To Tape, Or Not To Tape...
Progress is finally challenging the oldest studio tradition of them all: the use of magnetic tape for recording. As direct-to-disk systems become more desirable and more affordable is it time to revise our attitudes to recording?
WALK INTO ALMOST any recording studio today and the odds are you'll see a fridge in the corner of the room - no, not the one full of the demon drink, the one that's actually a 16- or 24-track recording machine. More precisely, it'll be an analogue tape machine. The same is true of the bedroom demo studios that are reality to most struggling musicians and songwriters. Personal multitrackers, four-tracks, eight-tracks, they all use good old analogue tape.
Recently we've begun to read about alternative approaches to multitrack recording - the wind of change is blowing. But while pro studios are looking to systems like direct-to-disk recording, in the home studio, the distinctions between recording and sequencing are becoming very blurred indeed.
From the days when sequencers were the eight-step analogue curiosities that could be found tacked onto one end of a Yamaha CS30, they have progressed through the stage of being dedicated digitally-controlled modules like the Roland MSQ700 to become the sophisticated software-based systems we know today. For a brief period the Steinberg Pro24 held court as the software sequencer - and why not? Wasn't it a 24-track recording package capable of storing and editing whole songs in real time? And at a fraction of the cost of a 24-track analogue tape machine. The significant difference is that the Pro24, and packages like it, store MIDI data, not the analogue signals traditionally stored on hundreds of feet of 2" wide mag tape.
Of course, use of such a system requires the exclusive use of MIDI equipment - not only sound sources like synthesisers and samplers but outboard gear too; all your reverb and delay treatments have to come under the sequencer's control if they are to be "recorded" in the way you might record changes of reverberation on a snare drum. And the limitations of the approach don't stop there either as there's no direct way of controlling anything that doesn't have a MIDI In socket: many of your older synths, acoustic guitars, flutes, trumpets and voices. Of course, you can always sample them and play the samples back - either as voices like synthesiser voices or, if you can afford a sampler with enough memory, as separate recordings running in sync with the rest of the music. But it's getting messy isn't it?
FORTUNATELY THERE'S AN alternative. At this stage (before direct-to-disk becomes cheap enough) the answer is to compromise and mix the two systems together. A modest four- or eight-track multitrack tape recorder with a timecode striped down one of its tracks to keep a software recorder in sync will facilitate recording of complex MIDI-based compositions with the remaining three or seven tape tracks available for anything that won't readily translate into MIDI data. In short, you can now record just about everything you wanted to get onto your 24-track tape (assuming you weren't intending to record a 90-piece orchestra). Not the most straightforward of systems, I agree, but an extremely practical and cost-effective one all the same.
But my question is this: when will we see a single machine that takes these same considerations into account become available commercially? The specific format isn't important - 16-track digital/four-track analogue for example - but the principle is. Until digital systems that allow you to choose whether you're going to record analogue signals or MIDI data onto each track become available, the recordist has either to opt for one system or the other, compromising the recording in the process, or get involved in a complicated hybrid of the two. And that means yet more musical energy being redirected towards 19" rack-mounting black boxes.
Editorial by Tim Goodyer
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