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Tascam 488 MkII

8-track Portastudio
Published March 1995

Shirley Gray checks out the upgraded version of Tascam's popular 8‑track Portastudio.

The concept of 8‑track recording on cassette has been around for some time now and, despite initial disbelief about the viability of such an idea, it has stood the test of time. The beauty of a cassette‑based multitracker for recording demos is the convenience factor: no tedious threading of tapes onto machines, minimal patching and re‑patching, less space taken up in the spare room, yet you've still got the luxury of eight recording tracks to play with, plus a whole host of natty features to make your sessions easier and more fun. OK, you may not get master quality by today's rather exacting standards, but you can produce a polished, good‑quality demo. And now that the average musician's love affair with the MIDI recorder has passed the honeymoon stage and we're all appreciating the beauty of actually capturing 'the moment' once again, I suspect that the demand for "more tracks, please!" will be back with a vengeance.

First Impression

Rather than simply being an upgrade of the Tascam 488, which has been around for three years or more, the current model is more like a redesign. It is based around an 8‑track recorder, with the capability to record on up to four of the eight tracks at once, and an integral 8‑channel mixer with 3‑band EQ on each channel. Eight additional signals can be added to the tape tracks at mixdown — and that doesn't include four stereo inputs included to accommodate effects, the stereo input from an external mixer and so on! For the multitimbral synth and sequencer user, there is the now‑obligatory added benefit of a Sync facility (using track 8). Dbx noise reduction is present, but is bypassed on track 8 if you use this facility, so as not to corrupt the sync signal. Phantom powering is available on two of the mic inputs, and other significant features that differentiate this model from its predecessor are the 3‑band (instead of 2‑band) EQ; the addition of insert points; and the Auto Punch In/Out feature.

There's also an optional MIDI/Tape Synchroniser unit which converts MIDI information into a timecode signal, providing near‑instant sequencer lock‑up from any point in a song. This relies on your sequencer supporting MIDI Song Position pointers, but the newer models invariably do. Third‑party sync boxes such as the JL Cooper PPS II or the new Philip Rees box should also work.

Well Connected

A quick description of the inputs and outputs of the Tascam 488 Mk II should give you some idea of the flexibility of the unit and whether it would meet your requirements. There are line inputs for each of the eight channels, with inputs 1 to 4 additionally able to cope with microphone level signals. These are quarter‑inch jacks, though balanced XLR inputs are also available on inputs 1 and 2, with phantom powering as an option (to both). Channels 1 and 2 also enjoy the luxury of an Insert jack, so you can process these channels individually without tying up the effects loop; it also means you can patch in a compressor when recording vocals. Other inputs include a 2‑track stereo input (so you can play back and check your finished master through the unit without having to repatch or change settings), a Sub input (for bringing the output of an external mixer or multitimbral synth into the overall mix at mixdown), and four Stereo input jacks for effects returns or additional line‑level inputs (these can be used with mono jacks as well as stereo jacks). On the output side of things, there are the stereo Line outputs (phonos, for sending to your mastering machine), Monitor outputs (to be connected to the studio amplifier and speakers) and a mono Cue output, intended for use as a foldback signal feeding an external headphone monitoring system. This signal is derived from the same source as the Phones output jack on the front panel.


The mixer section of the 488 has eight channels routed via four busses, two of which are designated as Left and Right when mixing down into stereo. All eight channels kick off with an Input switch, which selects whether the channel will receive its signal from the Mic/Line input sockets or the corresponding tape track. There is a third switch option, called Multimix [editor removed dubious food processor joke at this point], and using this you can bring extra modules into the mix through the line inputs and still have full control over the tape track signal via the mixer channel. Signals plugged into the odd‑numbered channels appear on the left of the stereo buss, while the evens appear on the right.

Rather than simply being an upgrade of the Tascam 488, which has been around for three years or more, the current model is more like a redesign.

Tape Cue is a tape track monitoring facility for use when overdubbing, while the EQ section is three‑band with a sweep mid; the high and low controls are shelving at 10kHz and 100Hz respectively. The sweep mid governs a band of frequencies between 250Hz and 5kHz. Each channel also boasts two effects sends. Then, as usual, we have a Pan control, a channel fader, and the assign switches to route the channel signal to the correct track on the tape deck or to the Left/Right outputs for mixdown.

The more astute amongst you may by now have clocked that there are no overload LEDs, PFL buttons or mutes. The Tascam design team would have had to draw the line somewhere with issues of cost and space to consider, and because the metering is rather good (more later about this), I suppose they thought that the inclusion of PFL and/or overload LEDs wasn't essential. As for mutes, the same effect is achieved by knocking out the Assign switches so, again, this is not really an omission.

Channels 1 to 4 can cater for microphone levels as well as line, so these also have a Trim control for adjusting the level of the input. Channels 1 and 2 have the addition of a choice of jack or balanced/XLR input (with or without phantom power).

The stereo inputs could equally well be labelled Effects Return, but as you might want to use them instead as extra inputs, they have been treated as four more channels (9, 10, 11 and 12). Control is limited to level and assign switches; 9 and 10 share one of each between them, as do 11 and 12.

One area where Tascam have really gone to town is in the Mk II's monitoring. There are six switches to allow you to select between Group 1‑2, Group 3‑4, Tape Cue, St 9‑10, St 11‑12 and 2Tr In, plus a Mono button for monitoring in mono, enabling you to check for mono compatibility. You can have several of these options selected at once by depressing more than one button.

The metering comprises an 8‑LED bar meter for each of the eight channels/tracks and one each for the left and right Monitor level. The eight track level meters show you either the input signal for the relevant tape track or the output from the recorded track, according to whether you're in Record Standby mode or not. The top meter bar stays lit for a short while so you get a good idea of your peak levels.

Proof Of The Pudding

Tascam have gone out of their way to create a hi‑tech impression with the 488 Mk II; when you power up, the word 'Tascam' glides from right to left across the meter display. Displays aside, the 488 Mk II has an attractive appearance, finished in grey with white legending. I felt instantly at home with this machine; everything is in a logical place, and although it's a compact unit, they've managed to avoid cramping the controls unduly. This is due partly to the slender rotary controls, which are covered in non‑slip rubber. The pots themselves are a bit wobbly, which is a little disconcerting as it makes you wonder (rightly or wrongly) how tough they are, but they are noiseless in use and there are sensible centre detents on the EQ and the pan controls.

I liked the positioning of the Master Effects Send controls — at the end of the row of the individual channel send controls — you often have to hunt for those on mixers! The faders are neither too stiff nor too free, and having just one fader for the left and right buss makes for a perfectly balanced fade‑out. The switches are rather like grey and white Dolly Mixtures with the white layer disappearing when the switch is depressed. It can be so annoying when manufacturers get it wrong but I'm happy to say Tascam haven't, and it's easy to see which switches are depressed. I also liked the accessibility of the input and output sockets — full marks for that, and no need for a patchbay with this unit as a result. Some of the other sockets and switches are rather inaccessible but they are the ones least likely to be used.

One problem in my case was that I needed to record my sync code through the mixer so that I could alter the level onto tape. This necessitated much blind groping round the back of the 488, where the dbx on/off button is located, until, by trial and error, I got the level right. Of course, if I were to buy Tascam's MIDI Tape Synchroniser, I could have it all wired up permanently and would never need to touch the dbx switch.

The Rehearsal and Auto In/Out facilities worked like a dream — I did it virtually straight off without further reference to the manual (having read it once). The pre‑roll and post‑roll times were about right when dropping in instruments such as guitar and keyboards, but I found them a little short for doing lead vocals, where you need to listen closely and get 'into it' to match the tone and feel (oh yes, and pitch) with what's on tape. Mind you, some people need a whole verse for this, so I guess that on those occasions you'd have to resort to the old manual method! I tested the accuracy of the punch‑in/out positions over repeated attempts, and after about 10 tries they had drifted sufficiently for me to think I would have to reset them. I liked the fact that the transport rewound automatically to a point shortly before the punch‑in location, ready for a retry or to let you check out your take. There are lots of safeguards built in — to retry a punch‑in you have to press Auto In/Out again, so you're unlikely to press this by mistake instead of Play. You're also unlikely to erase Memo points by mistake, as you have to press two buttons at once to either enter or change them. The Return To Zero button is on its own so is easily found.

In some ways, it's hard to believe that sound quality can be this good on cassette, especially when there are eight tracks to play with.

The 488 Mk II's other features, such as Repeat, Auto Play and Locate, are similarly accurate, and very useful — I suppose it would have been asking too much to have these facilities on a remote? There is a remote footswitch available, however (as an optional extra), which takes over the operations of the Record and Play buttons when punching in and out — useful for when both hands are busy playing an instrument.

Now to the sound test. I recorded a full demo with code on Track 8, with electric and acoustic guitar, some interesting noises on some percussion I've got lying about, and vocals, bouncing the backing vocals to conserve tracks. It all went pretty smoothly for a first attempt — the recommended levels seemed to give no distortion and little in the way of hiss. Having said that, I was a little disturbed by the hiss and hum produced when the Trim control was on maximum. The flat‑out setting wasn't required for my particular Shure or Beyer microphones, but for someone with lower‑output dynamic mics recording something quiet (for instance, a rocking horse neigh, or John Major saying his party isn't doing very well), the hum might be a problem. The advice here is to make use of the phantom power and use capacitor or back‑electret mics for sensitive work.

On a test of input signal versus tape signal, I found that I could tell which was which on my rather good headphones, but the difference wasn't great — no significant loss of top or increased boominess, but rather a slight loss of smoothness. I doubt if you would be able to tell without the original to compare it to. The EQ was pretty smooth; even with the high turned up full the signal still sounded pleasant. On other, less smooth designs a similar setting would sound harsh and searing. Drop‑ins and outs were silent, I was pleased to note. I listened hard for crosstalk, but couldn't hear any until I turned everything up ridiculously high, so Tascam get the thumbs‑up on that one too. I was especially pleased to note that breakthrough from the code wasn't apparent at all, not even in quiet passages. That's one advantage of dbx!


Despite our dreams, I don't envisage a digital Portastudio rivalling the cost of its cassette equivalent for quite some time, so we'll be seeing cassette‑based models for a while yet. In some ways, it's hard to believe that sound quality can be this good on cassette, especially when there are eight tracks to play with. The Tascam 488 Mk II has to be close to the top of the league, with only models equipped with Dolby S noise reduction offering any significant advantage. Of course, there are compromises, but I think the designers have, in the main, been wise in choosing what they had to leave out. I don't think the lack of peak LEDs matters too much when your metering is as good and accurate as this, and having no mute switches isn't a problem, as the assign switches effectively do the same job. If you wanted to record a band, including a full drum kit, you would find the mixer limited in that you can only plug in four microphones — in which case you would have to use an external mixer — but there's a realistic limit on what you can expect to do with a unit of this price. On the subject of inputs, it's great that you can add a total of eight mono inputs and five stereo inputs to the eight (seven if you've recorded a code) tape tracks on mixdown. I was rather unsure about the noise/hum levels on the mic inputs, with them set flat out, although this was more gain than my particular mics needed, and at typical settings the performance is fine. I also thought that having only one headphone socket was a bit mean. Perhaps Tascam's market research shows that most people buying these products record all on their ownsome.

Only two mixer channels have the 'full works' of XLR mic inputs and insert jacks, but as you can route these to any of the tape tracks, you can compress/limit or add effects to your signal to tape if you wish. On reflection, I know the 488 Mk I didn't have any inserts at all, but on the upgrade I would have liked to see an insert on every channel. I do think people would be prepared to pay a bit more for this, as it gives the flexibility of being able to try different compression settings and/or treatments on individual tracks in the mix.

Overall, I was impressed by the Tascam 488 Mk II. It's been well‑thought out, it's a joy to use, and it gives as good a result as you're likely to get on analogue cassette, short of going to Dolby S. You could easily pay this amount for just a mixer or an 8‑track reel to reel tape deck, but here you've got both in one convenient package. There are plenty of inputs to cater for the audio with MIDI user, and the mixer section doesn't skimp in any of the vital areas. In all a significant improvement over the original 488. I could get quite attached to this little machine.

The Thing With Two Heads: Tape Transport & Functions

The 488 Mk II's two‑head transport has three motors, which makes for a more reliable and robust system than cheaper alternatives using only one motor. Tape speed is double normal cassette speed at 9.5 cm/s, and the slow speed option has been abandoned; I expect Tascam have come to the sensible conclusion that people aren't into saving tape at the expense of better quality and have other cassette decks to play their normal cassettes on. Pitch control is available up to 12% in either direction, and the transport controls are light‑touch micro‑switches which function in a similar way to the ones on a normal cassette deck. However, the transport system has an intelligence not found on your average hi‑fi cassette deck. Using the special features of Rehearsal and Auto In/Out, you can preset a punch‑in and a punch‑out point and then rehearse punch‑in/out without jeopardising your recording. Then, when you're satisfied that the chosen points are OK, the machine will punch in and out for you automatically. In this mode the tape stops shortly after the end of the take and rewinds to just before the start of the section, so you're ready to either check out your retake or redo it. Of course, this system isn't entirely accurate, due to tape slip, but so long as you don't keep doing take after take, it shouldn't let you down.

A separate function allows you to preset two memory points (Memo 1 and 2), and you can locate to either of these by hitting Loc 1 or Loc 2. These points (relative to the tape) are maintained even if you reset the zero of the counter, but they (and the zero position) are lost if you turn off the machine or remove the cassette from the compartment. The Repeat function allows you to repeatedly play back (automatically) a portion of tape between the two Memo points.


  • Nice 3‑band EQ.
  • Insert points — but only on two mixer channels.
  • Auto punch In/Out, Repeat and Rehearsal facilities.
  • Three‑motor transport.
  • Comprehensive monitoring facilities.
  • Good sound quality, with quiet drop‑ins and drop‑outs.


  • No direct tape outs.
  • No overload LEDs.
  • dbx on/off switch at back of unit, which can be awkward.
  • Noise/hum levels on mic inputs when they are set to maximum, though at typical settings this is not a problem.


If you're in the market for a cassette 8‑track, this well‑designed machine would be an excellent choice.