New Life For An Old Friend
Today’s story is about a box that changed my life. It may sound like hyperbole, but I assure you it’s the swear-on-a-sleeve-of-Rao’s-noodles, absolute spaghetti monster’s honest truth. As all such sacredly sworn tales are required to begin, however, I must first digress to an event I described in my Long & Winding Road series which concerns my hobby as a part-time composer. If some of what I’m about to relate to you sounds extremely familiar, don’t worry, you aren’t having a stroke. Or at least probably not. But I’m summarizing here so you’ll have some important context for why I’ve recently embarked on a project that involves the aforementioned box, and why this project is kind of a big deal for me.
Our scene unfolds some thirty-nine years ago in my hometown of Sand Springs (a bedroom community to the west of Tulsa). I’d received an invitation from my friend Matt to come hang out in his private studio. It was situated in, what at the time, was a mostly empty former Christian Science Reading Room (which now serves as the local American Legion Post). Matt was recording what would become his first professional demo, and it would represent an important step in his journey towards becoming the rockstar he was destined to be. As fate would have it, that day in his studio would also have a profound effect on me.
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His setup there was basic, as is true of virtually every upstart musician’s first studio. He had a couple of his guitars, a trapset (which he gave to me about five years ago), a Roland JX-3P synthesizer (which he loaned to me for nearly three years in the early 90s), and at the center of it all was the box around which this convoluted narrative revolves, a TASCAM 388 Studio 8 “Portastudio”.
Released in 1985, the 388 was a scrappy piece of gear that combined an 8-track 1/4-inch Tascam reel-to-reel recorder with an integrated, full featured mixer. It was designed for musicians who wanted an all-in-one, professional-sounding production unit that also had the virtue of being reasonably portable. As opposed to the separate pieces of gear that it was meant to replace, it could easily be hauled around to gigs and ready to record at a moment’s notice with very little fuss. It was easy to use, packed with features, and most importantly, kissed every track with a magical analogue warmth and clarity unparalleled by any of the other portable, cassette-based recording solutions that preceded or followed after it. It became so ubiquitous that practically every 80s band you ever heard of cut their demos on it, and many even made final albums with the 388 from the comfort of their bedrooms and garages. It arrived at the perfect moment, precisely when the indie movement of the late 80s and early 90s was really starting to roll, and it played a big part in enabling small time artists to turn their dreams into big time reality.
REIGN OF THE “PORTASTUDIOS” - In 1979, TASCAM launched the Teac 144, a cassette-based, 4 track recorder that would lay the groundwork for the much more sophisticated 8-track Tascam 388 that debuted in 1985. Almost single handedly, TASCAM can be credited with kicking off a home recording revolution.
You’re probably asking by this point what, if anything, this all has to do with me. I teased you at the start with a claim that the 388 changed my life, but the answer can’t be self-evident just from what I’ve shared so far in this post, or based on what you probably already know about me. If you knew me principally as a musician, it might be easy to connect the dots and assume that learning about multitracking on the 388 led to my successful career as a multi-platinum recording artist. Sadly, that is not true (at least not yet or even anytime soon). But there were several important lessons for me that came out of that day with Matt.
The first lesson I got from my encounter with the 388 addressed my feelings of inadequacy as a performer. Seeing what was possible with a professional multitrack machine, I came to realize that you didn’t have to be perfect. Matt could make a million mistakes, but through the magic of “punching in” to a track on the 388 using a footswitch, he could make edits that were audibly invisible. Prior to this, all the tape editing I’d ever done involved a knife and a chopping block, and achieving an indetectable tape splice in a piece of music was next to impossible, or at least required a level of skill I didn’t possess. But I learned that day if I wanted to compose and record music, I didn’t have to be a virtuoso. As long as I was patient, and I kept doing retakes with the punch in switch, I could shape something that sounded as perfect as anything I heard on the radio.
The second lesson was learning how multitracking could enable me to take my radio dramas to the next level. I’d made my first the year previously while working as a disc-jockey at KTOW, a small country and western station located in Sand Springs (sadly now long gone). At the time we made our Halloween special Shadow of the Bulldog Man, most of the original dialog was recorded on an old school analogue two track in the station’s production suite, and was mixed together with pre-recorded music and sound effects using my boombox (It was not a prestigious bit of production). Thanks to my exposure to the 388, however, I returned to the station with a renewed zeal to make more audio dramas and to do it with higher production values possible through multitracking. Using the TASCAM, Matt had multiplied himself into an entire band, playing all the instruments and singing all the parts. It wasn’t difficult then for me to imagine how I could record different actors at different times, create layers upon layers of sound effects, and produce the complex soundscapes necessary for Uncharted Regions, the weird tales series that had been gestating in my head for months. The series would kick off on a Fostex X-15 4-track cassette recorder that I bought from my co-producer Ron Bolinger, and our last entry would be recorded on KTOW’s Fostex R8, an eight-track reel-to-reel recorder that was easily the most sophisticated bit of kit the station ever owned.
The reason why the 388 to audio drama connection is significant is that without it, if I hadn’t had that transformative day of watching Matt essentially recording an album on his own, the shape of my life and career would have been vastly different. Watching how the technology had empowered one person to be a whole band gave me the courage to try and realize Uncharted Regions. I saw that it was possible. In turn, the scripts that came out of producing the series became the very thing that opened the door to my career as a writer in the computer gaming industry. Those were the samples that got me my first writing job at New World Computing which in turn has become a thirty-four-year career (thus far).
Of course my attachment to the 388 goes far beyond a technological crush on a remarkable machine. It also represents for me a day spent with my friend Matt while he was doing the thing he loved most in the world, writing music. In modern parlance, this is a core memory for me, or an inflection point. The demo tape that he recorded that day is missing, and no relatives, friends, or professional associates still have one. (I lost my own copy to a car burglar in 1992). But what I remember most keenly, other than Matt himself, was the image of him standing before the 388 as if it were a glowing altar, and that is the context in which I now tend to remember it, a holy relic associated with Matt.
Trailing a Tascam
In the years following that fateful day in Matt’s studio, I became semi-obsessed with owning a 388 of my own. Even as newer technologies came along which theoretically rendered it obsolete, I never wavered in my desire to sit one alongside my collection of classic synths and to record with it. When I approached Matt with the idea that I’d buy his (if he still had it), he told me regretfully that he’d got rid of it a long time ago, and had no recollection to whom he’d sold it. Tracing it was simply impossible. His machine, like his first demo tape, had vanished into the mists of history. If I really wanted one, I’d just have to hunt.
The funny thing about certain kinds of technological advancement is that as computers have become better and better at making things cleaner and faster and more precise, artists and musicians now spent inordinate amounts of time (and money) trying to find ways to humanize or “dirty up” their all-digital creations. There are ridiculous numbers of programs out there (called VSTs) that attempt to replicate the suble distortion that a tube-type amp imparts to the sound of a guitar, or try to simulate the random aberations of “wow” and “flutter” which alter how a piece of music sounds when it’s recorded on a traditional tape machine. There’s even one meant to mimic the recording characteristics of the 388, but dialing in the right tone has thus far been a challenge. With a lot of tweaking and fussing and knob twiddling, it’s possible to malform digital sources to feel less robotic and more analogue-y. But what a lot of musicians prefer to do these days is simply go back to those old analogue synths and tape machines and other devices discarded by a previous generation who were chasing the clarity of digital nirvana and put them back to work making the warm, fuzzy, and distorted tones that gave them such character. The plain fact of the matter is that nothing sounds as real as the original hardware. And while that’s great news for music, it’s not so great news for someone like me looking for a bargain on a diminishing resource like the original 388.
If you rifle through listings of vintage music gear on eBay or Reverb, it’s easy to see that good gear holds its value, regardless of its year of manufacture or the availability of newer and more “technologically sophisticated” instruments. It’s not uncommon to find the blockbuster synthesizers of yesteryear like the Yamaha CS-80, the Sequential Circuits Prophet V, or the Oberheim Matrix all commanding prices in the thousands, somtimes tens of thousands of dollars. Thirty-nine years after its release, well-maintained 388s on average still command between $3500 and $5000 depending on their operational status and cosmetic appearance. It’s extraordinarily difficult to find one under $3000 that’s still operational. When you also factor in shipping charges — the 388 weighs a whopping 84 pounds — it’s easy for the total bill to tip $4000 even for the cheapest offerings. For the longest time, all I could do was scroll through the listings with techno-lust in my heart and weep.
In December of last year, I made the grim trek back home to Oklahoma to deliver an address at Matt’s memorial service. He had passed after a long battle with acute congestive heart failure, and although his death had not come as a surprise, accepting that it had actually happened didn’t take hold until I reached Bright Morning Farms where his service was held. There, the reality of it became impossible to avoid. All eighteen of his guitars were arrayed on stands encircling the room, and I knew that among them was the guitar he’d been playing when he recorded his demo tape on that fateful afternoon back in 1985. I felt a profound sense of connection in that moment to both the beginning and the end of his musical life.
Upon returning to San Diego, I had expected to be wrestling with the profound grief of his loss, but what I had not anticipated were the dreams that began to visit me nightly. I returned to that same recording session, over and over again. While I was conscious that he was gone in the dream, what I felt most profoundly was the joy he’d positively radiated while he’d been at work on his demo. I realized that this was a message reassuring me that things were going to be okay, but it also was a prompt for me to get to work. He was telling me to write a new song, practically almost demanding that I write a song. It shouldn’t be a sombre tune like “The Mare of Farewell” that I’d written as a shared memorial both to he and my mother a year before, but a pop tune addressed to the love of Matt’s life and to his daughter. His message was that he wanted everyone in his life to carry on, to chase their dreams and otherwise get on with all the things they should be doing in his absence. And thus, I got down to the business of composing “Carry On”.
During a break in the songwriting process (and it’s still ongoing), I tried to imagine what the sleeve might look like if “Carry On” was released as an old school single on vinyl. Almost immediately, the perfect cover image flashed before my eyes. In order to stage it, I’d have to find someone with a 388, but after a quick flurry of social media posts, I established that no one I knew possessed one, or even had access. I would need to rely on the cooperation of strangers.
Over the years of dutifully monitoring auction sites, I was aware that they frequently surfaced for sale in Los Angeles, and I harbored the dim hope that maybe some kind-hearted owner might be willing to let me come up and stage a few photos. Unfortunately, all of my emails went unanswered. A few days later, however, my wife asked if we could drive up to LA so that she could purchase a library cart (to keep all her master’s thesis research materials together), so I decided I’d take advantage of the fact that we’d be in the used instrument capitol of the world and make some inquiries while I was there.
After retrieving Jana’s purchase, I rang up Future Music, a well-known repair shop that had been recommended to me as a possible source. While the person answering the phone didn’t have what I wanted, he knew exactly where I should go.
“You wanna talk to Adrian’s Pro Audio over in Van Nuys,” the clerk said. “He’s the 388 guru. Everyone who needs theirs adjusted or repaired goes there, so if anyone’s likely to have one laying around, it’ll be him.”
A few minutes later I reached Adrian by phone. He listened patiently as I awkwardly tried to explain what I wanted to do. He seemed a little perplexed by the request but gave his address and said he’d be waiting for us. As I jotted down where we were going, I couldn’t help but smile, and I felt that fate — or Matt — was helping with this part of the endeavor as well. Adrian’s business was located on Sherman Way, just a short drive up the same street I’d lived on during my two-year stay in Van Nuys during the early 90s.
Once we arrived at Pro Audio, we were greeted at the door by Adrian. He was a slight, white-haired gentleman in a dark smock, probably 70ish, and had a quiet, polite demeanor that reminded me of a lot of older European immigrants that I’ve met over the years. He quickly escorted us inside, showed me the unit he’d left for us on the front counter, then scurried into the back room to let us do whatever the hell mysterious occult ritual we’d come here to do.
For a moment, all I could do was stare at the 388. I was filled with a deep sense of reverence, and had to lay a hand on its amber-colored dust cover to reassure myself that it was actually real, actually there. Rationally I knew it wasn’t Matt’s, but a technological sibling to the one he’d owned, which meant that it was family…in a peculiar kind of a way. It had rolled off the same production line, perhaps had even been assembled by the same hands. It felt terribly surreal.
Once I got over my initial daze, it took only a couple of minutes to set up the shot I’d come to take. The lighting conditions were less than ideal and it took some careful angling to get what I wanted into frame, but after a bit of juggling I was able to capture what I wanted, already aware of the tweaks I’d be making to it in Photoshop. Profusely thanking Adrian for the invasion of his shop, we bid he and the 388 adieu and headed back to San Diego.
CARRY ON COVER CONCEPTS - Four variations on a cover concept. While the TASCAM 388 is reasonably self-explanatory, there’s actually a lot of personal symbolism going on in this image. The hat originally belonged to Matt, and was given to me following his memorial service by his ex-wife, Blue, who also happens to be the subject of the song. The pins with which it is adorned were all added by me. The one in the center represents a DX7 synthesizer (the first I ever owned) and is identical to one that used to adorn my favorite coat for several years. The button for the Church Studio is a reference to Blue’s famous rockstar daddy Leon Russell with whom Matt musically collaborated for several years. The day after Matt’s service, I was invited to join Blue and Halen (Matt and Blues’ daughter) on a private tour of the Church Studio in Tulsa which was founded by Blue’s parents, Leon Russell and Carla Brown. There’s even significance in the seventeen cents in change below the brim of the hat. Between Matt, and Blue, and Halen the number seventeen was always a family code for “I love you.”
If one doesn’t wish to be eaten by a bear, it is perhaps not the best idea to slather oneself with honey before marching intentionally into a cave that bears are known to frequent while carrying a sign (written in bear) that says SLOW, STUPID, AND EASY TO CATCH. And yet, in essence, this is precisely what I had inflicted on myself by marching into Adrian’s Pro Audio Shop with the deluded notion that I could continue to keep my lust for a 388 at bay even after I’d actually touched one again. Insofar as the general listings in LA went, it wasn’t a problem because everyone in town was getting their units upgraded and maintained at Adrian’s, and could thusly jack up their prices beyond what I could justify spending. When I expanded the search to the entire U.S., I found a few offerings on the east coast that approached being semi-affordable if I overlooked certain cosmetic defects and were willing to physically drive to New Jersey — the current owners weren’t willing to ship it for orthopedically reasonable reasons.
At this point, any sane person would have dusted off their hands, taken satisfaction in getting the cover photo, accepted that they’d exerted reasonable effort in looking for an affordable option and then walked away. That’s what a non-crazy person would have done. But we’re talking about me.
When I laid down at night, before I drifted off to sleep, I had to admit to myself I hadn’t exhausted every possible avenue. There was one place that I should have been checking all along, but simply hadn’t done it. I hadn’t been looking at Craigslist.
I always have reservations about anything I find on Craigslist. Unlike eBay, or Reverb, or even Facebook Marketplace, there’s no one keeping an eye on the transactions there. There’s no oversight, no shipping, and everyone wants hard cash. The exchanges always seem a tad unsavory, usually involving a meetup with an unmarked van under an underpass at midnight in the sketchiest part of town. I don’t know if I’m there to buy a keyboard, buy drugs, sell plans to a nuclear submarine, or get shivved so my pancreas can save a twenty-three-year-old dental floss tycoon in Montana. You simply have no idea what you’re going to get, and no protection if someone pawns off a lemon on you.
Despite these reservations, I decided that it wouldn’t do any harm to simply look. What possible harm could it do? It likely wouldn’t matter anyway because in the past, I’d never found a 388 listed anywhere closer than LA. The odds that one was suddenly available in San Diego just when my itch to buy one was in a fever pitch, and that it would be listed for anything under $3500 were astronomically improbable…
…and yet there was one. TASCAM 388 in Chula Vista. Good working condition, and going for nearly a thousand dollars less than anything in LA. From my house, it was a mere fifteen-minute drive.
This had to be a conspiracy. Had this appeared even a month earlier, I couldn’t have contemplated actually buying one, despite decades of daydreaming about it. I’d been out of work for over a year following Amazon’s eradication of the entire division for which I’d been working. But shortly after coming home from Matt’s memorial and as I began to work on “Carry On,” I’d suddenly had an offer to write a new book fall out of the sky, and the ink had just dried on my contract. I had the cash to spare for it, or at least knew that it would be coming soon. Somebody up there meant for this to happen.
After trading a series of text messages with the ad’s poster, I arranged a meetup so that I could evaluate the unit before committing to a sale. It was located upstairs in a studio at the end of a long, narrow hallway lined with private rehearsal spaces that reeked faintly of weed. As Jana and I hurried down to the door to which we’d been directed, it amused me that no matter how much time passed, these places never changed. Dial back the calendar to 2004, or 1984, or 1964, and this place would have looked, and felt, and smelled exactly the same.
We were greeted in the appointed suite by Sonny, a friendly, bearded, thirty-something year old guy who actually owned the entire complex. He explained that he’d not had the 388 very long himself, having purchased it six months earlier from someone in Lake Elsinore for a project that unfortunately never gelled. Before he’d even had much opportunity to play with it, shifting fortunes were forcing him to give it up. I felt for him. I’d been there many times myself, as so many other musicians have, forced to sell our precious children to keep the lights on and food in our bellies. It can sometimes be an excruciating trade to bear.
Unlike the unit we’d photographed in LA, Sonny’s 388 was plugged in, but we still needed to thread it for testing. After an embarrassingly long interval of trying to recall the proper process…
“Does this go over the roller or under it?”
“Wait, we’ve got to engage the lift lever here.”
“It’s going backwards, so that’s wrong isn’t it?”
…we were finally ready roll. We armed the tracks to record, set the switches, and kicked off a rigorous test to make sure everything was in working order. Each time we switched channels, Sonny would improvise a new riff and a new sound on his Roland 106. We banged right down the line. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Everything was good, everything showing normal. Once we were done with recording, we wound back the tape to check to the playback. The results might never win a Grammy, but it sure sounded like a winner to me.
Before coming, we’d told Sonny that we’d just be there to do an evaluation, and possibly put a downpayment on it, but we’d actually brought the full asking price in the event that everything checked out. I handed him the envelope stuffed full of cash.
“You’ve sold yourself a 388,” I said. “You can count it. Everything’s in there.”
I don’t know what he needed the money for, but I could see relief behind the broad smile that lit up his face. Maybe he was going to pay rent. Maybe he was going to pay bills. Maybe he was going to go another piece of gear. Whatever it was, I knew we were both going to end that day a lot happier. For me, it was not only the fulfilment of a forty-year-old quest, but also the start of a new adventure.
Poppa’s Got A Brand New Board
With the 388 now parked alongside my stack-o-synths, I’ve got it fully hooked up so that it can receive signals directly from my instruments, or trade sounds with Ableton Live on my computer (i.e. the program that lets me mix my synthesizers, vocals, and guitar together). When I’m done with composing and mixing “Carry On,” I’ll run it out to the 388 for some analogue love, then master it for distribution. I’ve already done some preliminary tests with the TASCAM which sound pretty good, but I’m going to have to learn how to get the most of this hybrid workflow.
As I’d established when I bought it, operationally it’s in perfect shape. The heads are clean, recording and playback are fine, and so far I’ve not discovered any technical problems. There are some mild cosmetic defects with it, however, which is to be expected of a forty-year-old machine. Truthfully, it’s hard to believe that it looks as good as it does. But being that I’m me, I plan to try and fix it up as much as is possible.
A NEW HOME - Yes, my office is junky and full of crap, but I gotta work with the space that I have. The Phantom of the Opera, two Enterprises, and Godzilla have all made new homes along the top of the 388 to make it feel at home.
The left side is in fair shape, but there are fading faux wood panels on either side (which have faded slightly), and the paint job above the VU meters has been pretty heavily scratched off.
A PAINT JOB - To patch up the scratches, I need to figure out what color to use so that it’ll match the rest of the board. I’d try painting the entire top, but as you can see there are loads of painted labels (like TRK PGM at bottom right), so I’ll have to settle for spot fixes.
Fixing the faux wooden side panels will be a little simpler in some ways, as I’m simply going to replace both with new, red oak panels that I’ve already purchased. The trick for me now is finding someone who has the equipment and skills to shape the new wood to match the side panels that I’ve removed. If dad were still alive, this would have been a perfect project for us to do together.
SIDE BY SIDE - The left side panel (top) has fared much better than the one on the right (below). From the look of it, I’d guess the right must have been shoved up against something else which rubbed against it, causing all the erosion damage.
I’VE GOT WOOD! - It’s not Norwegian Wood, or morning wood, but I’ve got a beautiful pair of red oak planks that I purchased to make the replacements. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll apply a light stain to them, or just a clear lacquer. I love the natural color as it is, but it may need a little something to help it match the rest of the console’s 80s vibe.
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