Eight-track cassette recorder
The four-track cassette recorder revolutionised home recording and significantly changed the recording industry; will the eight-track cassette have a similar effect? Vic Lennard goes on record.
The cassette recorder has come a long way from being a poor alternative to the domestic reel-to-reel tape deck - enter serious eight-track recording on cassette.
DO YOU REMEMBER the Tascam 144, the first of the Portastudios? I have very fond memories of it because I owned one for nearly three years, during which time it was absolutely thrashed. True, it didn't have direct outputs from each channel, the busses were all mono and the noise reduction being Dolby B meant that more than one bounce led to noise akin to a TV set left on at three o'clock in the morning (no, not ITV!). The overall quality was certainly poor by today's standards, but it exuded that magical quality whereby you could be writer, artist, engineer and producer all at once - in your own living room. The simplicity of the machine meant that it really was the perfect "ideas" vehicle.
Back in the days of the Juno 6 and Soundmaster SR88 drum machine (remember them?), limited quality was relatively unimportant, but as technology stepped forward, so did the humble Portastudio, evolving into the 244 and then into the 246, during which time many other companies decided that they also wanted a slice of the pie. The situation became such that record company A&R Personnel began to expect at least a high-quality 8-track demo before they would even slot it into their Walkmen.
Fostex, via the A8/A80/M80 and E8 have gone down the 8-track on 1/4" open-reel road with progressive machine upratings, but the immediacy of a similar rackmounted cassette machine has evaded us until now - enter the Tascam 238.
WHAT WE HAVE here is an 8-track machine recording at double speed (9.5 cm/sec) onto a standard chrome cassette. It takes up 4U of racking space and due to the sparseness of the rear panel, rack mounting this machine is certainly a viable proposition. The audio inputs and outputs are on phone sockets and will need to be run into a mixing desk at the semiprofessional level of -10dBm.
Noise reduction is dbx and is switchable on the rear panel so that tracks 1-4 and/or 5-8 can be exempted from the process. In addition, you can remove the noise reduction solely from track 8 for recording a sync code. This facility is accompanied by a separate level control and filter for track 8, which bandpasses outside of 300Hz to 7kHz, so reducing the effects of bleed-through from either the adjacent track or extraneous noise to a minimum. Anyone who has tried to record a sync code onto a B16 without going via a mixing desk will appreciate just how important this independent sync level control is as well as the switchable dbx.
The front panel is made up of three parts; the meter section on the right-hand side which has eight level meters of the 12-segment variety ranging from -20dB up to +8dB with a record ready/safe button at the base of each; the recorder section on the left with the usual controls one would expect to find on a cassette machine along with tape speed and pitch control, and the guts of the 238 in the centre - memory and punch in/out functions.
STRAIGHTFORWARD RECORDING IS very simple. First of all, set the recording level by pushing in the relevant Record Ready button below the meter of the track that recording is about to take place on, and set the input so that the meter peaks at about +3dB. The manual actually recommends a peak of 0dB, but I found that the signal-to-noise ratio was improved by putting that little bit more signal onto tape. Level set, zero the main counter by pressing Reset and press the Record and Play buttons together. Record the part, press Stop, followed by RTZ (Return to Zero) and the tape will wind its merry way back to the start. Set the track to Record Safety and play back.
Overdubbing is equally easy. Following the previous procedure will allow the first track to be monitored while the overdub is recorded.
"You have the option of removing the 238's noise reduction solely from track 8 for recording a sync code."
And if a mistake is made it's a punch-in job (or should that be punch-in Judy?) which is achieved by selecting Insert, allowing the tape to be monitored up to the point at which the Record button is pressed and the input afterwards. There is a footswitch socket on the back specifically to kick the record function in while playing in Record Ready mode.
ONE OF THE most tiring situations possible is when a recorder has an inaccurate counter, especially when the machine also has memories. Set a memory, rehearse the part, and rewind only to find that you're not where you thought you were - a a situation which can lead to absolute despair when you are always ahead of where you want to be.
The original 144 had the most abysmal counter imaginable and Tascam's track record for accuracy in this respect is not exactly renowned. However, they do appear to have got it right in this case, because it's very difficult to knock the main counter out of position even after fast-forwarding and pressing RTZ two or three dozen times. At most, I found that I was out by perhaps an eighth of a second at this point, which is pretty impressive.
This leads us into what is probably the most useful function on the 238; Rehearsal mode. This permits you to set up the punch-in and punch-out points which will then automatically open and close when the machine is run in Record mode. What's more, it will also allow dry runs of this situation by switching the monitoring from tape to input at the punch-in point and then back to tape after the track has been punched out. Of course, an inaccurate counter would make this process fit for the dustbin, so how well does it work?
Let's go through the motions; set the required track to Record Ready and press the insert button for the same reason as before, namely to monitor tape in Play mode and input in Record. Hit Play and the memory window will show STA XXX - the start of the pre-roll position - which then changes to IN XXX when Record is pressed at the required punch-in point. At the end of the section, press Play again and the window changes to OUT XXX, continues to postroll for a few seconds and then rewinds to the start point at which time the outputs are muted so that the first sound you hear is the music at the pre-roll start point.
The power of this is difficult to appreciate without actually seeing it in operation. Check that Rehearsal mode is still selected - it should be flashing - press Play and the 238 does the rest, playing what is already on tape until the punch-in, at which point it automatically switches to input and stays that way until the punch-out where the monitoring changes back to tape and at all times, the memory window shows the counter setting the tape is heading for. Hit Stop, Play or Rewind and the 238 will automatically rewind itself to the pre-roll point. Innovative, to say the least, indispensable once used and accurate due to the design of the motors and counters which could only be improved upon if they were locked to tape by a SMPTE code or the like.
Incidentally, the main counter can be run in either number of revolutions or in TRT (Tape Run Time) mode; the former is always chosen when memories/locators are in use.
The next step is actually recording instead of rehearsing which is simply executed by selecting Auto in/out, which goes through the above motions but enters Record instead of staying in Record Ready mode.
"After heavy use, I found the 238's tape counter was out by perhaps an eighth of a second, which is pretty impressive."
If Rehearsal mode is in use, then memories 1 and 2 are disabled but can be used separately. Exit rehearsal by pressing Clear, set the tape in motion and hit memory 1 when appropriate - the window will show a copy of the main counter at this point. Stop the tape and press Loc1, and the machine will automatically find the spot at which 1 was pressed. Memory 2 works in precisely the same manner, giving 2 fully independent memory locators. The Loc1 and 2 controls have a slightly odd effect in that they wind the tape past the memory location and then run accurately into position - well, within 1 digit of the main counter. Pressing Check will read off the two memory locations in turn and Repeat 1-2 will shuttle between the two locators, allowing for a part to be rehearsed without actually entering rehearsal mode.
Another nice touch is that the locators always read from the initial start value at which they are set and will automatically adjust themselves if Reset is pressed.
The final function in this section is Shuttle, which consists of a rotary control and an on/off switch. It attempts to emulate the feeling of running the tape against the playback head which can be obtained on a reel-to-reel recorder but not on a cassette recorder. To this end it works in that it does allow you to gently rock the tape back and forth for the setting of locator points, but I would certainly not advise over-use of this function as it does not have the same kind of sound quality expected from reels at high speed it becomes difficult to hear the end of a track due to the screaming - and it will most certainly put paid to playback heads pronto.
HAVING MADE MENTION of this a couple of times already, let's have a closer look at how the 238 functions.
The performance of the Fostex B16 and Tascam 38 on punching into record mode is entirely different. The B16 monitors off tape up until the point where the punch-in is executed, either by footswitch or front panel button or indeed by boxing glove, at which time it switches to monitoring the input. After punch-out, monitoring changes back to tape. This is the same as the Insert function on the 238.
Once in Record Ready mode, the Tascam 38 allows only the input to be heard, which usually leads to the technique of pressing Record and Play and then entering recording state by pressing in the Record Ready button of the track on which recording is desired. This is the equivalent of not using Insert on the 238.
IF THE 238 is to be racked out of the way, then a remote control is a necessity. However, the RC88 fails to provide the most important feature of being able to tell you exactly what its doing - no LEDs except for Play, Record and Pause. While all of the recorder and central panel functions exist - laid out in the same order - the lack of actively being able to show which function is selected or which track is being recorded onto is a real drawback. I hope that Tascam will find it in their infinite wisdom to offer a slightly more expensive unit that really does the biz.
THE REAR PANEL of the 238 has an RS232 socket for directly interfacing with computers and, by all accounts, it appears that all necessary information is accessible from this socket, All that is required is for a third party to write the relevant software and this machine will control the computer by a sync code on tape so allowing for an accuracy of timing unobtainable otherwise. Come on you software developers.
"Rehearsal mode permits you to set up the punch in and out points which automatically open and close when the machine is run in Record mode."
I HAD THE pleasure of using the 238 through a weekend of sessions during which time I tried many of the situations that I have found to cause problems in the past.
Firstly, sonic quality. Pretty damn good for cassette, but an audible top end loss does occur which those using multitracks with Dolby C will rarely notice as that particular noise reduction does tend to add a "sheen" to the top which dbx doesn't. Nevertheless, judicious use of the EQ controls soon rectifies this acceptably.
Secondly, bouncing tracks. From the head format diagram you will see that Tascam use a split-head design with tracks 1-4 on the right-hand side and 5-8 on the left which invites two conclusions: don't bounce onto an adjacent track due to the internal feedback which can be caused, and bounce from tracks 1-4 onto 5-8. The reason for this is that the material will have effectively passed the head onto which the recording is being made due to the inherent time delays, small though they may be. Following this methodology, reasonable results were obtained, although the levels were quite critical - too low, and noise or the effect of dbx could be heard, and too high led to feedback.
The differences between edge tracks and centre tracks were again noticeable, although bearing in mind that the audio tracks on tape are only 0.25 millimetres wide and that the edge track is only 0.05 millimetres from the edge of the tape, the results are stunning. I also found that the results depended greatly on the quality of the tape used and having been sold on "Thats" for some years now, I was quite happy to be using their chrome EMX6O cassette, which has a performance practically up to the metal standards of other manufacturers.
All recorder manufacturers state their claims for the crosstalk figures (the amount of bleedthrough from one track to that adjacent to it) which are invariably based on a constant tone test which has no relevance at all in a musical sense, but here I was surprised, because unless I need a hearing test the results were better than on my B16. I could actually hear less of, say, track 3 when monitoring on an empty track 2 than I had become accustomed to, due in no small part to the split head design and the actual distance between audio tracks on tape.
Following on from the above, it came as no surprise when I recorded a SMPTE code onto track 8 at -3dB and 16th hi-hats onto track 7 at +5dB (just about the worst possible scenario) and found that the code continued on its merry way without being affected by its neighbour. Impressive.
Finally, how long does it take for the 238 to mechanically drop in and out? I found it to be perhaps slightly slower than my B16 and this can cause problems when setting up the locators for punching in and out. I didn't find it to be too much of a hassle and I tended to set them prematurely to take this delay into account.
WHAT CAN YOU compare the Tascam 238 with? For absolute sonic quality, it is on a par with absolutely any 4 track machine, though not quite up to the 1/4" standard, while price-wise it's cheaper than the E8 and offers far superior facilities in terms of automatic drop-ins/outs and the rehearsal mode. It also has the ability to be placed out of harm's way in a rack - most studios have their multitrack as a centrepiece, and not through choice.
It cannot be categorised as an ideas machine because a mixing desk is essential - and all the problems that can generally lead to - but it is easy to use, and more to the point, easy to use well, as none of the functions will need more than one good read through a well-laid out and coherent manual.
If you are in the market for a relatively inexpensive 8-track with good facilities, acceptable audio quality and a high degree of user friendliness, I would recommend that you try this machine out - although personally I would want a better remote control.
Price: Tascam 238, £1299 including VAT
Review by Vic Lennard
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