IK Multimedia TASCAM Tape Collection by Sound-Guy
T-RackS 5 TASCAM® Tape Collection from IK Multimedia
T-RackS keeps expanding and the latest edition adds four more tape machines, but this time they are all from TEAC (Tokyo Electro-Acoustic Company) and their TASCAM divison. TASCAM (TEAC AUDIO SYSTEM COMPANY OF AMERICA) was instituted as TEAC Corporation's professional audio equipment sales company in 1971, so this year is TASCAM's 50th anniversary. And they are still going strong. IKM worked with TEAC to recreate four of their most innovative recorders.
. . . . . . .
In 1979 TEAC introduced the Model 144 PORTASTUDIO, credited with launching the home-recording wave, allowing anyone to record and mix their own music. Probably the most popular, highest selling multitrack recorder family of all time (well over a million units sold), the TEAC (and later TASCAM) Portastudio line is one of the most significant innovations in music production technology.
The IKM TASCAM Tape Collection includes the battery powered 1984 TASCAM PORTA ONE, an improved version of the 144. There is also the TEAC 3340S, the four-track recorder every home studio owner wanted in the 70’s (and at 50 pounds / 23 kg, not as portable as a PORTA ONE!).
Aimed at professional mastering was the TEAC A-6100 MKII which in 1973 was one of the first tape machines designed specifically for mastering. And the big Tascam 388 Studio 8, an eight track machine that weighs 84 pounds / 38 kg and measures 2 x 3 feet (60 x 90 cm) which at the time of introduction in 1985 cost £2700, considered a bargain at that time. And is still a sought-after eight track machine today.
As I’ve written before, I was glad when I replaced magnetic tape with hard drives, nearly 30 years ago. Tape was a pain and I do not miss it one bit. But there is the undeniable “tape sound” many of us grew up with and early digital technology was “cold” and “brittle” by comparison. But digital audio today can replicate every nuance of analogue gear (despite some people still failing to grasp this), so we can enjoy the distortion, tape compression, mechanical defects like wow & flutter, and other weaknesses of tape recording that sometimes sound “good”. Of course to reproduce the details of magnetic tape recording requires a lot of technical expertise to emulate the subtle interactions of the magnetic, electronic and mechanical effects of a real tape deck. IKM have accomplished this extremely well.
IKM have provided control of some tape recorder adjustments that are not usually on the front panel of a machine, as well as Level and EQ controls appropriate for each model. The extra controls include Bias level, Recording Level and HF EQ. Bias is necessary to overcome the non-linearity of magnetic tape and its level is quite critical for optimum results. Generally, after being adjusted for a particular tape formulation in a given recorder, bias is left unchanged. However, audio engineers are creative sorts, and intentionally over-biasing is a common technique to produce a warmer, more saturated sound while under-biasing can be used to boost the high frequencies in a unique way, adding significant distortion and other non-linear effects. The effects with each TEAC machine vary with different tapes and other settings, just like the real hardware.
The Recording Level adjustment affects the signal level going to the recording head, after any effects from the input circuit electronics. Combined with the Input Level adjustment, this provides more ways to vary saturation effects. The HF EQ in the Record section boosts or cuts the high frequencies being put to tape which can offset, to some extent, the high frequency roll-off of magnetic tape recorders.
There is also an Auto-Calibration button that sets the above three controls to their “factory settings” and a Reset button that sets all controls to a nominal mode. And if you don’t want the tape effects, there is a switch (Input/Repro) to select the signal after recording to tape (Repro) or before recording (Input) which still subjects signals to the TEAC electronics. Each recorder also has selectable tape formulations and two of them have selectable speeds as described below. And since this is the 21st century, there is a Preset window where you can choose one of five or six factory presets (depending on the recorder), and of course, save your own settings.
The IKM Porta One MiniStudio is based on the TASCAM PORTA ONE, but the GUI is not an exact image of this model since the real units had four separate tracks with level controls, pans and EQ for each track, as well as four VU meters. As you can see, in addition to the common adjustments described above, the IKM emulation has only one set of EQs, one Input Level and one Output Level fader. And there are LF and HF “playback” EQs, and only two VU meters that monitor left and right channels. This is, of course, because your are not really recording to the Porta One, but using it only for the audio FX of the original TEAC units. When recording to mag tape there are many interactions between bias level, recording level and tape type. Sending a signal through any of the IKM tape machines imparts the effects of both the recording operation and the playback settings
Speaking of tape type, the Porta One has a choice of the two tape formulations that were available in standard compact audio cassette tapes back in the 80’s: Type I – standard ferric-oxide "normal bias" tape, and Type II – CrO2 tape known as "chrome" tape. These two tapes are significantly different with the standard ferric-oxide yielding a very Lo-Fi effect with a pronounced midrange boost and the high frequencies rolling off well below 10 kHz (I measured - 6 dB at 10 kHz and -12 dB at 12 kHz). Type II, which is the tape formulation specified for use in the real Porta One, actually can sound almost “Hi-Fi” if bias, recording levels and recording HF EQ are properly adjusted (I measured frequency response flat within +/- 3dB from 50 Hz to 12 kHz and distortion in the 1% range).
. . . . . . .
One missing control that the real Porta One had is varispeed, with +/- 15% variation available in the original. However, in a DAW you can create this effect easily. Also missing is tape noise that real tape recorders suffer from – the real Porta One had only a 57 dB A-weighted signal-to-noise spec without dbx noise reduction and a much healthier 85 dB with dbx engaged. I don’t miss the noise – you can always add pink, or brown or blue, or any other type of noise if you want.
Before the Porta One
Before TEAC designed the Porta One (and even before the original Portastudio 144), there was another, much more expensive four-track recorder, the TEAC 3340S introduced in 1972. This used reels of magnetic tape, up to the 10-½ inch size. The 3340S was a ground-breaking device, the first 4-track recorder that enabled synchronized overdubbing, and it introduced professional mixing capabilities to well-healed home recordists and small studios. The 3340S emulation includes the usual IKM controls described earlier, and there are also four choices of tape formulation: BASF SM911 (the formula TASCAM recommended for optimal performance); Ampex 456 (the most widely used tape formula in the 70’s that offered a warm tone with saturation that responds strongly to recording levels); Ampex 499 formula (which provided extended high frequency response and could handle high recording levels with low distortion and modest compression); Quantegy GP9 (a formula that could handle high levels of signal with even lower distortion than 499). There are also two tape speeds available. As with the Porta One, all these settings, along with the signal level you send to the 3340S, affect the resulting sound. I found the 3340S could be flat to +/- 3 dB from 30 Hz to 20 kHz. THD is under 1% unless I pushed the bias and record levels too far.
. . . . . . .
Also in the early 70’s TEAC introduced a high end professional mastering recorder, the A-6100, which includes the same set of controls as the 3340S, and uses the same four tape formulations.
. . . . . . .
It also has two tape speeds and in this case you can actually see the flanges of the tape reels spin at two different rates! Not that this actually affects the sonic results! As with all the emulations, tape speed, tape formulation, bias, recording levels, etc. all interact in complex ways to change the resulting sound. However the A-6100 sound is affected more subtly compared to the previous models since it was a professional mastering recorder and worthy of the name. I found frequency response flat within +/- 2 dB from 28 Hz to 20 kHz and distortion well below 1% unless I screwed with the bias and record level too much.
A Bigger Porta One
In 1985 the Porta One “grew up” into an eight-track mixer/recorder, the Tascam 388 Studio 8. Again, the IKM emulation does not include eight tracks or the eleven faders of the original since it is not actually doing the recording. It includes the usual IKM bias, level, etc., but expands the output EQ to three bands offering 15 dB of cut or boost, with overlapping bands: 50Hz to 1kHz, 500Hz to 5kHz, and 2.5kHz to 15kHz. There is only one tape speed, and the four tape formulations leave out the BASF SM911 tape and replace it with BASF LPR35, a formula optimized for the 388. Note the original 388 used 7 inch reels, not cassettes, and its single tape speed was 7½ ips (19 cm/s), which limited its high frequency capability (but running it at 15 ips (38 cm/s) would have reduced record/play times to 24 minutes using the recommended 1 mil tape). I found the frequency response flat within +/- 2 dB from 26 Hz to 15 kHz using the auto-calibration settings. THD is in the 1% to 2% range. Again, changing the bias and/or record level from optimum can create much higher distortion and degrade the frequency response.
. . . . . . .
How Does it All Sound?
I spent hours and hours listening and measuring many combinations of tape types, speeds where applicable, bias, record levels, etc. and found they certainly do interact in complex ways! Tape formulation tends to affect harmonic distortion and tape compression more than it does frequency response (other than in the Porta One where Type I tape is very Lo-Fi compared to Type II). I won’t bore you with test results (there are too many) but using a number of techniques (pink noise and reference tracks of music) to listen, and other means to measure (Plugin Doctor being very useful), I can say that these emulations can provide a wide range of tape compression, frequency response and harmonic distortion, but when used with their optimal settings, they sound as good as magnetic tape recording can sound. The Porta One yields the most obviously coloured results (as expected) and the other machines produce much more subtle colouration unless bias and levels are pushed far from the optimum settings. If you really try, THD can be pushed as high as 25% with any of the models.
Note that these emulations do not include functions like tape delay effects or drag-flange effects, but there are easy ways to create those effects with a DAW. The intent here is an accurate simulation of these tape decks and the tape formulations provided.
Complex processing does come at a cost - in my test system (PC Audio Labs Rok Box PC with Windows 7, 64 Bit, 4-Core Intel i7-4770K, 3.5 GHz, and 16 GB RAM) each tape machine model uses about 2.5% CPU resource in Repro mode (emulation of playback) and about 1.1% using Input mode (signal only passes through the input and output electronic stages, bypassing the tape). Latency varies from model to model with the Porta One the lowest at 572 samples, the A-3340S at 1044 samples, the 388 Studio 8 at 1246 samples and the A-6100 at 1366 samples. Changing tape type or other settings has essentially no effect on CPU load or latency.
Very intricately modelled tape machines that capture the complex interactions of electronics, mechanics and magnetics.
Comprehensive “under-the-hood” adjustments as well as all the original controls.
The feeling and sound of magnetic tape recording without the pain.
Continuously variable GUI size from 390 x 866 pixels to your full screen width.
The Factory Presets (Tascam 388 and TEAC 3340S have five, Porta One and TEAC 6100 include six) demonstrate a good range of possibilities.
Each recorder model works as a standard plug-in or inside the T-RackS 5 stand-alone mastering application.
Intro sale price is very tempting, and the regular price of the four unit bundle is reasonable for the quality provided.
No tape delay or drag-flanging, but there are other ways to get those effects.
The IKM Porta One is not really a battery powered portable recording studio!
Leaves out the chore of maintaining a real magnetic tape recorder!