40 years of the four-track, as the Portastudio powers on
Image credit: TEAC/Tascam
How TEAC created the Portastudio legend.
Ever since the first musicians beat out a rhythm on a hollow log, artists have dreamed of recording their ideas for posterity. Unfortunately, creative types were limited by the technology available to them.
This frustration endured for centuries. Up to the late 1970s, if you were an unsigned musician, your options were technically limited and/or prohibitively expensive.
This changed in September 1979, when – at the annual meeting of the Audio Engineering Society in New York – Japanese electronics firm Tokyo Electronic Acoustic Company (TEAC) unveiled the TEAC 144 ‘Tascam Series’ four-track recording and mixing unit.
It was the world’s first four-track recorder based on a standard compact audio cassette tape. TEAC was the only company in the world capable of making a record/play head small enough to accommodate four separate tracks on a cassette’s 1/4 -inch tape. The 144 divided the tape into four distinct bands, using the full width of the tape, played in one direction, to record the material.
Each channel of the 144 had a dedicated fader, VU meter, rotary pan, bass, treble, aux send and trim controls, and mic/line and tape input buttons. There were also selection buttons for the four-bus mixer, a bus monitor with cue and record buttons, and four separate tape cue output knobs for monitoring work while new material was being added, as well as a variable pitch control knob and, of course, the ability to flip a tape over and record in reverse.
With a list price of $899, the TEAC 144 instantly became a big seller and the Portastudio was born – although not quite yet. The TEAC 144 wasn’t actually called a ‘Portastudio’. That phrase, a registered trademark of the TEAC Corporation, would first be used on the Tascam 244 Portastudio, released three years later.
In the meantime, musicians seized upon the hitherto unparalleled creative freedom offered by this new ‘Porta[-ble]Studio’. Bruce Springsteen recorded his entire 1982 folk-noir album ‘Nebraska’ at home, using just two cheap Shure SM57 microphones and his newly acquired TEAC 144.
Its successor, the Tascam 244, improved over the orginal in having dbx noise reduction (helping offset the inherent hiss of tape), a two-band, four-knob sweepable EQ, two headphone sockets (one for the engineer, one for the talent), and an electronic tape counter. The four tracks of the 244 were also labelled 1, 2, 3 and 4, replacing the idyosyncratic A, B, C and D of the 144.
In 1986 came the machine that enthusiasts regularly hail as the ‘king of the four-tracks’ – the Tascam 246 Portastudio. Comprehensively specified and built like the proverbial tank, this mighty machine offered an unparalled swathe of essential recording and mixing features. It had six channels, so multiple inputs could be routed through the mixer, and it could record on all four tracks of the cassette tape simultaneously.
The 246 also debuted Tascam’s new two-speed tape deck (3.75 inches per second vs standard 1.875ips), whereby the transport could be run at twice the normal speed in order to capture better quality audio. This was still some way off the 15ips of a professional 2-inch reel-to-reel tape machine, but the increase in fidelity for home recording was welcome.
The 246 was as solid a workhorse as you could buy for any aspiring musician – Noel Gallagher recorded scores of demos for future Oasis songs on his and the machine is clearly visible on the sleeve of Oasis’ 1994 debut single, ‘Supersonic’.
With the Portastudio concept now firmly embedded in the modern musician’s psyche, a barrage of model names and numbers followed over the years – some officially designated ‘Portastudio’, some released under Tascam’s ‘Porta’ sub-brand, such as the Porta One Ministudio, a diminutive four-track machine powered by D-size batteries.
Features varied from machine to machine. Professional XLR mic sockets and phantom power came in, while classic VU meters were replaced by LCD or LED ‘ladder’ metering. Mechanical switches gave way to electronic buttons. Four-bus mixers became stereo L/R two-bus. Swept parametric EQ was sometimes reduced to basic Low and High rotary dials with a fixed frequency range.
Tascam’s iconic ‘rainbow’ colour scheme also faded to entirely grey boxes (see the 424 and 488), before returning in various degrees of intensity on later machines. Digital screens with layered menus offered more options, but also made the machines more complicated and diluted the ‘KISS’ design principle of the best Portastudios.
In 1989, the 644 Midistudio (and its ‘big brother’, the eight-track 688) brought MIDI users onboard. Many early acid house bangers were recorded in bedrooms on Portastudios, using multiple MIDI keyboards and drum machines hooked up to an early incarnation of the Cubase sequencer software on Atari computers.
The 1990s saw the rise of digital recording undermining magnetic tape’s dominant position in home studios. Other companies, such as Yamaha and Fostex, launched rival four- and eight-track machines, each trumping the others with improved features or price points in a race for market dominance.
There was still time for some more classic Tascam tape models during the ’90s, such as the 488MKII and the 424MKIII, featuring digital-style functionality – custom location points, ‘rehearsal’ mode, hands-free punch in/out – before the new millennium ushered in the first all-digital Portastudio.
The Tascam 788 Digital Portastudio was an eight-track recorder with all the digital bells and whistles the new wave of home studios demanded: internal multi-effects, external sync options, nondestructive editing and more. This was not your father’s Portastudio.
While digital was a hot cake for sales in the 2000s, Tascam didn’t abandon tape. Its final cassette-based offering was the bare-bones Ministudio Porta 02 MKII, intended as a sketchpad for analogue diehards.
However, the Portastudio concept wasn’t done. In 2010, Tascam released the Portastudio app for Apple’s iPad – a 144 for your tablet – and the company still uses the Portastudio name on products today, such as the Tascam DP-32SD Digital Portastudio, a 32-track behemoth that writes/records to SD cards and has zero moving parts inside.
The original cassette hardware Portastudios still endure. With one million Portastudios sold since the launch of the 144, thousands of working examples are still bought and sold on the secondhand market today. The immediacy and vintage vibe of a cassette-based four-track Portastudio delivers the same thrills it always did.
Famous Portastudio users over the years include Bootsy Collins, Wu-Tang Clan, Lou Reed, Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame (who wrote a song simply called ‘Portastudio’ for his 2006 solo album ‘Western Skies’, in which he sings of “still screwing around with my Portastudio”) and Lady Gaga, who in 2009 described her first Portastudio as “probably the best gift that my dad ever gave me”.
A new generation of Instagram-friendly musicians are incorporating original Portastudios into their digital workflows, using the analogue mic preamps for ‘flavour’, the mixer and EQ section for arranging and sweetening outboard gear, and employing the cassette section for real-life tape loops.
There’s still no quicker or easier method for musicians to capture their ideas. Power up, plug in, press record – that’s lightning bottled again.
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