(written from a purely first-person, guitar-based perspective in total ignorance of other pioneers who doubtless exist)
Before the recent advent of inexpensive digital home recording, I think I can safely say that the four-track cassette player was as ubiquitous to the creative young musician as caffeine and a history of listening to Rush. While semi-pro multi-track reel-to-reel machines, which started enjoying some popularity in the 1970's, could boast high fidelity due to tape width and speed, the expense of the tape and maintenance needs put it out of the reach of the average garage band. The cassette-based four-track, with its cheap medium, near-instant setup time, portable size and integrated mic preamps, mixing and monitoring (and later, effects loops) was a sure hit. For the first time, the typical rock band could actually cut a "record", with the ability to redo takes, rehearse to tracks, and layer instruments. All the same advantages made it attractive to the solo musician, who could record individual instruments one by one, and the music student, who could record multi-part accompaniments for practice.
The advantages of digital recording - longer recording time, zero tape hiss, and with some machines, non-destructive editing and virtual tracks - and the now-comparable price to the cassette four-track have sounded a death knell to the tape four-tracker. Indeed, with the dominance of compact discs and the growing popularity of burning equipment on home computers, the medium itself probably has a foreseeable end. One effect of this change is that the used price on four-track cassette machines has plummeted. (I myself have bought six over the past two years, paying at the most $60). Watch the want ads! Even Ebay can be pretty reasonable for the basic models, you can definitely find something for $100 or less.
While I've owned countless 4-trackers over the last 18 years, I began to be interested in the looping potential only recently. I've enjoyed looping using digital delays for some time, but continue to prefer the sound of analog equipment, both for recording and playing. I'd been reading about Terry Riley's tape loops, but wasn't prepared to acquire two large r-t-r tape machines for experimentation, and the limitations for performance seemed obvious. (It's enough of a pain in the ass just readying an electric guitar setup at a typical gig, with 10 minutes to position amps, pedalboards and various instruments while allowing space to do leg kicks and flaming-hoop routines). Then one day at the reviled-yet-necessary Radio Shack, I noticed the phrase "endless looping" on a blister pack among the telephone supplies. Looping? Most people have at some point had a looping cassette in their home and never realized it - in their answering machines, of course. Though many machines are digital or micro-cassette at this point, the older, larger machines depend on a looping cassette. If you've also got an old Portastudio sitting around gathering dust, you may already have all the equipment you need to loop without buying anything.
The basic potential is quite straightforward. Using a typical answering machine 20-second loop cassette in any 4-tracker, you can record up to four layered parts and control their level of playback, overdubbing in the same method as you would to record in standard fashion. You'll have some basic control over EQ, and can place each of the tracks in the stereo field. One disadvantage is that unlike many other loopers, you aren't able to dynamically control loop length - it's preset with your cassette. But even at the basic level, you'll have more delay time than many loopers, and the ability to layer tracks and control their volume and panning in stereo easily is almost unique.
But there's a lot more potential, and a lot of ways to make things easier and more organic. I'll try to describe some of the things I've discovered in the short time I've been using this unique bit of gear, and hopefully point you towards discovering more things on your own.
THE MEDIUM - the looping cassette
The easiest way to get started is to use the aforementioned answering machines cassettes. These are "outgoing message" cassettes, and often say "endless loop" or "outgoing announcement" on them. The typical lengths of these cassettes, which are still available in most RS stores and many places online, is 10, 20 or 30 seconds, up to six minutes (maybe even more). They're pricier than regular cassettes ($4.99 is typical). However, they're ABUNDANT in thrift stores. Often you'll find a machine with cassette for half the price of a new tape, and if you can find the cassettes on their own, they might cost less than a buck. One note: the best ones are leaderless. Sometimes it'll say so on the case. If the tape has a leader, well, you can live with the short interruption of signal (I tend to enjoy it as a rhythmic element), or you can try to splice regular tape over the leader - though I don't recommend taking these tapes out of the case, so it's even trickier than regular splicing.
Another note: the "Phone-mate" cassettes won't fit in any other cassette player. It's too bad, because they're very well made and have an excellent tape path, with pulleys and springs to balance the tension, but they simply won't work.
The urge to reverse and the need to tweeze:
MAKING YOUR OWN TAPES
One of the fun features of the four-track that everyone discovers at some point is that flipping over a four-track recording will yield inverted playing - tracks 3 and 4 will become 1 and 2, 1 and 2 will now be 3 and 4, and, like, so backwards. "Stairway" backwards. "And the Gods Made Love" backwards. EVIL backwards.
But the answering machines tapes are made in such a way that they can only be played forward - generally the cases will be constructed so that it will actually be impossible to insert them upside-down into a machine. If you do manage to get it in, it will seize up immediately (yes, I've tried). You also should not open these tapes, they're put together in a very specific manner and it's near-impossible to put 'em together again.
But many loopers now have the reverse ability, and you can too. For this, you'll need to have a loop in the classic, Terry Riley sense, where the tape forms a straight path, as opposed to the answering machine tapes where the loop is wound mostly around one reel and the tape goes to the heads from the side closest to the reel. I've never found a tape made like this, so I had to make my own.
This path will limit your recording time somewhat - the longest I've made was about 8 seconds.
This is a not a job for the impatient. Cassette tape is three-eighths of an inch wide, and is incredibly light. Merely breathing on a length of tape can make it fly off the table. Also, the pieces of a cassette are quite tiny, and fitting them together takes time.
In theory, the job is simple. You'll need to measure the path of tape around both reels and across the heads, giving it just a HAIR of space so it doesn't seize up. This length must be cut from the long reel, then spliced together and placed back in the cassette case. It's the delicacy of the operation that make it difficult. I recommend getting a splicing block (sometimes available from your second home, Radio Shack) and a really really sharp X-acto knife. You can sometimes get splicing tape from RS too, or you can cut up larger-format tape. You can try using regular scotch tape, but the adhesive can get on your tape heads and really cause problems, so it's probably not the best idea. To handle the small parts, and to put the loop into the cassette, I've found a tweezers to be the best tool ever. A pair is even better.
Use a good, chrome tape as your medium. Maxell is nice. For the cases, I like Maxell XLII's, it has good parts inside, but you can use any old cassette (you'll be throwing out the tape, since one 90-minute tape will give you tape to loop for a lifetime). It's nice to have backup cassettes to scavenge for reels and extra parts.
Once you have the tools, REWIND THE CASSETTE.
- Unscrew the cassette and lift out the empty reel, letting the tape play out from the full reel. Try not to the disturb any other pieces, especially the small pieces that go near the heads. On most reels, the tape is attached with a small plastic tab that can be slid out sideways. Remove the tape from this end where the leader is attached.
- Lift out the full reel and put it aside, FLAT on a clean surface. If you have an empty reel from a second cassette, put it back in the cassette case. If not, you can remove the entire length of tape from the full reel, trying to keep it in some kind of useful shape.
- Cut a length of tape and form a path that goes across the bottom of the cassette (where the heads would go), and around the two reels. To get more recording time, you can lengthen your loop by running the tape around any of the supporting "posts" inside the case. Try to avoid angles greater than 45 degrees or so, or your homemade splice will probably catch or slip. If you're lucky, the little wheels from your backup cassette will fit on these posts so you have a smooth path.
- Once you have the path, measure your loop and splice. Good luck. This is tough to do with such small tape, but can be done with patience, good light and iron will.
- Finally, fit your completed loop around both reels (and any other posts in the path) and around the bottom of the cassette.
- Screw it back together and put it in your machine. The reels will not necessarily turn - they're not being used, but they keep the tape out of the path of the machine gears. If the tape seems to be moving past the heads steadily, great! Loop away. If it seizes up, try, try again.
If 6 was 9 - playing backwards: this is a blast. Record a nice part, flip the tape over and add to it, forwards. Flip it over again. It sounds great. Remember that your tracks will switch position - tracks 3 and 4 will become 1 and 2, 1 and 2 will now be 3 and 4.
For noise heads and demented souls: use really old cassettes with ancient recordings on them for your tape stock. Crumple your loop up with your fingers, then put it back in your machine. Rub it with your fingernails until dust comes off. Lick it. Strangle steel wool bunnies with it. Then splice your loop. Unpredictable results, but for sure there'll be a massive loss of fidelity and lots of bumps and jitters. To me, it sounds awesome. It's great fun to play a short distinctive melody, then hear it loop back a few seconds later, sounding like a 78 played with a rusty icepick.
For musique concrete pourers: instead of the typical tape path, make a route whereby the tape avoids the erase head. This is the left hand opening at the bottom of the case. Generally you'll need to break a small piece of the cassette apart to do this - as long as it avoids the head by a quarter inch, this'll work. You won't be able to use reverse with this cassette, because on flipping the tape over, the tape will no longer engage the record head.
Put Frankenstein back in your machine - you've got sound on sound, on sound on sound. Everything you play from now on will be imprinted on this cassette. The older layers will go deeper and deeper into tape hiss and noise, but will still be there in spirit, haunting the cupboards and causing real estate values to drop. Great potential for horrifying results. Yeah!
Essential companion: THE PUNCH-IN PEDAL
For full enjoyment of cassette looping, you must have a punch-in pedal. Simply put, this allows you to turn recording on and off without needing to press buttons, or to stop the tape. For looping, the advantage is that you can let the tape roll and roll, listening to your loop, then at will you can drop in a second or two of playing, hands-free. Similarly, the pedal can be used to introduce a loop. What I'll often do is play while recording on a single track. When I click the punch-in pedal, that track will shift out of Record mode and into Play mode, and will now recall the last 20 seconds (or whatever length) of my playing. Some machines have a loud punch-in - in which case you'll hear a click. Make it a part of the loop. Learn to love it! And consider trading around for a 4-tracker with a smoother punch.
Punch-in pedals are generally cheap. For most 4-tracks (all Tascams and Fostexes, as far as I know), any keyboard sustain pedal will work fine - these are called momentary contact switches. These are probably 20 bucks new; I've found several for $5 in classified ads. My main pedal is a DOD 220 "Momentary Foot Switch", bought for 10 dollars. I don't think they're made anymore, but it has an extremely fast click - the keyboard pedals are softer and don't react as fast. For some 4-tracks, like my Yamaha MT100, it needs a permanent contact switch - the switch used for switching channels on an amp will work fine.
THE FOUR-TRACK RECORDER
I LOVE Tascams. I think they're the best. The punch-in is usually pretty smooth, and they're built like tanks. Yamaha have good features and are compact (I use an MT100 as my second 4-track in my regular rig), but aren't built too solidly and they need the special permanent contact punch-in pedal. Fostexes are cheap, the bad cheap. Avoid 'em if you can.
My favorite my far is the Tascam 424 and 464. They're fairly big, but have hi-speed, pitch control, parametric EQ, two effects loops, and the smoothest punch-in. They also take lots of inputs - the 464 has the regular four mono inputs, plus four stereo/eight mono inputs, including faders for two of those stereo inputs. It also has a separate stereo RCA tape input with it's own pot, so it's perfect for using a second four-track. I like having the second machine so I can bounce things back and forth, doing crazy pitch-shifts by recording something at low speed on the first machine, switching to double-speed, recording it on the second machine at low speed, sending it up high, then back to the first (and on and on). I'll also use a highly-abused tape on the second to "treat" a loop and bring it back to the first.
Patch an input into track 1, set it to mic input. Set all other tracks to tape, or play. Use the headphone out (1/4") or a monitor out (probably RCA, use an adapter) to send it to an amp for listening. The monitor out is usually quieter, so if you can, get an adapter and send it out that way. Use the buss section to set track 2 to the "record" position. Plug in your punch-in pedal if you've got it, and hit play. (Just hit "record" if you don't have your pedal yet, after making a note to yourself to buy one tomorrow). Record for a bit, then click your pedal (or turn record off, but keep the tape going). Could that be me? Rinse. Repeat.
I usually use the monitor section (sometimes this will just be a pot in the channel strip, sometimes it'll be a completely separate section) to adjust levels for listening. You won't be able to access the stereo features I mentioned earlier (I don't know of any monitor section that allows you to pan), but if you use the channel faders to listen, the content of those tracks will be recorded along with your new playing once you start recording on a new track. Follow that? Using the channel faders with their accompanying pan controls is best for listening back or playing along. While you're in record mode, it's best to control levels with the monitor section, or you'll record your whole mix onto the new track. (Of course you can have fun with that too, ping-ponging three tracks down to one).
If you like what you hear, switch the buss section to a new track. Record some more. When you've filled up tracks 2, 3 and 4, go to track 1 - but bear in mind that if you're going to use the faders to control levels, you'll need to switch track 1 from "record" to "tape" to hear it. Otherwise, use the monitor section.
It's a mixer too: mission control
The four-track has become central to my entire rig. I use the additional inputs to control the mix of various delays and returns. While I usually just run my guitar into track 1, leaving inputs 2 to 4 empty, sometimes I'll plug other instruments or returns into those tracks too. With the monitor section, I control what I'm hearing from the tape, but with the fader, I control the level of the input. Using the Buss section to assign which track will be recorded on, and switching the various inputs to Tape or to Mic, you can assign any input to any track without any repatching.
A punch-in pedal is key for achieving the illusion of multiple tracks on a single track, and for creating impossible-to-play sequences - a power chord suddenly interrupting a long high scalar phrase, an array of harmonics that come in and out of a frenetic strum. Often I'll play along with a loop, and randomly click the pedal in and out, inserting bits and pieces of material. With practice this can be quite rhythmic. Even without adding additional tracks, on a single track you can create some really unique textures.
Pitch-shifting: the good
Many four-tracks have two tape speeds, with faster time resulting in higher quality, while using regular speeds increases your recording time. The great thing is that the difference between these two speeds will result in a consistent, in-pitch one-octave jump, up or down. Record for 10 seconds at regular speed, bump up the notch to high-speed, and bumblebees attack. Still in high-speed, switch to another track and record some low-E dives. Bump it back to regular speed and bulldozers approach.
Pitch-shifting: the weird
Even if they don't have a double-speed option, all but the cheapest 4-tracks have a pitch control. These generally go up or down about a fourth or so, but are rarely exact. It's much more anarchic than the clean octave jump. But it's still fun to whip the pitch wheel around, while recording (especially great while sustaining a long note).
Pitch-shifting: the felonious
If you have the high-speed option, you'll notice that the machine takes a second to jump up to the higher or down to the lower speed. This can be fun to play around with. Try notching it back and forth rapidly while doing a left-hand trill. Or play for awhile in record, switching it back and forth randomly. On playback you'll hear totally unexpected seasick sounds.
These don't necessarily have a particular looping advantage, but they're just really fun to have. I like sending things out to delays or fuzzboxes, then bringing them back in to record on another track. Or bring it back to the same with delay for some quick feedback (watch those monitors).
You can also do disgusting things such as sending the effects send directly to an input. Instant howl! Then send this to an echo, or sculpt the audio bile with your EQ. Yucky-yummy. And the best part is...you can record it.
Have a parametric EQ? Have fun doing filter sweeps on your pre-recorded tracks. Or while sustaining a note, play with the EQ on your input track.
Hey, this is analog tape! Crank up your inputs, even the EQ, distorting like mad to create a smelly mattress of grey noise. Then back everything down and record a squeaky-clean little kitten of a track right next to it. You'll never believe they live together.
Sound samples soon. Thank you for reading, and I hope you discover more good stuff! By all means let me know what you find. And feel free to ask if you have more questions about this.