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Microphone Month

Technotes Online > Pocketstudio 5

Pocketstudio 5 is smaller than a Stephen King novel and twice as much fun. It’s got lots of features and best of all, it’s affordable!

Issue #6
December 16, 2003

It might be easy for some to dismiss the TASCAM Pocketstudio 5 as a toy — an audio novelty item — but despite outward appearances, this little box does so much for so little money, that I’d have to say it’s the runaway favorite for my “most bang for the buck” award for 2003. Listing at $449 (but your Sweetwater price will be way lower), the Pocketstudio 5 is a General MIDI module, a four-track digital recorder, an effects processor and an MP3 player (and encoder) that you can own for less than $300! And yes, I bought one because, well, it’s just so cool!

It all started when both my rackmount and portable DAT recorders died. The rackmount is no loss, as I now own an Alesis MasterLink ML-9600, but I needed something small for those situations where I’m miles from the nearest electrical outlet. I called my buddy, (Sales Engineer) Kenny Bergle, and he suggested the Pocketstudio. Rather than running on tape or a fragile hard drive, the unit records to Compact Flash cards, which is pretty nifty, as card prices have been dropping like rocks lately. So naturally, I ordered one.

As soon as it arrived, I sat down with the unit and its accompanying manuals (a third reference manual is included on a CD ROM). My first thought was, “Wow, this thing does a lot more than just record!” Onboard you’ll find a full General MIDI soundset, plus tons of patterns that cover an amazing array of musical styles (Rockabilly, Shred Metal, Cajun Rock and so forth). What’s more, the unit includes some decent guitar effects modeling, so you don’t have to drag out your Marshall stack every time you come up with a song idea. While many of the models are a bit heavy on the cheese, some are very good — in particular, the clean chorus guitar presets are as thick and glossy as anything in my collection of pedals or even high end rackmount effects.

The GM set doesn’t eat up your tracks. There’s a separate TG slider (for Tone Generator). The documentation does’t state the polyphony, but after digging, it turns out to be 64 voices, which is pretty amazing for such a small box. Some of the sounds, while certainly not pro quality, are actually useable, and thankfully they’re the ones you’ll be using most, like the basses, electric pianos and a few organs.

Uh, Oh...Rant Alert:

For the life of me, after all these years, I still cannot fathom exactly why GM sets need all those silly “extras” like Calliope, Bird Tweet, Seashore and Gun Shot. I mean, come on, how often do those come up in a composition? It seems like the mistake was made over a decade ago and we still blindly follow like lemmings. To this day, I swear GM stands for “Giant Misunderstanding.” Okay, standardizing the real instruments makes sense, but it’s almost 2004. Do we still need a patch called “Goblins”? Wouldn’t that real estate be put to better use making the important instruments sound better? The good news is that you can use the GM soundset as a sort of “guide” to follow, then switch them off before doing your final mixdown, leaving only the drums.

There are also vocal effects onboard (de-esser, duet and lots more) plus a pretty darn sweet reverb that I guarantee will surprise you. There are also five surprisingly useful drum kits (standard, power kit, brushes, orchestral and CM-64/32). EQ is available either pre or post recording. While it’s not particularly sophisticated, it’s nice to have just in case you want to add a little more bottom to your bass or some extra presence to the lead vocal.
So okay, now you’ve read about what I consider to be the “bonus” features. But the star of the show is the Pocketstudio’s four track recording capabilities. No, the finished tracks are not on par with a high end digital multitrack, but they do sound better than my original portable DAT recorder, circa 1989. The audio is 16-bit at 44.1kHz with 24-bit internal processing, but let’s face it, on a unit this reasonably priced, you aren’t going to expect a premium mic preamp or studio quality A/D/A converters. But still, the audio is crisp and clean. No complaints from me there. And when running my pro quality preamp to the line inputs, the sound is surprisingly good. Only those with “golden ears” will have any complaints.

Record 4 tracks at once...or two in stereo...or one at a time...

You can record in mono (one track), stereo (two tracks) and up to all four tracks at once, which is pretty useful when the rest of the band is on hand to lay down some quick and dirty bass, keyboard, sax and so on. The limitation is that there is only one pair of 1/4-inch line inputs, one of which is switchable between guitar and line, while the second is switchable between mic and line. A third mic input is available via a 1/8-inch mini-jack.
What that means is, you can plug in a guitar to record as a stereo pair (using the effects to create your “pseudo-stereo” image), then one mic into the 1/4-inch input and another (using an adapter) to the 1/8-inch input. There’s no phantom power, so your condenser mics need to have the ability to run off batteries (naturally, dynamics don’t need power). This particular combination of inputs isn’t the best in the world, but with a little creativity, there are plenty of workarounds. And if you record one track at a time, there’s really no problem. Sorry, no virtual tracks, but for this price, I didn’t expect any.

To round out the package, you get a set of TASCAM headphones with an integral headset microphone (perfect if you want to look like you’re in one of the “boy bands” or a Madonna clone). While these headphones are surprisingly good for their size, they don’t offer much in the way of bass response. I have lots of inexpensive AKG and Sony headphones hanging around in my studio, and these sounded much better. You also get a built-in mic (right on the top of the unit’s front panel) and an AC adapter. For remote recording, the Pocketstudio will run on six AA size batteries. The unit ships with a 32 megabyte Compact Flash card which allows up to ten minutes of four-track material plus the stereo mix to MP3 format. Luckily, I have a ton of Flash cards for my digital cameras, so I popped in a 128 meg card for up to 40+ minutes of record time. Note that before you can access the patterns, you will need to use the integral USB connection to download them (they are on the CD ROM).

While it’s true that the Pocketstudio is mostly plastic and not built to handle the rigors of the road, with reasonable care the unit should last quite a while, and there is a travel case available. The LCD can be backlit for low light situations, but the plastic cover over it is quite soft, so it scratches easily. My advice is to put a piece of wide, clear shipping tape over the panel. The real weak link is the ultra-lightweight cord that attaches the headphones and mic to their respective jacks. Even a bit of rough handling will likely result in a short, and I found that if I’m in a hurry to stow the unit, when I get ready to set it up again, the cord is always tangled up with the line coming out of the AC adapter. All the more reason to find a set of headphones that are a few steps up in quality.

All-in-all, the TASCAM Pocketstudio 5 is a winner! Despite the few negatives I mentioned, this is the kind of gear that almost anyone can afford. Put it on your Sweetwater Card and you’ll have 90 days to pay it off, or you can pay it off over time if your Skittles addiction is out of control. Pros will appreciate the ability to fire up the unit anywhere, at any time. The rest of us will dig the Pocketstudio’s versatility, affordability and surprisingly good sound.

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