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Monday, 15 February 2016

Recording Artiste

Tasker Dunham reprises his Akai 4000DS tape recorder, Teisco MJ-2 Tremo Twenty guitar and 1970s multi-track guitar recordings

Well, who didn’t want to be a rock recording artiste in the early 1970s? They were stalked by groupies and earned a fortune. Rock music was still proper music, and posers who were more interested in what they looked like than how they sounded were still a minority.

Sadly, my own career as a rock musician progressed no further than the occasional front-room jam session with friends, and most of the time it was just me on my own in my bedroom. But with the help of my Akai 4000DS I did make some recordings. And you can hear them here. What a treat! Or maybe not.

Akai 4000DS

A year or two after upgrading my record player to hi-fi with a Heathkit AD-27, I began to think about getting a stereo tape deck. There was a lot in the press about the Akai 4000DS, and on seeing one in a York shop window I decided that was it. It took some time to save up. I eventually bought one in February, 1975, from Comet, Leeds, for £94.50. I still have it with its original box, and it still works when I have the urge to get it out just one last time. With it I bought a pair of first-rate AKG K160 stereo headphones. The documents at the end of this piece were at the bottom of the Akai box.

Overnight, I became one of the most active borrowers from the music section of Leeds Central Library which then consisted almost entirely of vinyl LPs. Naturally, most of what I borrowed I taped. The Akai sound quality came near to that of the original records, and easily outperformed the audio cassettes and soon-to-be-obsolete stereo audio cartridges that most people were using then. Perhaps the main disadvantage of reel-to-reel was lack of convenience. The spools of magnetic tape could be awkward to load and manipulate, and could never be played in a car. But what they lost in convenience they gained in quality. Even when audio cassette players were enhanced by Dolby Noise Reduction to reduce tape-hiss, the 4000DS was still superior. Akai did in due course pay lip service to market fashion by bringing out its own Dolby model, the 4000DB, but it seemed unnecessary.

In the record library, I chanced upon lots of lesser-known recordings – serendipitous discovery tends not to happen these days with online sources. Among the most memorable were recordings by Eric Kershaw, the subject of an earlier post, and Laura Nyro. I became fascinated by Laura Nyro’s multi-layer recordings in which she sang all her own harmonies.* I wanted to try it myself – not necessarily the singing but the multi-track recording.

Laura Nyro of course had a state-of-the-art recording studio which was beyond me, but I did have a newly-bought Akai 4000DS. Among its facilities were tape dubbing, sound mixing, sound-on-sound and sound-with-sound recording, which allowed you to mix and merge two tracks at a time.

Teisco Tremo Twenty MJ-2 E-200
Now, let’s be absolutely clear about this. Nothing of my own unoriginal music, insensitive compositions, bad timekeeping or clumsy performances are in any way comparable to Laura Nyro, but I did manage to put together several pieces, and in recent years digitised them to YouTube. So now, the nearest I’ll ever get to being a rock star with a recording contract, I am going to post them here.

The guitar in the recordings, incidentally, is a nineteen-sixties Tremo Twenty, also sold as the Teisco MJ-2 or E-200. Until I got it out of its original stiff canvas/cardboard case to photograph for here and looked it up, I had no idea that, despite being pretty basic, the Tremo Twenty version is fairly rare. One collector states he knows of only three still in existence, one in a museum in Switzerland. Well mine makes four. It might originally have come from Woolworths, but I bought it second hand from a friend of my brother for £10. It no longer has the original knobs because I had to replace the pots, and is a bit worn and battered now and unflatteringly adorned with forty year old stickers and transfers, but it still plays.**

First efforts were simple two-part chord and melody improvisations mainly around Beatles’ songs, followed by three-part pieces which involved laying down a bass line first. In places these improvise some way from the original melodies. I also attempted a Bach Two-Part Invention from some piano music left in the rented house I lived in. There are a couple of my own tunes I later reworked with music software. Except for one short example, I will spare you me singing.

Here is the list of recordings:

  • Here, There and Everywhere  (chords and melody with some planned improvisation)
  • Yesterday  (chords and melody with some planned improvisation)
  • It’s Only Love  (bass, chords and melody with some planned improvisation)
  • You’re Going To Lose That Girl  (bass and chords with planned improvisation)
  • No Reply  (bass and chords with planned improvisation)
  • J S Bach Two-Part Invention #1, in C Major  (two melody lines) This is a long way from perfect but I was fairly satisfied with it at the time, despite one or two slight synchronisation problems in the recording.
  • Improvisation to an unknown piece (chords with truly improvised melody). I wish I could still improvise lead guitar parts on the spur of the moment as in parts of this. Most of the above were pre-planned, but this wasn’t.
  • Red Mini Van (own composition: three-part bass-chords-melody jazz piece)
  • Walk With Ladies (own composition: three-part bass, chords and melody, followed by a section reworked more recently with music software)
  • Blue (own composition: three-part bass, chords and melody, followed by a section reworked more recently with music software)
  • Not Good Enough (also called Impress - own composition: bass and chords with two voice parts - oh dear!)

Leak 3200 tuner-amplifier and Wharfedale Glendale XP3 speakers
Leak 3200 tuner-amplifier and Wharfedale Glendale XP3 speakers

The 4000DS was not my last piece of expensive hi-fi equipment. When at last I got to university in 1977, I expected to have to self-fund the first term due to a previous grant for four months at teacher training college. Surprisingly, I was awarded a full grant, so the money I had saved went on hi-fi equipment and a holiday. My dad had commandeered my earlier Heathkit stereo to play his Bing Crosby records, so I bought a new system for university: a Leak 3200 tuner-amplifier and a pair of Wharfedale Glendale XP3 speakers. I later added a Sansui SR-222 turntable and a Sharp RT-10 cassette deck.

In total, the tape decks, headphones, tuner-amp, turntable and speakers came to roughly £500, which is today’s inflation-adjusted equivalent of about £2,800, and possibly half as much again in terms of earnings growth. Not bad for a university student. Reckless perhaps, but not as reckless as the risk of blowing it by feeding an electric guitar through it.


POSTSCRIPT: I contacted the owner of the website MIJ_60s_Guitars who responded “That is one rare guitar. It’s the first real Teisco I have seen with that logo. And the first surf green MJ-2L guitar as well. So I was double excited to see it. I have one like this that is copper brown, but Teisco brand. It is still the only copper brown one I’ve seen. But any surf green Teisco is really rare.”

** If you want to hear an MJ-2 played well, take a look at this. Bear with it for a couple of minutes - he starts with the chords to the Beatles Day In The Life before he really gets going. 

* Laura Nyro (1947-1997) is not especially well known, but she was a major influence upon a whole catalogue of distinctive and original artistes. Elton John described her as one of the most important, overlooked performer/songwriters. I was knocked for six by the genius and originality of the first of her records I borrowed from the library, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, and by the energy of the next, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. She rarely performed live; her forte (perhaps in both senses of the word) was the recording studio where she layed down impressive multiple layers of sound, singing all the harmonies herself. Eli’s Comin’ illustrates this brilliantly. 

There is an identical instrument, same colour, same instrument number, but much cleaner, pictured a couple of scrolls down at http://www.jedistar.com/jedistar_vintage_guitar_dating_t3.htm.   Here are close ups of my own logo and instrument number:
Teisco Tremo Twenty MJ-2 E-200

Instruction booklet covers and receipts:

Instruction booklets: Akai 4000DS, Leak 3200, Wharfedale XP, Sansui SR-222, Sharp RT-10

Invoices: Comet and Mconomy

2 comments:

  1. Tasker, you're good! Your voice is nice too. Blue is my favourite of them all, it's really beautiful and proggy. The 2004 version reminds me a bit of the synthesiser music in A Clockwork a Orange, actually.

    Love the quote about it taking ten years to realise how crap you are!

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    Replies
    1. Compliments are the nicest form of flattery (despite what Oscar Wilde said). Later I learned an instrument formally (clarinet) and did grades, and became more sensitive to things like notes not quite on-time and so on.

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