least a small set-up and some microphones, just in case I get called to do a sound job or plan to do a show. And I have always been and still am a vintage microphone collector, so the ones that I have will be sticking around for a while.

It will take some time to sort through the stuff, and it will be hard parting with some of it, but it is time for this to happen. I may do a spring garage sale, who knows? I do know that it is a crap shoot running ads on Craigslist. I am currently selling a student violin that I repaired for $70, and one person offered me $20. Heck, I invested more than that in repair parts! I have had some good luck with CL, but also some idiots wasting my time (the same violin, one woman wanted to buy it for her kid, and as I was driving in the snow to meet up with her, she texted me to say she changed her mind).

I’ll have to self-appraise the stuff before I sell it, and that will take time as well. If you do check out the Detroit Craigslist site and see someone selling in the “Dearborn/Hamtramck” area, most likely it is me. Hey, if you are interested, contact me and perhaps we can work something out. I’m actually selling a lot of non-musical stuff as well.

Chew on it and comment.