A multitrack recorder is a piece of equipment or software that enables you to record on…. would you believe it… multiple tracks. A “track” represents the individual audio of each person involved in the recording. That might be 2 people, or it might be 20.
In this guide, we'll take a look at how to do multitrack recording, as well as why you might want to (or not want to, as the case might be).
Let's dive in.
Basic Multitrack Recording – Split Stereo Channels
When you record a piece of audio you can do so in stereo or in mono. A stereo track has two sides to it, a left and a right channel. Normal stereo tracks will be different on the left and right, whereas “joint stereo” will be identical. Think of mono as an only child, stereo as siblings, and joint stereo as twins.
So everything here is still on one track, and what we might call an “all-in-one” recording. You can split stereo recordings into two separate tracks though, and this is a very basic form of multitracking.
Multitrack recording is when you record each person's audio independently. So, if you have one person/mic recording in a left stereo channel, and another person/mic in the right channel, you can split them in the post-production phase to work on them independently.
This was a common recording method in podcasting for many years, via the Ecamm Skype recorder. It would record you on one side of the stereo channel, and your remote guest on the other.
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If you published one of these recordings without doing any production work, your listeners would hear the host in one earbud, and the interview guest in the other. That's not a great listening experience. Ultimately, you'd want to mix this recording down as a stereo or mono file prior to publishing. So, if you're going to do that, why bother with a multitrack recorder in the first place?
Main Pros of Recording Audio on Separate Tracks
In my experience, these are the two big benefits of multitrack recording:
- Flexibility and control over individual gain and volume levels.
- The ability to independently clean, process, or mute sections of each track.
Here's a classic example of multitrack recording at work. Say you're interviewing a remote guest. As they're giving you a detailed and thorough answer to a question, suddenly, your phone rings.
If you were recording the interview on one single track, the noise of the ringtone would be mixed in with the interview guest's answer. With a multitrack recorder, you'd just remove or silence that section of your track in the editing process, and the listeners will never know it has happened.
Potential Cons of Recording Audio on Separate Tracks
The above example alone is enough to convince anyone that multitrack recording is the better option. But ,there are still a few things to consider.
- Increased costs – you may need additional equipment, “better” equipment, or new software.
- Increased complexity – it may make recording sessions trickier to set up and manage.
- Increased editing/production time – it may take you longer to merge together and process the individual tracks.
Multitrack recording isn't infallible either. If our phone ringing example happened in a ‘local' recording session of 2 (or more) participants in the same room, the noise would still be picked up by everyone's individual mic. Here, multitrack recorders still give you flexibility correcting volume levels and varying mic technique, but there will always be a level of ‘bleed'.
Best Multitrack Recorder Options
So if you're keen to go down the multitrack approach, what are your options? Let's start with the digital side of things.
Multitrack Recorder Software
There are a few remote recording tools out there that are built around the demand for multitrack.
Using software is often much simpler than carrying around and setting up equipment. You'll have access to guests and co-hosts all around the world if you go down this route.
The downside, depending on how you look at it, is that the best remote recorder tools are subscription-based. This means costs are higher in the long-term than if you'd bought equipment. Depending on what equipment we're talking about though, it could take years to spend more on multitrack recording software.
The recording quality of these tools is of an ever-increasing standard. I still don't think the vocals sound as good as if they were recorded directly into a digital recorder though. You're also at the mercy of the quality of your guests own mic, which is something you can't control.
Podcasters were wary of relying on recording software in the past because of the “what if my computer crashes?” problem. Fortunately, the best remote software tools record directly into the cloud, so you should never lose an entire interview, even if the gremlins do strike.
Currently, SquadCast and Riverside are the best multitrack recorder options for remote calls. You'll find the full details and comparisons of either service in the article I've linked to there.
Multitrack Recording Locally Into a Computer
Want to record 2 or more participants in the same room or location directly into your computer? That's totally doable. Remember though, you'll still have more ‘bleed' from one mic to the next than if you were recording remotely online.
If you only have 2 participants, then you can use the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which is a USB Audio Interface. You'd need to plug in 2 XLR mics, and record into software like Audacity or Adobe Audition. This route uses a stereo recording where one person is on the left channel and the other on the right, just like we covered at the start. After the session, you can split these tracks, and do the post-processing and levelling independently, before syncing them back together.
If you'd like to have up to 4 participants, then 4 Rode NT-USB Mini mics via Rode's Connect software is an ideal option. These are all USB mics so you don't even need a USB audio interface. The Rode Connect software is free, and the mics are a bargain at less than $100 each. This is one of the simplest and best multitrack recorder options out there at the moment.
Multitrack Recorder Equipment
Looking for a dedicated multitrack recorder that doesn't tie you to a computer or software? There are a few good options on the market.
My favourite is the Zoom PodTrak P4, a $200 “all-in-one” podcasting device. You can plug in up to 4 XLR mics, and bring in remote guests too (either via phone or online). You can even play pre-recorded clips, music, and sound effects live in your sessions.
The Rode Rodecaster is a bigger and more powerful alternative to the PodTrak P4, though at 3 times the price.
The Zoom H6 is also a great option if you're only interested in doing in-person and local recordings. You can plug in 4 XLR mics as standard, but you can buy an additional attachment with can take you up to 6.
Manual Multitrack Recording
One final option is to run a manual multitracking session. Here are a couple of examples.
If you're recording online, everyone can get together on Zoom or any other remote call platform. Each person then sets up a way to record their own side of the conversation. This could be loading up Audacity, or sitting a digital recorder on the desk in front of you.
Once the session is over, everyone sends their own audio to the designated editor to be polished up and synced together. When done well, these recordings can sound like everyone was sitting in the same room together.
Be warned though, there's always a risk that someone hits the wrong button and doesn't record their own side of the chat. Always run a backup recording when working this way – lower sound quality in one ep is better than no episode at all.
Finally, if you're getting together with others, see if everyone can bring along their own laptops. If each person records into Audacity on their own computer, then you're all recording on separate tracks that can be synced together later on!
Hopefully, this guide has helped you to decide whether or not multitrack recording is worth bothering with. Here are the key takeaways.
- Multitrack recording can give you a lot more flexibility and increased audio quality.
- Software options like Riverside and SquadCast make remote multitrack recording simple and accessible.
- You can run 4 USB mics into your computer and record on separate tracks using Rode Connect.
- The Zoom PodTrak P4 is an affordable “all-in-one” podcasting device that enables you to record local and remote guests on separate tracks.
One common argument against the multitrack approach is that it can increase your editing and production time. However, you can outsource this work if you're prepared to spend a little money.
Another option is to use a ‘Podcast Maker' tool like Alitu. Alitu can take the separate tracks of your multitrack recording, clean and level them up, then sync them together automatically. You can record, build, and publish your episodes from within the Alitu interface. It makes podcast production quick and easy – why not try it out free for 7 days and see what you think?