If it’s an iconic piece of hardware or software, there’s at least a decent chance you could be seeing it in virtual iPad form soon.

Tascam’s Portastudio, released today, is a particularly striking example. The famed, budget cassette multitrack recorder, the box on which countless demos and quick songwriter creations was forged, appears on Apple’s tablet. There’s even a fake cassette tape, which I have to say is a little bit unnerving.

This is all nostalgia, right? Well, no, actually: those big, simplified plastic controls and memorable layout work because they’re so easy to use. The problem with a lot of software design of the past couple of decades is that it’s somewhat inhumane. Given endless space and often-increasing, ever-cheaper system resources, music software has been, charitably, less-than-friendly. Resembling a 70s jumbo jet cockpit, UI controls multiply and shrink to the point that they challenge all but an 18-year-old pair of eyes. Add in clunky default OS widgets, collapsible tabs and dockable windows that add still more complexity, and you wind up with a trainwreck. What these hardware emulations prove is that you could learn something from hardware – even when the need for blank space, big knobs and faders and buttons, limited controls, and standard hardware inputs and readouts is gone.

So, back to the original product, what does $10 get your iPad? If you know how a Portastudio works, you probably already know most of the answer, but here’s a quick rundown:

  • Cassette tape-style transport. (Linear transport, I might add. Seriously. You have to rewind and fast forward to get around.)
  • Routing to four inputs.
  • Mixdown to stereo (via a dialog box, so that’s the point where you break the illusion).
  • Simple EQ.
  • File sharing, via iTunes or Soundcloud. (This last item is what makes this a useful tool and not just a novelty.)
  • Support for “a few” class-compliant audio interfaces, though your mileage may vary.

The development work was done by a well-loved developer, Chris Randall / Audio Damage. (Chris I think does learn hardware’s design lessons in his UIs.) See his blog post:
Hey, Look What I Made…

The bad news: no bounce, which seems a major oversight. Ironically, Tascam also has to admit that they don’t have any class-compliant audio interfaces. (Doh!) In case you’re wondering, they also say flat out in the FAQ, don’t expect versions for other operating systems soon — too bad, as this would seem fairly ideal in a reduced form on iPhone and iPod touch.

But the radical simplicity of this app could be its appeal. I may actually fire this up to use as a recording sketchpad, especially with hardware synths, Game Boys, and so on.

http://tascam.com/product/portastudio/

And forget the app itself: this ought to be a perfect time to look back and remember what made the original PortaStudio great – and wonder why so often those same design principles are lost.

One of the famed Tascam models, the sort that may well bring up fond memories of mobile recording. (Not quite the right model, but you get the idea.) Photo (CC-BY-SA) Lucius Kwok (the developer), via Wikimedia Commons.
  • genjutsushi

    Ok, so my app buying habit is rivalling even the most dedicated heroin abuser in terms of the damage its done to my bank account, but even i stopped at buying this when you compare it to apps like Studiotrack. Does it do enough to cut through in a busy market place?

  • A.M. Gold

    I didn't know the iPad had audio-in. I still have (though am not using, ha) the original model Portastudio depicted in the app.

  • Charlie Lesoine

    Can I get one of those Apogee Duet USB audio interfaces to work with the iPad? anyone know about this? Because that plus this would be dope.

  • http://code.compartmental.net Damien Di Fede

    Oh man, the picture of the portastudio at the bottom of the post takes me back! Used my dad's a whole bunch in high school for recording my band and recording multitrack instrumentals. So sweet. It then served as the mixer for my desktop setup for many years. Solid equipment. Don't really get the point of an iPad version, other than to cash in on nostalgia, though. Kind of a bummer, that.

  • http://gieskes.nl gijs

    this is the one the buttons came from: http://www.torridheatstudios.com/ftp/share/pictur

    here are some recordings i did with lsdj and tascam porta one: http://gieskes.nl/music/?file=Tasc001

  • http://wiretotheear.com Oliver Chesler

    I still have songs I recorded on a Tascam Portastudio… they sound amazing for some reason. 

  • http://www.sidluscious.com Sid Luscious

    More features always = more complexity.

    You either get software with fewer features, or you get software that hides controls on menus or panels. It's easy to make "good" interfaces for simple products, and it's especially easy to copy an existing interface with minimal adaptation.

    That's not to say I don't think the PortaStudio app isn't cool, but I think you're being overly dismissive of other applications.

    Chris has commented about balancing features and flexibility against simple UI (http://www.analogindustries.com/blog/entry.php?blogid=1224189782804).

    Users want simple, users also want fine control over everything.

    There are different types of audiences, and it's impossible to keep everyone happy – the author even comments about the "major oversight" of leaving out bouncing.

    Computer screens and iPad screens don't have "endless space". They have a small window of what's available, and require the user to interact to show more.

    Personally, I think a big part of the problem is the desire to replicate physical knobs designed to be turned with fingers because they "look cool" when in fact these controls are difficult to use with a mouse or single finger; or replicating hardware UIs as a kind of cargo cult approach to UI design.

    I believe that good UI adheres to the Bauhaus "Form Follows Function" maxim, but that form and function is also dependent on the medium. It might be "cool" to have a word processor that looks and works like an old-school typewriter, but in practice it would be pretty annoying.

    You say:

    "Add in clunky default OS widgets, collapsible tabs and dockable windows that add still more complexity, and you wind up with a trainwreck."

    Some illustrative examples would have been helpful. Are you referring to iOS? OSX? Windows? In my experience, these things are non-issues for software tools for music creation.

    I would argue the primary takeaway from hardware is a kind of "enforced minimalism". When you make hardware, every button and switch adds substantial cost to the product. For software, it doesn't (at least not to the same magnitude).

  • wildknees

    shucks why not just use a real portastudio? they sound great.

  • http://robinparmar.com/ Robin Parmar

    No bouncing? But the ping-pong of tracks was what these machines were all about, the sound getting squished into oblivion with every bounce. This needs to be implemented!

  • http://www.loopyc.com Loopy C

    Interesting, I was planning to takie my '244' (the second generation of original) in to Teac next week for a 'reanimation' session…hopefully it will cost less than an iPad! They just fixed my father's 40 year-old reel-to-reel  last month so I am hopeful ;-)

  • Damon

    shucks why not just use a real portastudio? they sound great.

    Or run your tracks through a tape player for genuine retro tape saturation and hiss.

    I still like the app though. Does harken back on a simpler time, when you actually had to wait 45 minutes to transfer audio from 1 format to the other.  Anyone here old enough to have actually leaned a tape recorder up in front of a speaker to record songs from the radio? SHHHHHHH! NO ONE WALK INTO THE LIVING ROOM, PLEASE! I'm ripping The Steve Miller Band.

  • poopoo

    No overdubs and no tape emulation = FAIL

    I could have seen the point if it could recreate the aural aesthetic and workflow of the portastudio. This looks like a run of the mill wave recorder with a stupid GUI. Kinda like giving notepad a photorealistic GUI of a typewriter and calling it a vintage typewriter emulation.

  • Deep Purmanan

    Really poor attempt to cash in on non existent nostalgia for cassette based recording.

    Why didnt they recreate a real classic like Tascam or Fostex 8 track R2R machines?

    It would be no more challenging to code and a lot more inspiring to use. as already pointed out, without tape emulation or bouncing this is pointless.

  • Random Chance

    I'd been thinking about setting up my Portastudio again because I remember how productive using this thing could be. And then there's the nostalgia, the sound of the motor, the feel of the knobs, buttons, and faders, the unwanted andrenalin rush when you realize that you just forget to arm the next track before starting to record and now part of the other track you just got right is gone, playing with the tape speed knob, doing crazy things with normal/double speed, waiting patiently for a SMPTE track to record.

    Only problem is, I would have to get rid of a keyboard or something else temporarily to fit the old bastard into a spot where it can be used. 

  • http://www.wholenoteguitarschool.com Josh

    If only the new ipad would come with a tape deck.

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  • http://www.skyron.org SkyRon™

    Ah, good times!

    And since I'm not yet up to speed in the iPad – app developing world, I think it would be great to have someone make a Roland S-10 emulator – - especially the wheel control to change sampling size, which I got lots of mileage out of in the late '80s, early to mid '90s. . . . any takers? (probably many other options . . .)

  • http://designthemedia.com/ julien

    nice… with a real knobs + buttons gear near from it :)

  • Greg

    Ditto on "just use an old one."

    No bounce, no attempts to port it elsewhere?

    This can't be *that* hard to implement on other platforms, either.

    Sounds like a motivation to restart learning c and ncurses.

    TUI portastudio?