There has never been a better time to do multitrack recording. The tools you need to make pro-level recordings are plentiful and the price of gear continues to drop. This is most evident in the field of digital multitrack recorders.
With so many popular digital multitrack formats to choose from, how do you determine which is right for you? For many people, the decision is based on a combination of price, features, popularity, resolution, and portability, among other factors.
For example, part of what made cassette multitrackers popular was that they were inexpensive ministudios in a box: for less than $500 you could buy a 4-track recorder and analog mixer with EQ, and blank cassettes cost $3 or less. Granted, you had to deal with the problems inherent in the cassette tape format, such as a slow tape speed, hiss, wow, flutter, and narrow track widths. But in the right hands (such as those of EM associate editor Brian Knave), multitrack cassette recorders could yield CD-quality results.
A growing number of digital multitrack recorders in a variety of formats is available today. You have your choice of using tape (a linear format) or going tapeless (for nonlinear, random-access recording), and each calls for particular ways of working.
If you already have a mixer, effects, and mic preamps, you may feel there will be some redundancy if you invest in a recorder that also includes these items. On the other hand, you might be looking for a complete recording package that is portable and doesn't take up much space.
This article examines the main features of four popular multitrack formats, as well as what's involved in working in each. The formats are multitrack MiniDisc, modular digital multitrack (MDM), computer-based digital audio workstation (DAW), and stand-alone hard disk multitrackers.
TEST SUBJECTSThe differences in sound quality between digital formats aren't the same as they are between the various analog tape formats. The factors that greatly affect the sound of digital recorders are the quality of the converters, the data resolution, and the amount and type of data compression used.
I chose to examine 8-track recorders because eight is a useful (but not overwhelming) number of tracks for the personal studio, and because it meant I could begin with a reasonably level playing field for the formats. The limited number of audio tracks in any multitrack system (analog or digital) can be enhanced using MIDI instruments and an external sequencer. Unlike analog multitrack recorders, each of these digital systems has sync capabilities and doesn't require you to use an audio track for sync tones.
Another bonus of using eight or more tracks is that it allows you to record the six audio channels required for a 5.1 mix as well as a stereo mix of the same program material. As surround formats increase in popularity, this is something to consider.
Representing stand-alone hard disk multitrackers is the Roland VS-880. EM assistant editor Rick Weldon (editor of The EM Guide to the Roland VS-880 by Duane McDonald, Tom Stephenson, and Eric Wroblewski) was a great source of information about this machine. For the computer-based DAW, I chose Pro Tools because of my own experience with the system. Similarly, the MDM format I chose is DTRS using the Sony PCM-800 and Tascam DA-38. Finally, for a multitrack Minidisc (MD), I settled on the Yamaha MD8, currently the only 8-track multitrack MD available.
The selection of a particular product for this article should not be construed as an endorsement. Rather, the products should be thought of as representative of their particular field as a whole. You can apply the ideas discussed here to products from any manufacturer.
WE BEGIN WITH A SONGI began the evaluation process by tracking the same song on each format under the same recording conditions. For this session, I enlisted Brian Knave to cover the drums, harmonica, and vocals, and Myles Boisen for guitar and bass parts. The tracking sessions were done at Guerilla Recording using Boisen's outboard mics and preamps so we would have a consistent quality of line-level signals going to each recorder. The drums and bass were tracked to two recorders simultaneously; vocals, harmonica, and guitar overdubs were done to each recorder individually. I also added overdubs at home to check out the specific features of each recorder.
A FAMILIAR LAYOUTThe setup of the VS-880 and MD8 is familiar to anyone who has worked with an analog cassette multitracker. The mixing section is on the left and the transport and media section is on the right. The MDMs are the only tape-based units, while Pro Tools is predominantly software-based. Each of the units uses familiar transport controls.
Modular digital multitrack. MDMs accept one of two kinds of videotape: Hi-8 mm (in this case, referred to as Digital Tape Recording System or DTRS) or S-VHS (subcategorized as ADAT Types I and II depending on the digital word length). Alesis developed the ADAT format and Tascam followed soon after with DTRS. Both formats have become industry standards, with Fostex and Panasonic releasing ADAT-format recorders, and Sony adopting the DTRS format.
The maximum amount of time you can record in the DTRS format is 108 minutes, which is a significant amount beyond the 67-minute maximum of the ADAT Type II format. The DTRS transport runs about 10 percent faster than a camcorder, so you need a 120-minute cassette to get the full 108 minutes of recording time.
Another nice feature on DTRS machines is a shuttle wheel that allows for one-fourth to eight times normal-speed operation in either direction. This feature further evens out the playing field in our format comparison because the VS-880 and MD8 have shuttle wheels, and Pro Tools gives you a software tool for scrubbing audio.
The Tascam DA-38 (see Fig. 1) allows for internal track-to-track copying, so you can assemble composite tracks without leaving the machine. And because the DA-38 has 18-bit A/D converters but records at 16 bits, you can choose to dither down the signal while recording to eliminate quantization noise.
I used a Sony PCM-800 for tracking and a DA-38 for mixing. Although it has 16-bit converters, the PCM-800 has balanced XLR connectors for the analog inputs and outputs and operates at +4 dBu. The DA-38, on the other hand, needs a 25-pin D-sub connector for balanced I/O at +4 dBu but has 18-bit converters (see Fig. 2).
Hard disk multitrackers. Stand-alone hard disk multitrackers are essentially portable DAWs: they provide the nonlinear editing features you would get in a computer-based system but with greater portability.
We used the Roland VS-880 with software upgraded to version 3.1 (see Fig. 3). The VS-880 has 18-bit converters and can record with or without data compression (in this case, Roland's proprietary R-DAC technology). The VS-880 lets you choose the amount of compression you want to use to manage the amount of recording time (see the section "Size Matters").
One limitation of the VS-880 is that it can record only four tracks at a time. There are four unbalanced 11/44-inch inputs, four RCA inputs, and S/PDIF digital I/O on RCA jacks. The two master outputs and two aux sends all use RCA jacks (see Fig. 4). Other features of the VS-880 include 999 levels of undo, 32 locate points, 1,000 marker points, and a SCSI port that can be used for external drives, CD-RW, or CD-R backup.
The next generation of the VS-880, the VS-880EX, upgrades the I/O to include six balanced 11/44-inch analog inputs and an optical I/O, and increases the converters to 20 bits. This unit can record eight tracks at a time.
Multitrack MiniDisc. MiniDisc is a robust optical storage format that is wear resistant and handles heat, dirt, and shocks relatively well. There are two types of MiniDiscs-audio (MD) and data (MDD). MD is primarily a 2-channel consumer format. Multitrack Minidiscs require MDDs, which were originally designed for computer data.
Of the recorders in this article, multitrack MDs are the most similar in design to portable cassette studios, with an onboard mixer and simple routing options. But besides sharing the ability to bounce tracks with their cassette forebears, multitrack MDs allow you to perform simple copy and paste edits using markers. This kind of editing is ideal for quickly rearranging parts of a song, copying rhythm or background parts, or cutting together ideas from several takes.
The Yamaha MD8 (see Fig. 5) can record eight tracks at a time. The I/O includes phantom-powered XLR and balanced TRS 11/44-inch inputs, as well as inserts on tracks 1 and 2. Inputs 3 through 8 accept unbalanced 11/44-inch mic- and line-level inputs (see Fig. 6). If you're planning to record to the MD8 with eight microphones, you're going to have to come up with a way to deliver the signals of six of them on 11/44-inch TS plugs, as well as get additional phantom power where it's needed.
One major drawback of the MD8 is that it doesn't have digital I/O. Consequently, there is no way to make a digital backup of your work. The only multitrack MD with digital output is the Tascam 564, which has an S/PDIF output on mixer channels 1 and 2. This output is designed for transferring internal mixes directly to DAT or hard disk recorder, and cannot be used for file-type data backups.
Multitrack MiniDiscs are playable in any multitrack MiniDisc machine, although you will lose markers if the machine you're using is made by a manufacturer different from the one that made yours. You can also play your 8-track MDD disc in a 4-track machine provided you submixed your eight tracks down to four or fewer tracks. Similarly, you can take a 4-track disc and play it in an 8-track machine.
Computer-based DAW. The Pro Tools system used for the tracking session was a non-TDM version 4.0, running on a Macintosh computer. The Digidesign 888 interface (see Fig. 7) has eight channels of analog I/O on balanced XLR jacks, eight channels of AES/EBU digital I/O on XLR jacks, and two channels of S/PDIF I/O on RCA jacks.
Although we could record only eight analog tracks at one time with one 888, up to 16 voices can be played back at one time with this particular version of Pro Tools.
GOING TAPELESSWorking in a nonlinear environment presents a staggering amount of editing and mixing possibilities that linear formats cannot touch. If you've worked only with tape-based recorders, you're in for a treat.
For starters, a random-access system allows you to access any portion of your program material quickly, just like you can with a CD, but with greater accuracy. In a disk-based environment, editing can be nondestructive, so any changes you make do not affect the original recording. The familiar editing functions of a word processor can be applied to a sound, but the results don't require extra disk space. For example, when you copy and paste a sound dozens of times, the computer is creating reference points that it uses to replay your sound at the times you specified. All of the housekeeping this requires is taken care of by the DAW application.
FOOTPRINT AND MOBILITYTwo important aspects of a multitrack recorder are its size and portability. Unless you're using a laptop or you have your computer rack-mounted, traveling with your computer-based DAW can be a major undertaking. Even if you're using the original boxes that your CPU and monitor came in, you run the risk of damage to both should one or the other get bumped or dropped. Mobility is where MDMs and hard disk multitrackers have the upper hand.
Although the PCM-800 and DA-38 are no lightweights (weighing 31 and 16.5 pounds, respectively), they're both rack-mountable, which allows them to be safely transported from studio to rehearsal space to gigs. The MD8 weighs in at 14.11 pounds, whereas the VS-880 is a mere 8.82 pounds. The MD8 is also about 20 percent larger in surface area than the VS-880. When you consider that the entire VS-880 studio-including mixer, effects, and preamps-is in a space less than 17 inches wide and 12.5 inches deep, you're getting the most bang for the buck in terms of a small footprint. Even at 19 inches wide and 16.25 inches deep, the MD8 doesn't take up much space.
The latest addition to the VS line, the VSR-880, is a 2U rack-mountable version of the VS-880. The VSR-880 is significantly upgraded, featuring 24-bit recording and the ability to record eight tracks simultaneously.
TAPE-MEDIA COSTSOne of the things that revolutionized the personal studio was the MDM, in particular the Alesis ADAT. The ADAT was successful not only because of its sound quality, modularity, and price, but also because the blank media (S-VHS tapes) were inexpensive and abundant. Compare a 1-inch reel of tape that gives you 35 minutes of recording time and costs $65 with an ADAT tape that costs $12 but offers 67 minutes of recording time.
The result of having low-cost recording media was a major shift in how recording artists worked. When tape is inexpensive, more takes can be kept because the relative price per minute of tape is greatly reduced. That means you don't have to record over a questionable take-just save it for later evaluation and keep recording.
SIZE MATTERSWith analog multitrack recorders, each format has different capabilities and sound qualities that have to do with the width and speed of the tape. In the world of digital audio, sound quality depends as much on the digital converters and processing resolution as it does on the physical properties of the media.
However, managing the storage requirements of a format can have a direct impact on the sonic results. A clear example of this is the MiniDisc format. To maximize the amount of audio that can be stored on the 140 MB of data space the MD provides, Sony developed Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding (ATRAC). This lets a CD's worth of stereo information (650 MB) be saved on an MD. The resulting compression ratio is nearly 5:1-not quite as severe as some of the Web audio compression schemes, but substantial nonetheless.
Sony is continually improving ATRAC, and version 4.5 raises the upper level of the MD format's frequency response to 20 kHz while removing the high-energy "sparkling" noise that was common in the earliest MD recordings. The most recent Sony MD units use the Type-R DSP algorithm, which "reassigns" redundant bit allocations. Remarkably, older MDs made with earlier versions of ATRAC will have improved sound when played back in machines with later versions.
Although the amount of data you can store on disk-based media is constant, track configuration determines how much recording time is allowed. For instance, in an uncompressed, 16-bit, 44.1 kHz Pro Tools session, you're using 5 MB of disk space per minute for every track, or roughly 40 MB per minute for an 8-track session. At a resolution of 24 bits, you use 7.5 MB of disk space per minute for every track. As you can see, high-resolution projects fill greater amounts of disk space than lower-resolution projects.
If you're using all eight tracks of the MD8, you get 18 minutes of record time. Keep your work to four tracks and you get 37 minutes of music on an MDD. Stereo recordings yield 74 minutes (slightly less than a CD's worth of music), and recording a mono program will yield a total of 148 minutes.
It's helpful if you have the option of using compression to maximize disk space, and the VS-series recorders give you six different choices. In Mastering mode, which doesn't use R-DAC coding, you get 404 track minutes at a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz from a 2.1 GB drive. However, if you switch to the most extreme compression setting, Live 2, you increase your storage space to the equivalent of 1,616 track minutes of 44.1 kHz audio. The combination of three sampling rates (48, 44.1, and 32 kHz) and six levels of compression lets you customize your disk space for any kind of session.
Having the ability to swap hard drives is a big plus with a hard disk system. A system that can work with an IDE drive allows you to find storage that's the right size, speed, and price for your studio.
Additionally, hard disk prices are decreasing faster than digital audio resolution is increasing, so the personal-studio owner can reasonably afford the greater storage capacity needed to achieve the higher levels of sound quality. If your digital recorder works with external drives (the VS-880 lets you chain up to seven SCSI drives from its SCSI port, for example), you can use little or no compression if you can afford the storage space.
THE RESOLUTION ISSUEFor many people, the issue of resolution is a confusing one. The standard CD specification of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz is what many of us still use when recording music. However, it's important to consider the future because the future has a higher resolution. Luckily, a growing number of recorders do as well. The computer-based systems are the most flexible in this regard because the components in these systems (software and hardware) can be upgraded to record high-resolution audio.
The more recent models of MDMs either record higher bit rates to tape or use high-bit-rate converters but dither the signal down to 16 bits when printing to tape. With the ADAT Type II format, Alesis raised the resolution of the S-VHS format to an impressive 20 bits at either 44.1 or 48 kHz while maintaining backward compatibility for working with 16-bit tapes. Amazingly, the company was able to keep the same amount of recording time on a tape with the greater resolution for significantly less than the cost of the original ADAT.
The Type II ADATs also give you a format for surround mixes that are 20-bit, 48 kHz DVD compatible. And, with any 8-track MDM, you can get two channels of 24-bit, 96 kHz audio across the eight tracks using the bit-splitting methods on devices such as Apogee's PSX-100 and Rosetta digital converters.
Tascam has just released its first 24-bit DTRS recorder-the DA-78HR, which is essentially a high-resolution version of the DA-38. The DA-78HR has the look and feel of a 16-bit recorder (and is, in fact, backward compatible) and retains the same amount of record time-108 minutes with a 120-minute tape-as the earlier DA models. I was not able to test a DA-78HR for this article, but if the audio quality is anywhere near that of Tascam's DA-45HR 24-bit DAT machine, the sound will be impressive.
VIRTUAL TRACKING AND MIDIThe easiest way to expand on a multitrack system is by synching MIDI instruments to it with a sequencer. This is called virtual tracking. Virtual tracking allows you to use as many MIDI instruments as you want, without having to use any of your recorder's audio tracks. If your sequencer and recorder are in sync, both audio and MIDI tracks play simultaneously. When the project is ready to mix, the MIDI instruments are mixed in with the audio tracks.
Virtual tracking with analog multitracks requires you to dedicate one of the audio channels to a sync tone. With each of our digital formats, you can sync to MIDI without sacrificing a track. And it's easy to get a digital multitrack up and running with MIDI in each of our systems.
The MD8 has built-in MIDI In, Out, and Thru jacks on the back panel. The MD8 synchs to a sequencer using MIDI Time Code (MTC) or MIDI Clock, but it must be the master device in either system. You can also control the MD8 using MIDI Machine Code (MMC), but this kind of control doesn't include sync information.
On the DA-88 or PCM-800, installation of the optional sync card allows the units to read, generate, and chase to SMPTE, and adds MTC functions as well. In addition, the DA-38 can sync to MMC with the optional MMC-38 adapter.
The VS-880 has MIDI In and Out/Thru jacks and can use MTC (as either the master or the slave device) or MIDI Clock (as master device only).
Until version 5.0, Pro Tools didn't have its own full-scale sequencing capabilities, so virtual tracking required the use of a separate sequencer application. Depending on the kind of computer being used and the savvy of the engineer, this could be a blessing or a curse. With Pro Tools 5.0 (and Pro Tools LE for the new Digi 001 system), MIDI is finally implemented to the same extent that audio is in the program. You can view and edit different aspects of MIDI data in the Edit window using Track Display, even as the tracks are playing. To make connectivity even easier, the new Digi 001 interface includes MIDI In and Out jacks.
OUT OF THE BOXIf you're looking for instant recording gratification, three of our subjects provide it. The MD8 is essentially a plug-and-play recorder. I had the unit up and recording in less than 10 minutes, although I had no previous experience with a multitrack MD and spent very little time in the manual. I had to be careful to keep the mixer's EQ settings flat before recording, because EQ settings will be recorded with the track.
The PCM-800, like most MDMs, is also easy to set up and use. The one immediate difference is that MDM tapes need to be formatted before they can be used in an MDM. You can format as you record or do it in advance. I would suggest formatting in advance if you plan on starting and stopping the machine during the session. You can also purchase preformatted tapes.
The VS-880 takes a bit longer to get started if you're new to the technology. Recording through inputs 1 through 4 to the first four tracks is a simple process. To go beyond that, you will need to crack open the manual. I found the Quick Start manual very helpful in this case, especially when I was using virtual tracks for the first time.
One thing you have to be aware of with workstations is the sequence of powering up and powering down the system. The more peripherals you have (disk drives, CD-R burners), the more critical this sequence becomes. Both Digidesign and Roland are clear on this matter in their manuals.
With VS series machines, there is a simple 3-step routine for powering down the unit safely. Skip this sequence and you risk losing your data. During the power-down sequence, the VS device asks if you want to store the current session, then backs up the disk depending on your answer, before giving you the okay to shut down.
The MD8, on the other hand, uses a simple table of contents (TOC) to keep track of the disc data. As you make changes, the MD8 is routinely updates the TOC. It also updates it before you eject the disc.
A benefit of using removable media is that it can eventually be extracted if there's a sudden loss of power while you're working. With a tape system, you may lose only a small portion of the session in such a scenario. However, total media failure is a greater risk in hard disk recording situations. If you decide to go tapeless, I recommend investing in an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). A UPS serves as a backup power system should there be an interruption in electrical power, giving you enough time to save your work and shut your system down properly.
VIRTUAL TRACKSOne component of working with digital workstations is the concept of a virtual track. On the VS-series workstations, you can play a finite number of tracks at once, but the ones you choose are from the collection of virtual tracks (see Fig. 8).
With the VS-880, you can play eight tracks simultaneously. Each track, however, has eight layers: one top layer that is played, and seven others below it. That means you have 64 tracks at your disposal; 56 stored in memory and 8 that can be played. On the VS-880EX, there are 16 virtual tracks for each of the 8 track positions for a total of 128 virtual tracks. By comparison, the Pro Tools system used for our session gives you 48 virtual tracks and lets you play any 16 of them at one time.
One thing to remember is that all of the tracks on the VS-880 are considered virtual tracks, including the top level tracks that you play back. One of the most powerful aspects of this system is that the user determines the track hierarchy. The track sheet from our session in Fig. 8 shows that track 5 has been dedicated to guitar parts. I never had to worry about exhausting the eight virtual tracks of track 5, because further guitar takes could be recorded on other unused virtual tracks.
Virtual tracks are also useful for submixing, bouncing, and creating composite tracks from a number of different takes. For example, I can take a small portion from each of the guitar solos and create a composite solo by saving them to an open virtual track. Then, I can move the composite guitar solo to the playing level of the track. The other guitar solos remain undamaged in memory just in case I want to create another composite track later. I can also bounce instruments with effects to virtual tracks to get around the limitation of available effects in this workstation.
In Pro Tools, I use the Bounce to Disk command to submix and process tracks when I am running low on DSP power. Furthermore, I can determine whether I want to replace or retain the original track.
TRACKINGRecording was easy on every one of the machines, and there were no surprises. The transport layout of each is intuitive for anyone who has used a tape or CD player.
As I mentioned earlier, a big difference between the formats is the number of tracks you can record simultaneously. The MD8, both MDMs, and Pro Tools with one 888 interface let you record a maximum of eight analog tracks at a time. Since we were recording only four rhythm tracks at once, the 4-analog input limitation of the VS-880 didn't pose a problem for this session.
The transport controls of each system respond fairly quickly, with the biggest latency problem residing in Pro Tools. For overdubs or punching in a part, the small delay between the time when you hit record and when the unit begins recording can sometimes be a problem. MDMs have the added problem of getting the tape transport engaged and the tape up to speed. If you have a number of MDMs linked together, a significant delay occurs as they each engage before rolling. The Hi-8 mm transport of the DTRS format engages quickly and smoothly, and this is one of the reasons I like working with this tape format.
Of the four formats that we tested, the MD8 had the lowest recording quality. The change in the drum sound was the easiest to hear; the MD8 seemed to remove the important subtleties that the room added to the drums, giving them a two-dimensional sound. The biggest giveaway was the count-off, which appeared on the drum overhead tracks. Rather than fade into the reverberance of the room, the voice seems to be immediately gated after each number is spoken-as if the voice were made from severely truncated samples. This led us to surmise that some of the redundancy that ATRAC eliminates to save disk space is the room tone that gives a recording character.
The difference in sound quality among the other three formats was quite small. The body of the drum sound, for example, was evident on each recorder, with the VS-880 (used in Mastering mode) sounding especially rich in the low mids.
CUT-UPSAlthough crude compared with waveform editing, digital "splicing" on a multitrack MD works fine if you're doing simple part arrangement. Editing on the MD8 is a destructive process, so you need to make a copy of the song to another part of the disc before making any changes. With the size limitations of the disc, this can prove to be a problem with larger works.
With the VS-880, you get a lot more editing sophistication. To begin with, editing is nondestructive, and your 64 virtual tracks can be destinations for sophisticated edits if needed. If you use up your 64 virtual tracks (and once you get hooked on using virtual tracks, you probably will), just move to another 64 virtual tracks using the handy 24-hour trick. Song timings are in hours/minutes/seconds/frames. By simply advancing a track's time by one hour, you create a new set of virtual tracks to use. What makes this trick work is that the exact minutes/seconds/frames times are the same, so you can move your favorite performances or comps back and forth from the original tune by merely changing the hour designation. No need to nudge or move the audio any further to keep it in sync.
Simple editing moves on the VS-880, such as exchanging the position of a track, require a minimum amount of button pressing. For example, it's easy to take advantage of the channel link function that allows you to simultaneously control the EQ and panning of adjacent tracks, even though the tracks you want to link aren't adjacent.
You can, of course, create splices of greater complexity, although it requires a bit of patience at first. When editing, you can set up to four location points: Start, End, From, and To. Start and End define the beginning and end of the region you want to move or duplicate. The To locator will be the destination of the event, and the From setting is used if you have a sync point (other than the Start point) that you want to hit.
For instance, if you're simply duplicating a part, such as a drum loop, you need to specify only the times for Start, End, and To because the loop will be placed one after the other. But if you're moving a loop that has a pick-up note and you want to make sure the down beat is placed at the beginning of the bar, you will use the exact timing of original down beat for From, and define To as the destination of your From point (see Fig. 9). That way, you can accurately place the downbeat where you want it, while retaining the pickup beat using the Start point. Once you've tried this a couple of times, it becomes easier than it sounds.
All of this editing is easier in a computer DAW environment. Simply use your mouse to highlight the audio region you want and edit using the familiar word-processing commands such as cut and paste. The ability to view the waveform down to the sample level allows for a substantial degree of editing accuracy.
MIXINGThe MD8 version of our song was the first track we mixed at Brian Knave's White Cow Studio. Knave has quite a bit of experience with cassette multitrackers, and his skill with the MD8 was quickly evident. Because the MD8 allows you to mix an additional eight inputs with the eight recorded tracks, we were able to access dynamics processors for the voice and harmonica using the direct outputs as sends and the additional inputs as returns. Using the Cue Mix to Stereo switch allowed us to combine the dry and processed signals, although it took a bit of experimentation before the right balance was achieved.
The only dedicated insert points on the MD8 are on channels one and two, which contained the drum overheads. We used the inserts to quickly patch in the Joemeek C2 compressor to fatten up the drums, which made up for the weaknesses in the MD8's recording quality.
Using a selection of additional outboard effects (including reverbs, the BBE 482 Sonic Maximizer, and SPL Vitalizer Jack), we ended up with a mix that, to my ears, was CD quality. The rhythm tracks were punchy, the vocal had character, and the harmonica and lead guitar had bite. Of course, it helps that we tracked with a set of quality mics and preamps, then mixed in a pro-level studio with a knowledgeable engineer.
The Mix window on Pro Tools has much the same look as an analog mixer. However, every move is with a trackball or mouse unless you have a dedicated control surface. Fortunately there are a number of mix surfaces that work with Pro Tools and other DAWs, including Peavey's PC-1600, CM Automation's Motor Mix, JLCooper's MCS-3800, the Mackie HUI, and Digidesign's own ProControl.
It can be difficult to make subtle volume and panning moves with a mouse or trackball, but with Pro Tools you can automate most of the mixer moves, as well as the plug-in parameters. In addition, Pro Tools lets you draw in the mixer automation contours for each track. Use the Track Display Format selector to show any aspect of the track you want to control-pan, volume, mute, or plug-in settings (see Fig. 10). You can review and edit any automation you have performed in the Mix window in the Edit window with the Track Display. In Pro Tools 5.0, you can view and edit MIDI data in the Track Display as well.
When the entire Mix screen is in front of you, you get a clear and immediate visual sense of the status of your mix. To do this right, you need two monitors: one for the Mix window and one for the Edit window.
Mixing on the VS-880 is another thing altogether. A friend remarked that trying to access the exceptional mixing power of the VS-880 via its tiny display is like peeking through a knothole. For example, the EQ gives you a number of parameters to work with. But viewing and editing them one parameter at a time can be tiring with this interface. Anyone used to the immediate hands-on approach of an analog mixer is going to have to develop a good set of patience here.
By comparison, the VS-880EX and especially the VS-1680 graphic interfaces are a huge improvement over the VS-880 (see Fig. 11). The larger screen on the VS-1680 (which includes a dedicated control for adjusting its Contrast) makes tweaking much easier. For instance, all of the parameters of a track can be viewed on the screen at one time. If you want to view this on the big screen of your computer monitor, you can edit using a third-party application that allows you to edit parameters from your computer and avoid wading through the depths of key commands. These applications also include a MIDI sequencer and can be used with the VS-880 as well (see sidebar "Editing Applications for the VS-880"). Although having a computer interface for a portable digital workstation sort of defeats the purpose of using a portable studio, it would no doubt come in handy if you're going to be editing and mixing in your own studio.
Another powerful aspect of the VS system is its ability to save a particular mixer setup as a Scene. On the VS-880EX and VS-1680, you can automate a mix by using Gradation to change parameters between Scenes. The VS-880EX and VS-1680 also feature EZ routing, which allows you to save and recall useful recording, bouncing, and mixing setups. There are 29 user-definable and three preset EZ Routings in the VS-1680-enough to cover the various recording and mixing situations in a personal studio.
Tascam's new 24-bit DA-78HR has a first for an MDM: an internal mixer. The mixer lets you adjust level and pan positions for the eight tracks-useful both for track bounces and mixing.
INTERNAL EFFECTSPro Tools and the VS-880EX come with internal effects, while the MD8 and DA-38 do not. Although the original VS-880 didn't come with the VS8F-1 effects expansion board, the effects come standard on the VS-880EX. Pro Tools TDM systems come with five useful plug-in effects (two EQs, four types of dynamics processing, three short delays, an extended delay, and dither), and the number and quality of third-party plug-ins for the system are remarkable.
In a Pro Tools TDM system, the processing power for real-time effects resides on the PCI DSP Farm card, which keeps your CPU from getting bogged down by extensive number crunching. For me, working with TDM effects is thoroughly enjoyable because it's easy to get great-sounding results. The particular system we used for our tracking session was not a TDM system, but this wasn't a problem. Once we had finished recording, I saved the session to hard disk, then copied it to a 1 GB Jaz disk so I could mix it on a TDM system later.
Pro Tools LE, which premieres with Digidesign's Digi 001 system, ships with the new Real Time Audio Suite (RTAS) plug-in format. As the name suggests, RTAS plug-ins allow real-time control over effects using the processing power of the host computer rather than a separate DSP chip. The obvious downside is that you can max out your system running only a few plug-ins at once. In fact, this can happen with one-card TDM systems if you're not keeping track of your DSP allocation. But intelligent use of the Bounce to Disk command can help you conquer these problems.
Roland's VS8F-1 expansion board has more bang for the buck as far as the number and quality of effects are concerned. This card gives you two stereo effects or four mono effects at the same time.
Tracking at Guerrilla Recording gave us the luxury of using loud amplifiers to get the rich guitar and harmonica sounds Boisen and Knave wanted. Using an amp at comparable volumes in a personal studio isn't always possible, which is one reason amp simulators have become popular.
Some of the VS-series effects use Roland's COSM technology to model microphone and amp characteristics. We could have chosen to monitor with the COSM amp simulations while tracking, but actually record the instruments dry. This scenario would have given the players the sound of an overdriven amp in their headphones, but printed a clean tone that we could process later to fit the mix. On the other hand, if you prefer to track the sound of the modeled amp with the performance, you also have that choice.
This same trick can be done in DAWs as well. A recent Pro Tools session I worked on used the amplifier modeling in Amp Farm by Line 6. In this case, the engineer kept both the clean and processed parts.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONEAfter spending some time with the different formats, I've found certain attractions of each. I must admit that I find nonlinear recording to be the most interesting way to work. Although I sometimes pine for my younger days of tracking and splicing on a Teac 3440 reel-to-reel deck, I prefer the creative control that a DAW such as Pro Tools provides: I can quickly and intuitively manipulate audio and MIDI data in sophisticated ways.
As far as ease of use, the multitrack MD was very satisfying to use. The MD8 was the easiest of the bunch to get up and running right out of the box and was the simplest to demo with. The little pile of MDDs I filled up attest to this fact. Although the MD8 doesn't come with effects, and the sound quality is slightly challenged due to ATRAC, in the hands of a skilled engineer, CD-quality masters are attainable. And I welcomed the chance to have all of the mixer controls at my fingertips.
For sheer power, portability, and sound quality in one device, digital multitrackers like the VS-880 are a winner. Even though the recent VS-series recorders (the VS-1680 and VS-880EX in particular) are vastly superior to the older VS-880 I used, the sound and sophistication of the VS-880 is inspiring.
However, recording to tape remains a comfortable way to work. I particularly like the sound and features of the DA-38 and the fact that it works, more or less, like a DAT machine. I'm particularly attached to shuttle wheels because I tend to do a lot of audio scrubbing, and it's nice to have one built into the unit. I also like the fact that I can record up to 108 minutes on a tape that costs less than $20. Editing and mixing aside, none of the tapeless formats can touch this powerful aspect of the tape format.
Gino Robair is an associate editor at EM. Thanks to Myles Boisen, Dean Santomieri, Christopher Robinson, Gilbert Marhoeffer, Brian Knave, Rick Weldon, Matt Gallagher, and Steve Oppenheimer. Special thanks to EMTEC/BASF and HHB for providing blank media during the research of this article.
For those VS users who enjoy the convenient and flexible interface of a computer-based DAW, here are some third-party solutions.
VS Pro (Win 95/98/NT 4.0) by Datasonics is a modular PC-based software system that allows easy access to the recording, mixing, and effects parameters of VS-series workstations. VS Pro Score ($399) is the full-featured package that includes an audio editor, MIDI sequencer, mix and effects modules, and notation program. VS Pro Studio ($299) includes everything but the notation module, and VS Pro Tool Box ($199) subtracts the notation and performance-editing modules from the package.
Modules can also be purchased separately so that a user can customize the system to meet his or her particular needs. For example, VS Pro FX Tools ($69) is for editing the effects parameters, while VS Pro Mix Tools ($99) covers the mixer. Each module also comes with a sequencer.
The minimum system requirements for VS Pro are a Pentium 90 MHz processor with 16 MB of RAM and 10 MB of hard disk space. You will need separate MIDI In and Out ports for each VS workstation you use with this system. VS Pro requires the following OS versions on the VS workstations: version 3.0 or later for the VS-880; version 1.007 or later for the VS-880EX; and version 1.025 or later for the VS-1680.
Emagic's Logic VS (Mac/Win 95/98; $19.95) is a cross-platform editor that is based on MicroLogic AV. Logic VS lets you move, copy, delete, and divide audio regions, and it gives you automatable control over volume, pan, and three bands of EQ for each channel. You can automate the parameters in real time or edit them graphically.
The minimum system requirements for Logic VS are a Power Macintosh running OS 7.6 or higher or a Pentium 133 MHz processor running Windows 95 or 98. Either platform requires at least 48 MB of RAM. Emagic recommends using the latest version of VS operating system to get the full benefits of using Logic VS. Both products use MMC for controlling transport functions. Logic VS uses MTC for sync, while VS Pro can use MTC or MIDI Clock for sync.
The Alesis ADAT/Edit package ($399; Mac/Win) allows ADAT users to easily transfer their tape-based tracks to and from their PCI-compatible computers, and to perform nonlinear editing, use software plug-in effects, and access other familiar DAW-style editing functions. The ADAT/Edit system works with any ADAT, including the original units as well as ADAT Type II units such as the LX20, XT20, and M20.
The system includes the software applications ADAT/Edit and ADAT/Connect as well as the ADAT/PCR PCI card. The ADAT/PCR card has both ADAT Optical I/O and ADAT 9-pin synchronization I/O. Eight-channel synchronous transfers can be accomplished at 16-, 20-, or 24-bit resolutions. The ADAT/Edit package also includes two 3-meter ADAT Optical cables and a 3-meter ADAT Sync cable.
Codeveloped by Alesis and Emagic, ADAT/Edit is a multichannel audio-editing program that features standard cut, copy, and paste functions, as well as DSP effects such as reverb, time expansion/compression, pitch shifting, and EQ. Drivers included with the package give you the option of working with other popular multichannel editing applications, including MOTU Digital Performer, Steinberg Cubase, Emagic Logic Audio, Cakewalk Pro Audio, and Opcode Studio Vision.
The ADAT/Connect software recognizes any ADATs that are connected to your computer and lets you transfer audio tracks between the MDMs and the computer. You can designate start and end points and name each track within the program. Tracks are transferred with single-sample accuracy.