The New Portastudio
Tascam Porta One 4-track
what he said
WE MENTIONED at the end of our Tascam 225 cassette machine review in the August issue that what Tascam ought to be addressing themselves to is the market monopolised by the battery-powered, normal-tape-speed, 4-track, £300 Fostex X15 cassette recorder. Here now is the brand new Tascam Porta One, which just has to be what we were thinking about.
Tascam appear to launch new stuff on to the 4-track cassette market in two-year jumps: their original and at the time unique 144 Portastudio arrived properly in 1980; the updated 244 model with true 4-track recording capability and improved eq came along in 1982; now this year here's the Porta One. The difference is that this new model, at £400, is intended to be sold alongside the £700 244, whereas the 244 was a direct replacement for the 144. So yes, it is a separate market, say Tascam, and yes, we'd like some of that.
The Porta One is a chunky-looking package with, on the face of it, a rather daft name. All the controls and sections are kept flat, low lying. Consequently the top is relatively flat and gives little chance of you ever breaking anything off. It looks tough: the weakest points would be the overhanging tape pushbuttons down at the bottom right. Swing these past the rehearsal room door too carelessly and you could be minus a pause button. Course, there's always a Tascam case or carrying bag (extra), although the supplied carrying strap does keep the allegedly fragile switches snug to your side. It all feels a little heavier than the X15, and looks deeper (front to back) if not bigger all over.
It records on two tracks at a time, maximum, runs the tape at normal speed, and keeps noise at bay with dbx. The only real disadvantage of its inability to record on all four tape tracks simultaneously comes if you want to get a live performance down in one go but with the post-performance advantage of four discrete areas to mix from. Remember, this is a limitation on how many tape tracks you can record on at once — you can use as many of the four inputs you want, and still only record on to one tape track if you so wish, using the mixer level sliders to balance the four inputs together.
Running the tape at normal hi-fi cassette speed (1⅞in/s) is new to Tascam, who've previously opted for double speed (3¾in/s) and its supposed attendant quality increase. Only the Fostex X15 and the Yamaha MT44 have previously gone for relative normality in speed: Tascam's Porta One now shares a somewhat trifling gain in tape economy (how many cassettes do you use right to the end of the tape, anyway?), and a potentially more useful advantage in compatibility with ordinary stereo cassettes. But of course you should bear in mind that any prerecorded cassettes encoded with Dolby, B or C, won't sound perfect with the Porta One's on-board choice of dbx noise reduction. If you happen to have a lot of chrome tapes of stereo stuff recorded without noise reduction, then you'll enjoy full compatibility with the Porta One as a cassette playback machine. But you really had more creative pursuits in mind, right?
The manual is sensible in a slightly perverse American kind of way — frequency ranges take up nearly half a page, for example, showing you exactly how much tonal space those handy clarinets, tubas, cellos and opera singers are going to take up in your bedroom recordings. But at least this instruction book takes the time to explain things, and is relatively straightforward. Seems they just can't quite take the risk of assuming that we're all using drum machines, basses, keyboards and guitars with these 4-track recorders.
Simplicity has been allowed to call the shots on the Porta One, and it's aimed just about right. Even without the remote punch in/out footswitch, for which you have to pay more, working the Porta One on your own is easy.
The main controls consist of switches for various functions, "dipped" sliders for channel and master levels, and rotary controls with just-about-convex rubber-feeling tops and bright position markers: on each channel these control buss selection and input trim when recording, and stereo position and eq for mixing. These comfortably adjustable and clearly positioned rotaries also govern headphone volume and the levels of the "tape cue" mix: together these let you set up and hear an independent mix through headphones of previously recorded tracks in order for you to tape both musically and magnetically in time.
It's always seemed to me peculiar that 4-track cassette recorders will generally only offer this sort of "tape cue" mix to the headphone socket, making the assumption that you'll listen to your recordings build up only on headphones, perhaps only switching to a separate amp and speakers for monitoring when you mix the four completed tracks to a stereo master.
I rather like to monitor on speakers as I go along — most things I record involve directly plugged-in electric and electronic instruments, so there's nothing to worry about from feedback between the speakers and a mike. And also I like to hear some air moving around in response to my tapes, not some noisy insects in my ears. Use line-outs for your speakers and you'll have to set up all the tracks you want to hear for reference over the monitors as off-tape on their respective channels. This causes spillage of signal and you end up with a curious kind of summed signal on each tape track.
Tascam's Porta One is not alone in what I see as this shortcoming. But surely not everyone wants to use headphones nearly all of the time with their 4-track cassette?
I will criticise the Porta One directly, however, for its channel input switches and for its buss record function selector switches.
First, the channel input switch which selects where you want the input to the mixer sliders to come from: either from the jack sockets on the front, from a direct instrument or a mike; from recorded tape tracks; or left switched off.
A tiny plastic marker moves behind slots marked TAPE, OFF and MIC/LINE as you move the unlined Input switch. This makes it hard to see which mode you're in — I often found myself switching quickly up and down with them to find where I was, rather than gazing hard at the slots.
The buss record function selectors, off to the right of the mixer channels, select which track or pair of tracks you're recording on to (one to four individually, plus any of the twinned combinations). They suffer similarly: three-position up-and-down switches, unlined, which I nearly always had to fiddle with to know what was going on, despite a related LED nearby.
The two-band eq is set at the same points as the X15, a sensible 100Hz and 10kHz for boom and tizz (respectively). The four VU meters along the top are an improvement over the X15's LED/segment lights, in my view, but it depends what you're used to. Personally, I find it's easier with meters to get a feel for the "bounce" of the sound. So I like these.
Turn it on with either ten C-size batteries inside or a power adaptor plugged in (which you have to pay extra for if you want it). With batteries you only get the meters lit up momentarily for as long as you press the LIGHT button up top — otherwise it's darkness but for one power-on LED and the flashing (safe) or continuous (record) LED for buss record selection. With mains there is meter light constantly. Tascam reckon about eight hours for alkaline batteries: we slightly exceeded that without problems.
Turned on you can plug into four mike/line jacks at the front (hurrah for Tascam) and stick in only one pair of headphones. The remote footswitch jack is here too. On the left side is the rest of the minimal interconnection — four individual tape track phonos out, the left/right line out phonos pair, and the 11-15V "pin" mains adaptor socket.
Up top we also have a ±15% pitch slider (but don't use it as a real-time effect as it gives a "shuddering" side-effect). You can return to zero (mechanical) by pushbutton, and turn the dbx on or off as you choose.
The Porta One sounded good, the dbx a necessity and only interfering audibly to my ears when the drum machine's hi-hat went wild — on tape, it ended up a touch cloudy and ill-defined. Bass was clean, rounding off pleasantly with a hint of 100Hz boost. Bounces of even three tracks down to one, plus a live take, kept a semblance of separation about themselves and helped keep mixes clear and alive.
I like this box — and box it is. I found myself having to use the last seven issues of One Two to prop up the back and angle the works toward me when using the Porta One on a table top. It's simple and does the job well. If it turns out to be reliable, too, then it's a winner. And seeing as we're winning, what do we prophets reckon is coming next from Tascam? Well, back in issue number one, in the olden days, we chanced our arm and said that the 344 would be Tascam's first digital Portastudio.
TASCAM porta one 4-track: £400
Review by Tony Bacon
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