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What is Multitrack Recording? – A Convenient Process!

Did you know that not too long ago, musicians weren’t able to record their instruments separately? Yes, I know, it sounds pretty inconvenient right? Well, we should be glad that in the current times, we do not have to deal with all the hassle that producers before us did. So, the question we’ll be asking today is – What is Multitrack Recording?

Today’s subject requires plenty of attention if we were to go through every single aspect, including its history. But don’t worry, as I only intend to cover topics that are relevant to modern audio production. You’ll learn about the advantages that producers have today, when it comes to music production. Ready to begin? Same here, so let’s go!

Tascam

The TASCAM 85 16B analog multitrack tape recorder

Multitrack Recording – A Revolution

Also known as simply “tracking”, multitrack recording is a system developed in 1955 that allows multiple sound sources to be recorded separately or at different times to create a cohesive whole. In the mid 50s, the method of multitracking was realized, when the idea of recording distinct audio channels simultaneously to separate “tracks” on the same reel-to-reel tape was developed.

A “track” is simply a discrete area on the tape where an audio channel is recorded to. The relative sequence of recorded events would be preserved, and playback can be simultaneous or synchronized. Before multitrack recording was possible, every singer and musician involved had to sing and play together. But now, engineers can record all of the performers separately.

The levels and tone of each track can now be easily attenuated and certain tracks (or parts of it) can also be redone or overdubbed to fix errors or get a better “take”. Various electronic effects such as “reverb” can also be added to individual tracks, such as the lead vocals, while the other tracks (for example, bass guitar) will not be affected by this process at all.

Sony multitrack recorder

Sony MDM-X4 Digital Multitrack Recorder / Photo by knothole eyes / CC BY 2.0

Multitrack recording also inspired producers and musicians to create unique sounds that could not be created outside the studio, such as lead singers using their own voices to add multiple harmony vocals to their own lead vocal recording, or an electric guitarist playing many parts to harmonise with the guitar solo. Recorded drum tracks can also be played backwards for an unusual effect!

Let us now look at the topics that we’ll be discussing today:

The Process

Today, most multitracking process takes place in computer-based systems. Theoretically, an unlimited number of playback or recorded tracks can be used in these systems. But RAM memory and CPU issues does put a limit on various computers. Furthermore, the number of available recording tracks that can be recorded simultaneously is determined by the number of inputs on the sound card.

Audio engineers can select any track (or tracks) on the device to be used for any instrument, voice, or other sound sources and can also choose to record two sources on one track to produce more music or sound variations. At any given point during the process, any of the tracks on the device can be recording or playing back using sel-sync or Selective Synchronous recording.

For example, an artist can now record onto track 1 and at the same time, listen to track 2, 3 and 7, allowing them to record another layer of instrument or singing on top of the performance already recorded on these tracks. They might also choose to record a different version on track 4 while listening to the other tracks.

Ardour

Audio tracks, each with a different instrument / Photo by WikiSylvia / CC BY-SA 3.0

What’s great about multitracking is that all of the recorded tracks can be played back immediately or at a later time, while maintaining perfect synchrony, as if they had initially been performed and recorded together. This convenient process can be repeated until there are no more unused (or in some cases, reused) tracks available.

Final Stage

After the recording stage, all the tracks will then be “mixed down” through a mixing console (or audio editing software) to a two-track stereo mix. This final mix can then be converted into a format that can be duplicated and distributed. Movie and DVD soundtracks are usually mixed down to four or more tracks (depending on the situation), the most common being five tracks, typically available on DVDs.

Orchestra Recording

An orchestral recording session

Flexibility

A recording of an orchestra is a good example to use in order to illustrate the flexibility of multitrack recording. The performance is always recorded with all 70 to 100 musicians playing their parts simultaneously. If every group of instruments is assigned their own microphones, and each “solo” instrument has their own as well, then all these microphones can be recorded on multiple tracks simultaneously.

After the live recording process is over, the audio engineer and conductor can fine tune the balance and tone of all the different instrument sections and solo instruments, since all the sections and solo instruments was recorded to its own track. Any of the tracks can also be “muted”, and this allows the producer to listen to one section of the orchestra, isolated from the rest.

Multitracking a piece of music also opens up the possibilities of remixes by the same or other artists, such as DJs. If the song was not produced in a multitrack recording environment, the remixing artist will have a very difficult or nearly impossible job, as the tracks will be inseparable once they have been through the mixdown phase, where the tracks are re-recorded together.

M Audio Interface

M-Audio USB audio interface / Photo by Matt Vanacoro / CC BY 2.0

Digital Recording

Today, many professionals and enthusiasts record music using a PC as a multitracking machine. The computer must have a sound card or other type of digital audio interface with one or multiple analog-to-digital converters. An audio editing software needs to be installed on the computer. Microphones are also needed for the recording of instruments or vocals.

Depending on the system’s capabilities, some instruments such as an electronic keyboard or electric guitar, can also be patched directly to an external audio interface using line level or other inputs. This method nullifies the need for microphones and can provide another range of sound control options. Take note that professional quality audio interfaces can cost thousands of dollars.

If you are interested, do take a look at some of the popular manufacturers of high quality interfaces such as Apogee Electronics, Avid Audio, Focusrite, MOTU, M-Audio and PreSonus.

Software

Most audio editing software today, are capable of multitracking. Graphic notation is often used for an interface and multiple views of the music is available. Most editing software are also capable of audio playback, and many of them provide MIDI playback functions as well. These features may come with various displays, showing the music score, as well as editing capability.

Ardour DAW

Digital editing software by Ardour / Photo by The Ardour Community / CC BY-SA 3.0

Audio editing software can be quite costly. Popular software (capable of multitracking) include Ableton Live, Adobe Audition, Pro Tools, Cakewalk Sonar, Nuendo, Cubase and Logic. Free software such as Audacity and Ardour are also available. Take note that Ardour is well known to be capable of performing most, if not all of the functions of the more expensive programs.

We have come to the end of this article. I hope this has been very educational and helpful for all you music-loving people, who are very new to the world of modern recording!

Don’t forget to leave comments or questions below, and share this with your friends!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

6 Comments

  1. It was really helpful article! Multitracking is really helpful to music producers.Especially for remixing. Moreover , i had the chance to learn that Ardour is a free and relatively of equal capabilities to other DAWs. Are you a music producer or it’s just your hobbie? Whatever it is, your article is very nice!

    • Hey Serres!

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article. It’s great to know that you have learnt some new stuff about audio. I’m a freelance audio engineer by profession, and produce my own music on the sideline.

      Keep in touch!

  2. Yes, originally bands had to all record at the same time. Once they were able to multitrack and overdub, that changed things a lot. It meant they could become perfectionists in the studio. I would go one step further and say that the the invention of sampling and sequencing progressed things even more. It meant that you didn’t even need a band at all. Take Def Leppard’s 1987 album Hysteria, for example. I read that all the drums and bass guitar lines were sequenced. Only the guitars and vocals were actually performed. And the producer, Mutt Lange, was a perfectionist in the studio. Maybe it gave listeners an unrealistic idea of how good an actual band could be, but it was great music that made a lot of money.

    But even a lot of pure rock or metal bands that you would consider to be all about performing their instruments, they use a lot of studio refinements. One example is fast metal drumming, which is often quantised to make it sound precise. It’s all about doing whatever it takes to make the best music, don’t you think?

    • Hi Marcus!

      Professional music production tools and devices have become widely available and affordable, that it makes it almost impossible to not strive for perfection. However, music is a purely creative output and as such, you could hardly call any music the “best”. It depends on the reputation of the artist, and how they market themselves.

      I have heard many times over the years, where bands are being criticised for not being able to give a performance that stays faithful to the precision that is reflected in the album version. There are also artists out there who don’t emphasize on conventional musicianship qualities, yet experience huge successes in their live shows.

      In my humble opinion, it ultimately boils down to the individual, and what they hold dear to them when it comes to music.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Hi farhan,

    Another great article from you, this one to help me understand the concept of multitrack recording.

    I have da bbled with a little home recording, but did find that the average Windows PC struggled a little with the demands placed on it.

    For the amateur who wants to do a little recording at home, can you recommend any particular digital multitrack software that would work well on the average home PC?

    Thanks,

    Al

    • Hey Al!

      There are many software that will work well on the average Windows PC. If you feel that your PC system is struggling a little, you might want to check the size of your projects and how many audio tracks you are working with. Some computers may have difficulty managing too many instrument tracks at once.

      If possible, quit other applications when you are using your multitrack software. If your PC allows it, upgrade your RAM size. Also try and save your projects (with high track counts) on an external dedicated hard drive, instead of your system’s internal hard drive.

      Check this article about the various well-known multitrack software.

      Thanks for reading!

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