In May 1980 Tascam introduced a completely new concept of 'creative recording' equipment with their M144 Portastudio, a cassette based 4-channel recording/mixer package for the electro-musician. Over £2 million worth of these units have been sold in the U.K. alone, although a number of other companies, including Fostex and Recording Studio Design, have also moved into this important product area for musicians.
On 5th May this year, Harman (Audio) U.K. Ltd launched the successor of the first Portastudio, the Tascam 244. Tascam is, of course, the brand name for Teac's production lines that includes their wide range of professional recording equipment. The basic style and presentation of the instrument has been retained — angled meters, colour-coded controls and compact size — but Tascam have made significant additions and improvements with only a slight increase in price. The most noticeable change is the addition of dbx II noise reduction instead of Dolby B which improves significantly the playback quality. Other features, such as the new transport system with optional remote punch-in, parametric EQ, stereo sends and 4-channel simultaneous record will appeal to many musicians eager to create their own multi-track recordings at low cost.
The Portastudio is basically a 4-channel cassette recorder with DBX noise reduction processors and 4-channel mixer in one portable package. The outer casing is a dark grey plastic two-part moulding, enclosing a rigid metal frame that supports the VU meters, circuitry panels, knobs, switches and cassette mechanics, and measuring 455(W) x 120(H) x 370(D) mm.
The whole instrument weighs a sturdy 9kg and is very well finished throughout. The left hand mixer section has smart colour coded knobs and both sliders and switches are quiet and smooth in operation. The VU meters are scaled from -20dB to +3dB, with all connection sockets and secured mains cable located behind these on the rear panel. Sockets are all RCA phono types except for the four input jacks and remote punch in/out jack which are standard mono.
The right hand cassette section incorporates a 3-motor transport system with FG servo-controlled DC Capstan motor, DC reel motor and (unique to Tascam) a DC control motor that gently moves the head assembly in and out of the tape path, originally designed for the Teac V9 cassette deck. This puts much less force on the heads and associated components than the direct mechanical linkage or electrical solenoid systems and reduces the need for azimuth adjustment. Tape heads are Ferrite for erase and Permalloy for combined record/playback. Teac's superior Cobalt Amorphous heads (on the V-3RX and V-5RX) have not been considered suitable at present for 4-channel.
The switch buttons for the recorder are neatly moulded from one plastic strip attached to the main plastic top. These make individual contact with calculator style switches on the main chassis. A cassette is inserted by pressing the door button to release the spring loaded clear plastic lid and placing it directly downwards. A four digit fluorescent (green) tape counter is provided and two paralleled stereo headphone sockets are now positioned sensibly on the left of the front panel for easy access.
Servicing has been carefully considered since, once the rear cover is unscrewed, all the necessary adjustment presets are immediately accessible. The large amount of circuitry is contained on separate PCBs that are removed by simply unscrewing and disconnecting cable connectors. The front cover needs a magnetised screwdriver (and some care and patience) to lift it away from the control knobs, but all major servicing can be done from the rear of the chassis. The transformer is air vented through the plastic case and is well rated for its application. All the DBX electronics are on one PCB that is removed to access the mixer input stages.
The control circuitry is divided into 3 main sections: a basic mechanism control circuit for the tape transport, an additional function control circuit for accessories such as the punch in/out and the zero return facilities; and an amplifier circuit that controls switching operations for the record and playback heads, amplifier muting, and VU meters.
Interesting circuit features include a single system control IC that controls all the transport functions of Play, Record/Play, Fast Fwd, Rwd, Pause, Stop, Memory rewind for Zero return. An auto stop circuit uses a Hall effect IC that turns off about a second after the tape stops running. There is also a power mute circuit for power on/off. Tape track connections are wired in opposite phase to reduce crosstalk and various test tapes are available from Teac for setting up head azimuth and wow and flutter. The reference input used in setting up is 400Hz, -10dB (0.3V), with playback output levels within ± 3dB over the frequency range of 40Hz to 14kHz. Actual recorder frequency response is 20Hz to 18kHz. The signal to noise ratio is quoted to be better than 70 dB for each channel, with wow and flutter ±0.06% peak (DIN/IEC/ANSI, weighted). 0.04% RMS (JIS/NAB weighted). Fast wind time is under 2 minutes for a C90 tape, with normal play speed of 3¾ i.p.s.for the 4-track, one direction recording system (15 minutes on C-60 tape).
The DBX circuitry employed is the type II (type I being used for reel to reel Teac decks), with 4-channel encode/decode in continuous use.
Four identical mixer inputs are provided that will accommodate a wide range of signals, from Mic to Line (1mV to 0.3V, max. 5.6V). That virtually covers every kind of signal that the musician would be using from mics (unbalanced 10k or less), electric guitars to electronic percussion and keyboards.
The controls in each vertical module from top to bottom start with a 3-way input selector switch for Mic/Line, Off and Tape. The Mic/Line signal is inserted at the appropriate jack socket (inputs 1-4 on the rear panel); Off is used to mute the channel when not in use and Tape selects the playback signal from the built-in cassette deck. Tape signals are always allocated to the same input, e.g. track 1 goes to input 1, etc.
Next, a Trim control knob sets the Mic/Line level over a wide 50 dB range and near it is a red overload LED that switches on at 22dB above nominal input level.
At this point in the signal chain, there is access via two phono jacks (normally linked by a removable angled metal rod) for inserting external signal processing equipment into individual channels. It's useful for patching low level signals (which are now at line level) to compressor/limiters, phasers, flangers, graphic EQ etc., or receiving line signals that need no Trim adjustment, e.g. from another tape deck for copying purposes.
The signal is then split to Aux and an EQ section for tonal modification. The latter follows the trend of using dual parametric equalisers instead of traditional treble and bass controls. Two dual concentric knobs are provided with variable centre frequencies (outer knob) 1kHz to 8kHz and 62Hz to 1.5kHz, and the boost and cut is adjusted by the inner knob for + 15dB (some 3dB more than its competitors). Here, I would have liked a centre click-stop to ensure no equalising is taking place. Even so, if you're not used to parametrics, you'll be pleased how easy it is to tailor your sound to your taste as well as removing 'peak spots' that produce hum or hiss.
The Aux (auxiliary) sub-system takes the mono input signal from each mixer and directs it to left and right Aux Send phono sockets at the rear. An Aux switch selects Pre, Off, or Post, for receiving the signal prior to EQ, muting, and for receiving the signal after EQ and the channel input fader.
The Aux mix facilities on this Mark II version area big improvement over the 144, not only here, but for Tape Cue as well. They offer the possibilities of 4 distinct sends (by panning full left or right) or two stereo mixes for general echo, reverb and effects. Two controls set Aux gain and pan, with 'Pre' setting useful for performers' headphone monitoring when you're recording with other musicians (an input cue mix) and 'Post' more suitable for echo/effects as it will proportion the amount of send with the output signal.
A Pan control next positions the main input signal in the stereo buss. These left and right signals from all 4 inputs are sent to the Line Out and Aux Out phono sockets at the rear through the Master Fader located to the right of the inputs. The master fader is a dual stereo type that also sets the VU meter and tape recording levels as well as the monitor levels (if the monitor is set to Cue or Remix).
Incidentally, Line Out and Aux Out are simply ganged sockets, with nominal level at -10dB. The master fader has its own LED overload indicator, set to switch on at +10dB above nominal level. Provision of LEDs on both input and output ends of the mixer obviously helps a great deal in maintaining maximum levels without distortion for recording. (I am convinced that many recordings we receive at E&MM for our cassette review pages suffer from tape hiss simply because attention has not been paid to levels). VU meters in general are not the most accurate of measuring devices, especially on fast transients, and these meters utilise simple averaging circuitry (with an AC bridge rectifier).
Above the master fader is an Aux Receive control knob that sets the level of both left and right Aux return sockets at the rear.
The two stereo headphone sockets will drive phones of 8 ohms or more and are fed via the Monitor buss in three ways, with a single control provided for setting listening levels. Quality is good here and no extra hiss is noticeable except above 3/4 setting. The three modes selectable are Remix, Cue and Aux. Remix gives you direct monitoring of both left and right buss output signals separately or in stereo and is generally used, as the name suggests, for remixing. Cue puts both Buss and Tape Cue signals in mono mode that's ideal for all recording situations. Aux monitors the actual output to the Aux Send sockets.
The Tape Cue dual concentric controls above the cassette section enable an independent stereo mix (or two mono mixes) to be made from the tape tracks on replay. With Monitor set to Cue, this can be used for headphone monitoring of any tape tracks plus incoming input signals. In Remix mode, Tape Cue outputs provide an extra stereo effects send, via two phono sockets at the rear.
The additional Aux Out lines enable a separate stereo amplifier/speaker monitor system to be connected, with Line Out still available for stereo mixdown.
The new transport system is efficient and easy to use and will take the slightest pressure from your fingers to operate. You can select modes in any order, although for accurate tracking of the four digit fluorescent counter, it's best to use Stop between hectic Fast Forward, Reverse and Play previewing and dubbing sessions. All the standard controls are provided: Record, Play, Rewind, Fast Forward, Stop and Pause. Pressing the door button accesses the cassette (without ejecting it) and threads are easily cleaned through the opening.
A Pitch control knob (with centre click-stop) adjusts tape speed (and thus overall pitch) + 15% which in musical terms is a little more than a semitone up or down. This can be used for effects and for playing fast passages at slow speed, although the built-in DBX system may produce undesirable results on playback at another pitch control setting.
A Zero Return button with LED indicator is another new addition that saves a lot of time watching the counter during repeated multi-tracking from the same point. A Reset button sets the counter to zero.
The recorder works best with high bias, 70ms EQ (type II) tapes. The TDK SA tape was used during testing satisfactorily. An interesting feature of the capstan motor is that it turns on only when the cassette is in place.
The processes of recording and playback are lucidly explained in a large manual supplied with the instrument. The Teac designers have tried to produce a foolproof system, but needless to say, you have to be prepared to learn how to use it! Most of your initial thinking time will be spent in acquiring the knowledge of the recording — multitracking, overdubbing, ping-ponging — and safe playback procedures.
Besides the usual 'press Record and Play buttons to Record' before actual recording can take place (apart from Punch-In), a Record Function group of three switches and LED provides the necessary control routing for all your recording. When each switch is set at centre 'Safe' position you cannot inadvertently record at any time, even if you press Record/Play buttons. The first switch selects the type of recording mode — either Sync or 4-Channel. In the latter position, the red LED nearby will flash along with the tape Record button red LED. Once the Record/Play or Pause buttons are pressed, the recording mode is engaged, both LEDs will stay lit and all meters will illuminate showing that four channels are being used. This type of recording is suitable for copying purposes and live recording using all four channels at once.
The more usual record mode is Sync, and this enables you to select channels 1 or 3, and/or 2 or 4 using the other two Record Function switches. Thus, only two channels can be multitracked at anytime in this mode and the VU meters will illuminate the selected channels.
Care has to be taken in panning any of the inputs used in recording to the left or right for 1 or 3, 2 or 4 respectively. Confirmation of this is easily visible in practice, as you will see a signal appearing on a non-illuminated meter and will know you've not set a pan pot correctly. On playback, the VU meters will illuminate and always show their correct track 1-4 (from left to right).
An important addition to the 244 is the provision of a Punch In/Out facility. By connecting a momentary make switch to the allocated rear panel standard jack socket, a 'punch-in' can be affected from the Play mode (provided you're in Sync Record Function with one or two channels selected). This is a tremendous advantage for the home electro-musician who works alone as it allows building up of tracks whilst your hands remain free to play the instruments. Punch-In will let you instantly insert new material onto a track without any noticeable clicks or break — this is most important for adding to existing music from the point where an error in playing occurs. Like some other punch-in systems, if you try to achieve a punch in and out of a continuous piece of music, the recorder will insert a click and a fractional pause before resuming original playback mode (unless there is a silence at the punch out point). An optional footswitch is available for this facility (Tascam RC-30P).
At a price of around £600 (including VAT), the 244 should be the ideal answer for the musician on a limited budget who wants to enter the world of multitracking. It's an exciting sphere that ultimately every musician with any creative ability will want to try and experiment with.
A big feature of the Portastudio is its almost human insistence in informing you visually whether it is ready to do what you want — meters illuminate, LEDs flash and signals appear — and it's up to you to keep track of all this!
Nothing appears to have been left out except for an optional remote control, and the use of DBX noise reduction instead of Dolby has made a big improvement in reducing tape hiss and holding dynamic range. The only time you'll hear the system working is with, for example, drum taps in a silence bar, and once all the tracks are mixed down you're unlikely to hear it. The claim of -90dB S/N ratio really means that you've got a better playback quality (but not necessarily response) than the 3340 reel to reel (without noise reduction). Crosstalk between channels is certainly better, with none apparent at the Aux Send outputs, and only some very slight breakthrough of high frequencies on Remix and Cue with headphones turned up, but definitely not the problem it can be.
One fault cropped up in the headphone amp — with a strong hf whistle on switch-off audible, but I am assured this is not on production machines!
A further compliment regarding the operating manual is also due, as this is first class reading on the art of multitrack and fancy cueing.
The 244 is highly recommended and makes possible up to 10 tracks with only one transfer for each track. Sounds remain clear and bright, provided you keep your levels high and clean and demagnetise the tape heads regularly.
If you get a 244, send us a multitracked tape, telling us how you made it and the instruments used, and we'll send the first 20 entries a free electronic music LP (and return your cassette). If we get enough, we'll publish your comments as well.
The Tascam 244 Portastudio is distributed in the U.K. by Harman (Audio) U.K. Ltd., (Contact Details).
Virgin Records have kindly donated the records for our tape competition and these will be 10 Tangerine Dream 'White Eagle' (V2226) LPs and 10 Edgar Froese 'Solo 1974-1979' (V2197) LPs.
Review by Mike Beecher
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