The introduction of the four-track porta-studio in the 80s changed forever the working methods of amateur musicians. Now, in a digital age, cassette four-tracks are still being manufactured and sold but are being eclipsed by computer-based recording as well as stand-alone digital multi-tracks.Here's what a modest bachelor apartment project studio might look like these days, but keep in mind that a computer-based studio eliminates almost everything here in favour of software.1. Your InstrumentIn this case, an old Silvertone guitar, picked up in a trade years ago. We're assuming you play - and own - an instrument.
2. MonitorsIf you don't want to be evicted, we suggest you invest in a good pair of headphones. These Grado SR60 phones ($129.95, Bay Bloor Radio, 55 Bloor West, 416-967-1122) boast richly detailed sound at a great price for such high quality. If the "haven't been redesigned since the 70s" look doesn't do it for you, there's a range of more modern-looking brands out there. Better stores will let you hear them before you buy.
3. MicrophoneThe quality of your microphone determines the quality of the signal you capture, so spend as much as you can. This Rode NT1 Studio Condenser Microphone ($325, Steve's Music, 415 Queen West, 416-593-8888) has been widely hailed as a good value, suitable for recording almost anything. (But don't use it onstage unless you want uncontrollable feedback.) If you're on a tighter budget, Active Surplus (347 Queen West, 416-593-0909) usually has at least one mike in stock for under $10.
4. Amp SimulatorAlong with crystal-clear recording and non-destructive editing, digital gives us multi-effect processors and the related technology of amp simulators. You don't want to piss off your neighbours, so try this Pod Guitar Amp Simulator, made by Line 6 ($360, Long & McQuade, 925 Bloor West, 416-588-7886). It does a convincing job of modelling the sound of a variety of different classic tube amps as well as different speaker configurations and mike placement techniques. It also gives you some basic effects and an unspectacular but usable reverb. Sans Amp, Roland, Korg, Zoom, Yamaha, Digitech and a host of other companies make similar products.
5. samplerEven if you hate electronic music, a sampling drum machine can streamline the process of getting an idea down on tape (or hard drive). This Korg ES-1 ($655, Moog Music/Kops, 229 Queen West, 416-599-6664) is designed with a sequencer similar to the classic Roland drum machines that helped define techno. But since it plays back samples rather than internally generated sounds, it can sound like whatever you want it to, including melodic instruments. If you only want electronic drums and synths, there are even more options in the numerous "groove boxes" that have emerged over the past few years.
6. EffectsEverybody loves effects: they make you sound like a rock star. This MXR Blue Box ($115, Song Bird Music, 801 Queen West, 416-504-7664) makes that acid-dipped octave fuzz sound that Jimmy Hendrix loved so much. You've probably got your own favourites.
7. RecorderThis digital multi-track recorder was one of the first, and set the standard. The Roland VS880EX (discontinued, but Steve's will sell you their last one for around $1,600) features eight tracks of CD-quality audio recorded onto an internal hard drive and backed up via SCSI drives. Eight tracks isn't that many, but here you get the added feature of virtual tracks. For each track, you can record eight alternate takes and either cut between them or mix them down to one track. For more money you can buy 12-, 16- and 24-track recorders from Roland, Korg, Fostex, Tascam, Yamaha, Akai and others. If you're looking to spend less, there are several portable digital four-tracks out there, but they rely on heavily compressed audio in order to get it on their little memory cards. Of course, you can always buy an old cassette four-track from a pawn shop for about $200.