Given the kind of convenience us home recordists enjoy today, any tape-based recording device seems like a horrendous hassle. But the Tascam Porta-05 Ministudio, viewed in retrospect at least, made hassle into an art-form. Of course, in its day, the Porta-05 was quite acceptable to the impoverished musician, who was absolutely desperate for any means of multitrack recording at an affordable price. Typically costing between £329 and £349 at the point of sale (to rival the budget brand Fostex X30), 1987’s Porta-05 was still expensive for young musicians, but it was a lot less so than market luminaries such as Yamaha’s MT2X, or Tascam’s own Porta One and Porta Two.
Image: Sitting atop another electronic period piece (the near-deafening Epson LQ-100 dot matrix printer), the Tascam Porta-05 Ministudio shows its compact size.
I recently came across one of the original ads for the Porta-05, in an old ‘80s copy of International Musician and Recording World (with LL Cool J on the cover). I had to smile at the line in the ad which said: “Walk into your Tascam dealer today and ask for a demonstration”. Yeah, like you were actually gonna get a “demonstration”. Like a shop assistant was gonna set up a series of musical instruments, mic up some cabs, sequentially record some parts into the Porta-05, and then create a mix.
Realistically, no one was ever going to comprehensively demonstrate one of these to an individual customer on demand, and Tascam must have known that. But it sounds reassuring. “Great, they’re inviting me to get a demonstration. They must have a lot of confidence in the product…” Quite a persuasive marketing technique. But that, I imagine, was the real point of the line. A bit like a shopping channel telling you to Google a product and compare all the prices, when they’ve just given you 60 seconds to buy. It’s not a real invitation. It’s just a psychological convincer.
The ad also boasted that each of the Porta-05’s four input channels had an independent effects send. This was pretty disingenuous. There was only a single phono jack send output, and a single phono jack return. Yes, you could vary the amount of signal each individual track buss routed to the loop, but to bill this as each track having an independent effects send was stretching the situation beyond reality. Less restrained writers might describe it as a lie. But I suppose, with that said, there wasn’t really a lot else Tascam could say about the Porta-05 without revealing it for what it really was: a low-end multitracker with a poor feature set.
One of the most limiting ways in which the Porta-05 was inferior to more expensive 4-trackers by design, was in its lack of an individual EQ for each of the four track busses. The EQ section comprised a bass and treble dial acting on all tracks at once, but adjusting each side of the stereo independently. This amounted to four separate dials. Low for stereo right, Low for stereo left, High for stereo right, and High for stereo left.
Why Tascam felt there was any great need for instruments to have a different EQ setting for the left channel than for the right I’m not really sure. If there was any demand for such a facility, it would be pretty specialised, and surely not a priority above basic, per-channel, EQ control. And that’s exactly what Tascam could have given the Porta 05, using the same four dials. Each of the dials could instead have functioned as a single Tone filter control, of the type featured on an old Vox AC30 guitar amp, or an overdrive pedal – one dial per track. It would have been basic, but it would at least have given the scope for creating reasonable mixes, which really wasn’t possible without the facility to adjust each instrument’s EQ independently.
I essentially said in my Recalling The Portastudio article that the manufacturers of these things had a tendency to build cheap, then blame any shortcomings on the user for failing to adhere to ridiculously intensive maintenance programmes, or buying ‘inferior’ cassettes, or whatever. The Porta-05, for me, epitomises that ethos.
To comply with the maintenance advice given in the manual, users would have to: clean the pinch roller at least once a day. Clean the capstan at least once a day. Clean the recording heads every six hours. Clean the tape guides every six hours. Degauss/demagnetise the heads every ten cassette plays, etc. I'm not exaggerating with this, by the way. This was the officially-stipulated maintenance routine. In addition to this list of specific directives, Tascam advised… “We cannot stress the importance of cleaning too much. Clean up before each session. Clean up after each session. Clean up every time you take a break in the middle of each session.” Break???!!! What bloody break?! Cleaning the flaming tape recorder is a full-time job! Forget recording the bloody music – you’ve got a Ministudio to clean!!!
Of course, this was ridiculously and prohibitively impractical. If you went out and bought a regular cassette deck for a hi-fi, you weren’t implored to embark on a regime like that. True, they advised you to maintain the unit, but not every five minutes. I’m absolutely convinced that the manufacturers of portastudios built these obviously unattainable maintenance provisos into their conditions of use, knowing full well that no user would or could possibly stick to them, and therefore always having a get-out clause to use in response to complaints about recording quality.
“Oi Tascam! My recordings sound truly grim.”
“Are you spending most of your life cleaning and demagnetising the device?”
“Er, obviously not.”
“Sorry. You are not following the guidelines. Your complaint is invalid.”
Plus, of course, all of this maintenance-mongering generated sales of add-ons, like the cleaning kits and fluids, and the head demagnetisers. But in the end, these recording units were in my view cheaply-made, and regardless of how much you maintained them, they couldn’t produce a hi-fidelity recording.
In terms of what the Porta-05 did have, there was a DBX noise reduction function, a pitch control which speeded up or slowed down the tape travel, and a pan control for each track. Two of the inputs had volume boosters which allowed them to take microphone signals of varying impedances. The other two inputs were not built to directly take microphones, so some kind of external booster or mixer would have to be used if four mics were to be recorded simultaneously. There was a level control for the headphone socket, a level control for the effects return feed, and Tape Cue levels for each individual track. The Tape Cue was a monitoring facility, allowing the user to hear the sounds of the instruments already recorded whilst laying down new tracks – but importantly, without those existing sounds dubbing themselves onto the new track. LED level meters were provided for each track. All of the above was pretty much as you’d expect on a low-end 4-tracker.
What genuinely did give the Porta-05 some potential was the lifeline dedicated Sync output, which sent a filtered and optimised timecode signal (if one had been recorded) to a MIDI setup. This at least allowed musicians to keep their MIDI instruments running live (and thus at maximum fidelity) until the mastering stage, and meant that the four tracks of the Porta-05 could be expanded significantly – assuming the user was in possession of the additional equipment. Of course, most often that probably wouldn’t be the case. Those who could afford sequencers and MIDI setups would probably get themselves higher-end Portastudios (such as the Tascam 246) – but the Sync socket was still very welcome, and frankly, the only real means to get a recording of decent fidelity using the Porta-05.
In its time, the Porta-05 sold very well. But like all of the home multitrackers, I think it was overpriced, and that demand was in the main driven by desperation and the lack of a good alternative. After inflation, the £349 of 1987 would translate to over eight hundred quid today – illustrating just how expensive these small, restrictive, plastic tape recorders were. My experience with the product was one of numerous problems through a relatively short period of use. I still have the Porta-05, but it doesn't work, and hasn't since the early '90s. There's no point in trying to sell it, so I've just hoarded it as a piece of nostalgia - as well as a reminder of how lucky we all are today to have so many great recording options available, often completely free provided we have a computer.
You really have to use one of these to get a good picture of how difficult it was to create a good demo with a Porta-05. But in 2012 I wouldn’t recommend it. Unless you’re into cleaning, maintenance, and dull recordings with mono instrument sounds, obviously.