The first multitrack I recall owning was a TASCAM Porta One cassette 4-track. My brother and I bought it sometime in the early-80's, along with a spring reverb and a cheap dynamic microphone. A lot has changed since then. Earlier this year, I reviewed the Zoom PS-04 Palmtop Studio. Sized like a small paperback, the Zoom box is like a sup'ed-up 4- track crossed with a multi-effects box and a rhythm generator. And lately, I've been playing with TASCAM's current king in its Portastudio line of multitracks. The 2488 is an all-in-one 24-track recorder/editor/mixer that's capable of recording eight tracks at once and mixing 36 tracks down to two. Its LCD screen allows for graphical editing of tracks. It has a built-in CD-RW drive for making Red Book CD's of mixes or for importing and exporting audio files and song backups. Its General MIDI tone generator can play back a simple click-track or a complete backing song. And with a USB 2.0 port, the 2488 appears as an external hard drive when connected to a host computer. All this, and the box is still small and light enough to take to gigs or practice sessions. The Portastudio concept really has come a long way!
Best of all, this Portastudio sounds great. Sure, the built-in 1/4'' instrument DI doesn't sound nearly as nice as my Radial Engineering JDI direct box, but it's extremely usable. (Do you really need details? The JDI creates a bigger image, and its lows are tighter. The 2488's DI has more midrange "honk" to it.) And sure the mic preamps are neither as big nor as clean sounding as my $1000 per channel outboard preamps, but does this really matter? We're talking about an extremely cost-effective, all-in-one box that's ready to go as soon as you unpack it.
I had a lot of fun with the built-in multi-effects processor. It includes multiple pages of tweakable controls for distortion, amp simulation, and delay-based processing. The EQ's (low and high shelf; fully parametric mid; available on every channel) sounded just fine, although they were a pain to use without dedicated controls. Same goes for the compressors. The built-in "send" effects included some decent reverbs that didn't sound the least bit tinny or metallic; they had a very contemporary sound to them. And after the first few hours of working on the 2488, I got pretty quick navigating through all the various "soft" interfaces. I even discovered a few shortcuts (via "chorded" button pushes) that made things like nulling or copying parameters easier. I was quite impressed.
I do have a list of gripes though. Making precise track edits via the jogwheel can be slow. It's too easy to operate the jogwheel quickly enough that the graphic image of the track shown on the LCD screen takes a while to "catch up." Plus, jogging oftentimes results in audible clicks. Nulling (matching) the non-motorized faders- with only 45 mm of throw-to saved scenes requires an extremely light touch and lots of patience. The built-in digital tuner works only with the single 1/4'' instrument input; you can't assign it to other analog inputs. During mixdown mode, you have 18 faders to control levels for recorded tracks (the last 6 faders are for stereo tracks). If you want to bring in an additional eight analog sources during the mix, you have to assign them to faders that will then change the level of both their recorded tracks and their incoming analog signals. And once you have all your mixes done, you can't change relative levels between your songs before you write them to CD.
How about some unexpected features that I found useful? Well, the unit can record up to 250 virtual tracks. This makes it possible to record a bajillion vocal takes and comp between them. During tracking sessions, I found it useful to "unload" the first eight tracks so I could load them with the vocal takes and use them to copy-paste to a single final take. Afterwards, it was quick enough to reload the tracks I'd unloaded. With auto-punch, I could do as many takes as needed and choose the keepers from a list of takes. Undoing and redoing operations was also easy due to the list of operations shown on the screen. While tracking, you can monitor source (completely dry) or disk (post EQ, dynamics, and multi-effects). Oh, and given you can record up to eight tracks at a time, a polarity-reverse for each fader (post-disk) comes in handy. And one more point worth mentioning, there are two external sends which are soft-selectable pre/post, making them useful for external effects or for headphone feeds (although you'll need an external headphone amp or two if you're using the built-in headphone amp for the engineer's cans).
How about the computer interface? I found that transferring data to/from a computer is mostly straightforward and glitch-free. First, you have to copy your audio, MIDI, or song files to the standard FAT partition on the 2488's 40 GB drive. Then via USB 2.0, you can access those files from either a Mac or PC. Audio files are Broadcast WAV files and song files are in a proprietary format. Just for fun, I took an SMF (MIDI) ringtone of "Dream Weaver," loaded it onto the 2488, assigned it to the 2488's MIDI player, and recorded some Karaoke vocals on top of it. Anyway, all this makes it possible to move your project to/from a computer-based DAW for editing, tracking, or mixing. A definite plus.
I could go on and on about the various features crammed into this box. I'll stop here, and I'll leave you with the statement that I'm really impressed with what you can do with this all-in-one box. (Check out the website for a feature list and a downloadable manual.) A number of retailers bundle the 2488 with everything you need to start multitrack recording and mixing: mics, stands, cables, powered monitors, stands, and even CD-R media. And budding recordists should order TASCAM's 2488 DVD Tutorial ($39.95), which includes an intro chapter on recording in general. The 2488 is not only a great way of getting started, but it's enough technology and quality to make great recordings as your needs grow. And if you want to start smaller, check out TASCAM's DP-01, DP-01FX, and DP-01FX/CD 8-track Portastudios, starting at $400 street. ($1499 MSRP; www.tascam.com)