Few would argue against the fact that the traditional commercial recording studio has seen its day. MusicRadar readers know this better than anyone. Sure, there’s still room in the industry for those that can afford it to seek out skilled engineers and nicely outfitted rooms, but now, more than ever, musicians are doing their own thing their own way, and doing it in the comfort of their own homes.
However, we shouldn’t be so smug as to think that the near-obsolescence of the commercial studio is due solely to the advent of the DAW. Indeed, this sea change began nearly four decades ago with the release of a single product: the Teac Portastudio 144.
The idea now seems obvious. Exploit the four tracks of a cassette tape by allowing them to be accessed simultaneously and in one direction (all commercial cassettes offered four tracks - two on one side, two on the other). More importantly, the poor quality associated with cassette tapes was circumvented somewhat by considerably increasing the tape speed. Though it may sound like a cliché, the Portastudio’s designers hashed out the design for the 144 on a napkin at a late-night diner. The result was a 20-pound, 18" by 15" combination mixer and multitrack recorder, made possible by advances in tape head design - in theory, it offered a better frequency response than the company’s 80-8 half-inch reel-to-reel recorder.
Initially released under the Teac brand (Tascam was a division of Teac), the 144 sold for $899. And sell it did! From would-be rock stars to established acts, the Portastudio would find a place in many a home studio - most famously that of Bruce Springsteen, who recorded the entirety of his Nebraska LP on a 144.
Tascam would follow up on the success of the 144 with countless variations on the theme, eventually even managing to squeeze a full eight tracks onto a cassette with its hulking 688 MidiStudio. Other manufacturers including Fostex, Yamaha, Sansui and Vestax would ape the Portastudio design, eventually applying the aesthetic to dedicated hard disk recorders, such as the currently available DP-32SD.
Yet, despite the many advances in technology since its release, the four-track cassette Portastudio is still popular, often because of its sonic shortcomings, rather than in spite of them. Trent Reznor cohort Alessandro Cortini takes a pair of them out on Nine Inch Nails tours, and Iron and Wine’s 2002 debut The Creek Drank the Cradle was recorded on a 244.
Modern developers also appreciate the four-track aesthetic. One of the first iPad apps was Tascam’s own virtual Portastudio, and Teenage Engineering’s diminutive OP-1 workstation owes some of its popularity to its four-track tape inspired recorder.
The cassette four-track certainly has a definable and recognisable lo-fi sound, particularly when approached in a cavalier manner. This sound is, thankfully, quite easy to recreate in software without the hassles of tape head cleaners or the potentially catastrophic use of demagnetisers.
Regardless of whether or not that sound is for you, it can’t be denied that the DIY ethic associated with desktop music production owes a considerable debt to those intrepid Teac engineers and their late-night diner sessions!
Three ways to do the four-track in your DAW
SDS Devices Crap Cassette
This Max For Live doodad offers all of the lousy artefacts one might expect from a battered old cassette deck: wow, flutter, dropouts, misalignment, hum, noise and distortion – even the dreaded and disastrous ‘Spaghettify’ effect. Er, remind us again… why do we like cassettes?
Sonoma Wire Works FourTrack
Though Tascam’s own clone of their legendary cassette Portastudio has been discontinued, you can get a taste of the four-track experience on iOS with Sonoma Wire Works’ take on the theme. Offering a simple and familiar interface loaded with modern touches, FourTrack transforms your iPhone into a classic portable demo studio for only a fiver.
Softube Saturation Knob
For a quick blast of lo-fi sound on the cheap, you can use and abuse Softube’s gloriously simple Saturation Knob. It won’t give you wow, flutter or tape noise, but it will offer some of the sought-after saturation effects for which cassette four-trackers are famous. Consider strapping it across every track for serious lo-fi vibes.