portable studio pic

by Harvey Reid

From Acoustic Guitar Magazine, 1990

A car pulls up to the dark building, and a figure emerges. Doors open, and out of the back seat of the car come a small suitcase, a small black shoulder bag, a guitar case, and a microphone stand. The figure walks up to the front of the building, carrying the contents of the back seat, unlocks the door, and turns on the light. It is 9:04 pm. The microphone stand is set up, the suitcase opened, and from it emerge a small battery-powered DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorder, 2 condenser microphones, a small power supply for them, and 4 mike cables. The DAT machine is placed on a small table, a tape is inserted into the machine, and a button marked end search is pressed. While the machine whirs to find the end of the recorded portion of the tape, the shoulder bag is opened, and a BOSE Roommate stereo system's 2 speakers are taken out, placed on the table, plugged in, and connected to the DAT machine's headphone jack. A chair is set up in front of the table, and the guitar case is opened. A fresh set of strings is put on the guitar and tuned. The mikes are placed in front of the guitar and levels are set for recording. It is time to push the RECORD button. It is 9:17 PM. 13 minutes have elapsed since the door was opened. Sound like a spy novel? No it's just me arriving at my family's cottage on the coast of Maine to record a bonus track for an upcoming CD project. By about 10:45 PM I had a take that I liked, although I worked till about midnight trying to improve on it, and even spent a couple hours the next morning getting nowhere. But the work was done.

Folks, what home computers have done to the desktop publishing industry, digital recording is starting to do to the audio world. Although the technology is new and unperfected, enough has happened already that it is not too early or too expensive to jump in. In this article we will look at the feasibility of making your own digitally recorded CD on what would have been considered even 5 years ago to be a laughably small budget. Let's demystify the process and walk you through the steps in making your own recording.

What are digital recorders? For the purposes of this discussion, just think of a digital recording machine as a glorified cassette deck. These machines have pause, record, fast forward and all the buttons you are used to, plus some fancy search and programming features, but as far as understanding how to use them, the cassette deck model is all you need. The digital machines store numbers on tape that are a description of the music, so the tape hiss and wow and flutter don't matter because a number with some hiss is still a number. A digital recorder consists of a processor that converts the electrical signal in the wire into numerical information, and then the numbers are stored either in computer memory, on tape or computer discs. That's all you need to know about how they work.

SONY F-1 VCR and Beta Recorders. The first commercially available digital machines were called PCM-F1 (or just F-1 for short) stored the digital information on a VCR tape. A standard VCR machine (or BETA for better results) was connected to the F-1, and the music information was encoded on the video portion of the tape. These machines went through a few model variations and then were discontinued when the DAT machines were introduced, though they are still available in some foreign countries. There are many F-1 machines still in use in studios and dubbing facilities, and they still work fine, having the advantage that all moving parts are in the VCR machines, which are interchangeable. There are many arguments as to whether the F-1 machines have the sound quality of the DAT machines, though certainly they do not have the ease of use, search and pause features or the reliable error correction systems the DAT's have. But I have recorded a great deal with them and I would challenge anyone to tell me which cuts I have recorded with the DAT and which with the F-1. As a musician and recording engineer I will stake my reputation on the fact that even though they are treated with far less respect than a DAT machine, you can still make a world-class recording with them if you can find one.

1630 or U-Matic These professional machines cost tens of thousands of dollars and store the data on large 3/4" commercial video tape, and at this point are what are used only by CD manufacturing plants and professional digital mastering and editing studios. Chances are that you will not actually record on one of these machines, but your music will have to be transferred to this format before a CD can be made of the music. For a number of years digital editing systems have utilized this type of machine exclusively.

DAT machines These are the latest and most popular digital recorders that use the tiny VCR style DAT tapes that fit right into the machine just like a cassette player. These machines no doubt will become the standard format for most digital recording in the near future.

DASH machines These are open-reel digital recorders (Digital Audio Stationary Head) and you aren't likely to run across one except in a pro studio. They allow you to splice with a razor blade like analog, since they don't use the rotating VCR style heads. For the purpose of this article we will consider the act of direct-to-digital recording to mean the use of any of these machines. All of these machines are capable of producing sound quality suitable for even the most discriminating purpose. The idea of using them is that with nothing more than professional microphones and a phantom power supply top drive the microphones you can record the music; and therefore do most of the work of making a professional recording.

Planning your project

Direct-to-digital recording is the obvious choice for recording something simple like solo guitar, but because multitrack digital is still not really affordable, you might want to think through what music you are trying to record and decide if it makes sense to try to record it direct. Some of the decisions you make are affected by whether or not you plan to press CD's from the master tape. If you are only going to make cassettes, it may not be practical to do any expensive digital editing, and you'll have to make the master tape by the seat-of-the-pants method with pause buttons and guesswork. The difficulty of recording live increases rapidly with the number of musicians, and if you are trying to record a whole band at once, everyone has to play their parts perfectly. Sometimes it makes more sense to record to analog multi-track and then mix to digital if the group is not well-rehearsed. I have recorded a good deal of 2, 3 and even 5 piece groups live with good results, since to me the living sound of musicians interacting is preferable to sterile multitrack things with no obvious "mistakes." It is quite possible to record live-to-multitrack and capture the energy of live performance, while still allowing yourself the option of some punching and editing. However, you will not capture the 3 -dimensional sonic image the way you will with direct to 2-track. You might even want to record simultaneously on multi-track and digital 2-track, so in case you played it right, you'd be done; or if most of it was right, you could fix the analog version and mix it later.

A good illustration of the planning problem is the question of how to record voice and guitar. You can't exactly do a scratch vocal, since it will bleed into the guitar track. I've given up trying to isolate them and I like to record them together as if they were a single sound. With a pair of mikes at about chin level about 2-4 feet away, I can get a better and more lifelike sound than by trying to put a separate mike on each and then mix them. (Which is the way 99 out of 100 recording engineers would set up the mikes if you rented a studio.) How do you "mix" the two sounds in stereo anyway? Your mouth and your guitar are only a few inches apart anyway, and you are just going to get phase cancellation problems and bleed of each into the other's channel. It's not a good idea to put one of them in the left and one in the right channel (like the old Dylan album), nor can you mix them both in the center of the stereo spectrum where they both belong without getting cancellation or a confusing sound. You can record them on separate channels, and then mix the voice in the middle, put a 20 ms. or so delay on the guitar and put the guitar 100% panned left and the delayed (actually it's doubled) guitar 100% right. This puts the guitar to the outside and the voice in the middle, but it introduces an artificial element into the sound. It's solving problems like this that make up good engineering­p; not just twiddling knobs or even understanding how the equipment works. When you are recording with a few other people, such as adding a background vocal or a rhythm guitar, you can still do it live to 2-track with some care. I would rather take the chance and record live in hopes of capturing an exciting live take, and since there is no concern about bleed from track to track, I like to set up just like I'd play in the living room, a few feet apart, and then set the mikes accordingly. A lot of the isolation techniques that are used in the studio, such as headphones, baffles, and the like are not just unnecessary, but a pain in the neck. If I am playing with other musicians, I like to see them and hear them as much as possible. It can be harder to make the choice when more musicians are involved, since it becomes harder to find the spot to place the mikes where the sound is balanced. But all recording was done live way for decades, and people still record bands and orchestras this way, so don't be afraid to try it, especially if you are not paying studio rates to try it out. It's a lot of trial and error, but you might get lucky and get a great take of yourself or your group.


In most ways, digital recording is no different than analog: play the music and roll the tape. In a low-budget setting, it is probably a better idea to just play the song again till you get it right rather than trying to fix, splice, punch, edit, or over dub like we have all learned is how we record music. There are a few things to keep in mind before you press the record button:

Assembling your master tape...

Even though you can record with nothing more than a DAT machine and some good mikes, to actually piece it all together and make the master tape requires some other considerations and tools. I recommend that you rent a recording studio that has two professional DAT machines for this step, although there are some choices as to exactly what you rent when. When you finish recording, you just have a box full of work tapes and notebooks, and collecting the good ones in order on one tape with proper silences between them can be tricky. (It's convenient to just think of the digital tapes you bring in as being equivalent to you playing live in the studio, and then your expenses would be the same as if you went in and played a perfect first take of every song on the album!) Bear in mind that the digital recording world is changing rapidly, and there may be new technologies on the market next week that may make much of this advice obsolete.

There is no generation loss making copies of digital tapes. You can make all the copies you want of good takes and of whole master tapes if you have access to 2 digital machines with digital IN/OUT copying features, and each will be exact clones of the others. (The F-1 systems have the advantage that you just need a single F-1 and 2 VCR machines. You need two DAT machines to copy tapes.) The cheaper, "consumer" DAT machines do not always let you transfer digital information directly from one to another without decoding and then re-encoding it again. Many people feel that it can degrade the original recording if it is decoded and re-encoded too many times. Make this a consideration if you are planning to buy an inexpensive DAT machine.

Assemble the tape yourself if you can. If you can get hold of equipment with digital copying capability, you can save some studio money by just collecting all the good takes on one tape, with lots of space between them. It can take a lot of studio time just rummaging around going from the 17th cut on tape 3 then rewinding and fast forwarding to the 4th cut on tape 9. There's no skill requires except using the pause buttons and not chopping off the beginnings and ends of things. Proof the finished tape for dropouts and then take this tape into the studio to make the finished master.

Watch volume levels. It seems to be a lot harder for an engineer to set average volume levels for a song with digital readouts rather than the VU meters used on analog machines. You have to be careful with peaks in digital recording, since errors from too much volume are unrepairable. Make sure you have plenty of headroom. Chances are that over the duration of a recording project, you will have cuts that aren't of equal volume. Volume can be adjusted in the SONY 1630 editing system, so, again, if you are making a CD you can fix this then.

You cannot make EQ adjustments or add effects without transferring to analog. What I recommend is to use 2 professional digital machines and run the sound out of one into a mixing board and back into the other. Converting the signal to analog and back just once won't degrade your sound noticeably, and can save you a lot of money on digital editing, which if it requires EQ or reverb has to be done with an analog conversion anyway. You can then use the mixing board to adjust the relative volumes of songs and to add any reverb or effects you want to use. If you are going to make a CD, then this can be done in the mastering step entirely digitally, though you will pay more for digital editing time. With a professional mixing board and two DAT machines, you can clean up your master tape in a small-town $40 an hour studio. Pro DAT machines now allow you to make minute adjustments to the start ID's on the tape, which means that you can do the digital equivalent of snipping off any noises that are usually present at the beginning of a take. You can pull the faders during this "mixing" process to clean up the ends of songs.

Proof your tapes for dropouts. Remember that most digital machines don't have 3 heads, so in general you cannot monitor the sound while recording. The only way to know if there are no dreaded digital dropouts (blank spots in the tape where the machine was confused, usually caused by dust particles) is to listen back to the whole recording. This applies to when you record, and also when you make a finished master tape or a safety copy to send off to be manufactured, and it can be tedious. Fostex has an expensive DAT machine with monitoring ability, and the SONY 1630 U-Matic systems give a computer readout of all errors or dropouts, but most other digital machines require you to check for dropouts the hard way.
Editing is expensive. With analog tape, any engineer could just cut and splice the tape with a razor blade, and the only way to do that with digital tape without transferring to analog is to use a digital editing system. Until very recently, you had to transfer your music to 1630 tape first, since the editing systems only worked with that format. At $100 an hour or so, this means a minimum of several hundred dollars in tape and studio costs even for a simple edit because you had to pay for the transfer time to the 1630 format. (It's usually cheaper to just play it again and get it right.) If you are definitely going to make a CD and you feel that you have to splice something, since you need to transfer to 1630 format anyway, it makes a great deal of sense to save whatever splices and edits you need to do for the final digital mastering step. The accuracy of the digital editing systems is astonishing, and one of the great features is that the edits are done in the computer and not by cutting the tape. So if it doesn't work or if it wasn't quite right it is easy to do a lot of trial and error without compromising the master tape at all. I highly recommend that if you plan to make a CD from DAT tapes that you just collect the good takes all on one DAT and then hire a digital editing engineer to adjust the relative volumes of the cuts, clean up the intros and fades, put silence between the cuts and do whatever splices you need during the preparation of the 1630 master tape that you send to the CD plant. Trying to get clean fades and intros and 4 seconds of perfect silence between 2 cuts with no tools other than the pause buttons on two VCR or DAT machines can be very tricky, and it's trivial with digital editing systems. There are new hard-drive editing systems that are just starting to emerge that offer many exciting possibilities, and there is even a version available now for a souped-up Macintosh computer. These treat music much like a word processor treats text, and you can cut and paste and copy and delete and tweak the waveforms on the computer screen. With hard-drive editing, it's possible to actually fix bad notes and do near-magical things. The problems with them are that they are quite expensive, and require massive amounts of disk storage, (usually in the hundreds of megabytes), just to work on one album project. Hard drives are an impractical medium for storing musical information, and are best used just for popping a song in from a DAT, doing a splice, and then putting it back on DAT. Tape is a cheaper and superior medium for storage, and for being able to work on a number of projects interchangeably, (since it takes 30 minutes to transfer 30 minutes of music out of your computer so you can work on something else) and it appears unlikely that recording studios will abandon tape editing systems for hard-drive. The thing to look for is DAT-based editing, which appears to be imminent, and won't require the time and tape cost to transfer to 1630 tape before and after the edits.

Pressing the album...

If you are just making cassettes, you can send your DAT or VCR or Beta master or safety directly to most tape duplicating companies and they will dupe from your tape. Bear in mind that some companies make "real-time" cassettes and others high-speed and their processes and requirements are different. Real-time duplicators usually ask that you send what is called a "dubbing master," a digital tape that has a couple minutes of silence, test tones, and specified periods of silence between side A and side B and then more silence at the end. Check with your duplicator for their specifications and whether they prefer DAT or Beta. To make a CD from your master tape, you need to first make a 1630 master tape, and if you don't hire out a digital mastering facility to do this, the CD plant will do it for you and charge you a few hundred dollars. The time code information (called P-Q code) that allows the consumers to point their remote control devices at the CD player and skip to the next cut has to be encoded on this master tape, and then this finished master is what is used to make the glass master and the CD stamper. There are a number of small CD manufacturers who will make short runs of 1000 discs, and all you need to do after this is to get your art work, printing, legal and copyright paperwork done and you're in business. The nicest thing about making CD's is that the plant's computers know if all the information is present and accounted for, and they don't even send you a test pressing!

I think that history will look back on the profusion of over-produced music that started with the Beatles and completely took over the recording world for the next 25 years, and be appalled at how much real music was obscured. And I also think that history will view this brief period around 1990 when a significant number of recordings were made direct-to-digital 2-track because it was practical, as something to be appreciative of, just as we are glad now that some entrepreneurs made blues and hillbilly recordings 60 years ago for reasons other than historical archiving. Technology does not automatically point us in the right direction. Recording is supposed to capture music. Music is art. Art is part of life, and it is a communication of something vital from the human spirit of the artist to the listener. Each musician out there has something to communicate. If it is a valid expression of the life and feelings of that artist, it doesn't need to be edited and spliced and produced. I am thankful as I listen to the CD reissues of Robert Johnson that he didn't have a 16-track studio and a bed of rhythm tracks and a bunch of punched-in guitar riffs as the legacy of his art. All of you who want to record something as your own legacy, look inside yourselves and look into your music for the urgency and the feelings that are what make you play music. If you are willing to go on stage and play your music, then you should be able to carry that same spark through the recording process. Is playing music for people and then not being willing to record that same music any different than being seen by people and not being willing to be photographed? Digital recorders will let you "photograph" your sound in near-perfect detail. It's up to you to make sure you have the right look on your face.

Harvey Reid has been a full-time acoustic guitar player, songwriter, traditional musician, and free-lance minstrel since 1974. He has recently released his 11th solo recording on Woodpecker Records. He lives on the coast of Southern Maine, though he did live in his car for over 5 years, which made him philosophical.

PO Box 815 York Maine 03909  USA
phone (207) 363-1886

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