Finally, a good enough multi-track recorder?

For years, working as a musician and sound engineer, a good enough multi-track recorder seemed prohibitively expensive. My band-mates and I would make do with what we could afford, i.e., two-track 1/4″ tape recorders, bouncing tracks.

When pro-sumer 4-tracks became available in the early 70s, I wanted a TEAC 3340s, but even stretching my funds, only got a Dokorder instead. Bouncing tracks with that and a 2-track was a big improvement, e.g., for the Sandscript recording.

In principle, professional 4-tracks were good enough. I remember a Ringo Starr interview with Dave Herman, describing the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions as “four to four to four, very clean”. But by the time I bought a used 3340s, the Dokorder was worn out, and neither one would have made it in the door at Abbey Road. (Professional 4-tracks wouldn’t use 1/4″ tape.)

After recording technology became a much smaller part of my life, I splurged on a Fostex A-8, which crammed 8 tracks onto 1/4″ tape, vs. 1″ tape on professional machines. And then splurged on an Alesis XT-20. Finally, I had professional quality recording capability, but the first XT-20 died after a week’s use. The warranty replacement XT-20 sat mostly unused for years, until Caroline and I tried to use it last March. The XT-20 seemed to be failing, so the time had come to abandon tape.

Would USB or Firewire interfaces and software mixers really work? I had more optimism about the software than the performance adequacy of the hardware. How many channels of high quality audio can be reliably captured with current processors? After pricing various options, the Alesis iO|26 seemed the most promising, but also seemingly out of stock at all of the likely sources. The iO|14 (four analog microphone inputs instead of eight) seemed inexpensive enough (currently $260 after discounts and rebates) to be worth gambling on for a 30 day trial purchase.

Supposedly the iO|14 and iO|26 will work with a 2.0GHz Pentium 4, but I doubt that. The iO|14 recordings I tried to make with a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 had unacceptable glitching, even at low sample rates. However, the iO|14 seems to work great with my Latitude D510 notebook with a 1.73GHz Pentium M, using 24-bit samples at 96KHz.

So now I can fit enough professional quality multi-track recording equipment into a suitcase: the D510, the iO|14, portable speakers, microphones, cables, headphones and small mike stands all went with us Thursday to Dallas to record Caroline’s father’s regular performance at his retirement home. The ease of capturing the live tracks confirmed my satisfaction with the iO|14.

Yesterday, I mixed the four live tracks down to stereo. I barely scratched the surface of Steinberg Cubase LE, but Cubase far surpasses the combined capabilities of the analog gear that used to be beyond my reach and now gathers dust on my shelves. Finally, multi-tracking beyond my ambitions.

The resulting audio is on the clips at Charlie Abbitt – Live at The Wellington .

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