Tascam 234 4-track
Sharp-eyed and clever readers will have noticed that the Yamaha 4-track cassette system, reviewed last month in One Two, does the extremely fashionable thing among gadgetry both big and small of existing in a modular form.
Which is to say that it consists of constituent parts, linking up to make a full, up-and-running 4-track cassette recording set-up: recorder to put the music on to tape; mixer to guide the music to the recorder in an acceptable and pleasing fashion (and back again for the mix); and an interconnecting board to send all the stuff around and about the system with accuracy.
Not to be out-done (and, I'm sure they would suggest, completely at the behest of their own supercharged R&D department), Tascam — often called Teac, which is in fact the parent company — have split up their own invention, the Portastudio, and now offer the 4-track cassette deck only: the Tascam 234.
In fact they've souped it up and turned it around somewhat, making it worthy of a One Two Once-Over. Thanks to the chaps at Tascam's UK distributors being all het up over some motor show or the other, we didn't get the lengthiest of work-outs with the 234. But through its paces it certainly went, make no mistake.
And so we are faced with what at first glance might pass for a rack-mountable up-market cassette deck — except, of course, that it's 4-track, recording those four parallel pieces of information across the full width of the high-bias tape, meaning one travel in one direction, per cassette.
Double-speed, too, which means that a C90 cassette will end up giving you just 22½ minutes of space — and C120 cassettes are definitely not recommended. Reckon you can fit a side of the concept album on that? Course you can.
Tascam appear to have slightly schizoid intentions as far as the 234 is concerned.
Firstly, they make it seem rather 'professional': there's the 19in rackmounting capability that suggests STUDIO in big letters; there's the price of £575 (compared to £690 for a mixer-included-all-ready-to-go 244 Portastudio); and there's the general feeling that this is a specialised product (audio-visual use springs to mind).
On the other hand, the thorough manual that accompanies the device makes no bones about the intended user — you or I are sitting in the bedroom with a drum machine, a microphone or two, some Guinean xylophones, and a guitar-cum-keyboard. We are steered to 'The Multitrack Primer' and other Tascam guides for the recording idiot, and really made to feel that here is a recording tool for the musician. But is it?
To get the best of the 234 you'll need a mixer. And this is what Tascam tell you, too. But — and it's a crucial but — the thing can easily be used on its own to produce acceptable tapes with the dubbing, bouncing and mixing capabilities that you'd expect from a 4-track cassette.
The difference is that you won't be able to be nearly as efficient as you would with a mixer. The most serious disadvantage to the 234-only user would be the inability to eq stuff you're recording or (more importantly) things that are already recorded and are being mixed down on to a separate tape deck.
Nor is it easy to add effects at the mixing stage without a mixer. A mixer really is essential for even the most basic trickery, but (I'll repeat this, Kevin) you can use the 234 on its own and still be able to layer up sounds in an interesting and relatively flexible way, and eventually mix them down to your other tape machine.
To record stuff without a mixer, instruments or mics are plugged into the relevant channel socket on the back of the 234 and then by a series of switches on the front a level is obtained on the appropriate VU meter (each with a peak LED, too).
Each channel has an associated trim control on the back for guitar or microphone input, a straight-in phono socket for drum machines, synths, and so on, and two knobs each on the front, one covering input level, while the other dual-ganged one governs output level and stereo positioning. This last control is also used to send recorded tracks to another track when you're bouncing things around.
In this way you could record, say, four straight parallel tracks of drums, bass, guitar, and keyboard, and mix immediately to your stereo cassette deck or reel-to-reel. But that'd be a bit of a waste.
You can drop in at points on the recorded tracks to correct or change parts you're unhappy with, or where you want a different instrument playing at a different time. There's a socket on the back to connect an optional remote control that would make one-person operation much slicker.
More interesting and expansive is to bounce tracks. This involves shifting, say, drums and bass from 1 and 2 to 4 as one track, then recording keyboards separately on 2 and 3, and moving them, combined, to 1, and finally recording two guitar parts independently on 2 and 3. Get the idea? You could expand this further by adding an instrument or voice at the bounce stage.
To bounce on something like a Portastudio — or one of the all-in packages, at any rate- — the switching is built in and there is no 'patching', or plugging and unplugging of leads, to do. With the 234 you do have a bit of patching to take care of when bouncing, although it is simple enough, and merely involves one phono-to-phono lead being linked up on the back of the machine.
Yes, you will tangle up leads. You will swear a lot. You will wish the connectors were on the front. You will put up with it, you suppose.
The devastating musical arrangements I recorded with the 234 went smoothly enough, with and without a mixer, but bear in mind that I've had some experience of most of the 4-track systems and know my way around (that's what I tell the editor, anyway). The 234 is relatively foolproof used without a mixer, and should pose few operational problems for all but the terminally insane. Used in this notebook sort of way, it's quite a doddle.
When laying down my avant-garde disco outings, I tried recording both with and without the machine's dbx noise reduction system. Hiss did build up when bouncing and layering and not using dbx, but I still found it OK. If, however, you're thinking of impressing anyone with the results, and expect them to have anything approaching sensitive ears, then I'd advise keeping the dbx on. At least the dbx on/off switch is accessible (on the back), which is more than can be said for stable-mate, the 244.
Another distinct operational advantage over the 244 is the 234's memory locator system, in addition to its usual return-to-zero (although even this is an improvement, with its selectable Stop or Play options upon your returning to good old 0000).
The memory locator gives a number of useful marking and finding possibilities, including (in combination with the zero-return) automatic replay and re-replay of one particular section — invaluable to incompetent guitarists such as myself. There's also the choice of instantly stopping or rewinding when an entered index number (which can be checked at any time) is reached in any tape-transport mode. Follow? Well it's good, and beats any existing competition that I know of.
The pitch control — which will make the tape go faster or slower by up to 12% — is odd, too. The knob pulls out to actuate the plus-or-minus change; pushed back in again at any point in its travel it instantly reverts to normal (3¾in/s) speed. I couldn't actually see any advantage over the more usual centre-detented knob.
There's no doubt, of course, that the 234 would be worth considering if you've already got a mixer, and while it's more expensive than the (separate) Yamaha MT44 it does offer greater flexibility in some areas.
Considered as a first-time buy for the musician getting into 4-track cassette recording, however, the 234 cannot hope to compete with the complete systems like the 244 and the Fostex 250. I don't suppose Tascam had that in mind anyway — I also doubt that they'd consider making a 244A with the 234's wonderful memory locator, either, what with digital Portastudios being so close at hand. Just a thought.
In the meantime, the 234 sits rather expensively in what must remain a professional sector of the Tascam range. For us mere mortals, the packaged, all-in system is still more attractive. That's not to say we never change — after all, we're artists.
And Tascam sure do understand artists, real well. Listen to this. "A company that makes paint and brushes for artists," gushes the obviously crafted-in-America manual, "cannot say that the paintings made with their products will be critically well-received. The art is the province of the artists." Makes you think, that — doesn't it?