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Getting that portastudio vibe

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Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Dryjoy » Thu Feb 06, 2020 10:52 pm

Not sure if this is the best forum to post this, but I can't find a better one.

I'm looking for thoughts on how to get that portastudio vibe - I'm looking for ideas in terms of both technology and workflow.

Basically, I'm pining for the days of my cassette four track. I'm sure you'll all be familiar with the scenario - I thrived on the limitations; it forced me to make decisions on arrangements and song structures, and my sparse selection of gear drove me to do push hard to find new sounds (but you could do a lot with a Juno 6, combo organ, Amiga with a sampler, some drums machines, guitars and basses).

I also loved the progression from having an idea and recording a demo, and then eventually moving to the stage of recording a finished product in a studio with a producer and a budget. This last phase reopened the creative process all over again, and going in to work afresh on an idea already formed from a finished but rough demo was really exciting. I'd like to reintroduce a version of that workflow.

Ideas I have to experiment with so far:

  • Get a secondhand four track deck - it would be fun and I'd also be able to play my stacks of four track cassettes again (a friend 'borrowed' my last unit some years ago), but most are probably knackered by now and chrome cassettes seem to cost about £90 a pack.
  • Start using Garageband instead of Logic and limiting myself to 4 or 8 tracks - this might replicate the 'demo' phase of the creative process and encourage quick work through fewer options. I could move the ideas into Logic after the 'demo' phase. However, I'm not sure I'm disciplined enough to limit my track count and not start dicking around in Logic prematurely.
  • Start using Sonoma Wireworks Fourtrack app on my phone. This might be the best option so far, but I'm not sure if it lets you bounce in real time, muting tracks, riding the faders and using effects sends while doing so. If not, then that's an essential part of the four track experience that's lost - but I've not tried it yet so may be OK.
  • Buy a Zoom 4 or 8 track recorder. This is quite appealing for a number of reasons, but I can't quite bring myself to purchase more gear that provides an inferior replication of capabilities I already have via Logic.

Any thoughts? Any techniques, workflows, gear or software you'd recommend? You might just tell me to get man up and get some discipline back into my life, which would be completely fair.
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Dan LB » Thu Feb 06, 2020 11:19 pm

If you really enjoy that workflow, and given the fact that you have loads of old tapes, I suggest you have a look for a used 4 track and buy some new cassettes.

The price of tape and machines to record/play them has certainly gone up in the last few years (to ridiculous levels in a lot of cases) but you still should be able to find a decent 4 track for under a hundred quid. The late 90s Yamaha machines like the MT400 and MT4X can still be found in good nick.

Also, Thomann sell chrome cassettes here: ... te_c60.htm. Certainly not as cheap as they used to be but not crazy money.
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby DC-Choppah » Fri Feb 07, 2020 12:03 am

I think you should man up and get some discipline back in your life. ;)

If the modern technology is slowing you down because there are too many options, then try this instead. Spend real time AWAY from the DAW making decisions about the music. Only use the DAW to implement what you have already decided to do musically. This skill feeds on itself and you get better at it - and thus spend even less time with the DAW.

Also, bounce tracks like you have a limited number. Just set your DAW to a fixed number of tracks that fit on your screen, and bounce when you run out. This is like working with the tapes and forces the musical mix-down decisions.

Going back to cassette is something I tried and it is really frustrating. Makes you realize why we came up with a better way actually. You will get frustrated with the hassles and fiddly stuff.
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Terrible.dee » Fri Feb 07, 2020 12:44 am

This is an odd request,

You want pasta for dinner, just like Mom used to make,

So you want to know if :

a. You should go over to your Mom's house for dinner, and ask her to cook it.
b. Buy some canned Chef Bouardi and eat that.
c. Go to an Italian restaurant, order a meal, but only eat those parts of it that appear to be like what your mother would make.

I don't understand why you are wasting time, you know what you want....don't you?

I do a lot of my recording to various formats of tape, from 2" reel to reel, all the way down to Tascam porta studios, I also use Yamaha and Fostex.

Why so many cassette multitracks? YES! THEY BREAK! Tascam disease is a real thing (Fast-forward and rewind work, but "play" does not catch, this is the #1 defect that plagues almost every old Tascam unit, and it is very difficult to find anyone to service them, it is almost a guarantee, that unless your unit has been fully serviced prior to it's "retirement" ((many of these things haven't been used in years)) it WILL develop Tascam BE READY.)

But nothing sounds like a cassette, nothing feels like a cassette, and I LOVE cassette so when that's what I want to hear.....I USE CASSETTE.

If possible maintenance pitfalls are too much for you to endure, then this is not for you. So if this thread was to get reassurance that you won't run into technical difficulties, sorry, YOU WILL RUN INTO FATAL MAINTENANCE PROBLEMS.

If you want a reliable, problem-free recording, use a digital recording system. The workflow can be mimicked anywhere, the only real reason to use this stuff is the SOUND.

Hell, get one of those Tascam digital 8 tracks they released a few years back, the ones that are hardly bigger than a cell phone, they will be less than $100, have basic editing, mixing and mastering capabilities, playlist recording...ect ect.
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Bob Bickerton » Fri Feb 07, 2020 12:46 am

I couldn’t bear to go back to using cassette. This is all head stuff.

You could try an experiment and set up a four track template in Logic and rigidly stick to that format. Then only work with the mixer screen - no plug ins of course and minimise the options in the mixer window.

See how long you last............. of course this is not a fair assessment because it will sound way better than tape anyway.

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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby zenguitar » Fri Feb 07, 2020 1:48 am

How about putting aside an afternoon to create an eight track default template for your computer DAW of choice? Then whenever you boot up you have your virtual portastudio ready to go. And if you come up with something worth developing further it is easy to turn it into a full blown project.

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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Dynamic Mike » Fri Feb 07, 2020 2:17 am

Go with the Zoom option, it works for me. You get the convenience, immediacy & portability of a portastudio but without the compromises that drove us around the bend with cassette based systems. For the past 3 years or so I've used a Zoom R8 predominantly in conjunction with Cubase.

I use the R8 as both an audio interface & as a controller for Cubase. The effects are more than good enough for monitoring but you can record dry & monitor wet for comfort reverb on vocals or distortion/delay for guitars etc. If I'm near the PC I'll record straight into Cubase but what I love is it's so quick and easy to drag & drop a rough guide mix into the R8, unplug and then go anywhere to add more tracks. I no longer feel chained to the PC secure in the knowledge that should I happen to add a killer guitar track (or whatever) I can just as easily drag & drop it back into Cubase for editing or adding Fx.

Everything stays time aligned so it 's effortless to shift stuff back & forth from the PC to the R8. You could mix on the R8 I suppose, but like you say, why would you accept the compromises in quality compared to what you already have. You probably wouldn't use built in-mics for any serious work but they're really handy either as a sketchpad for grabbing ideas as they come to you, or for trying out vocals etc. to see how they sit in the track.

I should make it clear though that I mostly use it for guitar/bass/vocals, if you're heavily into synths it probably wouldn't suit your purposes. I just use the ones included in Cuabse for basic pads or the odd piano part. I occasionally use the drum sounds in the R8 to begin a track but they're always replaced by EZ Drummer once things start coming together. Also I've never used the R8 as a sampler.

The R8 might be getting a little long in the tooth (so look around) but the drivers are stable, and the integration with Cubase (& presumably any DAW) is seamless. All you need is the R8, a mic, headphones and you can set up anywhere in 2 minutes flat.
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Eddy Deegan » Fri Feb 07, 2020 2:26 am

I suspect many of us look back fondly on the days we were in the earlier stages of discovering the joys of multitrack recording. I know I do.

I loved the way I felt listening to my first recordings on cassette and that memory will stay with me. I did some of my favourite work on an 8-track digital in the form of a Fostex DMT-8, but then did more of it on a 24-track D2424.

I first noticed a sense of "creative stifling" when my synthesizer collection grew, which I think had far more to do with it than the medium on which I was recording.

Personally I think the solution is to recreate the original workflow, not the original setup. Garageband, Logic, Reaper, Cubase... it doesn't matter. As Andy said, just set up a template with the limitations you think are appropriate and stick to them.

I agree that having too many choices can lead to creative paralysis. I think part of it is a subconcious desire to 'do better' because you have better gear, but if you can get over that and just 'do' then a lot of the angst goes away quite quickly I've found.

I did some exercises where I set myself limits in terms of which synthesizers I could use. Dave B's One Synth Challenge was a great inspiration and it's an approach that should work well for any type of music, not just synth-based material.

I don't worry about it any more and I'm excited by my current project which is a 'from the ground up' new album which is really hitting the spot for me creatively and I can't wait to release when its ready. Small bits of it are inspired by pieces of work I did right back at the start on that limited gear and they sound better than ever to me.

I hope you find a method that works for you. I reckon you will if you try a few things out :thumbup:
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Humble Bee » Fri Feb 07, 2020 7:18 am

The zoom r8 is a cool porta studio-ish machine with its own quirks. Preamps lack a bit of gain and workflow is far from straight forward. The fx are decent and it’s easy to get audio files over to the computer. Battery powered. I still have mine and use it at times. Amp sims are not that bad.

The new Zoom LiveTrak L-8 looks like a treat but lacks some amp simulation fx IMO if you want to do guitar/bass.

A tablet and some simple 2 channel interface would probably be more practical and audio quality higher for sure.
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Arpangel » Fri Feb 07, 2020 7:32 am

I bought a Fairfield Circuits Shallow Water pedal recently, it’s excellent at getting that really distressed tape sound, without any of the maintenance issues. I’ve got a a Tascam Portastudio, and still love it, but the pedal is a nice short cut.
It’s actually quite surprising how good the quality of the four track is, you really have to go some to get it to sound "like we imagined"
I always record with the varispeed turned right up, and then turn it right down on playback, sounds wonderful.
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Zukan » Fri Feb 07, 2020 9:53 am

Threads like this always remind me how much I enjoyed the limited sequencer on my Roland System 100. I created better sequences using that damn thing than any full blown DAW.
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby brucie » Fri Feb 07, 2020 11:38 am

Izotope Spire Studio might be worth a look as it was designed to serve this purpose I believe, helping those who want to become DAWless at least during the creative process.

As also mentioned Tascam offer a range of 8 track recorders which are relatively cheap as well (cheaper than the Zoom but without some of the functionality). eg Tascam Dp006. I got one to cure my pinning for the four track, and it is like having the best of both worlds as you can drag anything you are happy with into a DAW for further work and no rewind time etc (although some may argue that rewind time is a good thing in the creative fact I may be one of then!).

Also look at something like a Zoom H4n (or Tascam equivalent) which you could easily pick up second hand, they offer multitrack functionality as well (albeit a bit more fiddly than the previously mentioned Tascams above)

Good luck!
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby Terrible.dee » Fri Feb 07, 2020 12:16 pm

Humble Bee wrote:The zoom r8 is a cool porta studio-ish machine with its own quirks. Preamps lack a bit of gain and workflow is far from straight forward. The fx are decent and it’s easy to get audio files over to the computer. Battery powered. I still have mine and use it at times. Amp sims are not that bad.

The new Zoom LiveTrak L-8 looks like a treat but lacks some amp simulation fx IMO if you want to do guitar/bass.

A tablet and some simple 2 channel interface would probably be more practical and audio quality higher for sure.

MAN! I bought one of those Zoom R8's several years back...just BECAUSE...IDK, I thought it looked cute.

I was SHOCKED to find how complex and in-depth it was, it's actually a sampler and sample sequencer as well as a digital recorder. There are editing capabilities....I was a trip, I think I did a deep dive just for fun....but that was a while back.

I remember those units didn't have MIDI on them which was beyond stupid, the only reason I got the R8 was because it's the only one of the trio that had an option for routing the click to the headphones.

With the click coming out the phones jack, it could then be transformed into MIDI clock and external gear synched.......I think it was around this point I had to slap myself and say "What are DOING!?!??! You $1000's of dollars of gear! Why are you screwing around with this little BOX!?!?!"

But YEAH! You can use it as a 2x2 interface as well........
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby nathanscribe » Fri Feb 07, 2020 1:03 pm

Seems to me that an essential part of the 4-track vibe is not using a computer – it's to use your ears and get away from the visual structuring of music on a screen.

The immediacy of switching on a little box and plugging headphones in and not needing anything else is quite attractive too. You're making sound, and recording it. No plugins, latency faff, patching, dongles, whatever.

It also seems to be about not worrying too much about the technicalities of noise floor, editing, fancy EQ, and all that.

There are lots of second-hand digital 4-tracks around, and I doubt you'd lose your money if you tried one, didn't like it, and sold it on. Same goes for a working 4-track cassette machine, they've been steadily going up and you might even make a modest profit on one if you changed your mind after a year. Only problem there is maintenance.

I also think it's not just about the recording equipment, though. It's also about the amount of gear you're using overall. Having a 4-track is great, but it's not going to help if you still want to multitrack a load of drums and layer ten lots of keys to get a pad sound that needs four delays and a reverb. Part of the challenge is to undo the complexity of the whole setup, I think.

I often listen to old electronic stuff – late 70s, very early 80s – and envy how pared back it all is, and how much of it probably was recorded on 8-track. I get where you're coming from. It'll be good to hear how you get on with it.
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Re: Getting that portastudio vibe

Postby FrankF » Fri Feb 07, 2020 1:32 pm

nathanscribe wrote:I often listen to old electronic stuff – late 70s, very early 80s – and envy how pared back it all is, and how much of it probably was recorded on 8-track.

Metamatic was recorded on 8-track - nuff said, squire!

As Heraclitus (or possibly Alfie Noakes) once said:
"I can't get enough of this minimalism, why aye!"
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