Tascam Porta 03 Ministudio
It is said that small is beautiful - and Tascam's new personal multitrack machine is certainly small. Nik Newark dubs his demos and road tests Tascam's latest four-track cassette machine.
When everybody's everything boasts more features than everybody else's, it's worth remembering that there's always a demand for the uncomplicated and the cost effective - it is, after all, how the Portastudio was born.
FIVE YEARS AGO, the average four-track cassette multitrack had a fairly simple four-input mixer, with two-band EQ and perhaps an effects loop. Since then, the profusion of keyboards, samplers and drum machines with multiple outputs has prompted manufacturers to provide these otherwise modest multitracks with larger mixer sections.
The extra mixer channels are often, however, not put to full use. This may be because only one instrument is recorded at a time (as with solo musicians playing a variety of instruments), or because another mixer is used to create stereo submixes and these are fed to one or two channels of the multitrack. Tascam's answer is to provide a good-quality multitrack recorder with a simple mixer section.
The Porta 03 is compact (290mm x 179mm x 68mm) and light (weighing in at 1.3kg). All the controls are sensibly laid out, making it easy to use. Instead of the plethora of sockets normally found on personal multitracks, here we have six. Two audio inputs on quarter-inch jacks are sensibly placed on the top panel for easy repatching. The left-hand panel is host to a pair of stereo audio outputs and a headphone jack. The rear panel has a 12V DC input for the (supplied) power adaptor. The recorder is set up for "position II" (chrome bias) tapes, and runs at the standard 4.8cm/second - which means that it will double nicely as a stereo playback machine for domestic cassettes.
THE MIXER SECTION is clearly laid out, and divided into, two sections: Input and Output. The output section lies on the left-hand side of the unit and consists of a level and pan control for each tape track, a master fader, and a headphones output control. With the exception of the master fader, these controls take the form of rotary knobs, which, whilst fine for pan controls, are less friendly for adjusting levels. However, after an initial period of adjustment, mixing without faders becomes second nature. Each track has its own visual metering, consisting of two LEDs - green for 0dB and yellow for +3dB. The master fader is marked 1-10, as is usual on Tascam gear, with 0dB being in the shaded area between 7 and 8. To the right of the output section are the two identical input channels, each comprised of an input fader, a trim control, an input jack socket, and a record select switch. When this switch is moved to the Safe position, no recording is possible - preventing you from accidentally erasing recordings. Moving the switch from the Safe position enters you into Record Ready mode, and routes the input to the selected tape track. The level and pan control of the appropriate track in the output section can then be used to monitor the input, whilst recording or in stop mode. However, when the unit enters play mode, the output channel ignores the signal from the input, and starts monitoring the signal from tape. The practical upshot of this is that you can't rehearse to tracks which have already been laid down, without actually recording. This doesn't matter too much unless you're rehearsing tight punch-ins, where on each practice run you actually have to drop in for real, with the associated click, and danger of erasing wanted material. This limitation can be overcome if the Porta 03 is being used alongside an external submixer, but sadly this will not always be the case.
The recorder section transport controls are mechanical (as opposed to electronically assisted), but have a smooth, positive action. The record button is mechanically linked to the play button, and so pressing record will automatically depress play as well. Record status is shown by a small LED near the record button which is illuminated when recording is actually taking place. There is no flashing light indicating when you're in Record Ready mode, as on some machines; you just have to be careful to reset the record function switches to the Safe setting after a successful take. There is no form of pitch control, so bear this in mind if you're intending to record acoustic instruments which may not be perfectly in tune with one another.
The current position on tape is shown by a three-digit mechanical counter complete with zero reset button, but no zero stop function. Since this unit is aimed at the entry-level user, however, this may not present a problem, as many potential Porta 03 users won't have developed the habit of relying on this particular luxury.
The tape transport uses a single motor for both playing and winding, and has a quoted fast wind speed of 110 seconds for a 60-minute tape. Access to the two heads (Erase and Rec/Play) is good, making it easy to clean and demagnetise heads - something that the manual describes in great detail.
"There are some 'hidden' abilities of the Porta 03 which though not really intended, can be put to good use with practice."
A word or two about the manual is in order here. Tascam have really done themselves proud, offering a reference section, a foolproof step-by-step guide to the entire recording process including mixdown, a maintenance guide and a selection of recommendations and some handy tips. Admittedly the Porta 03 is fairly operationally unchallenging, but a well-written manual aimed at the first-time multitrack user, pointing out the relevant "dos and don'ts" is a welcome read - not least for the beginner.
IN USE THE Porta 03 performs rather well, both as a stand-alone recorder, and also with a submixer. The trim control covers a wide enough range to record most input signals you may be using, and still get a reasonable meter reading. Setting up the correct recording level with a two-LED meter is not as difficult as you may first think, Tascam suggest that the green LED (0dB) should be lit most of the time, while the yellow LED (+3dB) be allowed to flicker intermittently. In practice this works well, and playing the resultant recording on other machines shows that this results in more or less optimum recording levels. As the output section is set up during recording to monitor the signal being recorded (though this monitor level is independent of the level going to tape), it's set up at the right level when it comes to playback. This is very convenient compared to the tedious process often otherwise used whereby the same control is used both to get a good level to tape, and to get the correct level in the mix.
The 03's recording quality is reassuringly good. The Dolby B noise reduction does a fair job, though in quiet sections some hiss is audible. Comparing input and recorded signals, there is a slight loss of top, which is to be expected on a machine in this price range, though the quoted frequency response (40Hz-12.5kHz) compares well with other similarly-priced machines.
Punching in is fairly easy, though there's no option to use a punch in/out pedal - the normal transport controls must be used. A small click is audible when punching in and out of record, though it's not noticeable within the average mix, especially if it coincides with a peak in the music (such as a snare drum beat). Punching in using the record selector switch is not a practical option for two reasons; firstly, a very audible click is made, and secondly, you end up erasing part of your other previously-recorded tracks moving the switch to and from the Safe position.
There are some "hidden" abilities of the Porta 03 which, though not really intended, can be put to good use with practice. The first of these is bouncing, which is not otherwise available. By patching one of the outputs (for example the left one) back to one of the inputs, all tape tracks panned to the left output can then be recorded on a new track. This then has to be panned to the right in the output section, otherwise feedback will occur. Such a system is not perfect, but it opens up further creative possibilities if needed. Using the stereo outputs as two individual mono outputs, with the pan controls routing between them, can provide extra flexibility in conjunction with a separate mixer, as the signal from each output can be treated differently.
"Each of the Porta 03's tracks has its own visual metering, consisting of two LEDs - green for 0dB and yellow for +3dB."
IN KEEPING WITH their excellent reputation, Tascam have produced a good-quality budget cassette multitrack which, though compromises have been made, still allows the recording of quality demos. The Dolby B NR eliminates most of the tape hiss, which only starts becoming obtrusive upon bouncing. Whilst dbx is generally regarded to be a superior noise reduction system, Dolby B has the advantage of being compatible with domestic tapes, enhancing the usefulness of the Porta 03 as a stereo recorder/playback machine, and the compatibility of its recordings with other machines. The design is both attractive and functional - the well-placed input jacks are a real boon, especially when you consider how much repatching is necessary when you only have two input channels.
Tascam's new machine is enjoyable to use, and I managed to write and record two decent-sounding songs in as many hours with it, which is quite a refreshing alternative to worrying about the level of the hi-hats in the chorus for three hours before deciding that the whole piece isn't really up to much. But I digress.
Obviously some sacrifices have been made in features to keep the price down, though the compromises made are fairly wise ones. However, I would have liked to see individual tape outputs, as this would have greatly extended the unit's flexibility. For example a sync track could be laid down (Dolby B is quite friendly to such things), and individual tracks could be processed differently. Perhaps I'm asking too much; after all if the Porta 03 had a pitch control, EQ, an effects send, zero return, and maybe the option of high speed, then it would-cost an extra £120 and would be called the Tascam Porta 05HS. Clearly this is not what Tascam are aiming to provide here - the Porta 03 is the baby of the Tascam Ministudio range. You get what you pay for.
If you're looking for a good-quality machine to make demo recordings of your songs before you take them into a larger studio, or if you want a very compact, portable musical notepad, then this could be the machine for you. Alternatively, if you want to add vocals and guitar, say, to your established sequencing setup, the Porta 03 is certainly worth a look. Considering that the price is only just above that of a dedicated stereo machine of similar quality, the Porta 03 is a worthy addition to the Tascam range.
Price £229 (including VAT at the old rate of 15%).
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Review by Nik Newark
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