Cheaper and Better?
OK, let's look at some of the new specs: XLR mic inputs, 3-band EQ with sweepable midrange, multi-point autolocator, one-touch return-to-zero, auto-rehearse, auto punch in/out...why it's the TASCAM 464, with a list price of over $1,000! No, wait, this is the 424 MkII review...could TASCAM have given us all that for a list price of just $599? Yes, and threw in some more, besides!
Now, I'm not going to say that TASCAM engineers were looking right at the new Fostex XR-7 (also a 4-track recorder in approximately the same price range) when they designed the new 424 MkII, though it is the same color and even has the same kind of orange display. But the TASCAM 424 was the leader in low-priced, high-quality 4-track recorders, and I'm sure they want to stay in the lead. So it seems that they took the more modern look of the Fostex with the proven design of the 424, added virtually every feature on their higher-end 464, and dropped the price. How can they go wrong?
Well, they haven't. Even in the smallest details, the 424 MkII seems to have been designed by people as nit-picky as I am. For instance: in the 424, there were two jacks on the very front of the machine that you could never find from the top, or even tell which one was which, because they were cleverly marked by some fool designer who thought he could save 14 cents per unit by molding tiny lettering right into the plastic on the front, which you couldn't read unless you were crawling on your belly like a reptile on the table that the thing was sitting on.
Can one little problem really get me so pissed off? You be the judge.
But the 424 MkII has these two jacks properly marked by nice contrasting white paint from the top, with little arrows so you can actually tell where they are. Score one for the good guys.
Let's get down to more serious matters (as if anything else was as important as those two jacks!). Read my HTML: no more wall wart! And the wall wart transformer on the 424 was just the right shape, size, and weight to fall out of any vertical outlet, so this is definitely a Good Thing. There's a dbx logo in the display that only lights up if dbx is switched on. And the 424 MkII has real monitor output jacks, so you don't have to work with kludges like an insert cable plugged into the headphone jack, which was unprofessional looking and an impedance nightmare besides. And the stereo inputs now take "regular" mono plugs, as do the effects sends, so you don't need all kinds of weird cables and can even use your little brother's guitar cable in a pinch.
There's Just One Little Thing
There is one thing that some people might not like about the 424 MkII, and that point is intended mostly for people who carry their 4-track into the field to make live recordings. It's about as low-tech a difference as you can get. Very simply, the new machine weighs in at just under 11 pounds, almost twice what the older one did, and is also 1 inches wider and a whopping 3 inches deeper. Which means that, although the 424 fit handily into the carrying bag for the extremely obsolete Toshiba 3100 laptop computer ("laptop" assuming, of course, that you had a lap suitable for, say, Luciano Pavarotti to sit on), carrying the 424 MkII is going to take a little more planning, not to mention that it won't fit as nicely next to the giant mixer that the sound people always bring to impress everyone.
And Robert Patenaude pointed out one more: you used to be able to take inputs from the mic/line preamps at mixdown time, for a total of 4 additional mono inputs. These are gone, replaced by an "off" position on the select switches for each channel. Perhaps TASCAM thought that 4-track users would forget to turn down their inputs during mixdown or something, because the "extra live inputs" feature has been retained on the 488 MkII (where it's called "multimix"). This is the only real "foo" I have about the MkII compared to the original 424.
(OK, there are a few more changes that I think, on the whole, nobody is going to cry about. The 15/16 ips low speed is gone, the input jacks no longer line up exactly with their associated controls, and since the zero is electronic, you'll lose it every time you power off unless you make sure you return to zero every time before shutdown. Big deal. But if any of these are important to you, now's your chance to buy the 424 Classic before all the music stores finish selling them out at bargain prices.)
On the other hand, once you get it to wherever it's going, you're going to like it a lot. Just as before, you can plug four mics in and record on all four tracks simultaneously. The 424 MkII has four balanced XLR input jacks (even more than its big brother, the TASCAM 488), which makes hooking up to audio boards a snap. There's a pair of new Sub Input phono jacks that go directly to the master fader; these let you hook up an external mixer, such as a submixer that controls a number of MIDI devices. This is also a potential way to get some of those live inputs back; just connect an inexpensive preamp/mixer and expand your inputs as far as you want.
You can set up a repeat loop between two memory points (or shuttle the tape to either of those points with a single button press; this is in addition to the RTZ, or Return To Zero button). There's a Rehearsal mode for getting the hang of a tricky insertion over already-recorded material, and an Auto Punch In/Out button for actually recording the take. These are especially helpful when you're the studio engineer, producer, and talent all at the same time. If you happen to have any tapes made on the original 424, be assured that they'll drop right in to the new model without a hiccup. And while TASCAM advertises that there are now two effects sends on the 424 MkII, note that there were always two effects sends on the 424 too.
The sweepable midrange EQs are a dream. Now I know why Mackie is selling all those new mixers. Such a small addition makes such a big difference in the sound! Oh yes, and while the 424's transport felt solid, this one seems even more robust. Maybe it's just the EQ on the clicks it makes :-). I did like the rubberized controls on the original 424 better though.
Anyway, if you're shopping for a 4-track analog machine, you found it.
Don't bother spending any more, because you probably won't get anything
worthwhile. And unless you can't afford more than the TASCAM Porta 03
(which itself is in a new model phase), you might as well get this, because
it has just about everything you could want in a 4-track machine. Including,
believe it or not, audio specs better than the top-of-the-line TASCAM
488 MkII. But that's another story.