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Tascam 424 MkIII & 414 MkII

Portastudio By Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser
Published March 2001

Tascam 424 MkIII & 414 MkII

In these digital days, is there still a place for the good old analogue cassette Portastudio? Tascam clearly think so, having just released upgraded versions of two of their most recent models. Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser go back to the future...

Successful studio equipment manufacturers aren't known for flogging dead horses. If something doesn't sell, they won't usually make another one of the same, in order for it not to sell too. (There are exceptions, of course...) So the fact that the two leading exponents of the analogue cassette multitracker format, Tascam (its originators) and Fostex have both put out new models recently must mean that there are still people who want to make multitrack recordings on cassette tape.

Some will no doubt be wondering which log these people have been hiding under for the past couple of years. Has the affordable digital revolution passed them by completely? Are they really prepared to forgo the things hard disk multitrackers offer — clean, hiss‑free digital recording without wow and flutter, the convenience of digital editing and built‑in effects, the freedom of virtual tracks, the life‑saving power of the 'Undo', the speed of instant locating, the wonder of not having to give up a track to sync code in order to synchronise a sequencer?

To which the log‑dwellers might well respond that, yes, those things are great, but we'd rather not worry about looking after the hard drive, pay extra for something to back up to, lose our latest masterpiece because the HD recorder crashed before we'd backed up, or spend hours poking about in menu‑driven operating systems to get the built‑in reverb routed where we'd like it. We're also quite partial to the idea of being able to pick up our multitrack recording medium (a cassette) from virtually anywhere, knowing that with reasonable care it won't go corrupt — and therefore doesn't really need backing up. Analogue Portastudios also provide an excellent grounding in basic recording techniques for novices, are cheap to buy, and offer unrivalled speed and immediacy for quick demo recordings.

Having examined both sides of the issue and admitted that there's probably still a place for the analogue Portastudio, we'll turn to Tascam's two latest models, the 424 MkIII and the 414 MkII.

Portastudio 424 MKIII

Though the sound‑quality of the 414 MkII (above) matches that of the more expensive 424 MkIII, the smaller unit has more limited connectivity and facilities.Though the sound‑quality of the 414 MkII (above) matches that of the more expensive 424 MkIII, the smaller unit has more limited connectivity and facilities.

The 424 is a long‑lived machine — the MkII version was reviewed in SOS September 1996 — and it has now reached its third revision. The differences between the MkII and the new machine are few, the most significant being an improved mixer section: where the MkII had four mono channels and two simplified stereo channels, the MkII has six mono channels and one stereo. There are some cosmetic alterations, chiefly a contemporary 'rounding off' of edges, though the metallic blue finish remains the same. Knobs now have colour‑coded tops, and connections are on the rear panel rather than the top panel. Finally, the punch‑in footswitch socket has migrated to the back on the MkIII, from its position on the front edge of the MkII. This odd 'improvement' actually makes things less convenient! Enhancements aside, though, the 424 still basically comprises an eight‑channel mixer and a four‑track recorder.

The mixer is simply but adequately specified, with its six main mono channels each having a mic/line input on an unbalanced jack, plus XLR mic inputs on the first four channels — but no phantom power, so users of condenser mics will need a separate phantom supply. Each mixer channel has a Trim control, and there's an input selector switch on each too: for the first four, this chooses between the mic/line input and the off‑tape signal, while channels 5 and 6 choose between the odd‑numbered or even‑numbered mic/line inputs respectively. Next up is three‑band EQ with a swept mid‑band for each mono channel. The High and Low bands are centred on 10kHz and 100Hz respectively, each with 10dB of cut or boost, and the Mid band's centre frequency ranges from 250Hz to 5kHz, with ±12dB of gain. Two effects send controls come next, one doubling as a monitor level control for setting up a cue mix. This obviously compromises the use of the second effects send during the recording process (when the cue mix is needed for overdubbing), but not during mixing. Finishing off each mono channel is a pan pot and 50mm fader.

The 424's stereo channel is greatly simplified, with just a stereo line jack input, level knob, and assign switch to send the stereo signal to the main mix or to the monitor output. This channel would often be used for a stereo synth, or as an effects return, so the lack of other facilities isn't too problematic. There's an even more simplified stereo phono input, too, labelled 'Sub In' and wired directly to the master fader. It has no level control, and is meant for adding the output of an external submixer to the 424's mix.

Turning to outputs, the two effects send jacks are augmented by main stereo and monitor outs (on phonos) and four phono track outs, for routing a recording through a more sophisticated mixer. What the 424 is missing are insert points and dedicated effects returns. The MkII's stereo input channels were perfect for returning effects. The MkIII's mono inputs five and six can do the same job, together with the stereo input, but it's a shame to use fully‑featured mixer channels as effects returns.

The recorder section operates at normal (1.875 inches per second) and high (3.75 inches per second) speeds, and thus can be used for playing back standard cassettes as well as for recording with higher quality at double speed. There's varispeed of ±12 percent available, too — one area in which an analogue Portastudio can outdo digital machines, which don't always offer this facility. The 424's Dbx noise reduction can be bypassed on track four, to ensure that sync code is recorded reliably (noise reduction being known to compromise sensitive signals such as sync code). Code is recorded to tape via the right Sub In, and sent back to the synchroniser via track four's direct output.

All four tracks can be recorded to simultaneously, useful for those working with musicians who want to play together. Signals are routed from the mixer to the recorder via a bank of Record Function switches above the 424's informative fluorescent display. These switches have three positions: Safe, for playback only; Direct, which sends the audio appearing at mixer inputs 1‑4 directly to the similarly numbered tape track; and bus, which is used for routing signals from all eight inputs to the tape tracks, and for track bouncing. During bus recording, any audio panned left is routed to tracks 1 and 3, while any panned right goes to 2 and 4. Using this option, it would be easy to record a complete sequenced backing in stereo, patching sound sources through the 424's mixer onto any two tape tracks. During bouncing, panning is used to route off‑tape audio to the left or right busses for rerecording onto the relevant track.

As the 424 is a fairly up‑market machine, it has a logic‑controlled transport mechanism with soft‑touch switches. Under the display, which hosts bar‑graph metering only for channels one to four and for the stereo mix, are the locator and auto‑punch buttons. Two locate points plus return to zero can be set, to help you get around a recording quickly (though there's no instant rewind here!), and there's also a Playback Loop function — set the locators either side of the section you want to rehearse and it will repeatedly play back. Punching in can be either manual, footswitch‑controlled, or automatic, and a Rehearsal option allows fine‑tuning of in and out points in the latter case.

Portastudio 414 MkII

The MkIII version of the 424 now has all its connections on the rear panel — sadly this includes, rather inconveniently, the footswitch input.The MkIII version of the 424 now has all its connections on the rear panel — sadly this includes, rather inconveniently, the footswitch input.

Looking at the 414 MkII alongside the bigger 424, it's immediately obvious that the former is a simpler, entry‑level machine. It has no display and features a mechanical tape transport. Like the 424 MkIII, the 414 MkII is enhanced over its previous version (reviewed in SOS January 1997), but not dramatically. Apart from cosmetic changes, it has grown two XLR mic inputs its predecessor didn't have, and also has a new dedicated guitar input.

Again, the mixer section offers eight channels, but this time in a four‑mono/two‑stereo configuration. The mono channels each have mic/line jack inputs (the left and right XLR inputs can be routed as required to odd‑numbered or even‑numbered channels respectively); a Trim slider; an input selector (choosing between off‑tape signal, mic/line input, and guitar input); and two‑band EQ, with the High band centred on 10kHz and the Low centred on 100Hz, both with ±10dB gain. Obviously, this doesn't offer as much control as the 424's EQ.

Like the 424, the 414 MkII has two effects sends, which is quite generous for a budget machine (effects would be returned via the two stereo channels), and again one doubles as a tape monitoring control. The monitoring system is even simpler than the 424's, though quite sufficient: all one really loses is the option to check a mix in mono.

A Record Function switch for each mono channel determines where signals going through that channel will be recorded — just as with the 424 — and each channel has a red LED, which flashes when the channel is record‑enabled. Mono channels are completed by a pan pot, a 50mm fader, and an LED bar‑graph meter.

The stripped‑down stereo channels each have just a stereo jack input and a level control. The only connection remaining is the Sub In, which allows a submixer to be connected. The 414 lacks t he 424's direct tape track outs, so 414 users don't have the option to send recorded audio out for mixing on a more sophisticated desk.

The tape section records at one speed only (3.75 inches — double normal cassette speed), so you can't play back conventional cassettes with it. There's apparently 10 percent varispeed on offer, though tests with both machines suggest that they actually provide the same amount of varispeed, which the 424's manual says is 12 percent — whichever figure is correct, you get about three semitones of pitch change downwards and almost three upwards. Only a return‑to‑zero point can be set (there are no locators), and there are no fancy rehearsal features or programmable punch‑in/out. You can, of course, punch in and out manually or via footswitch. All four tracks can be recorded at once, which is nice on a machine of this price.

As with the 424, Dbx noise reduction keeps noise to a minimum, and can again be bypassed on track four if sync code is to be recorded. Because the 414 doesn't have individual track outs, Tascam have fitted a dedicated Sync Out socket to feed code back to your synchroniser.

Double Action

Working with a solid, well‑specified machine such as the 424 MkIII is quite satisfying: all its facilities work as they should, noise is pretty unobtrusive in a demo context, and recordings can be made commendably fast. Recording quality is clean and punchy, and is not noticeably compromised by one generation of bouncing. This fact enables the creation of a good‑sounding final mix with 10 individual parts — more if you play along while bouncing. Audio will even survive a second bounce if you're careful with levels. It must be said, though, that losing a track to a sync signal feels very constricting (this applies to all cassette four‑tracks, in fairness); actually getting code recorded at the right level entails trial and error, and it tends to bleed through. It's also a shame there's neither phantom power, when XLR inputs are supplied, nor insert points.

Tascam's major improvement — substituting two fully‑equipped mono channels for a simple stereo one — certainly enhances flexibility, but it would have been nice if they'd added the mono channels, while retaining the stereo channels to use as effects returns. Of course, at this price that's probably asking too much...

The 414 MkII is even easier to use than the 424, and though it has a reduced feature set there's enough in common with the more expensive machine to ensure that it's not fatally compromised. We missed stereo mix metering — without it you're dependent upon your mastering recorder's meters to ensure the mix isn't overheating. There's no auto‑punching on the 414, either, though manual punch‑ins are pretty good if you choose your place carefully. Punch‑outs on both machines have a tendency to leave gaps, however. Sonically, the two machines seem virtually identical, so there are no worries that the cheaper 414 will produce an inferior sound. We did find, however, that the review 414's transport ran slightly slower than that of the 424.


You may already know you want a digital multitracker and, if so, that's great. Digital is certainly getting cheaper — but it's not as cheap as analogue cassette just yet. If you're still thinking about the options for demoing, and are on a tight budget, don't dismiss analogue cassette out of hand. Complete novices could look at the 414 MkII, which will give them the cheapest way of seeing if they enjoy multitrack recording, without significantly compromising on quality (bearing in mind analogue cassette limitations). Those who don't mind spending the extra for a better‑specified machine, or who already know they like recording their own music and are looking for an easy and cost‑effective way to demo their songs, should probably look at the 424 MkIII. Neither machine offers anything ground‑breaking, but they're well made, pleasant to use, represent good value, and can produce some fine results.


  • Easy to use.
  • Auto‑punch and rehearsal facility.
  • Two aux sends.
  • Two tape speeds.
  • Good value.


  • No metering for some channels.
  • No inserts or phantom power.
  • Care required when punching out.
  • Sync code can bleed through.


A well‑specified machine that should suit both beginners and the more experienced user looking for a quick demo tool capable of producing very respectable recordings.