We seem to spend much of the time on Pro Tools Expert commenting on the negative effect too much choice can have on the creative process. But we often follow that with complaints when our tools aren’t as flexible as we would like. We seem to want to commit our ideas early and progress our work without the endless postponing of decisions which can result from modern workflows. But we don’t like it when our choices are constrained by the design of our tools. When people of my age talk about music production and our histories we’ll often say things along the lines of “I had a cassette 4 track and some of the best music I ever made was made on that machine”. If we look at the limitations of a cassette multitracker it quickly becomes clear that those kind of limitations were barely acceptable 25 years ago. They certainly wouldn’t be tolerable now - Would they?
Recording to cassette at standard or even double speed was noisy, with restricted bandwidth and wow and flutter all being significant issues, and that was just on a first generation recording. For most of us the best case for our recordings was that it would be recorded to multitrack, recorded again to the master stereo cassette and a first generation copy would be made of that cassette for playback. So that is already a third generation cassette copy. Add one generation of internal bounces and that rises to fourth generation. For something more complex with bounces of bounces we are at a fifth generation recording. No wonder we listened to our stuff poking out through an ocean of tape noise!
To the beginner 4 tracks was 4 tracks but as we all know there are many ways of getting more out of 4 tracks (no-one mention Sgt Pepper - OK?). Mixing multiple sources to a single track, internal bounces, bouncing from machine to machine and tracking extra sources at mixdown all offered ingenious ways of getting far, far more sources onto the recording than the track count would suggest.
For those who are too young to have experienced internal track bouncing, an example of internal bouncing works as follows, this example keeps the recordings to a maximum of 2 generations:
- Record to tracks 1-3
- Record the mixed output of tracks 1-3 to track 4
- Erase tracks 1-3
- Record to tracks 1 & 2
- Record tracks mixed output of tracks 1 & 2 to track 3
- Erase tracks 1 & 2
- Record to tracks 1 & 2
In this example a total of 7 tracks have been recorded. Of course more could easily be accommodated by recording additional sources during the bounces and if you were willing to sacrifice additional noise for increased track count then bounces of bounces could be made (Bohemian Rhapsody has to be an exemplar of how far you can stretch 24 tracks - I’d guess at there being 120+ tracks worth of material squeezed onto that recording). The options were almost limitless but they all carried a degree of compromise. It's hard to remember but the biggest immediate benefit of digital when it arrived was the possibility of making copies without incurring a penalty in terms of quality. My first digital device was a minidisc recorder (I couldn’t afford DAT) and I loved the fact that I could print my stereo master without incurring any noise.
Tape (whether cassette or open reel) costs money, it wears out and it runs out but most significantly there is no undo, on cassette edits aren’t really possible and unimaginably by today’s standards there was usually no backup of the multitrack.
So given the huge compromises in terms of quality and workflow, why do we remember working with these machines so fondly?
Novelty and Nostalgia
This has to be at least a part of it. My 16 year old self was pretty easily impressed. Weren’t you?
Workflow Forcing Early Commitment
This is a really interesting bit to me. Because tweaks weren’t possible and edits weren’t practical, we went with what we had and I think we tended to concentrate on that was good about a recording rather than focusing on what could have been done better.
Simplicity Of Set Up And Operation
Because there wasn’t much to the equipment it didn’t distract from the act of writing and making music. We played music and recorded it happening. The recording equipment wasn’t the focus of our attention.
Lack Of Choice
In my earliest drum recordings I pointed the mic (I only had one) at the drums. The position was dictated by my lack of a mic stand - it went on the floor. The recordings, while rather lo fi, were better than many student recordings I’ve heard because they lacked any phase issues! Total set up time, less than a minute!
It was limiting though, The biggest frustration I remember was lack of tracks but interestingly I remember feeling that most keenly when I graduated from 4 to 8 tracks. Suddenly there was the possibility of stereo drums or even a separate track for kick or snare, but I’d like to do both, maybe if I just went mono on the overheads, etc, etc. At least with four tracks you knew it definitely wasn’t enough!
As an experiment I thought I’d draw up the specifications of a version of Pro Tools which offered the standard feature set of my 4 track:
Pro Tools Portastudio Edition
- 4 mono tracks
- Max record time 15 mins (C60 at double speed)
- 1 stereo buss
- Spring reverb, chorus and delay effects (all guitar effects)
- No dynamics
- High and Low shelf EQ
- No undo
- No edit window
- No save copy as
- Destructive record only
Oh, and a permanently instantiated Signal Generator plug-in on every track outputting -40dB of white noise onto every track with no bypass!
Tempted? - I tell you what. I think it could be fun. We could all learn something from the mindset of those workflows but like so many things, the past would be nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.