Tascam 2488mkII In-Depth

Itís funny to start out a review with a justification, buuuuutÖ Given that the computer-based digital audio workstation market is maturing and prices are coming down, many wonder why in the world a person would turn to a portastudio-type, all-in-one piece of gear to record at home. The answer is that there are very good reasons to prefer this sort of option. Firstly, without a large investment in a "work surface", a simulation of the front of a mixer and a tape machine interface, a computer-based unit with a qwerty keyboard interface can be quite clunky to manipulate while youíve got an instrument in your lap. Secondly, some people simply prefer the aesthetic aspect of the mixer/transport interface offered by the portastudio. Itís a comfort thing, and comfort is a big part of the reason people create home studios. Thirdly, the interface of the portastudio type units has been optimized over years to make it comfortable and useful to musicians. Fourthly, setting up and debugging a computer-based system may require a degree of computer-savvy some folks donít have, and fifthly, while all these objections can be overcome by pre-packaged systems, even a stripped-down system without the comfortable interfaces can cost twice to three times what a well-developed portastudio does. Given all thatÖ



Click for a really stinkin' big pic.

Today, weíre looking at the TASCAM 2489mkII Portastudio as an alternative for home recording. I am a recording engineer who uses computer-based recording systems all day long at work, so Iím very comfortable with them as a tool. However, when I was looking to create a home-based, non-commercial recording system for my own use, the main concerns after recording quality were comfort and ease of use during the recording process. The fact is, when I have a guitar strapped on, the last thing I want to do is lean around, plug up things, and think a lot to allow me to accomplish the recording process. While Iím comfortable in the studio as a musician, engineer, and producer, when you combine those roles into a solo situation, comfort and ease of use loom large in selection of gear. As a result, if I were to attempt to put together a laptop recording system, Iíd have to spend buckets of money to get it tweaked to be comfortable to control. Maybe later, but today I chose the option that punches all my buttons: The TASCAM 2488mkII Portastudio. Letís take a peek.

AESTHETIC

As you unpack the Portastudio, you realize that all there is in the box is the unit, a manual, and the power cord - It really is self-contained. Next, the smell of brand-new electronics wafts over you. MmmmÖ In this case, rather than the ugly, sharp smell some electronics put out, it is a sweet smell. Then you see the faceplate. For the mkIIís faceplate, TASCAM chose a deep blue color. Itís an oddly familiar color. AhhhÖ That color is very similar to the color of the Neve consoles Iíve worked on for the last twenty-seven years. Iíve always liked that cool blue color. During high-stress sessions it was a calming influence on me. We wonít be having high-stress sessions at home, but that color will be welcome. Okay, thereís a comfort factor there. Smart move on TASCAMís part. Above the fader row populated by typical TASCAM 45mm (2") faders, the faceplate is dominated by four rows of square, lighted buttons reminiscent of a TV switcher. Above those rows is a bright, clear 2 Ĺ" backlighted LCD screen that continues the blue motif with a light blue background and a dark blue highlights. To the right is the transport, editing, and master facilities section, clustered around a 1 5/8" jog/shuttle/data entry wheel and a set of six navigation buttons. When you look at all the buttons and the 115-page manual, you know youíve got some reading, and learning, ahead of you. After playing with mixing the supplied 24 track song, it's time to get to work.

ELECTRONIC AND PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

How has TASCAM chosen to physically organize this unit? Firstly, it appears to be a 24-track recorder, but isnít. Instead, the unit offers 250 freely-assignable "virtual" recording tracks. It offers 24 physical mixing/monitoring channels organized as 12 mono channels and 12 stereo channels, each with a fader, EQ, and sends. That "freely-assignable" thing means you can build up huge mixes by recording twenty-two tracks at a time, "bouncing" them by sub-mixing to a pair of stereo tracks to monitor during recording, and then assigning another twenty-two clean tracks to record and monitor. At mixdown time, you can organize your 250 tracks into premixed tracks and assign them to faders to create a lush mix. If you are exporting to mix on another platform as I will be, you can create a very large mix. Megalomaniacs beware!

The unit offers 8 physical input channels that can all be recorded at once via jacks on the back panel. Each input has its own trim that is continuously variable from infinite attenuation to line level to mic level. Four of the inputs feature combined XLR / ľ" TRS balanced inputs with phantom power. Four feature balanced ľ" TRS inputs without phantom power. The sound of the preamps is "literal" to my ears. There is very little coloration right up through the gain range to the edge of distortion. For more character, one may want to invest in tube preamps for his mics. The last ľ" channel serves dual-duty as a "guitar channel" with a parallel unbalanced, high-impedance guitar input on the front panel and a multi-effect processor available during recording. More on that laterÖ

Three-band EQ is available at all times on all inputs and monitoring channels as well as the stereo bus. The EQ sections offer three-bands: low shelving (32hz-1.6khz), a wide-range fully parametric middle band (32hz-18khz), and high shelving (1.7khz-18kkhz), all with +/-12 db boost and cut. Each channel's EQ can be switched in and out of the circuit and provides a digital trim for gain makeup and reduction. The EQ is smooth, musical, and useful. A comprehensive dynamics package is also included on the stereo bus.

In the effects realm, the unit offers several options for recording and mixing. Basically, these options come in the form of eight insert effect processors for the input channels and monitor strips and one master parallel effect processor with sends and returns. The eight channel insert effects processors can be allocated as eight recording or monitor channel effects processors (compressor, de-esser, exciter, and noise suppressor) or can be allocated to offer one guitar multi-effects section and four of the channel insert processors. The guitar multi-effects sectionís chain consists of a (1) noise suppressor, (2) a choice of either distortion, overdrive, or clean sound, (3) an amp simulator or acoustic guitar simulator, (4) a selectable fourth effect, and (5) a delay unit. The selectable fourth-position effects are: flanger, phaser, chorus, exciter, pitch shifter, tremolo, vibrato, and wah. Incidentally, these guitar multi-effects can be produced in stereo or mono and automatically adopt the configuration you choose when you assign the guitar processor to either one or two channels. A guitar tuner is also provided. If that isnít confusing enough, also available separately through channel sends and a stereo return is a single stereo effects processor. Within that processor are reverbs, delay, chorus, pitch shifter, flanger, phaser, and gated reverb. Each of these effects is supported by a library of different sounds (i.e. the reverb has halls, rooms, plates, etc.). Also provided are two separate effects sends per channel that have outputs on the back panel and can be used to send effects to external effects processors.

The classic paradigm for the recording studio involved a multitrack recorder, a mixer, and a master two-track recorder. This unit has reproduced these sections right down to an onboard mastering recorder that allows you to play back from the multitrack, mix, and record the resultant mix to a two-track recorder.

Also available are a bounce feature and a sub-mixer. The bounce feature allows you to route the stereo mix of the multitrack and effects back to a track or a pair of tracks on the multitrack so you can build up submixes for later use. The submixer feature allows you to mix the eight physical inputs into either a bounce or a stereo mix, allowing you to add, for example, an external keyboard or drum machine synchronized with MIDI.

The transport is controlled by a comprehensive editor that allows you to easily set 99 cue points plus in and out points for automatic punching. When combined with "from" and "to" points, track selection, and various copy, cut, and paste commands, as well as audible and visual scrubbing, you have all the necessary editing capabilities.

Entire tracks can be cloned, allowing you to try different processing options and punch back and forth between them as well. The system offers comprehensive .wav import and export capabilities for individual tracks and your mixes so you arenít landlocked. As a result, you can track on the 2488mkII and mix in any other box that can handle .wavs. One very handy function is that individual track exports always begin at track time 00.00.00,00, so that your tracks always line up and synch up perfectly in the other platforms. Youíd be amazed how many workstations donít offer this feature, forcing you to take extra measures to get a synch point. You are offered the option of 24-bit or 16-bit recording depth at project startup. All data is recorded to the internal 80 gig hard drive which has TASCAM partitions for project use and a FAT partition that is recognized by your home computer for drag-and-drop access via a USB port. All data and export functions can also be accomplished via the onboard CD burner. The unit is 21.5" wide by 14" deep by 5.7" high and weighs 17.6 pounds. It is virtually silent in operation.


ORGANIZATIONAL

The console is controlled and organized on modern console access principles. Channels are "addressed" by touching their "Select" key. Routing is accomplished by holding an input channelís Select key and touching one or more monitor channelís Select keys, or the reverse (holding a monitor channelís Select key and touching an input channelís Select key). The method used to verify routing is both simple and sophisticated and is the same method used by top-end consoles: Simply touch an input channelís Select key and see which monitor channels flash for forwards interrogation. Reverse interrogation is also available by pressing the monitor channelís Select key and seeing which input channels flash. If that werenít enough, a routing screen can be called up that shows where everything is going as well. For that matter, effects routing and interrogation is handled similarly: Hold down the effects key and all the channels that are routed will flash. Center-section buttons allow you to call up the EQ, Sends, panning, digital trims, and processing and hop from channel to channel to compare and adjust. Fast menu buttons speed up navigation through the various often-used functions. Navigation within menus is accomplished with four cursor buttons, the jog wheel, and a "yes/enter" and "no/exit" button. Many buttons call a function when tapped and a related, underlying adjustment menu when held. While the jog wheel is quite functional, it would have been nice for it to have been built a little larger.

Data exportation is logical and easy and batches can be done with a single command. Follow the directions in the manual to export virtual tracks and master tracks via USB or CD. The thirteen virtual tracks for my first, one-minute piece took about ten minutes to export to CD.

OPERATIONAL

I canít emphasize enough the ease of routing offered by this system. Theyíve pretty much gotten rid of the whole "fiddly bits" part of recording with the large, lighted routing and record ready keys. The net result is to making tracking and overdubbing by a musician a pleasure. All the basic tools for recording and mixing are there with the exception of automation, but weíll deal with that in a moment. The monitor section is rather comprehensive for a unit of this type. It not only offers multiple inputs to the monitors, but separates headphone and control room feeds, allowing

you to mute the monitors while keeping the headphones active to prevent bleed into the mics. The channel mute function works as you would expect. The mute button row is toggled to handle the solo function by a central switch. The solo function is a little odd in that with no channel selected for solo, silence, rather than the stereo bus, is output. This can be managed by entering solo mode, selecting your channel(s) to solo, then toggling back and forth between mute mode, where all channels except those that are muted are playing, and solo mode, which retains your solo channel selection. The guitar processing section offers a wide pallet of guitar sounds, though at first blush the distortion sounds are a bit harsh for my tastes. I was able to sit down with the machine in my man cave and generate a nicely-mixed, internet-ready recording in the space of about three hours, including fumbling with the manual and learning. I did skim the ownerís manual online before I purchased the unit, so I wasnít flying blind. By the third day with the unit, with a complete, front-to-back reading of the manual under my belt, I was feeling pretty comfortable. I was able to export the tracks recorded in this unit, sneaker-net them to the studio, and mix them down to a polished, professional-sounding product. Mind you, the playing and production are a bit rustic as I was dickering with the new tool. HERE is the final product, a short song called "Waiting."



CONCLUSIONS

As a recording engineer who spent years working on 24-track analog machines, Iíve got to marvel at the fact that it is now possible to get into twenty-four tracks of high-quality, comprehensive recording and editing at this price point ($620 after discounts and a rebate). Iím in shock! I spent more than three times that to purchase a TASCAM four-track recorder and eight channel board in 1979, and the final sonic quality was nowhere near this. The last analog 24-track I purchased for our facility cost $40,000, plus $30,000 for Dolby SR noise reduction to make it quiet. Fifteen years ago I demoed a less-capable 8-track digital workstation with no audible scrub feature at the Audio Engineering Society convention that cost $35,000. So, the sound and features this unit offers at this price point are simply astounding to me.

After I had fiddled with the current TASCAM 2488mkII unit, I found the following video demonstration of the previous version, the 2488mkI, which features an endorsement by Alan Parsons discussing his use of Portastudios and his impressions of the mkI. I can certainly understand his enthusiasm for the unit.



AND NOW,THE RANDOM BITS

Iím going to throw out some no-so-organized thoughts on some of the oddities and novelties of the unit and some hints:


And now, a completely random bit:

When I purchased my TEAC studio gear in Knoxville, Tennesse, 1980, the dealer gave me a small, ornamental wooden TASCAM box that is designed to hold something, I know not what. Tea bags?

Five years later when I started a family and sold my home studio, my little TASCAM box was orphaned. Never really having figured out a use for it, I tossed it in the back of a drawer. Twenty years later, when I started assembling my "man cave" guitar room, I pulled it out and used it to hold guitar picks. Now, for what it is worth, I can report that my little TASCAM box is no longer, ummm... orphaned.

UPDATE: Recently a reader, David Brown, informed me that this little box is a Japanese sake drinking cup called a masu. And so, thirty-three years later, a little mystery is solved and a circle of life is closed. Lovely!




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