Tascam 688 Midistudio
Tascam caused a recording revolution when they introduced the world to the Portastudio, now their Midistudio line looks set to take musicians on another quantum leap. Nigel Lord moves into the 21st century.
Eight-track made easy - where once there was a mountain of boxes and a tangle of spaghetti, Tascam's 688 Midistudio offers you the convenience of eight tracks, MIDI sync and mix automation in one friendly unit.
WERE IT possible for a machine to be born with a split personality, the Tascam 688 Midistudio would be a prime candidate for the psychiatrist's couch. It's big and butch, yet surprisingly compact and neatly laid out. It will be out of the financial reach of many people, yet it's excellent value for money. It restricts you in some of the ways you might choose to use an eight-track recording system, yet it's capable of opening up wholly unexplored areas of control of the recording process. An obvious case of the Jekyll and Hydes, you'll agree. But let's look at these conflicting characteristics a little more closely...
First of all, size - though Tascam have been careful not to hang a "Portastudio" tag on it (a tag which they invented), the 688 is, undeniably, a studio which is portable - in a way that a ten-channel mixer, eight-track tape deck, electronic patchbay and MIDI sync unit usually are not. That said, it would take a healthy young gorilla to carry the 688 any distance - a human being would need to be equipped with a small cargo hold. The 688 is heavy, and very large by Portastudio standards. Yet in comparison with the equipment it replaces, it's beautifully compact, ergonomically designed and quite stylish in a quiet, businesslike sort of way.
Secondly, cost - as we emerge from the "economic miracle" of the last ten years, fewer and fewer people seem prepared to opt for credit as a means of raising finance for new equipment. The alternative, in this particular case, involves saving over two thousand pounds, and that, for most people, demands almost monastic self-restraint.
If, however, you decide that life is quite meaningless without an eight-track system (and the ink has not yet dried on your contract with the devil), then you're simply not going to find a more economic proposition than the 688 without going secondhand. And even then you'd be hard pressed to achieve this sort of quality for under two grand.
Thirdly, flexibility - inevitably, when four distinct pieces of recording gear are hardwired and packed together in a single shell, you're going to discover things you cannot do with them which you could with individual components. However, the logistics of combining a fully-featured, professional ten-channel (20-input) mixing desk with an eight-track logic-controlled tape deck (with simultaneous recording across all tracks) and built-in tape synchronisation has meant the inclusion of a programmable electronic patchbay was pretty much essential. And given the fact that it comes with almost 100 memory locations and has been put under MIDI control, the possibilities opened up by such a system (particularly for the musician with MIDI at the heart of his or her existing setup) far outweigh any limitations imposed by the individual components being contained within one cabinet.
FOR MOST PEOPLE, though, I suspect the most graphic illustration of the 688's dual personality would be the adoption of the humble audio cassette on what is clearly a high-quality eight-track recording system. Not that squeezing eight tracks onto 1/8" tape is anything new. The first machines to drop this particular technological bombshell appeared a couple of years ago now. But the scepticism which surrounded the viability of the format has never fully dissipated and doubts still remain as to its validity - even on semi-professional equipment.
From my point of view, the 688 represents the first chance I've had to get to grips with an eight-track cassette-based system, having been using a ¼" reel-to-reel machine over the last three years. And I can only say that at the end of some fairly exhaustive listening tests, whatever doubts I had were completely dispelled. Using Maxell XL11-S on the 688 and Ampex Grand Master on the reel-to-reel, I could detect no appreciable difference in frequency response, and a barely perceptible drop in overall dynamic range. The differences became more marked after a first bounce, but with eight tracks and MIDI control over mixer channels, bouncing down clearly isn't the necessity it would be with (say) a four-track system.
Following the recording process through to its logical conclusion (mastering onto a stereo cassette recorder), whatever differences I had encountered in terms of dynamics weren't just reduced proportionately, they vanished completely. And the same was true of mastering onto a borrowed Aiwa DAT recorder. I was drawn to the conclusion that with the 688, I could produce demos every bit as good (or bad) as I could with my reel-to-reel system - but with much less cost, and much more convenience.
AFTER REVIEWING THE 644 four-track Midistudio back in the July's MT, I had anticipated being impressed by the 688, but it's always nice not to be disappointed. I'll resist the temptation, however, to simply outline the differences between the two machines - that would be unfair to those who missed the 644 review as well as doing a disservice to the 688.
Starting (predictably enough), with the mixer section, the ten channels are fed from either mic or low-level line signals via XLR sockets or standard line level signals via quarter-inch jacks. Routing for these takes place in the main LCD matrix over on the right hand side of the machine. More on this later.
The controls associated with each channel are, for the most part, pretty standard on semi-professional desks these days: trim control with overload LED, three-way EQ with mid-range sweepable from 250Hz-5kHz, two auxiliary sends, pan control and channel fader. I say "for the most part" because the auxiliary send controls are somewhat unconventional. Both stay at their centre detented positions when no signals need to be sent. Turning Aux 1 clockwise sends the signal post-fade to the effects unit, while turning it counter-clockwise sends it pre-fade. Turning Aux 2 clockwise also sends the signal out post-fade, but turning it counter-clockwise serves to change its role to that of an effects send for the Dual section.
"To my mind, the 688 Midistudio represents a major advance both in multitrack technology and the application of MIDI to the heart of the recording process."
Like the 644, the Dual section is effectively a complete in-line monitor mixer which sits within the main mixer and allows you to set up a mix of previously-recorded tape tracks without affecting the signals going to tracks currently being recorded. It features independent level and pan controls - and of course, the effects send associated with Aux 2 on the main mixer. On mixdown, it can also be used to provide a further ten input channels, which, providing they don't require any form of equalisation, effectively mean you have a 20:2 mixing desk at your disposal. The third option for the Dual section is to use it to provide two additional effect send signals which can be routed back through the effect returns in the normal way or (if these are already being used), through channels nine and ten (for example). In this way, you can add a further two mono or one stereo effect unit to the system.
The aforementioned effect returns are equipped with individual level controls in the section to the immediate right of the mixer channels, and here you will also find master controls for the two auxiliary sends and the Dual stereo mix which is output via jacks at the rear of the top panel. There's also a small push button whose purpose it is to sum the send signals from auxiliaries one and two, so that if the Dual section has been pressed into service to provide further inputs, the same signal may be sent from all 20 inputs to the effects unit you're using. This would make it particularly useful in a live situation.
The monitoring section provides fairly comprehensive facilities for listening in - either via 'phones or external amp and speakers - to what's going on during the recording process. The eight cue monitor level and pan controls cater for monitoring off tape during overdubs, and you can also monitor (individually or in combination) signals from both auxiliary sends, the stereo signal from the Dual section, and, of course, the signal from the main 1-2 stereo buss. A master level control takes care of overall output level both for the main monitor output pair (which, incidentally, are via phono sockets) and also for the two pairs of phones, which are connected via sockets just under the handrest at the far left of the machine.
The final section on the mixer side of the 688's operations provides faders for the four group output busses 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 and 7-8, the first of which, 1-2, also doubles as the main Left/Right output level fader during mixdown to two tracks.
THE 688'S TAPE deck caters for high bias tapes only and runs these at twice the normal cassette speed - 9.5cm/s (3.75ips). Needless to say, with eight tracks to worry about, there is no slower speed provided, so playing back standard cassettes on the 688 is out, I'm afraid. The unit does, however, feature a ±12% pitch control and may also be controlled externally, via SMPTE, for example.
The cassette mechanism itself seems rather low-tech at first glance: there is no eject function so fingers are required to lift out the cassette, and the perspex cover relies on a very simple push-open, push-closed latching system. However, if you've ever had any experience of repairing cassette mechanics (unfortunately, I have), you'll know just what problems can be caused by complex loading and eject mechanisms - not to mention the difficulties involved in keeping the heads clean and demagnetised. To find such a simple, reliable system as this on the 688 might well come as a relief to potential purchasers.
I wish I could be as positive about the decision to include a drive system which leaves the capstan motor running even when a cassette is not being played. I know this is common amongst mains-powered cassette recorders and I'm sure this is one of Tascam's tried and trusted designs. But on a machine which for anything up to seventy-five percent of its time is likely to be used solely as a mixer, I cannot see the point of having a motor spinning away to no good purpose. Surely a switch could have been included to turn off the tape deck when not in use?
Being a Tascam machine, noise reduction is dbx and this, according to the manual and the panel lettering, is switchable - on or off - in two groups: tracks 1-4 and tracks 5-8. But actually, the second group only includes tracks 5-7 as track 8 is permanently disconnected from the dbx system to allow it to be used as a sync track.
As mentioned earlier, the 688 is fully logic-controlled, and this goes well beyond the inclusion of lightweight electronic transport buttons. There is also a comprehensive autolocate section which, in addition to such features as return to zero or either one of two memory locations, boasts a repeat play facility between the two locator points and also the ability to relocate these relative to zero, if zero is reset at some other point on tape.
"Being able to establish a line of communication between MIDI and your recording system should make the 688 the natural choice for anyone looking for an eight-track setup."
Also tied in with this section is the auto punch-in and rehearsal facility. This is particularly neat, as not only does it allow you to drop in and out without operating either hand or foot controls, it can play a predetermined pre-roll section of tape (along with a three-second post-roll period) for purposes of rehearsal as well as for actual takes. It also winds itself back each time so you can practise the whole exercise repeatedly until you're sure you're going to get it right on the take itself. The rehearsal facility doesn't have to be used solely as a means of tightening up drop-ins, it can be used prior to the recording of complete tracks or in any situation where you need to repeatedly practise your playing. It's the kind of feature which one-person operated studios quickly become reliant upon, and which help convince you the machine really is on your side.
Needless to say, conventional drop-ins are also possible using foot (or hand) switches, and on the whole, these tend to be slightly more accurate than the auto-punch system (providing your timing is good enough). If this is your preferred method of dropping in, connection is made via a standard jack socket situated under the hand rest on the far right of the unit.
Keeping track of where you are on a tape is made particularly easy on the 688. A large (for a tape counter) LCD provides either a standard counter readout or by switching to TRT, a reasonably accurate display of your position in minutes and seconds. All the memory locations are also indicated here, along with a flashing icon to remind you you're in rehearsal mode.
With the autolocate and rehearsal facilities at your disposal, tape cueing isn't something you spend much time doing on the 688. However, if you do need to get somewhere in a hurry, you have the excellent Tascam shuttle system to make the going easy. A single rotary control which ordinarily sits at its centre detented position is turned clockwise to forward cue through the tape, and counter-clockwise to reverse cue. The further you turn the knob in either direction, the faster the cueing speed. Simple.
The only drawback is that the shuttle action makes it impossible to actually listen to the music when forward cueing - even when the shuttle speed approaches that of the normal play speed of the tape. I assume this is because the pinch wheel is drawn back from the capstan and the tape does not run past the heads at anything like a constant rate. So what you end up hearing is music subjected to extreme wow and flutter. It doesn't harm the tape in any way, and what you do hear is perfectly adequate for cueing purposes.
Recording is controlled by the main record button situated with the rest of the transport controls in the bottom right hand corner of the 688. However, individual tracks are switched in and out of Record mode by pressing the relevant record function buttons just above the tape counter display. Each of these has its own LED which, when flashing, indicates record ready and when lit continuously, indicates record on.
WE COME NOW to what could well be described as the Crewe Station of the 688 - the electronic routing system and display. Here it is that signals arrive, depart, meet other signals and, er.. . hang around in anoraks writing down numbers in notebooks. OK, so maybe it wasn't the best analogy. The fact is, in the 688 scheme of things, familiarising yourself with the workings of this area is absolutely essential. The Midistudio simply cannot be used properly without it.
Happily, it's not too complicated and certainly, when you consider how much of the tedious signal routing and patching setups of conventional mixers/multitrackers it replaces, you'll wonder how you ever worked without it after a couple of weeks. All the relevant information is contained within the large LCD matrix which provides three pages for main assignments, effect assignments and input routing. Channel numbers run horizontally across the screen and main/effects groups or inputs sources (mic, line or tape) run vertically down the left-hand side. Making a connection comprises nothing more demanding than selecting the line on which the group or input is situated and then pressing any of the ten channel buttons immediately below the screen.
An entire patch consisting of all the connections you need to perform a particular recording or mixing operation can then be committed to memory and instantly recalled. Tascam's terminology here is Scene, and the 688 is capable of storing 99 such Scenes as well as loading or dumping them to tape (on the machine itself) or via MIDI data dump. The machine comes with 12 useful Scenes already loaded, but these can be overwritten if you find yourself needing the memory locations (and reinstated later by pressing the recall button during power-up). All the push buttons connected with Scene making are located down the right-hand side of the display. Here you will find the increment/decrement controls and the Recall, Store/Copy and Scene/MIDI Channel buttons.
"I was tempted to conclude that the socket complement on the 688 seemed spartan - then I remembered just how much the damn thing does without any assistance from the outside world."
MENTION OF THIS latter switch will no doubt have alerted you to the fact that Scenes are recallable via MIDI on the 688. A Program Change command is all that's required, and the change is virtually instantaneous. Interestingly, this facility works the other way round too: changing a Scene on the 688 - using either the top panel buttons or an optional Up/Down footswitch - also has the effect of sending a MIDI Program Change command via the MIDI Out (or the Out/Thru) port on the rear panel. In this way, pressing a single button on the 688 instantly recalls all the signal routing requirements for a particular selection of inputs using a particular combination of mixer channels with a particular arrangement of auxiliaries (offering a particular choice of effects), for recording onto a particular number of tape tracks. Particularly clever, you have to agree.
And there's more: muting of individual mixer channels is possible using a single MIDI note-on command, providing a limited form of mixing automation. It works by using both high- and low-velocity levels - high level to mute the channel and low level to unmute it. And, like the Program Change commands, the system also operates in reverse by sending out note-on commands every time the relevant button on the 688 is pressed. If done in real time, as a song is playing, these commands can be recorded by a sequencer in the normal way and then sent back out each time the track is replayed. At the very least, this provides you with a means of using your eight tape tracks to their fullest potential.
Of course, this degree of MIDI control would be of little use if your MIDI sequencer could not be synchronised with the music on tape - and that's where the MIDI tape sync facility comes in. The problem is, in terms of interest, the sync unit built in to the 688 is very much the victim of its own success. You simply connect your sequencer to the Midistudio, switch the MIDI sync on, press Record (and Play on the sequencer) and that's it. When the song's finished you spin back to the beginning, press Play on the sequencer and Load on the 688, roll the tape and when it reaches the beginning of the song the sequencer will start up and follow it in perfect sync.
If you decide to stop the tape - no problem. Song pointer positions recorded with the sync track constantly update the sequencer and within a fraction of a second of restarting the tape the two are locked back into sync. It's that simple - though it might have been even better if the manual didn't tell you to record the sync code onto track four rather than track eight.
I SUPPOSE THE most striking physical difference between the 688 and the four-track 644, is the LED meter bridge which separates the mixer section from the main connection panel at the back of the unit. The meters - ten, in all - comprise 12 LEDs in ladder formation and offer visual monitoring of either the eight mixer group outs or the eight tape signal levels, as well as the left and right monitor signals. They all operate in the PPM mode, rather than as VUs, and feature a peak hold facility where high-level signals are held for a second or so to assist with setting up. The meter panel lies flat for transportation purposes, but can be raised to provide the optimum viewing angle and also to form a rather effective screen against the usual array of leads which sprout from the back of all mixing desks.
On the subject of rear panels, I was, at first, tempted to conclude that the socket complement on the 688 seemed rather spartan, then I remembered just how much the damn thing does without any assistance from the outside world. There are a few connections I haven't already mentioned, however, and amongst these are eight mixer group-out phono sockets (should you need to connect the mixer to another system), and eight tape outs, also on phonos. Using these, you can, if you wish, mix down using another desk or even take the 688 into a 16- or 24-track studio and transfer the tracks you have already recorded onto a bigger machine.
If, after buying the 688, your great aunt leaves you something in her will, you might consider spending it on the optional remote control unit which duplicates the tape transport and auto-locator controls on the Midistudio proper. It is connected via a special eight-pin DIN socket on the rear panel, just next to a 15-pin serial connector used to communicate with an external computer or Tascam's own MIDIizer. You can also use the 688 with an external sync unit. Recognising that the on-board tape sync may not be compatible with all external equipment, Tascam have kindly provided sync In and Out sockets on the rear panel together with two small rotary presets to match signal levels. And that, if I'm not very much mistaken, is just about it.
THERE'S NO DOUBT in my mind that the 688 Midistudio represents a major advance both in multitrack technology and the application of MIDI through to the heart of the recording process. It is impressive both in scope of operation and quality of performance. With the exception of the capstan motor (which really should be switched), I could point to no deficiencies in the machine's operation which don't pale into insignificance by contrast with the kind of facilities it offers in practically every area. In fact, having used the 688 for over a month before putting pen to paper, I am still waiting to come up against my first major obstacle.
To date, I have experienced nothing more troublesome than the fact that the master monitor level control affects both the output pair and the headphones - and even that wouldn't be a problem if I cleared a few things away from the level controls on my monitor amp. A MIDI merge facility would have been useful - especially where a sequencer is connected to the sync track on the 688, but Tascam are hardly alone in not including this facility on their equipment. Merging MIDI signals is a relatively expensive business and on a machine already costing over two grand, you could argue that it's better to let those people who need the facility buy a separate unit.
Of course, £2000 is a hefty sum for any piece of equipment, but consider: excluding actual instruments, the average MT reader would need nothing more than a sequencer and a couple of effects units to complete what by any standards would be an impressive home studio setup. And while you're at it, you might also consider that the entire system would fit comfortably on the average office desk: I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned the days of trying to emulate Houston Mission Control are long over - we're talking single plugboards here.
It's been quite some time since I found myself rubbing my hands at the arrival of a new piece of equipment in the way I have with the 688. It's one of those machines which can fairly be said to be greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly, the prospect of being able to establish a line of communication between keyboards and sequencers and your recording system should make it the natural choice for anyone with a MIDI setup looking for an eight-track machine. In the words of the ad-execs, this would definitely be one of your better decisions.
Price £2149; RC88 remote control, £123. Both prices include VAT.
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Review by Nigel Lord
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