Before computers and software-based music production came along, the multi-track recorder was how you made music. With the advent of computers, they took a bit of a hit, but now they’re back in vogue. The good news is the best multitrack recorders are far more versatile than their analog predecessors, and seriously worth looking at again.
One of the key things that makes them so appealing is that you mix and record mostly by what you can hear – rather than by visual representations of sound waves. Also, if you don’t own a computer powerful enough to produce music, then these are the next best thing.
In this article, we’re going to guide you through how to find the best one to meet your needs.
At a Glance: Our Choice Of The Best Digital Multitrack Recorders On The Market
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Here’s what we’ll cover.
These machines have multiple channels (or ‘tracks’) that can be played back together as a whole. They have built-in condenser mics (often stereo condensers, some even have XLR inputs) that not only let you record, they also let you mix ‘on the fly’ too. Many also include drum machines, samplers, and simple mastering effects.
So why bother getting one of these?
- Convenient – For a start, many are handheld making them useful when you want to just ‘get something down’ in it’s rawest form – making them perfect for capturing song ideas and songwriting in general.
- Portable – Then you have portability. These machines are like mini home studios, and can be slung in the bag and taken at a moments notice with very little hassle. Many are battery powered (some even have phantom power) so you don’t need to worry about plugging them in.
- Aural dependency. The lack of visual representation of sound waves can actually be a good thing. Music is an aural thing, but when we use computer software we often fixate on how ‘sounds look’ on the screen. Plus, it’s never a bad thing to get away from your computer every once in a while.
- Connectivity. As these devices are digital, they’re highly versatile. They have onboard storage for saving your work, and have plenty of processing power (i.e. memory) so they’re fast and reliable.
- Cost – Finally, they’re way more affordable. The best ones will set you back a lot less than a computer and software.
Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
When you’re shopping for one, you’ll often see numbers four, eight, sixteen or twenty-four in the title. These numbers refer to how many tracks can be simultaneously played back (devices vary in the number of how many can be recorded together). If you’re considering laying down several instruments at once, the higher the number the better.
If you want a device that’s all-in-one everything you need, make sure you pick one that has some built-in effects. If you already have some decent effects units, look for a recorder with a loop/send option which will allow you to include those effects. If you just want a machine for getting your rough ideas down, effects won’t necessarily be a requirement.
Some of these machines include ‘virtual track’ features. This is excellent if you’re looking to ‘mix down’ several tracks into one. This feature allows you to record over a part several times, without erasing what you had previously. This can enable advanced editing, which will suit those who are keen on music technology. It also means that everything is recoverable, a bit like pressing ‘undo’ on your computer.
Many of these products have USB or micro-card export functions. Some export only a finished audio file, while others let you export editable ‘works in progress’, which can then be mixed in music production software. If you would like the option of exporting an editable project, look for one that’s designed to be used in combination with computer software. Many machines are also equipped to take SD cards for transferring music.
Product Round-up & Reviews – Best Multitrack Recorders
Boss Micro BR-80
The Boss Micro BR-80 is a small, portable eight-track machine which won’t make too big of a dent in your bank account. It has easy-to-navigate buttons as well as a wheel to take you through your saved songs and to navigate through different features. Only two tracks can be laid down simultaneously, and eight can be played back. .
The Micro BR-80 also has built-in effects suited to guitar, bass, and vocals. There are backing tracks and rhythm backings included, too, so you can jam with this little machine.
It comes with editing software that you can use with the device connected via USB and this machine also works as a USB audio interface. To power it, you’ll need either 4 AA batteries or to use the included DC adapter.
Who is this suited to?
The Micro BR-80 will suit songwriters who like to grab their ideas as they become inspired. It will be less suited to those who are looking to create a more professional end product, as its small size makes advanced recording difficult to achieve (there are only eight tracks).
- It’s very small and can be powered off 2 AA batteries.
- There are built-in effects and rhythm patterns.
- Extremely compact package with a large number of effects and works as an audio interface as well.
- Great for guitarists thanks to the effects and cabinet emulation.
- The small screen and multifunctional knobs can take some getting used to.
- Only has one guitar/mic and one line level input.
- Doesn’t work as a DAW controller.
- No effects send.
The Boss BR-800 is a bigger version of the BR-80. This one can record four tracks simultaneously, and playback eight. This makes it more suited to bands or duos looking to capture a demo. There are small faders which make it easy to control, and there’s a loop out, so you can introduce external effects and there’s also an onboard effects processor with high-quality vocal and instrumental effects.
Like the BR-80, it also functions as an audio interface and can be connected to software via a USB. The USB also provides bus power, saving you from using the six AA batteries required to power it on the go. There’s a built-in drum machine and the software includes loops and backing tracks.
Who is this suited to?
The BR-800 will be well suited to those who play in a group and want to lay down a demo together at the same time. It will also suit solo artists who want to get creative with drum machines and loops.
- Four tracks simultaneously, and playback eight.
- Functions as a USB audio interface.
- Includes sequencing software with loops and backing tracks included.
- Requires 6 AA batteries.
- It’s pretty pricey.
- Getting used to all of the knobs and buttons can take some time.
The Zoom R8 is an eight-track machine that can record two simultaneously. It has faders for each, as well as a master fader, making it easy to mix what you’ve captured. The R8 doubles up as an audio interface, although it doesn’t have bus power. It can be powered off 4 AA batteries or via the included AC adapter.
There’s a built-in drum machine, making it easy to get creative and there are also several effects included in the hardware, enabling a professional sounding outcome.
The drum machine part is easy to use with intuitive, light-up buttons and the knobs on this device are easier to navigate through than on some other devices. It does cost a little more, though.
Who is this Suited to?
The Zoom R8 will suit songwriters who want to get their ideas down either for reference or to export for sharing with others. The drum machine and built-in effects add to the creative options and the faders make it easy to use. It won’t be suited to musicians looking for something that can record more than 2 sounds at once.
- Power requires only four AA batteries or USB bus.
- There’s a mixer, drum machine and sampler included.
- Can be used as a DAW controller and two-channel USB audio interface.
- Comes with over 100 effects including amp modeling.
- Has a built-in condenser mic.
- You can only record two tracks at once.
- There’s no sequencing software included.
- The microphone is good – but not as good as a high quality external mic.
- The amp modeling is okay at best.
- The actual usage is quite tricky and slow going due to the old user interface design.
The Zoom R16 is step up from the R8. It can capture eight tracks simultaneously and will playback sixteen. When used as an audio interface, it can input eight and output them as two. This device has a ‘Mackie emulation’ mode, making it great to use with Cubase or Logic, and it even comes with a download code for Cubase LE8. There are built-in effects for vocals, guitars and bass included, as well as a large collection of amp simulators.
Who is this Suited to?
The Zoom R16 will suit musicians who are already familiar with music production and want something portable to use as they travel. Less so if you just want something simple.
- Can record eight tracks simultaneously and playback sixteen.
- The large size, with faders, makes it easy and intuitive to control.
- Mackie emulation mode makes it easily compatible with Cubase and Logic.
- There’s no bus power.
- Battery life is very short.
The Zoom R24 is similar to the R16. As the name suggests, twenty-four tracks are able to be played back, rather than sixteen, giving it the potential to hold some much fuller sounds. This makes it a real option for bands with full drum kits.
There’s even a drum machine included, as well as an array of built-in effects including modeling amps. There are independent pan, level and EQ controls, as well as faders to control the volume and a separate master fader. The Zoom R24 also has the Mackie emulation that makes it well suited to professional sequencing software, and it comes with a download of Cubase LE.
Who is this suited to?
The R24 will suit musicians who already know their way around a mixer, and are keen to work in combination with software such as Cubase or Logic. Although it can be used without a computer, it’s designed as a part of a package.
It might not be the right product for those looking for something petite and portable (for rough demos or songwriting ideas).
- Includes Steinberg Cubase LE software.
- Records sixteen tracks simultaneously and plays back twenty-four.
- Includes a drum machine and amp modeling effects.
- There’s no bus power option.
- Battery life is limited to 4.5 hours.
The Tascam DP-006 is a budget-friendly option for songwriters. It has six-tracks, and two of these can be recorded simultaneously. The DP-006 is very robust and compact. It has multiple knobs and a wheel which guides you through saving ideas. It’s very basic, although it can be a little tricky to get your head around. Once you do, it’s a brilliant little tool for songwriting on.
There are level controls for each input as well as a master level. The control knobs are easy to use and the built-in microphones are of reasonable quality.
Who is this suited to?
The DP-006 will be suited to songwriters who want to lay down one or two tracks at a time. It won’t be ideal for those who are looking for something that works more like a mixer, or to people looking for built-in effects.
- Very budget-friendly.
- Small and robust; you can throw it in your backpack without worrying.
- It’s designed more like a ‘sketchpad’.
- You’re very limited in terms of tracks.
- There are no options for effects.
The DP-008X takes things a bit further than the 006. As the name suggests, it can playback eight tracks simultaneously. Still, just two can be recorded at the same time, but it gives you more creative options if you’re a songwriter looking to add layers to a piece of your music.
The DP-008X also works well as an audio interface, but still needs to be powered via batteries or an adaptor. There’s a built-in tuner and metronome and the condenser microphones are of surprisingly high quality. Each of the tracks has panning, level and reverb controls, giving it the edge on the 06 which lacks the reverb.
Who is this suited to?
The Tascam DP-008X will suit songwriters who are looking for a portable device with which to capture quality-sounding demos, to submit to labels or to share with others. It will be less suited to musicians looking for something that works like a full-on studio, due to its limitations in terms of effects and simultaneous recording.
- Includes a tuner and a metronome.
- Up to eight tracks can be played back simultaneously.
- Works as a USB audio interface also.
- No built-in effects.
The Tascam DP-24D is a twenty-four track device that works just like a traditional mixing desk and software combined. It’s big, bulky and substantial, making it a serious buy for any musician, with a price tag to match. The design itself is intuitive, with faders, LED buttons, wheels and knobs. There’s a small screen to help you to navigate your activity and there’s a USB output for when you’re ready to export.
The DP-24SD has a lot of built-in effects and can record eight tracks at once, making it suitable for capturing drum kits.
Who is this Suited to?
The DP-24SD will be well suited to bands who want to make a full recording to studio quality. It will be less suited to those looking for something cheap, small and portable.
- Large, familiar and intuitive design.
- Eight tracks can be simultaneously recorded, and 24 played back.
- Built-in effects including reverb and delay.
- It’s not very portable.
- Many people would find it less easy to use than computer software.
As you can see, there are different devices to suit different needs.
If you’re looking for something simple, for songwriting purposes, the Boss Micro BR-80, Zoom R8 or the Tascam DP-006 will fit your requirements.
There’s a Tascam DP-008X which takes things a little further than the 006, including reverb as well as two more tracks.
The Boss BR-800 which allows you to record four tracks simultaneously, which is great for bands wanting to capture rough demos.
If you’re quite a tech-friendly musician, who’s already comfortable on a Mackie or similar, the Zoom R16, Zoom R24 or Tascam DP-24SD will delight you.
The R16 is the most portable of these, with the benefits of faders and Mackie emulating software. The Zoom R24 is similarly portable but with more tracks, and both of the models are designed for use with additional software (although they work alone). The Tascam DP-24SD is more of a studio in its own right. It’s less portable than the Zoom models, but it has a big screen and requires no computer to work at its best.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.