TASCAM 2488 Digital Portastudio

This is not your father’s Portastudio

By Craig Anderton
When the cassette-based Portastudio (with four tracks) appeared in 1979, Q-Tips and alcohol were essential recording tools, backups always sounded worse than the original, and “editing” consisted of doing a part over.

Yet people managed to make music with them.

Fast forward 25 years: For not many more bucks than the original, you get 24 tracks of 24-bit digital audio, an internal digital mixer, eight tracks of simultaneous recording, virtually no noise, computer interfacing, a built-in General MIDI playback module, lots of editing options, and effects. When you’re done with a project, burn it to an audio CD or back it up using the internal CD-R/W drive, or save it to your computer.

Yes, times have changed — the “all-in-one” studio has gone from a handy sketchpad to a viable recording medium that can do more than just record demos.

The 2488 feels substantial, as if there’s a lot packed into its diminutive frame. Hitting a price point and size means some compromises, such as 45-mm faders instead of 60- or 100-mm. But there are pro-inspired touches, too — combo XLR/phone jacks and phantom power on four of the eight ins, digital I/O, and a decent-sized backlit LCD.

The operating system is obvious; I could do most recording functions without cracking the manual, which is thorough and reasonably clear. (Do read the cautions, though, such as how to shut down the machine properly.)

While the interface is simple, it shows intelligence. For example, in the LCD menus, small pictures and text indicate a function — a picture of a hard drive for disk functions, a waveform for WAV, etc. Eye candy? Maybe, but in the heat of a session it can be easier to parse images than words.

There are three effects types: “Mic” effects (compression, exciter, de-esser) you use while recording or insert into a channel; multieffects (distortion, amp model, modulation effects, delay, wah, etc.); and an internal send effect (reverb, delay, chorus, pitch shift, flanger, phaser, and gated reverb).

Of course the mic effects will work with instruments, too, but you’re limited to eight instances max, or four and the multieffects. To use a lot of effects either record with them, or bounce tracks.

There are also EQ and dynamics effects on the master stereo bus for “mastering” the overall sound.

The internal hard drive is partitioned into one fixed, 4GB FAT-32 partition; up to four other partitions (4, 8, 16, or 32GB) are formatted in the 2488’s native format. Only the FAT-32 partition communicates with a computer via USB 2.0 (USB 1.1 also works, it’s just slower), so to back up a song, you save it to the FAT-32 partition first, then transfer it. (No computer? Back up to the 2488’s CD drive.) Similarly, if you’re importing files, WAV data, or SMFs, they must pass through the FAT-32 partition first.

Importing WAV data, from CD or USB, is weak. Files can’t be within subfolders (root level only), and must be mono (44.1kHz, 16- or 24-bit) for compatibility with the virtual tracks into which they must be loaded. Want to load a sample CD, browse it, and import some loops? Sorry. To import a stereo WAV, you’ll need a digital audio editor to break it into two mono files and import them separately. While doable, it’s inconvenient.

It’s worth noting some clever variations on standard features. For example, the 100 scene memories aren’t dynamic automation, but nulling indicators let you match physical fader positions with stored positions — essential when punching in from a particular scene. Another useful feature: You can assign an input to multiple channels, and there are some handy assignment and bounce screens.

Linking two adjacent channels links EQ, fader, effects send levels, etc. Another cool feature, Sub Mix, isn’t just for bouncing but also can bring, for example, hardware MIDI instruments synched to the 2488’s MIDI clock in through the eight audio inputs, for 32 tracks total.

There’s one MIDI mystery: I enabled response to continuous controllers, which although not detailed in the manual, implies that it can control mixer parameters. I sent the 2488 a variety of controller numbers and channels from a Peavey PC-1600, but nothing happened. A future update, perhaps? (And where’s the MIDI implementation chart?)

I like the jog wheel function, and that you can see waveforms in the display — important when seeking precise in/out points for cut/copy/paste/insert operations (which have undo/redo). And there’s varispeed (+/-6%) as well as a time-stretching mode that slows speed without changing pitch; this is designed mostly for rehearsal.

Finally, when recording audio CDs in Track At Once mode, you can change the order of songs in a playlist-type fashion, as well as edit the silence between them before finalizing an audio CD.

AND SO. . . .
TASCAM has reinvented the Portastudio for a new generation. This is all about price point, and the 2488 delivers the goods. You won’t get dynamic automation, and being able to assign the multieffects to only one channel is a bit stingy, but this is a Portastudio — if you’re not willing to do a bounce or two, go ahead and spend more.

TASCAM has reclaimed their heritage as the company that delivered multitrack recording to the masses. By delivering real value in an easy-to-use package, the 2488 has brought that lineage into a new century.