Since Fostex launched their brilliant little X-15, offering budget-priced entry into cassette-based multitrack home recording, it's been inevitable that their main market rivals, Teac/Tascam, would devise their own lower-cost multitracker sooner or later.
In fact Tascam's response has been slower than might have been expected, and now that it's actually here (in the form of the exceptionally neat and tidy Porta-1 Ministudio), instead of just aping the Fostex it appears that they have come up with their own idea about what constitutes the ideal basic multitracking recorder - and it doesn't compete head-on with the X-15; if anything it offers an altogether different level for beginners. Calling the Porta-1 a 'beginner's', machine, however, is a little unfair. In reality it's closer to the 244 Portastudio than the X-15 is to the Fostex 250 being, perhaps, halfway between the two extremes.
Smaller and lighter than the 244, provided with a carrying strap and optionally battery or mains powered, the Porta-1 could hardly be easier to use. Rather than go completely through the operating procedure though, a run-through of the Porta-1's basic recording process will probably best help you understand what it can do.
The Porta-1 uses high bias (TDK SA-X, Maxell UDXL IIS and suchlike) tapes and will replay standard stereo (ie 4 track, 2-channel) cassettes, but not 4-track tapes recorded on a 244. Having DBX noise reduction on a switch in/out system, however, means that Dolby C prerecorded tapes cannot be replayed successfully, and Dolby B noise reduced cassettes can only be accommodated by jiggling around with the replay Eq controls to compensate for treble loss. Ideally, when used for replaying normal stereo cassettes, they should be either minus noise reduction, or noise reduced via DBX.
Like the 244, the Porta-1 can only record on one side of a tape. A normal stereo cassette uses one side for a pair of tracks and, when turned over, presents the other pair to the replay head. On the Porta-1, four tracks are recorded across the width of a tape, (but with only 2 track recording being possible during one operation). The mixer, however, allows you to route up to four input signals to any one track.
The Porta-1's tape speed is half that of the 244 - the conventional 1 7/8 i.p.s. of normal Hi-Fi cassettes, which does threaten some degree of compromise on sound quality compared with the double speed 244 - but as this is what allows the machine to replay ordinary stereo cassettes, it's something which Tascam must be assuming is of greater significance than ultimate sound quality.
The Porta-1's mixer section is a splendid study in ergonomics. The rotary pots are soft rubber surfaced; rewardingly easy to get hold of with sweaty hands mid-session - they feel positively sexy! Operating controls, too, are easy to handle and sensibly placed.
Having plugged your mike or line source into the front panel 1/4" jack sockets (an adaptor is available for mikes with balanced XLR plugs) you have a Vu meter for each channel, plus mixer controls for 'trim' (to adjust the input level to the optimum point before distortion), 'Eq high', 'Eq low' and 'pan' controls. Following these are very smooth-actioned fader controls for 'channel level'. Finally, there is a 'Mic/Line', 'Off' and 'Tape' selector switch which governs input type selection.
Aside of the mixer section, controls are also provided for master level, phones output, pitch control (essential for matching slightly off-tune instruments to existing recorded tracks), record function Bus L and Bus R controls (used to select tracks '1/2', '3/4' or 'safe'), a 'Tape Cue' set of four more of those superb rubberised pots, DBX in/out switch, power on/off, Vu meter lights on or off (and there's a very crude joke that runs like that, which I shan't be repeating here!), tape 'return to zero' controls and the tape transport controls themselves.
Supposing that you have recorded your first 'take' on track 1 (using Bus Left to send it to tracks 1/2 and the Pan control set to left - avoiding using track 2), you can now rewind and (setting your phones level via No. 1 tape cue) hear the true hideousness of what you've played! Now's where the fun really starts!
Here you can begin that magical procedure known as 'overdubbing'. By setting the Bus R record function to Track 2, you then reverse the throw of the Pan 1 pot to full right. Hit 'Record', set your input level, Eq etc. and you're into the second track, hearing track 1 in perfect synch. Switching back to the 'safe' mode once more, you can now hear tracks one and two together. Like the result? If so, it's time to move on.
Now you can begin to get into some really creative multitracking, by collapsing (or 'ping-ponging') several tracks down together. Suppose you want all your backing tracks on one track, leaving vocals and lead instruments separate for a final mix-down from the last two? In this case the next move would be to record any extra rhythm parts you wanted onto track 3 (maybe even 3 and 4 if you wanted to). As with the Tascam 244, the procedure then is to mix tracks 1-3 down to track 4, (a simple process using the built-in mixer) while adding a live 'take' to the final result - the whole backing winding-up on track 4. With care (and the help of Tascam's particularly thorough handbook) you can actually record up to ten tracks without rerecording any one (and losing too much signal quality in the process)!
The next stage, with your rhythm tracks on track 4, might be to record vocals or solos - after all, you've still got three tracks spare. Thus the process continues till you have the final result; possibly the backing tracks ping-ponged down together onto one or two tracks, solos and vocals separated on tracks of their own.
Final mixing down to twin-track stereo (using another cassette machine) is equally easy, and you can also employ 'drop-in' effects, replacing a section where you fluffed a note or two, either by switching swiftly from Record to Play at the bodge in question, or (much better for one-person use) by getting a Tascam RC-30P electronic footswitch, which enables you to play tape op. and musician simultaneously. Having lived with a 244 for a year or so I'd say that one of these was an essential buy - especially if you work on your own.
Here endeth the 'general operating principles' of the Porta-1 - what follows now is how I found the machine as a practical proposition.
Delight No.1 is that the new Tascam will happily accept inputs from mikes (both low and high impedance types) instruments, rhythm units etc. It doesn't have any provision for 'looping' effects via send and returns so, unless you're prepared to connect these in-line with your mike or instrument, this could be seen as a drawback, especially since some form of reverb is always a help when recording. The Eq facilities on the Porta-1, whilst not as advanced as those on the 244, are actually rather effective. Yes, the 244's are better - but these are almost certainly good enough for the majority of users, both being 'shelving' types at 100Hz (Low) and 10 kHz (High), offering +/-10dB of cut and boost.
Final mix-down can be via cans or monitors, with full level control, and a more than adequate sprinkling of LEDs on the Tascam makes it unlikely that you'd make any serious mistakes by wiping a valuable track - 'over-recording' safeguards are more than adequate, in fact. Construction of the Porta-1 was as good as we've come to expect from Tascam - yes, a shade plasticky; but as a pro-class Studer or Otari reel-to-reel machine would set you back a good few grand, who's arguing when the Porta-1 costs just £429! The tape transport on my sample seemed to be very stable and the sound quality only really betrayed the slower tape speed when compared directly with material recorded on a Tascam 244 or (Dolby C noise reduced) Fostex 250. On its own you'd be extremely unlikely to notice any problems from either the higher hiss level or loss of absolute fidelity due to the slower tape speed.
DBX? Well, in my opinion it isn't as good as Dolby C, but that's from using the two side-by-side. The objection to 'pumping' effects on fast transients (drum beats, etc.) may have some validity if one is being ultimately fussy but, once you've mixed down to stereo, any differences seem to me to get overshadowed almost completely. DBX is more than good enough - certainly at this price, I'd suggest.
A really major factor in the Porta-1's favour is its ease of operation. The marvellously thorough handbook the Tascam comes with will guide you through any session you may want to undertake, and the machine itself is logically laid-out, quite a bit easier to use, in fact, than the 244.
Whether or not the portability of the Tascam will mean anything to you is a moot point. Using ten HP11 batteries (at no small cost!) you only get around 8 hours' use, and mains would be a much better option: quite possible via Tascam's PS-P1 adaptor.
Once you get used to unfamiliar terms like 'Bus', 'Trim' and so on, you should be operating your Porta-1 with real ease within a few hours of getting it home. Carefully operated (especially with regard to setting levels - and the manual helps a great deal here) with the heads kept religiously clean and de-magnetised (again, instructions are in the manual), the sound quality is remarkably high.
Any musician who's held-off buying a 4-track cassette recorder through price or just hesitation that he or she wouldn't be able to operate it simply must get to see a demo of the new Porta-1. For really low entry-level multitracking, the Fostex X-15 (at around £100 less than the Porta-1) still represents the base-level entry to multitracking (and thus retains its excellent value for money), but the the Porta-1 does offer considerably more flexibility and capability and is worth saving that small extra amount for, if you can manage it.
Whichever way I look at it, the Porta-1 looks like being a winner - a certain, surefire introduction on the road to full-blooded reel-to-reel multitracking. Not only is the Porta-1 a worthwhile newcomer, it's built for easy use, is capable of excellent results and represents a fine buy for the price.
£429.00 inc. VAT
More details from Harman (U.K.) Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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