Multitrack metersFor some of us who grew up with the rigours of analogue tape multitracking, the term ‘infinite tracks’ has never really lost its shock value.

From a time when tracks were among studio recording’s most valuable resources – and played a quantifiable part in determining the recording process both practically and musically – they’ve become a cheap digital commodity. We think we want more of them.. but we may be a whole lot better off with far fewer.

Audio Tape inventionWe know that tape recording was invented in 1928 by Dr Fritz Pfleumer. What he didn’t know at the time was that he needed AC bias to make it a viable technology. He sold the patent to AEG, and work on the Magnetophon began in 1932. Ready to revolutionise recording, the project fell flat on account of its poor sound quality – until AC bias saved the day.

That early tape recording was a mono technology, with the concept of stereo and multitrack recording abstract concepts. Neither was far behind, with stereo devised by Alan Blumlein at EMI in 1931, around the same time that Les Paul began experimenting with overdubbing. Beginning with a modified disk lathe before adopting tape recorders, Les Paul had the first 8-track recorder custom-built by Ampex in the 1950s. The commercial take-up of both multitracking and overdubbing were also down to Ampex, whose three-track recorders were widely used until the mid-1960s – generally to put a vocal track over a stereo backing recorded earlier.

Multitracking took a major step forward in the 1960s when the first 4-track recorders arrived. Abbey Road’s ‘reduction mixes’ – copying four tracks from one machine to a stereo pair on a second, allowing the remaining free tracks to be used for more recording layers – gave us track bouncing. Widely adopted, this continued even as 8-track and 16-track recorders appeared. You could never have enough tracks…

Unlike recording to separate tracks, bouncing required forward planning. Bounced tracks had their EQ, reverb and other effects locked in, along with their relative levels. If you bounced your drums and bass down to stereo, you couldn’t go back to fine-tune the snare.

The quest for greater numbers of tracks was further advanced by synchronising multitrack machines together. The heyday of the ‘big room’ recording studio regularly saw pairs of 24-track tape decks synced to operate as a single 48-track, and hooked up to some of the largest mixing consoles ever built. Together with the pioneering recording techniques of the 1970s and 80s, they represented the pinnacle of analogue recording technology.

The equipment, rooms and abilities offered by professional recording studios set them apart from anything that could be achieved outside of them. A demo recording was just that – a demonstration of a song, waiting to be professionally shaped and recorded.

The rise of the machines

Nebrasza

The upheaval that was to follow began with drum machines, cassette-based ‘home’ multitrack recorders and Midi. Although they all quickly found their way into commercially released music, none appeared to threaten the role of the professional studio.

In 1983, Midi stepped outside the proprietary boundaries of synthesisers, drum machines and sequencers, and allowed different manufacturers’ equipment to be combined in a unified system. Slowly at first, it assumed extensive control using dedicated hardware or software running on a PC. The DNA of Steinberg’s Cubase, C-Lab’s Creator and Digidesign’s Sound Designer programs can be found in today’s Nuendo Logic Pro and Pro Tools DAW software.

As Midi is a control protocol, it left amateur audio recording of the time to Tascam’s Portastudio and the ‘personal’ multitrack machines that followed. Based on an audio cassette running at double speed (3.75ips) and using both ‘sides’ simultaneously, the Portastudio offered four tracks of simul-sync (synchronous overdubbing) recording in the style of professional recording – including pitch control and internal routing for bouncing. Audio quality was limited, but Bruce Springsteen famously recorded his Nebraska album on a Portastudio.

Striping one track of a multitrack tape with sync code would allow a Midi set-up to be run alongside the remaining audio tracks as a hybrid system, in a similar way as syncing two multitracks raised the track count. This was regularly done in professional studios and was also seized by Sansui with the MR2 – a 6-track cassette-based recorder that allowed one track to be switched to bypass the onboard noise reduction in order to carry sync code.

Then came digital. In the professional world, Sony, Studer and Mitsubishi produced professional digital multitrack machines offering 24, 32 and 48 tracks, while Alesis set to work on the Adat budget 8-track system, based on S-VHS videotape. All of these were tape based.

Solid start

With the discrete analogue circuitry that had generated approximations of drum sounds replaced by ICs carrying recordings of the real thing, drum machines grew up. And the Pandora’s Box that had contained digital samplers was opened.

Digital recording developed rapidly, as the technology grew up and component costs fell. The digital audio workstation was born, capable of covering many professional recording functions at a fraction of the cost. DAWs also promised ‘infinite tracks’.

Waves J37Free from the linear operation and constraints of analogue tape recording, DAWs have liberated recording from traditional track constraints, and brought incredible power to track editing. Tracks are cheap. Record as many takes as you like. Record as many parts as you wish. Put all your effects on separate tracks. Leave all the editing decisions until later…

But releasing recording from the confines of old-school studios has come at the price of structured learning, and prized techniques forged by generations of engineers are lost to many of today’s recordists. Along with them, the discipline imposed by limited tracks has also disappeared.

Easier to learn than the correct way to mic a drum kit or grand piano, simpler than mastering a single-edge razor blade and splicing tape, and more fun than lining up a tape machine in the morning and resetting the mixing desk at the end of a session, track discipline can be an equally essential recording technique – why has this passed the manufacturers of digital recorders by?

Obviously, with infinite availability the number of tracks used can be as many or as few as you wish – but it would be a simple matter to implement a ‘track limit’ feature to invoke the restrictions of multitrack tape formats. Such a feature could also incorporate digital modelling of analogue recording electronics and tape characteristics – such as the Waves/Abbey Road Studios (Studer) J37 tape saturation plug-in (4-track, 1-inch), UAD’s Studer A800 and ATR-102 plug-ins or Crane Song’s Phoenix II plug-in. As well as its El Capistan tape delay stompbox, Strymon has a dedicated tape saturation pedal in its Deco. Surely any of these would make a neat package to market.

Much sought-after and increasingly expensive, old recording technology presently exerts a strong influence on modern recording. Might not reviving some of its operational limitations also benefit the creative choices in the recordings we make? It certainly did for me...

See also:
The History of Magnetic Audio Tape (video)

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