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 sixteen-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 Pro Tools or the like. Not that it’s a question I find coming up often, but it’s 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 kind of software, whether it’s Pro Tools, Garageband, Ableton, Reaper, or something else. I’ve got some good outboard equipment at this point which 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 under the hood 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 learn it’s possible to do meticulously timed automated 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 a twenty-foot distance in a span of two seconds in a doomed attempt at getting to the instrument at just the right time.

I recognize 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, 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 all 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 could ever need to do what I want to do.

I used to sit at this desk and write and 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 sixteen 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 often have somewhere around four or six tracks left over even after mixdown 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 sixteen 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 thought, “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.” But 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 double the amount of tracks to work with. But a lot of times I find the song doesn’t need that extra bit of clutter. 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 has the potential to backfire. 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 sing and use technological trickery to manipulate them into something more musical than what they’re 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 maybe 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 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 thing. 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 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 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’s 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 breaks down.

I’ve had the 1680 since the summer of 2000. 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 might 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 the window. If for no other reason, 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 and 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 do I really want to find that out?

If the person who recorded me was good at what they did, the results would technically sound “better” than what I do on my own, I’m sure. But it wouldn’t be my music anymore. Not really. It would be someone else’s idea of how I should sound. 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 or 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. WhereasIi 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 ten-song album that was 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 wasted twelve 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 cut 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 sixteen tracks still enough? Undoubtedly. Do ducks have sex with transport trucks? Now that’s the burning question.

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