In this digital age, the multitrack recorder may at first glance appear to be a dinosaur from the age of Napster. I think of them more like an evergreen workhorse, an additional layer in your recording chain that allows you another level of flexibility over your final sound. Multitrack recorders are a great piece of equipment to use alongside your digital workstation. How can you create a robust home studio without breaking the bank? Let’s take a look at the best budget multitrack recorders.
TASCAM has been THE name in home recording for decades, and their Portastudio line of multitrack recorders is still going strong. The latest model, the DP-008EX, is built for ease, speed, and portability- the interface is intuitive, it’s small enough to throw it in your bag, and it’s got the basic XLR inputs and a USB2.0 output to your computer after recording.
After dominating for so many years, TASCAM is the master of instruction as well. I’m a big fan of reading the manual in order to not only get the basic gist of the functionality, but also to be aware of what could be “hidden features” or things you’re able to discover along the way. The DP-008EX manual is one of the best written around.
This unit allows you to record two inputs at a time, up to 8 tracks of control for the usual array of options – volume, reverb, and pan. For those who like to layer and are in control when bouncing down tracks, this unit can help you get the ideas out of your head and into other people’s ears.
The interface is fairly stripped down, and the controls easy to understand. Its small size means that you can easily fit it in a backpack or bag, or even carry it around by hand if you need to. The mic cables are easy to plug in in the back of the unit and easy to assign to channels and easily dial in appealing sounds.
If you’re looking for a multitrack to sketch quick ideas, you may find the controls of the DP-008EX to be a frustrating over-complication. If you’re looking to dial in the different tonal layers on each track, the lack of EQ is a bit disappointing – you will need to control the EQ either earlier in the chain or later.
There’s a reason TASCAM Portastudio is synonymous with “home recording” – these units have been pleasing home audio engineers for decades, and it’s very likely this machine will do so as well. Whether it’s recording demos or if you’re looking to record your practice, it will pull through for you.
Another small, nimble machine, the Zoom R8 tops the TASCAM Portastudio in an important regard: the built-in microphone combined with its small size allow you to capture some really impressive live sound. As a fairly analog component it’s a great way to capture something “in the raw” and then pass it to your DAW for further mixing and mastering.
- 2 input tracks/8 simultaneous playback tracks
- record to SD cards up to 32G
- over 140 onboard effects to spice up the sound
I already mentioned the nice on-board microphone, but the drum machines included are also really smooth. While they certainly wouldn’t pass as a real human, they can be used to add some additional color to a recording (perhaps low in the mix or used sparingly as a backing), or as a simple demonstration of an idea and a way to keep a beat that’s a step up from a metronome.
If you’re looking for the bouncing and mixing capabilities of the TASCAM, you may feel like you run out of tracks fairly quickly. Still only the two inputs to mix a total of 8 tracks before you’d have to bounce. Unfortunately when it comes to budget multitrack recorders, the price reflects the number of inputs, so if you’re looking to capture several instruments at once independently, this may not be the one for you.
Capture a live sound or dial in something with the impressive effects, this unit is a fun little machine.
With the Zoom R16 we start to move a tier up from the Portastudios of the world. This machine accepts 8 simultaneous XLR inputs. It also contains a great deal of on-board effects, including some amp modelers. For those who are comfortable using a DAW, this unit can be connected to your DAW like Ableton or Cubase (included with the unit!) and allow you to control the mix using its tactile controls, rather than moving them with a mouse.
- 8 simultaneous XLR inputs
- 16 track playback and recording down to an SD card up to 32G
- comes bundled with Cubase
If you have a full band, are recording a drum kit, or otherwise need to record multiple simultaneous inputs as part of an overall recording chain, this unit is the one I would recommend looking at.
If you’re expecting to plug this unit into part of your pre-existing recording setup, do some extra research to make sure it is compatible – several reviewers on Amazon indicated that they purchased it thinking it would be a smooth install only to find it to be incompatible.
The Zoom R16 is a step up from the last couple we’ve looked at, and should be used for those with more specific needs (like recording a live show or a full band). If this is you, this is your unit!
With the TASCAM DP-24SD multitrack recorder, we now move away from the small handheld-ish units. The big change here is that instead of having to bounce down your tracks and store them in pages that you have to log and scroll through in order to pull back up, this unit has 18 faders, allowing you to manage your various inputs and takes in a much more user-friendly interface (or you can continue to bounce down if that’s your bag too!). As I’m sure you can imagine with this increase in inputs comes the next level of tooling as well – on board EQ and effects processors as well as mastering tools. For complete music production in a single unit, the DP24SD is a great choice.
- 18 faders & 1 master fader
- 8 XLR inputs
- records to SD cards
- 3.5″ LCD screen displaying track and effects parameters
It may have an intimidating appearance, but the Amazon reviews on this unit are constantly praising its ease of use. Many folks are able to plug it in and get pretty far in their recording before even having to consult the manual for additional instructions.
The lights on the faders and controls correspond to the data presented on the LCD screen, giving a lot of visual clues to assist with that ease of use.
Unfortunately you’ll need to apply your compression prior to the mix, as opposed to being able to apply it during the mix. It’s pretty standard to want to apply compression during the mix, so having to do this upstream in the recording process can be fairly inconvenient.
With multiple inputs, an easy to use and informative LCD interface and the ability to dial in EQ on 18 tracks, the TASCAM DP24SD is a very affordable option to add to your home or semi-pro studio.
- Playback 24 tracks as compared to 16
- Six channels of phantom power
- 24 Tracks playback/mix can happen at the same time.
- Extreme price discrepancy amongst sellers, keep in mind this model retails for a $100 more than the R16.
Even though it is not exactly a multitrack budget recorder, someone looking to purchase a multitrack recorder with over 24 tracks cannot go wrong with this one.
It has one of the best multitrack recorder software out there, and with the price tag it comes with, it is nothing less than a bargain.
- Playback of 32 tracks instead of 24
- Eight virtual tracks with every playback on both
- Used by some of the most well-known songwriters out there such as Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga
- It does not really offer any additional features besides the additional eight tracks that it will use which makes the price difference with the 24 track variant unreasonable.
You cannot fault the masterpiece that this device is and the fact that one needs no introduction to how brilliant it is. However, it also comes with the drawback of being nothing more than just a 32 track recorder.
Unless you are starting out on a very small budget its better you look out for a multitrack recorder for android or a basic app that will help you in general.
But if you are an experienced songwriter the fact that there are almost no additional features that will stand out to justify the massive price difference will stick out like a sore thumb.
Yet it remains one of the top players on our list of budget multitrack recorders.
The Winner Is..
The TASCAM DP-008EX Portastudio!
Simply the best for decades now, the TASCAM DP-008EX Portastudio is still the gold standard, and is truly the best budget multitrack recorder.