GETTING MORE TALE #796: Improvisation
When I need a particular piece of audio hardware today, I just have to decide what I want and order it. It’ll be at the house two days later. Oh, I need some more RCA cables to plug my tape deck into my PC? No problem. What colour and how long? We have become soft and spoiled today, with the convenience of everything we desire at our fingertips. Want a frozen turkey delivered to your front door? No problem. I’ll get you a turkey. Or RCA cables. Anything.
In the 1980s, we had to improvise.
When I first discovered music, the second most important music-related activity (after listening of course) was taping. It was the easiest, cheapest way to get new music and there was a social aspect to it as well. You had to borrow an album from someone, go to their house to tape it, or vice versa. Most kids had a budget price dual tape deck. I had a single-deck Sanyo, eventually getting a dual deck boom box for Christmas of 1985. By today’s standards, recording tape-to-tape on a cheap deck yields horrendous results. In 1985, it was the next best thing to owning the album yourself. If you were in a hurry, you could use the high speed dubbing feature but that always created speed and warble issues that we could even hear as kids. Regular speed dubbing was the only acceptable way to copy a tape. However sometimes we had to think outside the box.
The most notable instance of improvising with what we had was using speakers as impromptu microphones. It’ll work if you have nothing better to use. We used speakers as microphones frequently back then, but what about copying music tape to tape?
Let’s say I was making a mixed cassette, and that mix was going to have some live songs on it. There was no practical way to do a fade-in or fade-out on a low end dual tape deck. In this case, I would use a Walkman as an audio input to my recording deck. The sound was, shall we say, harsh. But you could do it. You could take a cable and go right from the headphone jack to the microphone-in jack on the deck, but that sounded pretty terrible. A better way was to use a cable that had a headphone jack on one end, split to RCA left and rights on the other. But I didn’t have one of those. I had to make it myself by splicing one to the other. Improvisation! We couldn’t just buy everything we wanted. Cables are still expensive today and finding the right ones in stock at a given time wasn’t a guarantee. You made due with what you had until you could afford to do better. Using the Walkman’s volume control, I could now fade in any live track I wanted. A small thing, but I was already ambitious. I enviously eyed pictures of mixing boards in guitar magazines.
Another issue I had was recording vinyl. I had never heard of a preamp. But I realized that my old turntable sounded better when plugged into something else first. My parents had an old receiver with an 8-track deck and radio. The 8-track didn’t work anymore but I used that gigantic unit to boost the signal from my turntable, before going into my tape deck. The sound was messy to say the least, but at least I was able to listen to and record my LPs.
I had a little shoebox full of stuff I needed to push my audio capabilities, a small but mighty toolbox of essentials. A tape head demagnetizer. Isopropyl alcohol and lint-free wipes. A record cleaning kit. A little magnetic screwdriver for taking apart cassette tapes. A gnarly pair of grey RCA cables that were the top of the line that I could afford. My prized possession: an RCA Y-connector. That baby enabled me to take a mono signal, like from the family VCR, and split it to faux-stereo for recording to cassette. Until we got a stereo VCR in the early 1990s, that Y-connector saw weekly usage on my Saturday mix tape sessions.
I had a little soldering kit that I could use to splice wires together, but one thing that I could never fix was a cheap set of Walkman earphones. The kind with the little foam earpieces. Utter shit, but that’s what we all had. The headphone jacks on those things would not take long to start shorting out. You’d go from a stereo signal to a mono signal to no signal back to mono without even moving it around. I tried everything and could never fix those damned shitty earphone cords. So you’d buy a new pair for $10 at the local Bargain Harold’s. Those would be good for about a week before starting to give you problems. Otherwise, everything that broke had to be fixed.
Maintaining your tape deck at home was essential, hence the isopropyl alcohol. Hold your breath, dab some of that on a lint-free cloth, and gently clean the rollers and capstans inside your treasured boom box. It would be remarkable how black that cloth could get. I used my tape deck a lot. I was constantly cleaning it, but it always had speed issues. This was probably more due to poorly made, tightly wound cassette tapes than the deck itself. Still, those old Sanyo tape machines were not designed to be worked as hard as I worked mine. If I had known what a Nakamichi Dragon was back then, I might have been more motivated to get a part-time job! But such machines were not available on an eighth grade allowance, nor was such a beast even known in these parts.
Using my limited resources, I was able to listen to and record from every format I had. My turntable was so old that I could even play 16 and 78 rpm records (not that I had any). Then a new format came along that slowly but surely digitised my entire world: the compact disc. I received my first CD player/tape deck for Christmas 1989, a mere four years after my first dual cassette. An eternity in teenager time. A significant fraction of my life to that point was spent meddling with tape decks and cables trying to get them to do what I wanted them to do. Now this compact disc comes along, allowing me to hear the most perfect audio I’d even been exposed to.
My first CD player on top of an old Lloyd’s 8-track/radio/receiver. The old setup!
I remember playing one of my first CDs, Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood, for my buddy Bob and his brother John. I skipped ahead to “Time For Change”, and then fast-forwarded to the fade out.
“Just listen to that!” I said with a proud look on my face, as I cranked the volume all the way to 10.
After a pause, John asked “What are we supposed to be hearing?”
“The silence! Listen to that silence!” There was no static on the digitally recorded, mixed and mastered fade out.
Bob and John weren’t as excited as I was, but the compact disc represented a new standard. The stuff I had wasn’t going to cut it forever. Soon, as long the source was digital, I was making mix tapes that sounded better than store bought.
As much as the results were often dicey, improvising with audio equipment was tremendously fun. Working with your hands, the satisfaction of getting something to work the way you wanted…it was a fun way to spend a Saturday in the 80s. Even if the only people who got to hear your handiwork were a handful of your neighbourhood friends and classmates.