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Studio Setup | Studio Gear | Microphones | Mic Techniques | Mixers | Mixing
Multitracks | Common Effects | EQ Techniques | PC | Terminology



  Multi-track recording is a sound recording process that combines many individual sound files or input sources and , through editing, into a finished project that is placed on a permanent medium such as a CD. Multi-track recording is used for the recording of  virtually every form of media that exists today. Before the advances in computer technology, digital audio workstations (DAW), and software, mutitracking was relegated to the domain of the large recording studios .

  There are two types of digital multi-track recorders being used today that include the traditional stand-alone recorder and the computer-based software multi-track recorders. While the stand alone units were considered to be the low end of the mult-track spectrum, the prices on software based systems have dropped so much that they are fast becoming the standard in even the most modest home studio. ProTools, Cakewalk, Adobe Audition, Logic Pro and Cubase are some of the more popular software-based recording systems.


Teac 2340

 Multitrack recording ('multitracking' or just 'tracking' for short) is a method of sound recording that allows for the separate recording of multiple sound sources to create a cohesive whole. This is the most common method of recording popular music. In the 2000s, multitracking software for computers such as Pro Tools became widely used. The TEAC 2340, a popular early (1973) home multitrack recorder, four tracks on ¼ inch tape.

 Multitracking can be achieved with analog, tape-based equipment (from simple, cassette-based four or eight trackers to 2" reel-to-reel 24-track machines), digital equipment that relies on tape storage of recorded digital data (such as ADAT eight-track machines) and hard disk-based systems often employing a computer and audio recording software. Multitrack recording devices vary in their specifications, such as the number of simultaneous tracks available for recording at any one time; in the case of tape-based systems this is limited by, among other factors, the physical size of the tape employed. Some of the biggest professional analog recording studios used a computer to synchronize multiple 24-track machines, effectively multiplying the number of available tracks into the hundreds. The rock group Toto recorded their fourth album on four computer-synced 24-track machines, for example.


 For computer-based systems the trend is towards unlimited numbers of record/playback tracks, although issues such as memory and CPU available will in fact limit this from machine to machine. Moreover, on computer-based systems, the number of simultaneously available recording tracks is limited by the sound card discrete analog or digital inputs.



M-Audio Pro ToolsPC Based Studio


 When recording, audio engineers can select which track (or tracks) on the device will be used for each instrument, voice, or other input.At any given point on the tape, any of the tracks on the recording device can be recording or playing back, so that an artist is able to record, for instance, onto track 2 and, simultaneously, listen to track 1, allowing them to sing or to play an accompaniment to the performance already recorded on track 1. They might then record on track 3 while listening to track 2. All three performances can then be played back in perfect synchrony, as if they had originally been played and recorded together. This can be repeated until all of the available tracks have been used, or in some cases, reused.

 At any given point in the recording process, any number of existing tracks can be "bounced" into one or two tracks and the original tracks erased, making more room for more tracks to be reused for fresh recording. Beatles producer George Martin used this technique extensively to achieve multiple track results, while still being limited to using only multiple four-track machines, until an eight-track machine became available during the recording of the Beatles' White Album. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds also made innovative use of multitracking with 8-track machines of the day (1965-66).



Boss 1600 multitrack  Multitrack recording also allows any recording artist to record multiple "takes" of any given section of their performance, allowing them to refine their performance to virtual perfection. A recording engineer can record only the section being worked on, without erasing any other section of that track. This process of turning the recording mechanism on and off is called "punching in" and "punching out". (See "Punching in".)

 When recording is completed, the many tracks are "mixed down" through a mixing console to a two-track stereo recorder in a format which can then be duplicated and distributed. (Movie and DVD soundtracks can be mixed down to four or more tracks, as needed, the most common being five tracks, with an additional subwoofer track, hence the "5.1" surround sound most commonly available on DVDs.)


 During multitracking, multiple musical instruments (and vocals) can be recorded, either one at a time or simultaneously, onto individual tracks, so that the sounds thus recorded can be accessed, processed and manipulated individually to produce the desired results. For example, after recording some parts of a song, an artist might listen to only the guitar part, by 'muting' all the tracks except the one on which the guitar was recorded. If they then wanted to listen to the vocals in isolation, they would do so by muting all the tracks apart from the vocals track. If they wanted to listen to the entire song, they could do so by un-muting all the tracks. If they did not like the guitar part, or found a mistake in it, and wanted to replace it, they could do so by re-recording only the guitar part (i.e., re-recording only the track on which the guitar was recorded), rather than re-recording the entire song. This kind of editing freedom is one of the biggest benefits of multitracking.


 If all the voices and instruments in a recording are individually recorded on distinct tracks, then the artist is able to retain complete control over the final sculpting of the song, during the mix-down (re-recording to two stereo tracks for mass consumption) phase. For example, if an artist wanted to apply one effect to a synthesizer part, a different effect to a guitar part, a 'chorused reverb' effect to the lead vocals, and different effects to all the drums and percussion instruments, they could not do so if they had all been originally recorded together onto the same track. However, if they had been recorded onto separate tracks, then the artist could blend and alter all of the instrument's sounds with complete freedom.


 Multitrack recording allows a single musician to record multiple parts, allowing duos (such as Ween and Tenacious D) and trios (such as Cream and Nirvana) to produce a larger sound, larger groups to double parts or add different instruments, and also a solo performer to create an ensemble sound, playing different parts. John Frusciante, Mike Oldfield, Stevie Wonder, Emitt Rhodes, Skip Spence, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Trent Reznor, Lenny Kravitz, Elliott Smith, David Gray, R. Stevie Moore, Enya, Dave Grohl, Delbert McClinton, Michael Sembello, Ben Folds, Kurt Ralske, and Prince are among the performers to produce albums in this way, as their own "band". Even a musician who plays no instruments can create a marketable record, as with a cappella artist Bobby McFerrin, who performed all of the parts in many of his recordings (from 1980 to 2000) vocally.

Tascam Pocket Studio

 Multitracking a song also leaves open the possibilities of remixes by the same or future artists, such as DJs. If the song was not available in a multitrack format recording, the job of the remixing artist could be very difficult, or impossible, because once the tracks have been re-recorded together during the mixdown phase, they are inseparable. Theoretically, one could use frequency selective filters for this, but in reality this has not been done with any great degree of success because of the multi-harmonic (having many frequencies) nature of many musical instruments and voices.

 The process was conceived and developed by guitarist Les Paul in the 1940s with the financial and inspirational assistance of Bing Crosby and the Ampex Corporation, resulting in the first 8-track machine which used 1-inch tape. Through the 1950s, many popular recordings, notably those of Les Paul and Mary Ford and Patti Page used the technology to enhance vocals and instrumentals. From these pioneering beginnings, it evolved in subsequent decades into a mainstream recording technique.

 In the 2000s, many performers have recorded albums using only a personal computer as a tracking machine. To use a personal computer as a multitracking device, the computer must have an analog to digital interface, and multitrack recording software must be installed (software is available at all price ranges or even free, in the case of free software / open source). As well, a microphone is needed to record the vocals of a singer and/or any other sources of sound.


 This is all that is needed to set up a multitracking studio at home capable of producing high quality recordings. The standard analog to digital interface in a personal computer can be used to capture sounds. This is done simply by attaching either a microphone to the microphone input jack if a vocal track is to be recorded, or a stereo cable from the electronic device (such as a synthesizer or a guitar amplifier) to the line input of the sound card. Computers with appropriate software and hardware can record multiple audio tracks at once. This audio interface hardware sends audio signals to the computer and may interface with the computer via a PCI card, USB or FireWire connections. There are a range of analog to digital interface options available. Popular brands include, Apogee, Digidesign, MOTU, Lynx and Prism.

 The instruments and singers' voices are recorded onto individual files on the computer's hard drive, which function as tracks as per traditional multitracking. Effects such as reverb, chorus, delays can be applied by the computer software. When the musicians are happy with the sound, the multiple tracks are mixed down onto two clean tracks, again within the multitracking software. Finally, the final stereo recording can be burned to a CD, which can then be copied and distributed.

Fostex multitrack

 Multitracking software for a personal computer includes: Adobe Audition, Pro Tools from Digidesign, SONAR from Cakewalk, Samplitude from Magix, Cubase from Steinberg, and Logic Pro from Apple. Mixcraft from Acoustica, Inc., Reaper from Cockos and N-track from FASoft are affordable alternatives to high end multi-track software. Audacity and Ardour are popular open source programs for multi-track recording. Jokosher (open source as well) is quite new, but seems to be gaining popularity among Linux users.

  In most modern popular songs, drums and percussion instruments are the first instruments to be recorded. There are various reasons for this. The drums are usually the rhythm leaders; it is much easier for musicians recording later tracks to keep to the common beat of the drums, also due to the precise attack of drum sounds. A drummer might find it very difficult to play along with a backing track recorded without percussion, due to the likely variations in the musicians' tempo. Furthermore, in order to accurately keep to a pre-established rhythm, a drummer would need the sound of the other instruments to be very loud to compete with their drum kit; apart from the possibility of the drum microphones picking up the sound of the other instruments from the drummer's headphones, prolonged exposure to such volume might very well damage their hearing. Also, it allows the drums to be recorded for a few seconds, then looped. Click tracks are also often used as the first sound to be recorded, especially when the drummer isn't available for the initial recording, and/or the final mix will be synced with motion picture and/or video images.


 Also, though the drums might eventually be mixed down to a couple of tracks, each individual drum and percussion instrument might be initially recorded to its own individual track. The drums and percussion combined can occupy the largest number of tracks utilized in a recording. This is done so that each percussion instrument can be processed individually for maximum effect. A common percussion effect is the slow back and forth panning of a percussive instrument's sound in the stereo field from the left to the right channel in a song. Equalization (or EQ) is often used on individual drums, to bring out each one's characteristic sound.

 The last tracks to be recorded are usually the vocals (though a temporary vocal track might be recorded early on either as a reference or to guide subsequent musicians, this is sometimes called a "Ghost Vocal" or "Scratch vocal"). One reason for this is that singers will often temper their vocal expression in accordance with the accompaniment.

Studio Setup | Studio Gear | Microphones | Mic Techniques | Mixers | Mixing
Multitracks | Common Effects | EQ Techniques | PC | Terminology

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