How to Use a 4-Track Recorder

By Chris Anzalone

A 4-track recorder gives you the ability to record music onto four individual tracks, or layers, to achieve the cleanest possible sound. For example, you might use one track for vocals, a second for guitars, a third for bass and a fourth for drums. This eliminates the clutter of a live band recording, isolates the best aspects of each instrument and voice, and lets you edit and mix your music with precision. A 4-track recorder can seem intimidating, though, if you have limited experience.

Connect your musical equipment to your 4-track recorder, using standard audio cables, such as 1/4-inch TRS cables. Some recorders have four sets of input jacks, one corresponding with each of the four vertical channel strips, allowing you to record up to four tracks simultaneously. Other recorders contain only one set of input jacks, allowing you to record onto just one track at a time.

Insert a cassette tape or CD if required by your 4-track recorder. Recorders are available in both analog and digital varieties. Analog recorders usually rely on cassettes, sometimes specially designed for the recorder, while digital recorders may save your recordings onto a hard drive for CD transfer, or allow you to connect directly to your PC using a USB cable.

Turn on your recorder and set your recording parameters. Each channel strip should contain a series of knobs or buttons. The "Pan" knobs allow you to build an arrangement by moving sounds between the left and right channels. For example, you might place your bass in the center of the mix, guitars to the left and keys to the right. Your "Levels" pertain to the volume of each track. Some advanced recorders also contain "EQ" knobs, where you can adjust your bass, mid tones and treble frequencies, or more simply, your low, middle and high sounds.

Press the "Record" button corresponding to the track(s) you want to record. Each vertical channel strip represents a track, and each should feature a "Record" function. In some cases, you may see only one "Record" button and a track selector on your LCD screen, in which case you can use the onscreen options to select your track.

Begin recording an instrument riff, vocal line or other audio transmission. If you want to follow a specific beat, many 4-track recorders feature a built-in metronome among your on-screen options, allowing you to choose a tempo--speed, measured in beats per minute--and play your music in time to the beat by following the sounds of the rhythmic ticks. To stop the recording process, your recorder may require you to press a "Stop" button, or press "Record" a second time.

Record additional layers of music if necessary. If your recorder only allows you to record one track at a time--this mostly applies to digital pocket recorders--use the options on your LCD menu to return to the beginning of the mix and set up your track 2 recording, and then follow up with tracks 3 and 4 if needed.