Portastudio for the Digital Age

Reprinted from The Mix Magazine, September 1996
by Bob Dormon

The four track cassette machine has proved one of the most enduring recording formats ever, with Tascam's Portastudio defining the genre. Now the Portastudio concept is about to be redefined by a new wave of MiniDisc machines. Bob Dormon investigates the Tascam 564 Digital Portastudio

So it seems I spend too much time at home, or so it seems the boy Chris is trying to tell me. Two trips away from my shady glades in South London in as many weeks and both North of the river - arggh! However, each involved wining and dining and the chance to see the latest developments in the spawning ground of modern music making - the portastudio. Apart from either making them bigger or smaller, the portastudio in its traditional cassette-based format has more or less fully evolved. To take it one step further by today's standards, really needs a drastic shift away from the limitations of the analogue compact cassette, which must be at least twenty-five years old.

The most obvious move would be to `go digital' but, as we all know, these technological trends come at a price. A price that all too often can put the products out of the reach of the folk they were originally created for. After forking out for a guitar, synth, beat box or whatever, anyone beginning their own personal odyssey into music making will find a typical portastudio is the icing on the cake that may have to wait. There's no mistaking that a four-track recorder with a built-in mixer is great value for money, however, the truth is you can still create music without one. So how can you make a technological leap without alienating the punters whose pockets you are trying to empty? Well, with passport in hand I made the river crossing to find out in Watford, home to TEAC UK and their younger brother TASCAM.

History lesson

If anyone should be re-appraising the merits of the portastudio then it ought be Tascam - they invented the machine, and the world `portastudio' is actually one of their registered trademarks! Back in the early 80's, the likes of Sting (remember the Police on TV with Jools Holland in Montserrat in 1981?) could be seen to the envy of us all, plugging into a Tascam 144 and going through the motions of demo'ing `Message in a Bottle'. Ah yes those were the days, you could buy a pint of 6X and a packet of three for a quid and still have change for the phone!

Things have certainly moved on, but there can be no doubt that the portastudio was, and still is, a great idea - but as Tascam's UK Sales Manager Bob Thomas revealed, it may not have happened at all if it weren't for Tascam's persistence. In those days, the original creators of the cassette format were none too pleased with the idea of it being adapted from the established two-track head to a four-track format. But with the ability to draw on the resources of parent company TEAC, Tascam were able to design their own four-track heads, and with an attitude that more or less said `What the hell...' went ahead with the four-track cassette based portastudio. Meanwhile, musicians throughout the world went `Yes!!!' almost as quickly as other manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon.

Shuttle Service

Jog/Shuttle wheels have been around for sometime on video recorders, their purpose to scan and then slowly - frame-by-frame - exactly cue up a moving image. For audio you can do roughly the same. The Jog/Shuttle facility allows you to search - listening at high or low speed - through the audio with the outer shuttle wheel, and then as you home in on the point you wish to edit you can move backwards and forwards in finger increments with the inner jog dial, much as you would approach the old `rock `n' roll' tape editing.

However, these two dials needn't be confined to that single task and with most audio recorders that offer this facility, they can be used for data entry. Here, in addition to jog/shuttle wheels, the 564 has a rather neat array of three buttons on the periphery. Their initial function is to allow setting up, editing and deleting of the twenty locator positions which are referred to as Index Points.

Just below the LCD screen that relays all the necessary information about this and many other functions, is the smaller `Title' button that changes the function of these indexing switches to deal with the task of naming each locate point. To make life easier there is a library of preset names such as intro, verse 1, chorus, bridge etc. You can choose these and edit them further or create your own twelve character name.

Now another one of Mr. Thomas's intimations was that big brother TEAC, is also among the largest manufacturers of computer floppy disk drives, with a history dating back to the early Fifties when they were the first company to gain approval to make drives for IBM's computers. With that kind of heritage and the fact that Sony originally proposed MiniDisc as the replacement for the floppy drive, TEAC didn't hesitate in producing their own MiniDisc drives and until recently, the only Tascam product showing fruits of this venture was the MD801-R two-track audio recorder.

Being a relatively new format, MiniDisc - outside of Japan - has been slow to catch on. As an alternative to DAT, MiniDisc in the UK (for musicians at least), seems to have been ousted by Philip's cheaper DCC. The two are very different, so we won't delve into that here (check out our head-to-head review in The Mix January '95), but what MiniDisc is capable of doing that DCC has not been designed for, is recording and playback of more than two tracks of audio. But, dear reader, it's not that simple either, as MiniDisc appears in two guises: Audio and Data formats. The discs themselves have subtle differences in their appearance and, in a nutshell, a Data disc won't play in a MiniDisc audio player/recorder, but an Audio disc will play (but not record) in a Data recorder/player. The new breed of four track recorders using MiniDiscs will all be utilising the Data MiniDisc format and so `audio' MiniDisc owners will actually have to buy different discs to record on their Minidisc multi-track.


Enter the Tascam 564 Digital Studio, a four-track digital recorder with twelve inputs (four stereo), two aux sends, a three band EQ (with a sweepable mid section) and a digital output. The MIDI implementation includes external control from MMC (MIDI Machine Control) and the ability to generate MTC (MIDI Time Code) in all frame rates as well as the facility to send MIDI clock from a programmable tempo map that can have up to thirty-two tempo changes. All this, they claim, will set you back around 1,000 pounds - a price which may in reality prove to be a little optimistic. Time will tell...

If you don't look too closely at the 564 you'll easily mistake it for a typical portastudio. Get a bit closer and aside from the characteristic mixer layout, you'll naturally enough spot the lack of cassette transport and the addition of a jog/shuttle wheel. The MiniDisc slots into the right hand side of the 564 and has its own eject button to retrieve the disks that you plop in by hand in the same way you would a floppy. The space where a cassette may have resided is filled by a large uncluttered metering section for all four tracks and the stereo output.

Beneath the metering for each track are record ready lights, with the usual Tascam record enable switching (Direct, Safe, and Buss L or R). This is a good start, as familiarity is all too often what is needed to prise people away from the security of `old' technology. As you'll discover, a MiniDisc for-track has a lot to it that will be potentially confusion, but these features tend to be `extras'. Ultimately, you can tailor your recording sessions to be as complex or as simple as you like. Anyone who has used a portastudio can use this machine - and it will behave as you expect - but the point is that it has the capability to exceed your expectations.


A look at the sloping back panel reveals the ins and outs of the 564. Seasonsed Tascam users will find it no surprise that there are XLR microphone inputs on the first four channels - there's no phantom power but these are balanced, as are all the 1/4" TRS jack line inuts. A welcome inclusion is the insert point on the first two cannels, enabling vocalists to be pre-compressed, and guitarists to record with a decent level going through their pedals aplenty via a TRS (send and return) 1/4" jack arrangement.

The first four channels get the pick of the mixer functions, with a mic/line input gain control and the channel routing section. Mic/Line or Disc. Disc has a further switch placement marked `Disc' with `Mic/Line Left' (channels 1 or 3) or `Right' (channels 2 and 4) below it. Routing of anything plugged into these channels (for example, effects or keyboards) is panned hard left or right depending on the channel, with levels controlled by the input gain pot. These incoming signals can enter the mix buss together with the disc track playback, thus expanding the mixer's capabilities to 16 channels on mixdown.

Although as yet unconfirmed, I was told that the EQ section is likely to be the same as the Tascam 424 MkII. That being so, you can look forward to a High Shelving EQ starting at 10kHz providing +/- 10dB of gain and a Low sehfl from 100Hz also with +/- 10 dB of gain. The sweeepable Mid section - which despite its limitations was actually quite poky - has a range of around 250Hz - 5kHz with +/- 14dB of gain. Each channel has its own panpot and fader and two aux sends.

564 clever bits

While having twenty locate points can be useful to navigate a song when you're working with tape, these points of reference can take on an entirely different role when dealing with disk-based digital audio recording. Returning to video for a moment, when an editor approaches constructing the final cut from all the sections of film/video, he or she will compile an Edit Decision List (EDL) that simply lists the order in which all the bits of a film will be put together. You can do the same with a song on the Tascam 54, but instantly!

Using your index points (that you can set on the fly and then refine), you can change the whole course of a song. It would appear that all MiniDisc multi-track recorders will be capable of changing the playback order of user definied musical sections usign a Program Index facility. So if you wanted a double chorus after verse three, just find the in and out points of the chorus and program it to play it again. This works across all four track though, so you can't nab the outro lead guitar and bung it on the intro without dragging all four tracks along with it.

One facility entirely unique to the Tascam 564 is the Bounce Forward feature. This allows you to create an entirely no song from your mix, or pogrammed index points. By bouncing forward you could, say, have a copy [of] your overall stereo mix from song 1 and record it onto two tracks of song 2. You can now start over again on song 2 with a stereo mix plus two more tracks to play with. When you're happy with that, you can bounce forward again and again. There is a limit of five songs, but each time you bounce forward, your original recording remains intact. So if you're not happy with the result, you can do it again.

As you are actually recording hard copies of your work using this method, if everything is hunky-dory, you can always choose to erase an earlier song. This is also true if you decide to bounce forward a selection of programmed inex points, which then means you can do additional re-programming in the new song. Breathtaking stuff, that really shakes off the rather limiting image that has always dogged four-track recorders.

Aux sends are also available on stereo channels 5/6 and 7/8 as are channel assignments to the main mix or cue sections. However, these channels ony get the shelving EQ, leaving a rather unaesthetic space where the parametric section would be. Each pair has a signle stereo fader and panpot that balances the incoming left/right signal. Plugging into just the left side will sum the signal to mono. This arrangement works on all stereo channels with inputs 9/10 and 11/12 being little more than effects returns; having only a rotary level control, yet they are assignable to the stereo buss, cue section or can be muted altogether.

Below the last two stereo pairs are four separate cue sends plus a cue master volume control. Further down is home to the Aux sends 1 and 2 master levels and the monitor volume knob which sits above the six switches that select what you hear: Line left/right, Effects 1 and 2, Cue and Two-Track Return. The back panel has a cluster of phono connectors that accommodate two track send and return, monitor output and direct outputs from all four tracks. Three more 1/4" jacks deal with the Aux sends and Cue output. Hidden behind the sloping rear fascia are the mains connector, power switch and the co-axial digital output. The only sockets at the front of the 564 are for headphones and the saviour of the singlehanded studio strummer, the punch in/out switch.

Punch Ups

If you're of a nervous disposition when it comes to recording, you can use the Auto Punch In/Out, which features a Rehearse mode so you can try things out first. But even if you do cock it up, the Undo/Redo buttons will come to the rescue and take you out or back to your last action. As you would expect, you can cycle around a musical section using Repeat. When used in conjunction with the Auto Punch In/Out mode, you can record up to five takes before committing yourself to one of them. However, you can't go out of Repeat and come back to the takes later, you have to decide there and then.

When it domes down to normal cut and paste editing, the 564 naturally has a few limitations when compared with more expensive systems. Multiple copying is not available yet, so repeating a section a dozen times or more has to be done manually; selecting new destination index points each time. Also, all tracks have to be copied - you can't copy tracks in isolation. This needn't be too much of a problem if you plan ahead. So if you want to repeat a difficult bass line, then record that first and use the 564's MIDI clock/MTC sync facilities to have a beat box etc. playing live and not to tape.

One other area that will certainly make editing more difficult than it need be is that you can't get a beats and bars display unless you're using the tempo map which is specifically for MIDI clock synchronization.


There can be now doubt that a MiniDisc four-track is a four-track in name only. The ability to mix and then bounce forward your recordings onto an entirely new song emancipates the concept of four-track music making, bringing with it the sonic fidelity that one expects from a digital recorder. The digital output is always a welcome sight and is set to 44.1kHz. It's just a pity the vari-speed control of +/-9.99% can't be incorporated to emulate a 48kHz output for interfacing with old DAT recorders.

With Yamaha's own MD4 providing an entry-level MiniDisc four-track, the Tascam seems set to appeal to those that have more demanding projects in mind. In the meantime, the deals that we'll see appearing in the shops for these two first generation MiniDisc multi-tracks should prove to be very interesting indeed.