Hands-On Review:The power to sound your best!
Back in the old days of recording, four-track reel-to-reel tape recorders were all the rage. They sounded great, and all those tracks encouraged a tremendous amount of creativity-enough to jump-start the home recording revolution that continues to this day.
One of the first and foremost names in the business was Tascam, who originally developed the four-track recorder in the mid-'70s as a quadraphonic playback device. As we all know, the whole world turned out to be quadraphobic but the Tascam engineers were undaunted -they quickly developed SimulSync technology (the ability to record one track while listening to another), and a new market was born.
Then in 1979, Tascam introduced the TEAC 1fourfour Portastudio, the world's first four-track recorder based on a standard cassette tape. It was small, extremely portable, and very affordable. Suddenly, when the muse called, musicians could answer-anytime, anywhere! Tascam continued to push the envelope and in 1989, with the 238 Syncaset, became the first company to squeeze eight tracks onto a standard cassette tape!
A lot has changed since 1989. Digital recording technology has reached a level such that even a modest home studio can produce music that rivals the major label rooms in sound quality. Into this arena, Tascam introduces yet another musical breakthrough: the Pocketstudio 5. It features four recording tracks plus a stereo General MIDI tone generator to handle drums, bass, and synth sounds.
I had an opportunity recently to put the Pocketstudio 5 through its paces when Musician's Friend asked me to write a review. The timing was right, as I was about to take a road trip to get away from the hustle and bustle for a few days. I printed out the Adobe Acrobat-based Reference Manual, stocked up on AA batteries, packed my acoustic and electric guitars, and hit the road.
I spent the first evening getting familiar with the Pocketstudio 5. Although it's only slightly larger than a paperback novel, it's loaded with sliders, buttons, knobs, and jacks. Fortunately for the user, Tascam's many years of setting standards has paid off in the intuitive design of the Pocketstudio 5-everything is logically laid out, clearly labeled, and doesn't require an engineering degree to figure out. The knobs and sliders feel great and the large, backlit LCD display gives great visual feedback for setting levels and selecting options.
The front panel has inputs and level controls for guitars, line-level signals (like synths), and hi-Z microphones. It also has stereo headphones (with separate volume control) and -10dBv line out jacks.
The back panel features a MIDI input jack that gives you access to the internal tone generator, a USB port that lets you access the Pocketstudio 5 from your computer, an AC adapter jack, and the always-handy power switch.
On the side of the Pocket studio, two switches control the input jacks on the front panel. The Guitar/Line switch tailors the Guitar/Line input to work with relatively weak electric guitar signals or more robust line signals. Use the Mic Selector switch to use a hi-Z mic or a line level instrument. A Compact Flash card slot rounds out the I/O options. This is where all your music will be stored, so treat it gently!
With my first look at the Pocketstudio 5 completed, I decided to call it a night, determined to start laying tracks the next evening.
As I spun out the miles on Highway 101, I developed my musical ideas. I figured to keep it simple with a straight-ahead blues shuffle in A. My acoustic guitar would chunk out the rhythm, an electric guitar would take the solos, and my own gravel-encrusted voice would pull it all together!
After I arrived at the inn that evening, I plugged in the headphones and dug into the tone generator. I was pleased to discover 100 separate preset rhythm tracks spanning a dozen different stylistic categories-everything from my blues shuffle to acid jazz and "lite pop" to death metal! I had specific ideas on chord changes and break points, so I decided to alter the existing blues shuffle preset. I wanted a four-bar intro, 12-bar "A" and "B" sections, a four-bar bridge, another 12-bar "A" section, and a four-bar ending. The Arrange mode let me make short work of that task-a few clicks of the navigation pad and a couple shuttles of the jog wheel, and I was ready to start laying in some chords.
The Chord window proved to be just as easy to manage as the Arrange window. It was simply a matter of stepping through the bars, dialing in the chords and extensions, and saving all my work. With the basic groundwork completed, I powered down the Pocketstudio 5 and headed out for a night on the town. Since I was pretty far from civilization, it was a short night.
The following day the rains flooded over the coast in biblical proportions. Driving seemed an unpleasant option, so I opted to stay at the inn another day. A few minutes later, as if to underscore the mood, the power went down (and stayed down). I was definitely ready for a little blues playin'! I built a fire, broke out the batteries, and went back to my song-in-process.
The first track I wanted to record was the acoustic rhythm guitar, so I hooked up my Fishman pickup and plugged it into the Guitar/Line input (set to Line). As I was checking the "Getting Started" guide (very well written, by the way), I discovered that the Pocketstudio 5 has a tuner! Discretion being the better part of rock and roll, I decided to make sure I was in concert pitch. Although I was close, the auto-ranging tuner suggested that my "D" string was a tad flat. I corrected the problem and moved to the next stage-setting up the guitar effects.
Given that I was building a straight-ahead blues track, I opted to go for a minimal amount of enhancement-just the slightest touch of distortion to make it rich. I also chose to add a bit of EQ: a slight boost in the lower midrange to warm things up, and a slight dip in the low end to give the bass a place to sit. At last, it was time to record!
I armed Track 1 and Track 2, pressed the Record and Play buttons, and ran through the song. I pressed the rewind button (which took me instantly back to zero), crossed my fingers, and played back my masterpiece-it was a success! The guitar sounded rich and full, and blended nicely with the tone generator part. I was definitely on the right track. Time to call it a day!
The next morning dawned clear as a bell, and I was ready to start my journey back to civilization. But first, I needed to lay down the vocal track. My voice achieves its most bluesy tones early in the day, so after I packed, I powered up the Pocketstudio 5 and plugged in the headset mic. I dialed in a bit of compression and tweaked the EQ, then made a pass at the vocal. It was a little weak, so I had a cup of coffee, rewound to zero, and gave it another shot. The second take was spot-on so I packed everything up and hit the highway once again.
That evening, as I sat in my room realizing my road trip was coming to an end, I knew it was time to track that guitar solo. I plugged the electric guitar into the Guitar/Line input, assigned it to Track four, and brought up the effects screen. I dialed in a very convincing tube distortion effect. I dropped into record and soared through the first solo, but choked big time on the final solo. I didn't want to lose the first solo, and I didn't have any more tracks to try again, so I used the Auto Punch feature. Playing back the song, I used the Mark button to set my punch-in and punch out points. When that was set I pressed Play, and at the appropriate time, the Pocketstudio 5 entered Record mode. I flew in my second solo (getting it right this time!), and that was it-I was done!
It was still early, so I decided to get the tune mixed before I headed back to civilization. I used the Pan menu to set up my stereo field-rhythm guitar somewhat to the left, lead guitar somewhat to the right, and vocals straight up the middle. Then I added a touch of room reverb to give the song a kind of "live" feel. Finally, I pressed the MP3 key, then the Play and Record keys, and tweaked levels as the song went down. It was great! Before my head hit the pillow that night, my masterpiece was complete!
I arrived home safely after an uneventful drive and was itchin' to get the tune up on the Internet. Without unpacking, I went straight into my studio. I plugged one end of a USB cable into my computer's keyboard and the other into the Pocketstudio 5. When I powered up the Pocketstudio 5 (with its Enter key pressed), it entered USB mode, and showed up on my desktop as a removable hard drive. I found the MP3 file, dragged a copy onto my desktop, and loaded from there onto my MP3 site. Now it's ready for the world to enjoy!
Yes, the technology has come a long way in 20 years! What once took a whole room, a lot of tape, and expensive gear now fits in one hand-and it sounds great! I was impressed with the ease of use the Pocketstudio 5 offered, but even more impressed with the deep array of features-effects, EQ, a full General MIDI synth engine, computer connectivity, and automated recording-all at a price less than half the very first cassette-based Portastudio! If you're looking for an affordable recording solution, you owe it to yourself to check out the Pocketstudio 5. If you already have a home recording studio, you'll find the portability and ease of use invaluable for capturing your muse anytime, anywhere!
Features and Specs