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John's History of Recording: Part One

First Tape Recorder

In 1960 I was 12 years old, just beginning guitar lessons and regularly visiting the Western Auto store in Agawam, MA. I went there principally to buy 45 rpm records but I also liked to check out all the other cool things that the store carried. It was a real "variety store" that specialized in auto parts but also sold Western Flyer bicycles, sports gear, Truetone guitars, fishing rods, guns, you name it.

One day my eye caught something new, a compact and portable tape recorder like the one pictured below:

John-Kusiak-1st-tape-recorder.jpeg

I had previously been able to experiment briefly with a tape recorder that a friend's parents had in their home and was fascinated by it. Here was an opportunity to get my own; a TrueTone single track recorder. I don’t remember the cost, but I imagine it was under $25 and I probably purchased it with money saved up from my paper route.

So much fun! I used it to record myself and my best friend Greg performing silly interviews as we pretended to be celebrities, to record songs I liked off of my transistor radio, and to collect environmental sounds like thunder, cars passing, and birds singing.

It also provided me with the opportunity to practice improvising with my guitar; I’d record several minutes of the chords from a song I was working on, rewind and then solo along with the playback. Many hours were spent with this activity.

Sound-On-Sound

When I was in high school, one of my bands (The Charmen, a “witty” play on the name of the toilet paper) somehow acquired a “manager.” He happened to own a tape recorder, which he brought to my house when we were practicing. This recorder had the ability to record “sound on sound” (SoS).

SoS was invented by Les Paul and describes the ability of a stereo, 2-track recorder to record from one of the tracks to the other – while simultaneously recording whatever new input you gave it. This was the “holy grail” because it allowed you to build up multiple tracks and create a complete song all by yourself. 

Start with a rhythm guitar recorded on track 1, then as you play it back, you record bass and “bounce” both the original rhythm guitar along with the bass into track 2. When you were satisfied with that performance, you could play that combo back from track 2 while adding percussion and record it all back on to track 1. And so on, and on, and on…

Of course, you had to to erase the original rhythm guitar track in order to bounce the three instruments back on track 1, so you had better like the original track the way it was because there would be no going back. Also, each “bounce” would add more tape hiss (a by-product of the tape recording process) from the original track along with the hiss being generated by the new recording, so there was a limit to how many times you would want to bounce things. However, it gave me, an aspiring composer/arranger, the opportunity to try things out, see how they sounded, and create new music compositions all by myself.

It was mind-blowing and addictive. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Here’s a picture of a 2-track recorder that had the ability to record “sound on sound.”

John-Kusiak-SoS-recorder

And here’s a piece I composed based on a lullaby; playing 4 guitars, overdubbed, using the SoS technique (notice the tape hiss):

Further reading: http://www.les-paul.com/timeline/sound-on-sound/

 

Throwback Thursday: The Gardener

John-Kusiak-1979

When I was younger I struggled with how to make a living in music. I found intervals of success as a performing musician and composer, but with a wife and a child, the pressing needs of a family required me to supplement sporadic music-related income with various odd jobs; taxi driver, house painter, mover, 5 Star Music Masters ghost writer, etc. The usual drill would be: come home from working, often pretty exhausted, and then burn the midnight oil practicing, composing and studying music or playing a gig. This routine would work temporarily, but then, sooner or later, I’d end up resenting (hating) the job and would quit. For a while things would be okay, and I’d be happy to be back making music full-time. Then the money would run out and I’d have to take another “real” job.

Many of my friends and bandmates had decided to throw the towel in on a career in music and went back to school to get a degree in computer science or something more conducive to earning a livelihood. I resisted the drive toward this kind of “plan B” and so at age 32, there I was watering plants in department stores and offices part-time and still composing and practicing guitar whenever I could fit it in. Plant maintenance wasn't a bad job, but it wasn't what I really wanted to be doing. I was disheartened and kind of embarrassed wearing a shirt with a company logo.

Branch

I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but one day, something changed; a shift in my thinking occurred. My attitude changed and with it, my whole life. It might have had something to do with the fact that my father was an avid gardener and though I often tried to avoid helping him in the garden as a kid, some of his love of gardening and expertise with plants must have rubbed off on me. I grew intrigued by the challenge of learning about how to grow things. There was so much to learn about taking care of plants; I started checking books out of the library and reading about plant care (“Crockett’s Victory Garden,Rodale’s series on organic gardening, “The Secret Life of Plants," etc.). As is my wont, I got obsessed with the subject.

One day, as I was caring for the plants at Bloomingdales, I remember saying to myself, “I’m not going to just quit this job. Instead, I’m going to be the very best plant tender I can be.” (Sounds kind of silly, I know.) Along with that thought came the realization that if I threw myself whole-heartedly into the job (while still continuing to practice and study music in my spare time), I’d be able to transcend the job for something better, rather than quit because I couldn’t stand it anymore. Instead, I could “pass through” the job and never have to do that kind of work for money again. In focusing on the present situation and being there completely, I experienced a feeling of certainty that, in the end, I would find a way to make a living in music. 

It took a little time, but that's exactly what happened. I had been a prisoner of my mindset and I had to recognize that fact. Instead of quitting, I had to do the very best I could with the present situation, to accept it, in order to move on and escape my self-created prison.

What happened next is another story…