I thought I’d do something a bit different today and take a concise look at an archetypal piece of tape recording equipment. This is a Tascam 424 Portastudio – a multitracking device which gave home recording enthusiasts (often musicians, but sometimes amateur producers) their own small recording studio, in the days before hard disk digital multitracking became available to the masses.
Of course, the concept of a recording studio in a desktop casing was always going to have huge compromises and limitations. No one was under any illusions about what these contraptions did: they recorded up to four simultaneous tracks of audio onto a single standard cassette tape – although when I say “standard”, I just mean the format. Most of these four-track home multitracking devices insisted on the use of Type II high bias tapes. Fundamentally, four separate sound sources could be recorded or dubbed alongside each other, each on its own channel or track. For example, drums on Track 1, bass on Track 2, guitar on Track 3, and vocals on Track 4. Using the built-in ‘mixing desk’, the four sounds could then be mixed into a balanced, stereo output, which would be recorded to a cassette ‘master’ on an ordinary stereo tape deck. Finally, the finished master could be copied to as many tapes as necessary, for distribution.
So this device permitted amateur bands or multi-intrumentalists to create their own controlled and balanced recordings, without having to shell out the sometimes monstrous fees charged by commercial recording studios in the 1980s and early 1990s. But there really wasn’t much scope for creativity production-wise with these home multitrackers. The Tascam 424 was one of the better models available, offering adequate mixing facilities with independent equalisation controls for each track/channel, panning controls, and an option to run the tape at double-speed, which made for a higher quality recording. But there were still problems. Because the device would use both sides of your tape for each song you recorded, you’d lose half of the cassette’s recording time whatever happened. And if you additionally ran at double speed, the capacity would be halved again. So a 60 minute cassette would offer just 15 minutes of recording time.
But the biggest compromises lay in the lack of peripheral tools, and the limitation of tracks. Whereas these days musicians are used to having reams of special effects and processing tools readily available in virtual form on their computers, a couple of decades back they’d have to go out and buy each effect and processing tool as a piece of hardware. Such hardware could be extremely costly, so most home recording amateurs just couldn’t afford the amount of processing gear they really needed. Consequently, they’d end up with quite a raw and basic sound. Add to that the rather flat personality of instruments recorded in mono, and the finished recordings could sound very one-dimensional. Using the pan functions, it was possible to create stereo mixes with a Tascam 424, but the individual channels/tracks onto which each instrument was recorded, were mono, and the listener could tell.
Furthermore, four tracks was rarely enough, and the overall sound quality wasn’t great with these home tape multitrackers either. The maintenance regime was a nightmare, it was impossible to really edit anything, and when you did play a perfect take, the cassette would probably suffer a drop-out or a glitch… Getting a really great result was extremely difficult. There’s a lot more on all of the above in my more detailed Recalling The Portastudio article.
Four-track cassette recording devices typically ranged in price between around £250 and £800 in the early ‘90s, depending on the features and quality. This Tascam 424 would realistically retail at between £449 and £499 in 1993.
In the photo, the light grey Tascam 424 sits amid a typical 1990s home recording setup, next to a Boss DR-660 drum machine (right) – another invaluable tool for the amateur musician of two decades ago. The tape in the Portastudio is a BASF Chrome Extra II high bias audio cassette.