Category Archives: Review

Portastudio 488 Mk2 8 Track Cassette Recorder

PS
Everything in the past was black and white, like this picture – which I took yesterday.

Usually when you invite a friend for dinner, and they ask if they can bring something, you might get a bottle of wine. Probably the last thing you expect to receive is a Tascam Portastudio 488Mk2, which did happen last week thanks to the kindness of one Mr Simon Horn (BIMM Berlin, KMR Audio).

I have been after one of these for a while and admit to being ‘sniped’ more than a few times when trying to bid on one on eBay. I eventually admitted defeat and got a Zoom R24 (as an easy mobile recording solution), an intend to grab a 500 series lunchbox and the DIY recording Distortastudio colour module, a design based on the channel of a late 80′s TASCAM 464 (You can read the whole story on their site), in the next few months.

As fate would have it, I managed to get the real thing  - even if only for a short period of time – and thought I would go nuts while I had the chance, putting my findings on this ‘ere blog. I may even do a full recording and mixdown on it.

488 MK2

The Tascam Portastudio 488 Mk2 came out in 1995 and cost £1299! Which seems like a surprising amount, until I got to spend some time with it and realised that this is a well made, great sounding piece of kit with pretty impressive features. It is solidly built (although a little too heavy to make it a practical mobile recording solution) and the trims and channel strip EQ sound great.

The 488 is capable of recording 4 channels simultaneously, with mic inputs on channels 1-4 and insert points on 1 and 2, for an effect or compressor. Each channel has a low and high (100hz and 10khz) shelving filter and a sweepable mid band EQ (250hz to 5K) that sounds smooth and warm to my ears.

There isn’t a per channel phantom power switch (it’s either on or not) which could be tricky if you wanted to combine condenser mics with non-active ribbon mics, and although the monitoring and output section is good, there is no direct tape out.

According to the manual, the 488 runs tape at 3-3/4 IPS (2x faster than normal cassette players and recorders) and its eight track functionality allows recording on one side only. That means that you only get a quarter of the cassette running time, so you might be lucky to get four takes of a song on a typical SA90 (22.5 mins of recording time if you were wondering).

Also, its tape speed makes it useless for mastering purposes so is designed to be used with mastering machine such as the TASCAM 122, and it even has designated outputs for this. Looking around on eBay you can get a broken 122 Mk3 for about £100 and a working one between £300 – £800. Pretty pricey.

With that said I have no intention of getting into the cassette mastering racket, even though there has been a resurgence of late, and I thought I would mainly use it as a lofi effect to drive the pre amps hard on drum or synth tracks and run few mixes through it.

Tape bounce

Cassette was the first format I loved. I bought all my first albums on cassette in the early 90′s and even though the sound wasn’t pristine, it had character. Best of all, the more you played it the more the sound deteriorated,  and somehow this made it even more appealing.

For that reason I wanted to hear what a full track would sound like through the 488 and had just finished off a mix of the track ‘Chosen’ by Jeris Cole from The Mix Academy.

I decided to do three; one is a straight bounce from Reaper, the second summed through channel 1 and 2 on the Portastudio using Reainsert (with the trim/drive set to about 30%) and at the same time recorded to tape (a TDK SA60 Type 2 with Dolby NR on) then brought back into Reaper.

The track was hitting the tape at pretty moderate level of between 0 and +3dB VU and each of the three tracks were level matched afterwards with Perception. Here are the results…

..pretty interesting, with the version summed through the channels being my favourite of the three. I think this could change if I had decided to leave Dolby NR off and there was a little more audible hiss. The tape version loses some low and high end clarity, adding some mid range distortion and low-mid boominess, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

The loss, and compensatory distortion, in the high and low end make perfect sense given the overall frequency response of 40Hz to 14Khz when recording to tape; however, its worth noting that each channel responds between 20hz to 22Khz individually, so the version summed through the channels has the sonic characteristic imparted by the 488 without any (or much – It is old after all!) of the signal loss of the tape version .

Drum Crush

I occasionally use distortion on my drum buss when mixing, or as a parallel effect, so I was pretty excited to run some drums through the preamps. I decided against running to tape in this example to avoid unwanted timing artefacts of the wow and flutter, as well as speed fluctuations of the (now 21 year old) capstan motor. Instead I did three variations of the same drum recording; first the original digital recording, the second summed through channel 1 and 2 of the 488 with the trim at 50%, and the last one summed at 100% (smashed to death). Each version was then level matched in Reaper using Perception at an integrated loudness of -16LUFS, the default setting for Perception).

…and the results are very pleasing indeed. Lovely crunchy analogue distortion which will undoubtedly appear somewhere on one of my next mixes.

Synth

Last but not least, I decided to sample the little mono synth I have on my desk and make it into an EXS instrument. I recorded 4 octaves of the synth onto tape with Dolby NR, and the trim at about 20%, and recorded it back into Reaper, chopped and edited the samples and imported them into Logic.

The point of this was to have a variation of the synth at hand that I use very often (to beef up bass lines mainly), should it be required quickly. It does add an extra layer of grit to the already pretty dirty sound. I also tweaked some of the settings in the EXS24 to fatten up the low end.

Here is a short video of the synth. Listen in HD on good headphones or decent monitors and if you want to download the EXS instrument to try it for yourself, go here.

*this riff is from the Mogwai track ‘remurdered’. I didn’t write it, I just punched it in. I wish I had though, but instead, Mogwai did. If you don’t know the band, or the song, you should.

As promised I went a bit crazy here but hopefully you get a good idea of what the 488 is capable of. I still haven’t gotten around to using for its actual purpose as a multi-track recorder but hopefully I will get the opportunity soon. I doubt any clients will be welcome to my suggestion that their next song should be tracked this way, but you never know. If anyone is up for experimenting, please get in touch.

Given how long I have been after one of these, it seems a slightly extravagant piece of gear for the sole purpose of an analogue distortion effect. This makes me feel like the Distortastudio module from DIY recording would be the best way to go. I just wish they had modelled the EQ too.

Thanks for reading,

Garry.

*Thanks to David Glenn Kulp and Jeris Cole for allowing me to use the track ‘Chosen’ for this blog entry.

SB2 Summing Box Kit

SB2IMG6
Plugged in and ready to go!

These days the market seems flooded with software emulations claiming to add depth, analogue saturation and “colour”. Mostly they work on the principle that for a fraction of the cost of the hardware you can have multiple instances in your DAW, which *enter producer/mixers name here* say are almost indistinguishable from the real gear.

Of course, I do own some of this software but usually if a plug-in costs three times what my DAW does (I use Reaper so most plug-ins DO cost three times what my DAW does )I tend to look for another similarly priced solution. For example, I own both an RNC and RNLA compressor and would much rather use one of them than a plug-in compressor of similar value, even if the plug-in in question is emulating the sound of a compressor ten times it’s value.  And there are companies like Lindell Audio that make a much praised 500 series 1176 style compressor which you can grab for just over £200. Ok, so it might not sound like an original 1176 but to me it seems better than using a plug-in version of an original 1176 compressor for the same price.

I’m not arguing analogue vs digital here, I use and like both, but in my experience even a cheap hardware compressor used properly will always be worth putting in the chain somewhere for the extra dimension it can add to a mix. I also find it helps with fast decision making, If I get a compression sound I’m happy with, I print the track and move on, then I can use the compressor somewhere else, rather than constantly tweaking a plug-in.

So in my search for affordable hardware alternatives I was extremely happy to stumble across DIY Recording Equipment, a small company based in Philadelphia that offers cost effective analogue kits for building your own hardware.

Founded in 2009, the guiding principles of the company are to introduce audio enthusiasts to the word of building and designing their own gear and to offer an open platform for further development. They also encourage you to use their designs for free even if you don’t buy kits from them.

The company was started by Peterson Goodwyn at a time when he was struggling to pay for the equipment  he needed for his recordings, and instead took to designing and building his own.

I have a similar story, and a few years ago began researching as much as I could and looking for simple how-to guides online I could follow. After a few false starts I put together a sub kick mic, then I started making my own cables (I might be stating the obvious here but if you are prepared to spend the time on assembly you can have the best cables, with the best components, for a fraction of the price of the like-for-like pre-assembled off the shelf ones), next I built my mobile set-up including the repair and testing of a broken power conditioner, as well as microphones (see mini mic post for the £4 omni), which I have used on a lot of recordings.

I only wished I had discovered DIYRE sooner. They make the whole process very accessible to beginners and have guaranteed support on all of their kits too, of which there are many to choose from.

SB2

SB2IMG1

My first acquisition was the SB2 summing mixer. I had always wanted to try out a summing box but could never really justify the expense. Instead, like most, I opted to use a console emulating plug-in on my mixes so was very happy to discover that DIYRE added the SB2 to their line of products this year.

The SB2 is a passive summing box that can be used as an 8×2 or 16×2 channel summing mixer. The main physical difference between this and other “off the shelf” passive summing mixers is that the SB2 has no panning switches (meaning it can fit into a much smaller enclosure). 

SB2IMG4
The SB2 “outsources” the panning to your DAW. Each of the SB2′s inputs is hard-wired to one of the output channels: odd-numbered inputs to the left, and even-numbered to the right. This keeps the cost of the unit low.

The passive resistor network inside the SB2 has essentially no “colour” of its own and the only sound it will impart is the thermal noise of the resistors, which is very low level white noise. This means that the sound is dependent on the the pre amps you feed the signal back into.

Each channel is fed to a bus via two 10k resistors (one for each half of the balanced signal) and a single 150 ohm resistor across the buss sets the output impedance to mic level. As the box has no separate power or gain of it’s own, once the signal is routed back to the pre-amps 45dB of gain is needed to bring it back up to line level.

After emailing Peterson for more info about the box, he told me that the design is nearly identical to the circuitry that many consoles (including Neve, etc.) use for summing the individual channels to the master buss and whichever pre-amp sound you would like to add to your mix, you can.

He explained that most active summing mixers are just a passive summing mixer followed by dedicated makeup gain amplifiers, something DIYRE offer some tasty options of their own for. The colour modules designed to fit the 500 series palette have a growing range and I already have my beady eye on a pair of TM79′s, designed by Eisen Audio.

A close comparison to the SB2 would be something like the RMS216 FOLCROM passive summing mixer available from Roll Music Systems. They both have similar features; passive circuitry, 150 ohm output impedance and DB25 input connectors, however, the small difference of panning switches and pre vs self assembly gives an overall price difference of almost $700, making the SB2 even more desirable.

Building

I ordered the box as soon as it became available on the site but Royal Mail thought it was better to return it to the states when there was no answer. It took 4 days to arrive the first time and almost three weeks to return! Anyway, second attempt was successful and it came within 5 days.

 The kit includes; SB2 Case Foam Pad SB2 PCB Front and back panels Input D-sub connector Output XLR jacks (2x) 10k bus resistors (4x) 150 resistors (2x) Screws (15x)
The kit includes; SB2 Case, Foam Pad, SB2 PCB, Front and back panels, Input D-sub connector, Output XLR jacks (2x), 10k bus resistors (4x), 150 resistors (2x), Screws (15x). (Stanley knife not included).

There are quite a few connections to solder but it took me about 25 minutes all in all, so as the website states it is a good beginners kit. Take it from a very recent novice, soldering gets better with experience and if you are new to it the step by step guides on the website are easy to follow and include pictures and soldering tips. As for support, given how responsive they were with emails when my order disappeared I can personally vouch for their speed and attentiveness.

In terms of price this is great value, especially if you are new to building and want quick results. To put the price into perspective, the cable I bought to connect the SB2 to my interface cost more than the box itself (I draw the line at soldering my own DB25 cables as suggested in the FAQ..).

actually, the clippers I have to clip the excess from my solder joints also cost more than the SB2.
…I just remembered, the clippers I have to clip the excess from my solder joints also cost more than the SB2.


What does it sound like?

I suppose the quick answer is it sounds like the pre amps you run your mix through. In the examples below I’m using channels 1-8 on the SB2 and running the mix back through the ISA 110 pre amps I have in my home studio.

The outputs from the DAW are set as;

1/2 Drums
3/4 Guitars
5/6 Bass Guitar/SH101
7/8 Piano

As the ISA’s are transparent, the differences are subtle, so I’ll let you listen and make your own mind up. Even so, I know that it’ll be used in a lot of my mixes from now on, especially given the endless sonic possibilities with the addition of different and more “coloured” pre amps to sum through.

In a digital version such as VCC, the process is intended to be cumulative with the more tracks you mix into the plug-in the more you hear the effect of the processing. In the example above I run an almost finished section of a mix through the box, which is fine for an A/B comparison, but if I had mixed into the SB2 from the start and added channels to my stereo sums as I went, just like summing through the master buss section of a console, I feel it would have slightly changed my approach to the mix.

I have only good things to say of my short time with this box, it is easy to put together, and at a fraction of the price of a similar “off the shelf” model, perfect for those (like me) who have considered using an analogue summing box and previously thought the price to be unjustifiable.

I love what the company does and I look forward to buying more kits, especially from the colour range, and I hope to revisit this thread once I have invested in some TM79′s.

Check out DIYRE here and get your hands dirty!

Garry

Pink Noise

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pink noise in the JS zoom analyser plug-in

I recently re-read  ‘Mixing With Your Mind’ and it inspired me to write this post adapting a technique Mike Stavrou describes in his book.

The book strikes a good balance between technical information and a more creative, or conceptual, approach to working in the studio (pro or home). I often buy a book for reference, but this one I read (and re-read) cover to cover, although I do go back to sections all the time.

In MWYM, Mike compares mixing to meditation, and lays out simple ways to use compressors and effects. The book seems to ooze his personality too; for example, in one section when struggling between the choice of two room reverbs for your mix, he suggests you A/B them while holding a phone book next to your head, then choose the setting that makes phone book feel the lightest.

Although I am unable to confirm the efficacy of this, It’s refreshing to read such a creative approach to sound engineering. This along with the Mike Senior book ‘Mixing secrets for the small studio’ have been invaluable to me over the years.

You can get the Mike Stavrou book here. Mike Seniors’ book is available from Amazon (but it smells better if you buy it from a shop).

So, the section I wanted to look at is ‘Revealing the Reverb’ in which pink noise is used to adjust settings on a (unfamiliar) digital reverb.

Pink Noise is applied throughout the book for varying tasks, but in this chapter it is designed to work with a metronome and gate to trigger a reverb in order to hear the nuance of different parameters of a reverb unit.

I feel this technique helps with a few things. It lets you know what each reverb parameter is doing, even on a very transparent sounding unit or plug-in like a Lexicon PCM (spin, anyone?).

Also, If you time your reverbs to the song but they sometimes feel too ‘rigid’, this technique can help you fine tune the pre-delay and decay to make them sound a little more fluid.  It’s also really good for getting instruments to blend better.

I usually time my reverbs as a starter and work from there but I’ll be the first person to admit that I can sit and twiddle for too long on a reverb or delay without hearing  much difference from one parameter to the next. Remaining objective when mixing is hard enough (and I will do a post soon about ways to keep from losing judgement) but whether or not this technique gives you the desired result, it certainly offers a different perspective. This can only be a good thing.

So, try it for yourself.

Here is a little info about pink noise;

Pink Noise is a signal that contains the frequencies from 20hz to 20Khz. Unlike White Noise, which has equal power (or gain) at all frequencies, Pink Noise has equal power at each octave in the spectrum, which reduces by 3dB per octave as it moves up through the frequencies maintaining equal power at each octave. As the human ear is more sensitive to high frequency information, the gradual reduction in amplitude as the signal moves up the spectrum, approx 30dB over 10 octaves, exposes more of the low frequencies which is good for practical application in the studio.

Setting up a sidechain

I’ll explain how to set up the gated pink noise in Reaper, so apologies if you are using a different DAW and have never done this before. You should be able to pretty much the same way in any DAW and save the channel as a preset for future use (but doing it a few times manually at first does help you to understand the process). Also, Reaper has a JS pink noise generating plug-in which I use so if it isn’t offered in yours you may need to find a third party plug which provides this.

Short bursts of pink noise sent to the reverb unit (fast attack and release on the gate) help you hear the decay, diffusion, delay and attack parameters more clearly, and with longer bursts (slightly slower attack, longer release or hold and adjusting the threshold sensitivity) you hear the dampening, HPF, LPF, pre-delay, size and other parameters.

It might seem strange at first, trying to choose the reverb for a vocal and instead listening to bursts of pink noise, but when you do switch the reverb onto the auxiliary of whatever instrument you are applying it to, with a little tweaking you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Have fun!

Garry

*Just to be clear (and so I don’t get sued) this concept is 100% from the book ‘Mixing with your mind’, the only difference being that there he explains how to do it in the analog domain and here it is completely in the DAW.