With 32‑bit recording, multiple mic inputs and a smartphone‑style touchscreen interface, Tascam’s top‑of‑the‑range recorder is brimming with potential.
Tascam’s new top‑of‑the‑range portable recorder, the Portacapture X8, is billed as a high‑resolution multi‑track handheld recorder and its headline features seem promising. With two mics on board plus four balanced mic/line inputs (with phantom power), it’s capable of recording up to six tracks simultaneously plus a further stereo mix track derived from the inputs. Furthermore, it can do this using a native 32‑bit floating‑point recording format — a first for Tascam, I believe, and still not that common in the world of portable recorders — and it has some DSP built in. So let's take a closer look, and consider whether lives up to its billing.
The Portacapture X8 adheres to a common form factor for such devices — a cuboid body with a pair of mics at one end and two mic/line inputs on each side — but the most striking feature is the large 3.5‑inch colour touchscreen, which lies at the heart of most of this recorder's functionality. It’s a sizeable beast, sitting somewhere between my compact Olympus LS10 and my larger Zoom F8n field recorder, and I think it’s pushing it a little to describe it as a handheld device. That said, you can use it this way if you’re using only the supplied mics. Handheld or not, it’s certainly portable: it can run on four AA batteries or an external charger.
On the top panel, below the screen, is a set of transport buttons, and the Stop control doubles up as a Home button for the software GUI. A thumbwheel is used for fine adjustment of input levels and virtual faders, and a Mark button sets markers on the recording, to facilitate fast navigation.
The ‘built‑in’ mics attach to the recorder body via two ports on the top. These provide inputs 1 and 2, and can be configured as an X‑Y or A‑B stereo array. In fact, any mic that operates on plug‑in power could be connected here, and the arrangement should make it easy for Tascam to develop other mic options in the future, should they wish.
On the left‑hand panel are balanced mic/line inputs 3 and 4, and an adjacent stereo mini‑jack input can be used to record external unbalanced line sources to two of the six available tracks. Another stereo minijack socket provides an output for powered speakers, and there’s a separate headphone jack too. A volume control wheel applies to both the headphone socket and the built‑in auditioning speaker. The headphone socket seems amply powered: it had no trouble driving my Avantone Planar phones, which are quite well known as power hogs.
At the back is a socket for the optional Bluetooth adaptor (more on that later), a red recording indicator and a small hole for the in‑built speaker. As ever with such devices, this speaker will win no prizes for fidelity — its purpose is solely to allow you to make quick checks on your recordings — but it’s an essential feature and I wouldn’t buy a recorder that didn’t have one.
On the right are the other balanced mic/line inputs (5 and 6), the on/off switch, and a slot for the micro SD card (not included; up to 512GB micro SDXC models are supported). There’s also a USB C port. You can power the recorder through this port, attaching the other end of the cable to a computer, mobile phone charger or similar; a dedicated PSU isn’t provided but virtually everyone will have at least one suitable charger and probably several. It always uses USB power when present, but in the event there’s a power cut the batteries will take up the load instantly — it’s a built‑in uninterruptible power supply! Connecting the Portacapture to a computer by USB also allows it to function as an external drive for file transfers, but note that although it is a USB C socket it is a USB 2.0 interface, so very large file transfers may take a little longer than we’ve grown used to.
On the underside, a quarter‑inch threaded insert enables mounting on a camera tripod; if you’d prefer a mic stand then 1/4 to 3/8‑inch adaptors are widely available. There is also a cold shoe adaptor, should you want to mount the Portacapture directly on a camera.
The Portacapture can function as an eight‑input, two‑output audio interface.
Apart from the four buttons and wheel mentioned above, all control is through the 3.5‑inch colour touchscreen, and Tascam’s design team have thoughtfully followed the example of mobile phone user interfaces, with a main Launcher screen being the first one you see after boot‑up and various function apps shown in a neat circle around it. The only other item is an icon for General Settings. I have to say, I am full of admiration for this GUI, which really does make the recorder very easy to operate. I did my usual test of seeing how far I could get before I needed the manual and it turned out to be quite a way: I was happily making stereo recordings in my chosen format in no time, and I hope this approach becomes the norm.
The apps have each been tailored, not only through the selection of mics and tracks but also through the DSP facilities, to support specific tasks, the idea being that this will help users to get up and running quickly. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of presets, don’t worry: Tascam haven’t forgotten to provide a Manual app, which allows you access to the full range of recording functions. A shortcut menu button at the top left‑hand corner of the screen is available to all apps and is really useful — this pops up various options that should be useful in the current app, including returning to the Launcher. With all that in mind, I’ll take you through the apps in the order they appear on the Launcher screen.
Browse. Tascam say this app allows you to “view the contents of the folder which contains the audio files on the micro SD card,” so this is a good point at which to consider the recorder’s file system and naming practices. Each single recording ‘take’ is known on the Portacapture as a Project and a separate audio file is created for each active mic or array (ie. a mono file for each individual mic, or a stereo file for two mics that are stereo linked) used in the Project. Another file captures the mix of all active mics. The filenames share a common ‘root’ or prefix — the default is “Tascam_” but it can be customised; to make naming things easy, there’s a neat on‑screen keyboard. Incremental numbers are then used to identify each file uniquely (eg. “Tascam_0021”).
In the Browse app you can list and play Projects (multitrack Projects as opposed to the individual audio files within), delete, rename and obtain basic information about them. You can also create new folders (to a depth of two) but must remember to select such folders before recording; in practice, I found it quite easy to lose track of which folder I was recording to and usually ended up at the top level.
ASMR. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Gosh! Apparently “ASMR recordings become more fun with the unique meter display that captures delicate sound movements.” In terms of the end result, though, this app seems to me to make conventional stereo recordings, so I’ll move swiftly on...
Voice. Tascam say that with this app you can “record vlogs, interviews, voice messages (mono‑mix recordings)”, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Select the app, adjust the gain by touching the microphone icon, drag the level up and down (you can adjust it pretty precisely using the physical wheel), and you can start recording. Note that if using the 32‑bit floating‑point recording format there’s so much dynamic range available that you don’t need to be at all fussy about the recording levels: just set the gain so that the loudest noises won’t risk clipping the input circuity and you’re good to go — see the separate box for more on 32‑bit recording.
Music. “Optimal for music recording and includes multiple reverb and dynamic effects for different instruments and performances (stereo recording)”. Now, here’s something I’ve not encountered before: music recording presets on a field recorder! There are presets for Piano, Acoustic Guitar, Vocal, Wind Instrument, Stringed Instrument and Band. Of course, there’s also a ‘no preset’ option. These presets provide settings for EQ and dynamics and you can use Input Settings to have a look at what the presets have chosen for you. Input level and reverb level are both on the main screen of the app and therefore under your direct control. Having said that you don’t have to be fussy about the input level with 32‑bit recording, I should point out that I was talking about avoiding clipping and noisy recordings; the compressor and limiter have fixed thresholds so they will inevitably behave differently according to the input level (of course, they can be switched off). Personally, I prefer where possible to capture recordings without any processing, since it’s easy to avoid clipping and I have more control over EQ and compression once I’ve imported my recordings into a DAW. But I can see that the presets could be very useful for beginners and those who need to capture something useful in a hurry.
Manual. This is the app in which I spent most of my time, and I found it very easy to work with once I’d got my bearings. It allows complete control over everything that can be controlled on this device. The GUI follows a nice mixer‑based metaphor, with three tabbed versions of the mixer: Mixer, Home and Input.
The Input tab is where you choose your mics, set gain levels and configure stereo linking. You can also control phantom power, auto‑gain, the low‑cut filter, noise gate, limiter/compressor, EQ, and ‘phase’ (polarity) inversion. The next tab is Mixer: in addition to the file for every active mic or stereo pair you get a stereo file of the mix you set up on this page, and you have control over the level and pan settings for each channel. It means you can give someone a rough mix of the recording immediately after the session, which is neat. The Home tab provides an overview of what’s going on during playback. At first, I half‑expected to be able to add dynamics processing via ‘inserts’ on this screen, but this is actually handled under the Input tab.
The Manual app also features a Recording Guide turned on by default. This walks you through the recommended workflow and can be helpful at first, but most people will want to turn it off after their first couple of recordings.
I suggested to Tascam that since presets are employed elsewhere it would be good to support user‑definable presets in the Manual app — if you use two or three recording setups frequently, creating presets for each could be a real time‑saver. Tascam liked the idea and say they are looking to see if it can be added in the next firmware update.
Field. “Optimal for field recordings”, it says. I can see Field being pretty useful in a range of situations when you’re out and about and want to get a stereo recording going quickly using the onboard mics. The screen is simple, letting you set the gain, turn on/off a low‑cut filter and select a dynamics preset from the following list: city, nature, vehicle, bird and, of course, none. Again, you can use Input Settings to examine what the presets have set up for you.
Podcast. The description is: “Record podcasts of up to four people. Includes two sound pads for jingles and sound effects.” I’m not a great podcaster but even I can see there’s a lot here for the intended purpose. For instance, there’s a mute button or each mic and, perhaps most strikingly, tapping either of two pad buttons (labelled A and B) will trigger a sound effect instantly. The recorder comes pre‑loaded with a small set of such sounds (eg. Applause and Heartbeat) but you can import your own using the SD card. Again, user‑defined presets might be a useful addition.
Tuner & Metronome. The simple chromatic Tuner and Metronome apps do what they say on the tin. Neither is essential if you’re doing all your recording to the Portacapture, but they’re nice to have and could make life easier later on in your DAW.
SD Card Reader. By default, a USB‑connected computer is used only as a power source, but select this app and the recorder becomes a mass storage device, so you can access the card using the computer. When finished, just tap the Disconnect button.
General Settings. This last app lets you customise the key system parameters, and there’s quite a list of them. Some are quite interesting, such as a Mid‑Sides decoder that can be turned on for any stereo‑linked track pair. There’s a bunch of settings that support linking the recorder to a suitable camera. You can set the sample rate from 44.1 to 192 kHz (though be aware that there are some things you can’t do if recording at 192kHz). You can choose to record to MP3 too, at a variety of rates, to set dual recording in different formats, and whether to supply 24V or 48V phantom power. This is also where you can set your WAV files’ word length (16‑ or 24‑bit fixed or 32‑bit floating point).
That concludes the main apps but there’s still some functionality that I’ve not yet covered, and I’ll start with the optional Bluetooth adaptor which Tascam sent along with the review unit. This enables the recorder to work with Tascam’s Portacapture Control app for iPhone, iPad and (for a wonder) Android. It partnered easily with my iPad and as the remote control app’s GUI is the same as the Portacapture’s onboard one, with additional buttons at the bottom mimicking the recorder’s physical transport controls, there was no learning curve. All updates on either screen are quickly reflected on the other, too. It was a pleasure to use and very useful when the recorder was located away from me. The only downside is minor: there’s no equivalent of the fine adjustment wheel.
When connected to a computer via USB, the Portacapture can function as an eight‑input, two‑output audio interface: it’s a class‑compliant device and worked on my Mac without additional drivers, and Windows users can download an ASIO driver. Given the onboard mics, it can effectively function as a stereo USB mic for the computer too.
I’ve necessarily spent a lot of words describing the functionality and operation, and I hope that you can see why I score the Portacapture X8 very highly when it comes to ease of use. But a fundamental question I've not yet addressed is how good the recordings are — and they're pretty good. As part of my testing, I decided to compare the sound from the onboard mics with that captured using my matched pair of Neumann KM184 mics, arranged in an X‑Y array to match the onboard mics. I used the two arrays to capture the same material and I think the recordings from both sets of mics are decent. If you compare the files (which you can find in the 'Audio Examples' box) you can hear some differences, but given that each KM184 costs more than the whole Portacapture recorder I was impressed by just how closely the onboard mics ran the KM184s. I would have no qualms about using these mics, especially when making unpremeditated recordings or recordings which emphasise the need for portability. It’s also a tick for the quality of the preamps.
A quick test during storm Dudley revealed that the onboard mics are quite sensitive to wind. No surprise there, but if you’re going to be doing much recording outdoors it would be worth budgeting for a windshield (Tascam's website suggests their WS‑11 is suitable, though I didn't have the opportunity of testing that). I also checked for self‑noise, and this was only significant at very high levels of gain; it should cause no issues in normal use. I mentioned earlier my view that this is really more a ‘portable’ than a ‘handheld’ device, but I frequently held it in my hand while recording and although handling noise was occasionally present there was nothing unreasonable or surprising.
It should be clear by now that I am quite taken with the Portacapture X8. The GUI is nicely thought through and easy to use; the separate apps for different tasks provide plenty of hand‑holding, but as the Manual app lets you access all parameters none of that gets in the way of the expert user. The onboard mics are capable of making good recordings and the preamps excellent ones.
So, while there are inevitably some minor quibbles, I regard the Portacapture X8 as a fine piece of kit. It's also excellent value for money at the current asking price. Reader, I bought one.
In his Zoom F6 review (SOS July 2021: www.soundonsound.com/reviews/zoom-f6) Hugh Robjohns wrote a clear and detailed explanation of how 32‑bit recording works and why it might be of benefit. That explanation is equally applicable to the Portacapture X8 and I encourage the interested reader to read his review, but I’ll offer a brief overview.
Most of us know that 24‑bit conversion makes recording easier than 16‑bit, since the longer digital word length means a much greater dynamic range can be captured. In practical terms, this means setting the recording level is much less critical, since it’s easy to set the gain to avoid clipping while keeping the noise floor very low. 32‑bit conversion expands the dynamic range massively — so much so that setting the recording level to avoid clipping or noise problems becomes pretty much irrelevant. As Hugh says: “If the captured floating‑point signal ends up a little high or low compared to other material when it’s all imported into the DAW, the track’s level can be adjusted without compromising the source signal quality at all.” So 32‑bit recording can greatly increase the ease of use of a portable recorder: inexperienced recordists needn’t worry unduly about input levels, while more seasoned ones can allow huge headroom in scenarios which involve unpredicatable source levels.
I do think Tascam may have missed a trick when it comes to Ambisonic recording. With its four balanced inputs and convenient size and shape, the Portacapture X8 would seem a very suitable device to pair with a mic like the Senneiser Ambeo or Rode NT‑SF1 to create a very portable Ambisonic recording rig. This use is not yet fully supported: you can use the recorder for Ambisonic recording, of course, but you must set all four mic input levels identically and, of course, you end up with four separate files that you'd have to join up later to create an A‑format Ambisonic WAV file. My Zoom F8n, for instance, can save data directly in either of the main B‑formats as a four‑channel file, and can also produce a stereo signal suitable for monitoring. I communicated this thought to Tascam during the course of the review and the reply I got was: “Thank you for this feedback. We had several users asking for Ambisonics support and are currently investigating if this can be realised on this hardware.” I can't see an obvious reason why it couldn't be, so I’m hoping it will be implemented in a future firmware update as an additional app.
Two of Zoom’s recorders stand out as possible alternatives to the Portacapture X8. The F6 is a very high‑quality piece of kit but costs substantially more than the Portacapture, doesn’t have the useful onboard mics, and has a form factor you’ll either love or hate. The H8 costs about the same and has two extra XLR inputs and a touchscreen interface, but the touchscreen is much smaller than the Portacapture’s and it can’t record at 32‑bit float. Again, it has a form factor you’ll love or hate. If onboard mics aren’t important to you, it may also be worth checking out Sound Devices’ range of multitrack recorders.
These files accompany my review of the Tascam Portacapture X8 handheld multitrack recorder. The examples in the downloadable ZIP file, all 44.1 kHz, 24-bit WAV files, are of two recordings captured using both the onboard mics and a pair of Neumann KM 184s in the same configuration.
1. A song written by my wife Anne Gregson and performed by us in unaccompanied harmony:
C&A All In Harmony onboard mics.wav
C&A All In Harmony KM184s.wav
2. An instrumental, also written by Anne and performed by her on a very rare type of concertina called an accordeaphone (we only know of five in the world):
Anne Lantern of the West onboard mics.wav
Anne Lantern of the West KM184s.wav
- Remarkably easy to use.
- Makes a decent fist of doing many things.
- Records up to six input tracks and a stereo mix.
- Onboard mics very usable.
- Good‑sounding preamps.
- 32‑bit floating point and up to 192kHz conversion.
- Very reasonable price.
- File management and naming a little basic.
- Ambisonics support and user presets would be nice.
- No SD card or mains PSU included.
A good‑quality portable multitrack recorder with onboard DSP, the Portacapture X8 is perhaps a little large to be handheld but works well, sounds good and is incredibly easy to use.
£489 including VAT.
TEAC UK Ltd +44 (0)1923 797205
TEAC America Inc. +1 323 726 0303.