CASSETTE LOAD: latest TEAC tape deck/four track/DBX noise reduction/review... READ
It's more than two years since Tascam launched the Portastudio 144, their first four-track cassette machine and mixer. In the meantime, the inevitable competition has materialised (primarily the Fostex, though RSD have something, and MTR have a unit promised).
Tascam's reaction to this competition and, I'm sure they would point out, to their own internal R&D stimulation is the new Portastudio 244 — effectively an updated improvement upon their ground-breaking 144.
The modifications are welcome and effective. They will almost certainly leave 144 owners jealous and send the other makers scurrying to their research labs.
Let's dwell on the changes between this and the old, now discontinued 144, assuming that you're generally aware of the four-track cassette machine's inherent capabilities.
Suffice to say the prime attraction to One Two readers is the ability to make four-track multitrack recordings via the self-contained four-channel mixer and various switching functions, recording on to a regular cassette running at double normal cassette speed (ie 3¾in/s). The four tracks take up the whole of the width of the tape, therefore meaning one-direction use of cassettes (which must be pseudo-chrome types, like TDK SA).
Perhaps the 244's most significant sonic improvement is the replacement of the 144's Dolby-B noise reduction circuit with a dbx II system. Tascam will happily quote relevant statistics like signal/noise ratios, which will tickle engineers' fancies.
What is important to you or me is that dbx works well and efficiently — good noise reduction is essential in multitracking if you're not to lose your instruments in a wash of noise and hiss. To these ears dbx II is an improvement over Dolby-B.
The other major plus is found in the eq facilities for each channel on the 244's mixer. Where the 144 had simple treble and bass controls, the 244 relies heavily on a more advanced parametric eq system, so-called because the operator has more control over the parameters of the equalisation. You follow?
Okay: there are in effect four pots, but they are two dual-ganged rotaries — in other words there's one pot sitting on top of another. The bottom part of each eq pot selects the frequency at which it operates (on one from 62Hz to 1.5kHz, on the other from 1kHz to 8kHz), while the top part controls gain at the selected frequency.
Initially you might find these fiddly, and perhaps even moan that there's too much variation allowed. What you'll come to realise is that the parametrics allow much wider and yet more precise access to tonal modification and enhancement.
Or, if you prefer, it helps you to make it sound different. The gain part of the ganged pot is zeroed at the centre, with up to 15dB of cut to the left or boost to the right. A slot on the top lets you see the gain control's relative position quickly, whereas you have to feel for the slot on the frequency selector bit. This is a little cumbersome, but there's no real alternative.
The fact is that the two eq pots, given that they overlap effectively between 1kHz and 1.5kHz, allow you to pinpoint two frequencies around which you intend to work in the range from the low bass of 62Hz to the stinging treble of 8kHz.
Flexibility is the key to the success of this modification: three parametrics would have been even better.
Lucky 244 owners will have other advantages over 144 people. For example the 244 has a four-track all-at-once facility, so you can copy your pal's four-track tapes at a stroke, or capture your occasional live outburst with the benefit of four available tracks at which to direct your churning air and electricity.
Really useful, as well, is the addition of overload LEDs for each channel and for left and right master fader.
On the channels, these help adjust the fader and associated trim control to obtain the highest useable level from your input, be it microphone, direct instrument, or whatever you decide to record. This allows you to keep just below the overload point, and speeds things up no end at the early stages of recording.
The master overload LEDs are more helpful at mixdown, when you decide how to combine your recorded tracks on to a separate stereo tape recorder. You're also able on the 244, via an optional footswitch, to replace or improve individual performances already on tape, without the need of a third hand. One-person operation is thus a doddle.
Also found to be a big bonus in our magnetic meanderings were the 244's improved patching possibilities. Increased versatility and stereo capability are the main modifications in this area, a prime example of which is the stereo auxiliary circuit which is accessible on each channel of the mixer and is switchable to include or exclude the fader and eq settings.
There's also now room for you to plug in two sets of headphones, thus beating the anti-social 144's single can socket.
On the 244 you can monitor what you're sending out of the auxiliary circuit by flicking the monitor switch beyond the 144's standard remix and cue positions. And you can break into each channel's circuit to add an effects unit by removing the U-shaped links sitting in the sockets marked "Access" on the back panel.
A three-motor cassette transport improves upon the 144's two-motor version, the old mechanical tape counter is replaced with a much flashier fluorescent green display, and there's a return-to-zero function saving the argy-bargy of finding the start of a piece.
The instruction manual is vast. It could have done with basic set-ups and techniques first, rather than launching straight into a science lesson. But full marks to Manual Dept for being thorough and at least attempting to gauge the average owner's approach.
The 244 is yours for £600, making it a sizeable investment. If you can't quite run to that sort of boodle, it might be shrewd to expect increased numbers of 144s to appear soon on the second-hand market.
But the 244 is undoubtedly the Tascam to aim for, and we have a sneaking suspicion that it may well remain in production longer than its predecessor. Perhaps the 344 will be the first of the digital Portastudios?
Enquiries: Harman UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Tony Bacon
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