Multitrack recording is the backbone to music production. When you listen to any piece of recorded music it's almost certainly been put together using this technique.
But what is it? How do you use the technique in your music? And just where on earth did it come from?
Ask, and ye shall receive. Let's roll!
What Is Multitrack Recording?
Multitrack recording is the process of recording multiple sound sources on individual tracks.
It can be done simultaneously, or by recording one individual track at a time.
A band playing together, with all the parts being recorded on separate tracks will make use of multitrack recording. So will a singer-songwriter who plays all the instruments themselves; it'll just take a lot longer, and the process is slightly different.
What's The Difference Between Live and Multitrack Recording?
In its most basic form a live recording will be a simple stereo feed from the mixing desk to the recording device.
The resulting mix will be exactly what the engineer created at the time. If the guitar is too loud (aren't they always?), you'll just have to live with it. Same goes if someone drops a clanger mid-way through the song. Unless you want to record the whole caboodle again.
With multitrack recording you can tame that rambunctious guitar after the musician has gone home, or get the keyboard player to do some overdubs to fix his boxing glove playing technique.
Don't get this confused with recording a live performance. While oftentimes this is a basic stereo feed from the front of house desk, commercially available live recordings are actually done as multitrack recordings.
What Equipment Do I Need To Do Multitrack Recording?
Honestly, not a lot! Gone are the days where you'd have to mortgage your entire extended family to afford a multitrack recorder.
All you need is a device or software capable of recording two or more tracks of audio, and hardware that allows you to connect a sound source to said device.
Computer Based Recording
If you're recording music on your computer, you'll need a digital audio workstation (DAW) and an audio interface to get sound into the DAW .
Digital Audio Workstation
There's a DAW for every budget, although some that are better suited to certain genres than others. The big three are Pro Tools, Cubase and Logic . Ableton Live is snapping at their heels, and Reaper is an excellent choice for those on a budget, or if you hate giving money to big tech.
Whichever DAW you choose just be sure that it's capable of recording multiple audio tracks.
If you're a Mac owner Apple give you a DAW gratis - Garageband comes as part of the standard OS that ships with all of their computers, and it allows the user to record multiple tracks.
If you plan to record all the tracks one by one, layering the sounds as you go, the audio interface can be a simple one with only one or two inputs.
Many audio interfaces ship with a DAW, so for less than $200 you'll be all set to begin your multi tracking journey.
Most DAWs have an exceptionally high, or even unlimited track count (the number of record/playback tracks). While this works in theory, the reality is that you're limited to what your computer can handle.
If you stack up more audio tracks than your CPU can handle you'll end up with a sputtering mess, so be sure to check the specs on your computer and if necessary add more RAM.
Digital Multitrack Recorders
Many musicians and music producers like to unchain themselves from their computer during the creative process, and digital multitrack recorders enable them to record music without being distracted by other apps.
And since a digital multitrack recorder is a closed system it's simpler to set up, strike down, and carry around.
There's three types of digital multitrack recorder:
These are mini-mixing consoles that have digital recording capability. They have their own microphone preamplifiers, and feature onboard FX enabling the recording engineer to take a track from start to finished master in one unit.
One disadvantage to using a digital multitrack recorder is the lack of screen real estate, making editing a bit of a chore.
The good news is that a lot of digital multitrack recorders allow you to export what you've recorded on the SD card into your DAW for further refinement.
Field recorders are portable multitrack recorders used by boom operators and sound mixers on film and TV location sets to record dialogue from multiple actors onto separate channels. This makes the mixing process in post a cleaner experience.
Smaller handheld devices with digital multitracking capability are great for podcasters on the move. The audio quality is comparable to standard DAWs, and they're much easier to carry around to interviews than a laptop and audio interface.
How To Use Multitrack Recording In Your Workflow
Let's look at how to effectively manage the process of recording multiple tracks.
Regardless of whether you use a DAW or a digital multitrack recorder the approaches will be the same.
As A Band
While it's possible to record each instrument separately a band will gel much better when they're performing together.
We're going to assume you have a mixing desk or audio interface with enough channels to record individual tracks into your DAW. If you're using a digital multitrack recorder this won't be an issue.
Create A Click Track
Unless the song is particularly fluid in tempo, or you have the world's greatest drummer (you don't), create a click track for the band to perform to. In a DAW you could just switch the metronome on, but it can be helpful to create a dedicated MIDI track for this purpose. This method gives you greater control over volume of the click, beat subdivisions and monitor mixes.
It's important to get the tempo right at this point so make sure everyone is happy with the feel. Ideally tempos will already have been worked out in pre-production rehearsals (you did rehearse for the recording, right?).
Set Up The Tracks
Set up a new track for each instrument (including vocals) in the band. If your drum kit is individually mic'd set up one track for each drum mic you have, including stereo pairs.
Record A First Pass
Start by recording a pass of the song with the full band, including vocals. Don't worry if it's not perfect. The main thing is to capture a snapshot of the song.
Overdubs - Correcting Mistakes
Next, listen carefully to the rhythm section parts and see if anything needs overdubs to correct mistakes.
Overdubs - Additional Instruments
Then record any additional instruments. These might be 'one-off' solo instruments, outside musicians who aren't part of the main band set-up, or additional layers such as a second keyboard part.
Now it's time to focus on the vocals. You'll probably end up with a lot of takes, so comp the best ones together onto a single track. (Pro Tip: Keep the discarded takes on a hidden track).
Once you have a solid main vocal, record any ad libs, harmonies, and double tracking you want on the song.
Finally, add in any finishing touches such as additional percussion, or synth FX.
As a Solo Recording Artist
If you're flying on your own the music recording process will be similar to the above.
Set Up A Click Track
Since you're playing everything this is an essential step. If you want fluidity in the tempo make use of the tempo operations feature in your DAW to make adjustments. (Pro Tip: Sometimes the energy of a chorus can be lifted by upping the tempo a couple of BPM before dropping back again for the next verse).
Set Up A New Track
Since you'll be recording one instrument at a time you don't need to worry about creating multiple tracks - simply connect your instrument or mic to your audio interface, create and record arm a new track, and you're ready to roll. Almost...
Record A Scratch Track
You've got to start somewhere, so record a blueprint of the song. This can be a simple keyboard part played thru MIDI, or a guitar chugging away through the chord changes. Don't worry about making it sound good; it's intended as a guide, not as a part to be included in the final mix.
It's often helpful to have a guide vocal at this stage too, so you have a reference for where you are in the song.
Since you're building the song one track at a time it's time to add drums/percussion and bass to your song to build the foundations.
Then add in any other rhythm section instruments, such as guitar or keys, then add solos, loops and samples on other tracks.
Finally record your vocal, and any other sounds you want in the song.
And remember you can use overdubs to fix mistakes rather than recording the entire track again!
Benefits of Multitrack Recording
There's a whole heap of reasons why it's better to use multitrack recording than commit to a one-off single track take, including:
- The sound engineer has more flexibility and control over the mix
- The musicians don't have to be in the same room at the same time
- You can add in additional instruments or parts at a later stage (overdubbing)
- Mistakes can be fixed without having to record the entire song again
When Not To Use Multitrack Recording
Virtually all popular music is recorded using multitracking. The only time recording tracks for each instrument is not advisable is when you're working with acoustically balanced ensembles, such as a string quartet.
The History Of Multitrack Recording
Multitrack recording has been around a long time, but how did we get from the earliest wax cylinders to today's behemoth DAWs?
Early Days Of Sound Recording
The very earliest sound recordings (at the beginning of the 20th century) were made using a cone to 'collect' the sound and a flat disc to 'capture' the sound. It was the first commercially available means of recording sound, but it was crude.
Musicians would perform together, and if someone fluffed a take re-recording was the only option; the whole band would have to play it again, Sam.
Additionally the sound quality wasn't great; it was more like listening to a band play at the bottom of the ocean than having them in the same room as you.
The Path To Multitrack Technology
While technological advancements like microphone preamplifiers and loudspeakers helped improve the quality of the sound, it wasn't until magnetic tape was invented that things began to shift towards multitracking.
During the second World War a German-Austrian scientist by the name of Fritz Pfleumer essentially invented magnetic tape when he discovered a way to coat paper with iron oxide. Not being the friendliest of times this was kept a closely guarded secret by the Germans.
Once the war was over an American electrical engineer, Jack T. Mullins, discovered the hidden treasure, and brought it back to the US to study more. That's when things started shifting.
Mullins took apart the technology, refitted it with American counterparts, and began shopping the equipment around.
At the time Bing Crosby, besides being the Jay-Z of his day was also a bit of an entrepreneur. After hearing about and working with Mullins' gear he invested massively in Ampex to help them develop more of these machines.
From Birth To The Eight Track
Multitrack recording as we know it today started to emerge when composer Les Paul (yes, that Les Paul) started experimenting with tapes and recordings. His buddy (bada) Bing Crosby gave him an eight track acetate disc recorder on which he fooled around.
But the results weren't satisfactory enough for Paul. So he teamed up with Ampex to help develop a similar device that instead used magnetic tape to capture the recording. And thus Ampex relieved Paul of $10,000 when he became the first person to own a custom built Ampex 8-track recorder, the 'Sel-Sync'.
By the time the 50s rolled around everyone and his grandmother were using basic multi track machines to record their tunes (although the standard at this time was four tracks). Everyone in the US that is. Back in Europe things were a bit slower to take off.
Eventually the Brits caught up and in 1963 The Beatles recorded their first 4-track single, I Want To Hold Your Hand . Many of the big records by the Fab Four and the Rolling Stones were done on a 4-track machine. The engineers at Abbey Road Studios became so adept at manipulating multi-tracking technology they were able to create complex arrangements using only the 4-tracks available.
But everyone always wants more, and in 1966 3M introduced the first mass produced eight track machines, followed closely by Ampex in 1967. Interestingly, The Beatles didn't get to play around with eight tracks until 1968, so the influential Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded using pairs of four track tape recorders.
Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys also became quite nifty at using multitrack recorders. During the Beach Boys innovative years he combined recordings made on both four-track and eight track tape recorders, along with tape editing techniques, to create elaborate arrangements like the ones found on Pet Sounds .
Life After Eight Track Machines
As Bill Heslop was fond of saying in 'Muriel's Wedding', you can't stop progress, and naturally recording technology advanced from eight track machines 16 and 24 tracks.
Ampex built the first 16-track recorder as a prototype for Mirasound Studios in NYC in 1967. It was the first to use 2-inch tape, and was later made commercially available for a handsome sum - between $10,000 - $30,000. Soon every recording studio was getting in on the action, giving rise to classic albums such as Hot Rats (Frank Zappa), Aoxomoxoa (Grateful Dead), and A Night At The Opera (Queen). The recording industry was in full swing.
During the 70s the compact audio cassette tape began to rise in popularity, which eventually gave birth to the portable 4-track recorder. The first of these was the Tascam Portastudio, released in 1979.
Cassette tapes were designed to hold four tracks - two sets of stereo tracks for each 'side' of the album. A four track recorder uses all 4 tracks together, with a separate signal recorded on each track.
These multitrack recorders allowed musicians to inexpensively record demos without needing to be signed by a label - excellent news for the impending punk era.
Many young bands self-produced albums and sold these recordings at gigs. Bruce Springsteen preferred his portastudio demos over the (later) studio recordings for his 1982 album Nebraska.
To Infinity And Beyoncé
Digital multitrack recorders first crept onto the scene in the late 70s, although they still used tape (albeit a specially made one). Alesis introduced the ADAT, a digital eight track recorder in the early 90s, and a slew of other digital multitrack recorders from Tascam, Roland, Yamaha and Korg appeared on the market.
The first software based digital multitrack recorder came on the scene in 1990, paving the way for Pro Tools and Cubase Audio in 1991. While the track count was nowhere near as high as it is today, by the late 90s it was conceivable enough to record an entire album using software-based multitrack recording.
As computing power increased and hardware costs tumbled software-based multitracking became more affordable, and the number of tracks of audio available in a project eventually stopped being a talking point.
By the time Bernie Madoff put on his orange jumpsuit in 2009, anyone with a decent PC, an audio interface, and a basic knowledge of audio and sound recording could self-produce their own album without setting foot in an actual recording studio.
It's been a long and winding road indeed. Now go forth and maketh the (multitracked) music!