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Leaving Tracks: the Advent of the VS-880 +15

This post isn't particularly tied to a single date or event, but rather a season of 1997 that turned out to really reinvent my life for some years to come. A few times in this journal there have been tales of my small but mighty VS-880 recorder and how the Hog Heaven Studio era played out. It's almost easy to forget a period that preceded that, but one that sowed the seeds of a rather hot and heavy period of recording.

pretending to pick my nose in a goofy shot of me up near my cassette deck mountain, 1995My mountain of cassette decks, numbering up to nine individual wells in three double and three single deck devices! 1995

You see, the VS-880 was my first digital recorder that promised me the aural riches of nondestructive, nonlinear editing. In 1997, when I got it, that seemed unimagineably mind blowing to me. These days we can't imagine doing anything on the computer without levels of undo and the ability to constantly move text, video, audio, and images around freely. Because I was a rather late bloomer when it came to digital life and computers, such options were far out for me. All my recording thus far had been on cassette tapes, mostly on the garden variety stereo-in-two directions type that anyone could record with gear from a home electronics shop, and then for a period of just under two years, I used a TASCAM 424 four track recorder. The VS-880 was a stratospheric leap from all that.

Enter the VS

I spent the spring and summer of 1997 watching my pizza delivery earnings pile up, and a relative windfall of $1400 when I sold my extensively reworked Pearl knockoff set. A lot of days were spent in the musical gear porn magazines MIX! and Electronic Musician, fantasizing about either a four track minidisk recorder or the more complex and robust VS-880, recording to an internal hard disk of (wait for it) a whopping 540 megabytes!  The thought of shelling out $1,800 made me dizzy but this promised to be worth it. The editing options offered the means to do things I had barely yet even thought of, but was bound to do eventually. At the time, I had modest expectations of being able to silence empty parts of tracks, collage things, and generally have more mix control over the eight tracks, which was a fantastic doubling of capability. Such a thing as the 64 virtual tracks led to fanciful thoughts unimaginable on tape where I'd been able to bounce two or three tracks to an open track, or if needed, bounce all four to another cassette and then if needed, back into the four track to add more tracks, and so on. Those days seemed numbered and fading into irrelevance. If there was to be bouncing, it would be in glistening, (nearly) lossless digital quality.

The machine, once I brought it home in mid August, was bewildering. Even with all the manual booklets, there were so many new terms that I did not know and some that I'd still not know even as I retired it four years later (maybe because I did not need MIDI or other synchronization features). I found the easiest way to start in with the new machine was to take my TASCAM and hook up the line outs to the corresponding four channels into the VS. That way, I was able to capture my current recordings and set about having something to work with while not exactly losing ground if nothing panned out for me. But that was of little concern for the most part, since I found myself doing this transfer on a lot of material in progress, and then really not looking back. The TASCAM's days were numbered. If anything, the only reason for using it was that it did something to the sound because of the noise reduction scheme. I can't say it was "the" analog sound but there is a character that I found pleasing for the time when both machines were in use, prior to Hog Heaven Studio's opening in summer of 1998.


As it was, the project I set for myself was something that is still unfinished even these 15 years later, a thing called ReCyclED. ReCyclED was a recreational re-doing of a list of goofy and irreverent songs that I did with Matt Zuniga in the Rhythmic Catharsis days of 1992-1993, and intermittently since. After the dark and angst-ridden Hog Heaven from earlier in 1997, something downright stupid was in order, especially with the prospect of the TASCAM's four tracks letting me develop things a bit more than what Matt and I had the ability to do with drums, voice, and some percussive toys all captured to a couple cassettes and added mic inputs. I'd spent some time during the summer knocking out drum tracks, trying to recreate the old magic on my own, and when possible, adding guitar or bass-sounding low end with the help of a pitch shifter or a keyboard on loan, or maybe even a bass on loan for a short while. It was fun but the real fun started once the 880 came onto the scene. ReCyclED was the perfect project to put it to the test. And my apartment was a fine place to have some of the effects and editing features because I was on a rather austere noise diet at that apartment, with a stodgy and fussy family on one wall and a rather fussy roommate down the hall.

Drums in Exile, Redux

Not all the tracks could be done convincingly at home in that room. The entire founding story of Rhythmic Catharsis was one of being exiled from our suburban bedrooms into the underground or otherwise cavernous parking lots and garages in the commercial zones of town, playing drums and screaming on weekends and in the middle of the night, often as loud and indulgently as possible. Subtlety was not our thing. The godlike thunder of an untamed (unmuffled) acoustic drum set surrounded by concrete walls was our sonic calling card. It was a sound that is impossible to capture any other way, short of playing in an aircraft hangar. The nights spent outside doing this young men's ritual in the early 1990s were considered part fun and part therapy, hence the name we adopted as our moniker. There was something about the security of two sets of eyes out there during the middle of the night in places that were otherwise quiet and sometimes a bit creepy. I have done solo nights of this kind but I never liked to do so if I had to be extra vigilant about my surroundings. It wasn't too hard to imagine it being the perfect situation to be robbed of my stuff (my older drum set was sold in mid 1997, so I was now using my babies, my high end Premiers exclusively) by a few guys who could easily drive up with a truck while I was wailing away, unable to hear their approach, and years before I'd ever have a cell phone. So those nights were never so fun as when Matt and I were doing our duo stuff, even if he never really tried to do any of this with any true conviction.

The Road to Hog Heaven is not without Potholes

my drum set in a garage where I set up with my drums and recording gear to get some tracks for new materialDrums at Greg's place, with a bunch of percussion junk nearby, and the mixer rack off to my left

Art Pacheco, my roommate at the apartment, was a punk guitarist in a band called Frame 313 and his drummer Greg Benoit was nice enough to host my drums at his house not far away in Clairemont. (Coincidentally, it was right next door to a childhood foe of mine, Brad Tade, a tough Irish dude who once thought nothing of slogging me in the street on the way home from school and leaving me unconscious for several minutes. I later got an equally uneasy feeling around Brad when we both appeared at our 20th reunion last year. And also coincidentally, a neighbor about six houses up was recalled to be a drummer playing whatever garage rock his heart was set on back in 1983 while I was hot to trot for this cute girl named Christine Huggard who lived a few houses over. And now it was my turn, just down the road on the same cul-de-sac. I digress.) Greg let me in to play maybe a couple times per week for a few weeks that summer. I had my TASCAM there, fronted by my Mackie 1202 mixer, a few mics (a Radio Shack PZM for the kick, a cheap SM58 knockoff for the snare, and a couple authentic SM57s which I still use), my Alesis 3630 compressor, and a DigiTech Studio Quad multieffects processor. The rig was definitely on the low end but it did let me tailor my sound going in, and the degree of sonic precision available was high compared to the plain old cassette days with Matt Zuniga, even if there was no way to capture the godlike thunder of the drums in a concrete garage. At Greg's, I had the drums set up, miced, kick drum blanketed, mixer and small rack within reach, and I felt like a king.

I don't recall if I broke down the recording part of that each time, or if I just left it all up and ready, but eventually the Greg offer came to an end for some reason after a few weeks. Probably the usual noise complaints, or someone moving. Anyhow, all the gear eventually got absorbed back to my apartment, and with a few minor exceptions of my risking a very hushed drum recording in my room, or even taking the kit out to some parking garages and setting up my gear to play and record drums, I didn't really play drums again until the Hog Heaven days that kicked off in June 1998. I think I recall there being eight months or so that I didn't play drums. I just kept trying to use drum recordings in clever ways, using the delay hold function in the Studio Quad to appropriate up to 1.6 seconds of "loopable" drum material, or even playing in one noise or another and letting it build up. Of course, that was more desperate than just using jammed out recordings which were improvised with some feel for what I thought the lyrics required, and then using those two things as the basis for further work back home. As I was doing this, it was months before I even got the okay to start on Hog Heaven, and about four months more before it was ready to set up and use. Drumming was a luxury for that period. This in particular was a rich time for learning the VS-880 and messing with sounds.

Bad Cop, No Donut

One night in September 1997, about a month or so after I got the VS-880, I hauled the drums, mics, and small rack along with the new-and-still-largely unexplored VS out to one of the old garages where Matt and I often played during the second half of 1992. One song in particular, a tribal pounder called When The Elephants Fight, something that went back to the end of 1992 in its original form, was something there was no way to record except at full power. The vocal itself got into some loud, screamed passages. Since they were parts that were already more or less established from our earlier recordings, I set about recording each in a couple takes after getting a sound. (The early idea for ReCyclED was to do little more than current versions of old stuff, and maybe to spend six months on the project. All that went out the window when the digital options took over!) I thought that being out at this building in Kearny Mesa would be uneventful. It always had been. It had AC power, lighting in the garage, and enough cover to mask my location. What I didn't bargain for was that in the middle of the night on a Saturday, some clown would be upstairs at work. And that from his vantage point, he'd not hear the finer nuances of my vocal performance and my um, lyrical poeticism (ahem!). Instead, this joker called the cops and from nowhere came the cops in at least one car, maybe a second. They inquired of me about some complaints that I was screaming about raping children or something. I don't recall exactly what they said, but the caller just heard screaming and drums a-pounding and was scared and bothered. The thing is, it was more baffling to the cops because by that time the drums had been taken down and for no real reason but the messing with my new recorder and mics, I turned the overhead mics over to my open truck hood and I was recording the engine idling and revving up. This was just incongruous enough for the cops to wonder what the fuck was going on. I think I said I was just experimenting. From my upstairs apartment, I don't have any way to record my truck engine, et cetera. Dumb question, dumb answer. Of course, this was the end of the session for that night so I had to pack and go home. This might have been the end of the drumming for several months. Within a few months, the lyrics for Bad Cop No Donut took form, and in part chronicled the incident, and also another run in with the porcine patrol, the infamous Toss Panos/San Diego Streaker night from June, a few months earlier.

Bad Cop No Donut was one of the major productions done upon the VS-880, and was a project that had at least two primary versions with wholly different lineups and a lot of twiddling. It was emblematic of the VS era, but more so the digital era of always being able to dabble and fix and nip and tuck. A track like that was originally done around Bryan "Nucci" Cantrell's rather improvised drum part, done in a local rehearsal facility, and that I captured in stereo mix to DAT recorder in September 1997 with little more than a directive to play something disco like. So he delivered this loose and driving drum part that sounds exactly as it appears in the song. Then I took it home and eventually the song took some form as I added guitar parts, bass, even some keyboards, a lot of vocals, and then kept trying to find my balance. For the first time, I had to power to put too much in. The brilliance of the VS-880 for me was in those eight tracks there was enough space to get a lush mix and almost enough to get too much. A recording like Bad Cop No Donut, if spread out in full track count across a larger format tape (or moreso, across the nearly endless track capacity in computer based workstations), would have to reflect about six channels of Nucci's drums, my bass (with parts featuring a wah pedal), acoustic guitar, Todd Larowe's two rhythm guitars, and a few other guitar tracks for solos, effects like sirens, backwards stuff by Ron Sada, shredding and harmonized parts by Todd Larowe, and finally a shitload of my vocals—triple tracked lead for depth and fullness in the mix, quadruple tracked chorus backgrounds shouted repeatedly into one mic by Matt and I, and then some character voices too, done by Matt. If I had 24 tracks of 2" tape, I'd probably have filled it out. Instead, the arrangement cuts detailed parts in and out of tracks, bounces the more lush stuff to either a mono stem (all manner of guitar solo ideas cut a few bars at a time) a stereo mix of all vocals, and so on. The amount of stuff I wedged into the eight playback tracks makes me grin with marvel. Other similarly produced tracks done on the VS (and took a damned long time to record and re-record) include The Power of Disco (two very different versions exist and were done in this way, the first using a short segment of the Nucci track that ended up better serving Bad Cop), Zehdihm's Flight (with the Mike Keneally version ending up as a discard on account of tinny keyboard sounds that his one hour session did not allow us to work out), 8th Grade Report Card, Endless Cycle, Is God Trying to Make Me a Smoker?, etc.

New Tools, New Technique

The VS-880, in addition to providing lots of new track space to work with and to build out fuller mixes with more details, included some new tools to mess with audio. The nonlinear editing was huge to me. I originally got into editing so I could cut out some parts that were inherited from the TASCAM tapes, with bits that I'd mix out on that machine, but could precisely and permanently cut out on the 880. The ability to do the copying and pasting meant that I could use any source and draw something from it. Collaging things became easy since things could slide this way or that on the timeline with some great precision. The ability to set auto punch locations or to just use a bunch of virtual tracks prior to compiling the best parts of various takes meant that my ability to fix parts was greatly improved. This was important since it was during the 880 era when I gleefully bought, borrowed, or perhaps stole (not really) all sorts of instruments and devices and tried to wrangle sounds out of all of it, not always succeeding early on. Some tracks, like The Power of Disco (Compels You) or Bad Cop or The End of the Road for Missy the Cow, featuring cameos from a number of players and singers, afforded me the great chance to get some interestingly rich tracks together and to keep finding people who might work better for the track. Disco and Bad Cop took about a year each to nail down.

It took a bit less time to finish the tracks but no less a challenge to artfully develop an approach I used a few times: playing drum parts to establish a loop section, and then playing some live parts into the track, sometimes days or weeks later, trying to get a matched sound and feel that didn't sound weak (because looping drums automatically sets up a rather fixed dynamic for the song, and playing live will then not seem so consistent in volume and tone, even if done on the same kit, etc.) The two tracks that show off the approach best are The Power of Quim and Up a Dog is a Toy Experience. In each, I built the tracks off of looped material, then found I needed more drum activity and feel, so I had to set about playing in appropriate parts for a few bars at a time, and working hard to keep it sounding like they were single performances. You'll notice that the um, lyrical material on each is a bit peculiar. On The Power of Quim, I harnessed the Matt-isms that accumulated in the fall of 1998 when he'd come by and talk the oddest shit, and I later took snippets of it and kept morphing the details of what he was saying. Up a Dog is a bunch of random nonsense that turned out to sing well but was otherwise meant to sort of mock the San Diego poetry scene that Kelli was a part of then, as I witnessed it during a period when we hung out years before we became an item. I wrote it so I might go up and deliver it as a reading if ever prodded. Later on it turned into the loose and funky track once Todd Larowe left his JC-120 amp at my place for long enough that I put it to some use. Once I got my Mesa Tremoverb, the tinny JC was on its way back to Todd and I never used another amp at my studio except for single songs using someone else's gear if they brought it at all, or if I were to store it as part of my cartage/tech work.

Tom Griesgraber cutting the solo for a track on ReceivingTom Griesgraber at Hog Heaven in 1999, recording 8th Grade Report Card

A track like Farm Animals, a wacky thing that was only ever a drum/vocal screamer kind of thing in the old days with Matt, was one of the earlier things I did on the 880. I'd not yet been introduced to the word but the idea was known from listening to Frank Zappa: xenochronous recording. That is, combining unrelated musical parts done on different recorders at different times and places to achieve another piece of music. I had some drum bits that I'd recorded one day at one of the parking garages and had imported to the 880. Then, one day in late November 1997 and in a totally separate recording, a nice lad who answered my ad for Chapman Stick player came down and played some odd stuff in the name of a soundcheck or just some noodling. I kept recording the stuff then asked him to do some overdubs. It was all odd stuff and had nothing in common with the drums. But after he left, somehow I combined the drums and the various Stick parts, did a bit of copy editing to extend things to suit my lyrics, and then used the 880's absurdly wacky vocal transformer at the same time as I cut the track, the effect being printed as I went. Later on, the Stick player—a guy named Tom Griesgraber—and having only been using it for four months, progressed to be one of the leading Stick players, and a major promoter of the instrument, not to mention a peer among the Peter Gabriel/King Crimson players, having done albums and performances with Jerry Marotta, California Guitar Trio, and others. Tom appears in a slightly more serious player's role on 8th Grade Report Card, and again in the goofiest role as the bass player on Missy The Cow. There are a couple other tracks from the era that no one will hear anytime soon.

After getting a feel for the 880, another idea dawned on me. Earlier in 1997 I'd released Hog Heaven, a four-track sourced cassette release with me on nearly all sounds done at my apartment (except for a few odd bits where I used parts of a jam done elsewhere and with other people and either edited it or immersed it in a sea of effects). In those days, I always used digital editing as a way to assemble the final running order and flow. It was influenced by Mike Keneally and Frank Zappa. The thing is, I didn't realize that they were more likely than I to compose their songs with that in mind. So I did my version of it, assembling things that didn't always flow so well, and with studio time at $60 per hour, I could not afford to experiment much. And then a thing like Hog Heaven, which was rich in sonic texture and atmosphere and sound design, lent itself to the process. I did pay one guy to do it but had a hard time liking the result. The recordings were odd enough that I didn't need to feel that I missed my mark with the final collage work. So what I did was to go back to the four track tapes, import them into the 880, where useful, separate the parts that might have been punched into empty spaces on tracks, and other things that would help me control the sound more. I had the eight tracks, more effects, more EQ control, and some ability to re-compose things a bit to help the transitions. I ended up remixing much of the material and then using the 880 to then redo the entire running order with the tracks flowing far more appealingly. I used the opportunity to ditch one track that was filler and to put two others in. Then, once I had the entire thing remixed and playing as an album playing back as desired, I then took it to a new place for mastering. While it's never possible to totally disguise the relatively novice gear and performances, it was by far a nicer thing to hear in the second incarnation. It was also the first project I did that was released as a CD-R product, with all product being recorded at home. The cover art unfortunately was a dismal thing that probably moved four steps back for every step forward in the recorded part. The best part of that fiasco was that on the day I was printing it at Kinko's, a cute girl walked up and asked about it. Her name was Sarah. Oh, but that is a few other blogs' material...

Digital Heaven before Hog Heaven

That period of about a year from the time I got the VS-880, and into the new space at Hog Heaven Studio was the beginning of the magical period. It had its problems though. You see, it was the first computer device I ever had. I had to get my lessons in digital housekeeping the hard way. Did I know what "disk initialize" meant? Did I care? Well, I learned it pretty well when three tracks went to digital heaven in the days or so after Tom Griesgraber recorded our first attempts at Missy the Cow (with his guitar synth playing drums, I think), The Power of Disco (then named according to what I'd called it in 1993, "Disco Fever"), and another song. Well, that hurt. But Tom came down another time and we set about work on new versions or just other things. The 880, loaded only with a 540 megabyte drive, was not too dangerous, but the sting was felt when I lost those tracks. Around that time, I paid a whopping $375 for a new drive that would fit in there and serve my needs to the tune of ... THREE gigabytes! I got a backup drive, a 1.5 GB cartridge SyJet or something. One went bad. Oh, goody. Then I bought another, put the defective one into its box, and took it back to the store for a refund. That worked for the duration of my 880 era work but now does not work, so things on it are essentially lost unless I track down another drive like it. Less lost are the more incremental and hopefully mix ready CD-R session backups that must be brought to the 880 for mixing, and then if I ever wanted to bring them to a contemporary machine, I can play it out two tracks at a time with a MIDI machine synch. If I pick my work carefully, I could see doing it that way, but it's woefully inefficient. That's what I've come to hate about Roland. That was especially so when I got the VS-2480 in 2001 and found all sorts of proprietary issues that led me to sell that and get out of Roland's VS series (except that I still have my 880 and find that my fingers still know where to go pretty intuitively even years later). Anyhow, the 880 was my foray into digital audio, for better or for worse. I loved it until I had some kind of digital issue. Every now and then I found there'd be some corrupted file playback until I optimized the drive (defrag). Funnily, it took getting into actual computer based recording before I realized how good I had it on the VS series, at least in regards to how files were handled. That is to say, I had little control because they were behind the scenes except when it came time to do backups of whole projects.

Modest little room adorned in some goofy pig paraphernalia given to me by folks. Not a lot of gear yet, but it was growing...Hog Heaven, early 1999, with the VS 880 situated dead center

My complaints were generally few. By having a front end that fed mostly complete sounds into the 880, I found that I could use the onboard processing for getting a mix, rather than doing all the heavy tone-shaping. My analog front end evolved to include a nice and smooth Allen and Heath mixer, several channels of DBX or Alesis compression, a Behringer unit that widened my stereo spread and offered that kind of sweetening. I also had some evolving mix of effects processors. I'd mix my sounds (drums for example) on the way into the 880 where I'd almost never record anything but stereo mixes. A bass needing a flanger would be recorded with the effect. A guitar with an echo or lush chorus would get that before being recorded. Upon mixdown, I'd add more effects for the gluing effect, maybe to add stereo effects where the tracked ones had to be in mono to use track space wisely. The returns on the effects could be EQed and dialed in with the stereo widening device. All the high end on reverb would be rolled off on the mixer so the effect was more natural. That would be rolled back into the 880's returns. Listen to a track like Endless Cycle or Threads or Pearls Before the Swine from Receiving, and hear what a rich lush sound I got from my 8-track recorder with gear that anyone could buy from Guitar Center.

The Hog Heaven Sound Rules

When I listened to local recordings from San Diego studios, the ones known for being demo dens and other knock-em-out rooms where garage and clubbing bands would record, my mixes always sounded more cutting, more open, less chunky. I don't know whether it's that I love a good drum sound that isn't damped down with tape and pillows. Or that I spent more time dialing in complementary bass/drum sounds, or that I used a range of instruments that a guitar-slinging alt-rock band won't use. But I was very proud of my sound, all the more remarkable considering the VS-880 was never housed in anything more robust than an apartment room or a converted garage. The fact that Mike Keneally himself released some recordings that were done at Hog Heaven delights me, even though none of that is what I would have delivered if I knew he was going to use them. What still amazes me even today is that on that modest machine, I produced recordings of a kind of depth and completeness that even three subsequent digital platforms (VS-2480, Pro Tools LE, Logic) have not prompted me to learn and develop so fully. Granted, there has been a lot of other issues involved, but it's amazing to listen to the things I did on that "limited" machine, and to know I made stuff that amused me, or recorded for others, even getting an international recording credit.

Man, what button do I press in Logic to have that happen again?