The Porta Two has Landed
Tascam Porta Two
Gareth Stuart has been bouncing, syncing and generally laying down tracks with Tascam's new mid-priced 4-track Ministudio. Find out what he thought of it.
Tascam's Porta Two Ministudio is a 6 channel/4 track "complete audio facility in a single box". It looks and feels chunky, is straightforward to operate, and with the dbx noise reduction switched in gives good, almost hiss-free recording quality. Gareth Stuart checks it out.
No need to say too much about Tascam's background, their pedigree in this field is undisputed being the originators of the porta/ministudio concept, so I'll get straight down to business...
You'll be glad to know the Porta Two package includes the PS-P2 mains adaptor and a shoulder/carrying strap. Now, as you're not likely to plug it in the mains and then carry it about the room with the shoulder strap, you may like to know that it also runs on ten Sum-2 'C' size, R14 batteries - handy for moments of inspiration when you're sitting on the tour bus and, oh dear, not a mains socket in sight!
The four recessed switches (top right) are labelled Meter (track/buss), Sync (on/off), dbx (in/out) and Power (on/off). The Meter switch allows you to visually monitor either the signals to be recorded and then played back on the individual tracks 1-4 (TRK) - or the combination of signals mixed down to stereo and routed to the master stereo buss (Buss) - causing only the left two VU meters to respond to the music.
While I'm talking about the busses and VU meters, with the Monitor switch (located in the centre of the machine) set to Cue, and the Meter switch set to Buss, the third VU meter will respond to the tape cue levels set by the four dials above the cassette housing - so you can gauge the overall level of a mono mix (should you ever need to create a mono mix). And, with the Monitor switch set to Effect, the Meter switch set to Buss, the fourth meter lets you visually monitor how much of each channel signal is being sent to any signal processors you might have connected. (The new Alesis Microverb should be ideal) This allows you to ensure that you're not sending too little or too much level out... very handy, and I suppose a type of AFL (after fade listen - or rather look) facility.
Next comes Sync: switched in when a timecode is being recorded on track 4 (via Sync or channel 4 input), and then switched out on playback. Even though it is perfectly okay to record a sync code via the Sync or Line input, it's advisable to take the sync out signal from Sync Out, as opposed to channel 4 Tape Out, as the Porta Two system employs a bandpass filter (quote) "which optimises the quality of the sync signal".
I would suggest that on all recordings, apart from those which require intermittent re-positionings of the pitch control slider (+/-15%), you leave the dbx noise reduction switched in as it keeps tape hiss to a minimum. Generally speaking, most users would switch the power on when in the mood to do some serious work - and here comes my first little criticism of the Porta Two: it generates a noticeable 'buzz' when the power's on and, to avoid getting headaches when using it with headphones, I found myself turning it off whenever I stopped recording.
Right, back to the features - along the front edge of the Porta Two are two insert points for effects looping, six mic/line input jacks, a stereo headphone socket, and a remote punch in/out socket for use with the (optional extra) RC-30P footswitch.
The insert points which affect channels 1 and 2 work as standard - having a stereo jack plug split to two mono plugs, where the tip of the stereo plug sends, and the ring returns. I first set up an effects loop with a Cutec CD425 dual digital delay. Using a split lead, I plugged the send into the Cutec's input, and returned the delayed signal only. And what did I get back at the Porta Two? Yes, that's right - the delayed signal minus the original. It's worth remembering that all of the original signal is sent to the effects unit. Until you mix the treated signal with the original (dry) signal, you don't have full control over adding an extra effect to an already balanced mix.
Apart from effects looping, the inserts may also be used as sends for when you return the effects to another channel, or to return an effect itself sent from another channel.
The standard channels (1-4) on the recorder allow one input to be sent to one channel in Direct mode, and to four in the Left/Right mode (record function). Direct assign also allows one signal to be sent to four channels in the Left/Right mode, and to two channels directly - without having to re-plug the input. And when the four tape tracks are full, channels 5 & 6 can be used to mix in additional live sounds, including drum machines/sequencers running in sync with the Porta Two, or act as extra effect returns.
The punch in/out facility (drop in/out) itself is very useful for correcting the odd mistake here and there, or for trying out new ideas, ie. superimposing the new material onto the old without you having to re-record the whole song. BUT, I found that the previously recorded material is not completely erased as the new drop-in replaces it. This leaves the old and new material audible - defeating the purpose.
To erase the unwanted material I had to record over it about six times before the drop-in flowed naturally from the old material. On solo spoken voice I found the drop-in itself silent and click-free, but always noticed the start of the unwanted word underneath. For example, dropping the word 'exciting' over 'frustrating' left the 'fr' of 'frustrating' still audible. But, in all fairness, would you really want to use the Porta Two to record solo voice and leave the other three tracks blank? With all tracks full of sound, any remnants of the signal covered by a drop-in are suitably masked - which is to say that this facility is a very useful one and works as well as it needs to.
One final point about drop-ins - the manual suggests that the record function of the track on which you perform the drop-in should first be set in the record mode (ie. out of safe), the machine then set to play, and the drop-in carried out by depressing the Record button at the point of entry of the new material, immediately stopping the machine once the new material has been dropped in. In practice, however, I would suggest that running the machine with Play and Record buttons depressed (but with all record functions set to 'safe'), then sliding the record function switch in and out of record at the appropriate points is a far smoother, quieter process. The RC-30P remote footswitch is only necessary for this job if you are the engineer/performer, and your hands are tied up playing an instrument.
The main Left/Right outputs are grouped with more connectors on the unit's left side panel, and give out the final stereo mix controlled in level by the master fader, and the individual outputs by the independent channel faders.
The Sync In/Out phono sockets are the path by which a timecode enters and leaves the machine. The level of Sync Out is governed by the Sync Out volume pot (positioned just under the fourth VU meter). I'll come back to using the sync facility in a minute.
The Effect Send-Return sockets create a more flexible system than the insert points and allow the effect to be mixed into the dry sound by rotating the Effects Sends on each channel... having already turned up the Effects Master controls ie. the master send, and the effects return volume.
According to Tascam, during mixdown you can use the Tape Cue as a second effect send, in addition to the main Effect Send system. This means in mixing down a 4-track song - or, if you prefer, a multitracked song on four tracks - that each track can be processed independently without having to use an external mixer - great.
Apart from being used as an extra effects facility, Tape Cue Output allows you to create a mono mix from the four individual tracks - which are balanced by rotating the Tape Cue knobs, 1-4.
First, it's necessary to understand that the synchronisation facility gives the Porta Two greater potential than other 4-track ministudios, in that a number of extra tracks driven by a sync box, which in turn receives sync information from a pre-recorded timecode on track 4, allows the Porta Two to become a 5, 6, 7, 8-track studio or whatever - depending on how many drum machines and sequencers your sync box will let you drive.
It must be stressed that the Porta Two doesn't generate its own timecode, you must use a separate timecode generator/reader in order to access this potential facility. I used the low-cost Roland SBX-10 Sync Box. And in case any of you think the words 'timecode' sound at all mysterious and inappropriate, the SBX-10 emits an audible click from its metronome output (ie. a timecode) which is recorded on the Porta Two's fourth track. The Porta Two's Sync Output is then returned to the Click In socket on the SBX-10 and in recording the returning click-track (timecode), the SBX-10 allows MIDI, DIN Sync, and other timebase-reading machines to run in time with it. So, even though you may think it's a drastic sacrifice on 4-track portastudio to supposedly 'waste' the fourth track by recording nothing but a timecode on it - as I said before, it actually allows for more tracks to be added on.
Before moving on to the concept of 'bounce-down', I thought I'd give a little space to crosstalk - with reference to the recorded timecode (click-track). Click-tracks always seem to end up leaking onto neighbouring tracks, which can be a real pain. Since they're used primarily as a guide to the tempo, once the beat is established rhythmically on the other tracks, click-tracks have realistically served their purpose and no longer need to be heard.
Naturally then, when you come to mix your sounds together, the last thing you want to hear is a constant click...click...click. Even though the click-track leaks from track 4 to track 3 on the Porta Two, in the music I recorded using the click-track/sync facility, it in no way was loud enough to constitute a nuisance in mixdown.
Mind you, the chance of leakage can be reduced if you record the click entirely on its own first - and record the other tracks afterwards.
With only four tracks to record on (three if you're using the sync facility), you will almost certainly need to mix together and relocate several individual tracks onto a single new track to create extra space for more music parts. This technique is called 'bouncing', 'ping-ponging' or 'collapsing the tracks'.
The Porta Two allows you to mix extra live signals along with the pre-recorded signals onto a single, free track. This is such a worthwhile facility as it helps signals stay as near to their original ('first generation') sound quality as is possible. For instance, you can record instrumental/vocal sounds onto tracks 1 and 2 and a timecode on to 4, then mix together tracks 1 and 2 and as you transfer them to track 3 mix in another live sound. Because the Porta Two has six input channels, in this example you may add up to four extra live sounds to the two already recorded ones whilst bouncing down onto track 3. The bouncing process is common to all portastudio-type recorders but the extra two channels certainly make the Porta Two appear less restrictive than other designs.
Well then, there we have it... lovely. Six channels with their own EQ, potentially four effects sends - allowing individual tracks to be processed each with a different effect; simple to operate drop-ins/outs, good quality bounce-down, and the sync facility, of course, which really does take Tascam's Porta Two into another dimension.
Overall, it's a neat package, well made, comes with an informative and easily understood manual, and performs very well. It does the job, and does it well - what more do you need to know?
MRP £649.00 inc VAT.
Review by Gareth Stuart
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