Tascam Tape Time

When I was in high school, I bought my very first multitrack recorder from my church. It was a four-track Tascam tape recorder, a Tascam 234, and it had sat tucked under the sound booth unused for many years. My older brother often ran the sound board for church services, and so I used to sit back there with him as a little kid. Many times I stared at that curious tape machine and wondered why it was so different than other tape recorders. Why so many knobs and meters just to record a tape? I definitely didn’t understand the concept of recording four independent tracks to a single tape.

Once I started to record my own music (with a single lone synthesizer), I finally realized the importance of being able to go back and record multiple tracks on top of one another. Our music pastor knew that I was starting to record music and he sold me the tape machine for $100. I used it a little, but I quickly realized that I needed a way to synchronize my sequencer and the tape machine. I didn’t know much about tape sync, but the idea of sacrificing one of my tracks as a sync track was not attractive. Only three extra tracks left? Not for me! I retired the Tascam and soon found a digital 8-track recorder that could sync to MIDI clock. I’m actually not sure what ever happened to the Tascam tape machine, but it’s been gone for a long time.

But no longer! I’d been thinking nostalgically about that tape machine for a long time. From a design standpoint, it just looked really nice. I also like the concept of recording stuff to a tape machine. I’ve been hunting around for one on eBay, but a lot of them are in disrepair. It seems that these things have a lot of internal problems. When they do sell, they go for a lot more than the $100 I paid our music pastor. But last week I was driving across the country and made a little stop in Kansas City. A guy was parting out the remainder of his studio and had listed four of these on Craigslist. Naturally, I offered to give them all a good home.

Tascam 234 stacked

 

He said that they were mostly working. I suspect that I might have two working units and two parts machines. I like the idea of having one (or two) for spare parts. If eBay is any indication, these tend to break down in a variety of ways. That was one of the things that made me nervous about getting one again…I knew I’d be buying something fragile. But it’s a little nicer to know that I’ve got a large cache of spare parts.

Tascam 234

 

I’ve got a couple other projects to finish up first, so these are going in the corner for right now. Hopefully I’ll have at least one working soon and I’ll try recording a song on one.

Patchbay Afternoon

I’ve been putting this day off for far too long: the day that wire up my patchbay. Without any patchbay hooked up, the studio has been a messy tangle of temporary cords strung across equipment and laying like little booby traps around my chair. I used to use a Furman PB-40 patchbay, which had convenient 1/4″ phono jacks in the front and back. I retired the Furman when I discovered that it was the cause behind some mysterious noise problems in my signal chain.

Vowing to only buy quality components, I scored a Switchcraft patchbay off eBay for cheap last year. I think it was cheap because the rear hookup was not very convenient. Instead of 1/4″ jacks or something, it had a snake on the back to ended in a totally separate 2U rack plate with a ton of little pins. My original plan was to cut the snake and just splice my own 1/4″ jacks onto the wires.

Switchcraft patchbayThe picture is a little confusing. The old Furman patchbay is sandwiched in between the two Switchcraft pieces. The red/black/white thing on the bottom has all the pins.

Anyway, my plan for chopping up the snake changed when the patchbay arrived in the mail and my dad saw it. My dad works in the switch room at the local phone company, and he immediately recognized the connections. He told me that I just needed to get a punch tool and I’d be able to easily connect bare wires to the red/black/white pins.

Bare wires

Hooking up all those wires seemed daunting. I started to wire up an old Hosa snake that I had laying around. I stopped myself after half an hour and thought, “What am I doing? I’m connecting crappy cables to this nice patchbay and I’ll just drag the sound quality down to the Hosa level.” So I delayed and picked up some better bulk cable. A wise idea…but with that step the patchbay became yet more work, since I’d have to wire up phono plugs onto the new wire. And so for months I just totally bypassed the patchbay and hooked equipment directly into each other. I would probably be doing that still today, but a new purchase forced me into action.

Apogee 800

 

I bought an Apogee Rosetta 800 as my audio converter. Actually, as you might expect, it’s a little more complicated than that. I first bought a two-channel Apogee 200 from a Guitar Center in Virginia. It came with the critical firewire option card that I needed. Two channels of input was fine, but I needed at least four channels of output (two for monitoring and two for outboard effects). My thrifty side thought that I could assemble some sort of Rube Goldberg concoction that involved a cheaper audio converter (maybe an old Mark of the Unicorn box) and then tether it to the Rosetta digitally.

After I got everything hooked up, I realized that this complex arrangement wasn’t possible with the Rosetta 200. Only two channels of audio could come in and out of the firewire connection, period. And so I decided to sell the Rosetta 200 (keeping the firewire card) and pick up an eight-channel Rosetta 800. The 800 showed up last week, and that’s when  I realized that somebody didn’t do his homework.

The Rosetta 200 uses XLR jacks for all its audio connections. This worked fine and I had plenty of these cables. The Rosetta 800 uses DB25 plugs for all its audio input and output. “DB25” is the technical name of the parallel port connection that old computers used. Apparently it lives on in the world of high-end audio converters. It seems that the more expensive the audio converter, the more inconvenient it becomes to hook it up to any other equipment.

So I started shopping for DB25 snakes. Once again, I found some Hosa snakes but decided that my Hosa days are behind me. I thought about just buying the raw materials and soldering up my own snakes, but that sounded like it might be a lot of work. Indeed, folks told harrowing tales on internet forums of trying to soldering all 24 wires inside that connector. I decided to stop being thrifty and just buy it pre-made. I found a guy out in Brooklyn that sold nice-looking snakes that terminated in bare wires. The showed up yesterday, and I knew that if I wanted to start using the Rosetta 800, I’d need to break down and finally start wiring up the Switchcraft patchbay.

So that’s what I’ve been doing today. I’ve got all the outputs working great, and I wired up a couple custom cables that are running to my monitors. I took a half hour break to write this thoroughly tedious post, which has surprisingly boosted my enthusiasm for going back and wiring up the rest of the patchbay, as I now know that there are actually more boring things in life than wiring up patchbays. Namely, writing posts about wiring up patchbays.

Big Day

I finally bit the bullet and bought a full copy of Pro Tools 10 yesterday. Mr. Smartypants also inadvertently bought a second iLok license dongle. Apparently there was already one in the box but I didn’t realize that. Whoops. Please see me if you need an extra dongle.

So what prompted the purchase? I’ve badly wanted to be able to run Pro Tools on my laptop without needing any of the hardware plugged in. Pro Tools finally added this feature in version 9. Prior to that, you always had to have an official Digidesign audio device tethered to the computer, which made portability a real drag. The audio device essentially acted like a license dongle. Although I wouldn’t typically record audio using the laptop’s line-in jack, it sure would be nice to just work on mixes while on the road. And I will be going to New York next week, so that’s a perfect opportunity!

The price for version 10 is pretty steep, and so I’ve been waffling over this decision for at least a year now. I found some guy on eBay selling copies for $275, which is half the price that you can find it anywhere else. But it felt kind of sketchy. Actually, it was very sketchy. I think he was laundering educational copies of the program. The idea of buying an educational copy had tempted me already. I could probably get my little brother to do the deed for me. But over the last few years, my conscience has grown heavier and heavier about software piracy, etc. Maybe it’s because my job has to do with building software (albeit not really the consumer-type) that I’m more sympathetic to actually paying for software. At any rate, I decided to just do the right thing and buy the real copy.

I realize I still haven’t really explained why this came about. I’ve had an Mbox and a copy of Pro Tools 7 for years. The Mbox only has two inputs and outputs, which makes it really awkward to send a couple recorded tracks through outboard effects while I’m also monitoring the song. Earlier this year, a friend lent/sold me a Digi003 rack. I’ve been really happy with it, and the 8 input/outputs are great. But a couple weeks ago, it started acting up on me. Pro Tools would freeze up and wouldn’t respond to the mouse or keyboard. The MIDI stopped working on it. After that happened enough times, I unplugged it and went back to the Mbox. But going from 8 to 2 outputs is really difficult. So I’ve slowly begun admitting to myself that it’s time to buy a new audio interface. Moving to version 10 is the first step, since that will let me use anything on the market instead of being stuck with using Digidesign’s increasingly suspect hardware.

Oh, I should have just gone with Cakewalk years ago…