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Instant Multitracking

Instant multitracking with a pair of stereo tape recorders.

Here's a new variation on an old theme — simple multitracking with two reel-to-reel tape recorders.

For the recordist with two open reel machines there is a recording technique, denied to those who possess a cassette tape recorder, which can best be described as 'instant multitracking' and capable of some very interesting results.

The method relies on the time delay produced as the recording made on one machine travels to the replay head of the other machine. The output of the second machine is fed back to the input of the first machine. The use of two identical recorders eliminates the problem of tape alignment and in the case of dissimilar machines, one of them may require blocks to be placed under it in order to match the tape path heights (See Figure 1). The machines should be angled with respect to each other in such a manner as to duplicate the normal tape path. (See Figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2


The principle of the idea is to record something of a duration equal to the time taken for a point on the tape to travel from the record head of machine 1 to the replay head of machine 2, at which point the signal is returned to machine 1 and is thus automatically recorded again - but this time with the addition of another signal. The combined recording will replay and yet another signal may be added - this process may be repeated as many times as quality considerations permit.

In essence that is 'instant multitracking', however, in practice it is not quite that simple. For best results the build-up must be planned, in much the same way as would be the case for a composite recording relying on track-to-track copying. That is first recording those sounds which to some degree can tolerate losses or masking and ending with the recording of those instruments etc. which must retain their brilliance.

There is one apparent problem - that of creating the original musical 'bed' upon which everything is laid, because for continuous record/play its duration must coincide exactly with the time taken for the recording to travel from one machine to the other - fortunately there is a simple solution.

Decide upon the duration of the musical bed, say for example 10 seconds and record it on the first machine. Set the second machine at a distance from the first (equal to 10 times the recording speed) and transfer the take-up spool from machine 1 to the take-up side of machine 2. Adjust the tape so that the end of a beat space after the end of the 10 second recording aligns with the record head of machine 1.

Machine 2 may now be moved until the beginning of the recording aligns with its replay head. The tape is then rewound by hand to a suitable starting point, the machines are set in record and replay respectively and started (playback machine first in order to maintain tension). In the event that tension is lost because the record machine runs slightly faster than the replay machine, swap the machines around or take the tape around the back of the record machine's capstan. The attention to position is not necessary if a single 10 second multitracked segment is all that is required.


Once underway the recording is monitored and the second layer of sound is added in synchronisation and as that combination is replayed the third layer is added and so on. Continuous recording is not essential, the tape may be stopped and started as often as the recordist wishes using the procedure outlined above. In the event of a mistake, the tape can be rewound to a suitable point, the rhythm picked up and the overlay continued. In this respect the system is useful because the original recording is never destroyed, merely left behind, further along the tape.

On twin channel machines different instruments could be used on each channel and mixed on a final transfer. If a stereo or twin channel recording was not made the spare track could be used to create echoes on either or both the input and recorded mix.

There are many variations and applications of the basic 'instant multitrack' idea, for example, a completed portion may be spliced into a loop to provide a backing track. If the machines are used close together there is only a short delay and the sound build up is rapid - 4 'layers' in perhaps 12 seconds (3 second delay); alternatively doubling the tape speed would halve the time.

The whole recording, from first sound to completion, could be used as a distinctive introduction to a record. Even something as basic as a handclap takes on a totally new dimension with this treatment which also enables complex vocals to be built up with relative ease. The only drawback is the practical limit to machine separation, though with a little ingenuity delays of over one minute at 7½ ips are possible - so open up a new dimension in sound with linear multitracking instead of lateral.

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Headphone Amplification System

Home & Studio Recording - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Home & Studio Recording - Jul 1984

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman



Feature by Steve Taylor

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