Recalling the Portastudio

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 29 October 2011 |

Before the Pentium PC became generally consumer viable in the mid 1990s, the average bedroom or home studio was based around a small tape recording device known as a portastudio. It certainly wasn’t a portable recording studio as we’d envisage such a thing today. Rather, it offered the kind of studio facilities which had been available to 1950s and early 1960s bands, if less reliable, much more limited, and of poorer quality. Four audio tracks (most typically) and an integrated mixing console made the portastudio an attractive product in its day, but you obviously couldn’t scale down Sun Studios into a small plastic hardware unit without cutting a heck of a lot of corners…

The term portastudio was introduced by manufacturers Tascam (in 1979), who used it as a trademark, with a capital ‘P’. However, as with the term ‘hoover’ and a few other brand-related marques, the Portastudio moniker was adopted by musicians as a generic term, to describe any similar contraption, made by any company, whether Fostex, Yamaha, or whoever else. In this article, my use of the word 'portastudio', with a small 'p', applies to the genre of units as a whole, and not specifically Tascam unless stated.



MECHANICS

The typical portastudio allowed the recording and mixing of four audio tracks, using a standard stereo-compatible audio cassette. They were essentially a four-track tape recorder and a mixing desk conveniently rolled into one. There was nothing spectacular, incidentally, about the concept of fitting four tracks of audio onto an ordinary cassette – the portastudio simply used both sides of the tape when running in one direction (2 x 2 stereo tracks = 4). The trade-off was that you lost half the capacity of each tape you bought. Indeed, because some portastudios ran at double speed for ‘higher quality’, a 60 minute cassette might give only 15 minutes of recording time.

The beauty of the portastudio was that it could send each track of audio to its own private buss which would not only allow individual volume adjustments, but also tone management, panning control, and in some cases, the addition of an effect. Whilst each effect would have to be bought separately as a hardware unit, the mere facility to patch in such wonders was revered in the 1980s.

However, the format of the portastudio could be highly restrictive. These things were built to a strict budget – targeting different price points with different designs. At all but the very top end of the scale, features were stripped out. Typically, tone controls, and individual outputs were limited. Midrange knobs disappeared as you worked your way down the ranges, and some models even saw all four channels sharing one EQ panel. And because everything was integrated, you could never upgrade features as you would in a real studio. Once you’d made your choice (or your bank manager had made the choice for you), you had to live with it.

THE GRIPES

Portastudios were notoriously temperamental, needing strict cleaning and de-magnetising regimes to keep them working at an acceptable standard. In my experience, they didn’t last very long either. I got through three in around a decade, which isn’t a great recommendation for a small recording device costing between £300 and £500 twenty-odd years back (in other words – not cheap). Indeed, one of my units suffered multiple failures, with two separate mic inputs shutting down, the play button ceasing to function properly, and eventually, the capstan motor packing up – all within three years of careful use. There did appear to be a problem of excess in the profit margins. Collections of cheap parts selling at a disproportionately high retail price as compared with other electrical items, simply because it was recognised that musicians would be prepared to pay premiums in such a specialised market.

Some of the key parts used in portastudios could also be found in cheap, poor quality hi-fi (or should that be lo-fi?) gear of the day – consumer stereo systems which cost £50 or less and combined two cassette players with a turntable, a radio, an amp, and speakers! It certainly made you wonder how much a portastudio cost to make, and I personally felt that the ‘professional’ banner under which some of the units were marketed, was pretty cheeky. I also wondered why, instead of incorporating the ‘double-tape-speed for higher quality’ gimmick, the manufacturers didn’t just fit better recording heads. In the end, though, I suppose the answer was: because they didn’t need to. Musicians into home recording had little choice but to buy these things, and the worse they were, the more purchases customers could potentially be encouraged to make.

Among the advice served up by portastudio manuals would be admonishments about using ‘inferior’ cassettes, and scary tales of what would happen if users failed to de-magnetise. To me it seemed a bit rich to be warning musicians off ‘inferior’ cassettes when so much of the portastudio itself was cheap and nasty. But this sort of rhetoric was exactly what persuaded us musos to hold the portastudio in high esteem – blaming the peripherals when the real sins often lay firmly within the main device. In comparison, standard stereo cassette decks always seemed to keep going through thick and thin. In fact, my £110 stereo cassette deck arrived before any of my portastudios, outlasted three of them combined, recorded and played at noticeably higher quality/fidelity than any of them, and is still in use today.



IN USE

Each track recorded on a portastudio was monaural. You could pan it to one side of a mix or the other, but the track couldn’t accept stereo information in the way a PC audio track can. There was accordingly a very one-dimensional sound to most portastudio recordings. And of course, as any musician who remembers the portastudio days will tell you, four tracks is not a lot! Standard practice was to mix down up to three tracks onto an empty one, and then re-use the original three. But this practice, known as ‘bouncing’, initiated its own raft of new problems. For a start, the quality degraded very noticeably per ‘bounce’, and because the single bounce track couldn’t accept stereo information, any pan settings were lost. Naturally you could avoid the latter by ‘bouncing’ onto two tracks rather than one, but if you did that, you could only combine the output of two tracks, as opposed to three. And once you limited yourself to combining just two tracks, you were ‘bouncing’ virtually everything you recorded numerous times, meaning that quality degraded even further.

So why did musicians buy portastudios? Well, if they wanted to record ‘on the cheap’ before the arrival of hard disk audio recording, this was the only practical option. No personal computer in the ‘80s could record one track of audio, let alone four, and most struggled to record mere MIDI information. If you wanted to record a whole single track of high quality audio on a computer, you needed to sell your house, your parents’ house, and your best friend’s house – at least! The March 1988 edition of Recording World billed a computer system able to record just one full vocal track at studio quality as costing a quarter of a million pounds! So unless you bought a portastudio, your only option was to get yourself rehearsed to the hilt and visit a commercial studio. This could potentially give a high quality result, but financial and time constraints usually ensured compromise right across the board, and most acts came away with a frustratingly flawed demo.

However, the portastudio wasn’t always as restrictive as it appeared. In the mid ‘80s most of the musicians I knew used the same commercial studio. Everyone came out with the same homogenised sound, which soon grew stale. One or two bands were using portastudios – scaling down their setup and performance to fit in with the format, and things usually sounded decidedly lifeless. However, one three-piece band found a portastudio owner who adopted a different approach and chose to record them live in rehearsal on a Tascam machine, in something approaching real stereo. It worked exceptionally well and still sounds impressive to this day. I suppose you could say that the recording would have been possible using a stereo cassette deck, but the portastudio allowed that vital bit of extra tinkering after the event. You could also say that this recording was so good because of the producer and the band rather than the portastudio. But that’s the rule of music making. Even with the bafflingly extensive facilities offered by today’s PCs, it still takes the right human input to create the best results.

THE TIMECODE YEARS

As more musicians began to understand and use MIDI, thoughts turned to the principle of integrating the power of the relatively newfangled digital interface with the ever-necessary audiotape format. If this could be done, it would mean home recording enthusiasts could take the pressure off the portastudio, contracting out bass, keyboard, and perhaps drum parts to a MIDI setup. This would save tracks, preserve a higher sound quality, allow stereo reproduction for all MIDI instruments, and keep much of the recording live until mixdown. The answer came in the shape of timecoding, which laid a MIDI message onto one of your portastudio’s tracks, afterwhich MIDI instruments would run perfectly in time with whatever audio you wished to put down on the remaining three tracks. With the MIDI setup being propelled by the tape, and all sections of the tape moving at the same speed, the theory was sound, and in my experience much more reliable than the rather clumsy-looking interface suggested.

Many musicians, me included, ran MIDI from a computer or hardware sequencer and used a synchronised portastudio to record vocals, guitars, or other ‘real’ instruments – mastering to a stereo audio cassette with some instruments still running live, and, crucially, in stereo. This preserved the zingy edge which portastudios notoriously removed. But the system was not without hassle. You lost an audio track to the timecoder, and finding a specific point in the song and then getting the MIDI instruments to pick up without delay could be a pain. However, this was definitely a step forward from four tracks of straight, lifeless audio. Here's a Portastudio plus timecode sync recording from the 1990s...



FATE

Inevitably, however, technology marched on further and by the mid 1990s the portastudio’s fate was sealed. Apple Macs were getting evermore capable, the Pentium PC was establishing itself, and digital audio recording at home was becoming a real propostion, albeit still pretty limited. The four-track tape machine did continue to sell for a while, as price reductions helped keep it in an entirely separate financial bracket from a cutting edge PC.

But musicians could see the future, and it reached the stage where no one was going to plod off and pay a few hundred quid for an antiquated and difficult to maintain recording system, when they were being promised an affordable digital system in the foreseeable future. In a matter of months, the home computer would surpass the tape-based four-track in terms of simultaneous audio tracks. What’s more, these digital tracks would each be able to accept stereo info, the fidelity would be flawless, there’d be no hiss, no constant cleaning or de-magnetising, and extensive editing would be an easy proposition. And as PC power increased, there’d be more available tracks, then built-in effects, then built-in instruments… What hope of surviving did the portastudio have?

In its final days, the cassette-driven portastudio was peddled as a sort of ‘sketchpad’ – an easy way to get musical ideas down without having to get to a computer. But the idea was never really going to have mass appeal, especially with the laptop plummeting in price. Meanwhile, portastudio manufacturers took advantage of the digital bandwagon, offering digital four-trackers. These used DATs or Mini-Discs to record the music, so it still wasn’t a hard-drive based arrangement as with a computer. Even though these devices remained viable for some musicians into the late ‘90s, they could never compete with exponentially increasing power and crashing prices in the computer world. The end of a long road for the portastudio, had finally been reached.

You can find more on the Portastudio in use with MIDI timecode, in my Home Recording in the 1990s article.

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