At this point I think anyone with a computer of at least Pentium 133 MHz speed and with even a decent $30 sound card should try mixing directly to hard disk. If you think mixing down to a VCR is good, you should hear digital!
If you want to go a bit further, you can buy a CD-R drive and master to hard disk, then dump the tracks to CD for archiving or amaze your friends with your own CDs, even if you don't plan to do "digital recording". And even the lousy Windows sound recorder, which only records a minute's worth of audio unless you hack around with it, is enough to show you, without buying any additional hardware, exactly how good the result will be.
Here's what you do (assuming Windows 98 or NT here, and if you haven't upgraded from 95, do it now, because 98 is a lot more stable and gives you lots more useful options for resizing disk clusters for maximum audio throughput or space savings):
First, make sure your sound card is using 44.1 KHz 16-bit resolution stereo, the standard for all CD and digital audio recording (it probably isn't, by default). Go to Control Panel/Multimedia. Pick the Audio tab (it's the first one). There are two entries, one for Playback and one for Recording. For each one, hit the Advance Properties button, which will open up another dialog with sliders. Pull everything all the way to the right (this will give you the proper settings), and hit OKs to save your work until you're out of the Multimedia applet.
Make sure you use the Line In to the sound card from your multitrack
cassette output jacks (you'll need a 1/8" stereo plug to dual phono
plug cord at least 6' long) and watch the input level meter on the sound
card (Control Panel/Multimedia/Audio tab, then check "show volume
control on the taskbar", double-click the little speaker icon
on the taskbar, and Options/Properties/Adjust volume for recording*. Press
the red button on Sound Recorder to record (it's in Accessories/Entertainment,
but if you can't find it there, use Start/Run and then type in sndrec32),
then play back and see what happens...
P.S. Trey Dunaway (and a number of other people) have written to me thusly:
P.P.S. After trying the above, a couple dozen people have written to me, basically saying, "Yowzah! We love it, but we hate Sound Recorder and this idiotic 1-minute limitation stuff. Is there anything else free out there?" To which I reply:
* Note for people cool enough to check out the asterisk: if you go to the Advanced options for recording in the volume control, you will find a check box for controlling "monitor output". This is not for your studio monitors, but allows you to listen to what you're recording through your speakers. In almost all cases, checking this box will cause INCREDIBLY LOUD DIGITAL-QUALITY FEEDBACK THAT WILL BLOW YOUR EARS OFF.
So don't say you weren't warned :-)