If you're in the market for a cassette 4-track, you'll have noticed that they're not exactly thin on the ground — which means that competition for your money is pretty fierce. Tascam are the acknowledged grandaddy of the Portastudio, and the latest in the Porta series aims to hit the right compromise between cost, facilities and performance. Paul White finds out if the 07 gets the balance right.
When it comes to choosing a cassette multitracker, the current choice is bewildering, especially when most of them, on the face of it, set out to achieve exactly the same thing. The Porta 07 reviewed here might be considered as a logical evolution from the popular Porta 01 and features the same neat styling and low-profile, 'Teddy bear's eyes' control knobs. I always felt that one of the main failings of the Porta 01 was the mono effects return system, which was very frustrating for those wanting to use a stereo reverb device, but I'm glad to see that no such limitation exists with the 07.
In most respects the Porta 07 is very conventional, both in the facilities offered and in the way it operates. The tape transport operates at twice normal speed which, when combined with the effective dbx noise reduction, provides a very low noise floor and a frequency response extending from 40Hz to 16kHz. Though this is a little short of the figure achieved by open reel machines and hi-fi stereo cassette decks, it is actually quite respectable for a cassette multitracker, especially when the low cost of the machine is taken into account.
To get started in recording, the first task is to:
• Route an input signal to the tape track of your choice by setting the channel selector switches to Line and the routing switches to the tape tracks you intend to work on. The Pan control is used to route the channel signal between the right and left selected tape tracks.
• If the signal is line level, then you can use any of the four inputs, but if it's microphone, then the choice is restricted to channels 1 and 2. The best way to set up the Trim controls on channels 1 and 2 is to set the channel fader at around seven, then adjust the Trim slider until a sensible peak recording level is showing on the meters. With dbx, the best results can be achieved from not driving the tape too hard, so aim to just get the meters just up to the red or even slightly below it on peaks.
• Once the signal has been recorded, the track or tracks may be put into Safe mode, and a new track selected for recording. This is the overdubbing stage and the Monitor Select switch will need to be in the Cue position, allowing the existing recording to be monitored.
• If there is a need to punch-in a section to correct a mistake, this may be accomplished by running the tape in Play mode, then pushing Record while holding down Play at the appropriate point. Pressing Stop ends the punch-in. With mechanical controls, this procedure is a little cumbersome and the optional footswitch is a far nicer solution which also keeps both hands free for playing.
• You can also punch in and out by putting both Record Select switches to Safe, pressing both the Play and the Record buttons, and then sliding the appropriate track switch from Safe to the desired track number at the punch-in point and back again at the punch-out point.
• A fraction before a snare drum beat is ideal for punching in, as any discontinuities are hidden by the dynamics of the drum sound. Similarly, try to punch out during a pause or short gap.
• Bouncing tracks is achieved by setting the source tracks to Tape and then routing them to the destination track, balancing the levels, and copying the mixed tracks across to the new track.
• When all the tracks are full, it's simply a matter of switching all four channels to Tape, turning down the Cue level controls and setting up a mix. Ensure that all four tracks are in Safe mode at this point. An effect such as stereo reverb may be added while mixing by connecting an external effects unit to the aux send/return system.
Aside from the slightly clunky feel of the transport controls, the Porta 07 behaves very smoothly, the mechanical 'stop at zero' facility being very welcome. The monitoring arrangement, although a little different from what you'd expect on a separate desk plus multitrack, is logical, effective and easy to set up. Indeed, the whole machine conforms pretty closely to the hypothetical benchmark for a cassette four-track which, given the entry level price, is more than laudable.
Apart from being very easy to use, the Porta 07 is capable of producing rather better recordings than you might imagine, with no significant noise or dulling of the sound. I recorded a stereo mix from a Roland Sound Canvas onto two of the tracks and was hard pushed to discriminate between the original and the recording. Similarly, a bright electric guitar kept its bite while tape noise was conspicuous only by its absence. For non-critical material, you can get away with bouncing once, or even twice, but as always when working with cassettes, the first generation recording is always much better. Vocals and drums are particularly critical so try to keep these unbounced wherever possible.
When punching in and out, there were no unacceptable glitches at the punch in or out points, but the function isn't quite seamless — as ever, you have to pick your moment.
Every all-in-one multitracker has limitations, and in the case of the 07, the obvious one is that you can't record more than two tracks at a time. The four input channels may also seem limiting, but this is largely mitigated by the Stereo Buss input which allows an additional stereo signal to be routed into the final mix. For the user working with a basic MIDI system using a multitimbral sound source such as a Sound Canvas or similar, the output from this may be fed straight into the mixer and balanced using its own output level control.
Perhaps most serious for the user wanting to record vocals is the lack of any channel insert points. Adding compression to vocals during recording is such a standard procedure, I feel that one insert point would have been a nice gesture.
Though the Porta 07 has no revolutionary features to speak of, it is a well-conceived, attractive little machine that is both easy to use and capable of surprisingly good sound quality. The equalisation has plenty of range while being fairly gentle on the sounds being treated, and the combination of a stereo buss input plus a sync function means you won't come unstuck if you want to add a sequencer.
The additional tricks you can do with the Cue controls and stereo buss inputs make it more flexible than many budget machines, and it's also worth mentioning that the short manual is very well structured, with lots of diagrams and step-by-step instructions on recording, bouncing and mixing.
Given its RRP, which is roughly £350, the Porta 07 has to be considered a good buy, especially bearing in mind the quality of recordings it makes possible.
Tascam Porta 07 £349 inc VAT.
Tascam UK, (Contact Details).
• Good sound quality.
• EQ on all four channels.
• Tape Sync compatible.
• Good facilities for the price.
• No separate tape outputs.
• No insert points.
An ideal budget machine capable of making high quality recordings. The lack of insert points and direct tape outs limits its usefulness in that there is no way to mix all four tracks via an external mixer.
CONNECTIONS — REAR PANEL:
External PSU (included) and Power switch. The Effects Returns are panned left and right for use with stereo effects, but mono operation is possible by using only the socket marked Left/Mono. This feeds equal amounts of the effect to both the left and right outputs creating the illusion that the effect is panned to centre. The single effects send is via a standard, quarter inch jack.
1. SUB IN
provides a means of adding an external stereo signal, such as the output from a MIDI sound module or a submixer to the stereo mix as you mix your tape down to your stereo recorder. There are no level or tone controls so any adjustment must be carried out at source.
2. SYNC OUT
provides a separate output for channel 4, allowing the use of time code such as FSK or SMPTE. To sync a MIDI sequencer to tape, an external synchroniser is required (see Recording Musician January 1993
for a full article on synchronising to tape).
3. MONITOR OUT
enables the Porta 07 to be connected to an amplifier and speaker system such as a hi-fi, phono sockets being fitted for this purpose. A separate phono stereo output, 'Line Out' enables the output to be mixed to a stereo tape machine such as a cassette deck, and this output is independent of the setting of the Monitor level control.
4. EFFECTS RETURN
: The Porta 07 has provision to connect one external effects unit, the Effects Return control setting the overall level of the effect fed back into the mix.
5. TAPE CUE AND MONITORING
: These four controls allow a mono monitor mix of the four tape tracks to be set up, and in normal operation, this is combined with any new signals being fed into the mixer channels. How the monitoring works depends on the setting of the Monitor Select switch; a separate Monitor Level control is provided.
When the Monitor Select switch is in the Remix position, the monitor output 'listens' to the main stereo mix buss which, when you come to mix, carries the stereo mix that will be recorded to your stereo recorder. In this position, the Tape Cue knobs have no effect.
When the Monitor Select switch is set to Cue, the monitor output carries a combination of the signals already recorded on tape (via the Tape Cue controls) and any new sounds being fed to tape through the mixer channels. This allows the performer to hear existing material when overdubbing a new part. When bouncing one or more tracks to a new track, the Tape Cue controls should be turned down so that what you hear on the monitors is the same as the mix you get.
The Eff position is provided to enable the user to check on the mix of signals being fed to an external effects unit. In normal use, the Cue setting will be used during recording and overdubbing, and the Remix setting for mixdown.
: When the associated switch is set to Track, the meters show the input signal level for any tracks that are in ready-to-record or record mode while showing the off-tape level of the remaining (Safe) tracks. A flashing red LED at the bottom of the meter indicates that a track is in ready-to-record mode, while a solidly lit LED indicates that recording is taking place.
In Buss mode, the two left hand meters show the signal level of the stereo mix while meter four shows the effects send level. Meter three is inoperative in this mode.
7. PITCH CONTROL
: Up to 12% speed variation is available in either direction, the normal speed point being indicated by a centre detent.
CONNECTIONS — FRONT PANEL:
Mic/Line 1, Mic/Line 2, Line 3, Line 4 inputs, all on unbalanced jacks. High or Low impedance microphones may be used. Stereo Phones output on stereo quarter-inch jack, Remote Punch In/Out jack (RC 30P footswitch optional).
: The transport may be used with or without the dbx noise reduction system, though the fact that it plays at double speed means that conventionally recorded cassettes cannot be replayed. The dbx switch provides a choice of dbx on or off, or Sync operation, the latter bypassing the EQ and level controls on track 4.
The transport features all the usual controls which, in this case, are mechanically latching switches rather than the soft-touch buttons used in more costly designs. Similarly, a mechanical, three-digit tape counter is provided, though there is a return-to-zero function. Access to the heads for cleaning is excellent.
9. RECORD FUNCTION
: These two switches set the tape tracks in 'ready-to-record' mode prior to recording. It is possible to select one odd and one even numbered tape track for recording at any one time, the centre switch setting being Safe, which prevents any recording taking place on either of the two tracks relating to that switch.
10. FADERS AND TRIMS
: Each channel has its own fader which is used to set the correct recording level before recording, and to control the levels of the four tape tracks while mixing or bouncing. Channels 1 and 2 also feature short Trim faders which allow the channel's input gain to be adjusted to match either mic or line level sources. A Master stereo fader controls the signal level feeding the Line and Monitor outputs, enabling mixes to be faded in or out. When first setting up, the faders should be set in the shaded area between 8 and 9, which provides the optimum noise and distortion performance.
: Works conventionally to move the channel signal from left to right in the stereo mix during mixing, but is also used while recording to direct the channel signal to either odd or even numbered tape tracks. For example, if the machine is set up ready to record on both tracks 1 and 2, the Pan pot may be turned left to direct the signal only to channel 1 or fully right to direct it only to channel 2.
: Independent effects send level for each channel. There is no master effects send control, though most effects units have their own input level controls which perform the same task.
: High and Low EQ controls on each channel provide up to 10dB of cut or boost at 100Hz and 10kHz. These may be used while recording or while mixing.
While the lack of additional input channels or separate tape outputs does seem limiting, the Porta 07 could form part of a much larger system if you're prepared to live with the restrictions of having only stereo outs. In a large MIDI system with a separate mixer, for example, the stereo output from the Porta 07 could be fed through two channels of the main mixer. The monitor Cue controls could also be pressed into service as additional effects sends at mixdown (via the monitor output), simply by selecting Eff as the cue source and monitoring the mix from the destination stereo machine rather than from the Porta 07's own monitor output. In such a setup, the effects returns would normally be fed into the main mixer, but as there's a stereo buss input on the 07, any effects unit with an output level control should be able to patch back in here, giving the basic machine the capability to work with two different effects units at the same time.
- Double speed transport (designed to use Type II or Chrome equivalent tape) with dbx noise reduction (dbx may be switched off if required).
- Pitch control to vary tape speed.
- Records up to two tracks simultaneously.
- Channels 1 and 2 have mic/line inputs, channels 3 and 4 have line inputs only.
- Four input channels, each with two-band EQ which may be used while recording or mixing.
- Mono Cue system for monitoring while overdubbing.
- Track four is designed to accept either audio or sync code (Level control and EQ bypassed in sync mode). Though dbx is not bypassed in sync mode, filtering is included to ensure reliable sync code operation.
- Stereo headphone outlet and Remote punch-in/out facility via optional footswitch.
- Sub input allowing a further stereo sound source to be added to the mix — for example, a stereo synth module or the output from an external submixer.
|Tape System ||Type II tape; 9.5cm/S (double speed) transport; dbx noise reduction. |
|Wow and Flutter ||0.12% WRMS. |
|Signal-to-Noise ||Ratio Not specified for recorder section, though with dbx engaged, the limiting factor is likely to be the mixer section, which has a quoted figure of 65dB for the Mic inputs and 75dB for the Line inputs (Unweighted 20Hz to 20kHz). |
|EQ ||+/-10dB shelving at 100Hz. |