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Tascam 238 Syncaset

8-track Recorder

Article from Sound On Sound, August 1988

The 8-track war hots up. Now Tascam have an 8-track cassette to compete with the Toa MR8T. We know that eight tracks on compact cassette are possible, but who does it better, Tascam or Toa? David Mellor decides.

The 8-track war hots up. Now Tascam have an 8-track cassette to compete with the Toa MR8T. We know that eight tracks on compact cassette are possible, but who does it better, Tascam or Toa? David Mellor decides.

Toa didn't have the field to themselves for very long, did they? I reviewed the Toa MR8T for Sound On Sound a mere two months ago and now I find myself with a rival 8-track cassette deck to evaluate. In actual fact, it has been pretty much an open secret that these two machines were going to hit the British market at around the same time, for around the same price. The difference is that Tascam have a big name in the recording world, Toa have as yet to build up a presence in depth.

My experience with the Toa MR8T surprised me. I didn't think that 8-track on cassette could cut it, but the Toa's performance was as sharp as a razor - very nearly up to the standard of the best of the cassette 4-tracks I have tried. Indeed, Toa have obviously put in that little bit extra that makes a machine first class. As I said at the time, 8-track on cassette can never be as good as 8-track reel-to-reel, but it comes very close.

Tascam, having such a track record, may be expected to improve on the performance of the Toa MR8T. But does fact match up to expectation? We'll find out the answer to that in a short while. But the two machines have physical differences which may swing it for a potential purchaser, regardless of the ultimate audio performance.

Summarising the Toa's abilities: as well as normal tape recorder functions there is a return-to-zero facility, variable speed, an elapsed time display (not available for fast wind), individually switchable dbx noise reduction on track 8 for use with sync code, and - most importantly - an 8-channel monitor mixer. It's this last feature which will be the key to Toa's success. You can use the MR8T with very little extra equipment. It is virtually an 8-track portastudio. (Of course, only Tascam are allowed to claim the trade name 'portastudio' for their machines).

In comparison, the Tascam 238 does not have a monitor mixer, nor even a headphone socket. Therefore, it must be used with an external mixing console. It does have other advantages to compensate though. How about an internal autolocator with automatic punch-in/out? This deserves examination in detail...


Before I get to the exciting bits, here are some more basic matters - matters which do need attention. I began my sessions with the Tascam with the cursing and tearing out of hair rituals which are commonplace when learning how to operate new equipment. Then I decided to have a serious read of the manual - which was more serious than I had anticipated because it was in French and German only! (There will, of course, be a conventional English manual when the machine is in the shops).

My initial difficulty in understanding the 238 concerned the switching between input monitor and tape monitor, which is more than usually versatile. Let me elaborate...

On modern multitrack machines (reel-to-reel or cassette), when you record on any track, the input signal to that track is routed directly to the output socket. This makes monitoring convenient. On playback, the tape signal is routed to the output socket. It is the timing of when this switching is done that varies between different makes and models of recorder. See the separate panel for details of the differences.

It can be difficult to see the problems that may arise until you have experienced both monitor switching options, to discover which you prefer. The arrangements on your mixing desk may be the deciding factor anyway. Fortunately, the Tascam 238 gives you both so there is no problem! The INSERT button is the key. Tascam get a smiling face from me for this feature, which I discovered for myself without the aid of a French dictionary. On to the meat of the machine...

The internal autolocator is Tascam's big, big plus over the Toa machine. Although there is no monitor mixer, many will prefer the ease of use that autolocate facilities offer.

The first requirement for any autolocator is an accurate tape counter. Tascam have not been too hot on this in the past, but any bad experiences you have had with the Tascam 'shifting zero' can be forgotten. The counter on this model can never be as accurate as one that is linked to timecode (which some can be, at the expense of a timecode track), but it's as near as dammit for all practical purposes. I spent a happy five minutes shuttling the tape backwards and forwards, in and out of play and wind, before returning to find zero within half a beat of where I had started off. That's good enough.

The second autolocator requirement is a series of position memories. Three are provided here. Counter zero is one, the other two are called MEMO 1 and MEMO 2, sensibly. Zero is reached, in either direction, by pressing RTZ (guess what it stands for), MEMO 1 and 2 by pressing LOC 1 and 2 respectively. The counter readings of either of the Memo points can be seen by pressing the CHECK button. By the way, there are two numerical displays, one for tape position, the other for the most recent autolocate timing used. For instance, if you were at counter position '2001' and wanted to go to MEMO 1, which was at '1066', then the righthand display would flash '1066' at you until the tape got there, and then read a steady figure until you next used an autolocate function.

A particularly handy feature is that if you press PLAY while autolocating, the Tascam 238 will automatically enter play mode as soon as it gets there. No hanging around waiting to press a button. Thankfully, this feature does not also work for Record. That would cause trouble!

Also, the 238 can cycle repeatedly between MEMOS 1 and 2, saving much button pressing during the mix. The counter can also function as a real-time counter - but only in play mode.


As I mentioned earlier, the Tascam 238 has automatic punch-in/out. Anyone who has recorded live musicians will know that some (particularly lead guitarists with complicated solos) will need endless punch-ins to get their performance spot on. If you have to go over the same section 28 times or so, the chances are that, doing it manually, either your brain or your finger will get tired and you will erase something the guitarist would rather have kept. Then you have to talk your way out of the situation! Automated punch-in makes matters a lot more straightforward. You can set the in and out points without mental pressure, then rehearse the punch-in without recording until you are satisfied the time has come to do it for real. Then you can have virtually as many goes at it as you like, the 238 handling the record in/out switching for you. The way it's done is as follows:

With the INSERT button pressed, there are three controls which handle the punch-in process. First, the in and out points have to be set. This is done by pressing RHSL (Rehearsal). When the In point comes up, you press RECORD; when the Out point appears, press PLAY. This sets the in/out points in the 238's memory. Note: (a) that no recording has taken place yet, and (b) that the memories for punch points are completely separate to MEMO 1 and 2.

Once the points are set, the 238 will give about three seconds 'post-roll' then wind itself back to counter zero, ready for a rehearsal. Press PLAY and off it goes. When the In point arrives, the output from the track you are modifying switches from Tape to Input monitor. Three seconds after the Out point has passed, the tape automatically rolls back again. You can rehearse as many times as you like in this way.

To record, press AUTO IN/OUT and PLAY. This will execute the punch. A nice feature is that when the tape automatically rolls back, the 238 readies itself for auditioning. If you don't like the result, press AUTO IN/OUT again and you are set for another go. When all is well, the CLEAR button erases the punch memories and takes you back to normal operation.

To round off my run-through of transport features, the SHUTTLE control comes as something of a novelty. Many recorders have the ability to monitor the tape in fast wind, or rewind modes. The 238 has this feature too, but in a different form to most. You may be familiar with the shuttle control on several types of video recorder, where you can move the tape backwards and forwards at varying speeds while still viewing the picture on the screen. This looks very similar - you have a button to switch the function on and a knob which controls speed and direction. To be honest, I didn't find it too helpful. The sound from the tape going backwards is... well, 'wobbly' seems a good word for it. Forwards is better, but the net effect isn't too brilliant. Certainly not as smooth as the result you get from pushing the tape against the heads on a reel-to-reel machine in fast wind.

Although not part of the Tascam 238 package, in other words an optional extra, the RC88 remote control unit is worthy of mention. All the transport controls, apart from SHUTTLE, are provided - including RECORD READY buttons for each track. Just what you need on a remote. Since the 238 will probably be inconveniently situated in a rack somewhere, the remote is going to be well used. It would have been even better if the counter display had been duplicated too, but you can't have everything.


Now that I've got the exciting bit over, I can proceed to more prosaic matters. The Tascam 238 is an 8-track cassette recorder with an internal autolocator. But regardless of the clever functions it has, it is how well it performs that is of overriding importance.

The level metering is by 12-point LED bargraphs and is fast and precise, as you would wish. Toa's MR8T uses similar meters. The tape speed is 3¾ inches per second. Twice the normal cassette speed, using up a C90 in 21½ minutes. Noise reduction is dbx. Track 8 can have its noise reduction switched off if you intend to use it as a sync code (timecode) track. There is also a switchable filter which cuts frequencies above 7kHz and below 300Hz on this track. This is to reduce the possibility of crosstalk getting into and confusing the sync unit. Overall switching of the dbx function is done by two rear-mounted switches. One cuts the noise reduction on tracks 1-4, the other on tracks 5-8. There are front panel LEDs which indicate noise reduction and sync track status.

Now you know what it does, the question is how well does the 238 perform? I was greatly impressed with the audio performance of the Toa MR8T. In fact, I seem to remember thinking that 8-track on cassette couldn't get any better. Can it?

As far as frequency response and noise performance go, both the Toa and the Tascam are pushing the limits of the possible. I didn't have the opportunity to compare the two machines side-by-side, but I doubt if I would be able to pick a winner between the two. Of course, Line In and Line Out signals don't sound exactly the same - that isn't just impossible, it would be a miracle. I think that both of these machines are as close as anyone is likely to get in the foreseeable future.

One slight problem I did pick out with the Toa was crosstalk. The tape tracks are extremely close, and leakage between adjacent tracks was audible, although not too troublesome. Crosstalk between tracks recorded on tape is audible on the 238 too. I don't have figures for both machines, but I would say that the Tascam is a sniff better. Where the Tascam does improve on Toa's performance is in head crosstalk. That is crosstalk in the record/playback head before the signal gets onto tape.

Suppose, for instance, you wanted to bounce a recording on track 1 onto track 2. It's a situation that often crops up in one form or another. Leakage within the head would cause feedback if you put too much gain in the circuit. Most multitrack recorders - including top professional models - suffer from this, so you have to go carefully when making this risky manoeuvre (how much does a new tweeter cost?). The Toa machine suffers from this problem to an understandable extent. What I was most surprised to find is just how immune to it the Tascam 238 is. I thought I had my wires crossed at first. It does take a lot of doing to provoke feedback on the 238, and I would say that you will probably be able to bounce tracks around pretty freely without trouble. Having said that, if you are going to mix tracks 1 and 3 onto track 2 - the worst possible case - then go easy, won't you?

The other important performance feature is the susceptibility to dropouts. Since each of the eight tracks is little more than a hairline on the tape, this would seem to be a likely cause of trouble. The Toa MR8T I reported to be on a par with my (admittedly well used) Fostex 160 four-tracker. The Tascam is similarly good, although differences between the performance of the edge tracks (1 and 8) and the centre tracks were more noticeable.



  • Frequency response: 30Hz-16kHz +/-3dB
  • Signal to noise: 90dB (with dbx, unweighted, 20Hz-20kHz); 54dB (without dbx, unweighted, 20Hz-20kHz)
  • Total harmonic distortion: <0.8% (400Hz, 0VU)
  • Crosstalk: 70dB (adjacent channels, 1 kHz 0VU, dbx)
  • Erasure: 70dB (1kHz + 10VU)
  • Tape type: TDK SA C90 or equivalent
  • Tape speed: 9.5 cm/s, +/- 0.5%
  • Speed control: +/-12%
  • Wow and flutter: +/- 0.08% peak (IEC weighted)
  • Fast wind time: 70 seconds (approx), C60

I don't think Toa and Tascam will be too worried about clashing head-on with the MR8T and the 238. They are both extremely good 8-track cassette machines.

I assume they have done their market research and found a sizeable number of people with wallets bulging for equipment of this type. I may keep on saying it but you will get a better sound from reel-to-reel (¼" tape, 15 inches per second, etc), but the cassette format has the undeniable advantage of convenience. Many musicians using MIDI oriented set-ups will jump at the chance of having an 8-track they can bung out of the way in a rack.

The choice will be on the contrasting features of the machines rather than on audio performance. With the Toa, it is possible to dip a toe into fairly serious multitrack for a relatively small amount of money (relative to conventional ways of doing it). The Tascam, on the other hand, offers features which will speed up sessions considerably, but does need to be used with a mixer with proper monitoring facilities. Very likely, the decision will make itself. You will know from your own situation which one to go for. Rest assured that you will get very good audio results either way.

Price £1299 inc VAT.

Contact Teac UK Ltd, (Contact Details).


Taking the Toa MR8T as one example, the situation is as follows. On any track, when RECORD READY is off, you hear the signal from the tape in both RECORD and PLAY mode. When RECORD READY is on, you hear the signal from the tape in PLAY, but you hear the input signal in RECORD and in RECORD-PAUSE. The advantage of this is that you can set up recording and monitoring levels in RECORD-PAUSE, go for a take, then listen to the playback of that take without touching the RECORD READY button. The disadvantage is that if you just want to rehearse a take, while monitoring previously recorded tracks, you can only do it by recording those rehearsals. (Actually, the rehearsal can often be better than the take proper, so it is as well to record it!). Depending on the monitoring arrangements of your mixer, this disadvantage may not exist.

The reel-to-reel Tascam 38 (certain production vintages) uses a different method. When the RECORD READY function of a track is on, you hear the input signal to that track regardless of whether you are recording, pausing or playing back. The advantage of this is that you can set recording and monitor levels while rehearsing to tape playback from other tracks. The disadvantage is that after you record a take, you always have to switch off RECORD READY before you can hear what you have just recorded. Seeing as the RECORD READY function was not available on the remote control unit for the 38, I felt this was a big problem. I modified the machine I used to have to get around this.

The Tascam 238 offers the best of both worlds. With the INSERT function on you get the first method, with INSERT off you get the second. Everyone's happy. The table shows the situation graphically:

OFF OFF - Tape Tape
OFF ON Input Input Input Input
ON OFF - Tape Tape -
ON ON Tape Input Input


Can you play a cassette which has been recorded on a Toa MR8T on a Tascam 238? The answer is, well sort of...

Figure 1.

Both these machines use a staggered pair of record/playback heads, as shown in Figure 1. Notice that track 1 is on the righthand head on the Tascam, and on the lefthand head on the Toa. This means that the physical gap between the heads adds up. 6.4mm on the Tascam plus 5.2mm on the Toa. Making a quick calculation, this adds up to a time difference of 122 milliseconds.

Depending on the type of material you are recording, this may or may not be noticeable. For example, if you have a drum track recorded as a stereo pair split across the two heads, you are in big trouble. It will sound dreadful. If you have soft string sounds, however, you may get away with it. (Note that Tascam's heads go 1 2 3 4, 5 6 7 8. Toa's go 1 3 5 7, 2 4 6 8. Another difficulty).

The moral of the story is: When cassette-based 8-track studios open up - as they surely will - do not transfer cassettes between Toa studios and Tascam studios, unless you have a strong spirit of adventure.


The Tascam 238's rear panel carries an RS232C connector for connection to a computer or associated peripheral. Connection to a machine synchroniser would be a useful capability, and indeed Teac UK report that the necessary tach and direction information is output via this port - although there is no synchroniser available that can as yet control the 238. But it can't be long... In fact, Teac are willing to make the necessary data available to interested third parties.

Also featuring gear in this article

Featuring related gear

Previous Article in this issue

Making The Right Connection

Next article in this issue

Intelligent Music

Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...


Sound On Sound - Aug 1988

Gear in this article:

Cassette 6/8-Track > Tascam > 238

Gear Tags:

3¾ ips (9.5cm/s)
8 Track

Review by David Mellor

Previous article in this issue:

> Making The Right Connection

Next article in this issue:

> Intelligent Music

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