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.

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