The Portastudio was the first four-track cassette recorder that rose to prominence in the early eighties. It revolutionized multitrack editing and was celebrated as a low-cost recorder that’s incredibly easy to use.
As the world becomes more and more digitized, you can’t help but miss the simpler times where everything was analog and primitive. Looking back, it’s remarkable what musicians were able to produce on this little recorder.
In this article, we’ll go over the birth of the Portastudio and the impact it had on producers and aspiring musicians. From the late seventies up until the 21st century, the Portastudio has enjoyed its fair share of popularity.
Let’s get started!
What is the Portastudio?
The Portastudio is an analog, compact recorder that used to come in a black body that resembled a cassette recorder. It featured colorful knobs, conventional VU meters, and four decks. It basically allowed us to mix the tracks in three decks and pour them into the fourth deck.
This instrument has produced some of the biggest hits and shaped Grammy-winning performers.
The Portastudio was a godsend for skilled individuals who wished to produce music without the hassle and costs of a professional studio. It was truly regarded as a home-studio revolution.
This little gadget provided you the opportunity to record yourself several times and create your own effects in your bedroom or cellar. Though it didn’t sound fantastic, it’s where millions of big and not-so-big song ideas were created.
TEAC 144 – Where It All Started
In September 1979, the Audio Engineering Society‘s annual conference witnessed a historic moment when Tokyo Electronic Acoustic Company (TEAC) got up for its presentation. They unveiled the TEAC 144 four-track recording and mixing device.
The first thing people noticed when they held the recorder was how crammed up everything was. TEAC was brave enough to make the record/play head so tiny that it’d fit four independent tracks on the quarter-inch cassette tape.
The 144 was split into four separate bands, in each band came numerous knobs and sliders. Each 144 channel had an analog VU meter, a fader, a rotary pan, an aux send, trim controls, EQ input buttons for the microphone/line, and a tape slot.
The four-bus mixer also came with several buttons, four independent tape cue knobs to monitor work while fresh material is added. There was also a knob that controlled the pitch, in addition to the ability to record in reverse by flipping the tape over.
With a retail price of $899, the TEAC 144 quickly became a fan-favorite, and so the Portastudio was born – nearly.
The truth is, the TEAC 144 wasn’t really referred to as ‘Portastudio.’ This term was actually used for the first time on the TEAC 244 Portastudio, which was launched three years after the TEAC 144.
TEAC 244 – The Birth of the Portastudio
The TEAC 244 came with a nifty feature called dbx noise reduction. This helped musicians eliminate the annoying hiss on tapes.
It came with four knobs for sweepable EQ, two sockets for the headphones (one for the producer and the other for the performer), and a digital tape counter. The four tracks of the 244 were renamed 1, 2, 3, and 4, replacing the A, B, C, and D of the 144.
Tascam 246 Portastudio
The Tascam 246 Portastudio, dubbed the “King of the Four-Tracks” by many, was released in 1986. This powerful machine, meticulously designed and constructed like a tank, provided an unrivaled breadth of advanced recording and mixing functions.
It featured six channels, so inputs could be directed through the mixer simultaneously, and recording on all four tracks of the tape at the same time was made possible.
Tascam’s innovative two-speed deck was going at 3.75 inches per second versus the conventional 1.875 inches per second. This was an incredible feature for the 246. It allowed the transport to play at double the normal speed to obtain higher-quality audio.
This was still far from a professional two-inch tape machine, which went at 15 inches per second. Regardless, the 246 was a remarkable machine that all musicians wanted to get their hands on because it allowed for significantly better quality audio from home studios.
The Home-Studio Revolution
By the 1990s, the notion of Portastudio had firmly entrenched itself in the minds of aspiring musicians. A flurry of model names and numbers followed throughout the years.
The characteristics of each machine were unique. Some included professional XLR microphone sockets, which enabled us to connect the microphones without the bulky power supply.
Next, traditional VU meters were substituted with standard LCDs or LEDs, and electronic buttons started entering the scene. Stereo L/R two-bus replaced four-bus mixers, and newer models started featuring dials with certain frequency ranges instead of the parametric EQ.
In the meantime, a plethora of books on mixing, recording, and producing on the Portastudio were flooding the market. This is where producers started pushing the limit of the Portastudio and started coming up with more and more intuitive techniques.
There was just so much that could be done on a Portastudio. Musicians let their creative freedom do wonders with analog tape effects, looping techniques, variable speed effects, and more.
Hopping on the Bandwagon
By the 1990s, Tascam had just released the 414. It was packed with new features, like the ability to connect a foot pedal, segmented LEDs, line-level inputs, and a total of eight inputs, and two stereo return effects. Tascam was comfortably leading the recording industry.
As digital recording expanded, many giant companies started releasing their own iterations. Yamaha and Fostex released a series of four-track and eight-track recorders. They had attractive features and competitive price points. Things started to get serious.
There was still time for Portastudio to respond, and they did exactly that. With the introduction of the units like the 424 MKIII and 488 MKII, elements of digital recording slowly became standard practice.
The TAEC 424 featured an option to produce in three recording speeds. This was exemplified by bands like Ween, who produced some creative vocals using this feature. Electronic buttons replaced the old controls, and mechanical switches were no more.
The second revision removed one of the speed options and added some major improvements. There was an electronic counter, a new ‘rehearsal’ mode, hands-free input/output, and one screen that packs everything into it.
Finally, an additional mid-band to the equalizer section and more I/O inputs made the MKII look very studio-like.
The third iteration changed up the designed elements a bit, opting for a sleeker build and a teal finish.
The send options and equalizer controls now included all six channels. This meant that we could tweak the effects further by mixing all sources independently.
The 488 was the last fourth-generation model. It featured a different design and eight tracks for users to dabble with.
The TAEC 564 was released in 1997 and is considered the first fully digital recorder. This model was compatible with hard drives, CDs, Minidiscs, and SD cards.
The rush to incorporate all the bells and whistles left the portastudio with limited controls. The display was tediously small and wasn’t intuitive in how you browse the menus or add effects.
The sixth-generation Portastudios were released to cope with increasing calls to incorporate MIDI technology in the recorders. The TAEC 644 followed by the 688 allowed users to connect their MIDI keyboards to the unit and added a whole universe of possibilities.
Welcome to the 21st Century
The TAEC 788 Digital recorder marked the beginning of the 21st century. It was an eight-track recorder equipped with every conceivable feature added. There were multi-effects, advanced synchronization options, and an undo option that allowed for non-destructive editing. It wasn’t the old and stripped-down Portastudio anymore.
The cassette recorder craze wasn’t over, though. The Ministudio Porta 02 was designed specifically for analog lovers. It offered the basic features of the analog Portastudios and was the last official cassette-based recorder.
Ministudio for iPad
In 2010, TASCAM announced the Ministudio for iPad. It resembles the classic 144 and has the same editing functionality. Software updates included tools to help podcasters create their content on the app and stream audio.
A new driver was released for the Ministudio that supported video conferencing apps, like Skype. There are features like audio sharing, internal effects, and voice processing. It’s also compatible with video game streaming platforms.
The latest software update included the option to lower the volume of the background automatically, once the user speaks into the mic.
There are still digital portastudios being released to this date. They’re all digital now, of course, and come with a full suite of editing and recording tools.
This is Tascam’s most powerful digital recorder yet. It can record up to 32 unmatched tracks and eight tracks simultaneously. There are advanced input processing features like limiting and compression.
Finally, there’s a colored LCD panel and numerous buttons, sliders, and knobs. It can support up to 32GB of SDHC media.
Other Current Models
The new generation of musicians hasn’t completely abandoned the Portastudio. They’re adding vintage Portastudios to their collections and using them for all sorts of projects. They utilize analog mic preamp lines to spice up their work, a mixer, and the EQ-section for outboard equipment arrangements.
It’s a delight for old-school musicians to experiment with classic Portastudios. For musicians to capture their thoughts, there’s yet to be a quicker or easier way to edit tape. Plug in, power up, and hit record.
Portastudios are still the original hardware cassette. Today, thousands of Portastudio units are being bought and sold in the secondhand market with millions of Portastudios sold since the debut of the 144.
You can’t help but fall in love with Portastudio’s workflow and appreciate the ease of use and sound quality that it provides. However, it’s difficult to suggest a four-track recorder nowadays that sells for hundreds of dollars. You can simply head over to your laptop and download a DAW, which is free and offers many more features.
Over the years, famous musicians like Wu-Tang Clan, Bootsy Collins, and Lou Reed used the Portastudio. Lady Gaga even described her very first Portastudio as “probably the most simple gift my dad ever gave me.”
Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame gave credit to his Portastudio in his 2006 solo album Western Skies and said that he frequently used Portastudios for various projects.
One of the most notable projects from the Portastudio was Bruce Springsteen’s folk-noir album, Nebraska. It was recorded in his bedroom in 1982 using a TASCAM Portastudio 144 along with a pair of Shure SM57s.
Springsteen’s guitar roadie, Mike Batlan, had minimal technical expertise when the recordings were produced. Despite tiny heads and a poorly adjusted “variable speed” setting, the machine recorded the exact tone Springsteen wanted. The original tapes were used to create the final record.
In 2012, Mac Demarco recorded his mini-LP Night Club using a TAEC 244. He gave credit to the recorder’s pitch control features. The ability to bounce between 3 different tracks and pour them into the fourth track enabled him to combine elements of glam rock, garage rock, and new wave.
Because Noel Gallagher used his Portastudio to record numerous demos for future Oasis songs, the machine is seen on the sleeve of Oasis’ 1994 first single, ‘Supersonic’.
The Portastudio has proved, after 38 years, that simple and well-functioning low-end equipment can open up the door for professional use. You can download a version of Portastudio on your iPad right now, and enjoy four-track editing.
Digital Portastudios are still used everywhere today, including broadcasting, recording, and home studios. For most projects, the audio quality is acceptable, it’s easy to use, and doesn’t cost a lot on second-hand markets.