Choosing a Multi Track Recorder for your Home Studio
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Choosing a 
Multi Track Recorder
for your home studio

What you need to watch out for when buying an MTR

by Rich the TweakMeister

 

The Alesis ADAT HD24  is a 24 track digital recorder.  This kind of multi track requires that you buy a separate mixer.  They are good for home studios that are called on to record entire bands, and where a computer is not desired.  The advantage here is that you can record more track simultaneously than you can on the typical integrated mixer/recorders.

 

 

A Brief History

 

MultiTrack Recorders at zZounds
 

Tweak's Multi-track Showroom

           
  Hard-Disk Multitrack Recorders
 Removable Media Multitracks
  Cassette Multitracks
 

Once upon a time, there were no multi-track recorders.  Every musical performance had to be played in real time and there were no overdubs. Once the 1st "Sound on Sound" recorders appeared, followed by early 4 tracks, the music industry took off like a rocket. Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones were just a few artists who capitalized on the new technology by using them artistically. The multi track recorder (MTR) made it possible to record different tracks at different times, and allowed exacting control of the studio's rooms to create isolated clear sounding tracks and mix them into a stunning audio image, which captivated the airwaves and the hearts and minds of nearly everyone alive.

In the 1970's the first consumer cassette 4 tracks arrived. The venerable Tascam Portastudio was quickly followed by products by Yamaha, Fostex, Roland and others.  Hey that's how this whole home studio "craze" got started.  By the mid-80's, multi tracks were big. And as the late 80s and 90's when MIDI came around, home multi tracks went to 8 tracks and reel to reels were at 16.  Then the digital 8 track ADAT tape recorders came out, followed by the 8mm (videotape) digital audio  format, followed by Minidisk recorders.  As we turned to the new millennium, hard disk recorders proliferated, and the now current crop of 24 track hard disk based multi track recorders became reality.  Today's MTRs come with features that blow away models even a few years old.  Feature sets vary widely requiring that you choose carefully.  We are going to discuss the things you need to watch out for below. 

Zoom R16 Multi-Track SD Recorder Interface and Controller
Zoom has revolutionized digital recording again with the first digital recorder with 16-track playback and 8-track simultaneous recording that utilizes Secure Digital (SD) memory. The new R16 recorder is three production tools in one incredibly versatile device. It's a digital multi-track recorder, an audio interface and a control surface, providing you with all the tools necessary to create studio-quality recordings anywhere.  Tweak: The Zoom R16 can be used as both an MTR AND an audio interface.
 

 

The Basic Question: DAW or MTR

The question is how are you going to record your audio for your projects?  The solutions all fall into the following categories:

  • 1. You get a computer, audio and midi interfaces and record your audio directly to its hard disk in a computer sequencer.  Most of the articles on my site deal with this method of recording audio.  If that is what you are planning to do you can take a break and skip this page.
  • 2.  You get a stand alone multi track recorder/mixer and record all your tracks on it.  The options here are cassette, hard disk, minidisk, or smart media. That is what this article is about.
  • 3. You get a modular multi-track recorder and a digital mixer and work that way.  You can still get 8 track ADAT machines, but more and more these are being replaced by hard disk systems.
  • 4. You take the advanced approach and use both a multi-track recorder and a computer audio sequencer and find ways to incorporate them both together, either through MIDI Time Code synchronization or through a digital file transfer system like an ADAT light pipe or Tascam's TDIF or Roland's R-BUS.  We'll be touching on these issues here.

There are many advantages and a few disadvantages to standalone audio multi-track systems.  The cool advantages are 1) everything is integrated.  There are fewer cables and no wiring/impedance issues going between different parts as all the critical stuff is built in.  2)  An advantage over computer systems is that you get real faders and knobs and don't have to play around with mice to mix your song.  3) They are more portable than a computer system and require little time to set up. That means more Uptime.  It also means it will be easier for beginners and will save time for professionals.  4) Finally, you don't need to buy, maintain, and upgrade a powerful computer, deal with driver issues, be concerned with viruses and so on.

The disadvantages to the multi-track approach are 1)  that you can't use computer plugins as effects (except on the most expensive MTRs that offer optional cards), or use any of the large number of products that require computers, like soft synths, audio editors, etc., unless you incorporate a computer in your rig. 2) on MTRs without a VGA output you will be restricted to the small display on the unit (note that the higher end systems do have the ability to connect computer monitors and mice to the system) 3)  Not all multi track recorders have CD burners so in those cases you may need another device to record the final output to, like a standalone CD burner or, yep, a computer.  However, most of the newer models let you bounce (mixdown) to .WAV in the digital domain and let you playback the song from the MTR itself.

 

What do I need to watch out for when buying a Multi-Track?

Good question.  Several things really.  Many of these involve your own planning for what you want to do with your MTR.

1. Are you recording bands or just yourself?  The most common mistake is not getting enough inputs to do the job.  Got a 3 piece band?  Watch out, many inexpensive MTRs only have 2 inputs.   You can always add more preamps to line inputs, but you usually can't add more inputs overall.

Note:  the exception to this is with high end MTRs that allow you to add ADAT/TDIF/Analog i/o cards

2.  Preamps.  Count 'em, make sure the preamps have phantom power if you are using condenser mics.  Naturally, if you want to have excellent sound quality you have to use a decent mic.  You might want to go to the manufacturers site and download the manual to carefully inspect the specs of the preamps. If the MTR says "1/4" mic/line preamps", keep in mind your nice condenser mics might not work even if you do manage to adapt them! When you see XLR jacks, +48V phantom power, and enough gain to work with your mics, then you are in a safe zone. How much gain do you need? Depends on the Mic.  Most of my condenser mics need about 35-45 db of gain, my SM57 needs a lot more.  Check your mic's documentation.  A lot of product descriptions leave out the important details about their preamps.  Consider that omission a warning in itself.  If they had great mic pres, they would be making it obvious.

3. Another issue is that of 16 vs. 24 bit audio.  24 bit audio will cost more and is  worth it if you care about making great recordings.  You can make excellent recordings at 16 bit (CD quality), but  you may have to work a little harder optimizing the recording level.  24 bit give you more bits, that is more space, in which to record digital audio data.  The tradeoff is that your audio files are bigger and use up storage faster.

4. Some recorders use data compression while recording to fit more tracks on limited media.  Beware that data compression may affect the quality of sound.  Look for something that says the recorder can store uncompressed audio.  This is not the audio compression we add in the mix but data compression, like the difference between MP3 files and .WAV files.  It can be tricky to unravel the recording format.  Go by the file format, not the a/d conversion or the sample rate.  You might read 24 bit a/d conversion @44.1 and think you are getting better than CD quality, when actually, the file format is compressed and you are getting less than CD quality. 

5. Storage and Backup is another crucial issue.  Hard disk drives are an effective method of storing data.  Note the disk size.  Removable media multitrack recorders are convenient and silent, but do not have the capacity of a hard disk.  This is less of an issue if you intend to later transfer the recordings to a computer for finalizing and mixing, but if you intend to mixdown in the multi-track you may end up erasing old songs to make for the new.  To avoid those issues, consider how each recorder is designed to backup your songs.  Backing up to an onboard CDR burner is a great way to go.  Note that recorders with DVDR burners are now available too and will hold over 6 times as much data as CDR. Sending single tracks over s/pdif is a long and tedious process when you have a lot of tracks.

6. How does it connect to a computer?  Of course you can always connect to a computer the old fashioned analog way via soundcard line in jacks. You can use s/pdif for lossless real time transfer of digital audio.  But if you are integrating the MTR with a DAW you may want to investigate ADAT, TDIF and RBUS methods.  USB has become a popular way to move files from removable media cards to your DAW.  USB2 makes it even faster. 

7. Does it have enough outputs?  If you want to add outboard gear to your multi-track recorder, or integrate it with an existing home studio, check to see that it has as many aux outs as you need.  Many of the really inexpensive MTR's only have main outs.  If you want to attach an outboard compressor, look for inserts on the MTR.  If you are connecting to a larger analog board look for evidence of direct outs.  The higher priced MTRs for professionals will have these features

8. Is the display big enough for all the information it conveys?  Can you read it OK? This is an area where manufacturers may try to cut costs.  Small displays are not necessarily bad if they are kept simple and readable.  Keep in mind you will be doing a lot of work in that small area.

How Many Tracks?

You can find a digital multi-track in many different formats from 4 track Mini-disk and Removable Media solutions to massive 24 track hard disk modules like the Mackie HDR2496 that offer 8 virtual tracks for every physical channel (or 192 virtual tracks).  So how many do you need?  Can you get by with just 4?  Sure!  The Beatles, as legend has it, recorded Sgt. Peppers on 4 track recorders.  But if you do go for a 4 track, I assure you, you will be bouncing tracks (i.e., combining 3 tracks down to 1) quite a bit with all but simple arrangements.  8 tracks give you much more room the dedicate audio channels. So count 'em up.  Lessee 1) vocal, 2) lead guitar 3) bass, 4) drums, 5) synth  6) background vocals  7) sampler 8) rhythm guitar.  See they all fit!  Wha, you wanted a separate track for kick, snare, overheads?  And your 2 synths and sampler are all stereo?  Bite the bit man, go 16.  Oh, you forgot!  The Conga man needs a track, and don't forget the tabla player, the girl doing the HurdyGurdy, and the dudette blowing the Australian Didgeridoo, and the extra track you need to double the vocal in the chorus.  :)  Those of you doing full musical productions will benefit from 24. 

An important point is that you can have a 24 track MTR but be limited to recording only 8 tracks at a time.  Always check the number of inputs and mic preamps before you buy.  Make sure the box meets your requirements.


Zoom HD16CD Multi-Track Recording Studio

Interfacing keyboards, sequencers and computers

Once you add keyboards and a sequencer, things get a little more complicated.  If your keyboard has a sequencer, you can build your tracks there and when they are done, you can record them in time with the multitrack using Midi Time Code (MTC) to keep the sequencer and the deck in sync. Other options to sync sequencers and multi-tracks are MIDI Machine Code (MMC), which basically syncs the transports,  or Society of Motion Pictures Timecode (SMPTE) which works like MTC but allows the connection to video and film equipment.  You need to check the specs on the multi-track unit carefully to find out which are supported.  Then I highly advise you hit the users groups to find out which actually work with your sequencer.  But for MTC, which is simple, you just plug the midi out of the keyboard (or midi interface)  to the midi in of the multi track and vice versa.  The Multi-track becomes the master and the computer or keyboard sequencer will follow it's commands as the slave.  The audio outs of the keyboard go into the analog inputs on the mixer channels of the multi-track. And you simply record the sequencer tracks right into the multi-track.  

 

 


Tascam DP02CF 8-Track Compact Flash Digital Recorder

R-Bus, TDIF, ADAT Optical Interfaces

Perhaps one of the more complex setups one can do with a digital multi-track and a computer is to pipe audio back and forth.  However, for those that meet the challenge, there are many rewards. The three main methods are Roland's R-BUS.Tascam's TDIF or Alesis ADAT Optical.  These are all multichannel digital data piping schemes.  They differ from S/PDIF and AES/EBU, which are other digital data transfer protocols, because they send up to 8 channels while the latter only send a stereo channel.

For example, using ADAT outs card you can send a block of 8 tracks of audio in sync, to and from your computer's audio applications assuming of course, that you have an audio interface equipped with ADAT.  You could pipe tracks into Logic or Sonar, edit the track with any of the plugins on your system, then pipe it back to the multi-track.  Used in this manner, the computer sequencer becomes less of a master arranger and more of an advanced audio editor.  Such a setup gives you full access to all the audio files, loops, phrases you have stored on your computer.  You could pipe in tracks from older songs and remix them on the multi-track.  Many cool possibilities.  

Check the Polls

Best Hard disk recorder $700- $1000

Multi track recorders $1500-$2200

Which high end MTR would you rather have?

Best removable media Multi-track under $400

As a general rule of thumb, R-Bus works with Roland products, TDIF is for Tascam products and ADAT is for Alesis products.  However, over the past few years there has been considerable cross-fertilization and somewhat of a shakeout.  For example, Fostex uses ADAT optical, Tascam itself can use ADAT, and Roland has expensive format converters for ADAT and TDIF that can work with R-BUS.  Mackie uses an ADAT interface card for it's HDR 2496 Multitrack; the Behringer DDX3216 digital mixer uses an ADAT interface...The list goes on.  What's the difference? Read the specs on any product you consider.  Some only support 44.1 and 48khz sample rates and others go full 24/96.  Be careful here.  There are few audio interfaces that can understand R-BUS and TDIF.  ADAT is common on audio interfaces. 

It's too bad that the manufacturers developed competing proprietary interfaces for multi-channel digital audio.  As a result, they and we are now paying the price.  This has also given rise to a new product, the format converter, which sometimes costs more than some of the multitrack recorders listed here.  They really dropped the ball here in my opinion.  Proprietary thinking is a dead relic of the 90's. 

USB to the Rescue

The inclusion of a USB port on MTRs is a great development, and its now a "gotta have" feature if you want to transfer recordings to your computer.  Unlike s/pdif, TDIF, ADAT, etc., this is NOT a real time audio transfer, but a simple file transfer.  Typically, you plug in the cable and your MTR's storage area shows up as a hard drive on your computer's desktop.  Then you drag and drop files to your computer's storage and import them into your sequencer. 

 

Korg's renowned D-series of digital recording studios welcomes the new D3200 Digital Recording Studio. The D3200 is the first in its class to provide up to 32 tracks of simultaneous playback and up to 12 tracks of simultaneous recording to support high channel-count projects such as recording a live band. Tweak:  I like the price for this power

Keeping it Simple

You CAN keep all this simple and get an old style 4 track or 8 track cassette multi-track.  Contrary to what you might think, you can interface cassette machines to computer sequencers by dedicating a track and recording a sync tone to it.   If you have a MIDI interface that generates SMPTE you simply stripe a channel with a SMPTE control track and when you press play and stop on the multitrack your computer sequencer will follow and will regulate itself to stay in sync with the code.  Before computers recorded audio, this is how many home studio's worked.  And it still works.  But keeping it simple, all you have to do is press record and play your instrument forget computers entirely.  This is perfect for a songwriter just trying to play with different ideas.       

Summing Up

So whether you are just getting started and want to record a few tracks and overdub vocals, record your band, or want to add a multi-track to a large existing MIDI and Audio studio, there is probably a multi-track recorder tailor made for what you want to do. 

All the Best,

Tweak

 

Questions

Q)  OK, I have a multi-track recorder.  What do I mixdown my final project to?

A) Multi-tracks that have built in CDR recorders will let you mix, or bounce direct to a CDR disk.    Otherwise, you will need a device to record to.  This could be a computer soundcard, a DAT deck, an external CDR recorder, or a cassette deck

Q) What is MIDI Time Code?

Midi Time Code, or MTC, is a method for synchronizing 2 sequencers or a sequencer and a multi-track recorder. One device is made the master and the other the slave.  A single cable connected from the MIDI out of the  master to the MIDI in of the slave is all that is needed.  The data sent by the master includes tempo information, start, stop and continue commands and MIDI song position pointer (SPP) which allows the 2 devices to stay in sync.

Q) How do i sync my multitrack transport to my sequencer?

This is usually done with MMC commands.  That stands for MIDI Machine Code.  MMC is set up the opposite of MTC, and both can work together.  The multitrack is the MMC master usually, so you press play on it and the sequencer starts.  The sequencer, which is the MTC master, sends the time code and the multi track follows, in sync.  Not all recorders and sequencers support MMC so if this is important to you check carefully.

Q) Do MTRs sound better or worse than a computer DAW?  

As always, the "weakest link" theory applies.  Most DAWs record at 24 bit and use 32 bit processing.  Inexpensive MTRs may record at 16 bit with 24 bit processing, while high end 24 bit MTRs are more on a level playing field.  However, a DAW with a mediocre soundcard with a poor ad\da and low quality preamps and unbalanced cables running around the room will sound much worse than a one-box tightly-integrated MTR. A well-endowed DAW with great preamps, UAD-1 plugins, massive premium sample sets is going to blow all but the best MTRs away, unless you equip your MTR with similar preamps, a hardware sampler or link it up to a computer.  See, it can go both ways. In essence, the DAW and the MTR are more similar than different.  Both record digital data through converters to a storage medium.  Given the same quality components, the result is the same.  

Q) I record my band at a its gigs.  Should I go with an MTR or a DAW on a laptop?

Assuming you can get multiple feeds out of the house console, I think the MTR is superior.  It is designed to record many tracks simultaneously (if you get a good one), where a laptop may be compromised by its hard drive.  Also, few pieces to set up is a good thing in dimly lit clubs.  If you are just pulling the stereo out of the console then a stereo recorder is all you need, and most laptops can do that.  

Q) What's better for recording bands in general? 

If you have a permanent studio facility in your house, the DAW will work, but you may still want to consider an MTR just because it is simpler to deal with.   If you are recording at the drummers house, there is no way you can cart all that computer stuff over.  I say, save yourself a massive headache and get a decent MTR.

 

 


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Cool Quote:

"I cannot write in verse, for I am no poet. I cannot arrange the parts of speech with such art as to produce effects of light and shade, for I am no painter. Even by signs and gestures I cannot express my thoughts and feelings, for I am no dancer. But I can do so by means of sounds, for I am a musician."  (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)

 


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Hip Hop Beat Construction Made Simple
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Hip Hop Drum Tweaks
Using Electronic Drum Kits
How to Record Vocals
Preparing for a Vocal Session
Vocal Processing
Recording Guitars
Using Compressors
Using Effects Processors
Buying a MultiTrack: Watch Out!
Using an AW1600 Recorder
Podcasting from your Home Studio
MultiTrack Recorder Price List
Outboard FX Price List
Studio Racks List

 

 

 

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