A friend of mine recently asked me about 4-tracks, and I wrote her a response. Not a very good one I guess, but it got me thinking– I’ve long since retired the ol’ trusty Tascam Portastudio, but I still harbor a certain, perhaps sentimental fondness for them, and some of my happiest memories date from the time I lived by myself on Southport and, armed with nothing but a 4-track and the prospect of a day empty of phone calls, obligations and errands, I proceeded to waste many a fine morning messing around with it. So, anyway, here’s the original list I sent her, along with some new additions:

  • The limitation of 4-tracks keeps you, for lack of a better word, honest. You don’t have 8, 16 or 24 tracks to play with, so you have to make the individual parts stronger. It helps eliminate the chaff. And you can always add more stuff once you get into a proper recording studio — it’s almost impossible not to.
  • 4-tracks usually come with a built-in mixer and mic-preamp, which can improve the audio quality. Something can also be said for the sound profile of analog tape as opposed to digital hard disk-based recording, which, without the aid of some fancy outboard gear, sounds like crap. (Computers require a semi-retarded amount of gain to sound nice).
  • Computer sequencers tend to get you watching the screen more than listening to the sound. There’s also a tendency to think more structured, to make the little colored blocks of sound line up perfectly. This isn’t always a good thing. I find myself doing this sometimes, and when that happens I have to force myself to get up and go stand in a different room of the apartment so I can actually listen.
  • 4-tracks are portable, durable and can be used on tour. They also don’t require a whole lot to get up and running–just a mic and a wall outlet. I’ve owned several over the years, and I’m pretty sure that if I were to subject my laptop to the litany of drops, coffee spills and cigarette burns that I’ve put my 4-tracks though, I’d be unable to turn the thing on, much less make music with it.
  • They make great notepads. And their simple, unobtrusive nature makes them ideal for those times you wake up in the middle of the night with a melody and/or cold sweat.
  • Computers, due to their multi-functionality, can be distracting. Email, web surfing, googling the names of your friends, etc. All these things can sap the time you have available. 4-tracks gently require you to focus on the task at hand.
  • The 4-track “sound.” Examples abound, but I’ve always been partial to Winning Losers: A Collection of Home Recordings and Elliot Smith’s first couple of records. Maybe it’s the tape hiss, but I like to think there’s something raw and undiluted that comes through in those recordings that wouldn’t sound the same if they were instead pristine, lavish studio affairs.
  • DISCLAIMER: All opinions expressed herein are probably incorrect. And I should also probably admit that I don’t actually use a 4-track anymore.
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