Tascam 244 Portastudio
Gary Cooper records his verdict
There was a time when anyone predicting that the standard Philips cassette would one day be capable of offering sufficient audio quality for multi-track recording would have been laughed at. Since May 1980, though, the joke has very much been on the side of Japanese tape recorder makers Teac, because it was then that they launched the World's first four track cassette machine, the Teac/Tascam 144.
Prior to the 144, anyone wanting to use multi-track recording for their songwriting, demo recording or just playing around on had either to stick to a twin track machine, work in mono and bounce tracks down (not always very good from a technical point of view unless working with a good semi-pro machine like a Revox) or go to a full reel to reel four track or beyond — with all the complications of setting up and use which that implies.
The whole advantage of the 144 was that it enabled a standard cassette (albeit running at twice normal speed) to be used. In short it was simple, convenient and the sound quality, frankly, startlingly good.
Reputedly, the Teac 144 clocked up sales of around £2,000,000 for its suppliers Harman U.K. — a massive figure and a testament to just how useful musicians were finding these recorders.
Now Harman have launched an updated model of the 144 and have logically dubbed it the 244. I managed to scrounge an early sample from Harman's perennially helpful staff and got so engrossed in trying it that you very nearly ended up reading this report next month. But that's another story! Change for change's sake is never a good thing and the 244's updates offer more than enough advances over the 144 to make it a very worthwhile exercise. But rather than run through the differences, I'll assume that readers who already own, or have used, a 144 know how it works and what it can do and so I'll treat this review as if you'd never used either machine before — you'll spot the changes for yourself.
Larger than a normal cassette recorder, but smaller than a video, the 244 lies flat on its back and presents an attractive face (no laughs at the back there, please!). The four meters at the top of the 244 are illuminated according to function and are both large and clear. Beneath each are your input channel modules firstly offering a three way selection by switch of 'mic/line', 'off' or 'tape'. Beneath these are the 'trim' pots (a basic gain control to match with the very wide ranging level of inputs the machine will take).
Two semi-parametric equalisers come next, a major new facility offered by the 244. Parametrics are all the rage with manufacturers these days and they are certainly very much more flexible than the old treble and bass controls which they have recently replaced. These offer cut and boost factors of ± 15dB from 62Hz to 1.5Hz and 1 KHz to 8 KHz.
Next down are gain/pan dual concentric pots for 'aux' complete with function select switching and finally a channel pan pot and slider fader.
In addition to these four channels there is a fourth section offering monitor function, buss monitor level, record function with switching to four track or individual track record, one to four, aux receive and a single master left and right fader.
Tape cue control is on the extreme right hand of the 244 offering level and pan of the previously recorded tracks for foldback whilst you overdub.
On the mechanical side, the Tascam features full 'logic' tape transport control and variable pitch of plus or minus 15% from the machine's normal rate of 3¾ ips. A digital tape counter is supplied with a 'return to zero' electronic button to enable consistent rewinding to a given point.
"THE MACHINE IS EASY TO USE AND VERY FLEXIBLE INDEED, EVEN FOR COMPLETE BEGINNERS."
To actually use the 244 there are two very distinct approaches. The first is to read carefully through the splendid instruction book which comes with the machine — the second is to fail to control your excitement and just flick to the back of the book for the simple 'how to do it' bits. Teac have catered for both methods here and, in consequence, have produced a book which, following on from The Multitrack Primer Book they produced several years ago, is a triumph of explaining complex ideas simply. The makers know that this will probably be the first time their customers have used any studio type language or had to comprehend some of the very tricky ideas which must eventually be assimilated by the user if he or she is ever to be able to get full benefit from the Teac. So, for those who need it (and that included me, in places I'll admit) the early part of the book explains a great deal of the studio and electronics jargon which hitherto most of us have probably used without understanding what it all means.
Despite their valiant efforts, certain subjects covered are very hard to grasp but the colloquial and chatty writing style helps.
The end pages of the book, however, get you right down to the basics with a 'first you push this button' approach which anyone should be able to follow. Moral? Don't be put off by what only appears to be so complex on the 244 — it's really very easy to operate.
From the user's point of view just about every possibility of making errors (which at their worst could cost you several days' work by wiping previous takes) have been covered by arranging all record functions to be governed by one switch which isolates everything on record when switched to the centre, 'safe', position. The danger of wiping previous tracks is there, however, if this isn't done as the 244 will record across four tracks in one pass — a 'plus' in so far as it enables 4-channel discrete recordings to be made or straight four track copies. I'm honestly not sure how many users would ever employ these two facilities though, and their provision has made it possible to wipe everything in one mistaken pass. The makers have, however, arranged things so that the moment you hit 'record' a red LED flashes, and the Tascam virtually screams out at you with flashes if you engage full 4 channel record. You'd have to be pretty sleepy to make a mistake.
The new Eq section also works well, enabling a very wide range of sounds to be set up during re-mix to your separate two-track machine (obviously, you cannot mix from the 244 to itself, you need another machine to mix down onto) and I found the flexibility of input sensitivities (which enabled many different mike types and line sources to be tried) plus the chance to equalise during recording and later on when mixing down, was very impressive indeed. Obviously, an outboard mixer or equaliser might be useful but it is by no means necessary as the new two stage semi-parametrics do a thorough job.
In fact my only complaint about the whole Eq stage is that the frequency half of the pot isn't either pointed or detented. If it was then it would be easier to quickly find 'flat' settings. The same goes for the pan pots too which have no centre detent.
As I've said, however, the 244 is a piece of cake to use. Basically, all you do is insert a mike or instrument lead, set the level, assign which track you want to record, equalise it if required and away you go. Overdubbing uses headphones and you can set a good level in the cans of both your 'live' and previous track(s) to help you on your way.
If four tracks are enough then, fine, you can switch each track to 'tape' and use the same previous 'input' channels as 'outs' to mix down to a stereo machine. If you want more than four tracks then you can simply mix down three of the 244's tracks to one and carry on overdubbing till the bouncing down reduces your sound quality too much for comfort.
On the question of sound quality, two factors emerged. The machine (which is a highly sophisticated piece of technology in anyone's terms) comes set for Maxell UD XLII or TDK SA tapes. There is no provision for metal tapes nor is the bias current user variable to accomodate some of the newer types of 'super' tapes. This is quite remarkable since both these standard 'pseudo-chrome' tapes (70 microsecond types) are old formulations by now and have been bettered by their makers since introduction. As the Tascam is using cassette technology at the limit I fail to see why it doesn't make use of some of the newer and better tapes.
"OBVIOUSLY, AN OUTBOARD MIXER OR EQUALISER MIGHT BE USEFUL BUT IT IS BY NO MEANS NECESSARY AS THE NEW TWO STAGE SEMI-PARAMETRICS DO A THOROUGH JOB."
We tried the superb new Maxell UDXLIIS, Sony UCX-S plus, of course, TDK SA-X. They all worked well, but who knows how much better results could have been obtained had we been able to set the machine specifically for them? Nonetheless all three 'super tapes' worked well enough as did the two recommended types, — in fact there wasn't much to choose between any of them, which perhaps means that it all gets lost in the overall mix?
The next feeling to emerge was that the built-in DBX noise reduction system works very well indeed. On normal two track cassettes I think I have a slight preference for Dolby 'C', somehow it's less mechanical and seems to control tape hiss marginally better. However, Teac's use of DBX (which is automatically encoded and decoded as your record with no optional switch-out) is very good indeed. Only on fast transients could one hear DBX 'breathing' sounds and the tape hiss was very well controlled.
So, any cribs? Well, about the only other thing I could have asked for would have been a more accurate tape counter. The 'return to zero' function is pretty accurate but it isn't 100% exact over long rewinds, as Teac admit in their brochure.
Some people have complained that all the connections are still on the back of the 244. They feel that this makes for a lot of unnecessary fiddling about with patches and inputs. I honestly can't say that it bothered me at all.
Verdict? Well, the new Tascam 244 is quite obviously the king of four track cassette machines and after just a few hours use I was getting results off my sample of a technical quality that I wouldn't have believed possible. The machine is easy to use and very flexible indeed, even for complete beginners.
Having now used one I can't imagine how I could live without one (although I'm going to have to!) as its uses in rehearsing and songwriting are so many that I feel I haven't even begun to explore them yet. Everything on my sample worked perfectly and the overall design, layout, ability and sheer 'feel' of the machine makes it one of the most absorbing pieces of equipment I have ever used. If you can manage to put you hands on £600 then invest it in one of these Tascam 244's — what it'll do for your music is amazing and it'll teach you a great deal about basic recording which will stand you in good stead if you ever advance to full professional studios.
I'd say the 244 is little short of brilliant (not withstanding a tiny handful of oddities) and worth every penny of the price.
Ten out of ten on this one, Tascam!
One thing to come out of our tests on the Tascam 244 was the need for good ancillary equipment. You'll need two (at least) good pairs of headphones. We used AKG K340 Electrostatics as the best we know and also AKG K240's as a good, cheaper option. However, good though such cans are, you'll probably eventually agree with us that mixing can only really be effectively achieved with monitor speakers. We used JBL 4311's driven by a Sony pre-amp and our reference HH V 500 MOS FET power amp. Mastering was onto the Alpage AL80 cassette machine using Dolby C noise reduction on TDK MA-R metal tape.
You don't have to use equipment costing this sort of money but we did feel that the improved results paid off. Worth bearing in mind is that this sort of stuff helps with the 244 — with it we were getting tremendous results. Without, we still feel they'd be good so don't despair if you cannot immediately get high priced extras. On its own the 244 is still a superb machine. Teamed-up with this sort of stuff it's amazing.