When it comes to adding multi-track recording capability, we have good news and bad news.
The good news first. Thanks to accelerating digital technologies, now you can make high-quality multi-track audio recordings with relative ease. Cost per track has plummeted, and you can choose from a veritable smorgasbord of system options. More options than you ever dreamed of. Perhaps more than you’d prefer to deal with.
Aha, there’s the down side. Determining how to capture multi-track recordings in your church could involve a tangled decision-making process. For better or worse, the make and type of your front-of-house mixing console will heavily influence your options-which means you must incorporate any future console upgrades into your decision. That said, there’s no reason to wait. Just about any quality console, analog or digital, will leave some routes open for reaching your multi-track destination.
Before proceeding, let’s review the advantages of multi-tracking, whether for Sunday services or for special events like concerts, Christmas programs, music workshops, or even weddings. You can improve your mix for CD/DVD or archived webcast distribution. When mixing live, you’re under the gun, and often you must compensate for the acoustics of the room you’re in. The best balance in your church auditorium may not sound the best on a home theater system or in iPod earbuds.
You can fix things later. If selected musicians and/or singers can come back, you can un-do those little boo-boos with overdubs.
You can use the discrete tracks as a “phantom band” for virtual sound checks and operator training.
You can pre-record multiple tracks for mixing in live during worship or concerts.
Assuming these are desirable goals for your church, let’s map out a route to get you there.
Job One: Understand Connectivity
Although it is still possible to make an analog connection between your FOH console and recording device, it is becoming less likely that you will do so. That makes it very important to understand the trade-offs-in cost, speed, upgradability, and flexibility-of the various ways you can connect a console to a stand-alone recorder or computer-based digital audio workstation (DAW). See the sidebar for a basic introduction, but further investigation is recommended before you buy.
From here, we’ll take a look at four fuzzy-edged categories of multi-track recording systems. As we proceed, we’ll look at the up-sides and down-sides of each option. Audio quality won’t be specifically addressed, because there are so many variables within each category. It’s true that some low-budget systems are capable of 24-bit/192 kHz recording, but realize that the higher-cost options will normally deliver audible differences because of more accurate system clocking (complicated topic), premium A/D and D/A converters, and better front-end analog circuits.
Category A: Integrated, No Computer
Don’t like messing with a mouse or re-booting the OS? Fear not, with these systems your multi-track recording is fully integrated into your digital console, with no computer required. It’s a one-stop shop, with the same manufacturer supplying your FOH board and the optional recording package. (The recording gear comes as a separate rack-mount unit, except with Innovason, which has it built in.) All the interfacing is a done deal, and you can record up to 128 tracks at pristine 24-bit/192 kHz resolution-if you can afford the terabytes of hard disk storage space. Systems of this type also are available from Avid, Midas and Roland Systems Group.
If you are already considering a digital console upgrade anywhere in the $15,000-up range, and you prize operating simplicity, this is the best route to take. Adding a full 48-plus-track recording option to your board will cost $5,000 or more, but you’ll likely find it worth every penny. You’ll enjoy the highest recording quality, seamless integration with your console, simple set-up and operation, and-this is the clincher for some folks-single-point technical support. No worries about the console provider blaming the computer OS maker who in turn blames the interface software who blames…. Yes, we’ve all been there.
Category B: Mostly Integrated, Computer Required
For churches with a resident geek or two on the team, this could be the preferred route. True, introducing a computer to the mix adds a layer of complexity, but it also introduces greater flexibility. This is particularly true in cases where a powerhouse laptop ($2,500 or so) will not only do the recording but also supply “virtual racks” crammed with third-party effects plug-ins. It also leaves you free to use your favorite DAW software applications, and change whenever you have the notion.
Digital consoles in this group make it easy to integrate a computer DAW into your recording scenario, either by supplying the complete software package, as with Roland Systems Group and PreSonus, or by supplying connectivity options as well as pre-testing and approving third-party interfaces. Options in the latter group are available from Allen & Heath, Avid, Digico, Soundcraft and Yamaha. Connectivity options vary, with Firewire utilized for lower channel counts (16 to 24) and usually MADI for 48 and up. A few offer options for connecting via packet-switched networks (Dante, EtherSound). Roland’s V-Mixing System is a bit peculiar, as you can plug directly into a Sonar-loaded workstation using the company’s REAC network; if you prefer another workstation, you’ll also need their REAC-to-MADI bridge.
For 16 to 24 tracks, systems in this group start under $5,000-console, computer and software included. As with category A, you’ll add about $5,000 to the cost of a $25,000-up board for high-resolution, 48-plus track recording.
Category C: Digital Connectivity Only
Systems in this group offer limited multi-channel digital connectivity, usually 16 to 24 channels, via Firewire or USB. The consoles are analog, but incorporate internal multi-channel A-to-D and D-to-A interfaces. Such systems are very budget-friendly, with costs starting under $2,500, figuring $1,500 for a 16-channel console and $1,000 for a DAW-loaded computer. Mixers of this type are available from Allen & Heath, Midas (32 channels), Phonic and Mackie.
This approach provides an entry into multi-track recording for smaller churches with restricted budgets. Sound quality and flexibility are remarkably good, even in the lower-priced units. However, on some you’ll have only 16 or 24 inputs, mixer features may be compromised to accommodate both live and recording scenarios, and the budget units have relatively crowded work surfaces. Also, should the mixer refuse to talk to the DAW ... well, who do you talk to first?
Category D: Analog to Dedicated Digital Recorder
This is the way we all used to do it, and it still offers simplicity on a budget. If your church has a workhorse analog console equipped with direct (preamp) channel outputs, this remains an option worth considering. No computer hassles. No digital connectivity issues outside the box. Simply connect your direct outputs to the recorder, press the record button, and you’re in business. (We recently had a touring youth choir stop at our church with this kind of rig. The recording tech on duty, son of the FOH mixer, was nine years old.)
Several stand-alone digital recorders with analog connectivity (standard or optional) remain available, though overall demand is dwindling as more users migrate to DAWs. Some of these units are hard-disk updates of 1990s designs that originally used VHS or Hi-8 tapes, while others offer a fresh re-thinking of the concept. JoeCo is carving out a new niche by offering either analog or digital connectivity (and relying on owner-supplied external drives), while Tascam essentially fuses a DAW and stand-alone into one package. Other systems are available, at least for now, from Alesis and Fostex. Stand-alone systems fall in the $1,600 to $2,500 range for 24 or 48 tracks.
Category X: Bedroom Studios
Yes, there is another category, that being low-cost, four- to eight-track integrated “bedroom studios.” But these really are not suited to live recording in most church applications. We’ll merely note that, if you have group outputs on your analog console, it might be worth hooking one up to try tracking different instrument and vocal combinations separately. Nothing to lose. If you keep expectations low, they might be exceeded.
That’s our sketchy map for finding the best route to multi-tracking in your church. Many twists, turns, exits and byways couldn’t be detailed here, so keep your GPS handy as you proceed.
Multi-track Connections Glossary
ADAT A serial data protocol for 24-bit/48 kHz audio via Toslink optical connectors, developed by Alesis for its recorders.
Dante An Ethernet-based, low-latency digital networking protocol for a variety of multichannel audio applications. The Dante Virtual Soundcard software application interfaces up to 64 channels of audio with several popular DAW software applications.
Low-latency audio network using Ethernet physical layer, either 100 Mbit/s or Gigabit. AuviTran manufactures interface cards for digital consoles using the EtherSound protocols.
Apple’s trade name for IEEE 1394 high-speed serial bus interface. Firewire is the most utilized connectivity option for low-to mid-priced multi-track systems.
Multichannel Audio Digital Interface, a protocol for serial digital transmission of up to 64 audio channels with up to 96 kHz sampling rate and 24-bit resolution. Connection is via fiber optics or coaxial cable.
SuperMAC (AES 50) and HyperMAC
A high-speed transmission system for multi-channel audio using standard Ethernet cables. SuperMAC uses 100Mbit/s Ethernet for 24 bi-directional channels (96 kHz sampling); HyperMAC uses Gigabit Ethernet for 192 bi-directional channels (96 kHz).
A faster version of the original USB standard suitable for carrying multichannel digital audio.