Tascam Porta 05
The intrepid Nicholas Rowland continues his search for the ultimate in personal multitrackers; armed only with a blank cassette and a bedroom's worth of gear, he tackles Tascam's latest budget baby.
If you're a songwriter in search of a notepad for your ideas or a budding producer after a painless introduction to multitrack recording, the latest multitracker from Tascam could be right up your street.
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER dollar, another multitrack review. They're coming thick and fast, and cheaper these days - new manufacturers, new models, upgrades on existing models... The first eight-track cassette machine has already seen the light of day in Japan (although it's never likely to be imported to these shores) while there's a rumour that even Mr Alan Sugar - the man behind Amstrad - will soon be adding his twopenneth to the general melee with a four-track "novelty" product at rock bottom price.
In the meantime, please make way for the latest contender in the "Entry Level" Personal Studio Challenge Cup stakes, the Porta 05 courtesy of Portastudio originals, Tascam. Weighing in at a recommended retail price of £329 (including VAT) it represents good news for the garrett musician who wants a convenient way of demoing material, recording rehearsals, or just getting to grips with the basic principles of multitrack recording.
Let's get some basic facts straight first. The Porta 05 is a four-track machine which is capable of mixing up to four inputs at once and then recording the mix onto either one or two tracks in one go. The mechanism runs at 1⅞ips (the same speed as domestic hi-fi decks) and Dolby dbx noise reduction is provided (the Mark II version) rather than the more popular alternative Dolby B or C. This means that while you'll be able to play your pre-recorded Dolby tapes on the '05, you'll have to switch the noise reduction off, giving a more trebly playback than usual.
The mixer section features basic EQ, an effects loop and has provision for trimming the inputs to match the impedance of just about any mic you might care to plug into it. Another refinement is a Sync Out socket which allows you to record a sync pulse on one track then pass it back out again to your drum machine, sequencer or computer without going through the dbx circuitry.
All these facilities are packed in a neat, business-like box which is laid out in a clear and logical fashion. Newcomers to the multitrack scene will therefore have little difficulty in quickly coming to grips with the various facilities on offer. Followers of multitrack fashion might raise an eyebrow or three at the new-style rotary controls which represent a radical departure from Tascam's previous budget design philosophy as expressed in the Porta-One and Porta-Two. The circular rubber "pads" have given way to flat plastic controls which someone appropriately compared to the googly eyes you find on cuddly toys. I must say that I like the look of them, though they do actually feel a little flimsy.
Also representing a significant deviation from the norm is the relatively large 14-segment LED bar graph meter display. More on this later, but for the moment I'll whet your appetite by saying that it offers an extremely comprehensive view of what's going on in there.
THE PORTA 05 is capable of accepting four inputs at once via the four ¼" jack sockets at the front. Two of these are balanced for line input only, while the other two will accept signals from either line instruments or mics (anything from 150Ω or 10kΩ). Trim is adjusted with a small slider cunningly located just to the side of the input fader. To the right of the individual sliders is a master fader, essential for smooth fade-in/outs.
One thing to note though, is that when you haven't got anything plugged into a socket, the Porta 05 will feed whatever is on the corresponding tape track into the mix (providing of course that the appropriate input slider is set above zero). Hence, while bouncing tracks is a cinch, the flip side of this arrangement means that when instruments are plugged into a particular input, you can't then add in whatever is on that tape track. In other words, once you've filled up all four tracks on the Porta 05, you can't then use the mixer section to simultaneously add in any live instrumentation. This is going to cause problems for those people who expect to record a sync code on track 4, fill up the other tracks with, say, guitar and vocals, then use the Porta 05's mixer section to add in synths and drum machines run from a synced MIDI sequencer to the final stereo master. If this is the sort of facility you want, you'll either have to look further afield or resign yourself to getting hold of another mixer to take the stereo output from the Porta 05 plus any other instruments you want to add.
That said, by my calculation, if you plan your recording very carefully and are quite happy to accept the reduced sound quality which will come from a series of bouncedowns, you'll be able to cram something like 20 different instruments onto your demo.
"Newcomers to the multitrack scene will have little difficulty in quickly coming to grips with the various facilities the Porta 05 has to offer."
AS I STATED above, the Porta 05 is capable of recording on a maximum of two tracks at a time. Two switches situated below the meter display select the tracks: either 1 or 3 and/or 2 or 4. As soon as you select a track the record LED begins to flash as a warning. A colour coded system on the switches, tells you which track you have selected or whether tracks are "safe". This is not illuminated, but it's still easy to see.
Odd tracks are assigned to the Left buss, even tracks to the Right. Signals from the inputs are routed to the appropriate buss/track by using the Pan control just above the input faders. Along with the Pan googly eye we also find one Tape Cue and one Eff(ect) control for each input.
Tape Cue allows you to set up a monitor mix of any previously recorded tracks, essential when you're overdubbing (well, you did want to play in time didn't you?). And of course, should you need to boost one particular track - the drums for example - to make overdubbing easier, then you can. The Cue mix is passed to the outside world through the headphones socket, providing the monitor selector switch, situated just below the Phones volume control, is switched to Cue. There are two other settings to choose from: Remix and Effect. The former is pretty self-explanatory while the latter allows you to listen in to what is happening in the effects loop: useful for checking on distortion and the state of the effects mix.
Which brings me round to the Eff control - no, not a device for regulating the earthy oaths of tired and emotional home recordists. Instead, this routes a portion of the incoming signal to the Effects Out phono socket on the side of the machine which is where you plug in your Dyslexic Multi-Flange Delay Graphic or similar. The return signal then re-enters the machine through the Effects In socket next to Effects Out.
Now at this point, I'm afraid I have to introduce yet another criticism of the machine. Since there's only one Effects In socket it stands to reason that you'll only be able to use effects in mono. This is a bit sad, not least because these days most, if not all, reverbs (especially budget models) operate in stereo. And budding Andy Summers guitarist clones will no doubt also be miffed at losing the ability to remix a mono guitar track through a stereo chorus.
As well as effects, the incoming sounds can be reshaped by the Porta 05's fairly rudimentary EQ section. This consists of two sets of two knobs labelled High and Low - one set for each stereo channel. This means that if you have more than one input in use at a time, you won't be able to EQ individual instruments, but you'll probably find that unless you get too ambitious, the system will serve your needs quite adequately. Apart from being able to EQ the signals on the way in, you're also able to EQ them on the way out: as in when finally mixing down to two track through the machine's stereo output.
Now we come back to that meter display. It operates in two modes: Input and Buss; as it might suggest, the former allows you to keep an eye on the input levels, whether these are coming from the instruments or mics plugged into the front sockets, or from previously recorded tape tracks. With this information so clearly displayed, setting the right levels for bouncing two or three tracks down onto one is extremely easy - certainly more so than when trying to perform the same operation with only VU meters for guidance.
"The Sync Out socket allows you to record a sync pulse and pass it out to a drum machine, sequencer or computer without going through the dbx circuitry."
Generally, you'll switch over to buss mode when you're mixing down to stereo. This not only gives you the levels of both the left and right buss, but also that of the effects loop, useful for checking for possible distortion which can often result from over-enthusiastic use of those magical boxes of tricks.
In practice, the Porta 05 couldn't be a much simpler unit to get to grips with, though its facilities do allow for quite ambitious projects. In terms of sound quality, the dbxII keeps everything under control, providing that you are careful when setting recording levels. Personally, I've always thought that where bedroom recording is concerned, dbx has that slight edge over Dolby C, even though it can occasionally do some strange things to high frequency sounds like cymbals and hi-hats.
Drop-ins are virtually silent and can be achieved much more effectively through connecting an optional footswitch to the Remote Punch In/Out socket situated on the side of the machine. This makes good sense for the solo musician who is often elbow deep in keys, guitar strings, pitch-wheels and endless cups of coffee.
And for those with a penchant for ethnic instruments with awkward tunings or who want to sing in keys they couldn't normally handle, there's a pitch control offering a variation of around ±15%. Be warned though, the manual does advise that there may be some mistracking of the dbx as a result of too violent a use of this facility.
Finally, before your grande oeuvre is ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world you'll need to mix it down to stereo, probably using your domestic hi-fi tape deck connected to the two Line Out phono sockets on the side of the '05.
On this point, it's a shame that Tascam haven't also provided line outs for each individual track. With this facility you'd be able to feed the tape tracks into an external mixer and thus take advantage of more comprehensive mixing, EQ or any other facilities on mixdown.
The title Porta 05 is somewhat misleading, suggesting that this new machine is only half the man its older brother, the Porta-One, was. (Whereas by naming their latest budget multitrack the X30, Fostex cunningly suggest that this is twice the man of the model it supersedes.) However, be not deceived. Behind the relatively modest price tag is a machine which is easy to get to know initially, but which has enough features to keep pace with your recording needs for some time to come. It's not going to be a question of, once you really get into the swing of things, you'll be wishing that you'd gone for a more expensive option in the first place.
However, as you might expect at this price, there have to be compromises and if you've been paying attention you'll have realised what the main areas affected are: lack of individual input channel EQ, the mono only effects loop, and the inability to add synced sequenced parts through the Porta 05's mixer once the tape tracks are full. But then again, the metering is excellent, the sound quality good and you can mix the four input channels together (good news for recording the whole band in one go). Above all, if you're aiming to produce reasonably straightforward demos or quickly lay down song ideas then you're laughing. There's also plenty here to cut your first recording teeth on.
Price £329 including VAT.
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Review by Nicholas Rowland