Tascam's revamp of their groundbreaking 2488 digital multitracker still has unique selling points, but have the competition pulled ahead in other areas? We find out.
The 2488 MkII is a 24-track digital recorder that aims to provide users with all the studio tools they need to realise complete albums and demo projects. When the original 2488 came onto the market three years ago, it could claim to be the only machine of its kind offering 24 tracks for under £1000. But rather than building on their lead by releasing more products in the same range, Tascam went rather quiet, giving Korg room to steal the headlines with a similarly priced 32-tracker, boasting a strong set of features. The appearance of Tascam's eight-track DP01FX gave me the impression that they'd given up on the 24-track concept, to pursue the bottom end of the market, but the 2488 MkII proves otherwise.
Although the 2488 MkII is coloured differently from its predecessor, a close examination reveals that the casing is otherwise the same as the MkI, and it includes many of the same features. The revised recommended retail price is way lower than that of the MkI (£649, as compared with £999). To put that in perspective, the difference is enough to buy one of Tascam's DP01FX machines and still have change.
The MkII benefits from a set of modifications that were probably developed so that a physical redesign of the casing was not necessary. In order to accommodate new functions, the existing buttons and faders have simply been reassigned and, in consequence, one or two features have been dropped. The only major thing missing is the 64-voice GM synth, which was originally accessed and edited via its own fader and associated buttons, located between the Track and Master faders. The section has now been given over to the task of sub-mixing, for when up to eight audio inputs are being mixed with the record tracks during mixdown or playback.
Another feature that's gone to make way for a new feature is the Tap Tempo button, which allowed fast alteration of the speed of delay times and modulation effects. In its place is Locate Set, which is a dedicated press-and-hold button for rapid setting of In, Out, To and Locate points. Previously the values were entered by holding the Shift key while hitting the relevant button, but the new arrangement is ergonomically superior.
The remaining changes have all been made to either the software or any easily exchanged plug-in devices and components. The larger hard drive has doubled from 40GB (the standard for multitrackers last year), to a sizeable 80GB. Now that USB 2.0 connectivity makes it easy to archive to a computer, hard drive size is perhaps not as big a selling point as it once was, but it is a worthwhile improvement and you can't really complain!
The most eye-catching enhancement is the new LCD screen. Although the original 2488 was criticised for having a relatively small display, the MkII hasn't tackled this issue. Instead, the old greenish background has been exchanged for a cleaner white one, and its improved resolution makes everything clearer.
Guitarists are known to make up a large sector of the multitracker market, so the addition of a new Overdrive guitar effect and Acoustic guitar simulator seems logical. One of the most interesting features of the 2488 was the inclusion of Tascam's Slow Speed Audition (SSA) function, borrowed from their Guitar Trainer products, allowing the user to dramatically reduce a pair of tracks' audio playback speed for practising or analysing parts. The 2488 MkII offers an improved SSA algorithm, refining the feature further.
There are also some enhanced CD mastering capabilities; notably the Live Writer mode that enables markers to be used to define tracks within a continuous recording, such as a live concert. The new CD-R/W drive improves on the old maximum write speed of 12x, by upping the pace to 16x. That still might not sound incredibly swift, but given that slow burn rates are considered better for maintaining data integrity, it's easily good enough.
The last change worth noting is that the already comprehensive file exchange and backup options of the original 2488 have been bolstered by support for stereo WAV-file import via USB or CD.
The effects arrangement on this new machine remains very similar to that of the original 2488, but improvements have been made, to such an extent that settings cannot be transferred between old and new models. As before, at any one time there is always a selection of effects available for inserting into the input or track channels. The mic effects options, comprising Compressor, De-esser, Exciter and Noise Suppressor, can be simultaneously applied to all eight inputs, or the number can be reduced to four to accommodate a single five-block effects chain, designed for guitar processing. One on-board processor is available for the send effects loop, although there is routing to the rear-panel effect-send sockets, so that two external devices can be pressed into service. The effects only have up to five editable parameters, but the selection of reverbs, delays and modulation effects sound reasonably good. Even long reverb tails stand up under scrutiny.
In the effects chain, the noise suppressor is always first, followed by a distortion, compressor or the new overdrive effect. The third block will either contain an amp simulator or acoustic-guitar simulator, the latter also being a new addition. Block four is for modulation effects. These include a flanger, phaser, chorus, exciter, pitch shifter, tremolo, vibrato and wah. Some of these have a variable that can be controlled via a footpedal. The final block is always a delay.
The problem is that the user is not allowed to pick a preset and then swap, say, the flanger for a phaser, and it certainly isn't possible to change the order of anything. Getting the chain of components you want means finding a suitable preset arrangement.
The guitar presets are mostly way over the top, particularly where distortion and overdrive are concerned, and are clearly intended to appeal to Wayne's World-type teenagers. More subtle tones can be had using a compressor and amp simulator combination, but they are no replacement for good-quality outboard.
Strangely, for many multi-effects parameters Tascam have employed a 0-100 value system, which requires a bit of translation. The compressor ratio, for example, is scaled in this way, so the actual ratios have to be read from a table in the manual. As for attack and release, why not just have either fast to slow options or the time in milliseconds/seconds?
Everything else is much as it was on the 2488, which was reviewed in detail in the May 2004 edition of SOS (www.soundonsound.com/sos/may04/articles/tascam2488.htm). You should take a look at that review to get a full picture of the 2488's capabilites, but I'll briefly recap on the main features here. There are 24 tracks: 12 possessing their own faders, and the rest organised into stereo pairings, suitably panned and sharing a fader. Two hundred and fifty virtual tracks are available overall, including the 24 assigned ones. Eight inputs can be recorded simultaneously, with 24-bit or 16-bit resolution, using the rear-panel quarter-inch jack sockets, four of which are of the Combi type and therefore also accept XLR leads. Phantom power is provided, and there are preamps for each input. Found on the front edge are inputs for connecting headphones, guitars and basses, a footswitch to control remote punch-in recording and, lastly, an expression pedal for adjusting variable parameters in many of the on-board effects. The rear panel has MIDI In/Out, monitor and stereo outputs, coaxial S/PDIF I/O, two effects send jacks and a USB 2.0 port.
Every track has its own Select, Record and Mute/Solo button. Other channel-specific features include a three-band EQ, effects send bus and pan/phase adjusters. Elsewhere there are comprehensive sets of transport keys and locator/marker buttons, as well as some related punch-in and rehearsal facilities. At the head of the front panel, Tascam have positioned dedicated buttons leading directly to the digital editing, scene storage/recall, Undo/Redo and system-setting menus.
For a product of this complexity, the 2488 MkII is relatively easy to use. It has the kind of no-nonsense transport and marker tools that you can find on quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape machines. The front panel is covered with rows of channel buttons for arming, muting and selecting tracks, and for establishing routing paths — and these, coupled with the many hardware track navigation and transport keys, make the process of recording fast and simple. The revision of some of the 2488's buttons (Bounce, Master and Locate) improves the basics even further.
Nowhere are the product's usability credentials more apparent than in the Auto Punch-in feature, which — thanks to the new Locate Set button — is joyously easy to set up. It works flawlessly, even when new takes are attempted in very fast succession (something that's guaranteed to crash my AW4416, for example). There is a neat rehearsal function, but that is partly redundant, as the process of auto-recording each practice take seems to put no strain on the machine and offers the opportunity to capture an unexpected moment of brilliance. Having simple controls like this is a gift to guitarists recording themselves in a tight space, where an electric slung across the chest and a collection of microphone stands, amps and pedals underfoot makes button toggling very awkward.
It also must be said that the comprehensive monitoring options, courtesy of the various Source Select buttons, are pretty much unrivalled by the competition. I can't think what else in this class has a simple mono check button, for example.
The mixing tools are less immediate and more basic. While some manufacturers have gone to great lengths to provide assignable knobs for controlling EQ, effect and dynamic parameters, Tascam have elected to consign those functions to the realms of software, adjusted only via the ubiquitous four Cursor keys and Jog/data wheel. As it happens, the lack of controller knobs doesn't seem to matter, as it's easy to manage what is a fairly limited set of mixing/processing tools.
Like all budget multitrackers that save costs by employing a smallish screen, the MkII is restricted in the way it presents some important information. In most cases Tascam have successfully tailored their page designs to suit the screen, but the one thing to suffer is the on-screen metering, which is adequate but not detailed enough for great accuracy. Nevertheless, the new screen, with its white backlit appearance and sharp detail, looks much clearer than the screen on the MkI. For what it's worth, the overall colour scheme is also an improvement, and somehow gives the product the appearance of being more of a high-end workstation.
As far as sound quality is concerned, the multitracker does a good job, and there can be no complaints about the preamps at this price. What's more, the machine's hard drive is extremely quiet, making it possible to record with microphones in close proximity to the machine.
On the down side, the faders are still not motorised, and there is no automation system, so, even with the possibility of controlling certain things via MIDI, mixing the numerous tracks is not as easy as it could be. The MkII also does not allow recording onto just one of the stereo tracks, so the only way to record onto these at separate times is by recording single tracks and then juggling the virtual track assignment.
The improved Slow Speed Audition feature works well, even when running at 50 percent speed, and that, coupled with the pitch-shift function that alters playback by up to six percent either way, makes a great little set of facilities.
Overall, the 2488 MkII is a mixed bag. In areas such as track count, usability and efficiency of operation, it scores very highly, but it is relatively basic in some other aspects. A lot of the competition provide in-built drum machines, bass synths, samplers and other sound-generating tools (see 'Alternatives' box), and because the MkII doesn't go down that road, the basics need to be really good. I'd like Tascam to make the effects (see 'Effects' box) and record routing more flexible, expand the modest three-band EQ, and include some creative audio editing tools, like time-stretching, pitch-shifting, reversing and level-changing. The short-throw, non-motorised faders don't make it easy to mix this many tracks, and the metering is inadequate for representing the dynamic range of a 24-bit recording. What's more, although the track count is not reduced in 24-bit mode, as is the case with almost every competing product, having 12 record tracks only available as stereo pairs is a bit restricting.
All of the new additions are welcome improvements, but there's nothing earth-shattering. It is understandable that Tascam have sacrificed the GM synth and Tap button to include better mixing facilities, but it's a shame they couldn't find room for all.
When Tascam embarked on this redesign, they clearly wanted to retain the same mouldings, case and circuit designs to enable them to reduce the price, and in this they have succeeded: the 2488MkII is considerably cheaper than the MkI and there's nothing else out there offering 24 tracks for such a price. However, it is a little disappointing that they have passed on the opportunity to make a more comprehensive revision.
There are still no other 24-trackers on the market in this price band, so the alternative options mostly offer 16 tracks, though it's worth noting that most of the competition do offer eight XLR inputs, compared with the four of the 2488 MkII.
The only machine vaguely comparable that has more tracks is Korg's D3200, which has 32 tracks in 16-bit mode, plus an innovative controller-knob matrix, but it is more pricey.
Zoom's MRS1608 is a closer price match, but is soon due to be superseded by the very different looking H16CD. The MRS offers a similar recording suite to Tascam's machine, but adds a fully-fledged stereo drum machine and bass synth (both with their own mixer channels), a pad sampler and phrase loop sequencer. What's more, it packs a few nice editing tools, including reverse. Long-time rivals Fostex have just released the MR16HD/CD, which looks likely to compete in all areas other than the track count. Yamaha's AW1600 has fewer tracks but is the only product in its class providing a choice of dynamics processing and very good EQ on every mixer channel. It also houses an eight-channel sampler with trigger pads.
Roland's multitrackers always boast some innovative sound-manipulation features and great effects, but tend to be expensive. The Boss 1600CD is the only Roland-related product with nearly enough tracks to be comparable, but it exchanges track count for processing power, and still costs more.