Tascam's two new digital multitrackers are the latest in their long line of Portastudio products.
In January 1991 I bought my first multitracker, a Tascam Porta 05 HS, and in so doing began my slide down the slippery slope of audio-recording dependency which still affects my life today. The 05 HS was one of Tascam's compact-cassette four-track Portastudios, providing EQ, an effects loop, and a number of other useful features, and it cost me the princely sum of £325. 14 years later, Tascam are still making multitrackers roughly based on their own pioneering Portastudio concept, and the latest additions to the range are the DP01 and DP01FX.
Both these new products are pretty similar, so we'll start with an overview of the DP01, and then go on to talk about the features that are unique to the DP01FX. The DP01 is a digital eight-track machine offering two movable bands of EQ per channel, two inputs, digital editing, and a USB interface for transferring files to and from a Mac or PC. Recordings are made at the CD standard of 16-bit, 44.1kHz, and are stored on a large 40GB internal hard drive. Tascam have not included a CD-RW drive, and are probably expecting most users to compile their demos and albums on a computer via the USB link. There is, however, a reasonably comprehensive set of onboard digital editing facilities so that recordings can be cleaned up and finished off to a respectable standard within the recorder itself. What's more, if mistakes are made, an undo function allows the user to return to a previous stored take.
Ergonomically speaking, the DP01 follows the well-honed Portastudio paradigm: most of the outputs are on the rear panel, while the more frequently used instrument inputs are located on the front edge alongside their respective gain pots and on/off switches. Down the left-hand side of the top panel are the track channels and their controls. Each of the eight has its own set of high and low EQ, Effect Send and Pan pots, as well as a Record/Mute button and level fader. The right-hand side is given over to the various transport buttons, screen, and other general operating controls. Editing menus, user preference settings, and song information are all shown on the small display screen, which also acts as a level meter for the two inputs, record tracks, and master outputs.
The scroll wheel, cursor keys, Enter/Yes, Exit/No and Menu buttons can all be found together in a grey coloured box under the screen. These controls are used together with one another to navigate through menus and to select and verify commands. The locator buttons, needed for establishing song navigation markers and edit points, are grouped along with the transport controls, which will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a tape or CD player. Quite a number of controls have dual functions, as indicated by the white-on-green (white-on-blue for the DP01FX) screen printing. Technophobes will be reassured to know that the secondary operation is almost always reached by simply holding down the separate Shift key.
The main stereo signal is output in analogue form via a pair of RCA phono sockets, and digitally from the optical S/PDIF port. There is also the aforementioned USB socket that enables song files, master stereo tracks, and individual audio tracks to be backed up and restored using either Mac or PC with the relevant OS. Windows ME, 2000, and XP are all compatible, as are Mac OS 9.0 and Mac OS X 10.2.
Outboard effects devices can be connected to the mono Send output and stereo Return inputs — all on quarter-inch jack sockets on the rear panel. The relative send level of each track is determined by the row of pots beneath the EQ controls, while the stereo effects-return signal is attenuated by the aptly titled Effects Return knob. The DP01 has a single MIDI Out socket, making it possible to synchronise connected MIDI devices via either MIDI Clock or MIDI Time Code, although the lack of a MIDI In means it can't be used as a slave device.
The most unusual connectors are a pair of Stereo Mix input jacks which are routed directly to the analogue audio output. They have no level control, cannot be routed to record tracks, and can't be mixed in with the optical output, but Tascam suggest using them to connect a stereo submixer, synthesizer, drum machine, or CD player, presumably slaved via MIDI to work in sync with the recorded material.
The ins and outs which need to be accessed more readily are on the front edge. To the right is a headphone socket and its level pot, as well as a jack socket for connecting a footswitch — you can use this to punch in and out of record mode. The DP01's two inputs are also found on the front, together with their gain pots and a switch for optimising the input impedance to suit either mic/line or guitar signals. The only other front-panel switch, labelled Input Mode, is for the purposes of monitoring only, and does not affect what is recorded. In its Mono position the signals from both inputs are panned centrally, whereas the Stereo position pans the signals as if they were a stereo pair.
Despite having few controls and a small screen, the DP01 hides quite a number of track-editing procedures. A dedicated Track Edit key brings a menu up on the display screen showing nine options: Copy Paste, Copy Insert, Move Paste, Move Insert, Open, Cut, Silence, Clone Track, and Clean Out. When copying and pasting, the source and destination tracks can be selected, as well as the number of times the copy takes place. The DP01 keeps a record of edits and new takes in an event list which can be accessed by holding down the dedicated Undo/Redo button. The manual doesn't specify a limit on the Undo level, and I managed to log 44 events when creating my test track without any problems.
Above the master fader is a button labelled Bounce, referring to the useful facility for mixing a number of tracks to a spare single track or stereo pair. The DP01 also has a separate stereo track for mixdown purposes, which is accessed by pressing the Master key. Recording to it requires arming the Master Button, setting In and Out points, and then initiating the Record process. The resulting mix is stored on the hard drive together with the rest of the song, but it can also be bounced to any pair of ordinary tracks.
The DP01FX is the more expensive and better featured of the two models. In essence, it is the same machine as the DP01, but it brings several key additional features to the table. As the name suggests, effects are built in, comprising two processors, the first of which is a mono-in, stereo-out insert effect which can be used on either one of the two inputs, although not on both at the same time. The algorithms are divided into categories helpfully labelled EGtr (electric guitar), AGtr (acoustic guitar), Bass, Vocal, and Drum. Apart from a volume control and one parameter adjustment, the effects cannot be edited, so their use is limited, but Tascam have included quite a selection.
The other effects processor offers four different reverbs specifically for use in the Aux send/return loop. Once turned on, the reverb interrupts the return path of any external effects processor, and is managed by the same send and return level knobs. Unfortunately, this means that an external processor cannot be used as well. There are four reverb types (Hall, Room, Line, and Studio), but only the decay-time value is adjustable in 50 steps from 0.1 to five seconds.
Where the DP01 has a space between its data wheel and Locate buttons, the DP01FX has two knobs for scrolling through effects and adjusting parameters. There are also two buttons: the first selects which input channel the multi-effect is inserted into, while the second turns the reverb processor on and off.
The DP01FX also provides two XLR inputs with 48V phantom power, so that condenser mics can be used without an external preamp. There is a switch for turning phantom power off, so that other balanced connections can be made safely. Other additional features include a tuner which is available to anything going through the first input, and a simple noise gate with adjustable sensitivity. You might want to use the latter for silencing a noisy effects chain, or for muting an open mic between phrases.
As is often the case, the multi-effect presets in the DP01FX are a little over the top in general. Just about all the guitar settings are heavily treated with lashings of distortion, often topped of with a dressing of chorus, delay, and reverb. Even the rather useable HeartBrk preset, described as being a 'tube stack at low gain', has loads of gain already, so I'll leave you to imagine how overblown some of the metal and power distortion algorithms really are. The function of the Parameter control varies from preset to preset, although it rarely, if ever, adjusts the gain level. Similarly, when using the ChorVib effect, for example, the Parameter knob attenuates its vibrato, but there is no way of changing the chorus part of the effect. At the end of the day, it's a matter of flicking through the numerous options to find something suitable, and then balancing the guitar volume with the input gain and effect level to get the optimum result.
Although it is possible to jump through the menu straight to the bass or vocal effects, none are numbered, so it is a matter of consulting the manual to find out where in the list you are at any one time. This is particularly a problem when using the guitar effects, of which there are about 80. Numbering them would have been a big improvement!
Although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the effects, which are reasonably good on the whole, the lack of control really does mean that there are a lot which will forever remain as cheesy as the programmer has made them. They may make you feel like a powerful stadium rock performer for a few minutes, but in the long run I think they'll prove to be quite tiresome.
The reverb processor doesn't offer many options at all, but it does have a nice sound, which doesn't suffer from the nasty harshness that is a characteristic of cheap digital reverbs. The reverbs remain warm and reasonably smooth, even at the end of a five-second decay. Once again, there are no real editing options, only the ability to set the send/return levels and reverb decay.
Using the DP01 is pretty straightforward, and I'm sure usability has been Tascam's main priority. The machine is clearly designed to be used by beginners, people who are familiar with older cassette Portastudios, and possibly solo performers/composers wanting to create demos with the minimum of fuss. I say solo composers, because having two inputs means that the machine isn't particularly suited to recording whole bands, multi-miked drum kits, or multiple soundcard outputs. The DP01 is, however, ideal for overdubbing, and its simple patching scheme makes building up a demo very quick indeed. Routing inputs to tracks and, in the case of the DP01FX, applying effects does require some holding of the Shift button here and there, but the learning curve is extremely short. I can't imagine anyone having problems getting to grips with either of these machines after consulting the manual a few times.
As far as audio quality is concerned, there isn't much cause for complaint. All the faders and EQ knobs work quietly and smoothly without adding any zipper noise, and the machine itself doesn't seem to degrade the audio in any noticeable way. I bounced some recorded material a number of times, just to check, and didn't detect any audible build up of noise or change in clarity. The two inputs do get a touch noisy at their maximum gain settings, but for ordinary use they're quiet enough. Thankfully, the operating noise created by the hard drive and fan is very low too, and not at all problematic for recording at close range.
More of a threat to audio quality is the rather uninformative metering. Although Tascam have included a Preference for changing the shape and size of the meters, they have left off any kind of scale, so it's difficult to gauge if a signal is likely to clip or not. The manual simply says that the 'meters should never be continuously at the top of the bar', but who knows what level the top of the bar represents, or indeed quite where on the screen the top of the bar actually is?
Another shortcoming is the lack of a decent compressor for inserting into the signal path of mic recordings. There seems little point offering facilities for directly connecting a condenser mic if there is no way to control dynamics, because the benefits of having a great vocal recording will be offset by uneven levels.
One of the most important features of any mixer is the EQ, yet often budget products have rather nasty-sounding filters which are best left alone. On the face of it the DP01's two-band EQ doesn't look like much, but it actually sounded quite nice, despite some low-level zipper noise. Although Tascam haven't found space for sweep pots, the cut/boost action of both controls can be moved digitally to any one of 32 different frequencies, and the adjustment can be made independently for each track. The low band reaches from 32Hz up to 1.6kHz, while the high band starts just above at 1.7kHz and goes all the way up to 18kHz. The manual specification avoids mentioning the cut/boost amount available, and doesn't show any EQ curves, but whatever Tascam have done it seems to work, and the default 100Hz and 10kHz positions are well chosen. A big drawback, however, is that the adjustments are made from the Preferences menu, which can only be accessed when the recorder is stopped, so you can't test new EQ frequencies in real time.
Although the DP01 provides a useful selection of digital editing functions, there are no character-altering tools such as time-stretching, pitch-shifting, reversing, normalising, or level-changing. Editing is easy enough, but there is little or no visual feedback to let you know what your actions are doing to the recording. Unlike many digital studios which have a specific page for entering the various edit points, the DP01 acts on whatever In, Out and To points are currently set via the front-panel buttons. There is no waveform display to aid the placing of the edit markers and no confirmation of which track is armed, so it pays to double-check settings before doing anything. The machine also lacks a 'track view' page, so the results of an edit cannot be seen. For the uninitiated, a track view shows each block of audio as a line across the screen, making it easy to see where audio starts and ends, where it has been cut, and where any relevant markers and punch points appear along its length. The DP01 would really benefit from one.
It was during editing that I became frustrated at the lack of a Solo function, which would have enabled me to quickly isolate and monitor an edit. Fortunately, muting the rest of the tracks can be done pretty swiftly. Unlike some sluggish digital multitrackers, the DP01 acts instantly when buttons are pressed, which is encouraging. That also applied when punching in and out of a recording, and there were no editing glitches left behind after dropping in either.
Using the USB connection with my PC was not a problem, although the way files are dealt with does take a little understanding. In short, files have to be saved into a specific partition of the hard drive before they can be read by the computer. Likewise, audio data on its way from the computer has to pass through this partition on its way into a user part of the DP01's drive. Backups remain in Tascam's native format; however, exported individual tracks or mastered stereo tracks are saved as standard WAV files. Although the various actions do require reference to the manual, anyone with a little computer experience should find the processes fairly straightforward.
I'm sure that when Tascam designed the DP01 and DP01FX, they had their sights set on first-time buyers with very little experience of audio technology, as well as on those people who just want to record their musical ideas without getting too bogged down with the technical side of things. In short, these machines are simple to use and offer a good basic set of tools which don't have too many confusing parameters. At the same time, they are capable of producing recordings of a high sonic quality, as long as they are used carefully.
The FX model costs £54 more in the UK, but seems like a slightly better buy. The effects alone are small reward for the extra cash, especially as the reverb send effects must be sacrificed if you plumb in an external processor via the send-return loop. However, the XLR inputs, phantom power, tuner, and noise gate all add up to something worth having. The mic inputs would be even more useful if there were a reasonably well-designed compressor available.
Overall, both products seem a little light on features when compared with some of the competition, and the lack of a solo function and the poor metering simply undermine the positive aspects of the recorders. The most immediate competition for the DP01FX is the VF80EX produced by old rivals Fostex. The specifications of the two machines are fairly interchangeable, although Fostex do include 16 virtual tracks, a CD-R/W drive, scene memories, an S/PDIF digital input (so you can bypass the internal preamps), and a varispeed control.
Tascam's advantages are in its USB interfacing (which diminishes the need for a CD-R/W drive), and its plentiful controls. Also in the frame is the Boss BR864 eight-track, which retails for about the same UK price. Again, its basic specification is similar, although the Boss COSM modelling effects are attractive. The BR864 also benefits from a rhythm machine, 64 virtual tracks, and a Phrase Trainer function, although it lacks control knobs, track faders, and a hard drive.
As ever, there is no clear winner in this market, because each manufacturer has something unique to offer. Tascam have gone all out for hands-on usability, and will, no doubt, sell many of these recorders for that very reason. Compared to my old Porta 05 HS, both the DP01 and DP01FX look extremely impressive, but they don't offer enough features to blow away the already established products from Fostex and Boss.