The Beginner’s Guide To 4-Track Cassette Recording

mt50 4 track

My beloved.

Back in the 90s I got a 4 track cassette recorder. A Yamaha MT50 to be exact.

It’s been good to me over the years, but I feel like its time might be coming to an end. As a brief gun salute, here are some things I’ve learned about 4 track cassette recording.

1. Tape Over Stuff

When I record, I tend to be very impatient. I don’t like doing things more than once.

If I’m not getting the feeling that I want, I just rewind and try a different approach or maybe start a new idea altogether.

When you make a habit of this random and unstructured kind of behavior, especially on as many as 4 different tracks, shit gets really weird. A take will end and then some other random snippet from a previous hour or day or week or year will appear right afterwards. It’s spooky and I love it.

You don’t get those kinds of surprises when you’re working in a more organized environment like Pro Tools or even 2 inch, where time and space is more precious.

So get random and work fast. You will love the sound that returns to you later.

2. Don’t Bother Too Much With Gear

Yeah, I’ve got a nice mic preamp and compressor and all that. But I find that the best results I’ve gotten from my 4 track experimenting came from just plugging the damn mic in.

When I got the machine, I bought a cable with a 1/4 inch male on one end and an XLR female on the other. I’ve been using it ever since. Probably 20 years. Same cable.

Bonus tip: Wrap your cables nice & they’ll stay with you forever.

But yeah just get the ideas down quickly. Fiddling with the gear tends to just get me frustrated before I really get the chance to express myself.

Think about it—those first 5 minutes, 30 minutes, hour. That’s when you’ve got your initial burst of energy. That’s when you mind is fresh and you’re going to get something out of yourself that is pure and inspired.

Tinkering around with the “sound” is going to take precious momentum away from your actual musical ideas.

3. But Sound Is Important?

Yes. Yes my friend, it is. Which is why you should focus on the microphone.

This is where your sound comes from. Plug that mic in. Put on your headphones and start to sing and play. What does it sound like? Too distorted? Too distant? Not a good balance between your voice and instrument?

Move yourself and/or the mic around until you are capturing the best possible sound in the room. Remember the mic is capturing the SPACE your music is occupying. Not the music itself. Feel me?

In my experience, there’s always a sweet spot. Again, I’m not talking about anything super technical with frequencies or EQ or mic selection or anything.

I’m talking about one spot where you’ve arranged yourself, your instrument, and the microphone where things sound good to you.

The “you” part is important because who cares what anybody else thinks. You’ve got to use your own brain and ears. Once you start approaching things from that vantage point it gets much easier to make decisions about what sounds cool.

4. Don’t Throw the 4 Track

Look these things are machines. Not Steve Jobs machines, I mean actual gears and working mechanics and parts that need to interlock and function together.

And sometimes they just don’t work. Or they wear away with time.

In the case of my 4 Track, sometimes she just doesn’t record stuff. Even though she’s set to “record”. And even though the mic levels are reading as solid on her display. She just says “Nah. I don’t feel like actually recording that.”

And so when you finish a take, rewind and hit play and there is nothing there (or some haunted rubbish from the past creaking out at you), it’s important to not throw the 4 track.

You will want to throw the 4 track. You will want to throw it very hard against the wall.

If there’s a hammer nearby, you’ll want to smash the 4 track to bits. This is completely healthy and normal. But these urges cannot be acted upon. Exhibit self control. Pet the 4 track. Tell it you’re not really as upset as you look.

With a little gentle encouragement of this nature, your 4 track recorder will generally jump right back into action.

*It also might be the tape’s fault, and if you need to throw the tape, just throw the damn tape, that’s fine.

5. Keep All Your Tapes In A Shoebox

This method has worked for me. There they are in the shoebox when you need them.

See, tapes are not like Pro Tools files on a desktop, or big clunky reels. Your tapes are more like photographs.  Put them in a shoebox and then anytime you open it, you’ll see a bunch of memories looking back at you.

The tapes themselves also make a nice sound in the shoebox. They kind of clack around together as you shuffle through them.

Definitely don’t attempt to stack them neatly or sort them in any fashion. Just pile them up and rummage around with your hand like you’re stirring a pot. Win a prize every time.

Conclusion

So these are some ideas that I hope will make recording with a 4 track cassette machine more fun for you. Stay loose!

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