Paul Jackson Music

Paul Jackson Music

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

#2: Multi-track recording - The early days

During the past few weeks I've been writing and recording music again following a lengthy gap. Partly for my own pleasure and partly as a quest to finish off a bunch of tracks that have been left 'parked' for a number of years. While I've been knee-deep in synth waves, samples and multi-tracks on my trusty Cubase sequencer program, I couldn't help thinking back to my early recording set-ups in comparison.

When I was eighteen I would regularly borrow the school's four-track portastudio and drum machine for the holidays, and set them up with my synthesizer at home.

My first proper programmable synth was the Korg Poly 800ii which had (and still has) an onboard step-time sequencer. I would program the bassline patterns and structure the song around the limited number of notes it could hold. I would create drum patterns onto the Yamaha RX21 drum machine and arrange them into the song structure I had previously worked out on paper. Whereas today I'll spend time going through countless kick or snare drum sounds and then edit them with filters, pitch, envelope controls and multi-layering, the RX21 offered only nine sounds so when it came to using a kick drum sound, I had only one choice.

The Yamaha would trigger the Korg sequencer via a connecting midi cable and I'd record them together onto the Fostex X-15 multitrack tape deck. The remaining tracks would be used for hand-played synth parts and a vocal. 'Bouncing' two tracks to one would free up space for more recording parts though it would compromise the sound quality a little. I would then feed the stereo output of the Fostex into the hifi and mix it all down to stereo. It was very rough and ready but it did the job and was immense fun. The Fostex did have a constant low hum which sits in the background of all my early recordings. I didn't have the insight to set all my songs in a key that could incorporate the hum as a pedal note, but you live and learn. 

Very soon I grew impatient of waiting for the school holidays to come round so I would quite often set up in the music department after school and work into the evenings. Once the school had an Atari computer running the Steinberg Pro24 sequencer program, the possibilities quickly expanded. I'd sequence all the instrument parts onto the Atari using multi-timbral keyboards such as the Roland D10 and record everything in stereo onto two tracks of the Fostex X-15. The remaining two tracks would then be used for vocals. I filled up many a cassette this way of demo recordings and it gave me a good grounding for the move to Salford University.

Nowadays with using a sequencer program like Cubase, any limitations are outweighed by the sheer number of audio recording and sequencer tracks available as well as a wealth of sounds and tools. One can almost be spoilt for choice and overwhelmed by the endless options available to work with. But twenty years ago there was some excitement when working with limited resources and it would result in a more prolific output of finished (though raw sounding) recordings. Although recording today is still immense fun, I can quite often spend as much time creating a kick drum track as I would have recording an entire song a couple of decades ago. However, the emphasis today is more on quality than quantity.