TASCAM 488 MkII:
The Ultimate Analog Cassette 8-Track Recorder?
The word "ultimate" means not only the "best of its kind",
but also "the last". TASCAM's 488 MkII Portastudio may well
go down in history as both: its performance and design are exemplary,
and yet the inexorable price descent of digital recorders could make this
the last of a proud line.
For those new to multitrack recording history, it was TASCAM who first
came up with the concept of combination mixer/recorders that were both
relatively portable and affordable. They were also the first to be innovative
enough (or crazy enough, engineering-wise) to put 8 tracks on a cassette
tape. Even today, the concept remains a good one; you still can't hook
a mixer to a recorder and expect to come anywhere near the convenience
or cost of a 488. And the best of the new, shiny digital multitrack recorders
can only hope to boast that they're as easy to operate as a 488.
You can read the complete specs, but basically
the 488 MkII is an 8-track cassette recorder with an integral 12-input
mixer with 3-band EQ (variable midrange) on the 8 main channels, dbx noise
reduction, two effects sends, two channel inserts, and two phantom-power-capable
XLR mic inputs. It can record up to four tracks at a time on a cassette
running at twice normal speed (for best frequency response and reliability,
the "normal" 1 7/8 ips speed was omitted). It has manual and
auto punch-in, rehearsal mode, one-touch return to zero, and two settable
See How It Runs
The first reaction I had when I looked at the 488 was similar to that
of Robert Hays' gaze around the 747 cockpit in the movie Airplane...wow,
there's a lot of knobs on this thing! As the initial impression of someone
who'd only worked with 4-tracks before -- and those were also TASCAMs,
so I was even used to the layout -- that was reasonable (there are,
after all, 144 controls on the front panel). But my nervousness vanished
after one test recording; the 488 was designed well for serious use, and
as a result it's actually far easier to work with than I ever would have
guessed. Reading the manual, combined with playing around a bit, demonstrates
how easy it is to route signals around to the various tracks using the
pan controls and group assign buttons.
Turning on the 488 brought a smile to my face: it seems TASCAM's engineers
had as much fun with this as with their much-ballyhooed DA-88 multitrack
tape machine, because they put the same scrolling TASCAM logo across the
488's panel meters (recreated in my AAAG (Abstract Art Animated GIF) on
the Unofficial TASCAM 488 Home Page if you have
a proper browser). Once that display calmed down, I noticed a slight initial
winding sound from the tape compartment. It seems that the 488 has three
motors, which are used to provide not only fast rewind speeds (80 seconds
for a C-60 tape) but also a constant level of tension on the tape automatically,
and the tension adjusts after power-up and whenever you enter play mode.
The very first thing I did, after buying a few new cables, was to insert
a tape I had recorded on my older TASCAM 424, hit the play button, and
hope that I'd see and hear something promising. It was better than I had
dreamed: there were not only four identifiable tracks playable on the
488 (with four empty tracks now left over!), but track 4 from the 4-track
corresponded to track 8 on the 488. This means that the sync track stays
the same between machines, something very important for those of us who
use virtual MIDI tracks synced to MIDI time code (or SMPTE in my case).
The old sync track worked fine.
And for those of you still holding your breath out there, relax: yes,
there is a bit of bleed to the empty tracks when doing this trick, but
well within reasonable range (as in: you probably ain't gonna hear it
unless you turn up the controls to near the maximum and listening just
to hear it). In normal use, TASCAM's specs claim 70 dB channel separation
for the recorder section with the noise reduction on, so there.
What can I say? All this wasn't an accident. Someone spent a lot of time
making these machines compatible, so you'd have an upgrade path from TASCAM
4-tracks. For me, it's nice to know that I can add more tracks to all
my earlier 4-track tapes without having to lose a generation.
The bad news is that there's no clean upgrade path from the 488.
The reason: unlike the 424, where you have one output jack for each track
(or the Yamaha 8-track cassette as someone kindly pointed out), the main
audio outs on this beast are the ones marked L and R. So there's no easy
way of making backups of your tapes, and if you've recorded the 8-track
masterpiece of the century, you'll have to mix it all down on your 488.
However, it is possible (although tricky) to get all the tracks
out to an ADAT, digital recorder, mixing board, or whatever...see
this page for a way to do it!
We may as well get all the bad news out of the way at once. While the
frequency response of the mixer section goes all the way to 22 kHz, the
recorder section is rated at only 40 Hz to 14 kHz. I tested this informally
with the Mix Reference CD, my spectrum analyzer, and the VU meters; sure
enough, serious pooping out was evident at 15 kHz and up (I will not embarrass
myself by noting at what frequency my ears starting pooping out, but that's
why I have test equipment). Now, in actual use, the 488 MkII sounded just
great, though I'm not going to try to B.S. anybody that it's as clear
as, say, a TASCAM DA-88 digital multitrack or anything similar to that.
Another thing: only 2 of the input channels have XLR connectors! Did
TASCAM think that someone would lay out mucho dinero for one of these
machines and then use 2 balanced mics and 2 consumer grade mics?
You can only record 4 tracks at a time on the 488 anyway, though that's
hardly unique among 8-track cassette. And if you use C-60 tapes as recommended
(and I recommend you do, too), you're only going to get 15 minutes' worth
of sound on a tape (although this can be a Good Thing in the unlikely
event that one of your tapes gets chewed up; at least it wasn't an entire
CD full of music!).
More Good News
The first two channels are the "super" ones, as they have not
only your choice of XLR or 1/4" mic inputs, but also channel inserts,
so you can put a compressor (for instance) after the mic preamp where
it belongs. The first 4 channels have mic preamps; the next 4 are mono
line inputs only. Then you get 2 more stereo inputs with level controls,
but no EQ or access to effects sends (these are the places where you normally
plug in your effects returns or synth outputs, though).
There's plenty of good I/O news, too. Just one button push is all you
need to turn on or off monitoring of the tape cue mix, either of the stereo
inputs, either of the group pairs (1 and 2, or 3 and 4), or the output
of the mixdown recorder. You can also make the sound monophonic with another
button push...important for those last phase checks before final mixdown.
There are even separate cue and monitor outputs.
The automated tape handling features, such as rehearsal and auto punch-in,
are essential for someone like me who is recording engineer one minute
and talent the next (and certainly useful for making sure you don't wipe
out a precious section of great tape, as I did a few times on my older
machine without these features). The EQ, especially with sweepable midrange,
is also very effective.
The TASCAM 488 MkII is a tabletop recording studio that makes quite professional-sounding
tapes. It's well-designed, uses inexpensive media, has the right features,
and is easy to use without limiting too many of your options. And if you're
looking at a digital machine that's "only" another thousand
hard-earned bucks or so, you might ask yourself how many effects units,
compressors, and patch bays you can buy with that money!