Tascam 644 MIDIstudio
David Mellor gets to grips with a multitrack cassette recorder, an autolocator, a 16-channel mixer, a MIDI-to-tape synchroniser and a MIDI mute processor - all rolled into one compact box called the Tascam 644.
Tascam invented the word 'Portastudio', and of course the Portastudio itself. Other manufacturers have produced their 'me-too' products, but Tascam took an early lead and have made every effort to maintain it. Now from Tascam comes another important innovation - the MIDIstudio. A hardened cynic might say that it is just another Portastudio with a few added bells and whistles, but even so, it's a hell of a Portastudio! With a 4-track cassette recorder, 16-channel mixer, and all the MIDI support for your sequencer you are likely to need, it promises to give home recording a whole new dimension.
In the past, Portastudios - of all brand names - have been like cut-down recording studios, minus the acoustics, loudspeaker monitoring and coffee machine, rolled into one box. Back then, you bought a Portastudio because you couldn't afford the real equipment, or perhaps because you wanted a handy musical sketchpad. The MIDIstudio is probably the first Portastudio that you would buy because you want it, not just as a cost-cutting alternative, but because it fulfills your mastering requirements better than any other equipment, perhaps regardless of cost.
Looking at the way recording is going, it is obvious that one day audio storage will be totally digital - that famous day still being a very long way off. But the intermediate goal must be total integration of tape-based storage (analogue or digital) and electronic memory, such as RAM, and perhaps hard disk systems too. As samplers increase their storage capacity (the Akai S1000 expands to eight megabytes, the forthcoming Roland S770 apparently to 16Mb), the need to record sounds on tape will grow less, therefore the number of tape tracks will diminish. Also, with the capabilities of synthesizers and effects units racing far ahead of their cost, the potential of a compact MIDI-based studio becomes enormous.
The Tascam 644 MIDIstudio is a product evidently aimed in this direction. With four tape tracks and a 16-channel mixer (with four effects returns, too), the MIDI studio operator is bound to be interested. Syncing the MIDI gear to the tape would lose one tape track for the sync pulse, but three tape tracks would be left and up to 13 live MIDI tracks, together with two stereo effects units all running at the same time. Powerful stuff. I would allocate the three tape tracks to lead vocal, backing vocals (incorporating a bit of track bouncing) and guitar. For many MIDI musicians, this would be quite adequate.
For what it does, the 644 MIDIstudio is very compact. At first, it looks pretty complex, but that is because it does a lot. It only took a couple of hours to get the hang of basic operations, and the manual is very clear and helpful.
The left side of the control surface is devoted to the mixer controls, in charge of the eight channels and four groups. The knobs are small, but there is adequate finger space around them and the markings are clear. On the right-hand side are the more complicated bits, the most important of which being the large LCD display screen. All routing and assignment is handled electronically in the 644 and the large LCD is used to display and modify the assignments.
To the right of the large LCD is a small control section devoted to storage. It is possible to store the routing arrangement of the 644 in the form of a 'Scene', in up to 99 memory locations. These Scenes can be dumped to tape if extra storage is required. There are also a couple of buttons here to configure the mixer into its 16-channel form.
Arranged around the smaller LCD, which operates as a tape counter, are the transport and autolocator controls. As with other Tascam cassette and tape recorders, automated punch-in is possible. An unusual transport control is the Shuttle wheel, which inches the tape forward and backward. But this is an overview. Let's get down to some details - and there are plenty...
The mixer is basically an 8-channel device with in-line monitoring. But it can be configured to give 16 inputs and, as I said earlier, four effects returns. That makes a total of 20 inputs. Do you remember the days when a Portastudio just had six?
Each channel has separate mic and line inputs, with the switching between them being handled by the Routing/Assignment section as part of each Scene. The mic input on each channel has variable gain. Channels 1 to 6 have high impedance mic inputs (100 kOhms - just high enough for an un-preamplified electric guitar), and for channels 7 and 8 balanced low impedance XLR sockets are available to get the best performance out of quality microphones. There is no phantom power source for capacitor mics, but you wouldn't really expect it on a unit at this price.
The line inputs are of 10kOhms impedance and are fixed gain, suitable for the outputs of most semi-pro equipment. Each channel has an internally normalled insert point on a stereo jack socket; the insert send is on the tip of the jack, the return on the ring. The provision of insert points is, of course, important for 'in-line' effects devices such as compressors, gates, graphic EQ etc.
The EQ on each of the eight channels is three-band: High, Sweep Mid, and Low. There is no in/out switch for the EQ section, but the controls have detents at their 'flat' position.
The auxiliary sends are of a rather unusual design. In fact, when I first saw how they were labelled it gave me a minor panic attack - have you ever seen an aux send labelled 'Pre' at one end of the dial and 'Post' at the other? Fortunately, the manual put me straight. It is, in fact, a clever way of increasing the facilities of the unit without requiring extra space.
Aux 1 can work in both pre-fade and postfade modes, without a switch. The centre position of the knob is actually the zero position, with no signal sent to the aux bus. If you turn the knob to the left, then the signal is taken from before the fader - pre-fade. When turned to the right, the signal is post-fade. There is a slight compromise on the resolution of the control, because you only get half a turn in which to set the right send level, but it does work and on this type of unit I like it. (In fact, I like it a lot better than semi-pro mixers that don't have a Pre/Post switch for each aux send, like they should, and like the big mixers I grew up on.)
Aux 2 doesn't have the option of pre-fade. The left-hand section of the Aux 2 knob's travel takes its signal from the Dual section, which I am about to explain...
The Dual section is so called because it has two modes of operation. If this were a conventional in-line mixing console you would just think of this as the tape monitoring section of the channel, but Tascam have chosen to call it 'Dual' so I'll go along with that. The Dual section of each channel can be thought of as a second signal path which can have a variety of sources: Mic, Line, Tape or 'Post' - more on Post in a tick.
The first use of the Dual section is for monitoring what is coming off tape while you are overdubbing. Obviously, you need to hear the tracks you have already recorded in order to overdub in sync. For this, you set the input of the Dual section to 'Tape'.
The second use is to add extra MIDI synchronised input signals while you mix down. These can be plugged into the channel's Line input (Dual input set to 'Line') or - if necessary - Mic input (Dual input set to 'Mic').
The third use of the Dual section (should it be renamed the 'Triple' section?) is as extra auxiliary sends from the channel proper. There is a pair of separate outputs for the Dual section on the back panel, and these become aux 3 and aux 4. Since the two Dual controls are Level and Pan they can work as a stereo aux send or, with careful panning, two mono sends. These are both post-fade.
A good point about the Dual section is that its different uses can be assigned on a channel by channel basis. The system is versatile and extracts the maximum use out of the number of knobs available.
Leaving the channels (apart from a quick grouse that the faders are not calibrated in decibels and there is no scribble strip for channel identification). I'll move onto the next section to the right.
The four effect returns each have a Level control only. No Pan, but routing to the four groups is handled by the Scene setting section. Below are the two auxiliary masters, with a sum switch, and the stereo Dual master.
To the right again is the monitor section. You can listen (on either of two headphone sockets, or via the rear panel monitor outputs) to any combination of Group 1-2, Group 3-4, Aux 1 send, Aux 2 send and Dual. Apart from the auxiliaries, they all have associated Level controls. A Mono button is provided for checking the mono compatibility of the final mix - an important feature. Finally, there is a Monitor Level control.
Most of the switching in the Tascam 644 MIDIstudio is electronic, controlled by the Assign display. This is basically a matrix showing which connections are made and which are not.
Let me describe how the input selection is made. There are eight main channels, so we need to check which inputs are allocated to them. The lower half of the LCD screen handles this with a display showing:
The connections are made using the 'Mic', 'Line', '1', '2', '3' etc buttons located to the left and below the Assign display, which you might be able to see if you squint hard at the photo.
To make a connection, let's say from Mic input 1 to Channel 1, just press the 'Mic' button followed by the '1' button. Other connections might be Line input 2 to Channel 2, and Line input 3 to Channel 3. Now the display will look as follows:
This might be how the connections would look if you were playing a stereo synth and singing along at the same time.
Now we have to assign the channels to groups, to record onto tape. This is done in the upper part of the display like this:
This assigns Channels 1, 2 and 3 to Groups 1, 2 and 3 respectively, and thence to tape tracks 1, 2 and 3. It's simple once you have the hang of it.
But that isn't all. The upper half of the display can be switched to handle the effect return assignment to the groups, the lower half also handles the inputs to the Dual section. To monitor the first three tracks during an overdub onto track 4, for instance, you would have to assign tape tracks 1, 2 and 3 to Dual inputs 1, 2 and 3, and then make new assignments to handle the extra instrument you are about to record.
At first sight, this may seem as though you are going to have to go through a lengthy assignment process to record each track. In practice, since each setup may be stored as a Scene, you will probably store a sequence of Scenes which you will always follow as recording progresses. In fact, once you are used to the system, and have favourite Scenes worked out, all that's necessary will be to press the 'Up' and 'Down' buttons as you go along.
Since Tascam have so much experience in making multitrack cassettes, I don't think it will come as a surprise to learn that the quality of recording achievable is up to their highest standard, with the minimum of intrusion from the dbx noise reduction system. Two recording speeds are on offer (with 12% varispeed), 1 7/8 and 3 3/4 inches per second, the lower tape speed compromising sound quality slightly for increased running time.
The metering system uses the Assignment LCD screen, but this time as 10 eight-segment bargraph meters. It is possible to meter either the inputs to the eight channels, or the levels coming from the four groups along with the levels on the four tape tracks. There are two bargraphs for left and right monitor level also.
The normal transport controls are available together with Tascam's standard autolocate/punch-in system, which is explained in a separate panel. The counter is very accurate, as are all the tape counters/timers in Tascam's latest generation equipment. I don't know how they do it, but you can run the tape backward and forward as much as you like and still RTZ (return to zero) within a hair's breadth of where you started - the British Standard Hair's Breadth being something around half a second in this case.
The punch in/out facility in performance is good on music programme content, with no clicks or gaps evident, although dropping in on a sine wave produced a moderate 'bump' as one might expect.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a Shuttle control, which works just like the shuttle control on some video cassette recorders. The only snag is that the sound from the tape is so wobbly that you don't really get a very good idea of what you are supposed to be listening to. Still, it's a nice idea and may find some use.
When MIDI was first conceived, I'm sure nobody anticipated what it might lead to. MIDI sockets on Portastudios, whatever next?
The Tascam 644 sports the full complement of three MIDI sockets, although these comprise an In and two Outs rather than the more normal In, Out, and Thru. I am rather against equipment that doesn't provide a proper Thru connection, because that means it has to go at the end of a MIDI chain. If you have two pieces of equipment without Thru sockets, then you might be in difficulty. I should mention that the second MIDI Out works as a Thru during certain operations, but this is of limited use.
If you have been keeping up with developments in the world of MIDI-to-tape synchronisation you will know that, apart from SMPTE/EBU timecode devices, there are units which allow a pulse to be recorded onto one track of the tape which, when played back, sends tempo and song position information to the sequencer. The J.L Cooper PPS1 and the Musicsoft Syncman [see review p.70] units both perform this function. The Tascam MIDIstudio comes with all this built in!
Briefly, here is how it works. Once you have recorded some basic tracks into your MIDI sequencer and have the tempo of the piece, and any tempo variations, worked out, then you can play the sequence sending the MIDI output of the sequencer to the MIDIstudio. A sync tone is generated and recorded onto track 4 which will retain the tempo and position information. Playing back the tape, with the MIDIstudio's MIDI Out connected to the sequencer's MIDI In, will cause the sequenced tracks to play along in time with the tape. This allows three tape tracks to be combined with many more sequenced synthesizer or sampler tracks.
I must say that having this facility built in is extraordinarily sensible. Why have a separate box getting in the way? Tascam have made one boo-boo however, because they have not provided a MIDI Merge facility. Normally, you would want to overdub new synth tracks into the sequencer while playing along to the tape. This means that the MIDI note data has to be combined with sync and position data from the MIDIstudio. To overcome this problem you will have to buy a MIDI Merge box [the Philip Rees units are highly recommended - Ed.]. It is a pity, because the MIDIstudio does away with one box and virtually forces you to buy another.
If you don't need to use the 644's internal sync system, it is also possible to record an externally generated sync pulse, possibly SMPTE/EBU onto track 4, bypassing the dbx noise reduction.
The MIDI facilities of the 644 offer the possibility of semi-automated mixdown. Not fader levels (that type of processing, without compromising sound quality, is still pretty high-powered stuff), but Scene changes and channel mutes.
Since you can store up to 99 different Scenes, you can use some Scenes to turn particular channels on and others to mute them (a Scene, to the 644, is just like a Program on a synth). If you were really adventurous you could parallel one synth to, say, four channels, set the four channels to different levels, and perhaps different EQ, then have Scene changes controlling which synth channel will be used at which point in the song. There is some fun to be had here!
As well as Scene changes, MIDI-controlled individual channel mutes are possible via Note-On messages. When the MIDIstudio is switched to this mode, MIDI Note-On messages from notes 24 to 31 with Velocity value 63 or lower will mute the corresponding channel; a further Note-On with a Velocity of 64 or more will turn it back on. This means you could 'play' your mix from a master keyboard!
The Tascam 644 MIDIstudio packs a lot into one box. I think it is an excellent package and could almost wish myself back to the days when I was starting up my home studio so that I could buy one. Everything about it is at least very good, apart from the lack of a MIDI Merge function, but the best feature is the fact that the 644 is ideally suited for use with a MIDI orientated set-up. In fact, if the number of tape tracks and the number of mixer channels meets your needs then I am happy to say that it is pretty well perfect.
£999 inc VAT.
Teac UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor