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Guest Column - Little Barrie: "Why I still love my four track cassette recorder"

Guest Column - Little Barrie: "Why I still love my four track cassette recorder"
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With Little Barrie returning with fourth album Shadow next month (26 May), the band’s leader and touring member of Primal Scream Barrie Cadogan explains why the record, made with long-term mentor Edywn Collins was created the old fashioned way, namely with use of a four track cassette recorder.

There are so many advantages about recording today. We can make music ourselves using laptops and phones without having to fork out for expensive studio time and send it to anyone, anywhere in the world, in seconds. It’s a great thing. I use this technology too, but I still love my four track cassette machine or “portastudio”.

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When I started playing in my first bands in the early 1990s a portastudio was the most versatile recording device we could get our hands on. The cheapest ones were the four track cassette models. For anyone not familiar with these machines it’s basically a tape recorder that enables you to record a sound on top of another. For example, you can record yourself strumming the guitar chords to your new song, rewind the tape and then record your self singing along what you just played without erasing the guitar. The four track versions are so called as they’re capable of recording four separate sounds or “tracks”. Each track has it’s own adjustable volume control, so once you’ve finished recording you could do a mix of your song by connecting your portastudio to a cassette deck or a CD burner.

In one of my first bands we used to record all our rehearsals on a cheap ghetto blaster. It sounded great because the tape was completely overloaded by the sheer volume of the band. It gave a raw, distorted edge to everything that I really liked, but we could only capture what we were all playing together at that moment. Getting hold of a portastudio was the next move. Some of my mates were already using them to great effect, making bedroom masterpieces layering all these instruments together that sounded to me like proper records.

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I bought my first portastudio for £90 from a guy who worked in a local guitar shop, a Tascam Porta 05 model. My first attempts at using it didn’t sound great. This was probably because I didn’t read the manual. Yet with a bit of perseverance things started to sound much better. Like with any new piece of kit once you’re over those initial hurdles you get into it and start to experiment more. Compared to the versatility of todays laptops the four track is so limited, but it’s interesting what that limitation does for your creativity. You to work within that restriction and see how far you can stretch it.

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I finally read the manual a bit and learned more tricks like how to “bounce” tracks – a way of having more than four sounds onto a recording by mixing sounds together onto a free track as you go. A technique used in the 1960s when most studios only had 4-track tape machines. It really opened things up. It was the first time I heard what it was like to put lots of guitar parts together. You could create cool sounds by speeding the tape up or slowing it down using the pitch control. I remember putting the cassette in the wrong way round and everything it played backwards – It was amazing, just like I first heard on Stone Roses and Jimi Hendrix records! If you set the recording level too high when recording drums they came out sounding like a raw soul or garage record. These are all primitive effects compared to now but it was really exciting. It captured the spirit of the old rehearsal tapes but with the chance to record something on top of it.

That’s what always draws me back to the portastudio – the sound. The cassette has it’s own character, different in sound to an analogue recording studio. I took it for granted at the time when it was all we had. It was only when the digital gear came along that I heard the difference. The digital stuff just sounded clinical and lifeless in comparison. You couldn’t overload the recording level as it just sounded horrible. The possibilities with digital are much greater in theory but with that you can also end up with option paralysis, spending all day fiddling with effects and sounds rather than committing to something and moving on. The old portastudio forces you to make decisions as you go which makes things easier when you get to mixing. We still try to adopt that approach to recordings now. Another interesting thing about working on these machines is that there is no screen to look at. You’re concentrating on listening rather than looking at sound waves on a screen.

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When I first moved to London when Little Barrie got going, we had deaf neighbours next door so we could rehearse and make demos in the flat without any complaints. The portastudio played a key part in us getting towards the kind of sound we were after at the time. The first studio we recorded in was Tardis that used to be in Hoxton Square. It had a massive old eight track machine in it and the sound had a lot in common with the spirit of the cassette. Then we met Edwyn Collins and his engineer Seb Lewsley. We were really into the production of his records. They liked the sound of our demos and helped us take those ideas further at West Heath Yard Studios. That was the beginning of us working together, they’ve helped us so much over the years.

We’ve tried other ways of working and other studios but It didn’t always work out. Without Edwyn and Seb at the controls there has been a fair few occasions where I’ve been more into the original four track demos than the final recordings. It was like the spirit was missing. The dirt wasn’t there and the sound had become more ordinary. The technology couldn’t capture the feel we were after. We were spending ages trying to recreate that sound, going through lots of studio effects when it would have been much easier to just do it on cassette.

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We’re still using the portastudio now, as do other people we know. Most of the new album Shadow was demoed on cassette before we cut it at Edwyn’s. Over the last few years me and our drummer Virgil have picked up two machines on eBay for £30 each. One’s a real bottom of the range model but it sounds brilliant for drums. The cheapest cassettes work really well in them too. There’s always one four track in the rehearsal studio in case we want to record something. We use them alongside the modern gear to get the best of both worlds. We can get a cool sound on cassette and then stick it in the computer to edit and email it to each other.

The portastudio isn’t without it downsides – like running out of cassettes or accidentally erasing something by pressing record in the wrong place. It may well be because I’m of the generation that grew up with these machines that I like them so much, but the thing I really love about the cassette four track is that it’s easy to use and for me it instantly captures something a bit more soulful that digital recording can on a budget. That said, anyone got any old D90s they don’t want?

Recommended portastudio listening: Soothing Music For Stray Cats by Edgar ‘Jones’ Jones. Recorded in his flat on cassette eight track.

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Barrie Cadogan@LittleBarrie

For more, including the band’s UK tour which kicks off at Manchester’s Sound Control on 3 June, head to Littlebarrie.com.


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