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The best tracks don’t just come together on their own. To really get in the mix, you’ll want to pick up a multitrack recorder.
“A multitrack recorder allows you to record one or more sources of sound at the same time to separate tracks, and then later process and mix these tracks independently,” explains Justin DeLay, a marketing director at online music community and gear buying site, Reverb. “[It’s] something that’s crucial for maximizing the sound quality of your recordings.”
For instance, say you want to record a band with vocals, guitars, a keyboard, bass, and drums. With a multitrack recorder, the singer’s microphone, the output of the guitars and keys, and each individual drum in the kit can be recorded independently. That gives you the ability to tweak each track separately — say, turning up the voice or turning down the cymbals — before mixing the track together into your final masterpiece.
How Does a Multitrack Recorder Work?
“At its most basic, a multitrack recorder works like a traditional tape recorder,” DeLay explains. You hit a button and the recorder starts capturing all audio that is played into it, whether from a microphone, instrument or other sound source. When you are done recording, you hit stop and you can play back the sounds you just recorded. A multitrack recorder also lets you edit, mix and add effects to your track. It’ll also let you edit separate sections of a track without having to load and play the whole song each time.
While you can record directly onto your computer, you often have to add a solid sound card, preamps and other components in order to start putting your tracks together. With a multitrack recorder, everything you need is in the box.
“The benefit of a multitrack recorder is that multiple sources of sound can be plugged in and the sounds can be captured independently,” DeLay says. “Each microphone, instrument, etc. are plugged into one of the available inputs on the recorder.”
“After recording, most multi-tracks allow you to further tweak track volumes, as well as overdub, erase, or add more to your recording,” he continues. “Depending on the features of the multi-track recorder, you may be able to add effects, adjust panning and more.”
The last step is to transfer the sound, and most multi-track recorders let you export the sounds you recorded via a USB connection or an SD card.
What Makes a Good Multitrack Recorder?
There are a number of things to look for when buying a multitrack recorder. “First,” DeLay says, “try to determine the maximum number of inputs you will be recording at one time.”
Multitrack recorders range from as few as two to as many as 32 inputs or more, with size, cost, and complexity growing as you add more inputs. Generally, experts say a four or eight-track recorder will be enough for most recording scenarios.
Next, “take a look at the kinds of inputs the multitrack recorder offers,” DeLay says. Most will feature quarter-inch line inputs, and some will feature dedicated instrument level and/or XLR microphone inputs.
Additionally, check out the storage specifications on the multi-track you are evaluating. “All recorders will have a maximum recording time based on its storage capacity,” DeLay explains. Some recorders offer external storage via SD memory cards or other media, and most will enable exporting recordings via USB. External storage is always a plus, as it allows you to swap out the memory card and keep recording and to easily transfer your recordings to a computer for further processing and mixing.
Finally, look for a portable unit if you’re going to be recording in the field. All of the multitrack recorders we’re featuring can run on simple AA batteries, letting you easily take them on the go.
What Are Multitrack Recorders Used For?
Multitrack recorders aren’t just for music either. They’re also great for podcasts, giving you the ability to turn up the volume on a guest who has something meaningful to say (and maybe turning down someone who keeps interrupting). You can also record or add sound effects to your podcast, and then mix everything together. Additionally, multitrack recorders can be used to capture sound on location at a video shoot, giving you individual channels you can edit and adjust.
Whether you’re a musician, producer or podcaster, we’ve rounded up the best multitrack recorders based on accessibility, features and ease of use.
1. Zoom R24 Digital Multitrack Recorder
This unit comes with a built-in stereo condenser mic, a 24-track recorder, pad sampler, rhythm machine, DAW (digital audio workstation) control surface and computer audio interface. There are also eight different inputs that let you record eight tracks simultaneously. The on-board mics are super sensitive for a more accurate recording.
Other built-in features include 100 different effects to help boost your production (think: equalizers and reverb) along with a metronome, chromatic tuner and variable playback speed.
Want to take your professional-level recording on the go? The R24 is super lightweight and plugs in using a power adapter or runs off AA batteries (not included).
2. Zoom H4N PRO Digital Multitrack Recorder
The H4n Pro gets you four-channel recording and advanced X/Y microphones that handle everything from big beats to crashing cymbals and guitars. Users praise the incredibly natural-sounding preamps, and a super-low noise floor; there’s no distractions when recording and audio sounds crisp and clear. The on-board effects include guitar/bass amp, compression and reverb/delay.
What we like: the small size and versatility of this recorder means you can use it for everything from playback of music/vocals, to field interviews, or capturing footage from a festival or concert.
This set includes a protective carrying case and two AA batteries. This is simple to set up and use right away, and the grippy, ergonomic case is easy to hold.
Keep in mind, battery life is not as strong as some of the other options on this list. For extended recordings, you’ll want to pick up an SD card (not included).
3. Tascam DP-006 6-Track Pocketstudio Multi-Track Recorder
This Tascam deck gets you CD-quality recording in a premium, portable package. The unit records up to six tracks and features two, built-in omni-directional condenser mics, for more accurate, 360-degree sound capture. Users say the audio transfer is clean and crisp. We also like Tascam’s “Instant Undo” feature, which lets you quickly fix or redo your tracks.
Two inputs let you connect a mic, instrument or synthesizer. This set includes a tripod mount and four AA batteries. It’s also super lightweight at just 13 ounces.
Note that this is not a traditional mixer – there are no effects or EQ features on board.