Home Recording in the 1990s

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday 30 October 2012
The concept of keeping pretty much all of a home recording within the casing of a computer has now been with us for so long that it can be hard to recount how the home recordist of yesteryear would carry out the same tasks. Virtual instruments revolutionised home recording, and a world without them now seems almost unthinkable. But I want to look back in this piece at a method of home recording which was common before virtual instruments arrived. Home recording may have been a hell of a lot more difficult and complicated fifteen to twenty years back, but as you’ll hear if you click on the stream below, the results weren’t at all bad…

[UPDATE: The example sound stream was hosted on Tindeck. Since Tindeck closed in 2018, the stream is now inoperable..]

The above recording was made in 1996, using the equipment shown and described in the article. It was an interesting hybrid analogue/digital setup which allowed a stereo production with plenty of musical components.

Home recording really came to the fore in the 1980s, as dedicated multitracking devices such as the Portastudio became more affordable to amateur musicians. But early on, it was a very primitive affair. Most recordings were made in mono, with a seriously limited number of tracks. The equipment was typically poor in performance and demanding in terms of maintenance, but other options were impractical or simply far too expensive.

In the ‘80s, digital recording was available to the home recordist, but because memory was so limited, it didn’t really go beyond sampling. I remember in around 1986 or 1987 using a digital sampler/delay pedal to create short, repetitive drum loops for my home recordings. I’d sample the drums from records, which was quite a novelty after using a drum machine. But the novelty soon wore off. That limitation of a few seconds max of audio recording (or sampling, as it would be known in such a restricted format) was much too oppressive ever to challenge conventional tape recording for the typical 1980s amateur.

By the following decade, however, things had come a long way, and computers had established themselves within a lot of home recordists’ setups. In the early ‘90s, most computers still couldn’t handle hard disk audio recording, and even if they could, their disk storage capacities were so small that one song would completely engulf a hard drive. Even in the mid ‘90s, some computer sequencing packages only offered a single audio track (typically used for vocals, whilst the backing would be built up with MIDI instrumentation), because realistically, that’s all the musician’s computer resources were likely to support.

But using the ingenious MIDI sync device, the home recordist could link and sync a computer-sequenced MIDI setup to a tape-recorded multitrack system. This meant that an array of MIDI instruments could be recorded and played back live, whilst non-MIDI instrumentation and vocal tracks were recorded to audio cassette tape. It was the MIDI sync that allowed me to record the track included in this article.

Going from top left and ‘reading’ the above pictures like a book, the instruments and devices are: original 1965 Fender Jazzmaster guitar, Mesa V-Twin valve pre-amp for guitar, Tascam 424 cassette-based Portastudio recorder, Korg X5 digital synthesizer, Hammond XM1 organ module, Packard Bell 80486 PC running Cubasis MIDI, early 1990s Fender Japan Jazz Bass, Fender Pro Junior valve combo amp for guitar, Boss DR-660 digital drum machine, Smartsync MIDI sync. I also used a Samson Mixpad mixer, a Boss ME-5 FX processor, and a couple of Sennheiser mics – one for vocals and one for guitar. I mastered onto a high bias audio cassette using a Yamaha K-340 stereo cassette deck.


I began by building up the MIDI tracks, with several MIDI instruments hooked up for record and play (via a Midiman Winman interface) to a Packard Bell 80486 PC. I recorded and edited the parts using the Cubasis MIDI-only sequencer software, which was a really efficient program – light on resources.

The drums were programmed and recorded first, with all the beats tapped directly into a Boss DR-600 drum machine (mostly in real time, with an appropriate quantize setting). The individual beat parts were then connected together into a full-length song pattern, again within the DR-660’s own programming environment. The finished drum sequence was then transferred (recorded) to the Cubasis sequencer for playback. From that point, the DR-660 continued to reproduce the drum sounds, but Cubasis was instructing the drum machine on what to play.

I next recorded a guide bass line to the Cubasis sequencer using a Korg X5 synth, and added the rest of the MIDI instrumentation, track by track. The remaining MIDI instrumentation comprised: two tracks of Hammond XM1 organ (one for each manual), and a track of simulated brass – played on the Korg X5. The X5 is multitimbral, so it was able to play back the guide bass part along with the brass part. Incidentally, the simultaneous audio output from all the MIDI hardware instruments was mixed using a Samson Mixpad.

With the MIDI tracks in place and playing back live, I started on the analogue audio parts – all recorded to a high bias cassette tape, on the Tascam 424 Portastudio, which has four audio tracks. Only three of the four tracks were available, however, because Track 4 was in use providing the timecode for the tape-to-MIDI sync box.

I began by muting the X5’s guide bass, and replacing it with real bass guitar: a Fender Jazz, directly injected through a Boss ME-5 processor for compression and EQ. That went onto track 1 on the Portastudio.

On the Portastudio’s track 2 I recorded the main guitar part, played using a 1965 Fender Jazzmaster, through the blues channel of a Mesa V-Twin processor, into a Fender Pro Junior guitar amp. This was miked with a Sennheiser guitar mic, the feed from which was sent to the Portastudio via the Boss ME-5.

I then bounced the main guitar part over to track 3 of the Portastudio, whilst adding a second guitar track, with the same guitar, live. This left two mono guitar tracks on track 3, and freed up track 2 for the final piece of the jigsaw – the vocals.

The single vocal part was recorded to track 2 of the Portastudio, using a Sennheiser vocal mic – once again, via the rather busy Boss ME-5 processor.

And then the whole thing was mixed, with the MIDI instrument volumes adjusted from the Mixpad, and the analogue track volumes adjusted from the Tascam 424’s own mixer. Remember, all the MIDI sounds were still running live and in full stereo, including the drum machine – so producing good fidelity and a degree of spaciousness was not a problem.

A complicated way of doing things, but you'd get a great sense of achievement after completing a track. I should maybe conclude by clarifying that I didn't actually manage to remember all that from a session which took place over 16 years ago. I logged all the details in my diary, and upon finding the entry, was myself intrigued to read exactly how I'd recorded this track, back in the depths of the mid '90s.