Tascam Studio 8
Continuing the tradition that began with their 144 Portastudio, Tascam have created a combined package of mixer and 8-track recorder - the 388 Studio 8 - whose compact dimensions belie its true versatility. Dave Lockwood assesses its performance.
The Tascam Studio 8 is an integrated recorder/mixer which represents an interesting development of the 'Portastudio' concept. A quarter-inch reel-to-reel multitrack tape machine is housed alongside the comprehensively equipped eight channel mixer in the substantial console, requiring only the addition of suitable monitoring to form a complete, and quite sophisticated, 8-track recording system. We asked recording engineer Dave Lockwood to put it through its paces.
Many musicians and songwriters have come to appreciate the sheer convenience of cassette-based personal multitrack systems, with their extreme ease of use and domestic acceptability. However, being limited to 4-track working can prove frustrating, whilst the appeal of a budget 8-track component system may sometimes be tempered by the necessary proliferation of cabling and connections which, for the non-technically minded, can seem rather daunting. The main attraction of the Studio 8 may well be its operational simplicity and convenience features, although it does in fact manage to achieve this without unduly limiting the scope and flexibility available to the more experienced operator like myself.
First off, let me say that the Studio 8 is not exactly the most portable of units; at 38kg in weight and measuring 33"x25"x9", it definitely requires two strong people to lift it. It is presumably intended to be installed and then operated in one position, but with this in mind it does seem unfortunate that all the connections have to be made to the rear panel, for this makes positioning against a wall impractical - and whilst the addition of an external patchbay might get round this problem, it would also rather seem to negate one of the reasons for the existence of the unit.
The tape machine section which occupies the whole of the right-hand side of the console has a large perspex cover to protect the complete transport and head-block assembly. This is a good idea, as once the tape has been threaded up, the cover can be kept closed throughout operation, thus reducing the chances of dust and dirt accumulating in this area. The combined record/reproduce head, and the erase head are very accessible for cleaning and demagnetising; indeed the horizontal positioning of the recorder should make the routine maintenance of the whole tape path less of a chore as everything is comfortably visible from the operating position. Editing should prove quite simple for the same reasons, although it is not often necessary to edit the multitrack master in music recording, most people being content to perform any necessary edits on the stereo master, for if you foul-up the edit, you can at least do another mix and try again!
The recorder accommodates 7" reels and is recommended for use with 1 mil tape (1800 feet on a seven inch spool). Surprisingly, the single tape speed selected is 7½ ips (19 cm/s) which, whilst it outperforms cassette-based systems using a similar track width, surely cannot be said to have squeezed the best possible performance out of this format.
The tape transport controls are located, logically, just below the recorder. In addition to the obvious Play, Record, Stop and Fast Wind controls, some interesting extra facilities are featured in this department, operating in conjunction with the excellent real-time counter provided, which displays actual elapsed time in minutes and seconds. The accurate, electronically driven five digit display facilitates the inclusion of some useful autolocate and user-convenience functions.
Once a tape has been threaded onto the machine, pushing the Load switch causes the transport to advance to a suitable distance into the reel, and then automatically prevent the tape from overshooting that point in rewind, for as long as the Load switch remains on. Provided the specified tape is being used, the transport will display a similar intelligence at the other end of the reel and thus save the user the inconvenience of ever having to stop work to re-thread the tape in the middle of a session - quite an asset to those used to the infallibility of cassettes, or people frustrated by machines of lesser sophistication in this department, like my own Tascam 38 whose notoriously vague Zero-search facility seems capable of flying off the end of the reel surprisingly often when the cue-point is anywhere near the beginning of the tape.
Reset sets the counter to zero, defining the reference point for the other functions - normally it makes sense for this to be at the start of the current piece to be worked on. Pressing RTZ (return-to-zero) at anytime will then send the transport into rewind mode, slowing down as it approaches the zero point, and stopping with impressive accuracy without overshooting or having to shuttle backwards and forwards. If Play is selected at any time whilst the machine is returning-to-zero, the tape will automatically play from zero - a most welcome feature which enables you to be much more usefully occupied whilst the track is rewinding.
Further sophistication is provided by the Cue facility. Pressing the Cue switch, either when the tape is in motion or stationary, memorizes the current counter reading and thereby defines the cue-point. This cue number can be updated at anytime, simply by pressing the switch again, overwriting the previously memorized point with a new counter reading. Once a useful cue-point has been stored, the STC (search-to-cue) function may then be used at anytime, in a similar fashion to the RTZ facility, to rewind the tape exactly to the specified location. Search-to-Cue-and-Play is also recognised by this machine, and is obviously every bit as useful as RTZ/Play.
A Check switch is provided, enabling the currently stored Cue position to be displayed on the counter - it can be advantageous to make a note of useful cue-points before updating them, as this can considerably assist in knowing exactly where you are in the song, especially during the early stages when there is often no vocal to follow. It should be noted that, unlike the Load function, the Cue facility does not actually define an exact position on the tape, but stores a counter reading relative to the zero point; consequently if the zero is reset for any reason, the cue-point will have moved with it.
A repeat facility is also featured which, when selected, causes the machine to play from zero to the Cue location, then rewind back to zero and automatically enter Play mode again, continuously cycling through these functions until instructed to stop. Block Repeat certainly can be a most valuable function, especially when working out new parts for a recording or rehearsing a solo; however, I feel it is a little unfortunate that this system only operates from zero, for the user will not always want to repeat a section that begins at the start of the song, but neither is it particularly convenient to move the zero point away from its logical position just before the count in. A repeat function that worked between the, already mobile, cue-point and an additional, definable 'repeat point', enabling just a chorus or middle-eight to be repeated, would be much more in accord with most people's normal working methods.
In fact, when recording a piece that begins near the start of the reel, it is actually possible to achieve something quite similar to the situation described by utilizing the Load function's autostop facility as a substitute zero-return (ie. just hitting the ordinary Rewind button can be depended upon to always take you back to the same point near the start of the song), and then employing the zero re-set switch to mark the first cue location, with the actual Cue facility then used to memorize a second cue-point, thus enabling the repeat facility to shuttle between the two stored, user-definable locations.
All the transport controls, and their auxiliary functions, are activated by suitably sized soft-touch switches set into individual recesses, effectively preventing accidental operation. The layout is very logical even if some of the control designations seem a little obscure until you are fully familiar with them - I found 'STC' all too easy to mistakenly interpret as 'Store-Cue' rather than its actual meaning of 'Search-to-Cue' and on several occasions achieved a result very different from the one I had intended!
The tape handling characteristics achieved by the three motor (DC servo controlled) transport are most impressive, with both fast wind times and positive stopping. The limited range of on-board autolocate functions proved very useful, and certainly made for faster, more efficient working in most situations; however, the slight 'hunting' of the transport in the zero-search or search-to-cue modes, although readily acceptable on an average length of wind can, paradoxically, cause the machine to seem frustratingly slow over a very short distance. But these are, admittedly, relatively minor points for a unit in this sector of the market, and in general the transport control is a pleasure to use, and stands in favourable comparison with equivalent systems.
Adjacent to the transport controls a tape lifter mechanism is provided for allowing the tape to pass over the heads during fast spooling, creating a facility similar to the 'Cue' and 'Review' functions found on some portable cassette players. This device should be used with some caution however, for at working monitor levels it would be fairly easy to destroy the top-end components of many types of domestic loudspeaker systems with the potentially resultant bursts of intense HF. Accelerated head wear from the abrasive properties of tape at high speed also needs to be taken into account, making the inclusion of this device possibly of rather dubious value.
A plus or minus 15% varispeed control is offered, enabling the speed, and hence the pitch, of a recording to be altered, for corrective or artistic purposes. One particularly effective creative use is 'varispeed double-tracking' where the second, unison part is recorded with the tape running at a very slightly increased or decreased speed. When the parts are replayed together, an extremely clean and noise-free chorus effect is generated; if the two tracks are panned to opposite sides of the stereo image, the spacious ambient quality is further enhanced. A most interesting additional feature of the Tascam 388 is the option of putting the transport under the external control of a SMPTE timecode interlock system via a multipin accessory terminal on the rear panel, significantly extending the value of this machine in audio-visual work, or as part of an electronic/sequencer based music system.
The specification of the recorder states a frequency response of 30Hz to 16kHz, whilst the signal to noise ratio claimed, with the built-in dbx noise reduction system switched on, is a surprising 90dB. With eight tracks crammed onto quarter-inch tape, and a tape running speed of only 7½ ips, the 30dB or so of noise reduction offered by the dbx system is probably essential to the achievement of a subjectively acceptable overall noise performance in this machine.
An individual 'dbx defeat' facility is offered on channel 8, enabling a timecode, clock, or other sync track to be recorded without risk of being corrupted by the dbx's compander processing - a sensible provision which I was able to verify the value of by reliably syncing a Yamaha RX Series drum machine (a notoriously fussy unit in this respect) to its own taped clock signal throughout the test period. Curiously, in my view, dbx defeat switches are provided also for the other tracks, switched in blocks of four (1-4,5-8); indeed they are quite prominently located among the main controls. Individual switches, giving an option for any signal that might be upset by the system, I could understand, but this seems a rather half-hearted compromise.
The mixer section, which occupies the left hand side of the console, consists of eight identically equipped input channels feeding the eight main program busses, with a dedicated stereo mix-buss and an eight-way stereo monitor mix panel. The input channels are switchable between Mic and Line inputs, and 'RMX' (Remix), which automatically routes the output of the recorder into that channel for mixdown or track-bouncing, without the need for any re-patching.
An overload LED indicator and a gain control, designated 'Trim', are provided to assist with level setting, although the gain control is inoperative on the line input, presumably because line level sources invariably have their own level controls. This limitation did prove something of a nuisance in practice, for some of the voices on the DX7 used during testing did not have sufficient output to fully drive the system, even with the instrument's output at its maximum setting. If a line gain control was felt to be unnecessary, a little more line sensitivity might have been appropriate, for whilst it is always feasible to use a Direct Inject box via the mic input, it should hardly be obligatory.
A three-band sweep equaliser is provided, offering 15dB of cut or boost, with overlapping bands: 50Hz to 1kHz, 500Hz to 5kHz, and 2.5kHz to 15kHz. A sweep equaliser such as this needs to be used with discretion for with all three bands able to operate in the midrange area, harsh and unpleasant effects can all too easily be generated. However, subtle corrective use, employing the cut facility in preference to boosting where possible, seems capable of producing the desired result in most circumstances, without undue subjective signal deterioration or noise.
Two auxiliary sends are featured, one fixed (post-fade) dedicated effects send, and one switchable (pre/post-fade) send, capable of being used for foldback during recording, and then switched to act as another effects send during mixdown. This is a well thought out system and enables the best possible use of the limited auxiliary facilities. Auxiliary master output controls assist in matching levels to any outboard equipment, and two dedicated effects returns are provided with level and pan controls, facilitating proper use of stereo effects such as reverb, or the creation of artificial stereo placement with panned delays, and similar techniques.
Signal routing could not be more straightforward; all eight program busses are internally connected to their appropriate recorder input and can be accessed simultaneously,and in combination, via the paired buss select switches, operating in conjunction with the pan pot. Two group master faders are provided, each handling four of the program busses, divided into odd and even-numbered groups. Routing directly to the stereo buss is achieved through the 'L-R' assign switches, during mixdown, or for using the mixer section alone for PA work.
Interestingly, when a channel which is already assigned to any of the eight main program busses has its 'L-R' switch also pressed, that channel is isolated into the monitoring, without interrupting the group/tape feeds, thus effectively creating a 'PFL' facility, which at first appears to be absent from this mixer.
One unfortunate drawback to this novel configuration that I encountered was that, in overriding the monitor mix, the system seems unable therefore, to allow certain tracks to be monitored via the input channels, during overdubbing, whilst the rest of the monitor mix remains via the monitor panel. This prevents the EQ and effects from being available for quickly sweetening or cleaning up just one or two tracks in the monitor mix - a technique which normally would assist in being able to make an early assessment of vital tracks by placing them in a more realistic context as soon as possible.
The metering on the Tascam Studio 8 is certainly comprehensive with a separate, internally illuminated VU meter, with LED peak indicator, for each of the eight main busses. Off-tape signals are metered automatically whenever appropriate, following the recorder logic, making this aspect of the system foolproof, even during complex drop-in procedures. Two larger VUs, plus LEDs, are provided for the stereo buss, and these can also be switched to read the output of the two auxiliary busses, if necessary. These meters are no better, and no worse, than any other small moving-coil meter to be found in this type of equipment, which means they are inevitably slow, and under-read on transients, so the LED's indication should certainly be given priority on percussive signals.
The input channel, group, and ganged stereo master faders are all of a similar type, with the shortish travel usually found on equipment aimed primarily at the home recording market. However, resistance to movement is reasonably consistent from one fader to the next, and along the length of the travel, making the desk feel predictable and quite pleasant to operate during mixing.
The simple 8-2 monitor panel uses a rotary level pot and a pan control for each channel. The monitors work in conjunction with, and are sensibly placed right next to, the individual track 'record ready' switches, which are equipped with LED status indicators.
Once again, switching between tape or source signals is semi-automatic, with the LED flashing when a channel is selected to 'record ready', and remaining on continuously once the record mode is actually entered.
In both these conditions, only the input signal will be heard via the monitor pot, irrespective of whether the tape is stationary or in Play mode. A separate procedure is therefore provided for dropping-in, where it is necessary to monitor the off-tape signal until the drop-in is performed, whereupon the input signal needs to be heard, finally reverting to off-tape signals again if necessary, after dropping-out. A switch designated 'PGM/CUE' (program/cue) determines whether the monitor panel receives signals that are independent of, or governed by,the recorder status, whilst an additional 'Insert' switch can be selected to engage the automatic monitor switching required specifically by a drop-in, as previously described. Selection of the 'PGM' setting takes priority over the Insert function, however, in the 'Cue' mode, with 'Insert' de-selected, it is then feasible to use a record ready switch to rehearse a drop-in with correct monitor status throughout. Although this may at first seem a little unnecessarily complicated, the system certainly ensures maximum flexibility and operator convenience and, once mastered, soon becomes greatly appreciated for its practical value.
The Tascam 388 is quite well equipped on its rear connection panel, with the eight mic inputs on standard balanced XLR connectors (unfortunately phantom power for condenser mics has not been provided), and the line inputs on quarter-inch jacks. Each channel is also fitted with an Insert Point, unusually these days consisting of separate Send and Receive sockets (quarter-inch jacks). The insert send is post-EQ, which has always seemed the best arrangement to me, particularly when processors such as compressors or gates are patched in, whilst the break-jack is logically placed on the return side enabling the send to act as an additional direct output if desired, without interrupting the signal flow within the channel. These interfaced quite happily with a likely assortment of outboard gear, from quality rackmounted processors to some of the better guitar pedals! Of course, the use of two separate mono jack sockets means that no special patch leads have to be acquired, unlike the commonly used single stereo jack, combined send/return insert point.
An array of standard phono sockets gives access to the recorder inputs for an external mixer, as well as offering the group outputs perhaps for connecting to an additional or alternative recorder. Direct feeds of the recorder's off-tape signals are also made available. The stereo buss output appears via a pair of (+4dBm) XLR sockets, which can switch between balanced or unbalanced operation (wired Pin 3 'hot', Pin 2 'cold', Pin 1 ground in balanced mode; Pin 2 strapped to Pin 1 for unbalanced working), but the output is also duplicated with a pair of (-10dBV) phonos ensuring the maximum possibility of convenient interfacing in any situation. The dedicated Monitor output also appears on a pair of phonos, whilst the auxiliaries offer a choice of quarter-inch jacks or phonos on both the sends and returns.
A remote control socket, accepting Tascam's standard transport remote (RC71), and the multi-pin accessory terminal socket for SMPTE interface or Tascam's more sophisticated remote/autolocate (AQ65), completes this area in which the Studio 8 is most impressively comprehensive. The only connections not made to this panel are for the optional drop-in footswitch, and a pair of stereo headphone feeds which are located well on the front edge of the unit. The adjacent headphone volume pot also controls the level available at the Monitor phono outputs.
In use, the Studio 8 certainly proved easy to become familiar with in a relatively short time, and its logical organisation and convenience features will earn appreciation from all types of user. However, a device of this nature must ultimately be assessed on the quality of sound it can produce, and this area was the cause of some reservation.
Wide range input signals displayed discernible thickening, with a lifting of the bottom-end, and curtailment of high frequency content, especially when direct comparison was able to be made between the off-tape signal and the original input. It would be wholly unrealistic, of course, to expect there to be no perceivable difference, but when a first generation recording shows significant deterioration, the thought of having to bounce tracks within the machine (a fairly normal technique of 8-track working) becomes a less than attractive prospect. This is an unexpected area of disappointment, as adjacent track bouncing is even feasible on this system, further adding to its potential.
It would be easy to primarily suspect the on-board dbx processing as being responsible for the apparent limitations; however, I have been using a pair of Tascam's DX4D noise reduction units, utilising the same dbx Type 1 system, for some time now, with entirely satisfactory results, and I know therefore, that this effect is certainly not an inherent factor in their companding process. But dbx Type 1 is known to require a specific minimum standard of performance in the subject recorder, in order to avoid tracking-error side-effects, and the assumption must be that eight tracks on quarter-inch tape, particularly running at only 7½ ips, is somewhere near the limit.
As always when dbx is employed, noise modulation or compander 'breathing' effects can be audible, but only in the presence of signals where all the high frequencies that would normally mask the effect have been artificially removed. But this situation so rarely arises in normal recording that this aspect of the problem is, in practice, negligible. I have, in fact, often felt that the kind of test performed specifically to 'catch out' the dbx system is of no relevance at all to most real situations!
Once you are aware of the alteration to the frequency spectrum that the recorder imposes, it is possible to compensate for it to some degree by appropriate equalisation on to tape (at the recording stage). Care must be taken to try to generate a reasonably smooth interaction between the slightly 'peaky' EQ controls, aiming to gently slope the HF upwards, and rolling-off a little of the bottom-end. The successful formula for this seems to vary from source to source however, so experience and trial and error are the best bet.
A primary factor responsible for the audio performance of the Studio 8 seems likely to be the choice of the 7½ ips tape speed. 1800 feet of 1 mil tape results in a playing time of approximately 40 minutes, so the superior quality that can be achieved by the higher 15 ips running speed would have meant a limitation to just 20 minutes per reel. Nevertheless, personally I believe the trade-off would have been worthwhile. Perhaps a dual-speed machine, giving a choice between longer time and maximum quality, would have been the best compromise.
The Tascam 388 Studio 8 represents a bold attempt to create an integrated, user-friendly unit in the 'Portastudio' tradition, but employing more sophisticated elements. It is able to offer some worthwhile advantages in terms of ease of use, particularly for the less technically minded, without seriously compromising the possibilities available to the more adventurous operator. Indeed, the comprehensive interfacing facilities, and particularly the SMPTE control option, are an imaginative inclusion and a distinct creative asset in a unit of this type.
The logical layout and many automatic functions, all well detailed in the exemplary Operation/Maintenance manual provided, almost guarantee fast, efficient working right from the start, and the unit could well appeal greatly to songwriters who may be more concerned with getting parts down onto tape quickly to keep the ideas flowing, than with producing a stunningly recorded master.
The quality attainable certainly also exceeds the requirements of many types of A/V production work: jingles, adverts, multilingual commentaries etc. often finish up in a medium that completely wastes the care lavished in their production.
It is only in contention for the accolade of the ultimate home demo system that the Studio 8 may possibly disappoint, for in terms of audio performance alone, I feel that it loses out to its nearest equivalent component system, and is forced to fall back on its undoubted appeal as the most compact, tidy, domestically convenient 8-track production system currently available.
The Tascam 388 retails for around £2700.
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Review by Dave Lockwood
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