What is a multitrack recorder?
A multitrack recorder allows you to separately record multiple sound sources. For instance, to capture a song played by a four-person band, a recording engineer records the singer, the electric guitar, the bass, and the drums each on separate tracks. You can even get more granular by recording elements like the high hat and the bass drum on different tracks.
Then, the engineer combines the tracks to create the song. This creates much more flexibility in the recording process and gives the recording engineer the power to adjust each track to their liking. If they want louder vocals and softer bass, they can do that.
It works the same way for a podcast. You capture each speaker on a separate track, add additional tracks for music or other effects, then adjust each one to fit your narrative. In Descript, you can record multitrack interviews remotely, or from multiple mics in-person; either way Descript will automatically generate a single transcript, where you can edit every track, or work on them individually in Sequences. (I know, I keep talking about Descript. It’s our blog!)
History and uses of multitrack recording
The history of multi track recording began in the 1950s, when American jazz musician and guitar legend Les Paul modified an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder so he could play multiple parts of the same song. A decade later, four-track recorders had become the standard for musicians like the Beatles. Today’s digital recording technology has removed all the limits on the number of tracks on any single recording.
Multitrack recorders are most often associated with music, but they’re used in all professional audio recordings, including podcasts. Using separate tracks for each speaker allows you to make adjustments when one speaker is quieter than the other, has a lower quality microphone, or background noise in their recording. You can cut out interruptions, eliminate cross-talk, and add music and sound effects in post production.
Types of multitrack recording
There are two types of multitrack recorders: analog and digital.
If you want to go the old-school route, you can create analog recordings with a simple piece of hardware called a tape recorder. This ancient device will capture your sounds on a magnetic tape (like in a cassette tape), which can be played back immediately. While typically more expensive than digital multitracking, using this hardware is straightforward, it allows you to step away from the computer screen, and it probably impresses that hipster guy who works at your artisan coffee shop and makes his own soap.
Going the more modern route will involve a digital recorder. Today, computers, laptops, tablets, and phones all have the capability to record audio on built-in sound cards. But if you’re regularly recording music or podcasts, you’ll want to consider investing in an audio interface. It will act as an external sound card and give you much better sound quality than you’d get from your computer’s motherboard.
Think of it as the center of your home recording studio. Audio interfaces usually connect to a computer via USB and will have inputs for microphones and instruments. The sound card will convert the recorded sound to digital audio, which can be edited and otherwise manipulated in a digital audio workstation (DAW) like Descript, then saved on your computer.
How does a multitrack recorder work?
Multitrack recording separates different sound elements onto their own tracks. This allows the recording engineer to easily fix mistakes, adjust volume, and otherwise manipulate one instrument or speaker’s voice at a time.
Multi tracking also opens up a lot of opportunities for collaboration. Members of a band can produce music by recording tracks at different times and in different places. A drummer who lives in California can make a song with a guitarist located in Maine and a vocalist in Japan, and nobody needs to get on an airplane. Taylor Swift created her Folklore album, during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, without ever being in the same room with most of the musicians or collaborators. Or, a single person can be an entire band by playing one instrument at a time and layering the tracks on top of one another; James Mercer created The Shins’ big hit, New Slang, entirely himself, using a guitar and digital effects.
The process of adding a new track onto previously recorded tracks is called overdubbing. (Note: overdubbing is not to be confused with Overdub, the Descript feature that creates a digital replica of your voice, and lets you add or correct words in your speaking track just by typing —no re-recording necessary.)
Once you’ve got those multiple tracks recorded, you’ll use a mixing console or audio editing software to edit, mix, and add effects to your track. If you’re editing a podcast, you should use Descript (this is our blog, so of course we’re going to say that….but still — you should). Descript’s Sequences make it infinitely easier to keep tracks aligned, edit out cross-talk and other single-track noise, or add audio effects to individual tracks.
What makes a good multitrack recorder?
When choosing a multitrack recorder, here are a few things to consider.
First, determine your needs and come up with a list of features you want. Ask yourself:
- Do you prefer working with analog or digital?
- What is the maximum number of inputs you’ll be recording at one time? If you are making a podcast, you’ll need to record yourself, your co-hosts, and any guests you may have at the same time. But if you’re putting a song together by playing each part yourself, you may only need one input.
- How much storage will you need?
- How will it work with your editing software?
Once you’ve determined which features are important to you, look at which multitrack recorders would meet your needs. Then consider how easy it is to use, whether you can afford it, whether it’s compatible with any other software or hardware you already have, and whether it would fit well in your space.
Ready to jump into podcasting? Get started with Descript today.