Day: October 19, 2018

Mixer, heal thyself.

Twenty years ago, after recording a lot of music on cassette tape, I started thinking the ability to overdub the odd vocal harmony or a bit of percussion might be fun. Dustin — the mysterious vanishing piano teacher of yore — told me I ought to get myself a Tascam Portastudio. I went to Long & McQuade with Johnny Smith to ask if I could rent or buy one of those things and the salesperson said, “Pfffft. You don’t want another tape recorder. Digital recording is where it’s at now! You want one of these!” He showed us a Roland VS-880 and talked us into taking it home.

I didn’t know where to begin with such a complicated piece of equipment, but I got a kick out of playing with the built-in effects, making myself sound like Barry White or a slick radio DJ. I had to order the CD burner through some strange back channel. It took forever to show up, and it was ridiculously expensive. I remember it being somewhere in the neighbourhood of a thousand bucks. When I finally got it after months of waiting, I learned it wasn’t even compatible with the VS-880. I needed the next step up — a VS-880 EX.

I still remember the name of the guy who sold me the CD burner and assured me it would work with my specific mixer. Fred Carver. That name will never leave my brain.

I traded in the VS-880 for an 880 EX. By now I had a few dynamic mics, a few good keyboards, a crummy acoustic guitar, and a crummy electric guitar. I was in heaven. I thought I had the world at my fingertips. That mixer was a great friend to have as I slowly learned about digital recording through trial and error. Within about half a year I was recording things that were actually starting to sound pretty good.

In the summer of 2000 I upgraded to a VS-1680 and my brain almost exploded. The sonic possibilities seemed almost endless now. It would be a long time before I came close to maxing out all sixteen tracks. Anything beyond half of that seemed a little nutty to me. I was excited enough about not being limited to six tracks anymore, now that I could use something called the Mastering Room and didn’t need to keep the last two tracks open so I had somewhere to send my final mixdown.

The VS-1680 has been the crux of my home studio ever since. Everything around it has changed over the years as I’ve accumulated outboard mic preamps, EQ, compression, more microphones, and more musical instruments — starting with really low-end stuff and gradually working my way up — but once a sound is recorded on the 1680 it stays there. I still mix and master in the box, still burn things onto CD through the SCSI drive, and still back everything up on CD-R. You don’t want to know how many backup CDs I’ve accumulated after almost two decades of near-constant recording.

I understand why most people have either left archaic hard drive recorders like these in the dust or now use them as a front end for computer-based recording. I’ve been tempted to switch over a time or two myself. For whatever reason, this machine just works for me. I’m comfortable with it, I know its quirks, and I like being limited to sixteen tracks. It forces me to think about arrangements and what I want the sonics of a song to say without allowing me to get into turd-polishing territory by layering a mediocre song with endless overdubs. With good mics and preamps I find I’m able to get the sounds I want without much trouble. I’ve spent enough time tinkering with the mastering effects templates to figure out settings that work for me and tighten things up without sounding like they’re doing much of anything at all. Even with good outboard effects at my disposal, I still find some of the VS-1680’s built-in effects very useful. I’ve always been a fan of TapeEcho201 for an instant John Lennon slap-back echo vocal sound, and some of the modulation effects are nice and lush. Input eight stopped working years ago, but that’s easy to work around by recording through a different input and routing it to that track. I can’t remember the last time I needed or wanted to record eight tracks at once, so I don’t see it ever posing a serious problem.

I know it’s beyond obsolete. Back when I got my 1680 new it cost more than $4,000. I think you can find them used and in good condition on eBay for about $200 now. I had a recording engineer “friend” who used to throw all kinds of condescending snark my way about it. I don’t know how many times I heard, “I can’t believe you run those beautiful mics and pres into that hunk of junk and its outdated converters,” or some variation on the theme.

That hunk of junk allows me to do everything I want to do. I have no complaints. Neither do any of the people who have hired me to record them. It still bewilders me a little that anyone would want me to record their music in the first place, and it isn’t a service I advertise or treat as a conventional job (it’s much more a once in a while, word of mouth kind of thing), but I seem to attract artists who like things a little rough around the edges, the same way I do. I always walk away having learned something new or honed an existing skill into a sharper tool. I’ve yet to have anyone decide they’d rather record elsewhere because my DAW is outdated.

I’m not bragging. I made a lot of awful-sounding recordings on the way to teaching myself how to do all of this stuff. It’s taken me this long to get to a point where I can honestly say I feel I’m pretty good at it. I look at it as a lifelong learning process. I still do a lot of things the wrong way, but I think I’ve developed a sound that’s unique to me. I’d still be doing this even if I never graduated beyond that first little Sony tape recorder. I’ve just been lucky enough to gather some equipment over the years that’s allowed me to document things with more clarity as the music itself has grown more vivid and complex.

It hasn’t been a drama-free adventure. There have been a few “crashes”. I was in the middle of working on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN when something went wrong and I had to run a drive check for the first time. There were errors. I was told I was going to lose some data. All I lost was the bass part for “Creepy Crawly Things”. I rerecorded it in about two minutes and all was well in the world. Six years later everything locked up on me in a much more disconcerting way. A drive check cleared that up once I found a way to trick the mixer into running one. A few years after that I found I couldn’t recover anything I’d backed up on a CD anymore. Guess what fixed the problem? Another drive check.

I was beginning to think this VS-1680 was invincible. Every time I thought it was dying on me it would turn around and repair itself.

Then I had to go and spill coffee on it.

I have this massive steel desk Johnny Smith got for me twenty-some-odd years ago when an office building was closing up shop and auctioning off all their equipment and furniture for next to nothing. It’s built like a tank, and there’s an incredible amount of storage space in its many drawers. There are things I put in there back in 1996 that are still there. You couldn’t ask for a better desk.

Once upon a time I used to sit here and do my homework. Now it’s my studio desk. The 1680 sits in the middle, and all around it are pieces of outboard gear. I can lean in and lose myself in the music, with any adjustment I need to make a quick turn of the wrist or a slight reach of the arm away.

I make a habit of never drinking anything but bottled water when I’m working in this area.

Even if I knock it over, the bottle is always capped. Nothing happens. It’s the smart way to go.

The one time Gord offered me a beer and I decided to live dangerously and put it on the desk, I ended up knocking it over. The mixer and a whole lot of other stuff got pretty beery, but nothing was damaged. I cleaned up. I told myself I was lucky and I wouldn’t do that again.

Apparently a good cup of coffee can short-circuit good sense. Last night I was drinking a nice cup of decaf. I thought I’d set it down on the desk. I wanted to sip at it while I was working on something.

You know what’s coming.

Within five minutes I found a way to send the mug flying. A bit of coffee landed on the mixer right around where the play and record buttons are. I scrambled to grab some paper towels before the river of Nabob could get too unwieldy and was doing my best to mop up the mess when I noticed the 1680 was going haywire. In hindsight I wish I’d thought to film it for posterity, because I’ve never seen anything like this. It was as if half a dozen invisible children were pressing every random button they could over and over again. Track indicators would light up at random, six or ten or more at a time, blinking wildly. Every half-second the LCD screen would switch to a different mode. Ten seconds or so of the song I was working on would play and then stop with no provocation. All of this was happening at once. Almost none of the buttons did anything. The time wheel seemed to still be functioning, but that was no help. The 1680 was losing its mind, indifferent to my efforts to calm it down.

The worst part — the song I was working on was just some silly little instrumental thing I was recording as a bit of a joke. It wasn’t even a song I cared much about (though sampling an aluminum foil pan with the Yamaha VSS-30 and building a percussion track out of it was pretty amusing).

I figured I must have fried the circuit board or something. Some coffee must have trickled inside. Twenty or thirty times I manually powered down and back up again. The startup screen did its usual business, the mixer recognized the CD burner, and everything was fine until the song loaded. Then it was random chaos all over again. Sometimes in the middle of one of the mixer’s spastic fits I would press one of the track buttons that was lit up and it would send things into an even more intense tailspin. Sometimes I would hit play and the music would stop. The stop button didn’t do a thing. Then I’d get stuck in EZ Routing mode or somewhere else, everything would become unresponsive, and all I could do was force another restart. I tried all the tricks to force a drive check or a drive reformat. Nothing.

All this because I wasn’t smart enough to leave my coffee on the table where it belonged, a short walk away from the desk.

At least I had the foresight to buy a backup 1680 about ten years ago. Worst case scenario, I could pop the effects cards out of this one, transfer them into the alternate 1680, and start fresh. But I was going to lose a few songs I really liked that I didn’t have a chance to back up. That stung.

I kept wrestling with the angry thing. Power off. Power on. Insane 1680 tantrum. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Finally the shift key started to function again. I could get to the screen I needed to run a drive check, but I couldn’t activate it. The stupid song would start playing every time I tried to get in, blocking my access. I hit play and F5 at the same time and got the music to stop long enough to get where I needed to go. The drive check told me there were nine hundred and ninety-nine errors, but all the songs were fine.

I think what “999 ERR” really means is, “There’s so much wrong right now I’m going to max out the numbers as a way of telling you you’re in deep shit.”

So that did nothing. But now I was able to access both partitions of the drive. That was progress. I switched over to the second partition. The song that loaded started playing on its own, which still wasn’t good. It played all the way through this time, though. I got it to stop and ran another drive check. This time there were no errors. I popped a CD into the drive and tried backing up the songs I thought I might lose. No issues there. At least I knew my data was intact and salvageable, even if that first partition was toast. My heart started to pound out something closer to a sane rhythm again.

And then the 1680 stopped acting up. Just like that. I noticed the song that was loaded didn’t start playing on its own a second time once the backup CD popped out. The play button did what it was supposed to. So did the stop button. I messed around with the settings for a few individual tracks without any trouble. Switched back to the first partition where everything went crazy, and again all was well. I didn’t even lose the silly little instrumental song.

I don’t know if the coffee that got inside the mixer dried up after a while, if the 1680 decided to assimilate it after its initial violent protests, or if I just jostled the mixer in a way it didn’t like when I was in Horrified Damage Control mode and the coffee was never the issue at all. I have no idea what happened there. But now I think whoever designed these VS recorders was a genius. Eighteen years of continuous use, a few serious scares, half a cup of coffee, and STILL the thing refuses to die. It keeps on healing itself and saying, “Is that all you got?”

So I raise my glass to the mind-boggling resilience of the Roland VS-1680 — in another room, on another floor of the house, just to be safe.