Tips for Multi-Track Recording
There are many things to consider when you are in the market for a recorder. First, what sound quality do you need? Are you making recordings for friends or to submit to the music industry? Another thing to consider is the number of tracks you need and the number of simultaneous recording tracks available. If you are only recording one person and don't intend to submit your tape, you don't need anything fancy...perhaps just a small multi-track tape machine for building songs track by track will do. These little tape machines generally use cassettes, which also makes them easy and affordable. But it's good to have certain features, such as a pitch control for changing the speed of the tape, and a high speed mode that provides more tape for the sounds being put there and hence better quality recording.
With this type of recorder, there are tricks that the digital machines are just now becoming able to do, like being able to have a song recorded with an instrument track in reverse. This is easily achieved by ejecting the cassette and reinstalling it upside down, then recording the track while all the other instruments are playing in reverse, then just flip the tape and listen back.
Besides the great little tricks you can do with tape machines, some say they are preferable to digital recorders simply because they have tape, which lets you get a hotter signal and greater frequency response than you get with digital machines.
When selecting a cassette tape for your recorder, you want the best sound quality you can possibly achieve, so, a cassette not over 45 minutes, and normal to high bias is going to work the best. One generally thinks longer is better, but a shorter cassette will have an advantage often overlooked -- the tape is shorter, but it is also thicker, and has more available material to more securely hold the magnetic fields created by the tape heads. Thicker tape, moving across the heads faster, is the ideal situation.
Have you ever noticed that sound quality that is lost when listening back to bounced or "ping-ponged" tracks? Every time you re-record a track, since you're recording your recording, you lose a little. Here's a simple way ping-pong your analog tracks and keep the quality up. All you need is a digital VCR (most are digital after the mid 90's). The tracks you decide you'd like to bounce to another track can be mixed and sent to the inputs on the VCR. It will digitally record them to the VCR. Then just send them back into the tape recorder onto a single track. They may not be quite as good as your original tracks were, but they will be better than if bounced from one tape machine to another.
One of the most important things to know about recording to tape is that you want to saturate the tape to give the recorded tracks their best possible quality. That's why tape machines generally have meters with a red area at the peak end. When recording, you want the needle as near or just into the red zone as possible, without pinning at the top. In other words, you want to be as close to distortion level as possible, without actually getting distortion. If you run it too safely, keeping it below the red zone completely, you'll avoid distortion, but not have as rich a recording as you could have. The trick is to get familiar with your machines, so you know how high the needles can run without getting distortion.