In 1983, Pete Townshend released a double-album called Scoop, the first of a trilogy (plus a best-of set) of releases featuring his home recordings.
Townshend used home recording technology beginning with the first songs he wrote for The Who in the mid-1960s. Townshend may have been one of the first musicians to actually “write” songs on multi-track recorders and present them to his band, rather than simply relying on paper and pencil, or simply strumming a guitar and singing. (Townshend can’t write music, which made the recording process doubly important for him.)
The recordings on the Scoop series are notable for a number of reasons–they highlight Townshend’s sheer love of music and the recording process, and they allow him to release material too different (either stylistically, or because it’s too light or ephemeral) to appear on any of the Who’s albums, or his regular solo albums.
As David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone in 1983,
Scoop, of course, is more than just a chance to hear gritty pre-Who versions of “Magic Bus,” “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes.” Like Bruce Springsteen’s stark cassette-recorded Nebraska and Phil Collins’ subtle integration of home demo tracks on his recent solo LPs, it is a stirring celebration of the do-it-yourself ethic, a lesson in how little (tape machine, acoustic guitar, a wobbly but intimate vocal) can achieve so much (the brief, exquisite 1966 sketch of the glowing ballad “So Sad about Us,” later cut for the Who’s Happy Jack).
Scoop also provides a panoramic view of Townshend’s ambitions as a songwriter, from the moody, adolescent clump of the “My Generation”-era “Circles” to the epic pleading of Quadrophenia’s “Love Reign O’er Me” and the 1967 moddish Motown pump of “Politician,” one of the album’s eighteen newly unearthed Townshend originals.
But what makes this artfully programmed collection of home demo antiques and studio curios one of the best Who-related records since Who’s Next is that it presents a pure, expressive Pete Townshend free of the responsibilities of being the Pete Townshend, communing with his muse away from his image and the emotional politics of the Who. A pre-Tommy track never cut by the band, “Melancholia” captures in his solitary whine and the whirlpool sigh of his tape-phasing treatment of the guitars and drums an acute solitary sadness that the Who would have turned into an angry punch out.
Perhaps most importantly for many Who fans, they show how radically the group could transform his songs, as each musician’s style was often very different than Townshend’s natural tendencies. He deliberately kept the bass and drum lines very simple, and he sang his early recordings in a much higher and less macho-sounding voice than Roger Daltry. Daltry, Keith Moon and John Entwistle thus had plenty of room to crack open Townshend’s songs and deconstruct them (long before that word became part of the postmodern lexicon) into music suitable for the Who. Obviously, Townshend knew his fellow musicians better than anyone, and wrote for the group’s sound. But he also knew enough to give them plenty of room to make the material their own.
The Revolution Will Be Recorded
What’s a four-track cassette recorder? It’s not half of the eight-track cassette deck that was inside of your 1975 Chevy Nova. It’s simply a cassette recorder that instead of playing the two stereo tracks on side, only plays in one direction, but it allows recording on all four of those tracks either individually, or simultaneously.
When they began showing up in the mid-1980s, suddenly, for less than a thousand dollars, the average musician had access to multitrack recording equipment to write songs or experiment with overdubbing. So a drum machine could go on track one, a bass guitar on track two, a rhythm guitar on track three, and a lead vocal and guitar solo (when there’s no singing) on track four.
The Golden Era of Home Recording
While four-track cassette recorders are being produced today, for about the same money as a four-track cost in 1983, a PC can be fitted with the software and hardware necessary to record virtually unlimited tracks. (Most commercial music of the 1970s and 1980s was recorded on 24-track recording decks, and 24 tracks is child’s play for a program such as Cakewalk’s Sonar.) The only real limitation is the amount of RAM a computer is equipped, and the size of its hard drive. Beyond that, any computer with Windows 2000 or XP, and ideally, at least a gigahertz-speed processor can be pressed into service as a home recording platform.
The result is a paradoxical time for musicians: while the music industry is in the worst slump it’s faced since before the dawn of MTV, and the industry tries to further crack down on the recording of legally purchased music, home recording is experiencing its golden age, as the technology is affordable enough, accessible enough, and easy enough to allow any serious musician more powerful recording technology than George Martin ever had with the Beatles at Abbey Road.
Would You Like To Learn More?
But there is a learning curve to home recording via PC, which I personally found to be steep, when I made the jump from the hand-on experience of the four-tracks of the 1980s, to the GUIs of today. While most recording programs have decent built-in help files, they only go so far, so it helps to have some guides for assistance.
Sonar is the flagship home recording program of Cakewalk, a company that has been producing recording software for the PC-platform since the late 1980s. It’s tremendously flexible, but that flexibility comes at a price: it can be a fiendishly complex program for the beginner, no matter how much experience he had with analog recording.
Fortunately though, Scott R. Garrigus’ Sonar Power is real help, explaining how the entire program works, and naturally uncovering little known features-for it’s such a sprawling program that there are bound to be little known secrets for anybody using it!
Once I began to get a handle on home multitracking via Sonar, I wanted to incorporate synthesizers into its equation. While there are still plenty of hardware-based synthesizers, home recording benefits by keeping as much as possible inside the computer. But using synthesizers with Sonar was problematic for me, probably more so than other PC-based recordists. I’ve always been a guitarist who fiddled with keyboards, and wanted an easy solution that still sounded good. I began hearing about a program called Reason, produced by a European company called Propellerhead, whose GUI was a virtual equipment rack, that several different synthesizers, samplers and loop-playing programs could be plugged into and rearranged at will. You could even hit a computer key, and flip the rack over, to rearrange virtual wires from unit to unit.
Debbie Poyser and Derek Johnson’s Users’ Guide to Properhead Reason 2is a slightly more straightforward book, perhaps because Reason is a simpler program than Sonar. There are occasional flashes of political correctness (“The Reason name comes from a cyberpunk novel called Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Reason in the novel is the name of a firearm, but we’ll pass quickly over that!” Right–guns are ever so icky, aren’t they?), but clearly the emphasis is on learning the program, partially by creating sounds not included in the presets, which Poyser and Johnson give several examples of.
Of course, there are a lot more software synthesizers than Reason. And in the brand new book, Software Synthesizers, Jim Aikin, the former senior editor of Keyboard magazine edits (and contributes a few articles to) a broad overview of what’s out there.
Each of these books thoroughly explains what sort of hardware is needed to run each program, which these days, as I said above is fairly basic. A PC with Windows 2000 or XP, a Soundblaster Audigy card with a LiveDrive bay to plug a mic or guitar and these programs is capable of producing astoundingly sophisticated recordings.
Which is why I wrote that home recording is in its golden age, and the technology is far beyond what was available in the 1970s to Pete Townshend when he made the recordings that make up the first Scoop.
Turn on, tune up, and start making some music-all the tools are waiting for you!