The Enduring Popularity of 4-Track Cassette Recording

Looking back to the advent of 4-track cassette recorders, it's easy to see what made them so popular. That you could record multi-tracked songs at home—without the hassle, size, or expense of mixers and reel-to-reels—was a revolutionary moment for bedroom producers everywhere. It was the dawn of a new DIY day, which continued to shine through the '80s and '90s.

Of course, now, that world has changed. DIY recording is largely a digital affair, limited only by CPU. Compare cassette recorders to even intro-level DAWs from Apple, Ableton, and PreSonus—which are either bundled with cheap interfaces or simply given away—and 4-tracks seem not only quaint but inescapably obsolete.

Yet take a look at the recent Reverb Price Guides for these nearly vintage machines: The Tascam 414, 424, 244, or even the comparatively limited Porta02 all have strong demand. Depending on model and condition, 4-track recorders fetch a few hundred to almost $1,000 USD. Why?

First, let's rewind.

The Rise of 4-Tracks

Unveiled in 1979, the Teac 144 was the first 4-track of its kind, weighing in at 20 pounds and measuring 18 inches by 15 inches. In the following years, one of Teac's divisions, Tascam, began churning out machines that just got better and smaller. Their newly coined Portastudios proliferated across the music-making world, while competition from Yamaha, Fostex, and other manufacturers flooded the market.

The new machines allowed songwriters to workshop their songs in private. Upstart and established artists alike, from The Jesus and Mary Chain to Lou Reed, created 4-track demos on their own. Electronic musicians could sync a sequencer to one track while recording onto the other three. Hip-hop producers created their own beat tapes to share and shop around their creations.

It wasn't long before 4-track recordists began to engineer their own mythos too. Portastudios were not just a step on the way to the real studio, they were even preferable.

Robert Pollard—whose group, Guided By Voices, released a prodigious amount of homemade recordings throughout the '80s and '90s—summed up the 4-track philosophy in a 1997 interview with Musician magazine:

"In the beginning, we never had much success with recording studios. By the time you booked the place and got everything together, the spirit of what you wrote would be gone. With the 4-track down here in Toby's [bandmate Tobin Sprout's] basement, we could just come over and do it. The important thing was the immediacy and the economy. Plus it was with the 4-track that we came closest to getting the sound that we had in our heads. For some reason, you sometimes get a better vocal sound in a kitchen or bathroom or basement than you can in a big studio."

4-track recordings by some of the biggest names in rock, alternative, and electronic music carried both the charm and lore: Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, grittily recorded on his 144 and salvaged from his jacket pocket; PJ Harvey's tape-turned-proper-release 4-Track Demos; Ween's warped, Portastudio-grown The Pod; Aphex Twin's first full-length, Selected Ambient Works 85–92, tracked at home on cassette with self-constructed instruments, by Richard D. James' telling at least.

PJ Harvey - "Driving"

In addition to the raw, homespun sound, many music makers wanted to stretch the limits of the technology. Why not bounce those 4-tracks down and layer more on top, like their heroes at Abbey Road? Use the limitations to spark creativity.

In a review of the Teac 144, Reverb user Trey Y. said he bought one of these "Earth-changing" machines as soon as they came out.

"Suddenly I was able to create beautifully produced demos that were almost as good as studio masters. It was easy to learn and extremely powerful," he writes. "Despite having only four tracks, I was able to ping-pong huge numbers of tracks and create music that was as elaborate as anything produced by The Beatles in their heyday."

There was a downside: Dubbing tape hiss on top of itself over and over again will build up to cacophony. But whether bedroom producers were making the most of what they had or willfully leaning into lo-fi aesthetics, 4-track recordings were in full bloom.

Why Use 4-Tracks Now?

Portastudios are still an easy way to record on your own, which is reason enough to some, but when most producers reach for a 4-track now, it's likely for one of a few reasons: They want a break from working on their computers, they want to add some analog saturation to their digital recordings, or they're tape experimentalists.

Going DAWless

Especially for musicians who work on computers at their day jobs, going DAWless is a way to unplug from the internet and really focus on making music. (And of course, it tells you how far DIY recording has come when a retronym like DAWless catches on.)

It's been a big trend in recent years, particularly for electronic musicians. The groovebox renaissance we've covered before is a big part of it, as musicians continue to gravitate toward powerful standalone devices that cover all their synth, sampling, and rhythmic needs. Classic lines like Akai's MPCs have new standalone variants in them, while the hardware-software hybrid giant Native Instruments just released its first fully self-contained Maschine Plus.

When it comes time to record one's compositions, plenty still fire up the DAW. But others are finding refuge in portable recorders: digital recorders, ADATs, or the humble 4-track.

Tape Saturation and Glue

One of the classics of the first 4-track era is The Wu-Tang Clan's 36 Chambers, though it wasn't exactly a bedroom-only production. The group worked at Firehouse Studio in New York City with studio-grade two-inch tape, and eventually mastered the songs at The Hit Factory. But part of the dirt and grime that made those beats sound unlike others on the Billboard charts was thanks to a Portastudio.

In 2009, the album's engineer Carlos Bess shed light on the process in a forum post: "TASCAM 244 portastudio 4 track was used to bounce final mixes from DAT to highspeed 4-track Cassette with Maxell MX 60 Chrome Cassettes." They even used a separate Tascam tape deck, a 122 MKII, to create a slapback delay on lead track "Bring Da Ruckus."

Wu-Tang - "Bring Da Ruckus"

If they want to impart harmonic richness or grit to their tracks, producers today have many options, especially among tape-saturation plugins. But you can capture that sonic quality with the real-deal thanks to 4-tracks. As we've written about before in "7 Cheap Ways to Add Unique Tones to Your Tracks":

"Cassette saturation is a beautiful thing, particularly on drums, and even more when pushed hard. If the motors are old and wobbly, even better. Try bouncing down from your DAW to cassette and then back and blend it in with the dry signal for parallel cassette saturation."

Tape Experimentation

If you want to see the breadth of tape experimentalism today, just head to YouTube. Some of the gear world's biggest personalities, from Andrew Huang to Hainbach to the fully tape-based artist Amulets, all have incredible videos of tape loops and cassette recording. While sometimes consumer-level tape machines are used instead of 4-track recorders, the appeal of tape-based music creation is on full display.

One of the artists who has maybe done more than most to show what can be done with a Portastudio is Alessandro Cortini, the Nine Inch Nails member and solo artist.

Using a Cassette Recorder as an Instrument

As you can see in the video he made with Reverb (or read more about here), he has essentially made "a poor man's Mellotron" out of his Tascam.

Cortini converts his Logic sessions into 4-track cassette sessions, with each track being a separate part of his composition. Using the Portastudio's faders, he can bring tracks in and out of his live performances, or use the per-track EQ controls or onboard pitch knob to change their sound. The effects I/O on the model he prefers—the 414 MKII—also allows him to bring in external effects.

"The whole idea is to use the 4-track not just as a playback device but as an instrument," he says.

He's used this setup not only for his own performances but also in his shows with NIN. Once seeing his process in action, it's hard not to want to do it yourself.

Tascam 4-Tracks

Whether all the new buyers of Portastudios are looking to create their own budget Mellotrons or just want to record songs without staring at a computer screen, there are many musicians reaching for a 4-track. While prices have continued to climb, there are still deals to be had. Browse all of the cassette recorders on Reverb here.

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