How Many Tracks Can I Get? / Destructive vs. Non-Destructive / Ease of Use / Editing Audio / Storage Mediums
This is the first of a two-part series comparing digital recording methods: hard-disk recording vs. multitrack recording. Both are widely used by amateur and professional musicians alike, but not often are musicians aware of how the two systems differ or what benefits each of them has to offer.
First, let's define the terms. Hard-disk recording is just what the name implies: digital audio is recorded onto a stationary or removable hard disk drive. These systems are also known as DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), and they include computer-based digital audio sequencers such as Pro Tools or Cubase as well as stand-alone units like the Roland VS series. On the other side, we have multitrack digital recorders, also known as MDMs (Modular Digital Multitracks). These include any device that records a set number of tracks to a tape, such as an Alesis ADAT or Tascam DA-88.
Sometimes, the two concepts are combined to create modular hard-disk recording systems, such as Fostex's D90 or Tascam's MX24.
What follows is a comprehensive look at how the two primary types of digital recording systems stack up against each other in a few important categories.
One of the most limiting aspects of MDMs is the number of tracks that you're allowed to record on each machine, generally 8 or 16. Most hard-disk recorders, on the other hand, allow the playback of a set number of audio tracks but also allow a number of virtual tracks, which can remain on the hard drive to be accessed later. Using these virtual tracks, you can record seven or eight vocal takes and then edit or bounce them down to a single track, offering much more flexibility than the set track count of MDMs.
Hard-disk recorders allow for non-destructive recording, which means that when you record a track, it is automatically stored and saved onto the hard drive until you choose to delete it. Even if you record over the original performance on the same audio track, you won't lose the original recording. With MDMs, you can only have one part on a track at any given point in time, and once you record over a track, it's pretty much gone forever.
Ease of Use
Though personally, I'm biased towards hard-disk recording, MDMs definitely win out in this category. The concepts used in digital multitrack recorders are easy to grasp for anyone who has ever used any sort of tape recorder. It's simple enough to put in a tape, choose a track to record on, and then press record and play. DAWs often need to have disk allocation set (more on that later), and one has to be a bit conscientious about managing audio files. Also, DAW interfaces may not be as intuitive, especially to users who are familiar only with tape-based recorders.
Most digital multitracks don't offer any onboard editing capabilities aside from bouncing from one machine to another by changing the offset or the time difference between the two machines. This can be a time-consuming process especially when trying to determine the offsets between two sections of a song. The linear aspect of hard-disk recording and the cut-and-paste capabilities of software make it easier to alter, repeat and move around parts non-destructively, without changing the original recorded audio file.
This is a tough comparison, though MDMs may have a slight advantage here as well. Both of our "contestants" use different media that is easy to find and store to, though both media can also be fairly volatile. Hard-disk recorders usually record to large and sometimes expensive hard drives. If a hard drive crashes (God forbid), it is possible to lose all of your recordings that haven't been backed up. So back up regularly! These days, you can easily back up your songs to CDs and DATs plus many other types of removable media. Some hard-disk recorders can even record a certain number of tracks directly to removable media such as Zip disks.
MDMs usually use some sort of tape media, such as S-VHS that are small and easy to store, but they are also easier to damage if dropped or if the tape gets caught in the transport of the machine. It doesn't happen often, but it happens enough that making a back-up tape of your digital multi-track recordings is always a smart idea.
Next time, more comparisons and contrasts between the two recording systems.