by Dean A. Banks

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Do you have an idea for a song in your head? Are you searching for a simple and easy way to get your song from the abstract of your mind to a reflection in your ears? Read on and learn how to use the most expressive tool of a songwriter; the 4 track cassette recorder.


Songwriting is a simple process that begins with your melodic and rhythmic ideas. These ideas might be the next hit song but they will never reach that stage of the process until you use an audible mirror. If it is true that the pen is mightier than the sword, then the 4-track cassette recorder is mightier than a Marshall amp. You can perform your songs for your friends and audiences with an amp, but you will never fine tune and refine your song until you experiment with different combinations of sounds that you record and play back. In fact, the most expressive tool of a songwriter is the 4-track cassette recorder. It allows you to program (record) and mix (playback) your ideas rapidly, before your creative flow diminishes or the telephone rings.


There are two phases of the recording process; program and mix. In the first phase you plug your instrument into channel one of the 4 track and you 'program' your sound onto the tape. Next, you set your mic/line-tape switch to the 'mic/line' position, monitor control to the 'cue' position, meter switch to the 'track' position, dbx switch to the 'in' position, and your record function switch for track one to the 'direct' position. Set your master fader and the track one fader to volume level '7'. Gradually bring up the trim control as you play your instrument and adjust your meter so that the average level is at 0db. Peaks or transients (louder than average signals) should not push the needle on the meter past +3db. The idea here is to get the most amount of recorded signal onto tape without distortion. Test record a passage and listen back with your headphones for any distortion from the tape. If you here a buzzing, clicking, or crackling noise, then repeat the process after you have lowered your trim control volume. Once you've test recorded a clean and undistorted signal onto tape, then rewind to the beginning, set your counter to 0, and push in the zero memory button. You are now ready to record your first track!


When it comes to tracking (recording instruments/vocals) and mixing, nothing is carved in stone except for one thing. Your final product must not be distorted, cluttered, or saturated with tape noise. By utilizing the above procedure, we can handle distortion and noise saturation. However, cluttering is another abstract that is the result of the choices of the engineer/producer. To avoid this problem, map out a plan for your song before you begin to record. Decide what instruments will combine to form your basic tracks (a.k.a. rhythm or bed tracks) and how these tracks will interact with each other. Rehearse each part of your rhythm tracks and decide which track you will play first. Generally speaking, most songwriters 'lay down' or record a drum machine track first. If you are using a drummer with a mic’d kit, it is advisable to lay down a metronome or 'click' track on track one first, in order for the drummer to have a rhythmic reference standard. Next, you need to link up the rhythmic content with the melodic content by laying down your bass track on track two. You do this by plugging in the bass to the channel two input and repeat the above steps substituting track two for the track one settings. Adjust your cue level control for track one (drums) to a comfortable level in your headphones. Finally, lay down your rhythm guitar or keyboard track on track three by substituting track three for the track one settings above. Adjust your cue level control for track two (bass) to hear the bass and drums together while you are recording. Remember, experiment with this arrangement and discover what works best for you as a songwriter. Now that all the bed tracks are laid, we can enter the next phase of multi-tracking; the pre-mix.


The pre-mix is a touchy process, but by employing a few simple rules, you can make this process easy and effective. Switch your input control switches on tracks 1,2, &3 to the 'tape' position, while setting track 4 to the 'mic/line' position. You are going to combine all three tracks that you have just recorded onto track four. Follow the same procedure-substituting track four for track one as outlined above. Since you are now mixing all three tracks to one track (track four), you need to switch the monitor control to 're-mix' in order to monitor the blend of all three instruments recorded on tape as they are being recorded on track four. Follow the meter level instructions outlined above, except increase your track four input fader from volume level setting '7', to a level of '8'. This is done so you can record a hotter signal onto track four. Why? Because when you get your pre-mix the way you want it, you are going to record over tracks 1,2, &3 in order to add vocals and sweetening (other instrumentation). When these new tracks are going to be recorded over the old tracks (drums, bass, & guitar/piano), their level will be hotter than the pre-mixed track. This happens because there is an approximate 3db loss when you 'go down' a generation by mixing from tape to tape. By employing the '1db rule', set your drum track (track one) to peak at about -4 db. Next, bring up tracks two and three and watch your meter jump into distortion. Lower tracks two and three in relation to track one. Always balance all three channels by using the drums (track one) as a reference. Once your meter on track four is set without distortion, press play and record and adjust your mix, if necessary, while recording. Listen to the mix a few times and make sure it's what you want. If not, redo it until it is what you want. Once you do this mix, you'll have to live with it, because you are now ready to record over tracks 1,2, &3.


Now that you have your pre-mix on tape, you can repeat the tracking process for tracks 1,2, &3, adding vocals, background vocals, and other instrumentation as needed. Switch your monitor from 're-mix' and use your cue monitor again by turning up the cue level control for track four and listening to the pre-mix while recording your new tracks. Now that you've done all you're tracking, you are now ready to mix!


You have now reached the stage of polishing your audible mirror. In this phase you receive the greatest joy and the greatest Excedrin headache all at the same time. First, kick everyone else out. Friends, family, and other musicians might mean well, but it's time for you to unclutter your mind without cluttering your tracks. Set your meter switch to 'buss', all four tracks to 'tape' on the input switch, and adjust the levels for any outboard equipment (special fx, echos, reverbs, et. al.) you might have. Blend tracks 1,2, &3 in reference to track 4 (the pre-mix track), maintaining track four slightly above the other tracks. Why? Remember generation loss? It's time for you to compensate. Adjust the levels on your cassette deck that you are mixing to, the same way as outlined above. Press play and adjust the levels on your multi-track to achieve your desired mix. Don't let your ears fool you by inching up tracks 1-3. If they sound too weak in relation to track four, then they are probably set right. Record a few mixes making different adjustments for each mix. Experiment until you achieve the sound you desire. Go out to your car and pop the cassette in the player and let 'er rip, remembering that every system you play it on will make the mix sound different. Try each mix on different systems until you reach a mixing compromise. No matter what you do, you will never be happy with the mix anyway. Remember, this is not going to be released to the public! It is your song being reflected back to you so you can hear the abstract ramblings of your mind. Learn from this process and re-record the song if necessary, until you achieve your desired result. Your song mirror has done its job, now it's time for you to take a break and give your ears a chance to rest. Come back a couple of days later and listen to your mixes with 'new' or 'fresh' ears. WHAT NEXT? By programming and mixing your ideas on tape, your ideas can be quickly mirrored for your assessment of their validity and/or commerciality. If you want to be a songwriter, you need the proper tools. Does a plumber use pliers instead of a pipe wrench on a water main? Make a wise investment in a four-track cassette recorder and mirror the ideas in your head. Who knows, there might be a hit in there somewhere!

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ *Dean A. Banks is a Recording Engineer/Producer and Songwriter for Banksnet MultiMedia*