Test Drive: The Tascam 238 Syncaset

by Jerry Vigil

Wait a minute! HOLD THE PHONES! A cassette with 8-tracks on it??? "The crosstalk must be outrageous," you might say. Or maybe your first reaction is simply: "No way -- it could never be good enough for production." Whatever your doubts and questions about 8-track cassette recorders might be, this Test Drive should respond to a few of them.

Money is almost always the issue when it comes to upgrading the Production Department or studio. This is why this publication will always take note of equipment that is "affordable" and yet, still able to deliver. While half of our subscribers may work in nice six-figure studios, the other half have their hands tied in rooms equipped with "on-air studio leftovers." Nearly a third of R.A.P. subscribers work out of 2-track studios, many of which are equipped with only a compressor and an equalizer for added effects. This is UNNECESSARY! There are digital multi-effect processors out there for the price of a car payment or two. Equalizers, reverb units, and compressors can be had for mere pocket change compared to the cost of a cart machine. And then there's the TASCAM 238 -- an 8-track recorder that delivers, and does so for a price that's attractive, not only to small budget stations, but to the individual looking to equip a "garage" studio as well.

List price on the 238 is $1799. A few calls found prices around $1400. An optional remote control is available for $150 to $175. For a small market station with limited funds, the expense here is well within reason when you consider the doors that can be opened with eight tracks. For a station in a larger market already equipped with a high dollar multi-track recorder, the 238 can affordably turn that "dub" studio into a second multi-track room. Obviously, this reviewer was impressed with the TASCAM 238, but for $1400, there HAS to be some sacrifices, right? Let's look at some of those first.

Turning out an 8-track recorder for under $2000 is a trick in itself, and TASCAM's designers gave a good deal of thought to this unit before they made the sacrifices. One might first expect to see some control over input and output levels. You don't get that with the 238. The thinking here is that input levels and output levels can be controlled from the console, just as they are usually maintained with any multi-track set-up. Since there's no real need for level control on the 238 itself, you don't have it. The fact that there is no control over these levels also eliminates the need for any kind of "mix" monitoring circuitry and mix output on the unit. Therefore, on the rear panel, you have eight ins and eight outs -- just the necessities. There's no headphone jack to plug in to. To hear any kind of mix of the eight tracks, you need a mixer. Also, the inputs and outputs are unbalanced.

You don't get a three-head configuration, either. You only get an erase head and a record/playback head. If you're thinking, "Gee, there's no 'sel-sync' mode?" don't worry. Because the playback and record head are the same head, you have automatic sel-sync when you put any track into the playback mode. Don't expect full-bandwidth frequency response from the 238, and don't expect an impressive auto-locator with ten memory points. Aside from these reasonable sacrifices, there isn't much else missing from the 238. In fact, there are features you don't find on some high-dollar multi-track units. Now let's look at what you do get.

To begin with, frequency response is 30-16kHz. This roll-off at 16kHz isn't a factor if you're only looking for a recorder for broadcast purposes. With FM rolling off at around the same frequency, you couldn't broadcast higher frequencies anyway, so the sacrifice in frequency response is irrelevant in this respect.

You get built-in dbx circuitry on all eight channels. The dbx is switchable in groups of tracks 1-4 and tracks 5-8. With the dbx "in," the signal-to-noise ratio becomes an admirable 90 dB versus 54 dB with dbx out (unweighted, 20-20kHz). Adjacent channel crosstalk is a mere 70 dB with the dbx in. Speaking of crosstalk, TASCAM's special head format staggers the tracks to further reduce crosstalk between, say, tracks one and two. The record/playback head looks like two four-track heads sitting side by side, with tracks 1-4 on one side and tracks 5-8 on the other. They are staggered such that, from top to bottom, the tracks are numbered: 1,5,2,6,3,7,4,8.