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The End of Analogue - Is analogue multitrack recording dead? (part 6)

If you have an analogue multitrack now, do you trade it in for a digital multitrack, or a pair or trio of them? I can’t answer this question for you, but I can give some courses of food for thought on a short menu...


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A Case For Change?

This is the big question. If you have an analogue multitrack now, do you trade it in for a digital multitrack, or a pair or trio of them? I can’t answer this question for you, but I can give some courses of food for thought on a short menu:

• ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, is an old and useful adage. If something is working well enough, then it’s better not to tamper with it or change it because you might create problems you that don’t have now. The problem with this way of thinking is that making progress is always going to be an emergency measure. You’re going to have to wait until your analogue machine gives up the ghost and make the move into digital as a panic measure.

• ‘I owe it to myself to have the latest equipment’. Yes you do, but is it going to give you a tangible benefit? Many users of two inch twenty-four track recorders haven’t invested in Dolby A or SR noise reduction, even though it undoubtedly offers better performance, simply because they decided it wouldn’t show any advantage on their bottom line - how much profit the studio could make.

• ‘I’m going to wait and see what happens in the next few months’. Good idea, but will you ever stop waiting?

I can only speak for myself, but here is my serious and considered opinion on whether digital multitrack would be good for my personal studio: I fully intend to hang onto my existing multitrack for another three years. I only use it for my own projects and it is still showing only a very low mileage. Digital multitrack may have an edge on sound quality, but that would mainly show up it terms of user convenience, rather than in the quality of the finished product, so long as I’m careful. That’s my carefully considered opinion, but on the other hand, I have used a pair of ADATs and I have to say that I really like them! I’ve set myself a goal of getting another three year’s use out of my analogue multitrack, but how long will it be before the temptation to go digital is too much to endure. I’ll tell you when it happens!

Do 8 digital tracks equal 16 analogue?

Check out the prices, for the cost of an 8-track Alesis ADAT or Tascam DA88 you can have a Fostex G16 or Tascam MSR16, give or take a little. If you don’t have a multitrack already then you have to choose: eight digital tracks or sixteen analogue. Alternatively, if you trade in your existing 16-track analogue for an 8-track digital recorder, how are you going to manage?

Let’s first of all assume that timecode is not a problem, either because you are not going to use it or you have adopted one of the solutions to the lost track problem outlined in the main text. You will have eight clear tracks of digital audio to compete with fifteen or sixteen analogue. For most of us these days, eight tracks are not enough for a finished recording so we are going to have to bounce down. If you were going to bounce on an analogue 8-track then you would record six tracks, then mix them to two, and then erase the original six tracks to clear them for your overdubs. This has obvious disadvantages because you lose quality in the bounce and you burn your bridges - there is no way of going back and correcting a track. With a digital machine, you could mix eight tracks into stereo on a DAT, then transfer them back to a clean section of the tape. The quality loss would be minimal, you can always go back if you really need to, and you get two extra tracks before you bounce.

Maybe this is not an ideal way of working, but it is certainly possible. I would say that it is worth serious consideration before deciding whether to go for sixteen analogue tracks or eight digital.

The Digital Future?

Be warned that what I am about to say is mere speculation. I don’t have any ‘inside’ knowledge other than an interest in what might, or might not, be technically possible in the not-too-distant future.

The Alesis ADAT uses a large S-VHS tape to record about forty minutes of 8-track audio. The Tascam DA88 uses a smaller Hi-8 cassette to record one hundred minutes of 8-track. The discrepancy in sizes and playing times indicates to me that there is room for more tracks in both of these formats. I would speculate that Alesis will produce, maybe in eighteen months or two years time, a 16-track ADAT recorder. What’s more - if they have taken a hint from Sony’s upgrading of their much more expensive 24 track digital recorder to 48 tracks on the same tape with two way compatibility - you will be able to play existing 8-track ADAT tapes on their 16-track machine and record the other eight tracks in the gaps. And when you have finished doing that you will still be able to play the original eight tracks on your 8-track machine.

As for Tascam, I doubt whether this type of compatibility will be possible given the smaller size of the tape. I imagine that they will produce a 16-track machine that uses the same tape to record for half the 8-track duration, i.e. 50 minutes. It will of course be able to play and record to the 8-track standard as well.

I hope you find these speculations interesting, but please remember that this is all they are. I don’t have a crystal ball and there’s certainly no way anyone at Alesis or Tascam would let me into secrets of this magnitude.

By David Mellor Monday December 5, 2005