TEAC A-3440 4 track 15 inch
The Analog World
I did a lot of home recording with analog reel-to-reels. You would practice your parts and then lay down the tracks. I used a TEAC 3440 with 15″ reels recording at 15 inches per second (IPS). With 4 tracks you could record 4 instruments in mono. If you wanted to record more than 4 tracks you would dump the first 3 recorded tracks to the 4th track adding a 4 instrument or vocal in real time to that track. You could then record 3 more tracks to the 4th.
You had limited means of editing and it was near impossible to do any editing to a track that had multiple tracks dumped to it. You could record over a mistake or a bad track, or you cut and spliced a section of tape in or out. Seriously, you laid the 1/4″ tape on a special cutting block, sliced the tape with a razor blade at the beginning of the edit, sliced the tape at the end of the section, removed the unwanted section and then taped the 2 sections back together.
This was all such a pain in the but that ignored minor blemishes in your recording or you paid a sound engineer BIG BUCKS to get the editing perfect.
Pros: Lots of headroom. If you occasionally spiked the signal levels too high, it often wasn’t too noticeable. Analog distortion doesn’t sound nearly as bad as overloading a digital signal which absolutely sounds like crap. You probably could not afford lots of extra outboard gear like compressors, equalizers, limiters, reverbs, etc. I used the spring reverb on my mixer or guitar amp, This meant you spent a lot more time making music rather than playing with or learning how to use all the extra dodads. Big reel-to-reel machines are also just fun to watch. They were also incredibly easy to set up a signal chain and to troubleshoot signal problems not related to the internal workings of the recorder itself.
Cons: $$$$$$$$ Even a simple 4 track machine like the TEAC was $1200 + in 1980 dollars. Add the mixer, your guitars, mikes and you can see why I didn’t have many outboard effects unless I built them myself. 15″ tapes were $30.00 each. Analog machines, and analog tape have a much higher noise floor than digital. In other words, there was a lot of hiss built in. Annoying and especially noticeable with soft music. The hiss builds up each time you bounce tracks to another track. You had to deqauss the record and playback heads periodically and also clean them regularly. You occasionally had to re-calibrate the heads.
The Digital World
Today, you can buy a PC and software for under $1200 in 2016 dollars that will do much more than my 4 track system back in 1975. Recording software costing $400.00 will give you hundreds of tracks capable of recording analog sounds and sequencing them with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) instruments such as internal or external synthesizers and drums machines. The Pros definitely outweigh the Cons.
Pros: For all practical purposes, an unlimited number of tracks. Thousands of various effects, such as reverbs, equalizers, limiters, expanders, compressors, etc. Thousands of instruments like pianos, organs, orchestral instruments, ethic instruments, etc. Extremely easy and accurate editing. Cut , copy and paste with simple mouse movements.
Cons: If you redline a signal there is no forgiveness. It distorts with a terrible sound. Learning curves on most software. Each update tends to cause changes that you have to learn. Too many choices!!! You must be careful to weigh what you want to learn about the software vs. what you want to create musically. You can literally spend all your time playing with and tweaking the software.
No I would not want to go back to the analog recording days. I can produce much higher quality stereo recording than I ever could before. But, since I am still my own recording engineer, producer, song writer/composer, and musician(s) I do get less actual music recorded.