are sixteen tracks still enough?

a thought struck me recently, and after mulling it over for a few days, i think i finally have a good answer for why i choose to keep recording with the same obsolete 16-track digital mixer/workstation i’ve had for a decade now, while everything around it has improved exponentially, and why i will likely never upgrade to protools or the like. not that it’s a question i find coming up often. but it is something i’ve thought about from time to time.

pretty much everyone i know (and everyone i don’t know) who records music with some amount of seriousness uses some sort of software — protools, garageband, ableton, reaper and the like. i’ve got some good outboard equipment at this point (that wasn’t always the case), and the converters in the roland VS-1680 are not exactly up-to-date with the best of what’s out there now. you would think it would be a no-brainer to make that final (and, some would say, most important) upgrade. when someone asks me why i haven’t done that, i usually say i’m comfortable with the 1680, i know how to use it, and there’s a fair amount of power there for what it is. there are still things it’s capable of that i haven’t taken the trouble to figure out yet; only last year did i finally discover that it’s possible to do meticulously timed punch-ins if necessary. i’ve only used this function half a dozen times at most,  but it comes in handy when you’d like to re-record, say, half of a piano part without having to sprint over a 20-foot distance in the space of two seconds in an attempt at getting to the instrument at just the right time.

i recognize that the sound quality of my recordings might improve in a whole new way if i worked with better conversion and at a higher bit/sampling rate (i’m working at 16-bit/44.1 kHz here…nothing sexy going on in that department), and with how sensitive my ears have become, i’d probably hear the difference loud and clear. at the same time, i really don’t feel like spending thousands of dollars on a computer dedicated to recording, along with the proper software/plug-ins/horse radish, and enough high quality conversion to be able to record several tracks at any given time. i’ve already spent a lot of money on recording-related things, and for the time being i think my days of “big purchases” are over. i feel like i have just about everything i need to do what i want to do.

incidentally, i used to sit at this desk and write/type. as you do. these days, that doesn’t happen so much, because the desk looks like this:

to be honest, i kind of like the limitations the mixer forces me to work inside of. you can only do so much with 16 tracks. my arrangement ideas have grown quite a bit denser and more ambitious over the years — as recently as a year or two ago, i would routinely have somewhere around 4-6 tracks left over even after mix-down time, whereas now i often find myself eating up every single available track — but i kind of feel like if you can’t say what you want to say musically in 16 tracks, maybe it isn’t something that should be said in the first place. sure, there are times when i’ve maxed out the mixer and i think, “it would be nice if i had another few extra tracks so i could add a few more vocal harmonies, or a synth string part, or some additional percussion.” if i really want to make that little extra sonic wallpaper happen, i can finagle a way to sneak it in somewhere between the crevices of another track. and if i really wanted to get ambitious, i could chain my mixer to the extra one i bought off of ebay some years back as a fall-back in case this one ever craps out, and i’d have 32 tracks to work with. but a lot of times i find the song doesn’t really need that extra bit of clutter after all. and if it does, then maybe it isn’t interesting enough as a song to begin with, and not something worth putting on an album.

i think having more tracks to work with could potentially be a negative thing. if a song doesn’t seem to be working, you can just keep piling stuff on top of it until it’s been hammered into submission and is a huge wall of shapeless noise. granted, sometimes shapeless noise is exactly what you want a song to be. but the more elements you have to try to find space for in the mix, the less space there is in general. there’s that old saying about how you can’t polish a turd. well, modern pop music proves once and for all that you can. you can take a generic, soulless, creatively bankrupt piece of music and add enough surface gloss to make it sound pleasing to the ears of most consumers, and you can take musicians who can’t really play and singers who can’t actually sing, and use computer trickery to manipulate them into something more musical than what they’re realistically capable of. to me, that isn’t music at all. but that’s just my personal taste. i like sounds that are more organic, and maybe a little bit rough-around-the-edges. i like listening to music made by people who actually wrote the songs, played the instruments, and sang without a computer program making them sound more adept at staying in tune than they really are. i think auto-tune is possibly the single worst thing to ever happen to music, and without it there would be far fewer talentless pop tarts flooding the universe with do-nothing, say-nothing noise, performing live shows that ultimately amount to little more than souped-up grade school lip-syncing performances.

but that’s a discussion for another time.

the point is, i don’t want any part of that stuff. i don’t want to spend hours working with a plug-in to make my drum tracks sound like they were recorded in a baseball stadium and played by a giant with tree trunks for arms, as opposed to the reality of drums being played by a guy in a room. i don’t want to be able to take every vocal moment that’s a little off-key and make it pitch-perfect. people devote entire careers to this sort of stuff (it seems to be a large part of what professional audio recording/production is about these days, at least in some camps), and i don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. it just isn’t relevant to what i’m doing. i’m more interested in making the music than i am in manipulating sound. i can’t spend nine hours mixing a song…it just isn’t the way my brain works. one of the things about the 1680 that i think has forced me to get a lot better at what i do quickly is the almost complete inability to work post-production magic on anything. for the most part, once something is inside the box, i’m stuck with the way it sounds. in a way, it’s a little bit like recording to tape; i can’t post-produce the crap out of anything, or twist a poorly-recorded source into something good with a plethora of plug-ins. i have no choice but to make decisions on the fly while recording, in terms of compressor settings, mic placement, effects, and other such things. and i like that immediacy.

collaborating with anyone long-distance would not be so easy, because the 1680 isn’t really compatible with anything aside from other workstations in the roland VS-series family. there are ways to make it work if i want to record a piano part for someone else and put it in a format they can incorporate into whatever program they’re working with, but making it work the other way around would be very difficult. as it happens, this is pretty much a moot issue, because most of the time when someone says they’re interested in some sort of collaboration it tends to never happen, for one reason or another. so the lack of compatibility with other DAWs has never really been a problem for me.

i also enjoy the dependability of the mixer. yes, it’s depreciated in value so much it’s kind of hilarious. yes, most professional audio engineers scoff at the mention of the thing and strongly suggest anyone who is interested in making a good-sounding recording should avoid it at all costs. but have you ever had a problem-free computer? i haven’t. i’m not sure such a thing exists. at some point there’s always a virus problem, or the system crashes for no apparent reason, or something freezes up and some potentially important work is lost, or the thing just gets old and eventually breaks down. i’ve had the 1680 since the summer of 2000, and it’s crashed on me exactly once in that time. it took about ten minutes to fix itself with a built-in drive check operation. there were a lot of songs on the hard drive in various stages of completion when it happened. you know how much i lost? one bass part in one song. that’s it. i have the feeling a computer may not have been so kind. a lot of the things i record contain elements of improvisation that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to recreate if the tracks were lost. if i used a computer to record, and the system crashed, and i lost even one whole song, i would literally toss that computer right out a window. if for no other reason, then, it’s probably best for the neighbours that i stick to what i’m doing.

on a similar note, for a long time, i wondered what might happen if someone else recorded/produced my music. in the back of my mind, i’ll probably always be a tiny bit curious about it. while recording has become such an insular, personal process for me that handing someone else the keys to my musical kingdom would be a bit like getting naked in front of a stranger and saying, “here — study my genitals and tell me what you think,” i was always curious what someone else — someone perhaps more adept at the recording/mixing side of things — would do with my music. but if i’m completely frank (because who would only want to be half a person?), i’m not sure i’d want to find out after all. i think, if the person involved was skilled enough, the results would technically sound “better” than what i do on my own…but it wouldn’t be my music anymore. i think i would listen to the end result and feel very strange and uncomfortable, because chances are it would feel too slick and “produced”, when my whole ethos kind of runs in the opposite direction. i think just about any proper producer/engineer would try to get rid of at least some of the weirdness and rough edges, because it’s in their nature, and in their eyes (and ears) some of what i do might violate the rules of what recording or songwriting are “supposed” to be. whereas i think the rules should be violated until they cease to exist. writing and recording a song shouldn’t be a mechanical process, like constructing a model car; it should be something that grows out of a deep personal need for expression. if that were the case more often, i think maybe there would be a whole lot less abysmal, empty music out there.

i’ve said this before, but i think if i spent a year or so trying to make a 10-song album as good as it could possibly be, and picked away at the songs until i felt they were crafted as well as they could ever hope to be, by the end of that year i would feel like i had wasted 12 months of my life, and i would never want to listen to any of the songs again. i’m much more interested in capturing musical moments as they exist and occur, as opposed to trying to summarize or condense a certain period of time and stay in that one specific place for longer than necessary. i mean, i kind of thought the next album might be a shorter, more streamlined affair…and now i can see it’s going to be difficult to shave it down to something that will fit on one cd. i just don’t make short, tidy albums. at least not anymore. it isn’t in me. and it’s not somewhere i’m interested in going.

was there the thread of something in there that explained why the 1680 isn’t going anywhere? maybe. are 16 tracks still enough? undoubtedly. do ducks have sex with transport trucks? now that’s the burning question.


  1. You do realize though that you use a computer to record all your music? Yours is just a dedicated computer. Much like a calculator only does math (and spells out boobies and some other great words), your computer only records sounds. But it has a hard drive inside it just like a computer. You’ve been very lucky that your hard drive has never crashed, but that doesn’t mean it never will.

    Also, not all computers are crash prone. I’ve never had a hard drive die on me in the 18 years I’ve owned computers, nor have I had a virus.

    Finally, your description of recording to tape is a bit off also. When I worked in a studio that ran 2″ tape. We rarely recorded effects or dynamics to tape. We always compressed back from tape. And effects only went to tape if it was in the interest of the effect.

    If you were to upgrade to recording to DAW, no one would force you to record any differently, after all, it’s just sounds being recorded in time. How you do it is up to you. Don’t let anyone tell you you have to do it differently, but don’t assume the things you are doing have anything to do with anything but choice, just like everyone else.

    1. good points. i think what i was trying to get at was the idea that *having* the additional power could be dangerous for me…if i had the ability to work more post-production magic on things, i would probably get sucked into that vortex and the music would suffer. obviously, just because something is there, it doesn’t mean you have to make any use of it, but i fear the temptation may be too great. and it would be a bit strange getting used to a whole new layout/work-flow after spending years working in a specific way.

      as for the tape thing, i’ve read about how a lot of people used to print effects to tape, to the point that you can take the original multitracks of a lot of old songs, pull up the faders, and immediately get an almost “finished” sound. that doesn’t seem to be something that happens so much in the digital world, from what i understand…but i’m not a professional engineer by any stretch, so i could be wrong.

      i think you’re one of the lucky ones never to have had any computer problems! i can’t think of anyone i’ve known who hasn’t had issues at some point.

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