As Zoom and Korg launched their digital ministudio recorders, one manufacturer remained notably absent from the marketplace. At long last Tascam, the company that introduced the Portastudio in the 1970s, is entering the fray with its Pocketstudio 5 digital audio recorder.
The Pocketstudio 5 is a 4-track recorder featuring a 64-note polyphonic General MIDI (GM) tone generator, five simultaneous effects processors, and the ability to play and record in the MP3 audio format. The Pocketstudio 5 uses Compact Flash memory, and a 32 MB card is included; currently, the maximum size that it accepts is 128 MB. It also provides a USB port for shuffling data to and from a computer. The USB interface expands the unit's potential as a songwriting and song-sharing tool by allowing the Pocketstudio 5 to load standard MP3 audio files and Standard MIDI Files (SMFs) for use as backing tracks.
At 5.5 inches wide by 8.5 inches tall, the Pocketstudio 5 stretches the definition of “pocket-size” (see Fig. 1). However, it feels more substantial and fits in your hands more ergonomically than it would if it were smaller. And judging from my experience with competing units, more weight means less sliding around when a guitar cable is attached.
The topside control surface features a backlit LCD screen for text-based menus and settings. It's not very exciting, but the letters are large enough to be easy to read. The LCD also shows recording input levels as well as track and master playback levels. Below and to the right of the display is a cluster of navigational controls that gives your right thumb a lot to play with. The large data wheel, which has an Enter/Yes button in the middle, lets you quickly dial in values for menu settings. Around the wheel are the Function (F.), Menu, and Exit buttons for quickly entering and exiting menu screens. Just below is a four-direction cursor pad for moving to items in menu lists.
Except for the data wheel and channel faders, all the Pocketstudio's buttons are rubberized for a nice tactile feel, and most illuminate to reflect their status. The well-designed control surface makes finding your way around very easy and intuitive.
Standard transport controls are provided, along with a Mark button to set as many as eight locate points per song. One absent feature is a cue function (the ability to hear tracks as you fast-forward through them). Pressing and releasing F Fwd takes you to either the next Mark or In/Out position or to the end of the song if no points are set; the same is true for Rew.
Each track has its own fader, as do the tone generator and master output. Recording-status indicator buttons above each track flash when the track is in Record Ready mode; when you press one, the track is routed to one side of either stereo pair. Just above those are dedicated locator buttons (labeled In, Out, Repeat, and Auto Punch) for sectioning off pieces of audio. Also on the control panel are the Effects button, for jumping immediately to the effects menus, and the MP3 button, for mixing down or playing back songs in that popular audio format.
The Pocketstudio 5's main audio inputs are two unbalanced ¼-inch jacks, each with a trim pot and an overload indicator LED, and a line-level stereo minijack (see Fig. 2). Both ¼-inch inputs have an attenuating switch to handle line levels as well as either mic or guitar. The inputs also have a gate with adjustable sensitivity for cutting out excess input noise. Audio outputs are limited to two stereo minijacks: a headphone out (with volume pot) and a -10 dBV line out. The Pocketstudio is packaged with a lightweight pair of headphones that have a hands-free microphone grafted on.
The Pocketstudio 5 is the only ministudio recorder I've seen with a MIDI In port. The unit doesn't record MIDI data (it's playback only) or sync to MIDI Clock or time code, but the input comes in handy for triggering the tone generator from a keyboard or other MIDI controller. During my test, I encountered one instance of stuck MIDI notes, a problem for which the unit offers no solution other than turning it off and back on again. The Pocketstudio 5 is powered by an adapter (which is included) or six AA batteries (not included).
Next to the power jack is the USB port. The recorder will interface with most Macs or PCs that are USB-equipped, but Windows 95, 98 (first edition), and NT are not supported. The printed manual states that Mac OS 9 won't work either, but the PDF documentation on the included CD-ROM confirms that OS 9 is supported. My iMac (running OS 9.2) didn't recognize the Pocketstudio before I realized I didn't have the File Exchange control panel running. After restarting with File Exchange enabled, I was in business.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
My first order of business was to back up the Pocketstudio's demo song and other data to my computer so I could totally erase the Compact Flash card. The included 32 MB card provides just under 15 minutes of 4-track recording time. The Pocketstudio 5 comes with all its factory settings on a CD-ROM, just in case you ever want to go back to them. After initializing the card and creating a new song, I wanted to choose a rhythm pattern to supply some inspiration, but I discovered that all the patterns are part of the card's memory contents. Oops — good thing I made that backup!
There are 12 categories of music styles from which to choose, each with several patterns. Most patterns are devoted to Rock; other categories include Pop, Ballad, R&B, Dance, Jazz, Fusion, Country, Latin, and World. Every pattern has variations labeled Intro, Verse A, Fill AB, Verse B, Fill BA, and Ending.
Each pattern has four tracks of MIDI accompaniment that complement its drum pattern. Although you can't edit a pattern's individual notes, you can change the key, chord value, and time signature on every beat of every measure. You can even copy the style of one pattern to the chord progression of another style.
To get a feel for the arranging function, I decided to play the bass and drum parts on the Pocketstudio's tone generator. The Chord menu lets you manipulate chord changes for each measure of your arrangement — as often as once every 16th note. Unfortunately, you can't turn off individual notes in a Pattern, so I couldn't do a drums-only intro. But my changes weren't complicated, and I soon got the knack of dialing them in. The result was not very inspiring, but for songwriters who don't have access to a bass or keyboard, the Pocketstudio's method of doing it beats not doing it at all.
If you'd rather write all your parts from scratch and you want to audition your ideas quickly, then creating your own MIDI tracks is the most flexible way to go, but you'll need a separate MIDI sequencer. If you're on the road or away from your project studio, using the preset patterns is faster, but it has drawbacks. For instance, I found I couldn't just dial up a drumbeat and start jamming to it. Because all the patterns are preset arrangements complete with backing instruments, I first had to mute all the parts I didn't want to hear. I then had to increase the number of bars per section so I had enough time to try out my ideas before the song ended (the preset songs are somewhat short).
Before completing the song, I came up with a keyboard part that I wanted to add. At that point, however, I had only two choices: I could either start over by creating a sequence that included my keyboard part, or I could record an external keyboard to an audio track (at present, you can't record the tone generator's output to an audio track). Pocketstudio's pattern data is stored in a proprietary file format that you can't edit. I would have preferred to have all the drum patterns in SMF format so that I could edit them.
PLUG AND PLAY
I slid one ¼-inch input's switch to the Guitar setting and adjusted the input level, but I had to turn it almost all the way up to get a decent level. You can view the level meters at one of four settings: Long & Fat, Short & Fat, Long & Slim, and Short & Slim. The Pocketstudio has a built-in tuner, so I made sure my acoustic guitar was tuned to A 440 before continuing. The tuner works only on the ¼-inch input and not on the built-in mic. (It's a good thing my guitar has a pickup!)
The Pocketstudio 5 has a surprising number of effects processors: one for acoustic and electric guitars (including bass), another for vocals and drums, two effects for the GM tone generator, and an overall reverb for the master bus. That's five effects processors, and they all work simultaneously.
I tried using the built-in mic for the acoustic guitar, but it sounded papery and lacks a gain control. The user guide recommends using an outboard mic for anything except guide tracks, so I used a Røde NT1 through an A.R.T. Tube PAC preamp/compressor. Two-band EQ with selectable frequency is available on each input and on each track. I rolled off a little bass for the acoustic's input and sent a bit of the track to the master reverb — nice! The preset effects are tweakable and for the most part, they're very usable. The reverbs are done nicely, although the amp models could do with additional cabinet sound, and more compression options would be nice for the Vocals bank. Recording and punching in with Auto Punch was straightforward, and soon I had three tracks of guitars.
BOUNCE TO THE OUNCE
Changing the recording mode from Tracking to Bouncing made it a breeze to bounce tracks 1 through 3 down to 3 and 4. The Pocketstudio 5 has two bounce modes. One (Bounce+) lets you add signals from the inputs as you bounce, and the other (Bouncing) is strictly internal. After bouncing down the tracks, I filled tracks 1 and 2 with silence (the unit has no track-erase feature) and used Card Optimize to delete the leftover and redundant edit data. That step saved 11 MB of space on my card.
I was ready to record on tracks 1 and 2 again, but I discovered a shortcoming: the Pocketstudio 5 has no virtual tracks — those handy holding spaces for alternate takes. That means you'd better like your bounce, because once you record over the original takes, you're stuck with it. The only alternative is to save a copy of your song to a computer before you bounce it. Tascam suggests that virtual tracks might be included in a future system software upgrade, but for now, a prebounce save is your only option.
For vocals, I decided to try the included headset microphone, which the manual suggests because of the built-in condenser mic's lower quality. Regrettably, the headset mic wasn't much better. Swinging the mic way off-axis was the only way to subdue the frequent pops and distortion that occurred whenever I sang (though the Overload LED never blinked). As far as I could tell, a compressor wasn't available in any vocal preset. In fact, the vocal presets were heavy on gimmicky effects like distortion and lo-fi processing. The DeEss preset tamed some of the hiss, but my results were still a bit thin.
For my harmony vocal, I used the Chorist preset (a chorus and short delay). For comparison, I retracked the vocals with my mic-and-preamp combination and, not surprisingly, got much more presence, warmth, and detail. I reminded myself that the included mic was mainly for getting ideas down quickly. If you're doing final tracks or exchanging tracks with other musicians, you'll want to use the best mic you can get your hands on.
The Pocketstudio 5 records its audio in a proprietary version of the MP3 algorithm, so you can't save individual tracks as MP3s (unless you do separate mixdowns for each). When it's time for final mixes, though, the Pocketstudio generates standard MP3 files that any computer can read. Pocketstudio can also play any standard MP3 file as long as it's encoded at 128 kbps.
Because the files are in a standard format and therefore swappable, Tascam has created a music exchange space on its Web site (www.tascam.com/pocketstudio/network). There you can share information about yourself and your music, and by swapping your song files, you can collaborate with players around the world (see Fig. 3).
The process of mixing down is a simple matter of switching to MP3 mode (with a dedicated button) and punching Play/Record. You can then make fader adjustments on the fly, but there's no track muting, and you can't adjust effects during mixdown. I did two mixdowns of a quickly written tune (“You Went Bad”) to compare the vocal mic sounds (listen to "You Went Bad" mix one and mix two).
For the type of work I'm doing, internally mixing down to a ready-to-e-mail format is a big time-saver. Still, I really missed the mastering or sweetening effects (usually a compressor, EQ, and gain-boost combination) I've used in similar devices. Tracks recorded on small units such as the Pocketstudio, which compress audio data, can usually benefit from a little extra punch at mixdown. Fortunately, you can load your final MP3 mix into a new song and then change its level, EQ, and so on.
STUDIO IN YOUR POCKET?
The Pocketstudio 5 is a capable and easy-to-use unit. Its effects are plentiful, and its tone generator lets you create many more than four tracks of music without any additional outboard equipment (within the aforementioned limitations). Depending on your songwriting style, you'll probably find the preset arrangements either helpful or annoying.
The Pocketstudio 5 offers some flexibility that its competitors lack, as well as room for growth with software updates. Its weaknesses are in its recording of acoustic sound sources (voice in particular) using the included microphones and its lack of virtual tracks. If you want a single piece of portable gear to write, record, and swap song ideas, the Pocketstudio 5 is a good choice for the money.
Steve Brodersoncreates original music for broadcast (www.studio246.com) and teaches audio at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky.
Pocketstudio 5 Specifications
Analog Audio Inputs(1) unbalanced ¼" TS guitar/line (switchable) with level control; (1) unbalanced ¼" TS mic/line (switchable); (1) unbalanced ⅛" TS mic (switchable to built-in mic)Analog Audio Outputs(1) unbalanced ⅛" TRS stereo main; (1) ⅛" stereo headphoneData Ports(1) USB; (1) MIDI InPhysical/Virtual Audio Tracks4/0Simultaneous Record/Play Channels2/4Preset Patterns100Tone GeneratorGM-compatible; 64-note polyphonic; 16-part multitimbralInternal Data Format44.1 kHz, 24-bitA/D/A Conversion44.1 kHz, 16-bitEffects Processors (24-bit)FX1 (100 presets); FX2 (26 presets); Tone Generator 1 (chorus, reverb); Tone Generator 2 (chorus, reverb); Master (reverb)Storage MediumCompact Flash (3.3V, Type I; maximum 128 MB); maximum (4) songs per cardBuilt-in MicrophonecondenserPower9 VAC adapter; (6) AA batteries (not included)Signal-to-Noise Ratio87 dBTotal Harmonic Distortion0.01%Frequency Response20 Hz-20 kHz (+0.5/-3.0 dB)DisplayBacklit LCD; 2.28" (W) × 0.90" (H)Dimensions5.50" (W) × 8.50" (H) × 1.75" (D)Weight1.5 lb.
portable digital studio
FEATURES3.0EASE OF USE4.0AUDIO QUALITY3.0VALUE3.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Easy to use and navigate. Onboard GM sounds. Five effects processors. USB port. Quickly creates MP3 mixes.
CONS: Audio in compressed data format. No virtual tracks. No vocal compression or dedicated mastering effects. Disappointing microphone quality.
tel. (323) 726-0303