A Brief History of Popular Home Recordings

For recording musicians of my generation, the first experience of turning a dual cassette deck stereo into a multi-track recording device, by dubbing the output of one deck to the input of the other while playing a new instrument through the stereo’s mic/line input, was a bit like sorcery. Sure, the original Casio drumbeat is now almost inaudible, the new guitar is too loud and dry, and the entire recording sags under the weight of each new track that is introduced, but that doesn’t matter much when you feel you have discovered a secret door to a whole new world.

Some musicians come out of an experience like this thinking how much better things will be when, one day, they can afford clean, fully-equipped studios and the engineers that come with them. Others prefer to keep the giddy innocence and uncertainty that comes along with their own personal multi-track recorder and the piles of cords and electronics on the bedroom floor.

Traditionally, home recording is thought of as the niche and studio recording the norm, and that is certainly true for most of the commercial recordings we hear today. Throughout history, however, those lines have crossed again and again. Professional musicians have been using home-brewed tricks to max out available tape tracks since the 1940s, home recording was once a ubiquitous phenomenon in that same era, and albums that have been listened to in millions of bedrooms have been recorded in bedrooms themselves.

Early Spoken Word, Indie Bands, and Karaoke Stars

As early as 1930, the consumer technology companies of the day took to marketing products like the RCA “Radiola”, an electric phonograph with recording capabilities, and Radio Craft magazine welcomed a coming golden age of home recording:

Home recording is likely to take the country by storm, as soon as the public awakens to its possibilities. Parents would like to preserve the voices of their children—and children in turn will be anxious to preserve the voices of their parents and grandparents; so that the spoken word will remain after the little folks have grown up, or the old have gone.

A 1930 ad for the RCA Radiola

A 1930 ad for the RCA Radiola

While the Radiola retailed for a hefty $285 (just under $4,000 today, making it a tough sell to Depression-era America) the lower-cost Wilcox-Gay Recordio of the 1940s became one of the most popular models of portable record cutter.

The Recordio was able to record live sound via microphone or from a radio input. Users recorded prize fights and speeches from the air. They recorded conversations, family band performances, and drunken piano sing-alongs.

Wisconsin musician Phil Nohl has created a collection of over 2,000 of these early home recordings, including the work of an early karaoke enthusiast named Harry Moran. Using two record cutters, Moran would play a favorite recording, and simultaneously cut a new one of himself singing and/or playing guitar along to the song.

Believe it or not, Recordios can still be found in abundance on Ebay. After World War II, analog tape, brought home from a freshly defeated Nazi Germany, quickly became the preferred method of choice for recording. It offered improved sound quality and multi-tracking capability, but the recording technology wouldn’t be quite as cheap, ubiquitous, or as easy to use in-home again until the 1980s.

From Bing Crosby to Big Pink

Stationed in England in 1943, Army Lt. John T. Mullin wondered how the Germans were able to broadcast such brilliant classical music from their AM transmitters inside the Reich so late at night. Either Hitler was ordering round the clock orchestra performances, or the Germans had developed better recorders than the rest of the world.

After the war, Mullin and fellow officers found their culprit: The German AEG “Magnetophon”. Mullin was able to ship Magnetophon components home and create an even better recorder with them. By 1946, Mullin was giving demonstrations of his tape machine to NBC studios, the future founders of the Ampex tape company, and radio star Bing Crosby.

Crosby preferred the ease and flexibility of pre-recording his hit radio show, but concerns over sound quality made it unrealistic until Mullin’s machine came along. On October 1, 1947, America aired its first-ever magnetic tape broadcast, a recording of Crosby’s show with Mullin as its chief engineer. The Ampex company soon began making Mullin’s hybrid tape machines, and Crosby invested $50,000 of his own money to help them get started

By the mid-50s, 2 and 3-track recorders produced by Ampex were the music industry standard. But the new technology had yet to make its way back down to the home recording enthusiast in any kind of affordable or convenient way. Les Paul bought Ampex’s first ever 8-track tape recorder, nicknamed “The Octopus”, for $10,000 in 1957, and had it installed in his home studio. As with the Radiola of the 1930s, most amateur family bands didn’t have $10,000 for a tape machine lying around (nevermind a 7-foot tall 250-pound behemoth like The Octopus).

The home recordists of the day were people more like Paul: professional musicians curious about new ways of writing and recording music, who had the means to follow that curiosity wherever it might go.

In 1983, Pete Townshend, guitarist and songwriter for The Who, revealed himself to be a life-long home recording enthusiast when he released a collection of demos and rarities titled Scoop. As early as 1964, Townshend had been experimenting with tape machines such as the Vortexion, and later the Revox, using multiple machines and new mixing tools to create occasional multi-track demos for some of The Who’s most famous songs.

From Townshend’s liner notes to Scoop:

[This collection] emerges as being a fine example of how home recording produces moods and music, innocence and naivety that could be arrived at in no other way. Music that was never intended to be heard by a wide audience; notes and scribblings take on a new value assembled in this way. Away from sophisticated studio techniques and repeated soul destroying takes, the real joy I get from playing and writing comes through, and that joy is something I want to share.

Townshend on the song “Politician”:

Recorded on Revoxes at 15 ips stereo this has a sound that only I could get at the time. Influenced as I was by Tamla Motown, the rhythm is like HEATWAVE by Martha and the Vandellas, but the sound too is as fundamentally home grown as the Tamla sound; obviously not as good. Listen to some of the old Motown cuts I feel sure that the beauty of the sound come from the fact that a lot of love and listening went into operating very simple machinery to capture the performances. There is rarely mystery in recording, but even knowing how I got the weird sound on this cut doesn’t mean I could do it again today.

During a reclusive and extended recovery from a serious motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan recorded over a hundred songs with The Band, using only a few stereo mixers, a tape machine on loan from Dylan’s manager, and a few mics borrowed from Peter, Paul, and Mary.

These 1967 home recordings made in Woodstock, New York would eventually become The Basement Tapes. The Band used many of the same recording techniques when recording their debut Music From Big Pink in a New York studio in 1968. “One of the things is that if you played loud in the basement, it was really annoying, because it was a cement-walled room”, Robertson said about The Basement Tapes sessions. “So we played in a little huddle: if you couldn’t hear the singing, you were playing too loud.”

“That’s really the way to do a recording—in a peaceful, relaxed setting—in somebody’s basement. With the windows open … and a dog lying on the floor,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner.

The Platinum Demo Tape

 In 1972, TEAC (later Tascam) began marketing 4-channel quadraphonic tape recorders as home recording devices for use with ¼” tape. The Fostex Company (founded in 1973) followed suit, and by 1981, it offered three different multi-track recorders for home use, including the A-8 – the first 8-track recorder made for use with ¼” tape.

At the time, home recording was still seen mostly as hobby, or at best, a tool for songwriters like Pete Townshend to work out new ideas. That was how Bruce Springsteen approached his Teac Tascam in 1981, when he recorded Nebraska, and inadvertently flipped the paradigm on its head.

“It seems that around January of ’82, he’d enlisted his guitar roadie, Mike Batlan, telling him ‘go find me a little tape machine – nothing too sophisticated, just something I can do overdubs on,’” longtime Springsteen engineer Toby Scott told Daniel Keller in a story about Nebraska for Tascam’s website.

Mike Batlan purchased a now legendary Teac Tascam (series 144) 4-track for Springsteen, and set it up in a spare bedroom of the singer’s New Jersey home along with two Shure SM 57 mics. Springsteen would then record sparse demos for a new album with The E Street Band, but a funny thing happened on the way to platinum status: Even after recording fully-realized studio versions of the songs, everybody seemed to like Springsteen’s original demos better.

A Lesson in Low Overhead: The 4-track That Recorded Springsteen's "Nebraska"

A Lesson in Low Overhead: The 4-track That Recorded Springsteen’s “Nebraska”

Toby Scott recalled that the studio sessions went well, but the sounds of the full band just didn’t work with the low-key intimacy of many of the songs. Springsteen kept referencing the demo tape as the preferred sound, until it was decided that The Boss should just release the demo as the album.

Batlan’s relative inexperience with the new home recording setup can be heard in occasional bits of distortion on some tracks. The album was then mixed using a Gibson Echoplex that had since died, into a Panasonic Boombox that had somehow survived falling off a canoe and into a river the previous summer. Legend has it that Springsteen carried the only copy of the tape around in his jean jacket for months before it was declared the master for a new album. Engineer Toby Scott took this well-weathered master to four or five different mastering facilities before finding one that could properly transfer the recording to disc.

The resulting release, Nebraska, has sold over a million copies.

4-Track Minds

Springsteen certainly wasn’t trying to start a home recording revolution, but the success of Nebraska definitively showed that great content could trump poor sound quality, and perhaps, that in the right hands, the sound quality of some of these newly-inexpensive recording devices wasn’t so poor at all.

Other commercial 4-track releases since Nebraska include PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos, Elliot Smith’s Roman Candle, Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, parts of Beck’s platinum-selling Mellow Gold (an 8-track reel to reel was reportedly used), and Kathleen Hanna’s Julie Ruin album.

4-track recording’s poster children might be multi-instrumentalists Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, better known as Gene and Dean Ween. Since 1984, Ween has recorded twisted, humorous pop songs driven by cheap drum machines, but with pristine, Beatles-inspired melodic sensibilities. Their second and third “studio” albums, The Pod and Pure Guava, were 4-track tape recordings.

Stallions of the 4-track: Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman aka Dean and Gene Ween

Stallions of the 4-track: Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman aka Dean and Gene Ween

For Ween, these 4-track recordings weren’t the beginnings of a finished product; they were the finished product. As Dean Ween told Nashville Cream in a 2011 interview, their ability to produce commercially viable home recordings was no accident:

Now, it’s like bands are kinda more lazy, they’re not as driven as we were. I think technology is so cheap now that everyone has an opportunity to be in the game. With the Internet, you could start a website and make a video. Recording software is free. We had to really work to do our thing. We had to learn everything. But we put all our energy into the right places — trying to get better at writing, better at playing, better at recording, better at performing. We were kind of old-fashioned that way. We didn’t just pop out of nowhere, we had been in Ween since eighth grade by that time. We had almost been in Ween nine years, 10 years before we were signed to Elektra.”

The video for Pure Guava’s “Push Th’ Little Daisies” was a regular fixture on 90s MTV and in Beavis & Butt-head episodes. Ween had become so adept at their medium, that Dean Ween even wondered if their first proper studio album, Chocolate and Cheese, would be skewered by their fans.

“I thought it was the worst record in the world at the time, and I thought we were going to lose all our fans, and they were going to hate it because we made this slick record.”

The New Golden Age

Thanks to digital technology, home recording has experienced what may be its biggest boom,  and yet, it seems unlikely that we’d see many successful artists quite like Ween or many platinum albums quite like Nebraska anytime soon.

Recording technology has become so cheap and of such a high quality, that a band would have to go out of their way to create the limitations Ween had with their cassette 4-tracks. For instance, a new Tascam DP-02 – which is capable of recording high quality digital audio onto 8 tracks and spitting out a CD at the end – retails for about half of what my mid-90s Fostex 4-track cassette recorder cost.

Accordingly, the home-recording heroes of the 21st century tend to be songwriters like Luke Temple, and bands like Deerhoof, who have embraced the quality and capabilities of digital recording, but done so with the same, sometimes haphazard, “DIY” ethos of the early 4-track cassette recordists.

“It seems like you can either go to a medium or high-budget studio for one day, or you can use the equipment you have or can borrow from friends, and do it as long as you want,” Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier told Tape Op Magazine in 2006. “I realized there was no comparison – the time was so much more valuable than the fanciness of the equipment.”

Saunier recorded the band’s material on 4-track until around the year 2000. Since then, the band has used Pro Tools running on Macbooks, which might make their process sound more sophisticated at first blush than it actually is:

“[For Milk Man] Chris, John and I each had computers that had Pro Tools Free on them. With Pro Tools Free you can’t record more than two tracks at a time. We had five drum mics – so five drum tracks – so we had all three computers set up at once, and we’d press the spacebars all at the same time.”

12 albums in, the band has only recently set foot in a proper studio to make a recording, joining engineer Chris Shaw and Elias Gwinn of Velidoxi for an installment in the studio recording series “Masters From Their Day.”

Still, for years, the band has been just as likely to record a guitar signal direct from a POD effects pedal into a computer as they are to record the dry unplugged sound of that guitar using the computer’s internal microphone. However, the casual nature in which they record source material belies the painstaking sound editing and EQ manipulation they employ once its recorded, sometimes at the level of an individual note or drum hit.

Some engineers might say that Deerhoof have their priorities backwards, muttering something about ‘garbage in, garbage out’, but as self-producers, the band sees no need to draw lines between what they should and shouldn’t do as long as it serves the music. “The process of recording and the process of mixing is almost synonymous with the process of writing the song,” Saunier told the Onion A.V. Club. It is a distinctly 21st  century way of thinking about the recording process.

Home recording is often about freedom and control, even when it looks like it’s about price. By controlling all the elements involved in a recording, Deerhoof avoids being controlled by certain factors like time, money, or even how sharp their performance is on a certain date. Recording at home is forgiving in those ways.

Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan believed that your richest and best work could come out of that kind of freedom, the freedom of having no one outside your comfort zone pay any attention to what you’re doing.

Although he’s since come to see the value of studio recording, Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier has said: “Professional engineers have their experience, but I had my experience too, and even though it was self-generated and kind of weird, it still ended up counting for something.”

In the spirit of a famous Bruce Lee quote – The strength of the best self-recording musicians is not that they know a thousand different recording tools and tricks. It’s that they know a couple which they are willing to practice using a thousand times.

This entry was posted in All Stories, December 2013, Featured Stories, Guest Posts, Industry Trends, Music: Making it, Listening to it., Producers and Studios, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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