8-track Without Tears
It's more than a Portastudio; 8-track reel-to-reel and mixing facilities all in one unit - the Tascam 388.
Paul White lends a critical ear and a discerning eye to the Tascam 388 studio package.
It may seem strange that Tascam have stuck to the Portastudio concept of everything in one box when producing an 8-track system, after all, don't you lose a lot of flexibility? To those of us who love working in a sea of cables with patchbays and wiring harnesses everywhere it may seem that the compromise is too great, but then we may well have a room that can be used as a permanent studio. Others may not be so fortunate. If your recording activities have to co-exist with normal family life (whatever that is), a package like this can make a lot of sense, especially when you consider that with only a couple of phono leads you can plug into the auxiliary socket of your hi-fi and start recording. When you've finished, you close the lid, unplug he leads and slide it behind the settee. If this concept appeals to you, then read on.
A detailed description is best carried out by considering the mixer section and the tape recorder as separate items, but first an overview.
The 388 is an 8-track recorder with an integral 8-channel mixer and features switchable DBX noise reduction, full logic tape transport with Zero Search and Cue memories, and a unique Load feature which prevents the tape running off the spool when in fast wind. A single tape speed of 7.5ips has been chosen which along with a quarter inch tape width should offer considerable advantages over cassette-based systems in terms of sound quality, and of course open reel tape is also much easier to edit.
In the mixer department, the 388 sports 3-band sweep equalisation on all channels as well as the usual selection of auxiliaries and all the microphone inputs are electronically balanced using XLR sockets. Included in the mixer is a comprehensive monitor section including a headphone output and the record status switches for the recorder are also housed in this section. Finally the 388 is not only equipped to accept an optional remote control unit but it is also designed to interface to a SMPTE/EBU system for synchronisation to audio/visual presentations or electronic music which uses a SMPTE time-base.
Having whetted your appetite, it's now time to delve into the details of the system.
The whole package measures some 837 x 220 x 641mm and weighs a not inconsiderable 38kg. The recorder section takes up the entire right hand side of the unit. A perspex lid covers the tape transport section and this only needs to be opened when you are loading tapes, cleaning the heads or editing. The rest of the time it can stay closed to keep the dust away from the tape guides and heads. In common with most modern multitrack recorders at the budget end of the market, the 388 utilises the same head for recording and playback which eliminates any sync problems and the whole tape path is easily accessible for cleaning. Ideally you should only use 7 inch reels of tape in this machine and these must be of the 1800ft variety in order not to confuse the Load facility of which more will be said later.
Directly below the tape transport are the recorder transport controls which are recessed into the panel to minimise the risk of inadvertent operation. The tape counter is an electronically driven five digit display that shows elapsed time in minutes and seconds, rather than feet of tape which seems a good idea, and it can also display the cue position if required, on pressing the Check button. To the bottom left of the panel are the usual transport controls Play, Record, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind. The only out of the ordinary thing about this section is that once you have set a track ready to record, you can switch from play to record simply by pressing Record. You don't need to press both Play and Record in this mode.
Above these familiar controls is a further row of buttons which may be slightly less obvious.
Reset sets the tape counter to zero whilst RTZ, the adjacent button causes the transport to return to the zero position. If you press Play whilst the tape is searching for zero, the machine will automatically go into play when zero has been found. The actual search system is more sophisticated than that used on the Tascam 38 as it slows down before the required position is reached and so stops accurately without having to overshoot and shuttle back and forth.
"If your recording activities have to co-exist with normal family life (whatever that is), a package like this can make a lot of sense."
Next comes STC or Search To Cue and this causes the transport to search for and stop at the location set up by the Cue button. The Cue button may be used when the transport is in motion or when the tape is at rest and any previously recorded cue value will be replaced by the number currently showing on the tape counter. If the counter is reset after the cue is set, the cue position will be located with reference to the new zero position and so will be incorrect. Pressing the Check button at any time will cause the display to indicate the cue position.
Repeat is a novel feature which causes the tape to play from zero to the cue location, after which it rewinds automatically and plays again. This continues until the Repeat button is pressed again to terminate the function and is useful for practising drop-ins.
Last but not entirely least is the button known to its friends as Load. Once a new tape is threaded onto the machine, Load can be pressed and this will wind on the tape to a safe distance from the start and then automatically prevent the tape from being rewound beyond that point. As the tape length specified is a standard 1800ft, the system can also put on the brakes before the other end runs off the spool and so you are spared the inconvenience of having constantly to rethread the tape. The Repeat and Load buttons have status LEDs as do the Record, Play and Fast Wind buttons.
To the right of these transport controls is the Tape Lifter which allows the tape to come into contact with the heads during fast wind. This is a common means of cueing but it does accelerate head wear if used to excess and the high frequency output can give your tweeters a hard time unless you keep the level turned well down.
Lastly, to the right of the transport control panel is a section that has nothing whatsoever to do with transport. This is the monitor section which allows you to route either the Stereo output, the Auxiliary output or the Effects output to the monitors and phones. The phone socket is conveniently positioned on the front edge of the machine below these controls and an overall Monitor Level control governs the signal level fed to the monitoring system and to the headphone output.
There are two controls associated with the varispeed function; a rotary speed control and a selector switch. The switch has three positions for FIXed speed, VARispeed and EXTernal. Though the first two positions are self explanatory, EXT may be unfamiliar. This relinquishes control of the tape speed to an external device plugged into the accessory jack on the rear panel and this device would normally be a SMPTE controller of some kind.
The DBX noise reduction is not switchable on individual channels but is configured as two groups of four. Two push buttons let you select DBX In or Out on channels one to four and channels five to eight, but there is an extra rear panel switch that lets you disable the DBX on channel eight only. This is useful as you may want to record a time code onto one channel, and these often work better when recorded without noise reduction. As the operation of DBX has been covered on previous occasions, there is no need to delve into its workings in any depth save to say that it is a compander based system. The signal is compressed when recorded and expanded by a similar amount when re-played which dramatically reduces tape hiss but of course does nothing to eliminate noise already present in the input signal.
"In the mixer department, the 388 sports 3-band sweep equalisation on all channels as well as the usual selection of auxiliaries and all the microphone inputs are electronically balanced."
There are two ways of dropping into record and the easiest is to set up the desired track in the ready-to-record mode and then hit Play at the appropriate time. To drop out of record, it is necessary only to hit Play or Stop but you can drop in and out using the track ready-to-record buttons if you prefer. Either way the drop-in is free from clicks. Don't forget though, that dropping out will always leave a short gap corresponding to the time it takes for the tape to travel from the erase head to the play head so allow for this when planning your drop-ins. With a tape speed of 7.5ips, this gap will be twice as long as on a similar machine running at 15ips.
Setting the record levels is really a function of the mixer controls and so will be looked at in the mixer section.
Basically, the mixer consists of eight identical channels and a monitor section so we'll take a look at one of the input channels first.
Right at the top of the channel is a selector switch for Mic, Line or Remix which is pretty standard and this is followed by the input gain stage, in this case called Trim. This has an adjacent overload LED so the object of the exercise is to turn up the gain until the LED just lights on the loudest parts of the input signal and then back it off slightly so that it doesn't light at all. This sets you on the best course to steer between the twin evils of noise and distortion.
The EQ comes next and this is a 3-band sweep equaliser which is really quite sophisticated for a unit of this type. All three sections offer 15dB of cut or boost and the ranges are 50Hz to 1kHz, 500Hz to 5kHz and 2.5kHz to 15kHz which gives a useful overlap between ranges. After the EQ stage comes an insert point which appears on the back panel in the form of a pair of jack sockets and this allows you to connect an effects unit inline with any individual channel of your choice.
On most simple mixers, you get two auxiliary controls, one pre-fade and one post-fade. The 388 too has only two auxiliaries, but it does allow you to switch the first one between pre- and post-fade. This is good news as it gives you the chance to use the Aux control as a foldback send when recording and as an effects send when mixing down.
Next we have the routing controls and although all looks very conventional, there are one or two surprises in store. There are five push buttons for channels 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8 and L-R. The pan control enables the signal to be steered between odd and even channels in the usual way, so where's the surprise? The trick is that if you are monitoring the signal travelling along busses one to eight, pressing any one of the L-R buttons will mute this signal and replace it, so in record mode, you can use the L-R buttons as PFLs. Each input channel has its own meter which displays either the signal going to tape or the signal coming off tape and this is logic controlled so that you are always monitoring the right signals for the task being performed.
"When you buy an integrated unit like this one, you know that you won't get earth loop problems between the mixer and the tape machine."
Even when punching into record, the meters switch automatically to help you keep track of things: Right at the bottom is the channel fader which holds no surprises and feels positive with just the right amount of resistance.
When a channel is routed to a tape track using the assign buttons on a standard mixer, there's usually a group level fader which controls the overall level of the signal going to that tape track, but this is not so in the 388. There are only two group faders; one for the odd channels and one for the even channels. Above these two sliders are the main monitoring controls which consist of a gain and pan for each channel. Sharing this section of the panel are the auxiliary return master controls which again consist of level and pan controls for the two channels.
Moving over to the right a couple of inches brings us to the last section of the control panel and right at the top are the record status buttons. These set which channels are ready-to-record and they also switch the monitoring automatically so that you're monitoring either input or tape as is appropriate. There is an LED by each button which flashes when the button is depressed. When the channel is recording, the LED stays on continuously.
Directly below this bank of buttons are the auxiliary master send level controls which work quite conventionally and below this section is a set of three buttons which affect the monitor status. The first of these is Meter Select which routes signals to the two main Left/Right meters located to the right of the meter section. Normally these meters monitor the main stereo output, but depressing this switch causes them to monitor the Aux and Eff lines respectively. Next comes Mon, another button which switches monitoring between the programme busses and Cue. The Cue position is used for recording and the Prg position for mixing down, and in this way the correct signals are automatically present at the monitor output. Last in this section is the Insert switch which is only effective when the previous switch is in the Cue position. When the Insert switch is depressed, only the off-tape signals will be heard regardless of the settings of the Record Function buttons and the monitoring will only revert to input when a punch-in is executed. In the off position however, the Rec Function switches may be used to switch from tape to input monitoring which can be useful when you are practising a drop-in.
The system is indeed very simple and logical to use and the only trap that the newcomer might fall into is to leave one or more of the L-R routing switches depressed which will result in a hasty search for the missing signals. As you may remember, these buttons can act as PFLs and mute everything else on the eight programme busses. Once you've got over this hurdle, the monitoring is logical and everything falls into place with the minimum of fuss.
The first target for my scrutiny was the DBX system, as I've always been of the opinion that it is too severe and that the magic noise figures it produces are not worth the side effects that are invariably generated. These tend to show up as a dulling of sharp percussive sounds and as noise pumping on low frequency sounds. As usual, out came the old TR606 which is now reserved for use as a tester of equipment rather than as a musical instrument due it's talent for bringing out the worst in any recording system.
With the DBX switched in, there was a noticeable difference between the input and the recorded sounds, which took the form of a muddy bottom end accompanied by a loss of top and attack. This was not blatant enough to render the sound unusable, but it is something that you need to be aware of so that you can make adjustments to the EQ at the recording stage. On synths or guitars the recorded sound was well up to standard, remaining bright and noise free, but it is possible to hear the background noise pumping up and down on recordings of a solo bass guitar set to produce a soft tone. This is not much of a problem unless you intend to write a lot of pieces for soft solo bass guitar. A bright modern bass sound tends to disguise the effect and the other tracks in the mix bury it completely.
"The last word then is that this is a serious recording package despite any criticisms I may make of it."
The EQ on the mixer section works particularly well, provided that you don't use too much of it as this tends to produce a peaky sound if used to the extreme. This is true of most sweep EQ systems where the bandwidth can't be modified and is in no way a criticism of this particular design. In any event, it's always better to get the sound nearly right at source rather than relying on a lot of EQ to correct it later.
The Load feature is a boon; if I had a penny for every time I've let a tape spool off by accident, I'd have about nine pounds forty three and a half pence. You do of course lose the use of a minute or two's tape at either end of the reel, but this seems a small price to pay for peace of mind. One negative point is that the tape tends to spool rather unevenly on fast wind so you have to play the tape through at normal speed before you put it away to tidy it up. Being a penny pinching Northerner, I resent the extra non-productive head wear that this causes and think that manufacturers should utilise the fast wind tape lifters to lift the tape off the heads when slow spooling. It was the same with my old Tascam38, I was genuinely aggrieved that the replay head (which is used only during alignment) was being constantly warn away by the tape even though its services were not required. It must have been the most expensive tape guide ever!
The recessed transport controls are essential, but even with these, it's possible to activate one of the buttons inadvertently when slouching across the desk in a mock creative stupor. Perhaps its a case of soft touch controls actually being too soft. Still, with a little care in this area, there shouldn't be too many problems. Whilst we're on about things ergonomic, I also found it too easy to press Reset when I meant to press RTZ, which could be embarrassing. Perhaps Reset could have been a different shaped button and located somewhere out of the way like the one on the Tascam 38.
These considerations are only minor though, as the system is generally easy to use and gives excellent results on most types of programme material and acceptable results on all types. Bouncing tracks is simple using the routing buttons though I would be reluctant to bounce drum machine tracks at all as these tend to show signs of deterioration quite early on. I did try recording the drum machine without the noise reduction switched in which improved the sound quality noticeably, but the trade-off in terms of tape hiss may make you think twice before adopting this approach.
This section would not be complete without mentioning the handbook that accompanies this machine. It is excellent and contains all the setting up and servicing information in addition to very comprehensive operating instructions. Other manufacturers would do well to follow Tascam's example.
Considering that this is a complete recording package, it still manages to retain a great deal of flexibility by virtue of the rear panel connections which allow you to get into the busses to tap off or mix in signals. For about the same price (around £2500 in the shops) you could buy a separate 8-track quarter inch machine and a reasonable mixer but then you have to weigh that against the need to connect it all up and find somewhere permanent to keep it. Also, when you buy an integrated unit like this one, you know that you won't get earth loop problems between the mixer and the tape machine.
I would imagine that a system such as this will appeal to those who are predominantly songwriters or those enthusiasts who have to clear away their gear at the end of a session. Also the audio/visual fraternity will find this system easy to use and it doesn't take up too much space. In this application, the SMPTE compatibility will be of real use and the sound quality is well above the standard required for most current video formats.
In terms of operational ease, I would have preferred the insert points and effects routing to be presented on the front panel in the form of a patchbay rather than being tucked away around the back, as having to wander round the back of the unit to patch things in can put a bit of a damper on creativity.
On the noise reduction side, I do think that Tascam should reconsider their dedication to DBX as it's my opinion (and the consensus of many engineers with whom I have discussed this topic) that Dolby C is a far more forgiving system that gives subjectively brighter, cleaner results. A successful DBX system requires a very close agreement between what is recorded on tape and what comes off as any errors in frequency response or amplitude response are exaggerated in the decoding process. This leads me to conclude that the only machines that will work really well with DBX are those that are so good they don't need it. Perhaps things would have been better if the tape unit had a 15ips option.
The last word then is that this is a serious recording package despite any criticisms I may make of it and it's far more impressive in real life than in its photographs. The mixer is really quite sophisticated, yet easy to use and you need only a good hi-fi set up to complete the system. If you fall into the category of songwriter, audio/visual engineer or just a recording enthusiast who has to tidy up at the end of the day, this could be just the machine you've been dreaming about.
The Tascam 388 retails at £2700. Further details from: Harman Audio (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
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