Don Campau's recording gear reflects his life.
Most of the time I have been at least one generation behind with my recording gear. People now use Pro Tools and I have an 8 track digital recorder. That isn’t a bad thing though because I think I have always made the most out of what I’ve have. And I feel lucky to be able to have what I’ve got. And frankly, I’m not sure more tracks, more functions, more possibilities are always better. Having countless tracks might not be good for me because…I would use them, fill them up and crowd even more sound on there when less might be better. So, for me, an 8 track is good generally. I love my digital recorder and although I suppose it actually is a computer in many ways ( because it is a hard disk recorder) it is much easier to use than the computers I’ve seen. Damn, I don’t want to move the mouse, I want to play the guitar. You know what I mean?
When I was a teenager my parents bought a Sony two track reel to reel. I’m not really sure why they got it because I soon appropriated it and I don’t remember my brothers or my parents ever using it. As far as I was concerned, it was mine. I would make sound collages from songs on the radio ( underground FM was going strong then) and would make weird recordings of stuff around the house like keys dropping, glass breaking, doors closing ,etc. The typical kind of stuff someone with a new toy would do. I loved it and the tapes I made. Not long after this I would use it to record my own music but since I didn’t even play the guitar until I was 17 that was still to come.
My high school friend, Bob Ballantyne already played guitar and his Dad had one of those record making machines that we used to “cut” a couple of songs. I played percussion and Bob played guitar. Recently he sent me the songs that he rescued from his archives. We did “Season Of The Witch” (the Donovan song) and also an untitled instrumental. That was in about 1968 or so. It was kind of scary because there could be no second takes. The turntable arm was lathing the vinyl right before our eyes while we played. It was magic though and I was even more hooked on recording now.
Soon I picked up the guitar and my use of the recording gear was about to go way up but not just with the guitar but with my friend, Geoff Alexander and his brother Dave in our bizarre, anti-social avant garde group, The Roots Of Madness.
I don’t really remember why it happened but I remember when and where. It was in their families Volkswagen Van and we had our instruments in there blowing away. Geoff had the trumpet, Dave the harmonica and I tooted on the clarinet or sax. It was just nuts, free blowing. We were inspired at the time by Albert Ayler, The Fugs, Capt Beefheart and others. We soon got out of the van and went to their front room where their family had a piano. I must have had a knack for piano because I was now reading chords and playing while Geoff and Dave blew their brains out on their horn and reeds. Geoff’s parents had music books for religious and patriotic songs like “Rock Of Ages”, “Bringing In The Sheaves” and “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. Not long after our pals Joe and Jim brought their trombone and guitar over and it was a wild and wooly blues and free jazz jam on these classics. The only thing left was to set up the tape recorder and go! Their family also had a stereo reel to reel, a Wollensak, and we made our first recordings as The Roots Of Madness. We had various jams and even thought out “compositions” over the years. In 1971 we released our only LP, “The Girl In The Chair” from recordings done in the front room. We had no idea there would be a cult following some 35 years later with a re-release by an independent label in Minneapolis of our private pressing album. We made about 15 “albums” on reel tape with the material we recorded and titled as we went. At one session we had two reel to reels recording and have different “angles” of that session. Amazingly, our recordings weren’t that bad. Primitive, of course, by todays standards but you can hear all the instruments and our balance and levels were very good for what we were working with. This was from 1969 to about 1974.
We even used “sound on sound” on the Sony two track and did some overdubbing although we could not listen to what was played already. However, that was soon to change.
My brother Chris had a friend named Greg Gray. Greg and I knew each other from the days when he would come into the record store Geoff and I owned in Los Gatos California from 1974-6 called Dogmouth Records. Chris and Greg would play live in local coffee shops and small venues doing British ballads with some other friends. I don’t really recall why I started hanging out more with Greg at our pal, Joe Menichetti’s house but we started recording some goofy stuff and then actually started playing as a trio. Greg was an awesome drummer and Joe played bass and guitar extremely well. This was during the first wave of punk rock and I was writing songs furiously in this manner.
Greg had purchased a Dokorder 4 track open reel machine in about 1976. I don’t know what prompted him to get it but when we started playing together it was natural that we start taping. And tape we did. As the trio, The Desmonds, we put together several punk rock style songs . Since we had the four track we could actually overdub parts and this was very exciting to me. The Desmonds didn’t last long but we all remained friends and Greg and I started recording some duo material. And then, and I can’t remember why or how, Greg lent me the four track and I began my first solo home recordings where I could overdub. Hearing my combined vocals and doing all the instruments became a drug for me. I still had a long way to go with learning about recording technique but I was totally jazzed by the prospect of being my own band.
Other than The Roots Of Madness and The Desmonds I never was in an actual band. These groups were for recording primarily and other than the very rare “gig” ( for The Roots at Laundromats, freeway overpasses and one event at a youth club where I wasn’t even present ) did not generally perform. In fact, The Desmonds never performed live although we did have an unsuccessful audition interview at the famous Mabuhay Gardens in 1978.
Some time passed and my first wife had our first daughter, Nicole in 1976. I was working late shifts at the grocery store and did not have much time for music nor did I have a tape deck to capture my songs. In 1981 my son Kevin was born and I was itching to start taping again. In 1981, $1800 was a lot of money but that is what I shelled out for my TEAC 3440 open reel 4 track and a mixer to go along with it. But immediately I started getting my money’s worth out of it. From rock style songs to weird backwards sound effects I was in heaven. Being my own “band” was a dream come true. Even the kids would get involved with their crying, babbling and when they got older, more lucid contributions. I used the hell out of the TEAC and I’d have Greg come over and he’d lay down drums and other instruments and we would have so much fun. He even helped me build a nice partition in the garage of one house where we set up the equipment and drums almost like a real studio with the mikes permanently placed. My brother Gary had a bunch of nice equipment at the time and we borrowed that too.
It was a very productive time for my recording. And this was all before I had heard of the tape trading network.
In 1984 I was reading OP magazine and started discovering the tape trading scene. At first I was reluctant not thinking myself good enough. A few months went by and I began to see addresses of regular people at the end of the tape reviews stating they “would trade”. Why not ? I finally concluded. My first trade was with Tom Furgas and from then on the horses were let out of the gate. I also started incorporating these home tapes into my radio show ( which I had since 1978 at KKUP) and went full time with the home tape format in 1985. It was an unbelievable time with all these new friends, exciting music, young family and a feeling of creative fertility. It wasn’t only creative fertility though because in 1984 we had our third child, Caity and our family was complete.
Not all was right in the house though as she and I started to grow apart as we figured out what we really wanted in life. We had married way too young and it was unraveling even before it came to an end in 1989. During this time I would be excited to play my tapes for her but found little response when I would. I can’t blame her really, it just wasn’t her thing. We just weren’t meant for each other. In 1987 I did a tape loop experiment called “Meteors And Pickles” which was an immense and grueling use of the TEAC that wore the heads down and made the deck unusable. It was metaphorical for our marriage as well. The heads were worn down there too and needed replacing. Ultimately, only the TEAC got the fix.
Although I had not yet moved to my own apartment I continued to record with a renewed vigor after the TEAC came back as good as new. They say good songs come from bad times and that was certainly true with me.
My own psyche was going down quickly and I soon found myself depressed and finally in a state of nervous breakdown. All the time recording and documenting it. It was a rough several year period even though I was on my own in my own apartment for the first time. I was free but I was trapped in my own hell.
The TEAC helped me through all of this though like a true friend. Never complaining, always turning and accepting of what I had to say. It was my best friend, my psychologist and my mirror. Sometimes I would hear a song and only then realize what it was about and how it revealed me so fully. It really did help me heal.
A lot of people in the underground scene had 4 track cassette decks but I never did. I also never had DAT or ADAT, I still don’t know the difference. Others used VHS video decks for mastering or taping but I never did. I stuck with the trusty TEAC, my old workhorse.
You should see how many open reel tapes I have in my studio. It is a lot because I would also record music onto open reel and play it along with records and cassettes. Someday I hope to go back through all my tapes and archive them and transfer them to digital. That’s going to be an awfully large project.
In 1999 I bought a minidisc recorder thinking it might be a good way to master my 4 track material. The minidisc was helpful in some ways but I never got totally into it. I wanted to go CD and in 2000 I bought my first CD burner. Everyone else already had CDs out for years and I was tired of lagging so far behind. I still would record with the open reel but would mix it onto CD and that worked well but the hiss and limits of the four track were becoming all too apparent.
I had been reading about the digital recorders but was waiting for them to come down in price and be free of the little zip cards that would only hold a few minutes of memory each. In 2002, the BOSS 1180 came out and it seemed like this was the one to get. And I was not wrong. Right away, my recordings sounded crisp and clear with little or no hiss and this machine was so easy. It was as easy as a portastudio cassette deck and sounded fantastic. I recorded my first digital collaboration tape with Eric Wallack called “Disappearing Act” and was very pleased.
I’m not going to get into the whole “analog versus digital” argument here because I see both sides and for me, going digital was a good and tidy thing. Plus, now I was 8 track instead of 4. I do a lot of collaborations and this was the perfect new tool. I had finally entered the age where I sounded pretty good .
Oh, I would still use the TEAC occasionally for recording and I still do, especially for special tape manipulation effects. It is a great and beautiful machine. One time in 2004 or so when I had some trouble with it I actually ran the tape through by hand without the motor for some wild and bizarre effects for the first Mars Dark collaboration. I even fixed the TEAC’s interior belt myself with a manual I got from the internet. And believe me, I am not a handy man or repair kind of guy.
So, does my history or recording somewhat reflect the general history of underground music? In a way I guess although there are so many stories to be told about relationships with equipment. I am generally not one to go on long winded monologues about equipment, numbers, models, name dropping on brands. I just don’t care. I only want to express myself in some creative way and I really become bored when someone insists on telling me about some new fangled product, pedal or software. This time I am making an exception though because once in a while I gotta thank my friends.