Tascam's latest 'Portastudio' boasts more hands-on controls than most such recorders.
It's more than 30 years since Tascam introduced their first Portastudio, a portable cassette‑based multitrack recorder with a built-in mixer, but the company still manufacture a range of products based on that original idea, including the 2488neo 24‑track and DP02 and 02CF eight‑track machines. Digital has replaced analogue over the years, and it's now possible to edit audio and add effects in the box, but the general concept has remained the same.
In recent years, Tascam have also been busy producing a range of pocket‑sized digital stereo recorders that have built‑in mics, record to miniature SD cards and interface with a computer via USB. The DP008 'Pocketstudio' is the result of Tascam bringing together the old Portastudio and newer pocket‑recorder designs to create a diminutive digital recorder with in‑built omnidirectional condenser microphones and all the basic mixing and editing facilities expected of a modern Portastudio. There's even a send from each channel to a reverb processor, so a little finishing can be applied.
In keeping with the portability concept, the DP008 runs on four AA batteries for about six hours if phantom power is off (although it is possible to connect an optional PSU), and records to SD or SDHC media, so that a card reader can be used to transfer the WAV files to another device, such as a computer. There's also a USB 2 port, giving you the opportunity to transfer files to your DAW via USB. This allows you to export and import individual tracks or whole mixes, although, as I'll explain later, they first have to be saved to a FAT32-formatted disk partition. The only available record setting is 16‑bit, 44.1KHz, which is still perfectly good enough for most jobs. If MP3s are required, conversion can easily be done later in a computer.
Only two tracks can be recorded simultaneously, so the DP008 is not intended as a means of recording a whole band at once: its market is primarily the composing guitarist who wants a portable notepad for constructing demos, by layering up parts one or two at a time. To assist such users, there's an on‑board metronome, a chromatic tuner, and a high‑impedance input setting suitable for electric guitar or bass.
Calling the DP008 a 'Pocketstudio' is perhaps a little misleading, in that Tascam are referring to the pocket of a guitarist's gig bag, rather than that of a coat or pair of trousers, as you might first expect. The only trouser pocket large enough to accommodate it would be that of a clown, or possibly Ron Moody's Fagin! It's actually marginally shorter than Tascam's own DP1 Portable Digital Recorder, but together with the mixer section, it's roughly the width of an A4 page.
The right‑hand side of the DP008 has the look of one of Tascam's DR range of recorders, such as the DR1, DR07 or DR100. Indeed, the size and style of the screen is the same as that of the DR1, which also shares the same round silver buttons, screen printing, casing style and colour. The left‑hand side, however, is more recognisably Portastudio than pocket recorder in terms of its features and layout, and will also be familiar to anyone who has used a mixer.
Without room for faders, the playback level of recorded tracks is controlled by rotary knobs, and there's one of these for each of the eight tracks. Above each of these is a pan knob and send to the reverb effect. Eight channel record buttons arm the tracks ready for recording, and these are found just under each level control. No matter how many of these are pressed, only two can be armed at any one time: the most recently pressed pair cancel out previous choices, and are therefore always the two selected. To indicate their status, each button has an integral red LED, which flashes when armed, or lights continuously when recording.
To avoid routing confusion, Tascam have created a simple assignment page, brought to the screen by a dedicated button. Here, in true binary style, each track is assigned either input source A or B, these letters relating to the identically labelled XLR and quarter‑inch jack sockets on the rear. Before recording, it's simply necessary to set the appropriate input‑to‑track assignment and then adjust the Input A and B Trim (preamp) controls on the top panel, so that their adjacent OL (overload) lights are not triggered. Including the pair of built‑in mics, spaced 160mm apart and recessed along the front edge, the various inputs have additional high, mid and low software settings, so that input sensitivity can be roughly matched to instrument or voice level, before setting the trim-pot positions.
It's worth noting that the jack inputs are given precedence over the XLRs, so it's a case of using one or the other and not both, although XLR A could be used with Jack B, or vice versa. Only jack A is wired with a resistor that can be switched into the circuit for guitars and other high-impedance sources, which is a pity, as it means two players can't play at once. Of the other rear-panel I/O, the line output is provided on phono sockets, and there's a footswitch input for punch‑in recording. Also on the rear panel is a mini-jack headphone input with its own volume control wheel. The USB socket, optional DC power adaptor input and SD card slot are all found on the edge nearest the screen.
Complete mixes can be bounced down to spare tracks, or all eight mixed as a master and saved for export, using easy‑to‑understand options called to the screen by a dedicated Record Mode button. Before the files can be grabbed off the card in WAV format, however, they have to be exported to the FAT32 partition of the disk, which is accessible to connected PCs and Macs. Anything that hasn't been exported in this way remains out of reach in the MTR partition — which only the DP008 can read. Exporting the data takes a little while, but once done, it's just a matter of either plugging the SD card into a USB reader and that into a PC or Mac, or going direct using a USB cable.
Editing options appear to be the same as those on previous DP models, and these include Copy Paste, Copy Insert, Move Paste, Move Insert, Open, Cut, Silence, Clone Track and Clean Out. This time, though, each option is accompanied by a handy graphic that clearly illustrates what that particular process does, so reference to the manual is no longer necessary. If a mistake is made, pressing the 'History' button calls to the screen a chronological list of the last 500 edits for selection, and there's an undo/redo button beside it.
The EQ page is accessed by pressing the hardware button to its left. From there on, adjustments are made using the four black 'F' keys, lined up below the screen, in conjunction with the silver data-wheel. Changing the EQ parameters without hardware controls is a bit slow, but at least there are buttons for most other functions, so this is as clunky as things get. The high band has a range of 1.7-18kHz and the low from 32Hz to 1.6kHz, the gain of both bands being up to ±12dB. There are no curve-shape adjustments, however, so only broad tonal adjustments can be made.
The reverb processor also has its own button to the left of the screen, and makes use of the four 'F' keys in the same way as the EQ. The options are simply Hall 1, Hall 2, Room, Studio, Plate 1 and Plate 2, with a Time option ranging from 0.2 to 3.2 seconds and a 0-100 level range.
Since I last reviewed one of Tascam's recording products a year or two ago, it seems that they've refined a few of their design ideas, so that everything feels even more user friendly than it already was. The illustrations in the editing pages, for example, are a great idea, and the way that the four black screen-buttons are brought into service for each function seems to work really nicely.
Not every issue has been addressed, though. A solo function is something that would help enormously, for example, especially when applying reverb, adjusting EQ or checking a recorded part. This is the most glaring omission, in my opinion, although if you hold down the reverb and EQ keys together, and then press the relevant Rec button, tracks are muted — and this can be used as a workaround. Having at least one decent amp simulator on‑board would also be very useful, and the whole business of exporting from the proprietary format to create WAV files feels rather dated — particularly when even Tascam's own stereo recorders do not use this method. The DP008 could also do with a better metronome, given that there's no drum synth on‑board: at the moment, the tempo can't be changed while the audio is playing, there are no sound alternatives, and the maximum level is not really loud enough.
The allocation of hardware buttons for most common functions is very commendable, and the only ones I really felt were missing were a high/mid/low sensitivity switch for the input levels, and another switch to select between internal and external mics.
The audio recording quality is pretty good for something at this price point, and recordings were mercifully free of digital noise, which some low‑end multi-trackers are prone to introducing. The on‑screen level meters are not much to go by, but as long as the overload lights are not triggered during recording, and a little effort is put into selecting the right input setting, achieving good recordings with enough level for creative mixing should not be a problem.
I recorded a composition using the inbuilt microphones, an Audio-Technica AT4047 SV condenser mic (using the on‑board phantom power), a Shure SM58 and various DI'd guitars — and from these experiments I found the results to be uniformly good. Notably, the on‑board mic tracks held their own pretty well when compared with those recorded using the condenser and dynamic mics, to the extent that nothing sounded out of place in a mix and it was almost impossible to detect which track was recorded by the DP008's mics.
Phantom power did finish off the review model's batteries rather sharply, though, and required a pretty decent power source. Recording and playback without it was still possible using old batteries, but switching phantom power on caused a screen blackout, even when using my own switchable PSU.
I can imagine there being quite a sizeable market for the DP008, because it offers a soundly thought‑out set of features. The principal customer will be the gigging guitarist who wants to record their ideas, demos, jam sessions — and possibly even their gigs — as and when they like, without having to carry anything sizeable around. Indeed, this recorder will fit into the pocket of a guitar bag, where it can be forgotten about until it's needed.
Like Tascam's previous DP models, the DP008 has hardly any bells and whistles compared with some of the competition (see the Alternatives box): it offers neither sound-generating tools, such as drum machines and bass synths, nor effects, like virtual amp simulations. However, it does have more physical knobs than any device like it, and will therefore appeal to those who just want simple, hands‑on control. Indeed, simplicity is what Tascam have made their strength, and for many people who already have the guitar sound they want, and don't care about programming drums, this will do pretty much everything necessary, despite lacking one or two desirable features.
The main competition comes from Fostex, Roland/Boss, and Zoom. Fostex's MR8 MkII runs on Compact Flash cards and records up to eight tracks. By including an amp simulator, it pips the DP008 in that area, but it has fewer knobs, is larger and bulkier, and tracks five to eight are two stereo pairs. Some years ago, Boss introduced the Micro BR, which is very small and intended to fit a gig bag, but it is only a four‑track. Their much larger BR600 is an eight‑track recorder, packed full of guitar effects, and it offers virtual tracks, in‑built microphones, and an on-board drum machine with touch pads. Zoom's MRS8SD includes a drum machine with pads, lots of effects processors and amp simulations, and it even provides rhythm composition features. Zoom's R24, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, would also be worth consideration.