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Before multitrack recording was invented, the whole band used to have to play together and record at the same time. Can you believe that?

Recording Multitrack

Before multitrack recording was invented, the whole band used to have to play together and record at the same time. Can you believe that? Adding a vocal was a matter of mixing the backing track with the live vocal onto a separate tape. The equivalent of drop-ins could be performed by repeating the sections as necessary and editing this tape. Now we simply record track by track until the producer is satisfied or the tape is full (which do you think usually comes first?). But this isn’t the whole story. Once you rise above the level of cassette multitracks (which I’ll assume you are familiar with already) you need to start worrying about the problems the real world is going to throw at you. Here are three: the tracks will not all be equal in sound quality; the various signals going through the recorder will tend to ‘fight’ with each other; the machine might not be working at its best. I would say that in multitrack recording these are the three major difficulties. Let’s work backwards…

Machine problems. I don’t doubt that manufacturers of multitrack recorders would prefer me to pretend that problems never occur, but I have to be realistic and say that there is not a tape machine in the world - at any price - that will carry on working forever without any problems. Often in a studio, a machine is kept working even though there is obviously something wrong, either because the studio owner hasn’t noticed a gradual decline in performance or because the thing is still recording and playing on all tracks - or at least most of them - and taking it out of service for however long the repair takes would be considered uneconomic. What you need to know as a user of the machine is what is likely to happen and at what point you have to say that the machine isn’t fit to be used.

It would be quite unusual for a multitrack recorder to be working only on some tracks. Electronic components, once they have got over the ‘infant mortality’ stage tend to be very reliable. It’s more likely that there will be a transport problem since the interface between mechanics and electronics is not yet a fully mature science. The multitrack you find yourself using may snatch at the tape when changing between play and wind. If this is so, then pressing stop between all operations may make things a little smoother. If this doesn’t work then you have to consider whether the machine is likely to damage your tape. This would be the ultimate agony, especially if you were adding tracks to a tape which already had perhaps hundreds of man-hours worth of work on it. The other common mechanical fault is wow and flutter. There’s nothing you can do about it if you notice it, but as soon as you do ask the studio manager for a refund and some free time after the machine has been fixed. There is a third category of problems with tape machines which comes into play after many years of hard use. This category includes the notorious ‘violining’ effect where the tape sticks against the guides and howls as monstrously as a cheap fiddle played by an eight year old. Put as much distance between yourself and this machine as possible. That’s the only remedy.

By David Mellor Thursday January 1, 2004