Recently I watched a documentary on the history of the cassette tape. That format is making a comeback, of sorts; it has a small but fiercely loyal fanbase. At first I couldn’t wrap my head around this. By almost any measure, this format is inferior to every other: its audio fidelity is worse than what came before (vinyl) and what came after (compact discs), album art is way too small, maintaining tape decks is a pain, blank tape is harder to find and more expensive than ever…I have no idea why anyone would prefer this format to digital or other analog formats.

But then the documentary made a point I hadn’t considered: audio cassettes made it easy for anyone to record sounds. All you had to do was put a cheap tape into a cheap recorder, press record, and there you go. Band demos, messages to loved ones, interviews with interesting people, etc, could be done easily with little fuss. And it occurred to me that despite all of the money I’ve spent over the last 20 years buying audio interfaces, microphones, and computers, and the time spent learning how to use them to create music, my recording process has gotten more complicated and more time consuming instead of simpler and faster. Maybe these cassette fans are on to something after all.

I am in the early stages of collecting ideas for my next music project, and I am spending lots of time experimenting in my studio with guitar riffs and synthesizer sounds. I’d like to record as many ideas as I can, then review them later to see if any are worth developing into songs. Here’s how a typical studio session goes:

  • boot my laptop and turn on my Tascam audio interface
  • make sure I have a mic or a direct connection to the interface for whatever I want to record
  • start jack, which usually works right on the first try
  • start ardour
  • connect jack to ardour, which is supposed to happen automatically, but usually does not
  • fire up a drum machine, probably Hydrogen, program a basic beat, and get that connected to jack
  • create an ardour track for the instrument I’m playing
  • record a test sample played along to the drum beat to verify everything is working
  • start making music…

I’ve been doing this a long time, and none of this is particularly difficult, but it is tedious, and it eats into the limited time I have to record. On a good day – or if I’m continuing the previous night’s work and I’ve left everything setup – this takes 10 minutes. If I’m trying something different, or I run into an unexpected technical problem, it can take a lot longer. A sizeable number of my sessions consist entirely of trying to get the recording rig setup; an hour or more in I’ll realize that I’ve squandered all of the time I had for playing and try to leave things ready to go the next day. I spend way too much creative capital messing with gear. Brainstorming ideas takes a lot of time, a commodity that has been in short supply since I became a father.

A cassette recorder now seems like a pretty handy thing to have.

Well, not exactly. As I said, the format is substandard in almost every way. But I should be able to use the digital equivalent. After all, I’m not trying to create a work of art, I’m trying to make sketches into my audio notebook. I want to walk into my studio, pick up my guitar, hit record, and try come up with a cool musical idea. I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to make this happen, and it’s turned out to be surprisingly difficult.

First I tried to use my Olympus LS-10 recorder. I love this device, but I ran into a serious setback when I discovered that the batteries I left in it had leaked and half the buttons stopped working. I was able to take the device apart, clean up the mess, and get all the buttons working. But I managed to break the power switch in the process, and now I need a screwdriver to turn the thing on and off. The LS-10 is now in the pile of household items I need to fix but probably won’t because I’d rather be playing my guitar.

So next I decided to try an old cellphone I have. I placed it in front of my guitar amp and hit record. The results weren’t terrible, actually, but they weren’t great either. The built in mic is just too limited for capturing the sound of a room, so I tried to figure out a way to connect one of my mics directly to the phone. This introduced new challenges. With the appropriate adapter cable I could connect my mixer output to the phone’s mic input, and then run as many mics as I need to the mixer and record whatever I want. While this would work, the setup would be almost as complicated as my existing computer setup. Worse, it would be a different setup. That is, I usually plug my mics, synths, etc, directly into the audio interface and do my mixing in the box. Setting up an external mixer so I could feed the cellphone makes things more complicated, not less. I abandoned the cellphone idea.

Maybe there is some software that would make this easier? After a few minutes of googling, I stumbled across a tool I had totally forgotten about: Jack Timemachine. This clever utility does nothing until you click on it’s big button, at which point it will record the last 10 seconds of whatever you were playing, The idea is that as soon as you play something that makes you think “gee, I wish I had recorded that!”, you click the button and it captures it for you. Neat, right? I even found a blog entry that talks about using the timemachine in a simple recording workflow, which is exactly what I was looking for.

A pre-built binary doesn’t exist for the linux distribution I use (Arch Linux), so I downloaded the source code and built it myself. However, every time I start it I immediately get a segmentation fault and the program crashes. Now, I am a software engineer, and I could probably dive into the code and fix this issue, but after a long day at work messing around with code is the last thing I want to be doing. It’s on my todo list – the app is too cool to abandon – but who the heck knows when I’ll get to fixing it. Probably right after I fix the LS-10.

I’m running out of ideas. Maybe the cassette tape isn’t such a bad tool after all. I do have an old Tascam Portastudio 4 track in a closet somewhere….

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