Low End Theory: Four to the Floor



By Brendan I. Koerner

My wife and I had a stoop sale a few weeks back, and that meant clearing out the mess o' useless gadgets beneath our bed. Among the battery-less universal remotes and cracked-case Discmen knock-offs was a gem I'd forgotten about: a Fostex four-track recorder, purchased years ago during my brief aspiring-musician phase. (Don't ask.) I distinctly remembered buying it off my pal for $150, with every intention of getting signed to Thrill Jockey in a matter of weeks, touring Europe, bedding svelte Danish groupies, dissolving crushed Adderall in my Crown Royal, blah blah blah. None of that happened, or (sigh) ever will happen, so I decided to sell the Fostex.

But how much should I charge? Home recording's gone almost strictly digital since my heyday, so I figured it'd be tough to find a pricing comp. But a quick Googling revealed that Clinton-era four-track technology has hardly been dustbinned; two of the biggest home-recording brands, Fostex and Tascam, make sub-$100 analog units, the X-12 and the MF-P01, respectively. That's good news for aspiring bedroom heroes who don't like fussing with PCs, or simply prefer the scratchy dither of tape to the austerity of ones and zeroes.

The staying power of the four-track recorder also got me thinking about the reasons legacy technologies stick around—to please us cheapskates, but also because newer isn't always better. More rambling wisdom, of varying quality, after the jump. PLUS: Shameless self-promotion like you wouldn't frickin' believe.

Obviously, the main reason that legacy technologies stick around is to pacify those of us who've made tremendous investments in media. As I write these words, I'm staring at one of my shelves that's weighed down by a two-deep row of VHS tapes—among them a beyond-precious copy of my 1984 appearance on episode two of Punky Brewster. (No, I'm not making this up.) There's an old JVC VCR player stashed beneath my bed, but I doubt it still works—the curse of analog is that parts fray and snap. But someone, somewhere will keep making barebones VCR players until Kingdom Come, because I'm merely one of millions stuck with an outmoded library of analog media. For $20, I can get myself a Zenith VCS442, and watch my old tapes 'til the cows come home.

Four-track recorders, however, are an entirely different low-end beast. You create, rather than play, the media with these things, so it's not like Fostex and Tascam have to keep making 'em to appease folks who've invested small fortunes in tape. But analog four-tracks persist for two reasons near-and-dear to those of my short-armed, deep-pocketed, not-that-bright ilk: price and ease-of-use. Yes, you can get a digital home-recording studio going for a relative song, but you're still talking several hundred dollars worth of software, fancy cables, etc. (not counting the computer itself). At $99, plus a few bucks extra for some Radio Shack input cords, the Fostex X-12 makes music truly an entry-level pastime.

The second point isn't gonna play well with an audience as sharp as y'all, but there's also something to be said for a four-track's simplicity. Mixing software can be confusing, at least compared to the visceral experience of twiddling knobs on your Tascam. And maybe it's because I'm getting old—32 today!—but I like the idea of ushering your young'uns into music recording with an analog recorder. Think of it as a souped-up Fisher-Price toy, then upgrade Junior to an Alesis ADAT-HD24 once he's proven that the whole rock-and-roll thing isn't some fleeting phase.

I'm also gonna throw down the old-guy gauntlet and state that there is a certain romantic appeal to analog sound. I say this as a devoted record geek, and thus a person predisposed to enjoying a bit of dither in his sound. The digital-versus-analog argument has been endlessly rehashed by people far more musically talented than I, so I won't make a fool of myself here. But for music neophytes, there's got to be some value to joining the analog tradition from the get-go—the scratchiness of tape is something that's always characterized the early recordings of artists, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Plus, low-quality Radio Shack mics tend to sound better on analog recorders—the products' shortcomings can be written off as quaint when hissing through a tape, while the MP3 format tends to reveal their serious limitations in a starker way.

Low End Theory: Four to the Floor

The bottom line is that I hope analog four-track recorders won't disappear anytime soon. They remain a great way to draw low-end consumers (and, more importantly, their offspring) into the universe of music creation. My only gripe is that $99 still sounds pretty steep to me. I know this isn't the greatest comparison in the world, but the Coby CX-R-122 cassette recorder can be had for under $17, and probably less if you shop around. Multiply that one-track recorder by four, and you get a price under $80. Sound doable, oh mandarins of Fostex and Tascam? The next King Buzzo might be sitting out there right now, wishing he could scrape together that last $20 to get himself a four-track. Make his life easier.

BEST OF TECH: I'm always reluctant to engage in anything that smacks of self-promotion, but that's loser talk, eh? So if you're looking for a good autumn read, may I humbly suggest you pick up a copy of Best of Technology Writing 2006, edited and introduced by your humble narrator. It ain't exactly The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but it's a pretty darn entertaining compendium of savvy tech writing, featuring such stars as Adam L. Penenberg, Steven Levy, Clive Thompson, and Steven Johnson. Plus, after the first, like, million copies are sold, I start getting a nickel's worth of royalties on each additional book we peddle. And Lord knows the wife is begging, begging for a new coffee maker.

Thank you for your support.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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