Can't quite stretch your budget to a 688 MIDIStudio? Richard Aaron checks out Tascam's appealingly priced new 8-track portastudio.
At a time when even quite basic studios are likely to use digital processing equipment, samplers, and DAT mastering machines, the inherent ceiling on cassette sound quality will always make it the weak link in the chain — the one area in which you cannot achieve results comparable to the professionals. Having said that, when confronted by machines like the new 488 Portastudio from Tascam, which offers 8-track recording and up to 12 input channels (and a price tag approaching £1000), you are forced to conclude that this is the kind of machine which is likely to end up in the hands of people who take their recording pretty seriously.
Of course, it wasn't so long ago that most people would have found the idea of eight tracks on 1/8" cassette tape anything but serious. And indeed, when looking at specifications, it is as well to remind ourselves just what is involved here: after subtracting the safety margins between tracks, we are left with a tape width of little more than 0.25mm per track. Little wonder the tape needs to run at twice normal speed, and that good quality blank cassettes are recommended. At these tolerances, the construction of the cassette mechanism is of equal importance to the tape itself.
That Tascam have managed to squeeze a 14kHz bandwidth and a 90dB signal-to-noise ratio out of this format has to be regarded as a major engineering achievement. That they have also been able to keep crosstalk between adjacent channels down to 70dB is almost miraculous. It seems you can enjoy the benefits of working with eight tracks and have the convenience of cassettes without paying too high a price in terms of loss of quality.
This, in a nutshell, is a case for at least considering the 8-track cassette format. But of course, it is still a fairly restricted market: even now, there are only a handful of machines boasting more than four tracks. Of these, Tascam's own mighty 688 MIDIstudio could be said to have set the standard, with its breathtaking range of features and a sound quality which rivals popular 1/4" machines. Price is the only factor limiting its popularity; at over £2,000 it's hardly a mass market item. Clearly, there is an opening for a machine which offers eight tracks but with fewer facilities, at a considerably lower price. A machine like the 488...
Physically, the 488 doesn't stray too far from standard Portastudio design, though by necessity it is considerably larger than most of its 4-track brethren. With its beige/brown livery I think it's fair to say it has the sort of looks which make it stand out from the crowd — though not, I have to add, for any of the right reasons. Put bluntly, it looks rather plasticky. Light coloured plastics almost always do.
Still, looks aren't everything, and there can be no doubt that in terms of construction, the 488 is everything one might reasonably expect from a manufacturer of Tascam's standing. Well thought out and ergonomically successful, its layout belies the inevitable compactness of Portastudio design. All rotary controls are colour-coded for ease of use and, wherever necessary, carry detents at their midway position. Channel faders — scaled from 1-10 — are smooth in operation with a generous amount of travel, marked with a shaded area at their optimum (75%) settings. The Master faders, used to adjust levels from the four group outs or (on mixdown) stereo left/right output signals, are given an extra couple of centimetres of travel for more accurate control of fade-outs etc.
The conventional rear panel is replaced on the 488 by a rather dramatic curved section, which carries all the connection hardware and forms a recessed jackfield for the channel inputs where it meets the top panel. Like the effects send sockets, these are standard 1/4" — though the last two are actually stereo inputs which feed two special channels of the mixer (more on this later). Mirroring the Master faders, the sockets for two of the four group outs double as outputs from the main stereo bus when mixing down, and utilise RCA phonos. The sync phono in/out sockets are used (along with a slide switch) to direct a sync code to track 8 of the tape without going through one of the mixer channels. This prevents the signal being corrupted by the EQ controls or possibly leaking through to any of the audio signals. It also, I presume, disconnects the dbx circuitry from track 8, though this isn't specifically mentioned in the manual.
There are three types of input channels on the 488 — mic/line (1 & 2), line only (3-8) and stereo line (9/10 & 11/12). Channels 1 and 2 differ only inasmuch as they will accept mic as well as line level signals and consequently are fitted with an input Trim control. In all other respects, the complement of controls matches those of channels 3 to 8. The first of these is an Input Assign switch which determines whether signals go through the mixer channel or are routed to the Master faders (channels 1 to 4) or the Cue Master control (channels 5 to 8). Beneath them is the Tape control which receives its input from the corresponding tape track and allows you to route it (by a continuously variable amount) to the mixer channel and/or the Cue section for monitoring during overdubs etc.
The EQ section comprises only two controls — low and high — offering 12dB of cut and boost at 100Hz and 10kHz respectively. A disappointment, no doubt, for those involved in live recording where a mid-frequency control can be so useful in reducing 'boxiness' in certain environments, but given the inclusion of programmable EQ sections in many effects processors these days, not perhaps the omission it might once have been. On the subject of processors, the 488 features two effect sends which receive their signals (post-fade) from the Effects control just below the EQ section. This is an either/or arrangement: the centre-off control sends signals either to Effect 1 (when turned anti-clockwise) or to Effect 2 (when turned clockwise). You cannot send simultaneous signals to both from any single mixer channel.
It should also be mentioned that there are no specific effect returns. Instead, the designers of the 488 have decided to make the return inputs into bona fide mixer channels — 9/10 and 11/12 — hence the stereo sockets I spoke of earlier. I say bona fide, but whilst it may be possible to use these for additional inputs, they are not equipped with any of the controls of the main mixer channels and sport only a pair of Assign switches and Level controls to route signals through to the group master section. Thanks to a clever arrangement of the sockets, however, you have a range of input options to maximise the potential of these channels. They can, for example, each accept stereo signals via stereo leads wired to the ring and tip of the jacks. On the other hand, using two mono jacks, you can treat the two channels as a single stereo pair with the left signal going to channel 9/10 and the right to channel 11/12. Alternatively, a mono signal connected to channel 9/10 can be sent to all four groups simultaneously.
But to return to the main mixer channels: here too, you will find a pair of Assign switches to direct signals (via the Master faders) to the group outputs which feed the four tracks on which the 488 can record at any one time. Alternatively, during mixdown, signals may be routed through to the main stereo pair in conjunction with the Pan controls immediately above them.
In addition to the Master level faders, a pair of Master Send controls may be used to adjust overall output level of the effects send signals, and Master Cue determines the overall level of signals arriving from the Cue side of the Tape controls at the top of each mixer channel. This, of course, is for monitoring purposes and is only one of a number of monitoring options which are offered. Before mentioning the others, I should make it clear that the sole means of monitoring on the 488 is via headphones. No provision is made for monitoring through an external amp and speaker system — as you may have guessed from the absence of any sockets on the rear panel. This is rather annoying, especially as a signal at the right sort of level must be present at the input of the internal headphone amplifier — it would only have needed a couple of extra phono sockets to make it available for monitoring.
Whilst I accept the need to make economies, particularly where the psychologically important figure of £1000 may be exceeded, this borders on penny pinching. More than that, it represents a serious restriction on the kind of recording situations in which the 488 could be used. How on earth are two or more musicians supposed to monitor a backing track when overdubbing? It would have been more forgivable had there been at least a pair of phones sockets, but the recessed front panel carries only one. Surely Tascam could have assumed that people buying an 8-track machine would be likely to be involved in recording other musicians at some stage? Apparently not. So unless you're capable of knocking up some kind of attenuator for the phones output (which takes account of the low output impedance), I suspect this is destined to be something of a personal 8-track.
Restrictions aside, the monitor section comprises five push buttons — four for each of the group outs and one for the Cue mix — and these can be selected individually or in combination. The Cue mix itself is best regarded as independent of the main mix, set up using both individual and master controls. As the manual points out, if you don't use it for monitoring it is all too easy to accidentally bounce tracks each time you record new material.
The cassette loading mechanism of the 488 follows the design of a number of recent Tascam machines (including the 688), and is distinguished by its simplicity. No loading carriage, no eject button, and a straightforward press to open, press to close lid. There's enough room for fingers to insert and remove a cassette, and there's plenty of space to let you clean heads and tape guides — which the manual recommends you do every six hours playing time. Incidentally, like most cassette multitrackers these days, the deck is set up for high bias type II tapes only, which it plays at at 9.5cm/sec, double the standard cassette speed.
The transport buttons, as you might expect, are all light-touch logic controlled switches, sensibly placed along the bottom right hand side of the front panel. The fast forward and rewind controls do not include cueing/shuttle functions, but there is a Pitch control which offers a useful 12% variation in either direction.
Entering record mode requires, in addition to pressing Record and Play, the selection of the relevant Record Function (ie. group/track) buttons. The Record LED remains flashing until one or more of these are pressed. Track assignments across the four groups are fixed in the order 1 & 5, 2 & 6, 3 & 7 and 4 & 8 — and you cannot record on both tracks in a group at the same time.
You can also enter record mode whilst Play is selected. This allows punching in and out and, again, requires the selection of the appropriate Record Function button(s). If you don't happen to have a hand free, a socket (next to the Phones jack on the recessed front panel) allows the connection of an optional foot switch — pressing once drops you into record, pressing again drops you out. Whichever method you use, punch in/outs on the 488 are virtually noise free, though as on all machines, you need to choose the right moment. Many of what people interpret as clicks during punch ins are actually no more than notes being cut off at an inopportune point in their decay cycle.
To assist you in deciding on the right moment to punch in and out, and to allow you to practise whatever it is you intend dropping in between these points, the 488 offers a rehearsal function, selected by one of the small push buttons just above the pitch control. It works by muting the track you wish to drop in on when the footswitch is pressed, and unmuting it when the footswitch is pressed again.
During the punch in you can monitor your performance over the phones, and check signal levels using the Monitor meters. These are found, along with a further eight meters for the tape tracks, within the main LCD panel just above the Record Function buttons. They are of the familiar ladder type, and are quite responsive and easy to read thanks to a peak hold facility which preserves signal peaks on screen for a couple of seconds as an aid to setting up. They share LCD space with a 4-digit tape counter, a dbx on/off indicator (this is a global function — the switch is on the rear panel), the Rehearsal mode indicator, and Memory and Repeat Play indicators.
Mention of these will no doubt have alerted you to the fact that there is an auto-locate function on the 488. Two locator points can be memorised and recalled, and there's also an RTZ (return to zero) function. This will fast wind the tape in either direction to the 0000 position, and if you press Play (or Pause) after RTZ, the 488 will automatically enter play (or pause) mode when it reaches zero, but this has to be repeated on each occasion, so in that sense it is not fully automatic.
If you require a true 'no-hands' autoplay function, you can set up a playback loop between the two locator points. After reaching locator point 2, the tape rewinds to point 1 and automatically switches to play. The locator points themselves are set up with the tape counter and unless reprogrammed, are memorised until the cassette is removed or the power switched off. If you press the Counter Reset button, the 488 automatically recalculates the locator points relative to their original positions, allowing you to continue as before.
Despite the fact that Portastudios frequently end up in the hands of beginners to art of recording, their internal routing systems are often quite complex, and take a lot of getting to know. Not so, the 488. In use, it turned out to be just about the most straightforward and intuitive machine I've yet encountered. On no occasion did I find myself scratching my head wondering what had happened to a particular signal or kicking myself for having recorded over something I wanted to keep. With up to 12 inputs, eight tracks, and two effects to worry about, that's no mean feat.
More importantly, I had no trouble whatsoever producing 8-track recordings of quite excellent quality. The dbx circuitry seemed well on top of the job as far as tape hiss was concerned, and unlike some machines, wasn't having its work undermined by noise emanating from the mixer. As promised by the specifications, crosstalk presented no problems either, though you have to be prepared to give the 488 a helping hand by using only the best possible tape and avoiding cassettes which have been previously recorded on — especially on other machines. You need to be pretty conscientious about head care too (remember that 0.25mm track width). Regular cleaning and degaussing is essential with 8-track cassette heads.
As far as the mixer is concerned, only having two mic level inputs could be a problem, particularly if you do a lot of live recording. And taking the machine into a commercial studio to add extra tracks would be difficult too; there are no tape out sockets, so you can't use the recorder section of the 488 with an external mixer. However, I did like the way in which the Tape control on each mixer channel acts as a combined assignment and level control for signals coming off tape. It makes cueing for overdubs very easy, and of course gives you the opportunity to add a further eight instruments during mixdown. These will be subject to the same effects and EQ settings as the signals coming from tape, but with a little care in choosing which instruments are paired with which tracks, this shouldn't prove too much of a drawback.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the effects send arrangement which, like the monitoring system, seems to have been compromised at very little cost saving. I cannot believe that the inclusion of a dual control would have added much to the price. Yet without it (or some similar arrangment) adding a touch of reverb to an instrument as well as its main effect, delay perhaps, is almost impossible — unless you have a multi-effects unit. And in that case, other instruments requiring reverb would end up with delay as well. Insert points would have made it less of a problem, but these are not included either. Your only recourse would be to use an effect units which can be placed in line with the signal, though this would prevent its use with more than one instrument at a time.
Whilst arguably less easily remedied at the design stage, the absence of effects on the monitor mix is also rather restrictive. It's not so much a problem with treatments like reverb, but a keyboard part which makes use of a dramatic echo effect could prove very difficult to play 'dry' over the cans. Once again you'd have to start thinking about placing the processor in line with the instrument, and simply resign yourself to the rewiring that would involve.
Now I know it could be argued that Portastudios and multi-trackers were never intended to be the last word in versatility; and there's no doubt that most problems of this kind can actually be overcome with a little lateral thinking. But manufacturers often seem to forget that machines like this are used simply as mixing desks for the greater part of their lives, so it's as important to make them versatile enough to cope with the demands of writing and arranging music as it is to ensure they perform well as recording systems.
As far as the 488 is concerned, I think it's fair to say I initially allowed its technically impressive performance as an 8-track recorder to colour my perception of what to expect from it as a self-contained recording package. Inevitably, I was a little disappointed in those areas I have outlined. The fact remains, however, that for many people such minor irritations as monitoring through headphones and having to rearrange their wiring on a fairly regular basis are simply part and parcel of getting the most out of the equipment they own. One might even say it's part of the fun of home recording. For these people, the 488, with its eight tracks and impressive technical specifications would represent a formidable tool.
For anyone looking for a complete, integrated recording system offering versatility as well as performance, the 488 is perhaps not the machine to go for. A separate mixer and open reel machine would probably be a much better bet, and would certainly offer more room for future expansion. That said, I am quite prepared to accept the argument that time lost in overcoming any lack of versatility in the mixer's design would be more than compensated for by the ease with which you could achieve good quality 8-track recordings employing a dozen or more instruments. So even in these circumstances, the 488 could make sense — particularly at the price, which is bound to prove attractive to a lot of people.
Of course, it's just possible that like me, you fall into a third category that wants performance, versatility and convenience. And if this is the case I'm afraid you've got no option but to keep on saving until a machine like the 688 MIDIstudio comes within your grasp. Remember though, that in the intervening period you could have recorded your first single, sold it to a major record company and be negotiating an advance on the forthcoming album. On the other hand...
Tascam 488 £999 inc VAT.
TEAC UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Richard Aaron
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!