With eight-track simultaneous recording and up to 32 tracks on mixdown, the DP24 proves you don't need a computer to produce music.
Computer-based DAWs may dominate the home-recording market these days, but some musicians prefer to have all their recording tools in one portable, integrated box, and they don't want to have to think about driver compatibility, processor speeds, latency, boot-up time, OS updates and other such computer-related distractions.
Tascam's DP24 is a 24-track digital Portastudio that's designed to meet the needs of such people. It features eight phantom-powered inputs (allowing simultaneous recording on eight separate channels), a 32-channel mixer complete with insert, send and mastering effects and processors, 18 track faders, and a CD-R/W drive, so that songs can be produced for domestic playback without the need for any external equipment.
When we last reviewed a Tascam 24-track machine (the 2488 MkII, in SOS June 2007: /sos/jun07/articles/tascam2488mk2.htm), a few other manufacturers still produced directly comparable products. Five years on, that's no longer the case: the nearest alternatives are recorder/interface hybrid products like Zoom's R24, which offer more in some ways but rather less in many others.
The DP24 is the younger sibling of Tascam's 2488neo, which itself was an update of the 2488 MkII. Its feature set is derived from these predecessors, but Tascam have made a number of changes. Most importantly, the DP24 uses the ubiquitous SD and SDHC cards for data storage, whereas the 2488 neo had an internal 80GB hard drive. On the plus side, memory cards are virtually silent in operation, supposedly more 'stable' than hard drives, and can be popped out and plugged into a card reader in the blink of an eye. The down side is that increasing the storage capacity beyond the 2GB of the supplied card entails an additional cost to the customer. On balance, though, I'd say that using cards rather than hard drives is an improvement.
Tascam have also done away with the internal power supply in favour of an external PSU which, if less elegant, is mercifully small and lightweight. By removing the power supply and hard drive, Tascam have been able to make the DP24 much slimmer than the 2488 neo, a little narrower and slightly less deep. It also weighs less, although it remains surprisingly heavy for its size, thanks to the solidly engineered casing. At just under a stone (6.2kg) it just about qualifies as portable, but it cannot be battery powered, so you'll need to be near a mains power source.
Unlike its predecessors, the DP24 sports eight balanced XLR/TRS 'combi' jack inputs and phantom power, switchable in two blocks of four, is available to all of them. This makes it the first Portastudio with which it's possible to record small bands or drum kits entirely with condenser mics. (The 2488neo had eight inputs but four were quarter-inch jack types and could not supply phantom power.) Of course, the inputs cater for line-level sources too. Another first is the colour screen, and the colour is used to good effect to distinguish various screen elements from one another.
Many of the DP24's buttons and controls are the same as those on the 2488neo, although Tascam have moved things around quite a bit. The genuinely new additions are in the 'Display' section, which is an elevated rectangle containing the screen and various colour-coded controls. Buttons for selecting track assignment, effects, processor and mixer pages are aligned on the left-hand side of the screen, just above those for the home and menu pages. Under the screen are four 'F' keys, used extensively for on-screen option selection, and to the right are 12 control knobs for adjusting the three-band EQ, pan, and effect-send levels for whichever input or mixer channel is selected.
Having only one patch of channel-assignable knobs may not be quite the same as having dedicated controls for each channel, but there's only so much you can cram into a device and make it portable, and it's a significant improvement over the 2488neo's over-reliance on the arrow keys and Jog/data dial.
That said, there are a few 2488neo features that the DP24 lacks. There's no S/PDIF I/O, and neither is there an expression pedal input for controlling modulation effects. (The on-board Wah algorithm is an auto-wah). Also, the Slow Speed Audition (SSA) processor, which made it possible to change the playback speed of recorded audio without changing its pitch, is not included — and although this wasn't an essential production tool, it's a pity to lose it.
Tascam have always aimed to make their products as easy to use as possible, and have usually achieved that goal. The DP24 is no exception, despite being a reasonably complex piece of gear: there are dedicated buttons for all the functions that are most likely to be used on a regular basis, and very few settings have been relegated to submenu status.
A great deal of effort has gone into the design of the operating system, with the result that the display is used to its full potential. The channel pages, for example, are packed with information and benefit enormously from the differentiation that colour gives each control section. The colour separation is also advantageous when the display is packed with information, such as the metering for all 24 tracks. Admittedly, some of the detail on the screen is rather small, but the resolution is extremely high and renders everything pin sharp.
There's a variety of effects and processors on offer, and these have been divided into sections to target different production tasks. The section labelled 'dynamics' comprises a compressor, noise suppressor, de-esser and exciter, and is available to all eight inputs at once, although, unfortunately, different types cannot be used at the same time.
A chain of guitar multi-effects includes an amp simulator, noise suppressor and compressor, plus any one of six pedal-style effects. The effects can be turned on or off, but not separated, so they're inserted into the path of a signal as one block.
In use, an input signal passes through the preamp, A-D converter, dynamics processor, phase switch and input EQ, before being routed to one of the 24 record tracks, which have their own similar set of channel features, including EQ and phase. The guitar effects can be inserted at two different points: right at the start of the record channel path; and just after. This means that, depending on where you choose to insert them, the effects can be printed while recording or can be applied to a clean recording during track playback. If guitar effects are used at the same time as the dynamics, the dynamics are restricted to two channels.
Another section caters for send effects, offering reverb, delay and chorus. Again, only one can be used at a time, but there's a send bus routed to two TRS jack outputs on the rear panel, so it's also possible to use external processors alongside the internal one.
The last block of effects is for use only when mastering: they can only be used if a mixdown file has been created for them to act upon (they can't function as bus processors while mixing). The options include stereo and multiband compressors, a level normalizer and noise shaper, set out in a line across the opening page so the user can clearly see what's what.
The audio editing options (Copy/paste, Copy/insert, Move/paste, Move/insert, Insert silence, Cut, Silence, Clone and Clean Out) are not new to this machine, but Tascam have nonetheless assembled a set of tools that work together efficiently, and make the process of editing much easier than it was on some earlier Portastudio devices. For example, a single press of the Jog Play button, found in the aforementioned 'Display' section, calls to the screen an audio waveform for whichever track is currently selected. In this mode, the four cursor keys enable you to zoom in and out on the waveform vertically and laterally, and the Jog/data wheel acts as a reverse and forward scrub control. If a cough needed to be removed from a vocal track, for example, the way to do that would be to place In and Out markers before and after the offending audio, using the relevant Locate section buttons to insert them. Once that's done, the Track Edit 'Silence' option will delete whatever it finds between In and Out, and the result can be checked by observing the waveform display.
Like most contemporary multitrackers, the DP24 has a built-in metronome, but it only offers one 'beep pattern' per time-signature, and has no tone options. Also, it doesn't allow changes to be made to the tempo unless the transport is stopped, so a fair bit of messing around can be required to set it up. Given that the metronome is very basic, the DP24 would benefit from having a rhythm generator with a few well-chosen patterns: the MIDI implementation, which supports MMC, MTC and MIDI Clock, is partly there so that a drum machine can be hooked up to the I/O and synchronized during recording and playback, but, of course, a drum machine is an extra expense.
To overcome this limitation, I decided to try importing a WAV file of a drum pattern to use as a metronome. I removed the SD card, connected it to my PC via a card reader, and could then drag the file from my PC into the 'Audio Depot' folder. (Tascam multitrackers use a proprietary song management system, so when files are being imported and exported they have to move via the FAT 32 disk partition, which has been renamed the Audio Depot.) This was easily done, but I could also have connected the recorder with a USB lead and selected USB from the menu page.
I initially found that when the DP24 scrutinised the SD card, the copied files were not found. This turned out to be a bug which was fixed with a firmware update, from 1.01 to 1.02. From there on, the DP24 made it extremely easy to assign the drum file to the mono track or stereo pair of my choice. Two things struck me, having done this. The first was that in a future revision Tascam could consider pre-loading some drum loops onto the SD card, perhaps with some means of sequencing them. The second was that it would be possible to load pre-recorded files and use the DP24 to play back a multitrack backing track when performing live.
For recording applications, the DP24 is a cinch to operate. A button called Assign opens up a patching page, on which inputs A to H can be quickly assigned to any of the 24 tracks, or sent to the stereo bus, by a whisk of the Jog/data wheel. Tracks are armed by pressing their Rec button, and punch-in recording is achieved using the dedicated Auto, Repeat and Rehearse buttons, locate markers and pre-roll/post-roll preference settings. The input processors are always available and ready to use — they just need turning on, and the guitar processing options simply need assigning to the desired channel location.
Working on mixes is also fairly straightforward, although there's no automation, so adjustments have to be done by hand in real time during mixdown. Twelve of the 24 playback tracks are arranged as stereo pairs and share six 45mm faders, whereas the first 12 channels each have a dedicated fader. There are 18 faders in total (not counting the stereo master fader), and the level status of every playback track is visible at any time. Mute and solo modes make use of the 18 channel Rec buttons, and the Select buttons are used to call each channel's mixer page to the screen, so that instant adjustments can be made using the EQ, pan and send knobs.
Despite this being billed as a 24-track recorder, it's actually possible to combine up to 32 separate sources at mixdown, as you can route the eight inputs directly to the stereo bus while playing back 24 channels you've already recorded to. It's also possible to move recordings from track to track, from mono to stereo channels, or swap them for virtual tracks.
The sound quality of the recordings was perfectly acceptable to my ears, although there was something ever so slightly 'soft' about them — but that's understandable when you consider that you could spend more on a quality professional stereo mic preamp than on the DP24! The results are certainly good enough for high-quality demo work, and this sort of sound characteristic is one I find infinitely preferable to one that's overly harsh and clinical.
Overall, it's hard to be critical about too much that the DP24 does, or the way in which it does it: it is a very well designed product that succeeds in being easy to use, and it doesn't cost the earth, considering what's on offer.
That said, it isn't without its compromises. In particular, I found the lack of automation to be limiting, especially given that this is a 32-channel mixer with no dedicated channel EQ and pan knobs to instantly grab and adjust. Also, while I don't think that the 16-part, 64-voice General MIDI tone generator of the 2488 would be necessary, some sort of basic drum machine or rhythm composer would be an improvement on the provided metronome.
The digital editing options are very well implemented, and the waveform and scrub facilities combine to good effect. On the other hand, creative tools such as time-stretch and reverse haven't been included, and though the three-band EQ, is adequate, it feels rather basic compared with most modern software equivalents.
I also think Tascam should consider providing their future Portastudios with expansion options, given that their customers are committing to a closed system. While firmware upgrades will no doubt become available over time, it would be great, for example, to have the option of adding an extra effects board, or a pair of premium-quality preamps.
These few shortcomings aside, the DP24 represents decent value for money when you consider the cost of a DAW system — which would have to include software, an eight-input audio interface, control surface, and, to match the DP24's portability, a dedicated laptop to run it all on. Of course, there's more potential mixing power available with a computer-based DAW, but the DP24 does just enough, and its USB facilities and SD card make it possible to transfer files to and from a computer, should additional work be necessary.
In terms of the improvement over the 2488neo, the colour screen, adjacent quick keys and the panel of EQ, send and pan control knobs really aid usability, and having eight XLRs with phantom power makes it possible to record whole drum kits and small bands using condenser mics. (It's a shame Tascam didn't include a second headphone output, so the metronome could be fed to the drummer).
All things considered, then, the DP24 should prove a hit with many users, as it offers an efficient set of tools in a convenient and portable package. It should thus enable anyone to record and produce reasonably sophisticated demos very easily, and to create physical copies of their work. For anyone averse to working with a computer, there are very few options that come close to being this good until you get into full digital mixer territory.
In terms of track count, the only alternative currently in production is the Zoom R24. That also functions as a computer interface, control surface, sampler and rhythm machine, but it offers far fewer mixing controls than the DP24, a very basic display and no CD burning facilities. It is still capable of recording up to eight tracks simultaneously.
The CD-RW drive is supported by a number of recording modes, allowing it to be used to burn demos and compilations of various kinds. The Live Writer function, for example, makes it possible to divide up long performances into sections, which will be seen as separate tracks by a domestic CD player. Tascam's CD-management programs are quite mature, having been used on previous products, but this time there's no facility for backing up raw song data onto disk, which is a missed opportunity, even if data can be backed up via SD card/computer.
Hardware multitrack studios are very popular with guitarists, so it's no surprise to find that the last of the eight inputs is routed to a chromatic tuner, and has a high-impedance option for electric guitar and bass. As described in more detail in the main text, there are also guitar-specific effects and processors avilable. Arguably the most important guitar processor is the Amp simulator, which provides eight cabinet types, identified by their supposed speaker size and number. There isn't much to adjust — only gain, tone, master level and reverb — but the quality is pretty good, and the advantage of a limited palette is that the options can be auditioned and edited quickly. Like the amp variations, the 'pedal' effects are spread around a virtual knob, which is turned using the Jog/data wheel. They're also of a decent quality and very fast to set up because of their simplicity: only one of the six options (which are Chorus, Flanger, Phase, Tremolo, Auto Wah and Delay) has more than two adjustable parameters. Guitarists can also make use of a compressor and noise suppressor, each of which has its own page and just a few, simple, controls.