The Home Studio

This is been a fixture of the struggling musician dating back to the era of the first tape recorders.

Guitarist Les Paul probably had one of the earliest home studios, although he was hardly a struggling musician. Les Paul had been playing for years with the “Big Bands” in the era around the 1950s when tape recorders first came out (prior to recording on tape there were wire recorders and direct to lacquer disk equipment which we looked at in past Issues). Back then recorders had only one track, but Les Paul was rich enough to afford two or more high quality tape machines and good microphones.

Les Paul began linking the two machines together so you could record from one machine to another while adding a new, fresh recording at the same time. This is called “sound with sound” and the only drawback to the process is that you pick up extra hiss from two tapes, lose some of the high end and gain a little compression. Because of these facts you can’t bounce more than a few times and have to plan your tracks out carefully. You want to make the first track you record work well with less brilliance because it will get “buried” by the other tracks as you continue to bounce.

Buddy Holly was a young struggling musician who also had his own home studio in the early 1950’s. Actually it was a “barn” studio. He lived in the rural area and used the family barn to record himself and his band. Holly learned about bouncing or re-recording tracks from machine to machine from stories of Les Paul.

Professional tape recorders were not cheap back in those days and someone like Buddy Holly would have to work for two years and save up to buy a real, studio quality machine. There were some “home” tape recorders and maybe Holly had one of those as well or in additional to a better machine.

Webcor was one of the makers of home tape recorders, as was Grundig in Germany and the department store Sears, with their “Silvertone” line. I, in fact, got a Sears stereo Silvertone tape recorder back in the early 1960’s and this unit set us back well over $120, which was basically a full two weeks take home pay for the average worker in that era!

Professional recorders came from companies like Ampex, Studer and 3M. Professional machines recorded on one or two tracks with ¼” tape that ran at 15 or 30 inches per second (IPS), while home machines ran at 7 ½ IPS. Home stereo machines were designed to play in both directions so the stereo tracks were half the size of professional recorders that ran the tape only in one direction.

With the advent of 3, 4 and later 8 track professional recorders the equipment got way too expensive for the home user. These machines were the price of a house, $5,000, $10,000 or even $15,000.

My friend Gary Mould, who is now the head tech for a high school audio-visual department in Santa Clarita, California, once help the leader of the Mama’s and Papa’s, John Phillips, wire up his “home studio” that was in the garage of his San Fernando Valley home. Phillips bought himself a studio quality 1” eight track machine. He probably got it for under $10,000 from a studio that was upgrading to the newer 16 track recording equipment. Phillips, of course, is best remembered as the writer of songs like “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreaming” as well as being father to the Phillips half of the girl group Wilson-Phillips (who had many hits, including “Release Me” back in the late 1990’s). Phillips recorded a solo album at home in the 1970’s that got some recognition.

The Captain and Tenille, who had a string of hits in the late 1970’s, made some of their early recordings in their garage based studio. Daryl “The Captain” Dragon, session player for recordings with groups like the Beach Boys and son of a classical music conductor, probably also bought a studio quality 8 track machine to work with at home with his singer wife (Toni once appeared on a Beach Boys album cover).

I began doing recording at Tom Seufert’s home studio in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970’s. Tom got on of those new Teac 4 track recorders that used ¼” tape. These machines were the first “low cost” offerings to the struggling artist, although still pricey at $1,500.

A few years later my bandmate Alan Mayer and I each got one of the far lower casting Dokkorder 4 track machines priced at under $800. With these we started our first home and later somewhat successful commercial studio hosting a lot of bands and doing a lot of sessions often into the wee hours of the morning.

Soon Teac/Tascam and later on Fostex started offering 8 and even 16 track machines. Fostex designed an 8 track ¼” machine as well as a ½” 16 track, both priced within range of the serious musician who could get a bank loan or save up the bucks in a year or so of working a day job. Tascam put out both a 1/4” and ½” 8 track and then a 1” 16 track machine, followed by both 4 and 8 track cassette machines.

Guitarist Steve Vai put out a solo album recorded on a Fostex 16 track ½” machine. Joe Walsh put one cut on his classic solo album done on a ¼” Tascam, Bob Welch transferred tracks from his home grown ¼” Tascam to a studio quality 24 track machine for his hit song “Ebony Eyes.”

These made use of new technologies for micro-recording, plus increased speed of 15 IPS for the reel to reel machines and the cassette machine went from 1 7/8 IPS to 3 ¾ IPS. They also incorporated dBX type 2 noise reduction, which was a studio quality process from reducing hiss from the tape.

By the end of the 1980’s home studios were everywhere, because Fostex and Tascam had made 4 track cassette units priced at $200. In the late 1990’s, in fact, I was talking with a high school girl who had her own home 4 track Tascam unit which she used to work on songs and record her all-girl punk band.

By 1990 the digital revolution had hit with Tascam putting out the DA-88 8 track digital machine, Sony put out a 4 track mini-disk recorder, Fostex had 2 track digital recorders priced as low as analog decks plus Roland and Yamaha was also in the business putting out recorders and workstations.

The computer revolution took this a step further with the advent of Session 8 for the PC user priced at about $2,500 which allowed you to record 8 tracks at one time on a Windows based computer and then record more and more groups of 8 tracks, then mix from either 64 or 128 of these tracks all stored digitally on your computer hard drive. Your keyboard players could also do an additional 128 tracks of mini sequences alongside all those wave file audio tracks.

By the turn of this century the price of all the computer based stuff had dropped to under $1,000, with video cards dropping to under $200, making it possible for the home grown artist to literally be Warner or Sony studios at home, for well under $4,000 total cost and have equipment that is basically good enough to press a commercial CD, DVD or go onto television, provided your content is as good as your gear!

Above a computer based workstation with Cakewalk software, audio card, video card, condenser microphone, general MIDI Yamaha keyboard, electric guitar, bass and analog effects units.

Today, even without any fancy gear other than a Sound Blaster card and a decent stereo microphone a band can record live 2 track recordings on their home computer or lap-top, then over dub tracks of lead guitar, vocals, harmonies, keyboards and bass to layer these into a final master.

Software is as cheap is $50 for the mixing process and sound cards come with every computer.

Microsoft is now making video capture and editing software bundled free with Windows XP.

The days of home grown recordings have come a long way since Les Paul and Buddy Holly, but the one thing has hasn’t changed is the quality of the content, and this is where the success or failure of a recording ultimately rests...

Our 2005 Music Special continues with these offerings...

2005 Music Special | Making It In Today Music Scene
Pop Rock: Kathy Fisher | Punk Rock: G-Spot | Hard Rock: Three Card Monte
Products: SE Electronics Studio Microphones | Field Report: SE 5600 Microphone
Review: Mountain and Rick Derringer Live | Music On The Net
Music Resources Updated

From 2004:
Why Few Women Producers? | Picking A Studio | Drums | Drum Heads
Drum Pedals | Cymbals | Hammer Head Freeware | Omar Sosa
Drummers | Drum Books | Music Of The Tropics | Benchmark Records
Profile: Blind Lemon | Music Reviews | Resources | Poem: Music Of The Mind

Our Music Special Issues Continues With These Other Offerings from 2003:

Our Regular Music Reviews:
Featuring: Omar Sosa - Keith Jarrett - Melissa Gibson - G-Spot - Chronophonic

Articles and Information from the 2003 Music Special:
Grass Roots Music | US Copyright Extension | The Promo Pack | The ECD | The Music Video
The Birth of the Recording Industry | California Arts & Music Expo | Peformance Rights Organizations


Got Gear?  Best Prices on the Net!

Ecelectic and Underground CD Reviews:
Jon Denzene/The Torrent | Distilled | Hook The Captain | Jesse Morgan
Tesknota | Living Space | JM Cruiz

Indiana Area Local Club Bands:
Sonus | The Mumble | Northern Kind | Archies Address

Articles and Information from the 2002 Music Special:
Learning Music | Promo Pictures | Booking Agents| Managers | Producers | Pressing CDs
Record Companies | Copyrights | Recording Software | Sound Cards | Guitar and Bass
Multi-Track Recorders | Live Sound Gear | Microphones | Recording Engineer | Bands in Texas
Teen Band: Y@nK | Gigs and Clubs | Music Theory | Radio Airplay


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