It's all very well putting a studio in a box and cutting the price to the quick, but if you end up with a machine that looks, well... 'Amstradian' - it could prove to be a mixed blessing...
Even though multi-track cassette recorders have traditionally represented good value for money (when you see what you get and add up the cost of the individual components), it is important that they preserve the feel of quality about them - particularly when you consider the amount of work they are expected to perform.
Where the 464 Portastudio is concerned, quality definitely seems to have been put high on the agenda. In fact, at the risk of pre-empting those who immediately turn to the concluding paragraph of a review, let me just say Tascam seem to have done their sums and put together a very well-engineered, professional machine.
The restrained grey finish is easy on the eye and nicely complimented by the curves at the back and front. The pushbutton controls all have a positive click action, while the sliders are responsive - if just a might uneven in their travel - and the rotary controls click nicely into their centre detente positions. The knobs themselves feel rather like the erasers you find on the end of pencils - a little slim, but not difficult to use.
A large LCD shows the meter levels, tape counter, record indicators and several other functions which we'll come to presently.
The 464 has a 12-input mixer section. The first four inputs are the main ones and have jack and XLR inputs - but you are warned in the manual not to use both of these at the same time. Each channel has a Trim pot followed by an Input selector which determines where the signal is coming from and where it's going. As well as being able to select Mic/Line or Tape you can also select a third option here which sends the tape signal directly to the left or right Master output - effectively creating a Bus Input. In the conventional way, channels one and three go left and two and four go right.
Next along is a three-band EQ section with a sweep control in the Mid range. The High shelving point is 10kHz, the Low is 100Hz and the Mid range is variable from 250Hz to 5kHz. You can be creative with this if you've a mind to. I generally don't use much EQ (though many's the 'discussion' I've had with pro-EQ friends) but then most of the stuff I record comes direct from an electronic source and I reckon the shaping should take place before it hits the mixer. Audio sources are another furrow of fourier frequencies of course, and it's standard practice to use the EQ to compensate for tracks which have to be bounced - so it's perhaps as well to have the 464's comprehensive facilities there if you need them.
There are two Effects Send controls which receive signals after the channel fader (post fader send) and route it to two Effects Masters. After these comes the Pan pot followed by a fader which feeds the Master fader.
The remaining inputs (jack only) are grouped together in stereo pairs - five and six, seven and eight and so on - but each run through a single signal route. You can also use a mono signal with these which will be fed to both left and right channels. Inputs five and six, and seven and eight, have a slightly simpler signal path compared with the first four inputs. There is no Trim control (the level being nominally set to -10dBv), no Mid EQ (a blank fascia marks the place) and the Pan pots become Balance controls.
The Input switch has three options: Main, Off and Cue. The Main setting sends the signal to the main stereo bus for recording, while Cue sends it to the Cue mix for monitoring. The manual suggests that if you are using sequenced 'virtual tracks' you should use channels 5 to 12 so they can be sent to the Cue without being recorded. This is good advice and makes obvious sense unless you're prone to heavily EQing your sequenced material - which is where my anti-EQ argument, er, discussion comes in again...
There are four Master Cue controls - one for each track - which control the balance between the tracks, plus a Cue Master which adjusts the overall volume in the headphones. Channels 9, 10, 11 and 12 each have a control to vary the level going to the Assign switch which, again, has three positions L-R, Off and Cue. The L-R setting sends the signal direct to the left and right sides of the main stereo mix for recording. There are no EQ, Effects Sends or Pan controls in this section.
The input sockets are all located at the rear of the console but face upwards so you don't have to fiddle around the back of the machine to make connections. On the back panel itself there are two Inserts, two Effect Outs, four Tape Outs, two Line Outs, two Monitor Outs, Cue Out and two sockets labelled 2TR In which provide a route from an external two-track mixdown recorder to the 2TR In switch in the Monitor section.
Also on the back is a dbx On/Off switch, Sync In and Out sockets for connection to a MIDI Sync unit or SMPTE timecode generator, and a Sync On/Off switch which switches out dbx from track four so it can be used for a sync signal. Other sockets include a headphone jack and a remote Punch In/Out jack - both situated just below the front panel.
Recording on the 464 can be done two modes. In Direct mode you hold the Direct switch below the LCD and then press any of the Record (track) buttons from one to four. The selected track(s) will be recorded with the direct output from the corresponding channel. For example, channel one goes to track one, channel two to track two and so on - the recording level being adjusted by the channel fader.
If you don't use Direct mode then tracks one and three will be recorded with the Left mix and tracks two and four with the Right. You can, therefore, record any input channel on any tracks using the pan pots. The recording level is adjusted with the channel and Master faders. The four meters show the level of the respective tracks and the two Monitor meters show the level of the mixes selected by the Monitor switches. There are six of these located just below the Monitor Level control: Left, Right, Effect 1, Effect 2, Cue and 2TR In.
"First generation recordings on the 464 are very good. Anyone using a MIDI sequencer and requiring a couple of acoustic tracks should be able to produce excellent results"
In addition to the usual tape transport buttons and the record select switches, the recording panel is replete with a series of buttons and controls. A real-time tape counter, for example, shows the current tape position in minutes and seconds, while a Reset button changes the counter to '00.00'. In conjunction with this, an RTZ (Return To Zero) button switches the tape to fast wind (in either direction) to the zero point. If Play is pressed after RTZ, the tape will immediately begin playback, whereas if Pause is pressed the tape will stop and enter pause mode.
There are two Locator buttons which load the current location counter position into memory; press Repeat 1-2 and the tape will loop between these two points. This is great for rehearsal and working out additional parts to go with a recording - something you take for granted with a MIDI sequencer.
You can select High or Normal tape speed, though you probably don't need me to tell you that for best results you should use the higher speed whenever possible. The control centre is completed by a large Pitch Control knob should you decide you want to record the school piano. The LCD display advises you as to what buttons you've pressed, what mode the machine is in and generally tells you what is happening at all times. The only omission here is, perhaps, a pitch control indicator, which might have been useful.
Noise is the bane of any multitrack user's life, but all things considered, the 464 acquits itself pretty well in this regard. The mixer is respectably quiet, so most of the noise you're likely to encounter will come from the recording source and the tape. The dbx (Type II) noise reduction helps enormously, of course, and the manual suggests you record at an average of 0dB with a peak of +6dB and use only high bias Type II cassettes.
I know there's a widespread belief that you should get as much signal level onto the tape as possible - and most brands of tape can be severely overdriven without any ill-effect. However, this can lead to the well-documented dbx 'pumping' effect. If you're having this sort of problem, let the noise reduction do the work for you and don't overdrive the tape. After all, that's what it's there for.
Overdubs are easy as you can route any input to any track. It's also easy to record several inputs onto one track and indeed, multiple sources onto two tracks - although there are restrictions here: the mixer section only has two main mixes, so you can only record two tracks at once. But I think that's pretty good going for a multitracker. If you need more sophisticated routings you need to look at a more sophisticated set-up altogether, probably incorporating a separate mixer.
The manual is well-written and informative. It includes a brief Guide section and step-by-step coverage of each operation, while the reference section explains clearly what all the individual controls do. On which subject, the machine is laid out very logically and even the relative newcomer to recording should be able to get to grips with it fairly painlessly. The main thing to understand is how the inputs are routed, but a few minutes with the manual and a little experimentation should soon sort that out.
Just about the only niggle is the cassette cover, which looks as though it should come off to give you better access to the heads for cleaning - but doesn't. Still, cotton buds are flexible, I suppose, and the unit actually has a 'Clean' mode which brings the heads forward and rotates the capstan.
First generation recordings on the 464 are very good. Anyone using a MIDI sequencer and requiring a couple of acoustic tracks should be able to produce excellent results. Inevitably, any bouncing will involve a loss of sound quality, but the 464 handles bounces as well as any multitrack in its price range. Even after a number of bounces the results were still acceptable - though if you expect to do a lot of third-generation work, I think you should seriously consider whether a four-track recording is the right format to be working with.
If you decide it is, the Tascam 464 is a worthy machine and should prove an excellent workhorse for the small recording set-up. It certainly makes a welcome change from those machines which suffer from multi-function button syndrome, and has all the features, inputs and routings that most users are ever likely to require. Full marks for user-friendliness, too.
Of course, the most important decision you have to make in these recessionary times, is whether or not it lies within your price range. There are, of course, machines on the market significantly cheaper than the 464. But if you do decide you can afford something more than a budget model, I can only say that the 464 represents excellent value for money and a considerable step up from 'entry level' multitrackers. This shows in the quality of the build, the thoughtfulness of the layout and design and, perhaps most importantly, in the quality of the recordings it can produce.
Like many better quality multitrackers, the Tascam 464 features an Auto Drop-In function. Set a track to record, cue the tape a little before the section where you want to punch in, press Rehearsal then Play. When you reach the point at which you want to punch in press Record, when you reach the point at which you want punch out, press Play. The tape will rewind to the start point. Having entered the punch in and out points, if you now press Play the machine will drop you in and out at these positions and switch the monitor from tape to 'live' correspondingly.