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Tracking Alternatives – Which Recording Formats Are Right for You?

An assessment of current recording alternatives for the home market, from pint-sized handhelds to full-on mix consoles and more

Posted in MusicWorld on February 26, 2021 by

People often ask, “What kind of recording format allows you to get up and running quickly but is still capable of producing top-notch sound?” Let’s start with your typical work regimen—do you mostly record on your own, using only a few inputs at a time, or do you often require multiple mic connections for yourself and/or others? Also, are you mainly confined to one space, or do you do a fair amount of remote recording as well? Such factors can help determine whether you can get by with just the basics, or require capabilities like multiple mic connectors, effects inserts and mix automation.

Here we offer an assessment of different tracking options available, from software bundles/plugin packs to traditional mixers and the like. For perspective, we’ll also consider analog relics like reel-to-reel and cassette-tape machines which, despite requiring regular care, remain popular among studio enthusiasts.

Sizing up

Like everything else, recorders are increasingly geared to a mobile user base, with handhelds from Zoom and others offering all-in-one portable multitracking including stereo microphones and input limiters for capturing audio on the spot. With the ability to subsequently export to a computer via USB for editing and processing, these petite trackers are great for making quick demos at home or away, or for building a foundation for a full-on multitrack project.

For jobs requiring a gang of inputs/outputs and other studio essentials, you’ll need something with a bigger footprint. In the 40 years since Tascam revolutionized the market with its all-in-one Portastudio cassette mixer/recorder, standalone multitrack recorders have continued to thrive, and today offer users a generous supply of audio connectors, built-in sound enhancers, not to mention physical controllers (with or without automation). Even the largest workstations (24 channels and up) are bantamweight compared to their predecessors, making them suitable for remote work as well. Most favor SD cards for storage.

For many folks, recording directly to computer using a DAW software installation is the best way to maintain a consistent work regimen while taking advantage of the increasingly sophisticated market for plugins. Assuming your machine has suitable firepower, all you’ll need is an interface out front (such as Focusrite’s ultra-basic Scarlett model) that allows you to connect a microphone or instrument to your computer via USB, plus software package of your choice (ranging from the industry standard Avid Pro Tools and Abelton Live to freeware such as Audacity). While old-school users may balk at the lack of tactile control, the ability to edit and process tracks on your laptop anywhere at any time, as well as create mixes with all fader moves saved, is undeniably attractive.

If you like the ease of computer recording but prefer mixing with your hands instead of a mouse, a physical mix surface is an essential add-on. These units come in a wealth of shapes and sizes, from smaller models that use just a few faders to operate a number of functions, to full-fledged consoles with all the bells & whistles typically found on traditional mixing boards. When connected via USB to a computer running recording software, these “hybrid” control surfaces blend the feel of real mixing with the efficiency of digital editing and processing.

Sound Essentials

Because a recorder is only as good as the sound you send to it, you’ll also want to invest in a few tools that can provide you with a clean and “musical” signal path. High-quality microphone pre-amps (or mic-pres) boost output and provide ample headroom (to avoid clipping); standalone mic-pres often include a 12AX7 tube for adding “warmth” to vocals and instrumentation.

Putting a compressor/limiter in the signal chain on a light setting can help keep volume levels uniform, particularly helpful when cutting lead vocals; lowering the threshold while raising the compression ratio adds an aggressive edge to drums, acoustic guitar, piano and other instrumentation.

Finally, don’t skimp when it comes to wiring—always use heavier-gauge cabling outfitted with quality connectors to prevent unwanted noise flare-ups mid-session.

Of course, even the best gear won’t rescue a listless performance—so no matter kind of equipment you choose for your studio, remember there’s no substitute for great songs and good chops. If you’ve got that, put up a mic and off you go.

Recording to Tape: Is It Worth It?

With all this digital convenience, why would anyone even bother with an out-of-date analog reel-to-reel tape machine or cassette multitracker? For some, it’s all about the vibe—the familiar background “hiss,” the jet-like sound of metal tape flanges in flight, or even how vintage machinery looks alongside your staid digital apparatus. But there’s more to it than just nostalgia. Whereas even the best digital recorders can only handle so much level before “clipping” (usually above 0dB of input), a decent pro-grade analog recorder offers nearly unlimited headroom—to the point that pushing the volume into the red magically compresses the signal (known as “tape saturation”). Accordingly, a tape deck in good working order is nearly without peer when it comes to tracking bass, drums and other foundation instrumentation.

Of course, we’re talking about machinery that’s been around for a good three decades, or longer, and will require a consistent maintenance regimen (including regular head cleaning/demagnetizing). And unlike today’s workstations that offer everything under one little roof, a tape machine requires the use of a mixer, external effects, as well as patch cords to hold everything together.

While old multitrack cassette machines can be had for a song and offer an approximation of the tape experience, squeezing 8 tracks onto a sliver of chromium oxide has always been a shaky proposition. Reel-to-reel machines that run at 15ips and use ½” tape are generally your best bet—when inquiring, be sure record/playback/erase heads are in good shape, tape transport works flawlessly and everything lights up.

 

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