Analogue on a Budget: The Tascam 414 Portastudio and the Dawn of the Bedroom Producer

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  • September 8, 2017
Tascam414

Gone are the days where VHS reined supreme and Bill Cosby was a household name in the fun-loving, respected sort of way. But not all great 80s relics are lost in the back of Vinnies collecting dust. Remember the cassette? You know that those plastic boxes you saw piled up in the garage last time you were at mum and dad’s. I’ll let you in on a little secret in case you were unaware: there is still such a thing as ‘tape culture’ and it is alive and well.

The iconic Tascam 414 Portastudio democratised recording and played an important role in encouraging DIY production and the birth of the bedroom producer.

“But why?” you may be thinking. And honestly, I don’t blame you. We live in an age where one can pay a measly sum of 10 dollars a month and have their dirty mitts on just about every recording ever, well, recorded. Why pay the same amount for a dinky hunk of plastic that feels as though it is disintegrating the instant you touch it? Well, I have three syllables for you: AN-A-LOUGE.

Sure, your iPod Classic fits in your pocket the same way a cassette does, but this little nostalgic gem from the 80s sonically beats out an mp3’s lifeless stream of 1s and 0s with its warm flow of wholesome sound waves (un-sampled and un-corrupted by some blasphemous digital conversion process).

So now that the case has been made for a format reviled by audiophiles, how about we talk about recording to analogue in 2017. Now wait! Before you click out of this article because you associate the word ‘analogue’ with the phrase, ‘squillions of dollars I will never have’, hear me out. May I introduce the Tascam MK414.

The Tascam MK414, referred to candidly as a Portastudio, hails from a lineage of legendary multi-track recorders that allow artists to capture all their hopes and dreams on the most retro-looking of all physical audio formats, the compact cassette.

While not quite as grandiose as a reel-to-reel recorder, the Tascam Portastudio democratised music production. Gone were the days where a band would have to pay some exorbitant fee they couldn’t afford to access a recording studio. The 4-track Tascam MK414 gave musicians the freedom to record to analogue in the comfort of their own home.

Originally marketed as tool to help artists record demos, the TEAC 144 was released in 1979. (TEAC is the parent company–Tascam, a subsidiary of TEAC, manufactured later models).

The original 144 was outfitted with classic analogue VU meters (giving those nascent bedroom producers the illusion that they had finally hit the big time, mixing away in Electric Lady Studios). The Tascam MK414 brought the instant classic family of 4-track into the modern era, replacing the VU meters with a cutting edge LED display to monitor levels.

It didn’t take long for this innovative piece of gear to make it in the big leagues. And probably the most famous success story of the Portastudio revolves around the suburban king of heartland rock, Bruce Springsteen.

“The Boss” famously recorded a demo for his 1982 album, Nebraska, on a 144 in his bedroom. As was tradition, he then took his demo to the E-Street Band, and they laid down a studio version of the album. However, the demo version (recorded on the Portastudio) was the version that was ultimately released due to the desolate and isolating sound Springsteen managed to capture as a one-man-band in the comfort of his own bedroom.

Thus, the bedroom producer was born. Countless others have released music recorded through the legendary Portastudio, including John Frusciante, Primus, Guided By Voices and famously, Iron and Wine’s 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle.

The democratisation of recording has certainly crowned this piece of gear as the pinnacle of the DIY arsenal. Now a lot of people worry when they hear “DIY” and automatically start thinking, “here we go again with those damn lo-fi hipsters.” However, the Tascam MK414 provides a DIY sound that doesn’t exactly float into the realm of Sgt. Pepper-territory, but also doesn’t stoop so low as iPhone microphone-shitty. It’s warmth and rounded tones allow you to get away with peaking tracks in a way that would be recording-suicide through your modern-day DAW.

Not to mention, the MK414 offers an intuitive and tactile interface that gives the novice bedroom producer something to cut their teeth on, while simplifying the ever-chaotic process for the hardened studio veteran.

So whether it’s your punk band’s first release, or a demo you plan to post to Universal (as if its 1985, I guess), the Tascam MK414 is a lost classic that you should definitely consider revisiting. Yes it’s a relic, though not a relic like that decrepit Ford Falcon you reckon you’ll really get around to fixing up, but rather a real, functional relic that produces wobbly, warm tones that perfectly encapsulate mediocrity–not quite rubbish, but it certainly wouldn’t make it to the pool room.

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