Paul White finds out how Tascam, the originators of the Portastudio concept, have updated their idea into today's world of 24‑bit digital hard disk recording.
While some musicians are happy carrying out absolutely all their recording tasks with a computer, there are many who still prefer to place their trust in dedicated hardware. Pretty much all the big‑name manufacturers have a number of products to offer in this department — including Akai, Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Fostex and, of course, Tascam, whose new 788 Digital Portastudio continues the Portastudio tradition into the digital age.
The 788 combines an eight‑track recorder and a digital mixer with a pair of digital multi‑effects processors. Recording is uncompressed and to an internal 7.5Gb fixed hard drive, with a SCSI 2 port provided as standard for direct recording and backing up, as well as for burning audio tracks to a suitable CD‑R/CD‑RW drive. External hard drives may be used for recording providing they meet the speed requirements. Comprehensive MIDI sync and control facilities are provided, enabling the 788 to function either as timecode master or slave, and mix automation is available with a MIDI sequencer. A small LCD is used for parameter display but it can also show the audio waveform when editing.
Virtual tracks can be recorded to save alternate takes (up to 250 per song, drive space permitting) and a full set of non‑destructive cut/copy/paste/move edit commands is available (see 'In, Out, Chop It All About' box). If you run out of tracks, you can digitally bounce tracks internally, though there is no 'bounce forward' capability to allow you to bounce all eight tracks to disk. Finally, to simplify routing, several commonly used routing presets are included, as well as the flexibility to create your own.
The Tascam 788 is moulded from silver‑coloured plastic with a steel sub‑chassis and takes up less desk space than an open copy of Sound On Sound. It makes about as much noise as a typical laptop computer so it should be possible to record in the same room without too many problems. On the rear panel is a stereo quarter‑inch headphone jack for monitoring or mixing, followed by a remote jack that accepts an optional punch‑in/out footswitch. Although there are onboard effects to cover most eventualities, Tascam have provided stereo Aux Input and Aux Output connections so that you can involve your own outboard equipment. These operate at a nominal ‑10dBV level and are unbalanced. The Aux Inputs may also be assigned to an internal submixer or used as an input source when recording.
All four main inputs (labelled A to D) are on balanced jacks and can accept balanced or unbalanced mic or line signals in the range ‑50dBu to +4dBu. As is common with units of this type, there's no phantom‑powered mic input, so capacitor mics need to be used with an external preamp that provides phantom power. Input D also features a mic/guitar switch, that converts it into a high‑impedance electric guitar DI input. The Stereo Output and stereo Monitor Output are on phonos for easy connection to a hi‑fi system or stand‑alone recorder.
Power for the 788 comes from a hefty external supply and, as with all disk‑based systems, it is essential that the recorder is shut down properly rather than just being switched off, otherwise work will be lost. MIDI In and Out connections are provided alongside the SCSI 2 connector. Finally, there's a single coaxial digital output, but no digital input.
Though every manufacturer has their own interpretation of the assignable mixer concept, the 788 is surprisingly intuitive and follows established paradigms rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. The Assign section, with its familiar Select buttons, is used to choose the channel to be adjusted and, as with the Yamaha series of mixers, there's a data wheel and a set of cursor keys in the master section that are used to locate and edit parameters.
At the top of the channel strips is a row of buttons corresponding to recording Sources: Input A, B, C and D, Aux Inputs, Track and Stereo. Preset routing options are included for recording (inputs A to D go to tracks one to four), mix down or bounce (first six tracks bounced to 7/8), but if you need to create a new routing setup, you can do this by pressing the required Source and Assign buttons at the same time to make the connection. An input/output grid in the display shows the overall routing status very clearly. Custom routing setups may be saved in a routing library for future use and channels may be paired for stereo operation by pressing both their Select buttons together and agreeing with the subsequent dialogue box.
Note that routing setups are also saved as part of a Scene, where a Scene is essentially a snapshot of all the main mixer settings, including effects, levels and routings, that can be stored for later recall. Up to 10 scenes can be stored per song, but they can't be recalled while the transport is playing and so can't be used for mix automation. Analogue controls such as the input trim and monitor levels are not saved as part of a Scene.
Because the physical fader positions may not be the same as the internal values once a Scene has been recalled, Tascam have provided a way to match the physical fader settings with the virtual settings. Catch mode leaves the virtual setting unchanged until the physical fader passes through the corresponding value and takes over. Real mode ignores the virtual setting and hands all control over to the real fader. If 'Real' is selected, the fader level remains under manual control, even when a new scene is loaded — which had me scratching my head for a while. A third mode, Jump, causes the virtual value to jump to the physical fader value as soon as the fader is moved, after which the physical fader takes control.
Despite the apparently sparse control surface, the mixer has three‑band EQ on every channel, where the mid‑range is fully parametric and the high and low filters have variable frequencies. If the EQ button is pressed, the display shows a set of EQ controls, and the cursor buttons below the Jog/Data dial are used to select and adjust the EQ parameter you want to change.The Jog/Data wheel and the four cursor buttons located right below it can be considered as the 'steering wheel' of the 788. Their layout makes it easy to move the cursor with your thumb while twiddling the knob with your forefinger — the Enter/Yes and Exit/No buttons are also close by for convenience.
The only other button in the channel strip is Rec Ready, complete with obligatory red warning LED, for each recorder track. Channels one to six are mono whereas tracks seven and eight have ganged stereo controls for either recording stereo sources or for bouncing stereo mixes, meaning that tracks seven and eight cannot be recorded independently. A large Solo button in the centre of the unit, used in conjunction with the Assign buttons, enables individual channels to be soloed via the monitor and phones system.
Each mixer channel can have two aux sends switchable pre‑fade, post‑fade or off. Selecting Fader/Pan brings up a display of the selected channel fader and pan controls, where the channel fader is used to adjust the channel level and the Jog/Data wheel sets the pan position. A graphical representation of the physical controls is shown in the display (including both 'real' and internal fader values) along with their numerical values.
When mixing, outside sources such as sequenced MIDI instruments may be brought into the stereo mix via a submixer section that makes use of the unused inputs A to D plus the Aux input. Any of these inputs may be routed to the submixer — this provides basic level and pan control, but with no access to effects and no master submix fader. The control room monitoring section is in the top right‑hand corner of the machine where the monitor source can be selected from Stereo, Eff Send, Aux Out and Sub Mix and there's a dedicated monitor level control with the facility to monitor in mono.
When overdubbing, the faders adjust the input levels, while the monitoring of recorded tracks is set up using the Track Cue and Cue buttons. When you switch to mixdown, the physical faders control the mix levels. There is no onboard mix automation but many of the mixer parameters, including levels, pan and EQ, can be controlled remotely via MIDI continuous controller data. See the 'MIDI Matters' box for details.
It's always difficult to separate the recorder from the mixer in products such as this one as they are so symbiotic — for example the 'record ready' buttons reside in the mixer channel strips and the mixer makes use of the Jog/Data wheel and cursors located in the recorder section. It's possible to put all eight tracks into record at once if you want to, but having just six possible input sources (four mono mic or line inputs plus the stereo Aux input) places a practical limit on how many tracks you can usefully record at once.
When starting a new song, it is first necessary to create an empty song to record into, and at this point in the proceedings the 788 asks whether you want to work in 16‑bit or 24‑bit mode. Songs are given a number and can be renamed if required. Basic recording is conceptually similar to using a tape recorder, right down to the tape‑style transport controls — though additional key combinations allow random‑access functions such as returning instantly to the start of a song. What sets the 788 functionally apart from a tape recorder, however, is the range of non‑destructive editing functions available — see the 'In, Out, Chop It All About' box for more details.
Beneath the display are buttons relating to the edit functions and those that have dual functions, accessed via the Shift key, are clearly marked with a green text box. If there's some function you can't find, the chances are it's accessed via the Menu button in this section. An Undo/Redo button can backtrack through up to 999 recording and editing steps while unwanted undos can be redone — if only life came with similar features! The Eject/Shut key starts up or shuts down the 788 and also ejects external removable media when relevant.
Up to 999 locate points per song may be stored directly for fast access to any part of a song and separate In and Out buttons define points for editing and automatic punching in and out. A further row of buttons is used to access Auto Punch and Rehearsal modes, Repeat mode or Pitch/SSA. Varispeed can be adjusted over a ±6 percent range, while SSA mode allows two‑track passages to be played back at 85 percent, 65 percent or 50 percent of the original speed without affecting the pitch — this can help you learn the notes of fast passages.
Pressing Play and Stop together puts the machine into Jog mode, where the audio waveform is shown in the LCD window and you can scrub through the audio using the Jog/Data dial. A status LED shows when the Jog mode is active and the waveform display (of whichever track is selected) is zoomable. Though this facility is fairly basic, it does aid in the precise location of In, Out and To points, especially where there are prominent drum beats to aid navigation.
Being able to connect a SCSI CD‑RW backup system is an important part of this machine, and the CD‑R drive may be used to back up multitrack projects — across multiple CD‑Rs if necessary. However, the 788 also has a pre‑mastering facility that lets you create a disk image of your mixed song to the internal hard drive (space permitting) before burning it as an audio CD. The material to be pre‑mastered always starts at the zero time location for the song and ends where you place the Out marker. Recordings may be trimmed to get rid of unwanted material or space at the start of a song, using the Cut edit command. While burning the pre‑master, adjustments to channel parameters, such as EQ, may be made manually or via MIDI from an external device if necessary. Tracks can be burned to disk either one at a time, or in bulk.
As a test exercise, I decided to record six tracks, bounce them in stereo to tracks 7/8 (using the preset 'bounce' routing template) and then perform some edits on the stereo bounced track. I added a little internal reverb at this point, just to see how it would sound. I feel that Tascam's claim of high‑end signal processing is more than a touch exaggerated, and the number of user‑adjustable effect parameters is fairly restricted, but it's still possible to get the kind of results you'd get from a respectable budget multi‑effects processor. It's also worth touching on the EQ section, which Tascam have managed to make reasonably smooth and musical — though, like many digital equalisers I've tried, you sometimes have to apply rather more of it than you might expect, in order to get the right subjective result. Having variable‑frequency high and low sections plus a fully parametric mid‑band provides plenty of control — a far cry from the bass and treble tone controls on early Portastudios.
Setting In and Out points on the fly is straightforward, though it's reassuring to know that you can fine tune these using the Jog mode if you wish. In practice, the scrubbing and waveform display are extremely usable, considering how small the LCD is. The edit points were smooth and quite glitch free, though it's up to you to ensure the material at each side of the edit matches up OK. The same is true of punching in and out, which is perfectly gapless and glitch‑free.
After knocking together a stereo mix on the stereo track and trimming away any unwanted material at the start, I decided to try my hand at burning a one‑track album. Unfortunately, my (very) old Teac CD‑R drive wasn't compatible, but Tascam's web site included details of the many compatible models and Tascam kindly lent me a suitable drive to complete the review, so it didn't hold me up for long. With the new drive connected it was trivially easy to burn a track onto CD, and it played back on my hi‑fi with no problems once finalised. Backing up multitrack recordings was no more complicated.
I tested the 788's ability to sync to MTC and to read MMC by getting it to follow my ADAT BRC. Lockup took around two seconds and the 788 responded correctly to MMC transport commands. It also locked quite happily when the BRC varispeed was adjusted to its extreme settings, though making rapid adjustments to the BRC's varispeed when the machines were running threw it on a couple of occasions. In most situations, I would imagine the 788 would be used as a master rather than a slave, but it's reassuring to know it can lock to an MTC source in most cases where it might be called on to do so.
There is a lot of competition in this sector of the market, and it would be easy to criticise the Tascam 788 for its lack of a digital input or snapshot automation, or for the limitations of its onboard effects, but having used the machine for a few days, I have to admit to liking it quite a lot. Unlike those machines that rely on removable media, the 788's internal drive means you can record an entire album project (or even two if you don't use virtual tracks) before having to back up, and when you do need to make a backup, there's SCSI interfacing as standard. What's more, there's provision to back up or record mixes to a variety of CD‑R/CD‑RW drives.
Best of all is the ease with which multitrack recordings may be built up and mixed. After some of the convoluted operating systems I've tried, the 788 is a joy to use, and when you do have to resort to the manual, you'll find that it's clearly written with step‑by‑step practical examples. When you need more sophisticated sync options, they're available, they work, and if you feel the need to automate an eight‑track mix, you can do it over MIDI.
I imagine the Tascam 788 will appeal more to those musicians who want to combine Portastudio simplicity with digital sound quality, than to those who want all the latest, most sophisticated features. If you want to get on with making your music rather than constantly pitting your wits against a machine that seems to enjoy being more of a puzzle than a tool, I think the Tascam 788 Digital Portastudio will suit you very well indeed.
The Tascam 788 has a number of competitors, though the 16‑bit Korg D8 (which retailed at £849 at the time of its review in SOS April 1998) probably comes closest in concept and simplicity, being based around an internal hard drive that records without data compression. However, it can only record two tracks at a time. Roland's VS880 series (with an initial retail price of £1739 in March 1996, though the street price is now less than half this) undoubtedly offers greater flexibility, especially in terms of effects and mix automation, but some people find them over‑complicated to use and don't like the idea of using audio data compression. Then there's the Fostex FD8 (reviewed in SOS January 1999) or the older DMT8 (reviewed in SOS December 1995), which combine digital recorders with analogue mixers. The mixing on these machines isn't nearly as flexible as that on the 788, but they are easy to use.
If you think eight tracks is too limiting, but you can't run to 16, there's also the Akai DPS12 to consider, which records to a hard drive, has a digital mixer and provides 12 recording tracks at a competitive price. The Boss BR8, the Roland VS840 and the Yamaha MD8 are also attractive propositions, with the BR8 and VS840 having particularly strong effects sections, but you have to be willing to accept the limited recording time and cost of the removable recording media they use.
However, if you're after eight tracks of uncompressed 24‑bit audio, the Tascam 788 has no competition in its price range, as none of the above machines offer this facility.
The Tascam 788 can transmit MIDI Clock or MTC (30fps, 29.97fps drop‑frame, 25fps and 24fps), and can be either the slave or the master when using MTC. There's an internal tempo map facility for applications where an external device needs to be sync'ed via MIDI Clock. Each bar can have a different tempo and/or time signature and MIDI Song Position Pointers (SPPs) are sent out along with the MIDI Clock data so that external devices can locate to the correct place in the song.
There's an internal metronome, though this only operates when the 788 has a tempo map set up and is switched to generate MIDI Clock — it doesn't work in MTC mode. In addition to generating plain beeps, the metronome can also send out MIDI Note messages so that you can trigger something that sounds less annoying!
Where the internal tempo map doesn't offer a high enough resolution, as may be the case when you want to program a gradual tempo change, the 788 has the ability to record and replay a MIDI Clock track (generated by an external sequencer or drum machine) using a special 'sync' track. When set to record, this track records all incoming MIDI Clock information, including SPPs, without depriving you of one of your audio tracks.
The MIDI In accepts MMC to control the transport of the 788 and it's also possible to use MIDI to access the main mixer controls, and to recall Scenes and effects patches. Note, however, that Scenes cannot be recalled while the transport is playing, so you can't implement snapshot automation using them. Some degree of dynamic automation is possible via MIDI, though the 788 cannot transmit MIDI controllers, which means you can't use the physical faders to record automation data to your sequencer.
After recording, material may be copied or moved, based on the In, Out and To locate point values. As with other Tascam machines, these may be entered when playback is stopped or tapped in on the fly using the In or Out button with the Shift key. These locations may be further edited in Jog mode using the on‑screen waveform display and audio scrubbing.
When an edit mode is selected, you're automatically prompted to enter which track or tracks the edit applies to — it is possible to edit across all eight tracks if required. The manual goes to great lengths to explain that some edit functions change the timeline of the song while others don't. For example, if you copy a section of a song and then insert it later on, everything after the insert will move up to make room for the new part. On the other hand, a copy‑and‑paste edit replaces the material that originally existed at the paste‑in point, so the song length is not changed. As well as copy‑and‑insert and copy‑and‑paste, it's also possible to open blank space within a track, pushing the two cut sections apart, or to silence material without changing the timeline. Cutting works as it does in a word processor by removing material and rejoining the two cut points, thus shortening the song.
The Clone Track option produces a duplicate of a complete track, and places it on another track. Delete Unused deletes any audio not used in a song, operating on virtual as well as playback tracks, and this operation cannot be undone. Entire tracks can be wiped using the Clean Out function. No destructive facilities are provided for functions like normalising, gain changing, creating fades or reversing sections of audio.
The 788 has two independent onboard effects processors (designated Effect One and Effect Two), which may be used in slightly different ways. Effect One is a multi‑effects processor which can either be inserted or used in a send/return loop. It can operate in multi‑effect mode, with up to five different effect elements in the signal path, or it can have all its DSP resources dedicated to a single higher‑quality effects process. Effects available in the former configuration include Distortion, Flanger, Reverb, Delay, Pitch Shift, Parametric EQ, Compressor, Exciter and De‑esser, and the choice of higher‑quality effects in the latter mode include Reverb, Delay, Chorus, Pitch Shift, Flanger, Phaser or Gated Reverb.
Most of the effects algorithms are perfectly usable, though I probably wouldn't use the onboard reverb for anything intended for a serious release. What's more, there are only up to five editable parameters per effect, and this may not provide enough flexibility for some people. A number of the effects are designed specifically for guitar processing, but the overdrive is pretty basic, and tends to be a bit on the buzzy side — for serious work, an external guitar preamp would be preferable.
Effect Two has slightly different routing options. While it may be deployed in the aux send/return loop in exactly the same way as Effect One, it can also be inserted into the mix buss as a single stereo dynamics processor, or can provide up to eight dynamics processors for insertion into individual mixer channels. Preset libraries of all the various effects types are included for those too busy or too inexperienced to create their own.
If an internal effect is not needed, the send controls may be used to feed an external effects processor and a workaround (involving using the monitor output as an effects send) is explained for anyone who wants to use the internal effects and an external processor at the same time.
- Splendidly easy to use.
- Good basic sound quality.
- Includes guitar DI mode
- SCSI connection as standard
- Comprehensive MIDI Sync facilities
- No onboard mix automation
- No digital input
- Effects offer limited adjustment
What the Tascam 788 loses in sophistication, it makes up in sound quality and ease of use. It really is a one‑box solution to making quality eight‑track recordings.