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5 Things I Miss About My First Tape Recorder

I started showing real interest in music in high school. My parents had already bought me an electric guitar and amplifier, and I had begun playing in bands. I also developed an interest in studying songwriting and had already written several songs of my own. Further nurturing my burgeoning passion for music, they bought me a cheap microphone, a set of computer speakers, and what became my most prized possession, a Yamaha MT-400 Multitrack Cassette Recorder.

Creating music with these limited, yet fully-functional tools at my disposal quickly became an obsession, and my grades in math class were proof. I would stay up late pretty much every night exploring the musical possibilities that my humble setup offered me. I’d go from the outputs of our Yamaha keyboard (I forget the model but it had the standard General MIDI Instruments, and built-in sound effects like elephants, running water, etc.), and create the rhythm sections for my “productions.”

The moment that I realized I could create a drum track without needing an actual drummer was a mind-blowing realization for me. Of course, nothing can replace an actual drummer, on a great kit, in a great room, but for a kid that simply wanted to be able to write and record every single part of a song, that epiphany was hugely exciting. I still consider myself a pretty darn good “finger-drummer”, which has turned out to be a pretty important skill for the modern music producer.

I’d use the microphone, which was dynamic, to record myself playing my Dad’s upside-down acoustic guitar (I play left-handed.) Or if it was really late, I’d go direct-in with my electric, since I didn’t want to wake my family with the amplified signal.

I’m sure at first my recordings sounded horrible, but it didn’t matter. Because the MT400 only had four tracks, I would have to dub one and three down to the fourth track to free up space to record more elements. At some point, I got an Alesis Nanoverb effects processor, which expanded my sonic palette greatly. Another breakthrough was when I realized that I could use the auxiliary sends and returns of the MT400 along with the Nanoverb to process tracks after they’d been recorded. I thought, “Oh my god, so I’m not limited to how things sound as I record them? I can change the settings and therefore the sonic qualities after the fact!?” The possibilities seemed endless.

I look at my iMac now, which is loaded up with hundreds of plugins, several DAWs, more tools than I need to make music that sounds leaps and bounds better than anything I could have made using the MT400, and I love it, but it’s simply not the same.

Here is what I miss about my very first recording device.

1. It Was a Tool Designed for One Specific Purpose

Needless to say, you couldn’t check your email, look at cat videos, or get into Facebook arguments about politics using the MT400. It was made for one purpose — to record audio.

When I was using it to create music, that’s all I was doing, no distractions. I miss a life with fewer digital distractions, and I believe that putting yourself in a mindset and environment free of push notifications, messages, etc. is far better for music and creativity in general.

2. It Was Extremely Limited (and therefore forced me to be better)

There were only four tracks. My latest production has well over 100 separate tracks, and that’s before you count all the reverbs, delays, etc. Being limited to four tracks forced me to think about arrangements differently. I couldn’t have 10 tracks of reverse noise and cymbal swells to add excitement right before the chorus, so instead, I relied on musical nuances and structural techniques. You’ve got to squeeze a lot of vibe out of a performance when you can’t rely on dozens of elements of “ear candy” carrying the weight.

There were no editing capabilities or comping takes: You could “punch in” performances, but you couldn’t rely on performing something a dozen times and choosing the best parts later. Now if I hear some unpleasant guitar fret noise or a sour note when singing, I can fix those problems easily within a DAW, but you could do no such thing on this device. There’s something about knowing that you’ve got unlimited takes and the ability to edit them that can hinder the emotionality of a performance. I believe the pressure of needing to perform parts correctly, all the way through, and with the right amount of emotion ultimately serves the song.

There were no fancy plugin effects. Aside from an equalizer on each channel, this thing had nothing. As I mentioned, there were aux sends/returns with which I could incorporate effects units, but the device was still very sonically-limited. This forced me to think about getting the sound right at the source in a way that some engineers may take for granted when using a DAW.

Just look at the dozens of articles I’ve written on plugins and virtual instruments — I love them and they’ve become an indispensable part of my workflow, but sonic limitations can be beneficial in not only recording sounds with more intent but also by forcing the musician to create and dictate the tone.

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3. The Final Mix Was a “Performance”

I mentioned how the limitations affected my approach to tracking and musicianship, but my mixing was also not so reliant on tools and technique. Especially because there was no automation, when I wanted to finalize a track, it was a performance.

I had to establish balances, and manually bring faders up and down if I wanted changes in volume. As a result, the final mixes, and therefore my songs felt much more permanent and more personal. The final output was always an exhilarating process, and that feeling of “performing a mix” gets somewhat lost in today’s DAW-based workflow.

4. It Recorded Onto a Tangible Medium

Ah, there was nothing like cracking open a fresh cassette tape, upon which I would be documenting my musical ideas. I’m being somewhat sarcastic, but there’s an element of truth to that.

Hard drives are relatively cheap and lack character, sonically-speaking. There’s value in capturing art on something you can touch and smell, even if it is a lousy cassette tape that one could purchase at an electronics store for a couple of bucks.

Now, most of my own productions and mix/masters I do for others end up streaming only. The experience of being able to “hold” a piece of music is mostly missing from today’s consumption, although I am very glad to hear that vinyl records are experiencing a resurgence.

5. The Process Was More Aural and Tactile, and Less Visual

Another reason that I love plugins so much is that the user interfaces have gotten so stunning. From the textured and worn-in feel of Universal Audio’s analog emulations to the futuristic and hyper-scientific displays found on FabFilter plugins, these GUIs are simply beautiful. It’s almost like you can touch them. Almost.

Yet I find myself distracted by how wonderful these tools look, instead of closing my eyes and simply listening to how they sound. They sound great too, of course, but there’s something to be said about strictly using your ears as the sensory organs when making decisions about your productions.

In summary — I am not trading in my computer and DAW for a consumer-grade cassette recorder (or a high-end tape machine, for that matter) but there are certain elements of the workflow that I truly miss. I believe our productions could benefit from us relying more on our ears, and musicality, and less on the incredibly powerful technology that we have such easy access to.

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Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch on his website or learn more from him in his new Mastering in the Box course.

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