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  • TASCAM DP-004 POCKETSTUDIO: Portable 4-Track Recorder ($199 street)

    There are lots of miniature recorders to choose from these days, with the most recent surge being in the two-track market, and Tascam has more than one worthy dog in that fight (see the DR-1, DR-2, and the new DR-07). But Tascam is still one of the major portable multitrack innovators (they started the whole industry with their PortaStudio, which is a household word amongst recordists) and their new DP-004 reminds us once again of why they are still leaders in that arena, too.

    The DP-004 four-track recorder is slightly smaller than a drugstore paperback book, and strikes the perfect balance between dedicated front-panel control (it doesn’t bury too many functions into menus) and miniaturization. In other words, it’s large enough to read and operate comfortably, with plenty of tactile controls, but small enough to hold in one hand or fit into a jacket pocket. It operates on four AA batteries as well as AC power, so you don’t have to worry about charging a proprietary battery, as you must do on some two-track recorders. It saves CD-quality audio data to SD cards, and interfaces with a computer seamlessly via USB.

    If you’re a first-time buyer of a small recorder and like the idea of portable quality recording—but are haunted by whether two tracks just might not be enough for all situations—the DP-004 may just be the unit for you.
    If you’re already a portable two-track owner, the DP-004 is probably only slightly larger than your current unit, and is a good choice for any situation that requires or may require more than two tracks.

    You can check out the specs here.


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    Jon Chappell
    Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
    Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

  • #2
    The DP-004 is a four-track recorder that allows you to record two tracks simultaneously and up to four tracks total, via overdubbing. Of course, you can monitor all previously recorded tracks and, as with any hardware-based recorder, there's zero latency and no “direct monitoring” considerations involved (that's for you computer types). You can use the 1/4" inputs or the built-in stereo microphones to record, and the mics have three sensitivity settings, in addition to a trim control and a master level control. The mics are not phantom powered and each is hardwired to its corresponding input (meaning the left mic is permanently assigned to Input A, the right mic to Input B), as are the corresponding A and B 1/4" jacks. Of course, any input can feed any track, and the DP-002 has a “Monox2” mode, where both Inputs A and B are output as a combined mono signal from both the left and right channels. That solves the issue of "hearing out of one ear" when recording a mono source. Neat.

    The front panel tells a lot about the architecture of the DP-004. You have a mixer setup on the lower left of the unit with four pan and level knobs, which control the playback of the four tracks. Above those are the input settings—separate trims for the two inputs (Inputs A and B) and a Master input level control. At the bottom of the unit are the track-arm switches for recording. Even though the lower half of the unit is playback oriented, I like having the track-arm switches on the outside edge of the front panel as it makes them easy to jab when I’m recording. (And they intuitively correspond to the tracks they’ll be recording and playing back on.)

    Over on the right side, also along the bottom edge for easy finger-jabbing, are the transport controls. There’s Stop/Pause, Play, and Record. Directly above Stop/Pause are two buttons for rewind and fast forward if playback is active, or, if playback is stopped, RTZ (return to zero) and LRP (last recording position, which is very handy for recording a passage again—or again and again).

    A large data wheel lets you change parameters that appear in the display, and four function buttons along the bottom of the display also help you page and scroll through the various menus. It’s appropriate that these are placed right next to the display, as the readout is small and not illuminated. Though it’s well laid out, it is difficult to read in any position except straight on. I often put my stapler behind the DP-004 to prop up the unit and lean the display toward me. (There is a 10-step contrast control to help optimize different viewing angles.)

    Additional switches on the DP-004 invoke various modes, and all are well-labeled and intuitive. If you have any experience with any kind of mixer, live or recording, you will never need to crack the manual. Even when it wasn’t obvious from the front panel how to do something—like create or load a new song or perform other disk-management duties—it was actually quicker and easier to hit the Menu button and scroll around than it was to consult the manual. And for a four-track recorder this deep, that’s saying something about the interface and workflow design.


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    This is not to say the manual is not good. In fact, it's excellent, which is no surprise, as Tascam has always had great manuals. Not unrelatedly, Tascam offers the manual in pdf form. I encourage anyone interested in any unit with an available pdf manual to download it and explore the features themselves. You can download the 7 MB file here.
    Jon Chappell
    Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
    Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

    Comment


    • #3
      The mic diaphragms are countersunk into the front panel such that the grilles are flush with the surface. This may not look as visually impressive as the external capsule configurations you see on many two-track units, but the mics are of decent quality, at least for the onboard variety. Here’s a photo of how the mics appear on the front panel.



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      Jon Chappell
      Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
      Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

      Comment


      • #4
        While we’re looking at the unit, here’s a shot of the back, where you can see the 1/4" inputs.



        The 1/4" jacks are spaced far enough apart that if you’re using bulky XLR-to-1/4" adapters for your mic cables, you’ll be able to fit both in fine.

        Below are two shots of the side views. The mini headphone jack doubles as a line out, and the input switch optimizes the gain for a guitar or line-in source. Note that the USB connection, while not the standard square connection, is a common one found in many USB devices, such as cameras. So it shouldn't be too hard to replace should the included one become lost or damaged.



        Before we get into the specifics of the operation and editing, my overall impression is that the DP-004 succeeds on many levels, but the one of the most noteworthy of those is how easy it is to use. Rather than making you page through menus and offering a bewildering choice of cursor options, the DP-004 puts most of what you need to capture audio right on the front panel in the form of knobs and switches, the way nature intended.

        I never expected to get very far with this unit without cracking the manual—which is not a knock; in fact, it’s typical for a multi-featured unit in a small format that you go to the manual often. That’s the trade-off you make. But I was surprised to see that just by touching literally two buttons (three, if you count the power-on switch), I was recording my first track and watching my levels in two places (the overload indicator on the input LED and in the LCD track display’s meter). Okay, I thought, how about overdubbing? I hit Stop, RTZ (return to zero), the REC track-arm button on Track 2 and the Record button on the transport and there was my original track playing back in my headphones. I could also hear myself live, indicating I was recording on track 2 (and watching my live level in the display).

        Mind you, all of this is occurring within about 15 seconds of getting the unit out of the box. No kidding.

        So right away, before I’ve even considered the sound quality, the editing capabilities, and some of the other in-depth features (like setting the auto-punch points, which I’ll get into), I’m thinking that this is as easy to use as my digital two-track. And it’s got everything that does—onboard stereo microphones (albeit non-phantom-powered), SD card storage, 16-bit/44.1 kHz format, battery power, USB off-loading of files, etc. So the question becomes, can I use a 4-track that’s this portable and convenient for situations I’d normally reach for my two-track? Granted, it doesn’t fit into a shirt pocket, but it does fit into a jacket pocket.
        Jon Chappell
        Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
        Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

        Comment


        • #5
          Of course, a four-track has an additional advantage over a two-track besides the addition of two tracks: Track bouncing.

          This is a cool feature that allows you to bounce up to four tracks down to any other number of tracks, including one. The reason you bounce in the first place is to combine two (or more) tracks to one (or two, if you need stereo) in order to free up an additional track to record on. So you might bounce, say, three tracks to two (which yields you two available tracks to record on), or you might bounce three to one, leaving you three potentially open tracks.

          Any scenario you can think of is easily and intuitively rendered on the DP-004, including bouncing all four tracks to one. Now, those of you old enough to remember the bad old days of analog four-track recording will recognize the significance of this, because you know that you usually have to leave one track open to bounce your remaining three tracks to. It doesn’t have to be blank, but you’ll lose whatever material you have on that destination track while capturing the other three. And even then, it’s a bounce-to-mono operation. Very limiting.

          But with the DP-004, you can fill up all four tracks and then bounce them to any single track, or to track pairs 1-2 or 3-4. In this way the unit becomes almost like a virtual 6-track during track-bounce mode (four tracks bouncing to two). And of course, unlike analog, you don’t pick up any additional signal noise, as it’s a digital bounce. This is quite an improvement over the analog way.

          Here’s how the manual (p. 69) states it:
          Use this unit’s bounce function to mix already recorded tracks (1 – 4) down to one or two tracks. Multitrack tape recorders can only bounce to an open track (in other words, they cannot record to a track that is also a source of the mix). For example, tracks 1 – 3 could be bounced to track 4, but tracks 1 – 4 could not be bounced to track 1. This unit, however, does not have this limitation. You can bounce tracks 1 – 4 as a stereo mix to tracks 1 and 2 (stereo bounce), or bounce tracks 1 – 4 as a mono mix to track 1 (mono bounce).
          And here's the flow chart of how you can actually bounce all four recorded tracks down to two (a stereo part) and have two available tracks to record additional instruments on:



          _

          Note that the bounce operation occurs in real time. You hear the tracks playing and you can make level and pan adjustments while the playback tracks are recording onto their new destination tracks. So this isn't similar to a "disk-based operation," like song copying, for example. You're still in control of the mixdown (at least with respect to level and pan parameters, anyway).

          The best thing is, if upon playback you don't like the mixdown, you can hit Undo and go back and try again. You haven't overwritten tracks 1 and 2. Try that on a PortaStudio!

          Keep in mind that even after a successful bounce--a keeper--you can bounce again (and again) if you need to.

          Oh, and one more thing: Because you're bouncing in real time, you can record a new part through the input. Just the thing for that 12-string double. And again, there's no great risk on this "live while bouncing" approach, because if you screw up your live take, you can hit Undo and start again.
          Jon Chappell
          Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
          Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

          Comment


          • #6
            It should be pointed out (and in fact the manual does this) that a good way to bounce is to first copy your song in its last saved state (just before you bounce) to another location on the SD card. That way, you'll always have the original tracks, even after several rounds of bouncing. So the routine would be that any time you decide to perform a bounce, you simply copy the song in its current state to another card location. (You can copy multiple songs using this operation, as the interface uses checkboxes to select from all available saved songs; see the graphic below.)

            The above operation might seem like a candidate for the "duh" category, but realize that this is impossible on an analog machine, or at least highly impractical. But if your idea is to take a 4-track into "the field," you can have it both ways: capturing audio on its own track to preserve it in pristine form and mixing down multiple tracks with impunity. Because the DP-004 makes it so easy to copy a "song" (really just your "last saved state" before bouncing), you'll always have the original tracks to do some serious multitrack work once you get back to your desktop-based DAW.

            Alternatively, you can use the Undo and Undo History (it's just like Photoshop; you can go backwards in time with multiple undo's) to correct momentary mistakes and to back out of a series of bad decisions, but of course, you don't have to. You can leave your mistakes intact, go to the original, saved file, copy it, and simply try again, saving to another location. The only caveat with this approach is the bookkeeping might get a little confusing, unless you write down what you're doing.


            Jon Chappell
            Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
            Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

            Comment


            • #7
              Having the ability to record four tracks is great, but it’s a little bit unfinished if you can’t lock in a mixdown. In the old days, you’d have two machines: a multitrack and a master deck (PortaStudio/two-track cassette, ADAT/DAT, etc.). Then when computer DAWs came along, you could bounce to a stereo wave file (or to two tracks right within the multitrack project, as a good house-keeping move). But with a digital 4-track, we’re kind of back to square one as far as the master issue. If you have four great tracks and you want to generate a stereo file, it requires you mix on the fly every time you want a copy. And the mixes won’t be identical if you have to perform any fader or pan movement while the song plays. Plus, you have to do it real time.

              “Problem Solved!” says the DP-004, with its Master Mode. This is a feature of the unit that allows you to save a master mixdown as part of the song file on the card (a very DAW-like solution, say the folks like me who mix to two open tracks of the multitrack project).

              This solves the real-time mixdown issue, it allows you to either play or upload the stereo mix at will, and it does one more thing: allows you to record an additional overdub while mastering. Yes, the DP-004’s inputs are still active when bouncing down four tracks to a master via the master mode. So if you have all your tracks finalized, and you can perform whatever fader and pan moves (if any) easily during the mixdown mode while recording another source, you have this added flexibility. If you screw up the live input, simply start over. You can't micro-edit bad spots during this pass the way you can in multitrack mode (you would have to start over if you made a mistake), but it’s still an unexpected and welcome feature.
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              Additionally, once you have recorded a master, you can import it back into any track pair (e.g., 1-2, 3-4) in the multi-track project by using the edit function called “Clone Track” (a track-duplication function). Again, very DAW-like and cool!

              When you have completed the recording of your master, you can have it recorded by an external recorder in the audio domain (via the headphone/line out jack) or convert it to a stereo wave file that can be exported (via USB) to a computer for further conversion (say, to mp3) or importation into a DAW or two-track editor (Peak, WaveLab, etc.).

              Structurally, a “Song” in DP-004 parlance means the four tracks of audio, plus an available master mixdown. (You need to be aware of this when using the unit, as the data is stored in two different places.) The best way to use the master mode in the field is to record as many tracks, overdubs, bounces, etc., as you need to in multitrack mode (i.e., when tracking), and then--as quickly as you can get to it--do a mixdown to master mode. You can always do another, better mix when you have more time, or fly the unmixed tracks into a computer. But getting a two-track song as part of the recording process is a priority—even if it’s only two tracks with no fader or pan manipulation. That’s what makes the DP-008 behave like—and compete with—a two-track.

              HOWEVER, it should be emphasized that you don’t have to master anything if you just want to export (via audio or data) a track or tracks. For example, if you’re recording a lecture or interview (and you don’t care about the level or pan, and there’s no mixing involved), you just want to be able to offload that track (or tracks) as fast as possible. And you can do this, too. See the screenshot below, which shows the export function. Again, the use of checkboxes here reveals how versatile this is. (Note that I caught a mistake in the manual, too, with my [COLOR="Red"]red insertion of the word "[COLOR="Red"]not." If you recorded a lecture in mono, and don’t have audio on tracks 2, 3, and 4, they won’t show up--a handy bit of feedback.)



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              Jon Chappell
              Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
              Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

              Comment


              • #8
                Hi Jon,
                Thanks so much for the in-depth review! I’ve been with Teac and Tascam since the days of the 2340. Right now I’m using a DP-01FX.

                I would buy a DP-004 this minute if it would do one thing: Export a file as an mp3. I’m a songwriter, and I have spent so much time and money trying to get around this issue.

                If Tascam wants a device that will catch fire like the Flip video camera has, all they need to do is insert some firmware that will allow songwriters and artists to create a song and upload it directly to their MySpace (or whatever other) page. Right now, I have to record something on my DP-01, master it to an Alesis Masterlink, burn it to a CD, take the CD to work (because I have Windows Vista on my home machine), rip the CD to RealPlayer, then – THEN – I finally have an mp3 I can email.

                I love everything about the DP-004 EXCEPT the fact that I would STILL have to do all those steps to get an mp3.

                Consider this: With my Flip camera, I can record myself playing a song, plug it into the USB port, and upload it to YouTube 30 seconds later. Whoever is first to market with a multitracker that does this is going to MOP UP.

                I’m hoping you or someone can suggest this to Tascam. Someone is going to do it. It should be Tascam – they’re the leaders.

                Thanks for your time, and thanks again for your great review.

                Comment


                • #9
                  It's hard to argue with that logic, "It's Only Bass!"

                  Tascam, are you listening?
                  Jon Chappell
                  Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
                  Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    A buddy of mine just picked one of these up and the sounds he's getting using the built in mics is simply great. We plan on using it to run sound for some video at this year's Dallas Guitar Show in April so we'll really be putting it to the test in a variety of situations and db levels.
                    Will Chen Trio | FrugalGuitarist.com | FG on Facebook | Forum

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Thanks for the review! I was looking for an easy to use digital recorder to recommend to my students and this might be the one.
                      Please visit my web site: www.petersreviews.com

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        A buddy of mine just picked one of these up and the sounds he's getting using the built in mics is simply great. We plan on using it to run sound for some video at this year's Dallas Guitar Show in April so we'll really be putting it to the test in a variety of situations and db levels.


                        Yes, the mics are quite good. I think all those "memo recorders" from RadioShack (micro-cassette as well as digital) did portable recorders a disservice by putting in cruddy onboard condensers. You really can get a good sound with onboard mics if you do it correctly, and you don't need to invest in expenisve capsule design, either. The DP-004 is a good example of creating really good mics that are, how shall I say, unprepossessing in their appearance (that is, countersunk into the panel). (The Line 6 BackTrack + Mic is another example of good mic technology, BTW.)
                        Jon Chappell
                        Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
                        Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Thanks for the review! I was looking for an easy to use digital recorder to recommend to my students and this might be the one.


                          This would be a good unit for students because it's so simple to operate, yet it follows the standard mixer paradigm (so any knowledge gained here will be transferrable to other, standard systems).

                          I haven't gotten a chance to get into some of the more sophisticated editing features yet (like track clone, clear, silence, cut, insert, etc.), but you don't have to use these features if you're just using the unit to capture multitrack audio.
                          Jon Chappell
                          Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
                          Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            I purchased a DP-004 just before Xmas. Jon's review is excellent both in its depth and organization of info on the features and functions of the unit. Being a technical writer by profession, I also appreciate his use of graphics and photos to support his review text. Great job Jon!!!

                            --john p.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Thanks for the kind words, John. Nice to hear from a fellow colleague. As a technical guy, I'm sure you're appreciating the simplicity and power of the DP-004, too.


                              I purchased a DP-004 just before Xmas. Jon's review is excellent both in its depth and organization of info on the features and functions of the unit. Being a technical writer by profession, I also appreciate his use of graphics and photos to support his review text. Great job Jon!!!

                              --john p.
                              Jon Chappell
                              Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jon_chappell
                              Check out my website: http://jonchappell.com

                              Comment



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