Digital Multitrack Recorders: Rackmount and Mixer Form Factors from the Mid 90’s to Mid 2000s

24 track Hard Disk RecorderHard disk recorders were becoming affordable around 1996. But by 2005 PC DAWs were even more affordable and flexible. Each of the major pro audio companies offered several standalone multitrack digital audio recorders. The models we link to be low are one we can currently transfer. If you would like us to transfer files from any models that we do or do not have listed here feel free to contact us.


Some had a mixing console "portastudio" form factor while others were rackmount units with more comprehensive I/O and internal removable hard drives. These were produced on the heels of popular digital multitrack tape formats like the Alesis ADAT and Tascam DA88. Many systems used the popular and accepted SCSI standard, which was at the very end of its lifespan at the time. By the late 2000s many units would incorporate USB for transferring using standard file formats like .wav and .aif, and to the present day where these types of machines record on SD Cards.

On thing that hardware recorders had going for them was that there was no license, no dongle or key that was required like so many of the DAWs with copy protection. But all of these competing HDR form factors were similar to the ADAT/DA88 battle of the 90s but with each of the 8 or so competitors (Mackie, Alesis, Tascam, Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Akai, Fostex) pumping out at least one new model each year. There was less market share for any one company or format and the space became saturated. Many would feature ADAT optical and TDIF options from the prior tape generation of recorders, a standard feature that carries on to this day with audio interfaces. Some would record uncompressed audio while others used compressed proprietary formats that might be difficult to migrate. Some could be backed up to PCs and Macs over SCSI or local networks while others could burn CD-ROMs and DVD-RAM discs as both the multitrack backup as well as creating the 2 track mix. If you were lucky you did not pick one of the short lived or obscure formats such as DVD-RAM, digital data tape backups, or magento optical formats that were not Iomega Zip such as Orb. These recorders, with no one dominating the space for very long, revealed the success of the ADAT: the modular nature and the easily obtainable and low cost of the SVHS tapes. Some manufacturers words learn this lesson by making the data as portable as possible while others would stupidly try to lock users in with proprietary media that would lack mass adoption and therefore go obsolete.

I/O Cards

Many of the professional rackmount models would feature the option for users to pick their 24 I/O, either analog, ADAT optical, or TDIF. The window of availability for expansion I/O is always just a few years after the host unit is released, and then they become unobtainable in no time as they are discontinued, although some of Yamaha’s cards would work with a handful of recorder and mixers. The benefit for the used shopper for the models with no option is you will always know what you will get. With the I/O card option models you have to find a unit with the exact configuration you would like or home that the card you need will come up on Ebay or Reverb one day for exorbitant prices, maybe more than the current value of the host unit.

The Rise of the Computer DAW

During this time PCs and Macs DAWs would utilize standard SCSI, then ATAPI/IDE/ATA and then SATA and presently NVMe SSDs as the standard for mass storage. PC HDR systems are less self-contained since the software, and audio interface, and a larger storage medium each as a separate piece compared to the portable units. PC based systems were more flexible, sometimes more expensive, but ultimately more tolerable to use over a longer number of years as the users wanted to make the most from their investments. In fact some engineers still use decade old computer based DAW systems since they still work and they know them so well. Additional benefits standalone units could not offer were integrated midi sequencing and virtual instruments. Today you can mix a modest session and even record a track into Garageband on an iPad and have the same, if not more processing power as these early HDRs. The main downfall of the dedicated HDR compared to PC based recording was the ease of editing. While having instant access to any point in a song instantly was great, the real promise of hard disk recording was also the ease of precision editing which these units could not deliver. Editing would often have to be done using buttons and a small display on these standalone units. And while this was magical at first because you could never do this with tape, you needed to have deep knowledge of the gear to pull it off while a client was waiting.

Alesis HD24

Tascam MX-2424

Mackie SDR24/96, HDR24/96, MDR2496

Yamaha AW1600, AW2400, AW16G, AW2816, AW4416, D24

The AW series were portastudio style units that included mixing, monitoring and a hard disc recorder, CD recorder and external SCSI port, and choices of TDIF, ADAT optical and analog I/O options.

The Yamaha D24 was an 8 channel rackmount unit that appeared in 2000, years after the success of the ADAT and unfortunately used a proprietary media, a 640MB magneto optical disk that allowed for only 15 minutes of 8 track recording and a proprietary file structure. But it does feature a SCSI port.

Korg D16, D1600 (SCSI), D1600MKII, D1200 (USB)

These tried to compete with all of the features of the Roland recorders. While they were a step up from cassette, they could not stand up to Roland’s R&D, UI and marketing capabilities. They had built-in effects, CD recorder, editing, and external storage options. Most models had either 2 or 4 inputs.

Roland VS880, VS1680, VS1880, VS2480, VS1824CD, VS2400CD, VS2000CD, etc.

Roland Hard Disk RecorderThese were probably the most popular hard disc recorders of the era and aimed at the prosumer market of guitar players and singer/songwriters. The VS880 definitely had the first mover advantage being released in 1996, used easily obtainable Iomega Zip and Jaz discs as well as SCSI. But you have to wonder if the plethora of new models each year might work against it, not letting anyone become a standard as we saw with the Alesis ADAT. Perhaps the tactic was just to have the brand known for HDR with as many options as possible? Roland was big on effects expansion and one or more effects boards could be used with most of their models. Each subsequent model would strive to wow the shopper with incremental numbers of tracks, DSP, inputs, or display size.

Akai DSP16

Akai had some success in the early 90's for having some of the first professional hard disk recorders like the DD1500, DRD4, DR8 and DR16 trying to go after the ADAT market, but the DSP16 was a response to the Roland VS880 prosumer segment. It featured external SCSI as standard and internal effects were an optional add-on.

Fostex FD8 and D2424

With the D2424 Fostex opted to make 24 channels of analog and ADAT optical I/O standard unlike the competitors but also featured expansion ports. The faceplate doubled as a removal wired controller like their earlier generations. As with most Fostex products this was an also-ran that did not see large market share.

The Fostex FD8 was more of a prosumer model which featured 4 inputs and 8 recordable tracks that wrote to Zip drive. There were no expandable ports and it included analog and ADAT optical as standard. There were two recording modes, compressed and uncompressed.

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  • File conversion work and tape transfers can be tedious and frustrating. Your time as an artist is better spent working on your music and mixes on a platform you know.
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