The iconic Tascam Portastudio 414 democratised recording and played an important role in encouraging DIY production and the birth of the bedroom producer.
Gone are the days where VHS reigned supreme and cassette players were a part of the audio hi-fi setup, but not all great ’80s relics are lost in the back of a Vinnie’s collecting dust. Take for example the trusty old Tascam.
Last time you were at a garage sale, do you remember seeing those little palm-sized plastic boxes piled up in the corner? Well with the introduction of these “cassette tapes” came one of the most integral parts of the original culture of bedroom production- but don’t you fear- the worldwide tape culture never really went away.
“But why?” you may be thinking. And honestly, I don’t blame you. We live in an age where one can pay about 10 dollars a month and have just about every recording ever at your fingertips. Why pay the same amount for a dinky hunk of plastic that feels as though it is disintegrating the instant you touch it? And it’s because of one 3 syllable word. Analogue.
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 a blasphemous digital conversion process).
So now that the case has been made for this audiophile-reviled format, how about we talk about recording to analogue in 2021 without spending the excessive amount that normally comes with physical copy recording. Let’s 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 made it to Electric Lady Studios) and brought the instant classic family of 4-track into the modern era, replacing the VU meters with a cutting edge LED monitoring display.
It didn’t take long for this innovative piece of gear to make it in the big leagues, with one of its most famous success stories revolving 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, who laid down a studio version of the album. And even though the sound from E-Street was great, the Portastudio-recorded demo version was the version that was ultimately chosen to be released due to the desolate and isolating tone that Springsteen managed to capture as a one-man-band in his bedroom.
And with that, the bedroom producer was born. It had suddenly become so easy to whip up your own recordings without needing to spend thousands on studio time, and countless others have released music in this format, including Ween, Iron and Wine, John Frusciante, Primus, and famously, Elliot Smith’s Debut Roman Candle
The democratisation of recording has certainly crowned this piece of gear as the pinnacle of the DIY arsenal. 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 provides a DIY sound that doesn’t stoop so low as to sound like it was recorded on an iPhone mic. Its 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 Tascam 4-track 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 a label, the Tascam MK414 is a lost classic that you should definitely consider revisiting. Yes, it’s a relic, but not in the sense of that decrepit Ford Falcon you’ll never really get around to fixing up. Rather it’s a real, functional relic that produces wobbly, warm tones that perfectly encapsulate mediocrity–not quite rubbish, but it good enough to give it that lofi flare.