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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 memory locations.

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.

Smart Engineering

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.

It's Twue...

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!
-- Dragon

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