One Over The Eight?
A ‘portable’ 8 track recorder/mixer
The Portastudio: a legend in its own life time and nothing less than a universal symbol of the spirit of home recording. Since Teac's Tascam division kicked it off back in the seventies with the 144 much troubled water has passed under many burnt bridges. The battle for 4-track supremacy has been, and is, a fierce one, and now the market is more or less saturated. Time then for a new epoch; a quantum leap; a new concept in home recording technology... the 8-track Portastudio — of course!
It was some time after the launch of the Fostex X-15 that Tascam delivered a very convincing answer in the shape of their excellent Porta One. Tascam have similarly taken their time in considering answer to the Fostex A-8 ¼" 8-track, but now we have in the form of the Model 388.
The 388 is basically an 8-track ¼" tape deck built into an 8:8:2 mixer, and is more akin to the Akai 1212 than anything else, though with a more practical design and a greatly reduced price tag. The review item was actually a pre-production model which arrived with no owner's manual and very little information at all. Hence, it was all down to a bit of educated assumption and fumbling around, and I can't substantiate all my comments with specifications or official Tascam statements. I am, however, assured that nothing is going to be changed between this unit and the proper production models.
Tascam have always been passionately individual in their mixer designs and the 388's mixer section is no different. It's an 8:8:2 with a separate monitor section with balanced XLR mic inputs, unbalanced ¼" jack line inputs and insert points using two separate ¼" mono jack sockets for send and return on each channel. This breaks the Tascam precedent of using a pair of phono sockets, although it still avoids the more standard methods of a single stereo jack socket using the tip as send and the ring as return.
It's odd that there are no level dropping pads before the mic amps and that the input level trim pots only affect the mic inputs leaving the line inputs with no means of gain control. This precludes a particularly useful approach to gain structuring whereby, when recording, you set each channel fader (and group fader if they exist) at its zero point and then adjust each input control to achieve the desired level going to the multitrack. This approach not only establishes the best gain structure for the mixer but also safeguards you against inadvertently knocked faders — you know that they should all be on zero. Also when using line level sources without output gain controls (eg drum machines) you have to hope that the levels match up okay.
The eq section is 3-band sweepable ranging from 50H to 15kHz using three sets of dual concentric pots. Tascam do put together a nice equaliser and there can be no complaints here.
Of the two auxiliary sends, one is post fade for effects and one pre/post switchable allowing it to be used for foldback during recording and for effects during mix down. Although there are a couple of dedicated return channels to bring effects back into the main stereo busses of the desk, it would have been nice on a unit of this price to have at least one of these routable to the multitrack. Bearing in mind that there are only eight channels to cope with an 8-track machine, comprehensive returns are important, and when working with a limited number of effects unit, as most ¼" 8-track users are, it is often necessary to record each effect on the multitrack as the relevant instrument goes down. On the other hand, in practise channel 8 will probably be available for use as a return until final mix down and also offers the benefit of full eq and effects sends for creating more complicated looped effects such as stereo repeat echos etc.
The routing consists of 5 buttons, 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8 and L-R allowing any channel to be routed to any or all of the 8 group/track busses or the main stereo outputs. However, if any one of the channels has the L-R button depressed it negates all group routing on the board. It's not that you can't send a channel to a group/track, the group meter continues to show a signal present, the problem is that there's no way of listening to it because the monitor section is rendered dead.
This means various things, for example, you can't have half the board routed via the groups with the other half going straight to the L-R stereo/monitor outputs. Its a fairly standard procedure that after doing the initial backing track only a few input channels are generally needed for overdubbing and thus the others are freed to be used as more comprehensive monitor channels with full eq and auxiliary sends, etc. This process isn't possible with the 388 because it relies on being able to mix group and stereo routings across the board. The mixer does include a monitor section consisting of 8 gain controls and 8 pan controls, but these have no eq or auxiliary sends. In effect, then, you are forced to use the monitor section throughout the backing track and overdubbing.
When working with other musicians it is often desirable to set the board up so that they have a completely separate mix in the headphones to the engineer's monitor mix. In this way the engineer can solo anything he wants to listen to without worrying about the balance in the cans. This can be achieved with a relatively unsophisticated mixer by using the normal input channels routed to the L-R outputs as monitor channels (as outlined above), and feeding the artist's cans from the auxiliary sends. With the 388 this isn't possible because during overdubbing the only source for monitoring is the monitor section which has no sends. This may not always be too important but it does seem to be an unnecessary limitation.
In the same vein of unnecessary limitation, it isn't possible to use the 8 sets of monitor gain and pan controls as effects return/extra inputs, during mixdown. This is such a well trodden path now, I can't understand why Tascam ignored it.
Rather than 8 separate group output faders, there are two 'PGM' (programme) masters one of which controls the overall levels of all odd groups whilst the other effects the even groups. This is a good compromise and generally works well in practice.
If you want to use the mixer separately the eight group outputs are available on phono sockets on the rear panel, as is the tape recorder section should you wish to by-pass all but the two PGM master faders of the mixer.
The main stereo outputs are available both as a balanced lines at +4dB and unbalanced on phonos at 0dB.
The 388's transport is a joy to use. It employs a similar design to that of the Tascam 40 Series reel-to-reel machines, though with slightly less powerful motors. It runs at 7½ ips as opposed to the A-8's 15ips, and thus shuttle times are effectively shorter. In addition to a very 'intelligent' search to cue facility. Having entered the zero and cue points the machine can be set to repeatedly cycle between them which is great for rehearsing overdubs etc.
The choice of a 7½ ips tape speed is odd in that Tascam have always claimed to aim some way above Fostex with their products. It gives twice the record/play time but has an adverse effect on sonic quality. Dbx noise reduction can be very effective, but it does tend to throw wobblies with highly transient sounds such as drums and percussion — hi-hats in particular, and in this respect the 388 is no exception. The quality coming off-tape is good without noise reduction, but definitely too noisey especially for instruments with a wide dynamic range. To allow selective use of the dbx it is possible to switch it off, or 'defeat' it, for tracks 1-4 and/or tracks 5-8. The idea is that the kit should go down without NR while most of the other tracks get processed. In practise, however, when using an 8-track, the kit will generally go down on a stereo pair of tracks, and then you're left with two track (3&4) without NR on which you might want to record bass and guitar, or something. With the recording of time code in mind, the dbx can also be individually defeated for track 8, and the 388 contains all the necessary control electronics to allow it to be synced-up to other machines including VTR's for video audio post production. Getting back to noise reduction, Dolby C does appear to be more tolerant of inaccuracies in record/replay linearity, and thus is more suited to this lower budget end of the market. In this respect, the Fostex is definitely less fussy.
The 388's main attraction is its portability, and a number of artists have apparently already taken them on the road for quick easy live recordings. This may or may not be important to the home recordists. Taking £1550.00 as the approximate cost of a fully blown A-8, or the Model 80 which has now superceded it, you are being asked to pay £1250.00 for a rather limited 8:8:2 mixer, and that's not really too realistic in today's market.
The 388 is a great idea, but it's a little too expensive and has a few unnecessary limitations. If the final production model differs in any way from the review item, we'll let you know. The Mark II will be interesting. I'll leave you with a little spec for your consideration.
Wow and flutter: 0.05% WRMS
Freq response: 35-15kHz + 2dB,at-10VU
S/N Ratio: 90dB with dbx
Dimensions: 837mm x 210mm x 641mm
Gear in this article:
Review by Jim Betteridge
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