Home recordists gravitate toward convenient and portable devices that let them get their ideas down quickly and easily. Although the glory days of the cassette 4-track recorder are over, the concept is still going strong in the form of the portable digital studio (PDS). Tascam (and Teac before it) has long contributed to the evolution of the portable studio, and it continues its track record with the introduction of the DP-01 and DP-01FX.
Both units are 8-track hard-disk-based digital Portastudios (the same name the company used for its original cassette machines), each with an internal 40 GB hard drive, easy-to-use controls, and computer connectivity via USB 2.0. The DP-01FX, which I will focus on in this review, offers two phantom-powered XLR inputs (the DP-01 has ¼-inch mic/line inputs only) and a basic but well-stocked effects section. That's just the beginning. Although there are a few quirky elements to the design, these units are well equipped for a variety of uses but are user-friendly and inexpensive.
Updating a Classic
Aside from a pronounced price difference, what sets the DP-01FX apart from the many other portable digital studios are its plentiful and dedicated single-function knobs and buttons (see Fig. 1). This is a welcome throwback to the time of the cassette 4-track recorder, well before the portable studio user was expected to memorize a labyrinthine-layered menu. That's not to say the DP-01FX doesn't use a menu system, or that there are no buttons with multiple functions; its menu layers just aren't as deep or unintuitive as those on competing devices. The buttons that do double duty are clearly marked with blue screen printing, and their second function is just a shift-click away.
The inputs are primarily on the front edge of the DP-01FX, facing the user. The two main inputs are available simultaneously. Input A is the more extensive of the two, with a balanced XLR mic input and unbalanced ¼-inch input. A switch next to the ¼-inch input allows you to select either mic/line level or instrument level. Input B is similar, but the ¼-inch input is mic/line only. Each input has a gain knob and an LED overload indicator. To the right of the inputs are a ¼-inch headphone jack with accompanying level pot, and another ¼-inch jack that allows you to connect a momentary footswitch for punch-in recording. There are also two switches: one applies phantom power to both XLR inputs, and the other, called Input mode, toggles between dual-mono and stereo input operation. These are used for monitoring while tracking only.
On the rear panel are the power switch, a DC power input, MIDI Out, a stereo optical S/PDIF digital output, a USB 2.0 jack, ¼-inch jacks for a mono effects send and a stereo return, stereo line outputs on RCA jacks, and two ¼-inch mix inputs (see Fig. 2). The stereo mix inputs are largely intended for mixing in the audio signal of a machine linked by MIDI to the DP-01FX. The signal going into the stereo mix inputs is available at the analog line outputs, but not the digital outputs.
Below the front panel's main channel strip section are track assign buttons for the A and B inputs. Used in combination with a given track arm button, you can direct the signal from either input to any desired track. The track assign buttons can be secondarily used to activate or disable their respective inputs. When an input is activated, its signal can be heard through the main analog line outputs, the digital outputs, and the headphone outputs, regardless of whether a track is armed.
On the DP-01FX, input signals aren't tied to any particular track: you can direct the signal to a track, and then arm the track for recording. But the track's EQ and pan pots do nothing — they function on playback only. When you record two mono signals, switching Input mode to dual mono pans both signals to the center. When you have a stereo pair of inputs, switching the Input mode again lets you hear the stereo spread, as it will sound during playback.
The DP-01FX has eight channel strips, each with a dedicated fader, and individual pots for pan, effects send, and low- and high-frequency EQ adjustment. Each strip also has a record-arming button, which doubles as a track mute. To the right of the channel strips is the master fader, Master and Source buttons, and a master Effect Return knob. The master Effect knob controls the amount of onboard reverb returned to each channel and the amount of effect returned by any outboard gear connected to the rear-panel send and return jacks.
In the lower-right section of the control surface are standard transport controls, buttons for setting and working with location points and punch-in recording, and controls for the multi-effects section and the reverb. The onboard multi-effects can be applied to one of the inputs while tracking, but cannot be used on a track that has already been recorded. The reverb, accessible by the individual track effects sends, can be used only by recorded tracks.
In the display's regular, nonmenu view, the LCD shows the elapsed time for the song at the top of the screen, either as minutes and seconds or as bars and beats (if you're working with the onboard metronome or with an external MIDI device). Below that appears the A and B input levels, the levels of all eight tracks, and the stereo output levels.
To delve into the menu system, just push the Dedicated button. That is where you create, name, load, edit, and delete songs; manage the disk drive; make final-mix files; and perform backups. Navigating the system is simple using the Enter and Exit buttons, the cursor arrows, and the data wheel. In addition to the song- and disk-management capabilities, the menu lets you do other things, such as change the center frequencies of the high- and low-frequency EQs for each channel, set in and out points and pre- and post-roll during punch-in recording, use the onboard guitar tuner, and change the nature of the built-in noise gate.
Up and Running
Getting started with the DP-01FX is easy: it took only a few minutes of referring to the manual and poking around the menu to get a feel for the various procedures and to begin recording tracks. Navigating the menu to perform fundamental actions, such as creating and loading songs, was intuitive, and if I couldn't figure it out immediately, a quick flip through the manual answered my question. For example, I was able to set up MIDI control over a drum machine and use it as a metronome in a short period of time. Having worked on other portable digital studios in the past, the DP-01FX was noticeably easier, and it didn't crash once during the test period.
All aspects of punch-in recording were straight-forward, and I was even able to begin using the DP-01FX's extensive track-editing capabilities without much fuss. You can isolate sections to edit by setting In and Out points, either during playback or through the menu system. You can perform an edit on an individual track, on adjoining odd/even pairs of tracks, or on all eight tracks.
The edit itself can consist of copying a section and pasting it in another part of the song, or simply moving the section to a new place. In both cases, you insert the copy at the designated “to” point. You can also choose to either force the rest of the song to slide later in time (to accommodate the time taken by the new material), or overwrite material previously existing in the time taken by the copied section. For material that has been moved, you can choose whether to leave the gap open or to close it by pushing the rest of the tracks back in time. Although loop-based editing is easier to do in a dedicated software editor, you can certainly do it on the DP-01FX.
You can also selectively undo and redo almost any action by using the dedicated Undo/Redo button and moving through a list of past actions. The DP-01FX can perform digital bounces and make 16-bit WAV-file masters of your completed songs (using the Master and Source buttons above the master fader). When you're done, you can transfer the finished pieces or individual files to your computer via USB for further work.
Although the DP-01FX is a 16-bit machine, it sounds very good overall. The effects include four reverbs, each with a single decay parameter. The sound of the reverb is fine in small amounts.
The multi-effects are abundant and dominated by distortion sounds, which are the most useful of the effects offered — they're especially good on drum machines. The various types of distortion include versions with echo, flanging, and so on. However, I found the other multi-effects that involve chorus, delay, and flanging to be a bit cheesy.
On a practical level, the implementation of the effects is a bit strange. For example, you can use only one of the multi-effects while tracking, so that whatever you record is printed with the effect. In addition, you can use only the reverb on recorded tracks and not while tracking. Both types of effects can be turned on simultaneously, so these limitations don't seem to be for memory reasons. Nonetheless, Tascam crammed a lot of effects into the DP-01FX, and they serve as helpful guides while tracking demos.
Each effect has one editable parameter, and the nature of that parameter changes according to the effect. Neither the device, nor the manual, describes what the parameter will be for any given effect. For example, with effects that include delay, the editable parameter is either delay time (for longer delays) or decay rate (for shorter slapback-type delays), as you might expect.
A more critical problem is that you can record only two tracks simultaneously with the DP-01FX. On many cassette multitracks, and even with the original Roland VS-880, which started the portable digital studio revolution, you could record four tracks at a time. Having owned two Tascam Portastudios and a VS-880 in the past, I usually recorded more than two tracks at a time, especially when making band demos for myself or for friends.
There are other quirks with the DP-01FX, but they are meaningless when you think about all the things this machine can do. And although there are benefits to having onboard effects, a more compelling reason to pony up the extra money for the DP-01FX is for the XLR inputs and phantom power. Overall, the DP-01FX performs well and is great for quick and portable recording.
Rich Wells oversees the Supreme Reality, a recording studio and band in Portland, Oregon.
DP-01FX SPECIFICATIONS Analog Inputs(2) XLR; (2) ¼"; (2) ¼" mix inputsAnalog Outputs(2) RCA; (1) ¼" headphoneAdditional Analog I/O(1) ¼" send; (2) ¼" return; (1) ¼" footswitch inputDigital Output(1) S/PDIF opticalData TransferUSB 2.0MIDI PortsOutChannels8Faders(8) channel; (1) masterSimultaneously Recordable Tracks2Simultaneously Playable Tracks8Virtual Tracks0Bit Rate16-bitSampling Rate44.1 kHzHard-Disk Capacity40 GBFrequency Response20 Hz to 20 kHz, +1/-3 dBSignal-to-Noise Ratio>85 dB (A-weighting, 22 kHz LPF)Total Harmonic Distortion<0.05% (1 kHz, -10 dBV, 22 kHz LPF, master fader at nominal)Dimensions17.8" (W) × 4.3" (H) × 12.1" (D)Weight9 lbs.
portable digital studio
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 3.5
PROS: Inexpensive, versatile, easy to use.
CONS: Records only two tracks simultaneously. Only 16-bit capable. Implementation of effects is awkward.