DIY Home Studio Recording in 1985

INTRODUCTION
Before we get to 1985, I need to take us back to 1980, when I first got started with recording. We’ll have two stops: The first is a pro recording studio in town, where I got started. The second is a DIY [Do It Yourself] situation in college. The third and final act is the DIY recording in 1985.


MY FIRST RECORDING SESSION
I was 15 years old the first time I went into a recording studio, in the summer of 1980. Growing up in a small town, finding such a beast was difficult. Finding one that was affordable was yet another challenge.

It was 1980, and I was working my first summer job. I’d earned enough to buy my car for $400, and had loads of extra cash, so I decided to get out and record.

As luck would have it, there was a small studio in the nearby town of Anderson, just ten miles away. It was an 8-track analog studio that used 1/4″ tape.

The studio was in a little shack, not too far from the train tracks. Anderson is notorious for having a great deal of traffic, to the point that it has prevented many bank robberies. This made it an issue. It also lowered their rates, since you could be in the middle of recording a track when a train shows up. These guys were good with punch-in work.

One big problem for recording was that a 1/4″, 1,200′ tape would cost $300 brand new. The guys running the studio must have been hard-up, because when I told them that, they offered me a “barely used” tape that they had on the shelf. Someone had come in, recorded a few songs, and then left it there. The customer also did not pay them in full, and owed them money.

They cut the previous customer’s length of tape off the roll and stored it, and sold me the remainder of the roll for $180. What a deal!

I recorded there a few times. Although I no longer have those recordings, I do have the memory of taking my tracks home, listening to them, and being hooked on the idea of recording music.

It firmly cemented in my mind the idea that I needed to be a musician.


BREAKING AWAY, AND DIY RECORDING
One other thing I did when I was in the studio those times in 1980 was what I call, “paying attention to what the engineer / producer was doing.” It wasn’t because I wanted to do what he was doing one day. Rather, it was due to my extreme levels of curiosity.

Jon’s flyer, circa late 1984

This would pay off about 4.5 years later during my second year of college, where I ended up joining a band that had songs and was gigging.

One day, the guy who ran the record store [Repeat Performance] put out a flyer asking for demo tapes. His name was Jon Rans, and he was the glue to hold all things together.

We had some live recordings that I had captured with my tape deck. Looking back, we should have submitted one of those recordings for the compilation tape that Jon was putting together, called “The Muncie Sampler.”

We wanted to find a way to record, in an effort to get something better to submit for the compilation tape. When I was starting to ask around, I checked first with a guy named John McCool. He was the leader and front man for The Convertibles. We opened for them on our first gig, and he was the guy who rented us his PA system.

Ron’s reel-to-reel 4-track recording unit. This unit appears in a video for the 1985 song “I Want You,” but was not the actual unit used at that time. It is there merely to represent DIY recording in general.

John said that he had a 4-track reel-to-reel in his basement, which I could use for $25 per hour. I went there first and recorded a few songs of my own before taking the band there. I would later learn that the deck belonged to Ron Synovitz, a fellow student. Today, he is the Mastering Engineer at Golden Hive Recording Studios in Prague, Czech Republic.

I was the bass player in the band. It was a case of high irony that this band had persistent drummer problems, and that was one of many things that lead to the end of the band. So when it was time to record for the tape release, I played drums, bass, sang backups, and I produced the recording.

JD, guitar player for The Beertonez, warming up before I start recording guitar tracks. Circa late 1984.

CHALLENGES
It was a wise move to record some of my own stuff before having band members coming downstairs to record. In the picture above, you can see where the tape deck was. To the left of JD was a cubby, where the drums were set up.

I’d have to mess with levels myself, so getting recording levels on the drums was an utter nightmare. I’d hit record and then run around, sit down, put on headphones, get situated, and then start. The tape was rolling, which is like money sliding down a tube. The longer it took me to get read, the less tape we’d have available in the future.

I recorded the drums, then threw in a scratch guitar before throwing in the bass.

Having only 4 tracks meant that there would be some “ping-ponging” going on. This is where you record on three tracks, then “bounce” them to a fourth track. It’s a destructive process because you then record OVER the previous three tracks. So you have to make sure that you’ve got it right before you move forward.

With the ping-pong work, you end up losing some audio integrity from the tracks.

After I successfully recorded the drum performance on track 1, it left me 2, 3, and 4. I put the bass on 2 and my scratch guitar on 3.

I got JD into the studio and recorded his guitar over the scratch on 3. Then I bounced drums 1, bass 2, and rhythm guitar 3 down to track 4.

Logistically, the lead guitar would have to wait until after the vocals were recorded. I recorded the lead vocals on 1 and backup vocals on 2 before bouncing them to 3.

This left tracks 1 and 2 open. I tracked the lead guitar on 2, leaving 1 open. I used 1 for mixing practice. I’d mix to track 1 and play it back. Once it sounded good, I mixed it down to a cassette and took it to Repeat Performance.

It was a harrowing experience, but I survived.

This 1984 tape release can be found online HERE. It’s the second track on the tape, song titled “Who Killed The Clowns.” It sounds a bit “warbly” compared to the original tape, so I don’t know how this was digitized. At one time, it did sound better than this.


DIY RECORDING IN 1985
Now, on to the meat of the matter. My experience in 1980 taught me a great deal, and my hands-on experience with the reel-to-reel in 1984 gave me what I needed to keep moving forward.

Summer 1985, L-R: Me, Scott, and JD. What a summer.

The summer of 1985 was a weird time for me. I had already decided that I was going to quit college. JD, the guitarist for The Beertonez, stuck around for a while, so we did some jamming and all that.

We even went to his dad’s house once, set up, and took over the entire place.

Since we still had drummer problems, and I didn’t have a decent kit, I hit up Scott to join us. I had mentored him in marching band. When I graduated, I handed the drum line to him. It was a smooth change of guard for the leadership of the line.

Meanwhile, I was feeling restless. The Beertonez had been a success, and I wanted to move forward with my life. I didn’t yet know what I was going to do.

There was this SMALL patch of time between when I last saw JD at the campus, and when I joined a band called The Switch, as their guitarist. At the time, I was playing a home-made guitar that I had put together from parts, which you can sort of see in this photo.

Fall 1985: Barn rehearsal with The Switch in Spiceland, Indiana.

My mother would end up selling our house, moving to California, and inviting me to go out. I dropped everything to do that at the end of the year. But what about these few weeks?

It was the beginning of the end of an era for me. There was a great deal of change in the air as I attempted to move about in the ways that I had always done before. My college pursuits, where I lived, who I spent time with, and other important elements were effectively crumbling beneath my feet.

As luck would have it, Scott would ask me if I was interested in jamming. This time, he had a 4-track cassette recorder. It pretty much worked the same as the reel-to-reel that I had used in college 6-8 months earlier, except it used a cassette tape instead of a reel.

I don’t recall what brand it was, but I think it was a Tascam 246, which was new AND the best available at the time. I don’t know if it was his, or if he borrowed it.

I went to his house, lugged my gear up the stairs, and set up in his bedroom. We jammed for a bit and came up with two ideas to record.

The first one was a song called “Goin Crazy,” which featured an Ozzy-styled evil guitar riff [EE-B EEE-B-C]. I would later submit this song while I was in LA co-writing a musical titled “In The Chips.” The song is still being used in that musical, to this day.

The other song was titled “I Want You,” and it had more of that pop rock sensibility, more diversity of segments, and was a decent arrangement. After we recorded it, I had an idea for an intro, which I recorded and put to the front. The intro sounds a great deal like something TRIUMPH would have recorded. I did see them in concert, so I was probably influenced. That is definitely another topic for another time.

There was no video, so I’ve included photos from that time. JD, the guitarist on the right, was not involved in these 1985 home recordings.

I mixed the song and gave Scott a copy of the tape.

This would be the last time I would see Scott in-person. He’s still alive. I just never saw him again after that.

What happened?

Right after this, my life as I knew it had the bottom drop out. Next thing you know, my mother had sold the house where I lived growing up. I lived with my grandparents and worked on a construction site moving dirt while working outdoors in the freezing cold.

Twice per week, I would drive 30 miles one-way to rehearse in a barn. We’d all chip in for kerosene for the heaters. My hands were constantly cold.

My mother offered me a one-way ticket to California, so I took it and never looked back.

POST-1985 RECORDING
After that, both my studio and DIY experiences expanded greatly. I would end up recording in a variety of studios in Los Angeles, working with producers like Jimmy Hunter [late 90s] and Travis Dickerson [late 2000s]. I ended up helping Jimmy Hunter with converting his studio from 24-track 2″ tape to a Pro Tools core.

As for DIY, in 1991 I got a Yamaha MT120S 4-track cassette unit. Bought it at West LA Music, just minutes after Paul Abdul bought hers. I still have the unit, and it seems to be working.

In 1998, I did some DIY recording with Sun On Skin. The band’s leader, John Parker [RIP], had a self-contained digital recorder. It was something like the KORG D16.

He had started a recording business and was a very talented musician, writer, and producer.

In 2002, my band WHIPLADS recorded at the Noodle Muffin compound. We recorded our first demo with them.

I would join Noodle Muffin later and would spend the better part of two decades recording with them. Everything they did was DIY.

At home, I would use various DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] packages, including Acoustica, Ableton Live, and my current DAW, Reaper.

I also used portable digital recording devices, such as the BOSS BR-600 and the BOSS BR-800. The latter is still in use today, and serves as my interface for using my DAW.


A 2021 CRITIQUE OF A 1985 RECORDING
When you record something DIY in 1985, there are bound to be problems. When you’re using new equipment for the first time and rushing through to write and record two songs in one day, it leaves the door open for many other problems to be found.

Our setup was very make-shift. I remember using the 4-track while it was sitting on his bed. We both had headphones, and they weren’t that great. We also had the typical limitations that everyone suffered back then, from the limit on how many microphones could be used at one time, all the way to facing the end of a tape, and everything between.

Beyond the technical, the bottom line is that we rushed it. It was a good thing we did, because had we not, we would have not gotten anything done and the best we’d have is a partially-completed tape that Scott would have in his archives, if it didn’t get lost.

The performances were rushed. Ideally, we would have written the song, jammed with it, fine-tuned it, and played it for at least a few months before spending the better part of 2-3 days recording it. But we did NONE of that, effectively writing the songs, running them a few times, and then recording them.

Because of this, some of the parts feel like they could have been delivered with more confidence. No need to point fingers, since only two of us were there. Some of the vocals, as well as some of the leads, would have been given more takes to get better performances, if we’d had the time.


HOW I FEEL ABOUT THE SONG TODAY
On July 2, 2009, I digitized both of the songs and sent them to Scott. He seemed a bit embarrassed by it, which is why the video is UNLISTED and appears only on here. I’ll have more to say about that later.

I like the arrangement and the overall layout of the song. The intro is musically sound, and is possibly more sophisticated than anything else that I have written since. My performance on guitar could be better.

As for the main song, the first thing to note is that I feel it needs the intro. Maybe that’s due to them being a pair in my mind for 36 years. The music is basic pop-rock fare.

The individual instrumental tracks of the song need better engineering, stronger definition, and a better mix. Certain passages could be less sloppy, on my part.

To a degree, the music is very cliché and relatively simple. The lyrics are also cliche and simple, a point that has me circling back to Scott’s initial thoughts when hearing the digitized file after decades gone by.

I understand that problem. For the longest time, I struggled with liking the song because it felt to me like it was something a high schooler would do. To be fair, he was a high schooler and I was only two years into college.

I spent the majority of my years in musical pursuit striving to avoid clichés in music. Only recently has my mind been changed on this, and it was changed by Zoot Horn Rollo of Captain Beefheart fame.

In my advanced guitar studies, Zoot let me know that I should never shy away from a cliché. Should I encounter one, it would be a good idea to embrace it and give it my all.

This was the precise opposite of what I had been striving to do for all of those years. As it turns out, the clichés were boring to me. I was demanding more of myself as a music listener.

What I did not stop to consider is that the average listener IS NOT a musician. They don’t care about most of the things that concern me. They want something that sounds great, is fun, and maybe even slightly familiar. Any cliche I can find will serve as the face of an old familiar friend.

I am all for clichés now. I will take them and make them my own. Put my own slight spin on things.


WHAT NEXT?
To recap, I wrote and recorded this song in 1985 and have been living with it for the past 36 years. I don’t have the master cassette. And I wish that the song had gotten more love.

This got me wondering why I couldn’t do all of this now.

It is usually a bad idea to tell other people about your plans, because you then get the same reward as if you’ve already done the thing, which removes the motive for doing the thing.

This is different. I am motivated regardless of what I write here.

So, after 36 years of sitting on it, thanks to my new attitude about music clichés, I am going to re-record this song.

This is no small proposition.

First I’ll have to re-learn the song all over again. Setting up the layout, programming drums, dialing in tones, and giving each track the love it deserves, are all things that can be done now very easily, thanks to modern technology.

I don’t know if Scott can record drums, and we live too far apart to get together. I may ask him to sing it. I’ll do it, but only if he can’t or won’t.

As far as the instrumental parts go, I want to replicate what I played as closely as possible. I’m not going to re-write the solos, or anything else.

My goal is to bring 1985 back to life!


IN THE END
This is not something that will be finished in one week. That said, it is something that will be receiving daily attention from me until it is completed.

Why?

Overall, I do think it’s a good 80s-style song that can be salvaged. But it goes deeper than this, and it’s not all about the song.

The old recording brings back some old sensations for me. As I think back, recall my past, and think about the changes in my life at this most significant of crossroads in my life, the day that this was recorded was the last day that I felt truly safe in the world, while simultaneously acknowledging the rug that was pulled from beneath my feet.

Hearing the song after all these years has me wishing that I’d given this song the time and attention that it deserved. So why not do that now?

As music projects go, I’ve not looked forward to working on an original song like this in a very long time. I have a host of other songs from that period that I could re-do.

Certainly, the college band songs are worthy. The truly worthy tracks got re-worked for the Ruby Cassidy project in 1996/1997. They were recorded at Cazador in Hollywood [Jimmy Hunter], so there really is no need to track back over that territory.

This song is THE song that represents a moment in time where I was really in a good place in my head, despite not being in a good place with regard to much else. Like most other people today in 2021, life has become uncertain and our foundations are rickety. Visiting this moment in time may hold clues for how I survived that time, and how I can survive this time.

Shortly after this, I took a leap, joined a working band as their guitarist, and played my final gig in Indiana in front of about 5,000 people. So as I think about the song that I will be re-doing, it seems only fitting to end this with the last original song that I played on a stage in Indiana, at my last gig before making a move that would change my life forever.

“Time is Forever” by The Switch.

May 23, 2019: Another time of change in my life, leaving California and heading for Oregon.

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Published by DrumWild

Writing about drums, music, and philosophy.

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