Tascam's new Pocketstudio might not be quite what you'd call pocket-sized, but it does cram an MP3 digital recorder, a General MIDI sound module and comprehensive multi-effects into an impressively small space.
The latest recorder from the makers of the Portastudio continues the tradition of portability and removable media which won the original cassette-based units such a large following. The new Tascam PS5 uses Compact Flash memory cards as its storage medium and, as with competing products that have adopted the same approach, data compression (in this case MP3) has been used to squeeze as much recording time as possible into the space available
The problem with Compact Flash is that it is far too costly to archive in the same way as cassette tape. To get around this Tascam have given the PS5 USB connectivity that allows song data to be copied over to any USB-compatible Mac or PC computer for backup purposes. Tascam are by no means alone in taking this approach, but they have added features that exploit USB connectivity much more effectively, as it's possible to import MP3 audio files from your computer or even drag in Standard MIDI Files (SMFs) to be used as backing tracks. This latter feature is made possible because the PS5 also includes a General MIDI (GM) synth sound section.
The unit can run from batteries (six AA cells) or from a supplied mains adaptor. The included 32MB Compact Flash card allows you to record and mix down around ten minutes of four-track audio plus whatever MIDI files or patterns you have playing alongside, though cards of up to 128MB capacity can be fitted. MP3 may be looked down upon as a serious audio recording format, but it has to be weighed up against the compact analogue cassette that it replaces, and in my mind there's no competition — MP3 wins hands down. In most cases, the recording quality is comparable with what you'd expect from a decent Minidisc recorder and background noise is insignificant. In fact the only noise you'll hear is what you record onto the machine. Regular MP3 files may also be imported enabling the PS5 to double as an MP3 player.
Whereas cassette Portastudios offer only basic audio recording with punch-in capability, the PS5 incorporates a surprisingly good-sounding GM sound chip that is comparable in quality to something like a Yamaha XG50. This may either be driven from the 100 included MIDI patterns to create simple backing arrangements, or SMFs can be imported via USB from any sequencer capable of saving songs in SMF format. There's even a MIDI In port enabling the PS5 to be used as a simple synth expander module.
To test the machine, I took a commercial song file, deleted all the guitar parts within Logic Audio, then resaved it as an SMF before copying it into the PS5. If you have a computer-based sequencer, this is by far the easiest way to create backing tracks, as using the internal Patterns is a bit like creating arrangements on a stand-alone drum machine — not exactly difficult, but quite time-consuming. First you have to pick from the preset patterns and set these into an arrangement by deciding how many bars each pattern has to play for. Once this is done, you can assign chord changes to each bar, and copy and paste tools are available to save unnecessary repetition. Songs may be up to 999 bars long and a small amount of editing is possible, but, having tried a few bars of 'knitting', I have to say that creating the files on your own sequencer is far more productive. Nevertheless, hats off to Tascam for being thoughtful enough to include this feature for those who need it.
USB connectivity can be used without drivers on most modern PC or Mac operating systems, though Mac OSX support has yet to be provided, and Windows 98 requires a special driver that comes on CD-ROM with the Pocketstudio 5. The various components of a Song reside in special folders that are automatically created when you format a card for use with the Pocketstudio 5, so importing MIDI files or MP3s is simply a matter of dragging them from your computer hard drive to the appropriate location.
Recognising that most recording work involves overdubbing, the PS5 has two analogue inputs on quarter-inch jacks where Input A can be set to instrument or line level and Input B can be either mic or line level and can select between a built-in mic or an external one. Only one audio track or adjacent pair of tracks can be enabled for recording at a time. A headphone jack is included for monitoring and a pair of phones with a headset mic is included in the basic package. Though recording can be achieved using the small built-in electret mic, the headset mic gives better results, and a more serious recording mic (such as a battery-powered back-electret model) should be better still. Note that the mic input is optimised for use with high-impedance microphones, though low-cost transformers are available from music stores and electronics catalogues allowing low impedance studio mics (not those with phantom power of course) to be used with high impedance equipment such as the PS5.
In addition to its audio and MIDI playback capabilities, the machine also boasts a versatile effects section, which at the same time is very simple to operate with very few variable parameters per effect. In fact there are two main insert effects sections that can be used to process a live input or a recorded track. FX1 provides a large number of guitar and bass treatments that include amp emulation, speaker modelling, chorus, delay, compression and so on, while FX2 delivers all the stock effects applicable to vocals and other instruments, such as delay, modulated delay and compression. Additionally, there's a separate reverb processor that benefits from variable send level from each of the four audio tracks or from either of the live inputs, the latter being useful for setting up monitor reverb while recording. The GM MIDI synth section also has chorus and reverb effects of its own, in compliance with the GM specification, and all of the above listed effects sections (five in all) can be used together with no limitations.
Though the front panel looks very straightforward (and in many ways it is), the system includes two-band sweep EQ that can be applied to both of the live inputs as well as to the four recorded tracks. These, along with pan and reverb send level, are accessed from within the menu system.Traditional manual punching in and out is supported, along with automatic punch-in/out, so you get everything a cassette-based system offers plus a GM synth backing section, MP3 import/export, and, very importantly, you don't need to buy a second recorder to mix onto. The automatic punch-in/out points may also be used to identify sections of audio for copying and pasting to other locations in the track.
Compact though the PS5 is, I doubt many people (other than possibly poachers!) will have pockets big enough to carry it. Some of the competing machines are smaller, but I rather like the size and format of the PS5 because it allows the controls to be sensibly large and well spaced, as well as leaving room for a decent-sized (16 x 4 characters) display. Cosmetically, the PS5 reminds me of a chunky handheld games console, and the sculpted blue and metallic grey plastic casework give it a stylish yet businesslike feel. A slot on the right-hand side of the machine accepts the memory card, and the battery compartment is in the base of the machine. If you're only using the mains adaptor, then there's no need to fit batteries, but the manual warns that when bateries are fitted some drain still takes place with the unit running on mains power. This being the case, it may be best to remove the batteries unless you specifically need to work on the go.
All the audio inputs and outputs, including a mini-jack for the included headset mic, are located on the front edge of the machine with thumbwheel level controls for everything except the line output. The transport controls are similar to those of a regular tape machine, but without a Pause button because none is needed — you can go straight into play from a standing start, as there are no moving parts. There's also a Mark button that allows you to set up to eight locate points per song in addition to punch-in/out points.
Each of the two audio inputs has it's own assign button and overload LED — assigning an input to a track is achieved by holding down both the input assign button and the required Rec Ready button. This causes an adjacent odd/even pair of track Rec Ready buttons to flash, after which you can pick which one of the pair you wish to record to by pressing it again. Recording is initiated in the usual way by pressing Play and Record together, and punch-ins can be done manually by holding down Play and then hitting Record at the appropriate time. Selector switches for the input modes (instrument/line or mic/line) are tucked away under the right-hand edge of the machine with Input B having an additional option for selecting the internal mic. If the headset mic is plugged in, it overrides the internal mic.
Moving up to the faders, there's one for each audio track, plus a separate fader labelled TG (Tone Generator) to control the GM synth backings or patterns. The Master fader then sets the overall mix level, prior to mixing down to a stereo MP3. Above the Rec Ready buttons are the Auto Punch, In, Out and Repeat buttons (which work in a similar way to those on an analogue recorder) and above these, two oval buttons labelled MP3 and Effects. MP3 is used to mix tracks or for playing mixed MP3 files — it lights up red when mixing and green when playing. A dedicated bounce mode is available from within the menu system that enables the master stereo output to be recorded back to one or two tracks, with or without the tone generator. Tracks can be bounced onto themselves, but in this case the original part will be overwritten. There is an undo function, but my preferred way of working would be to back up the tracks prior to bouncing via the USB link.
The Effects button accesses the insert effects section, where the games-style cursor pad and the rotary data-entry wheel are used to select and vary functions and parameters. Three rubber keys lie to the left of the wheel, Menu being used to access the menu system of the machine and Exit moving one level up the menu system. The F key is a useful addition, as it enables the user to jump between the current menu and the 'home' screen. An Enter/Yes button is set in the centre of the rotary dial and, to access the USB mode, this must be held down while powering up the machine with the USB connection already made.
While making basic recordings using the PS5 is largely straightforward, you need to read the manual to get the best out of the machine, especially when it comes to utilising and editing the in-built backing patterns. In fact this is the most time-consuming part of any project, so if you can put together your own MIDI backings on a computer sequencer first, your workload will be much reduced. If a backing sequence is to be part of the song, it's best to switch to a bars and beats method of location rather than elapsed time, as it tends to make navigation easier. The paper manual supplied with the review machine was slightly out of date, but an up-to-date and more detailed PDF-format manual was supplied on the enclosed CD-ROM.
During the review I used all the different effect types, including some guitar treatments, and found that, while some of these were very usable as they were, others would have benefited from a little more user control. In general, you select an insert-type effect for use on the current live input or recorded track and then have control over only one parameter. Giving the amp models variable drive and overall tonal control would probably have been enough, and in the case of the insert reverb treatments, it would have been useful to be able to control the wet/dry mix as well as the decay time. Things are much better when you use the aux send-type reverb, as this has a number of useful editable parameters and the send level is adjustable for each track. If anything, I'd have liked some of the insert effects to be more subtle, but, to be fair, there are enough good ones available to suit most musical styles.
My test piece involved importing a MIDI file backing track, then adding two guitars (one clean, one overdriven) plus two vocal parts. This proved to be staightforward, though setting the record levels wasn't as easy as it could have been, largely because the tiny on-screen bar-graph meters gave no indication of where maximum level actually was. Nevertheless, the recording quality was surprisingly good, though noise can creep in if the PS5 is placed to close to other electrical equipment while you're recording. The inputs also remain live when you're not recording, so you have to remember to turn these down or disconnect them when mixing. This is part of the monitoring system which essentially lets you hear the live input at the level set on its gain control, plus any recorded tracks as controlled by the track level faders. Recorded material is saved directly to the memory card, so no additonal save process is necessary. Nevertheless, you should use the song save feature to store the associated effects, pan and EQ settings, otherwise these will be lost when the machine is switched off.
Once all the tracks are recorded, a quick visit to the menu section enables the pan, EQ and reverb settings to be set for each track, after which the MP3 button (in its red mode) allows a stereo master to be mixed using the faders to set the track levels. The Master fader works fine for fades, and a similar arrangement is used when bouncing tracks if more than four separate overdubs are needed. Shuffling files back and forth between the PS5 and computer turned out to be remarkably easy once I'd figured out that you have to get the PS5 into USB mode first by powering it up with the Enter button depressed. Unlike digital cameras, the unit only appears as a connected drive when in USB mode.
When I first tried the included headset mic, I felt it sounded rather boxy, but moving it to slightly below chin height, so that I was singing over it rather than into it, improved the tone significantly and also avoided popping. No doubt a separate mic would be better still, but there was no problem making convincing-sounding demo recordings using this mic, and the ability to add reverb helped produce a polished, produced sound.
I'm all in favour of recording equippment being affordable and accessible and, though four tracks may seem very limiting, I did all my early band recording work on a Tascam open-reel four track that didn't sound nearly as clean as this, and I didn't have the luxury of digital effects back then. Furthermore, the inclusion of a multitimbral GM synth (and a pretty good-sounding one at that) plus a MIDI file player adds enormously to the capabilities of the machine, whether just to provide you with a simple backing to jam over or to import complete arrangements from a computer sequencer. The early limitations of recording time and backup systems have been largely overcome by the in-built USB connectivity, though that also underlines the fact that you're going to find the PS5 very limiting without a computer, as there's no other way to make backups of your projects or mixes. Even a 128MB card can only hold around eight songs and mixes, so unless you're prepared to erase everything and start again after copying your mixes to your favourite stereo format, you're going to need that computer.
Overall, the PS5 is impressive, both for its ease of use and its completeness. It has four audio tracks, a MIDI backing band, two types of insert effects, a very decent overall reverb and a solid user interface. It runs on batteries or mains, so you can use it anywhere, and it even comes with headphones and headset mic, so it really is a complete studio in one box. It can also double as an MP3 player, a MIDI file player and even a simple voice/instrument mixer with effects for live performance. In fact there's no reason not to use it to provide live stereo backing tracks at the same time, providing you buy a big enough memory card. Given all those benefits, the fact that your new pocket studio probably won't actually fit into your pocket doesn't seem such a big deal, does it?
£449 including VAT.
Tascam +44 (0)1923 438880.
- 300MHz Apple Mac G3 running Mac OS v9.2, with 512MB of RAM and Belkin USB card.
- Tascam Pocketstudio OS v1.01