Tascam Porta Two
Four-track Cassette Machine
It's like a Porta One, but bigger, with more input channels, more features, and a correspondingly higher price-tag. Paul White casts a critical eye.
It's elegant, it's neat, and it has the same style as the popular Porta One. But this machine features six input channels, a sync input, and simultaneous four-track recording.
WHEN TASCAM LAUNCHED the Porta One just over two years ago, it represented one of the most cost-effective ways for the home recording enthusiast to get involved in multitrack recording. Since then, the demands of the home user have changed a little, so the Porta Two has been designed to satisfy as many of those requirements as possible, while maintaining an attractive retail price.
So how have things changed since the beginning of 1985? First, with the introduction of MIDI sequencers and drum machines that can sync to tape via their own FSK (frequency shift keying) codes, it's become possible to extend the capabilities of budget multitracking by running some instruments in real time from a timecode track at the mixing stage. This technique has generated the requirement for more mixer channels to handle the extra instruments, and for some way of reliably recording and retrieving the timecode generated by the drum machine or sequencer.
Second, cassette multitrack recorders such as this one have become popular for recording live music, so simultaneous four-track recording is essential.
Third and last, the availability of high-quality, low-cost studio effects means that any self-contained studio needs a proper effects send feature with a stereo effects return point. Not surprisingly, the Porta Two has all these things.
THIS MACHINE IS a four-track, cassette-based all-in-one studio centered around a cassette mechanism running at the standard speed of 1 7/8ips, and incorporating dbx noise reduction. A zero return function works together with the mechanical tape counter so that the tape can be made to stop automatically during fast rewind when the counter reaches zero. And there's also a fast cue facility, which you work by pressing either of the fast wind keys while the unit is still in playback. This causes the transport to fast wind only for as long as the keys are pressed, after which it returns to play mode. During this fast wind (cue) mode, an attenuated version of the signal is heard at the output so that you can recognise starts and finishes of songs or sections without your tweeters tearing free from their mountings.
As is now customary, the Porta Two has varispeed so that it may be tuned to awkward instruments, rather than vice versa. This offers more than enough range to compensate for tuning deficiencies, and also allows scope for the creation of special effects.
If the Porta Two is to be used to record a sync track from a sequencer or drum machine, there's a switch entitled Sync which activates a separate sync input and routes it to channel 4.
Because the unit runs on batteries as well as mains, several design innovations have been incorporated to conserve power. The four level meters don't light up in battery mode, and all the indicators (with the exception of the dbx, Power, Record and Sync LEDs), are mechanical, consisting of strips of reflective material uncovered by the various switch actions.
With portability in mind, Tascam have built the Porta Two's control panel almost flush. The controls are all recessed and the switches all low-profile. The knobs are made from the same rubbery material as the ones on the Porta One, but have improved position markers. Pegs for the included carrying strap are fitted, and as the whole unit weighs only 3 1/2kg, it's light enough to carry for long periods.
The Porta Two's mixer channels are all capable of accepting both mic and line levels, and the Trim control is used to set the required amount of gain. Since there is no PFL (Pre-Fade Listen) of the kind you'd find on a separate mixer, the gain is optimised with the channel fader set between 7 and 8 while observing the meters.
Each channel has bass and treble controls, an auxiliary send, a pan control, and a gain slider, so it follows the same format as mid-market mixers. Adjacent to each fader is a three-position selector switch. On the first four channels, this determines the source of input for the channel which may be either mic/line, tape or off.
The first four channels can be routed to any tape tracks you like, but remember that the left buss goes to both tracks 1 and 3, while the right buss goes to tracks 2 and 4. Of course, you don't have to record both tracks - you'd normally only set one track to record.
Conversely, mixer channels 5 and 6 are limited in their possible destinations. They only go to one tape track at a time, and channel 5 is limited to odd-numbered tape tracks, while 6 is limited to the even ones. During the final mix, though, these channels feed the main stereo buss. As compromises go, this is pretty good because it means that with only a little forward planning, you can do virtually anything you could do on a more expensive machine offering full routing.
Along the front edge of the Porta Two are the channel inputs, the phones output and a socket for an optional remote punch-in footswitch.
All the other connections are on the left-hand side, and these include the power supply input and the main line outputs. These, like the four Tape Outs and the Sync In and Out, are on phono connectors. The effect output is on a standard quarter-inch jack, as are the effects returns.
The two effects returns are panned hard left and right, but if you want to use a mono effect, you can plug into the left return only, which will then distribute the effect's output evenly between the left and right speakers, giving the impression that the sound is coming from the centre of the mix.
Finally we have the Tape Cue Out, which carries the outputs from the four Tape Cue controls above the recorder section. These may be used to set up a rough mono mix for overdubbing, so that the performer can hear what's already on tape.
"The VU meters aren't fast enough to respond to transient signals, and so will always read lower than the peak value. So you'd best allow a few extra dB safety margin when recording drums."
The moulded plastic case houses four meters which monitor signals going onto and coming off tape, and which can be switched to monitor the effects line and the tape cue level whenever these need checking. The recording controls themselves are located directly below the Tape Cue controls, and are in the form of three-way switches which select Safe, Direct or L/R Buss. In Direct mode, channel 1 is fed to tape track 1, and so on. In L/R Buss mode, the channel output may be steered between the left and right busses using the pan controls - odd-numbered tape tracks receive the left buss signal, while the even-numbered tracks receive the right buss.
The master section has a single stereo slider so you don't have to worry about unbalanced fades, and there are level controls for both the effects send and the effects return. The Sync Out level is also variable, as is the level of the phones, which may be switched to monitor Cue, Remix or the Effect buss.
TO BEGIN WITH, setting up the channel input levels is easy enough, but you have to plan things a little in advance where routing is concerned. This is because only channels 1 and 2 have insert points, so if you want to use an in-line processor such as a gate or compressor while you are recording, these are the channels to go for.
For those unfamiliar with insert points, they're quite simple. A stereo jack socket is wired into the channel electronics, after the input gain control but before the EQ section. The tip of the stereo jack carries the outgoing signal while the ring carries the return signal. When nothing is plugged in, these are switched together so that the signal path is unbroken. If you want the signal to go through something like a flanger as well as through the mixer channel, you patch your flanger into the insert point and it then acts as part of the channel. And because the signal has passed through the input amplifier of the channel first, you don't have to worry about levels, regardless of whether your input is from a mic or from an instrument.
You also have to consider the way in which the channels can be routed. On the Porta Two, Direct mode is easy to understand and for most applications, it's the one that will be used most, at least for getting the first few tracks down. However, Buss mode is also useful because it allows several sources to be combined and steered to the same channel.
Anyhow, once you've recorded the first two or three tracks, you can bounce them onto a single track to conserve space, and add other instruments and effects at the same time. As soon as this new track is satisfactory, you can re-record over the first three tracks.
If you really want to get as many layers down as possible, the best method is to record just two of the three remaining tracks and then bounce these down onto the third, adding another instrument at the same time. This leaves you the two tracks free to record new parts, and in this way, you can get up to ten different parts onto your four tracks without any track being bounced more than once. Remember, though, that if you're using the Tascam's Sync facility, you can only record music onto the first three tracks.
When you mix, you can add even more parts live as you go along, and add treatments using the effects send facility and via the two insert points.
The Porta Two's tape transport switches are mechanical, but they're fairly easy to use and don't feel too clumsy.
At this point, it's as well to point out that the Porta Two's level meters are of the VU, rather than peak-reading, type; they don't even have peak LEDs. VU meters aren't fast enough to respond to transient signals like drum beats, and so will always read lower than the peak value. So you'd best allow a few extra dB safety margin when recording drums by ensuring that the meters don't go higher than about - 3dB. To perform this more precisely, make a few test recordings at different levels to see how loud you can record before audible distortion sets in. This will provide you with the best signal-to-noise ratio.
When adding tracks, the tape cue section is used so that you can hear the tracks you've already recorded. This is also used when dropping-in sections that contain mistakes, to monitor what you've already done. The easiest way of dropping-in is to use the optional punch in/out switch, but you can drop-in just by pushing the Record button at the appropriate point and pressing Stop to drop out.
Bouncing tracks is done in much the same way as recording the original tracks, except you set the channel switches to Tape on the tracks you are bouncing from. These are then routed to the appropriate destination tracks, and may be treated in much the same way as ordinary live input signals.
The dbx noise-reduction system is capable of reducing tape noise almost to the point of extinction, but it's not without its side-effects. Percussive sounds, for instance, are sometimes changed in character and can lose a bit of their attack; analogue drum machines are particularly susceptible. You can compensate for this to some extent by recording drum sounds with a little extra top. Alternatively, it's possible to switch the dbx off altogether, but the results are a bit on the noisy side, as you might expect.
SWITCH THE FIRST four mixer channels to Tape and you're ready to go. You can use the last two channels to add more instruments live as you mix, or to accommodate the outputs from drum machines or sequenced synths running from a sync track recorded on tape. Conversely, if you have access to a full-scale studio, you can plug the four tape outputs into the system there and mix the whole thing using the studio mixing console and whatever effects are to hand.
The current trend is to fit drum machines and sequencers with sync inputs and outputs so that they can be locked to tape. The principle is that, to start with, the drum machine is set up to the correct tempo and a suitable guide rhythm programmed. Then the sync output from the drum machine is recorded onto one track of the tape recorder, and the guide drum part onto another. At this point, it doesn't matter if the drum part isn't exactly right - just so long as it's in the right time, has the right tempo, and is long enough. Now, when the drum machine is switched to follow a sync code rather than to generate one, it can be fed from the sync track and will faithfully keep time with the tape.
Of course, you wouldn't normally sync up the drum machine at this stage as you'd have nothing to gain. Instead, you'd record most of the other tracks first and then see if you wanted to change the drum part. Then finally, you'd record over the guide drum part and use the drum machine running from the sync code during the mix.
"Two or three bounces are possible before noise becomes a problem, but the process alters the tonal quality each time it's done, so it's as well to plan for the minimum number of bounces."
The sort of occasion on which you might want to sync up right from the start is when you're locking a sequencer to tape: this would enable you to hear the parts loaded into your sequencer and played via your MIDI keyboards, at the same time as you are overdubbing new parts.
One misconception to dispel, though, is that a sync facility miraculously creates sync codes, or allows you to sync up machines that don't have a sync output. Your drum machine or sequencer must produce a sync code output, and if it only has a Roland-style DIN sync socket, you'll still need a black box of some kind to convert the sync output into a suitable code so that it can be recorded onto tape.
Sync codes have a reputation for being awkward to record, especially when the recorder has noise reduction. To get around the problem, the sync input on the Porta Two bypasses the dbx, the EQ and even the level controls, so your code is always recorded onto tape at the correct level and in an uncorrupted form.
When the tape is played back, the sync output level may be varied so that the optimum level can be setup for your particular drum machine or sequencer. Once the most reliable level has been established, you shouldn't need to change it again. But remember that this facility always robs you of one of your recording tracks, unless you decide to record all your sequenced parts onto tape before the remaining three tracks are full. If you do this, you can record over the sync track - though just make sure you aren't going to need it again.
A PORTABLE STUDIO like this one needs to be logical to operate and fairly flexible. But more important, it needs to be capable of producing high sound quality.
Taking the last consideration first, the Porta Two benefits from the exceptionally low background noise levels given it by the dbx system - you'll probably find that your instruments, microphones and effects processors add more noise than the tape does. Even so, I'd have preferred to see Dolby C rather than dbx, because it sounds more attractive to my ears and doesn't take the edge off percussive sounds. But seeing as this subject is a continuous source of conjecture, argument and in some cases fights to the death, I'll leave it at that.
As for bounces, two or three are possible before noise becomes a problem, but bouncing does tend to alter the tonal quality of the recording (for the worse) each time it is done, so it's as well to plan for the minimum number of bounces.
Operating the Porta Two presents few problems, so long as you plan your session in advance, including any bounces that you might have to do.
As for flexibility, there will always be facilities you'd like that are absent, but you do get proper auxiliary sends (albeit only one per channel), and two invaluable insert points. Also important is the fact that Tape Outs are fitted, so you have the option of patching in to an external mixer.
But it would have been nice to have a stereo buss input, so that a small mixer could be added without tying up any of the existing channels. As things stand, you could just about feed a mixer in through the two aux returns.
Drop-ins are as free of clicks as you could expect from a cassette machine and are pretty much inaudible in a mix. But in any case, it's good practice to drop in and out on drum beats so that any discontinuities are masked.
The Porta Two absolutely eats batteries when used as a portable, but sadly that's one of those immutable laws of physics, and no fault of Tascam's.
Physically, the Porta Two's styling is as elegant and functional as its operation. It simply has to be considered good value for money.
Perhaps next year we'll see a Porta Three, with 12 mixer channels, a built-in MIDI sequencer and digital reverb. Who knows?
For now, though, the Porta Two is a machine that should make a lot of sense for a lot of musicians - no matter what kind of music they're trying to get down onto tape.
Price £625 including VAT