Tascam 788 digital portastudio review

(Image credit: Tascam)

Housed in a shiny silver-topped case with a backlit LCD, the Tascam 788 Digital Portastudio records 8 tracks of uncompressed 44.1 kHz audio at 16- and 24-bit resolutions. Dedicated faders are provided for monaural tracks 1 through 6, and you can link adjoining faders to form stereo pairs; a single stereo fader controls tracks 7 and 8.

With two internal multi-effects generators, 250 virtual tracks, multiple levels of undo, and a generous array of routing, MIDI, synchronization, and nondestructive editing options, this all-in-one hard-disk recorder offers an impressive degree of flexibility. The 788's design reflects a thoughtful balance of simplicity and depth. Commonly used functions require no more than one or two button pushes, yet a great deal of power lurks just below the surface.

Many common functions can be accessed directly from the front panel, and several buttons offer alternate menus when the Shift button is pressed. The buttons and knobs are clearly labeled, and the Shift functions are indicated by a turquoise box. I rarely had to delve too far into the menus, and finding my way back was a snap. Pressing Exit/No takes you back one level; the Home/Esc button jumps to the main screen. After a short time, I abandoned the manual and just looked for the appropriate buttons to press.

I used the 788 in a variety of recording situations: as a simple sketch pad for song ideas, in a live drum session, as a demo tool for a Celtic-pop project, and interfaced with samplers and sequencers to create a fully produced mix.

The review unit arrived with a 7.5 GB hard drive, but Tascam plans to upgrade to a 10.2 GB drive by press time. The total recording time varies depending on the resolution, the number of tracks, and other factors, but even with the smaller drive, the 788 provides well over three hours of 8-track recording and playback at 16-bit resolution. If you need more, the unit supports archiving options through its SCSI-2 mini-50 port. You can back up and restore track data and setups using external hard drives and removable media; however, the 788 uses a proprietary file-management scheme, so the drives must be formatted with the 788's operating system. (You can also target external hard drives as the recording media.)

In addition, your finished works can be mixed down internally and burned to a CD using a Tascam-approved CD-R or CD-RW drive connected to the SCSI port. At present, only Tascam's CD-RW788 ($449) is supported.

The 788's rear panel sports six ¼-inch input jacks that serve a variety of purposes. Four balanced jacks (inputs A, B, C, and D) operate in a range from microphone (-50 dBu) to line (+4 dBu) levels. Input D is switchable between mic/line and instrument sources, eliminating the need for a direct box when connecting a guitar or bass. Two unbalanced auxiliary inputs (-10 dBV) are handy for keyboards or returns from external effects boxes.

Tascam thoughtfully provides a pair of XLR-to-phone adapters (impedance transformers) to compensate for the lack of XLR mic inputs. Using adapters may not be the ideal solution, but having them in the box might save you a trip to the store. The lack of XLR inputs also means that phantom power is not provided. Given the features-to-price ratio, that's not a significant problem.

The rear panel also provides a pair of unbalanced ¼-inch auxiliary outputs (-10 dBV), RCA master and monitor outputs, a ¼-inch footswitch jack, and a headphone output. Rounding out the rear-panel connections are MIDI In and Out jacks, the aforementioned SCSI port, and an S/PDIF output.

A 788 session is called a Song. Songs contain the recorded tracks, virtual tracks, edits, effects settings, mixer scenes, location points, and the complete undo history since the beginning of the session.

Pressing the Menu button and selecting Song opens a submenu where you can choose between 16- and 24-bit resolution (44.1 kHz is the only sampling rate supported). Opting for the higher resolution on the 788 does not prevent you from mastering your opus as it does on some desktop studios: the 788 dithers the audio when pre-mastering for CD.

Aside from the usual copy, load, protect, and erase functions, the Song menu provides a handy Save function that works in much the same way as the Save command in a word processor. It saves the current data and settings so you can revert to that state later if you don't like the subsequent changes to the Song.

Editing on the 788 is straightforward and easy. The Edit mode menu lets you cut, copy, paste, insert, delete, and move selected regions, and you can add silence to a track or clone an entire track. Edit operations work only on the eight active tracks, however, so comping a take from multiple virtual tracks requires temporarily assigning each to an active track.

Each Song has as many as 999 levels of undo and redo; the 788 keeps track of recordings, autopunches, mastering, edits, the whole shebang. Scrolling through the Undo/Redo History menu moves you back in time, which makes it easy to jump back to a previous version.

Recording with the 788 is a breeze; inputs A through D are automatically routed directly to tracks 1 through 4 when the default settings are used. Aux inputs are sent to tracks 5 and 6 as well as 7 and 8. Plug in a source, enable a track, and hit Play and Record together, just like on your old cassette recorder.

You can change routings by pressing and holding one of the five Input buttons and selecting the appropriate channel. The same goes for assigning effects to a channel: press Effect 1 and select the track. Input and track levels are displayed on the Home screen.

Recording multiple takes is also easy. The 788 keeps track of what you've done, and at the end of the session, you can choose the take you want to keep. Can't make up your mind? Assign one take to the track and save the rest. With 250 virtual tracks per Song, there's plenty of room for indecision.

Like sophisticated recording consoles, the 788 features a dedicated Cue Mix bus for monitoring. The hardware faders continue to act on the source — your guitar, for instance, while a separate software mixer controls pan and level for the recorded tracks. Pressing the Cue button in the upper-right corner buses that mix to the headphones and monitor outputs. When it's time to mix, send individual channels to the Track bus and use the faders as you normally would.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the 788's Solo function as I am about the Cue Mix bus. That vital feature is poorly implemented. Soloing requires you to press and hold the Solo button and then press the Select button for the desired tracks. Unfortunately, a second press on the Solo button doesn't return you to normal monitoring; you must deselect each track individually, which can make jumping in and out of Solo mode with several tracks rather cumbersome.

The 788's tape-style transport rewinds and fast-forwards at speeds from 10 to 1,000 times normal. Pressing Stop and Play together returns you to zero. Pressing Stop and Fast Forward jumps to the place where recording last started, which is handy for multiple takes.

You can also enter location times directly into the counter as absolute time, MIDI Time Code (MTC), or measures and beats relative to a user-defined tempo map. For a precise location, press Stop and Play to view a waveform display of the selected track at a variety of resolutions. Spinning the Jog/Data wheel moves the cursor forward or back, and pressing Fast Forward or Rewind scrubs the audio.

Each Song holds as many as 999 nameable location points that appear in a list. A useful Trim feature allows precise setting of individual marks. A list of editable user words is included for quick labelling of location marks and tracks.

Three special location points labelled In, Out, and To serve a number of functions. For recording, they set punch-in and punch-out points. Later the In and Out points set the range over which an edit is made; the To point indicates where to paste or insert data. You can also use those points for quick and easy navigation. All in all, the 788's implementation of location points and navigation options is truly impressive.

The 788 offers some interesting options for incorporating its built-in effects. Depending on how they are routed, each of the two digital effects assumes an entirely different personality. For example, if you insert Effect 1 into a channel, it serves as a monaural multi-effects box. If you route it to the stereo send, however, it becomes a stereo processor. Effect 2 can be routed to all eight tracks, where it serves as eight separate dynamics processors, or you can add it to the stereo bus, in which case it becomes a stereo dynamics processor.

At first, that seemed confusing, but the basic concept makes sense. Rather than tying up the digital signal processing power for a single stereo reverb that you might need only at mixdown, the 788 lets the effects serve different purposes at various stages of the recording process.

For example, when tracking, use Effect 1 for distortion, chorus, and delay on your guitar while compressing the vocals, bass, and percussion with Effect 2. Later, Effect 1 can provide stereo reverb for lead and background vocals while you tame the dynamics on the entire mix with Effect 2. The more I used the effects, the more I liked the flexibility.

In its Monaural mode, Effect 1 can chain as many as five effects, including distortion, pitch effects (such as flange and pitch shift), a single band of parametric EQ, chorus, delay, and reverb. You can't create any combination of effects, though (you must choose from a predetermined list), and unfortunately, you can't change the order of the effects. Compression and a noise gate are always included in a multi-effects patch, but you can switch them off. You can also save your settings to an effects library.

Many multi-effects are aimed at guitarists. The guitar input automatically engages an amp simulator, a fact not mentioned in the manual. The built-in amp simulator may not induce you to sell your old tube amp, but it's a nice feature to have.

Effect 1 and Effect 2 are at their best when used as stereo processors. Their pedigrees show: they share much of their architecture with the processors in Tascam's digital mixers. The two effects units offer suitably rich reverbs, delays of as much as a second, chorus, flange, pitch shifter, and phaser. All in all, I give the internal effects a B for sound quality and an A for convenience and flexibility.

The 788 boasts three bands of parametric EQ per channel: high and low shelf with adjustable boost/cut and frequency, along with a peaking midrange with adjustable boost/cut, frequency, and Q. Some multi-effects chains feature a single band of EQ as well. The EQ page has niceties such as individual on/off switches and a -42/+6 dB digital pad per channel.

A Fader/Pan menu displays levels for the physical and internal faders and channel pan controls. Internal faders represent levels from the current mixer scene or MIDI automation; they interact with the physical faders based on user-defined settings deep in the Option menu.

Just about everything in the 788, from fader levels to EQ settings and effects parameters, responds to MIDI continuous controller data. To test the automation, I synced the 788 to my Mac running Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer 2.7 with a modest audio and MIDI load. I ran the 788 as an MTC slave and as a master. For the most part, it synced flawlessly, but when the 788 failed to lock, a blast of distorted audio came through my monitors. Tech support swore it had never heard of that; if the 788 can't lock, it's supposed to mute the audio.

Nevertheless, I am truly impressed with the unit's MIDI implementation. Getting into the bedroom-studio thing, I created complex automated mixes using nothing more than my keyboard's data sliders and sequencer, very cool.

The 788 records MIDI Clock and Song Position Pointer data from an external sequencer to an internal sync track. You can create complicated tempo maps on your sequencer and then use the 788 as the synchronization master. In addition, the 788 supports MIDI Machine Control as master and slave, so you can use it as a remote control for your sequencer or vice versa.

Assigning inputs A through D and the aux inputs to an internal submixer lets you mix sequenced tracks, loops, external effects, and so forth to the internal tracks. That makes a total of 14 inputs (eight prerecorded tracks and six live inputs), along with the two internal sends, which is pretty impressive for a unit in this price range.

You can mix two ways: internally or in real-time with the analogue and digital stereo outputs. Tascam calls the first option pre-mastering. As a final step before burning a CD-R or CD-RW, you can trim excess time from pre-mastered songs, assemble them in any order, and set the length of the pause between selections. The 788 supports Track-at-Once and Disc-at-Once recording.

In the interest of science, I recorded a stereo acoustic-guitar track at 16- and 24-bit resolution. I opted for a pair of Shure SM57s, midgrade dynamic mics that are familiar to many home recordists. The higher resolution didn't yield a dramatic improvement. There were subtle differences, but I'm not sure I would notice them in a different monitoring environment.

In a second test, I used condenser mics. I chose a pair of AKG C 1000 S mics, which are well within reach of most readers. Although they can operate on 9V batteries, I used the phantom power and preamplifiers in my Mackie 1604-VLZ. That modest combination revealed far greater differences between the 16- and 24-bit recordings. In short, the 788 is eminently capable of capturing the detail I expect from 24-bit recording.

I also brought the 788 to a live drum session. I sent the direct signal to an ADAT recorder and the live stereo mix from a Mackie 8-Bus to the 788. My verdict? Although the kick lacked some punch and the cymbals didn't provide quite as much definition as I would have liked, the results were far better than I expected from such a modestly priced machine. With careful mic placement and an outboard mixer, you could certainly record a live band with the 788, and it's a lot more portable than the typical remote rig.

The 788 is superbly easy to use. The setup for three common recording tasks, tracking, bouncing multiple tracks to stereo, and mixdown, is as simple as pressing a button. The 788's input options, flexible effects routing, and slick user interface allow you to spend time creating instead of slogging through menus. The manual and tutorial are pretty good too. (Tascam also maintains an informative bulletin board for the 788; see the sidebar, “788 Online.”) The 788 reminded me of how much fun I used to have with my cassette ministudio.

I especially like the 788's two varispeed options. One mode slows down a pair of tracks without altering the pitch, which makes a handy tool for transcribing or learning difficult passages. The other mode alters the recorder's speed to allow for differences in tuning. I didn't expect to see those useful features in a machine aimed at the home recordist.

I can't say I'm thrilled with every aspect of the 788. The Solo feature leaves a lot to be desired, as does the quality of the headphone amp. I'd also prefer actual XLR microphone inputs rather than the adapters that Tascam provides. Also, the review unit failed after one week's use, developing a fatal short in the monitor bus. Although Tascam was quick to send a replacement, it does raise durability issues.

Still, taking everything into consideration, the Tascam 788 Digital Portastudio is a winner. If you are new to home recording or are thinking of upgrading to a digital recorder, check it out. Experienced users won't be disappointed, either. With its extensive MIDI implementation, 24-bit resolution, and portability, the 788 is ideal wherever inspiration strikes you.

788 Digital Portastudio Specifications 

Physical Tracks 8
Virtual Tracks 250
Simultaneous Record Tracks 6
Sampling Rate 44.1 kHz
Sampling Resolution 16-bit, 24-bit
Analogue Inputs (4) balanced ¼"
Analogue Outputs (2) RCA master; (2) RCA monitor;
(1) ¼" stereo headphone
Digital Output (1) S/PDIF coaxial
Aux Sends (2) unbalanced ¼"
Aux Returns (2) unbalanced ¼"
Additional Connections SCSI-2 mini-50; MIDI In, Out; (1) ¼” footswitch
Frequency Response 20 Hz — 20 kHz (±1 dB)
Dynamic Range >82 dB
Total Harmonic Distortion <0.01% (1 kHz tone)
Effects Processors 2
Display 128 × 64-pixel backlit LCD with waveform display
Dimensions 16.3" (W) × 3.7" (H) × 11.3" (D)
Weight main unit: 6.9 lb.; power supply: 3.4 lb.

Tascam maintains an active Bulletin Board System (BBS; www.tascambbs.com), where users can swap tips, ask questions, and generally make noise about the 788. It's an interesting place and mercifully free of sniping and one-upmanship. Some savvy folks hang out to provide gentle encouragement for absolute beginners, and a Tascam product specialist moderates the BBS, so technical help is available.

788 Digital Portastudio
portable digital studio

Features 4.5
Audio quality 3.5
Ease of use 4.5
Value 4.0

Pros: Easy to use. Simultaneous recording on 6 tracks. Flexible I/O options and effects implementation. Nondestructive editing with multiple undo. Extensive MIDI control.

Cons: No current support for third party CDR and CD-RW burners. No digital input. Mediocre headphone amp. Unstable construction.


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