More years ago than I care to remember, I was introduced to multitrack recording after reading a leaflet issued by Tascam. It boldly announced the imminent release of their 144 Portastudio, the world's first affordable 4-track recorder based around the humble compact cassette. Some time after this groundbreaking event, I managed to save enough money to buy the by-then-upgraded 244 machine. I carried this home from the shop with my flares flapping in the breeze, sure in the knowledge that it would rocket me to recording stardom.
Years on, after cutting my teeth on these 4-track wonders (and still no stardom), portastudios and their clones seem to be as popular as ever. For anyone new to recording they offer a user-friendly, all-in-one introduction to the multitrack process, and for the more experienced user a form of musical notepad to try out ideas. Many companies have come and gone in this introductory sector of the market [anyone remember the Cutec, Clarion and Amstrad 4-trackers? - Ed.], where competition is at its most fierce. However, the Tascam name is still considered synonymous with the portastudio concept (they invented it, after all) and new models keep emerging in different guises on a regular basis. The newest kid on the block is the Portastudio 424 MkII, an upgraded and improved version of the earlier 424.
Although the cassette multitracker has taken many diverse forms, the basic shape and layout has become more or less standardised. The 424 is no different in this respect, following the tradition of a standalone unit, with the controls roughly divided into two equal areas. On the left-hand side is the mixer section, with four fully-featured mono channels and the bonus of two stereo channels; the latter offer simple level controls only, but are welcome just the same. To the right is located the cassette door, associated transport controls and the display area, which is reasonably big, bright and informative. As an aside, on the rear panel, Tascam have fitted a pair of Sub In sockets to receive signals from an external mixer, making the 424's integration within a sequencing setup even easier.
Most of the various ins and outs are positioned on a sloping rear panel, which makes access easy for any repatching that may be necessary during a session. The only sockets contravening this are the four tape track outputs, stationed on the very rear panel, and a headphone and remote punch in/out socket, which are sensibly placed on the front edge. A 3-position switch, for the onboard dbx noise reduction system, is also located on the rear panel and allows options of on, off and sync (which disables the dbx on channel 4 only). Although the 424 MkII's grey casing is an all-plastic affair, the overall look is very smart and construction seems reassuringly robust. The only slight reservation I have is the feel of the rotary pots, which appear to be almost loose in the casework because of the way they are mounted. However, they did not prove problematic in use and were fairly even in feel.
Signals enter the 424's mixer section either through the four balanced mic inputs, or via the unbalanced jacks on the rear panel. The informative owner's manual warns you not to use both of these inputs at the same time, but mysteriously omits to tell you what would happen if you did! As is now convention, the signals then pass through the input gain control, which Tascam prefer to call a 'trim'. It is here that the first of the MkII upgrades appear in the form of improved mic input circuitry, and indeed noise only starts to rear its ugly head when the Trim controls are in the last quarter of their travel. Directly below this is a 3-way input routing switch, which allows selection between mic/line, channel off or tape return, for monitoring of the final mix.
The signal then passes through the improved EQ section, which consists of a high shelving control at 10kHz, a sweep mid section centred from 250Hz to 5kHz, and a fixed low frequency control at 100Hz. These frequencies seem to be well chosen and fairly flexible, allowing you to get at most areas for general tonal tweaking. The three gain controls are all centre-detented and offer a generous amount of cut or boost.
Next up are a pair of auxiliary circuits. Both Effects 1 and 2 have separate send controls, but unfortunately no dedicated return sockets. This means tying up those extra stereo inputs mentioned earlier, although I'd rather do that than not have the facility in the first place. Effect 2's send control also doubles as a tape cue (via a dedicated switch) to allow the monitoring of signals coming back from tape when overdubbing.
Last in line is a centre-detented pan control and smooth, but short, fader. As with nearly all cassette multitrackers, the fader tends to be quite abrupt towards the end of its travel, which can lead to a curtailed fade if care is not taken.
The simple master section is situated to the left of the tape transport controls and occupies the unused space of the stereo input channels 5-6 and 7-8. Here we find a single stereo master fader, which Tascam have sensibly made longer than those used on the inputs. The various monitor options are also assembled here and include switches to listen to the left and right busses, as well as any signals going to effects send 1 or 2. Finally, an overall volume control is included to adjust the signal level sent to the monitor outputs and headphones.
Besides the normal cassette transport, counter reset and return-to-zero controls, Tascam have provided a number of locate and auto tape functions, which tend to make life much easier when searching for a specific area on tape. Two locate points can be set up anywhere along the tape path and the machine can be asked to fast-forward or rewind directly to these locations. Pressing the Repeat button, you can even cycle between them to create a playback loop whilst rehearsing a certain part.
If you need to correct a mistake in the middle of a recorded track, it is no longer necessary for nifty footwork to drop in, because there is an automatic facility for doing so. It is wise to rehearse the part that needs replacing and by pressing the Rehearse button, the 424 MkII allows you to set up punch-in/out points, which switch the monitoring from tape signal to 'live' instrument. This allows you to practice the new part without erasing the existing one, until you are ready to record. If you need a lot of practice, like me, the facility can be indefinitely repeated and the pre-roll time is user-definable. When ready, a simple push on the Auto in/out button will then switch any selected tracks into record mode and permanently overwrite the existing gaff.
The 424 MkII will run at both high and low tape speeds, selectable via a front panel switch. For improved recording quality when multitracking, it is advisable to use the 9.5cm/sec setting. The 4.8cm/sec speed should only be used for less critical projects and when listening back to normal cassettes, which of course can be played. Also incorporated within the transport controls is a tape varispeed function, with a generous range of 12% either way.
After the initial learning curve necessary to understand the multitrack process, operating a cassette-based machine is a doddle and the 424 MkII is no exception. Once your tape is inserted under the clear perspex door, simply connect a mic, or instrument, to an input channel. Select the channel's Mic/Line switch and set the Pan control to the desired buss (remember left for track 1 and 3, or right for 2 and 4). Place your nominated track into record-ready mode, using the Record function buttons, and set up your monitor section by selecting either left or right from the monitor switches. External effects processors can either be monitored when recording, or printed to tape along with the main signal, by utilising the extra stereo input channels. After setting the recording level with the channel input and master faders, you're ready to go. As with all multitrack machines, it is important to place the newly-recorded track back into safe mode once recording has finished, to prevent accidental erasure.
To overdub, it is necessary to hear tracks already recorded and this can be achieved by switching to 'tape cue' in the monitor section and turning up the Cue level control on the relevant channels. Once you have finished track-laying, all channels can be set to mix mode and more effects can be added, via the two auxiliary circuits if required. For most users the ability to bounce tracks will be a necessity, with only four available, and this is as easy to accomplish on the 424 MkII as on any other multitracker.
In general, sound quality on the 424 MkII is very good; even after bouncing, things remain quite crisp. As long as you look after the recording levels and use reasonably good quality mics, far more noise is generated by the cassette tape itself than by the electronics. On the subject of tapes, Tascam recommend the use of high bias 'Type II' cassettes -- so no cheapies please, it's false economy. The EQ section is quite flexible for a machine of this price, although if pushed it can tend to sound slightly peaky and, because of the tape format, the high frequency control can accentuate tape noise on quiet passages, if care is not taken.
We are now truly in the digital age, with hard disk recording offering exceptional sound quality and unlimited creative choice. The downside to this, however, is the fact that the instruction manual for such beasts often weighs more than the product and creativity can sometimes get lost in the technology.
The portastudio, on the other hand, offers a budget platform where ideas can be directly printed to tape, quickly and without the paraphernalia of more upmarket systems. The 424 MkII makes recording even easier, thanks to its locate, rehearsal, and auto in/out features. Musicians wishing to utilise the 424 within a sequencing setup will find the sync facility makes it possible to run sequenced keyboard and drum parts along with guitar and vocal tracks recorded on the 424. By using multitimbral modules, these 'live' tracks could even be returned through the stereo input channels, without recourse to a separate mixer.
It's difficult to find anything to criticise about the 424 MkII. Yes, it would be nice if there were dedicated effects returns or longer-throw faders. The tape counter display could have been in minutes and seconds, or the EQ section might have featured a bypass switch. But when you consider my first guesstimate price for this unit was £200 higher than the recommended retail, it makes these minor whinges pale into insignificance. All in all, I have to admit that the portastudio concept has come a long way since the days of my old 244.
Tracks are placed into record mode by using their own dedicated Record function switches, located directly above the transport controls. There are three positions on each of the four switches labelled 'direct', 'safe' and 'buss'. Safe is self-explanatory, while the buss setting is the typical arrangement of the left buss carrying signals to tracks 1/3 and the right to tracks 2/4. This would normally restrict the number of simultaneously recordable tracks to two, but Tascam have cunningly included a direct setting, which allows each of the 424 MkII's four inputs to be routed to their corresponding tape tracks, to allow recording on all four tracks at once. All in all, a well thought out and flexible arrangement.
Plenty of inputs (10 on remix) including four good quality mic ins.
Varied range of locate and auto features make rehearsal and drop-ins a breeze.
Slightly offputting feel to the pots.
No others at the price.
Good value for money package which epitomises the 'portastudio' concept -- easy and quick to operate, with plenty of flexible features to maximise its creative use.
£ £499 inc VAT.
A TEAC UK Ltd, 5 Marlin House, The Croxley Centre, Watford, Hertfordshire WD1 5YA.
T 01923 819630.
F 01923 236290.