Tascam's new Digital Portastudio is now the most affordable 24-track workstation on the market. In our exclusive hands-on review, we find out how easy it is to use, and whether its sound is as impressive as its track count.
To home recordists of a certain age, Tascam will always be associated with the Portastudio. Many of us cut our recording teeth on the original four-track cassette Portastudio in the early '80s, before moving on to four- or eight-track reel-to-reel recorders — usually still bearing the Tascam logo. Tascam also maintained an interest in the professional side of the industry too, and were influential in the standardisation of the 24-track two-inch analogue multitrack.
|Photos: Mark Ewing|
However, times have changed and technology has moved on in leaps and bounds, but Tascam have neither forgotten nor ignored the needs of the home recordist. Their latest product is intended to bring to that market a simple-to-use, yet professional-quality, 24-track hard disk Portastudio, with some unusual extra facilities. With many modern musical styles comprising complex layers of loops, guitar overdubs, synth lines, and effects, 24 tracks is rapidly becoming a common requirement even in home studios, and while computers have their advocates, for many musicians a dedicated hardware recorder is a simpler and less frustrating way into music recording.
The new Tascam 2488 has been launched exactly 25 years after the original cassette Portastudio and, while the basic concepts of multitrack recording are similar, the detailed operation of the latest model is a revolution in comparison. The 2488 enters the market as the most affordable integrated and transportable 24-track workstation, combining a 24-track hard disk recorder, operating at 24-bit resolution and 44.1kHz sampling rate (although there is a 16-bit mode, if required); a 36-input digital mixer, with four phantom-powered mic/line inputs and four additional mic/line inputs, one of which has a dedicated DI input; versatile built-in effects; and a CD-RW burner. In addition to the 24 real tracks, the system also provides up to 250 virtual tracks to enable multiple takes and comping of vocals, for example. Among the more unusual features for a machine of this type, the 2488 also incorporates a 16-part, 64-voice General MIDI tone generator, complete with an onboard Standard MIDI File player and metronome. This enables MIDI files to be loaded and used as backing tracks, for example.
Like most products of this type and price, there are inherent compromises and constraints in its design and operation that make it a little less flexible than the high-end equivalents, but for the vast majority of practical purposes in its intended market these will largely be irrelevant. The most pertinent factors, which are immediately apparent from a cursory examination of the control surface, are that the 2488 can record only up to eight sources simultaneously, and it has just twenty physical (and non-motorised) faders for mixdown — the last six each control stereo channel pairs. The configuration options for the internal effects processors are also rather convoluted, and the effects — although adequate — do not really compete with the best multi-effects and reverb processors available. Having said that, the 2488 does have provision for two external effects sends, and the eight input channels can be used as effects returns on mixdown, so there's nothing to prevent the user from adding high-quality outboard effects if required. For most of the intended users though — novice recordists — these limitations will rarely be restrictive in practice.
CHANNEL INSERT EFFECTS:
The internal digital mixer's 36 channels are sufficient to enable mixing of the 24 replay tracks, the eight 'live' inputs, the onboard MIDI tone generator, and the internal effects processor. Each mixer channel is equipped with phase reversal, pad, basic three-band EQ (high and low shelves, plus a fully parametric mid-band), three aux sends, and an insert point (to accommodate an in-line effect or dynamics processor). I'll describe the effects configurations in more depth later, but basically the processors can be set up in three ways: either as eight separate channel insert effects; as four channel inserts plus a multi-effect (intended for combination guitar effects); and as a single high-quality send/return loop effect.
Currently, the 2488 is shipping with a 40GB hard drive which is claimed to be sufficient for over twenty full 24-track Songs. However, a very welcome feature is that the unit also incorporates a USB 2 port specifically to enable data back-up or audio-file import/export via a computer workstation — either for archiving or for further production work. The CD-RW drive installed in the centre of the front panel below the faders is for archiving and for burning audio CDs.
When first unpacking the 2488 it looks a little 'plasticky', but it quickly becomes apparent that it is actually put together rather well, and it feels fairly solid. It weighs about 8kg and measures a compact 145 x 545 x 355mm (hwd). The only supplied accessory is an IEC mains cord, so you'll need a USB cable if you want to be able to export data directly to a computer, and some CD-R or CD-RW blanks for the CD mastering and archiving functions, respectively.
As always, my eye was drawn first to the rear panel, since the connectivity is what defines a machine of this type. There are four combi-XLR inputs (XLR and TRS jacks, the former with globally switchable phantom power) and four more TRS inputs. All eight can accommodate both mic and line signals, but the XLR inputs are slightly more sensitive. All eight jack sockets present an 8kΩ input impedance and expect nominal signal levels between -43dBu (with the top-panel gain knob at the Mic end of its range) to +4dBu (at the Line end). The maximum input level is a fairly healthy +20dBu. The XLR mic input presents a pretty typical 2kΩ impedance and offers a sensitivity range from -57dBu to -10dBu, with a maximum input of +6dBu. The preamps are adequate for typical close-mic recording techniques, with reasonable headroom and low noise.
At the end of the same row as these input connectors is the USB 2 socket mentioned earlier, and all of these sockets are protected by the protruding top panel. This protection could be useful in some circumstances, I suppose, but it also makes it very hard to plug things up from the front, because you can't see the sockets or read the labels. It all has to be done by feel. The outputs are below the input connectors, but this part of the rear panel is recessed even further, by about another half inch, making it completely impossible to see the sockets when peering over the back from the front. Again, not a problem if the machine is installed and left alone, but a source of annoyance if you need to be able to access and change the connections regularly.
On this lower row are two unbalanced quarter-inch sockets providing effects sends (at a nominal -10dBu level), two phono sockets for the main stereo mixer output (again at a nominal -10dBu to match domestic or semi-pro recorders), a pair of balanced TRS sockets for the monitoring output (nominally at -2dBu), and another pair of phono sockets providing S/PDIF digital input and output. The digital input can be allocated to replace any odd-even pair of the eight analogue inputs, but oddly it is not made available to the monitoring as a two-track return, which might have been a useful facility.
Finally, there are two MIDI sockets (In and Out), the IEC mains inlet, and the power switch. The power supply is factory configured to operate on the appropriate mains voltage for the territory in which it is sold, and is not user-adjustable. The machine consumes 41W of power.
The front edge of the 2488 contains a few more quarter-inch sockets. A bright-red TRS socket on the left provides a headphone output (generating a maximum of 55mW per channel into 30Ω), while on the right below the transport controls are a dedicated guitar DI input and a pair of footpedal sockets — one for punching in and out, and the other for an expression pedal. The DI socket overrides the eighth input channel and has a 1MΩ impedance, with a gain range from -55dBu to -8dBu. The expression-pedal socket is intended to allow a foot controller to alter some of the effects parameters in real time — such as the wah-wah effect. A thoughtful and useful facility.
The control surface is uncluttered and has clearly defined functional areas with very legible labels. At the top left of the panel are eight input level controls, plus a button to activate phantom power on the four XLR inputs. Immediately below are eight illuminated buttons (complete with small overload LEDs) to select, link, and route the input sources, while a further three buttons are used to access and configure the effects section.
Below these are three large rows of 19 illuminated buttons, making this unit look more like a TV vision mixer than an audio recorder! The top row deals with record enabling; the middle row is used to select mixer channels and configure track routing; and the bottom row provides the mute and solo functions. The buttons mute by default, and the solo function must be activated with a button to the right of the stereo output fader. Below these button rows are twenty closely spaced and short-throw (45mm travel) faders, which are not motorised.
Above the button array is what I would describe as a small (roughly two and a half inches square) backlit LCD screen — although Tascam seem to think it 'large' — with fairly restricted contrast adjustment and viewing angle. It's fine for single-person operation, but if you have a friend sitting next to you they will have trouble reading the screen. Above the main stereo output fader are three small buttons to select the various mixer-channel function displays (EQ, Send, and Fader/Pan) plus the button for activating the solo function. Many of the workstation's buttons have dual functions, and these are marked with secondary reversed-blue legends. They are accessed by pressing and holding a dedicated Shift button just below the screen.
To the right-hand side of the machine are the usual selection of transport controls, menu navigation buttons, and data-entry/jog wheel, as well as the monitoring section. Again, there's plenty of space around everything, which makes it easy to find and use the facilities. The monitor section sports a large rotary level control with three associated buttons. The first selects the monitoring source, and also provides a mono check facility as a secondary function. The Record Source Monitor button allows you to audition the dry input tracks when recording, and there's also a monitor Mute button. A row of four buttons below the monitoring section provide various system functions, with the all-important Shutdown button tucked up in the right-hand corner — pressing and holding this ensures that everything is safely written back to the hard drive before the power is turned off. Just below the Shutdown button is the Home key, and this takes the display back to the basic mixer metering screen.
Below the jog wheel, cursor and Yes/No buttons are various facilities to set locators for automatic drop-ins and basic track editing functions (including delete, insert, trim, move and so on). A Tap button lets you adjust the timing parameters of appropriate effects intuitively, and there's a built-in metronome. It's all fairly familiar and generally intuitive stuff, and after a few minutes of prodding around I was able to start making recordings and overdubs without any problems at all.
Powering the machine up takes about 25 seconds. During that process the software version is displayed — in this case v1.00, build 0060 — and at the time of writing there were no OS updates posted on Tascam's web site, which bodes well. The 2488 has no cooling fan, and the internal hard drive is remarkably quiet, even when recording or playing back. This feature immediately gives the workstation a distinct advantage when compared to many of the earlier generation of comparable workstations — and I had no problems at all recording in the same room with the 2488. The unit becomes barely warm after prolonged use, so no problems there either.
I have to say that the internal signal path is not entirely intuitive, but there is a useful block diagram in the back of the handbook that helps. Essentially, the eight analogue inputs (and the internal MIDI tone generator source) are each connected directly to their own input channels, each with phase reverse, pad, effect insert, and EQ facilities. At this point the input signals can either be routed directly to the appropriate record tracks, or passed on to a submixer to be used as live inputs at mixdown. The latter route adds level and pan controls before contributing to the stereo submix buss. There are also facilities here for the three aux sends: the first routes to the internal stereo effects loop send bus, while the second and third route to the two external effects sends outputs, each with pre/post switching. The twenty-four track-replay channels have similar facilities to those provided in the submixer.
The main output can be sent to either the stereo output or submix busses, and the latter is used when bouncing down recorded tracks, should 24 not be enough. Although the main stereo output normally appears at the main rear-panel output connections (and the digital output), there is also a routing facility which enables any odd-even pair of tracks to be presented at these connectors instead, as a direct output.
The eight analogue input channels and the tone generator are freely assignable to any of the 24 recording tracks by the simple process of holding the relevant input source button until it flashes, and then pressing the required channel selection button. A source can be routed to more than one track if required, and the function works equally well if you hold the mixer button and then select a source instead. For stereo signals, sources and tracks can be linked in odd-even pairs by holding down one button and pressing the adjacent one. Input signal routing can be interrogated by holding down either a source or mixer channel button, and observing which other buttons flash, or by calling up a Map display, a two-screen depiction of the entire routing status.
There are also three pre-configured routing assignments, which can be overwritten if required and which can be recalled using the Quick Routing button. The first of the three modes is called Recording and simply assigns inputs one to eight directly to tracks one to eight, respectively. The other modes are Bounce, which picks up the submix buss and routes that to the appropriate record tracks; and Mixdown which routes the input channels to the main stereo output, via the submix buss, along with the replay tracks.
The function of the channel phase reverse is self evident, but the pad facility is worthy of a brief mention. Accessed from the EQ display page, this setting provides coarse gain adjustment in simple 6dB steps from +6dB to -42dB. When applying significant amounts of EQ boost, it is often necessary to introduce some signal attenuation to avoid overloading the output converters and internal mix busses. The maximum of 6dB of gain usefully enables slightly low-level recordings to be remedied too.
The equaliser section for the selected channel is accessed by a dedicated button to the right of the main output fader strip, and boasts high and low shelving plus a parametric mid-band. All of these bands have a ±12dB gain range, which can be adjusted in 1dB increments. The frequency ranges of the three bands are 32Hz-1.6kHz, 32Hz-18kHz, and 1.7kHz-18kHz for the low, mid-range, and high bands respectively. The mid-band's Q control offers settings from an extremely narrow 16 to a very broad 0.25.
Although relatively simple, the EQ is usable and flexible, allowing both gentle tonal tweaking and fairly fine spectral surgery, and it sounds quite respectable. The entire EQ section can be bypassed, either by moving the cursor to the on-screen bypass button and turning the data wheel, or by holding the Shift button and clicking the Yes or No buttons — although this only works while the relevant EQ page is displayed on the screen. The channel's EQ settings can be completely flattened by holding the Shift button and pressing the EQ button, which is handy too. A library of EQ presets gives you access to factory settings and you can add your own favourite settings to these.
The Send screen for the selected channel is accessed from its own dedicated button, and reveals the three virtual aux send controls, each with channel send, pre/post switching, and aux master level control. The loop effects send is actually stereo, but there is no separate pan control, as this follows the channel's own panning. The third channel screen is accessed with the dedicated Fader/Pan button, and reveals the fader and pan positions, plus the phase reverse selection, for four channels at a time.
Since the 2488 has scene memories that store fader positions (among all the usual other things: input routing, EQ and effects settings, pan, and so on), but the machine doesn't have motorised faders, indicators on the screen show any disparities between the physical fader and the virtual fader positions. Needless to say, the two then have to be matched or 'nulled' by hand. This process is helped by a dedicated menu screen that allows the faders to be nulled without changing the audio levels, but it is a process which is tedious and fiddly in the extreme! Obviously, motorised faders are expensive and the target price of the 2488 precludes their use, but it is a frustrating compromise all the same. I also found that having nulled one fader and moved on to the next, the null error indicators often reappeared on previously adjusted channels! Fortunately, there are also alternative fader modes which may make life easier in certain situations. The first is simply to allow the virtual faders to jump to the physical fader positions as soon as a fader is moved, and the second is to enable the virtual faders to be 'caught' when the physical faders pass through their stored positions.
The monitor section is fairly straightforward, with facilities to audition the main stereo output, the internal submix buss (useful when bouncing tracks), and the effects sends (both to the internal send effect and to the two external sends). A fifth option is to deselect all the monitoring sources, muting the monitoring completely — which would appear to make the dedicated Mute button redundant! In fact, though, the Mute button serves to kill the rear-panel output (normally used to feed loudspeakers) while leaving the headphone output functioning normally.
The idea of the Record Source Monitor button, which lets you monitor the input source channels rather than the track replay channels, is that you may want to record dry, but introduce reverb or some other effect on the track replay channels (to help the vocalist with tuning, for example). By switching to the Record Source Monitor mode, you can still check the quality of the input signal, free from any distracting effects.
If any channel is soloed, it automatically breaks into the monitoring chain as you would expect. This is a true 'solo in place' mode, allowing the panning and fader levels to be assessed.
The 2488 is equipped with various disk-management functions to optimise and format the internal drive. There are actually two disk formats used simultaneously. A FAT32 partition is used for the external file transfers via the USB port, and this is restricted to 4GB in size and cannot be changed. File names must conform with the 8.3 style ('filename.txt'). A number of Tascam native-format partitions take up the remainder of the disk capacity and are used to store audio and Song data. These may be any combination of four, eight, 16 or 32GB in size, but a maximum of only four partitions may be allocated. The native partitions cannot be seen or accessed by a host computer via the USB port. The disk may be reformatted in its entirety, or the FAT32 and native partitions formatted separately.
The USB port is normally disabled, and must be switched on and off specifically at the start and end of file-transfer operations. While in use, the drive is effectively connected as an external drive to the computer, and no recording or playback operations can be performed on the 2488 at all. The USB import/export functions can handle standard WAV audio files (16-bit or 24-bit resolutions) and standard MIDI files. Once imported to the FAT32 partition, the USB port is closed, the machine restarted, and the files transferred to the native partition. A similar process is required for transferring MIDI files to the internal player and tone generator.
Backup and restore functions operate in a similar way through a Data Backup menu. You can copy material to or from the CD-RW drive, or via the USB port. The required Song files are identified and transferred (via the FAT32 partition in the case of USB exports).
Effects processors can be inserted into the appropriate channels simply by holding the required effect mode button and pressing the required channel selection button. When the effects are configured as eight channel insert effects, the processor can provide compression, de-essing or exciter functions (selectable independently in each of the eight installations). The compressor mode is equipped with Threshold, Ratio, Attack and Gain parameters — the last three simply numbered from zero to 100. Sadly, there is no display of the amount of gain reduction either, which can make fine-tuning the settings more difficult than it really needs to be. Again, there is a library of factory preset configurations to which you can add your own setups. The de-esser and vocal exciter modes both provide simple frequency and depth controls.
If you only need four such insert effects, then you can substitute a single multi-effect processor for the other four. This multi-effect is most likely going to find its way into the guitar DI input, and offers a chain of effects starting with a noise-gate followed by either distortion or compression. Then comes a simple amp modeller and one of several modulation treatments, with a delay rounding things off. All these effects are usable, and will turn a very dry guitar DI signal into something with rather more body and interest, but we aren't talking Line 6 PodXT standards here.
If you are happy to abandon channel insert effects entirely, then you can set up the effects block as a single send/return processor which provides somewhat higher-quality effects. Algorithms include reverb, pitch-shifting, delays, and so on, and are accessed by dialling in an amount of Loop Send from any appropriate mixer channels. There is no dedicated effects return channel as such, but the level of the chosen effect can be adjusted in the relevant control screen. The quality of the reverbs and other effects are, once again, adequate, and sufficient for the intended 'novice' level of user, but fall rather short of the standards provided by some of the more up-market digital effects processors — including those in Tascam's own mixers, like the DM24. However, as the requirements and demands of the 2488 user grow, it is a trivial process to integrate higher-quality outboard effects using the two external sends and the input channels.
Although not an effect as such, there is also a built-in guitar tuner facility which is accessed through the effects section buttons. In a similarly non-related vein, it is worth pointing out that Tascam have chosen wisely to retain a separate and permanent stereo compressor in the main output channel.
As with many other multitrack workstations, before starting a recording you first have to define a Song. With a Song created, the task of recording can begin by allocating input channels to tracks, arming the appropriate tracks, and pressing play and record. It's all pretty logical and painless, and I enjoyed using it largely because it just gets on with the job. There are none of the inherent distractions and foibles of most computer workstations, and as a result I found I simply got on with the business of making and recording music, which was a nice change!
The 2488 follows the common path of allowing up to 250 virtual tracks per Song, which means that multiple takes can be recorded and retained, combined or discarded as required. A dedicated menu page is used to control the virtual tracks, allocating each selected virtual track to one of the 24 playback tracks.
Finding your way around the recording is made easier thanks to quick locator functions like 'return to zero' and 'last recording position'. You are also able to set and name markers (up to 999 per Song), and I particularly liked the facility to recall pre-defined marker names from a list (eg. chorus, verse, middle eight, and so on), which made this tedious but essential task quick and easy. The time display can be switched between normal timecode (hours, minutes, seconds, frames and sub-frames), or bars/beats and tempo.
In and Out points can be defined for editing and punch-in operations (with user-definable pre-roll and post-roll times), and there is a fair waveform display and jog facility which enables slow-speed scrolling and auditioning to identify precise locations in the selected track. The waveform display can be zoomed both vertically (to reveal quiet recordings) and horizontally (to improve time resolution). Related functions are the varispeed and Slow Speed Audition (SSA) facilities. The varispeed control offers real-time adjustment by up to ±6 percent, with the corresponding pitch-shift. The SSA facility retains the correct pitch, but still allows the speed to be adjusted, and is intended to assist analysing or rehearsing particularly tricky solos! The range is in 10 percent steps down to 50 percent of normal speed. This facility only works on selected odd-even track pairs, and sounds as metallic and fluttery as most pitch-shifters do, but it is a useful feature nonetheless.
The 2488's editing functions are as intuitive as everything else, and few people are likely to have trouble understanding the concepts of copy, move, paste, insert, open, cut, silence, or clone. The editing operations are controlled by just three points: In and Out to identify the required source audio, and To, which sets the destination start point for the copy and move functions. Relocating verses or solos is very simple and surprisingly quick — and it's all non-destructive, with a comprehensive multiple undo facility in case it all goes horribly wrong!
- Studio 8 reel-to-reel multitracker, January 1986.
- Porta 2 Portastudio cassette multitracker, December 1986.
- Porta 05 Portastudio cassette multitracker, March 1988.
- 238 Syncaset reel-to-reel multitracker, August 1988.
- 644 Midistudio cassette multitracker, October 1989.
- 488 Portastudio cassette multitracker, March 1991.
- 464 Portastudio cassette multitracker, June 1992.
- Porta 07 Portastudio cassette multitracker, June 1993.
- 488 MkII Portastudio cassette multitracker, March 1995.
- 424 MkII Portastudio cassette multitracker, September 1996.
- 564 Portastudio cassette multitracker, December 1996.
- 414 Portastudio cassette multitracker, January 1997.
- 788 Portastudio digital multitracker, February 2001.
- 424 MkIII Portastudio & 414 MkII Portastudio cassette multitrackers, March 2001.
- Pocketstudio 5 digital multitracker, November 2002.
Writing Mixes To CD
With a complete mix built up, the next stage is mastering to the onboard CD-RW drive. The system assumes that the start will be at 00:00:00:00 and the end at the defined Out point, although it would have been more flexible if the start point could have been defined by the In function. A degree of editing and gap removal from the start of your recording may therefore be required before mixing and mastering.
The first stage is to create a stereo mix on the hard drive in a single pass, using the Premaster menu function. Once created, it is then possible to trim the start and end in the usual way, before committing the track to a CD-R or CD-RW. The 2488 supports both track-at-once and disc-at-once operations, the latter being required to create a master for a duplication factory. The CD-RW drive is a slow-speed type, and the handbook recommends CD-R media optimised for use at 12x speed or lower (and 4x or lower for CD-RW discs). The disc can be finalised automatically at the end of a disc-at-once process or manually, and there are facilities to playback the completed CD, if required. The whole process of burning a CD is straightforward and logical, and makes the process of recording, mixing and mastering music remarkably easy and pleasurable!
The internal CD-RW drive can read normal audio CDs, as well as CD-ROMs — but only Mode-1 discs, which may preclude loading audio from certain kinds of sample libraries. An addendum for the handbook (found on the web site) recommends not using the front-panel CD-RW eject button, but only the software CD Eject menu function. Apparently manual ejection has been found to upset the operating system under certain conditions.
All in all, I found the 2488 to be a well-designed machine, ideally suited to its intended market. Some aspects may cause a little frustration — the hidden rear-panel connectors and the fader nulling, for example — but at this UK price point these are niggly points and can be accommodated without much effort. This machine is capable of making some fine-quality recordings, with plenty of real and virtual tracks for even the most complex of productions. The internal effects processors are competent and versatile, if not exactly of class-leading quality, and are certainly sufficient for most people's requirements, especially as there is the ability to add higher-quality outboard facilities if needed.
The overall operation is very simple, intuitive, and quick, allowing the user to concentrate on making music rather than grappling with recording technology, and the ability to mix internally and burn the result to a CD-R, all in the one highly portable package, will be greatly appreciated by anyone starting out in home recording. With the 2488, Tascam have further refined the Portastudio format, and that can only be a good thing for recording musicians.