"Distortastudio" Colour Design Pt. 1 April 3, 2015 13:27


I remember the first time I got really excited about a recorded sound I made. It was spring break of my senior year of high school. I was planning on spending the two weeks all my friends were away making an indie hip-hop masterpiece in my bedroom. I had everything I needed: a Radioshack microphone (not even a cool old "Realistic" model), my notebook from junior English's poetry unit, a toy "African" hand drum,  and my friend's TASCAM 424 mkiii Portastudio.

I figured the "masterpiece" part would be how I created all the sick beats with just a toy drum and the magic of overdubbing. Alas, upon the first playback of the "kick drum" track of the first song I realized it just sounded... like a toy drum. Spring break was going to suck!

Then out of frustration I cranked the "Trim" knob all the way up and recorded it again. Suddenly it was AWESOME. It sounded like the kick drum was so huge and loud that it was literally breaking this puny 4-track. It was trashy and cheap, but also huge and crispy. And something I could imagine El-P thinking was cool. I made a cool sound! All by myself in my bedroom while my friends were in Mexico!

Designing a "Distortatstudio" Colour Module

So this month we're out to recapture some of that solid-state, pro-sumer, shitty-is-pretty magic with a new module for the Colour format. We're calling it the "Distortastudio." And like we did with the creation of the Colour format, we're going to "live blog" the design process and solicit your feedback along the way. 

You can follow along and get involved in these places:

The Genuine Article

Clearly, the place to begin our Distortastudio design is to play around with the real deal. Luckily, DIYRE kitting specialist Jesse Gimbel's TASCAM 464 has been sitting in my attic for a year. So we hauled it into the office and ran some signals through it to see if the magic was still there.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect; I haven't recorded on a cassette machine since college. But wow did we have a lot of fun making that thing sound like it was exploding! At moderate overdrive, it's actually surprisingly musical in cheap, lo-fi kind of way. A max gain, things get brutally trashy.  It brings me right back to the days of recording over my dad's Gypsy Kings cassettes by putting scotch tape over the protection tabs.



Three Tones in One Gray Plastic Box

We tried out the 464 in three modes: mixer only (no tape), tape at "Normal" speed, and tape and "High" speed. As you can hear below, each of these has a rather distinct sound.

  1. Without hitting the tape, you get a brighter, "harder" tone. 
  2. The tape at normal speed is very dark and gooshy. It adds a good bit more distortion and compression and significantly rolls off the high end. (At least with the old mix tape we recorded over, which is the most authentic way to do it, right?)
  3. The tape at high speed is brighter than 1 but smoother than 2.

But don't take my word for it, check out the samples below:

Getting Started

So we're pretty jazzed to start designing this thing. While we were crushing drums with his poor 464, Jesse said "if you could make me a Colour that sounded like that, I would buy it." Challenge accepted! (Idea for new business model: borrow peoples' gear for a year until they forget they have it, then sell them a Colour that sounds like said gear.)

Over the next week, we'll be doing initial research--we've already paid actual money for a 464 service manual and dismantled the 464 to Jesse's consternation. Next Wednesday (4/15/2015) we'll post our first stab at the circuit and share what our research has turned up.

Since we've just begun and pretty much everything's up in the air, we'd love to get your feedback in the comments.

  • Would you be interested in a Colour like this? (Don't worry, if you say no we'll just make it for ourselves.)
  • Which tone should we aim for? No tape, normal-speed tape, or high-speed tape?
  • Any initial thoughts on how we might go about the circuit?
  • Any other thoughts?

While you're commenting, please enjoy this ode to the TASCAM 424 from one of my personal recording heroes: