Fostex D80

Digital Multitrack Recorder

Published in SOS June 1996
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Reviews : Multitrack Recorder

The battle for control of the affordable digital multitracker market has intensified in 1996. PAUL WHITE puts Fostex's latest weapon, the rackmounting D80, to the test.In the race to develop a digital, tapeless version of the cassette multitracker, Fostex were first past the post with the DMT8.

 

Their new D80, an 8-track, rackmount hard disk recorder, faces rather more competition from a number of established, stand-alone tapeless recorders. However, Fostex have the advantage of experience here, accumulated during the development of their Foundation series of products. It was a team in New England, largely drawn from the defunct Synclavier company, that was behind those, and their influence is also evident in the D80.

Rather than trying to outdo the competition by cramming in more features and sophistication, Fostex have opted for the user-friendly approach. As a result, the D80 comes over more as a tapeless alternative to an ADAT/DA88 than as an all-singing digital workstation. There are the usual hard-disk benefits of copy/paste editing, but there are no virtual tracks, virtual effects or fancy processing tricks to confuse the issue. Indeed, like the DMT8, the D80 is designed to look and feel as much like a tape machine as possible, and is designed to interface with an analogue mixer.

TOUR OF INSPECTION

The 3U has eight discrete analogue inputs and eight discrete outputs, on phono connectors at a nominal -10dBV operating level. All eight tracks can be recorded at once, and the supplied 850Mb, 3.5-inch IDE disk drive can hold up to 18 minutes of material. Like the DMT8, the disk space is organised such that you have a maximum of 18 minutes of recording, regardless of how many tracks you record on -- a very tape-like philosophy. By contrast, a computer-based system such as Pro Tools works on the basis of giving you so many 'track-minutes,' and it's up to you how you use the time. Similarly, any copied sections take up disk space, so you can't, for example, take ten minutes' worth of material and turn it into a 40-minute remix using the D80's copy and paste features.

Sadly, Fostex have omitted to fit a SCSI port for connection to external drives, but they have gone some way towards mitigating this by making the drive itself removable. The removable caddy takes a standard IDE hard drive, and the user can buy additional caddies, for use with drives of up to 1.8Gb, which extends the maximum recording time to around 44 minutes. An empty 9040B HD caddy costs about £35. The disk caddy is located behind the lift-off front panel, and is locked in place using the key supplied.

Projects (both audio and its associated edit data), can be backed up to DAT via the onboard optical interface in about 4x real time, and those users who don't have a DAT machine with an optical interface can buy a Fostex COP1 optical/co-axial interface for £50. Digital recordings from DAT or other 44.1kHz digital sources can also be transferred to the machine via this interface, and routed to the track pair of your choice.

To organise the recordings on disk, a Program Change facility allows up to five separate songs to be identified, and basic non-linear editing is possible on these using conventional copy, cut, paste, move and erase operations. Editing can be carried out to absolute time points, MTC locations, or MIDI bar/beat and clock positions, the latter requiring the construction of a tempo map using the on-board facilities. Edits can be undone or redone, and the amount of remaining recording time is shown in the display.

The physical appearance of the D80 is deliberately tape machine-like, right down to the transport buttons, metering section and auto punch in/out routines. When you fast-wind the audio, an artificial fast-wind speed has been built in, so that you 'spool' through the recording at about the same rate as a DAT machine in fast wind. Without this feature, the disk would go immediately to the start or end, giving you no chance to find an in-between point.

Fostex have always been keen advocates of the removable control panel, and the D80's entire front panel can be unclipped and used as a remote, with the aid of an optional 10m extension cable. The familiar DMT8-style Fostex jog/shuttle wheel allows up to 20x normal speed cueing, while the jog dial provides audio scrubbing to help in the precise location of edit points. In scrub mode, the sound loops continuously, so you don't have to keep moving the wheel to find out where you are.

Like the DMT8, the D80 can transmit MIDI Clock with Song Position pointers (via the 64-point internal tempo map), as well as MTC and MMC, making it possible to control and synchronise an external sequencer. Similarly, the display can be switched to read bars and beats as set by the internal tempo map. However, there's still no sign of a facility that would let you import tempo maps from your own sequencers -- so very complex tracks with multiple tempo changes may be off the menu.

The very large plasma display provides bargraph metering, record status indication, location time/position, and a limited amount of text dialogue, for information or to issue warnings. Six editable memories store the autolocate, auto return and auto play locations, as well as auto punch-in/out times. There's also a 9-point autolocator built in. Just like a tape machine, the D80's auto punch-in/out feature includes a Rehearse mode, which lets you monitor the effect of a punch-in without actually doing it for real. When you're happy with the result, you can go into Take mode and make it so. A pre-roll value can also be entered, so that the machine starts a few seconds before the punch-in point.

Just as modern digital multitracks have the facility to run several machines in sync, the D80 has a slave sync function, so that several machines can be sync'ed together using the optical Data port, in conjunction with either the internal MTC or an external MTC source such as a sequencer. You can also run D80s as slaves from a DMT8, as well as from other D80s.

The optical data connectors are on the rear panel, along with MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets and the analogue In/Out phonos. I would have liked to see a balanced EDAC connector or similar facility for professional use, but then you do have to consider what is practicable at this price level.

THE SYSTEM

Before a recording can be made, the disk must be formatted, though this will already be done on a new machine. The first song will be recorded as Program 1; the Program number is selected by holding down Hold and then using the Store button to step through the five Programs. While I can see logic in only providing five Programs for pop song work, it seems rather frugal if you're working with jingles, as you could get 25 or more 30-second pieces on a disk. As it is, you'd have to put several jingles one after the other, within the same Program. As there's also a possibility that you could inadvertently select a song you meant to keep and then record over it, I would also have liked to see a facility for locking individual Programs to keep them safe.

Once the Program has been selected for recording, operation is very tape-like, with a choice of Input or Repro monitoring for each track. To put a track into Record Ready mode, you simply use the select buttons beneath the display, which causes a red number to flash at the bottom of the relevant meter. Pressing Record once puts any selected tracks into input monitor status. Then you hold down Record and press Play. It's all very reminiscent of tape -- except that there's no clunking and whirring! Level setting is carried out at the mixer in the usual way, taking care never to drive the meters into clipping. When you come to punch in and out, a 10mS crossfade ensures that there are never any audible clicks or glitches.

A standard footswitch facility is provided for auto punch in and out (although the unit itself is an optional extra), which means that musicians working alone can punch in and out without hands. You can also program an auto punch in and out.

 

"The D80 comes over more as a tapeless alternative to an ADAT/DA88, than as an all-singing digital workstation."

 

Because the songs are recorded into 'Programs', you can have different setup parameters for each song. Each Program stores its own tempo, time base and MTC offset, plus slave status, pre-roll time, clock on/off, etc. Parameters that operate globally as opposed to per Program include device ID, Undo All/Edit, Digital I/O status and Locate memory. The last two return to their default states when power is switched off.

To slave a sequencer to the D80 using MIDI Clock and Song Position Pointers, it is first necessary to enter tempo map details. If you're working with MTC, just select the appropriate MTC format and enter any desired offset. The MTC offset relates to the start time of the current program, which is the system used by the Alesis ADAT BRC remote control. I like this way of working, because I can use the same default sequence template for every song, and know that I won't have to mess around with the MTC offset every time. My own preference is to set the MTC offset to zero on the recorder, and to 10 seconds on the sequencer. This means that the tape (or in this case, disk) runs for 10 seconds before the sequencer kicks in, keeping you away from the evil 'SMPTE zero hour' which gives most MIDI sequencers a headache. Like the DMT8, the D80 can be controlled using MMC (MIDI Machine Control), so that you don't have to keep jumping from your sequencer keyboard to the D80's front panel.

IN USE

I tested the D80 alongside Emagic's Logic on the Mac, and found that both MIDI Clock and MTC sync modes performed fine -- though MTC is obviously nicer if you have it. However, I couldn't check out the multi-machine sync, because I was only given one machine to play with! Before you start work on a song, you have to call up the appropriate Program into which to store your work, and also select the type of sync system to use. If you choose MTC, you'll need to ensure that the frame rate is the same as that on your sequencer -- the default is 25-frame. Those using MIDI clock will first have to set up a tempo map -- another good reason to work with MTC if you can. Having said that, working with a tempo map means that you can edit to beats and bars, which is a lot more accurate than hitting start and end points manually. Those used to working with analogue machines will really appreciate the ability to sync up a sequencer without having to waste a track on timecode.

The sound quality of the unit is excellent; no data compression is used, so the 'CD sound quality' tag is pretty well justified. All eight tracks can be recorded at once, which makes live-style recording possible, though for location gig recording, a large hard disk would be required. The control panel is so much like that of a tape machine that it's easy to forget this is a disk machine; even the drive noise is very low. Only the rather long-winded marking of edit in and out points takes the gloss off what is otherwise a very slick user interface.

Backing up to DAT is straightforward and seems to work reliably, though it does take over an hour to back up the internal drive, plus another hour to restore the material when you want to continue work on it.

LASTING IMPRESSIONS

Despite all the sophisticated competition, I think Fostex have managed to make a very musician-friendly recorder. If you think of the D80 as a 'tapeless tape recorder', it looks very serious indeed, though there are bound to be users who regard it as underspecified, because of the additional processing that computer-based hard disk systems are capable of. What I find amazing, though, is that you can now get a hard disk 8-track recorder for half the price of its digital tape-based equivalent. Seen in this light, the D80 is a very impressive and attractive piece of equipment indeed.

 

EDITING

Before hard disk recorders, editing was something that we occasionally needed to do, but most of the time managed without. Now, manufacturers would have us believe that if we can't edit everything in the minutest detail, we simply haven't got the right tools for the job.

Most D80 editing is destructive, despite the term 'non-destructive' cropping up a few times in the manual. You can undo an edit, but once you move on to the next one, it becomes permanent. As intimated earlier, Fostex have tried to keep things simple, so the D80 is limited to simple cut, copy, paste and erase editing. These terms are fairly self-explanatory, but they can vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, so here's what Fostex mean by them:

• ERASE
The ability to erase data on between one and seven tracks, between the punch in/out locator points you have set. You can't erase all eight tracks at once, and if you don't invoke the Undo function straight away (memory permitting), the data is gone for good.

• CUT
Be warned that Cut doesn't actually mean 'cut' in the conventional sense, and I feel Trim might have been a better term. Using Cut erases all data (within a program) beyond the marked point, and can be applied to any number of tracks between one and all eight. A good use of this facility is to clean up the end of a song -- but to clean up the beginning you have to use Erase. Because Erase can only work on up to seven tracks at once, you may need two goes to completely clean up an intro.

• COPY/PASTE
Copy duplicates the data between the location points, and uses a clipboard system, enabling it to be pasted to any new destination. As far as I can tell, the clipboard just holds the start and end points; the data itself is copied directly from the source position.

When the DMT8 had the earliest version of its operating software, you couldn't copy data from one track to another -- which was a point open to criticism. You can now (on both the DMT8 version 2.0 and the D80) change the paste destination track if you have selected a mono track (or an adjacent odd/even stereo pair) as your source. This makes it possible, for example, to take the best bits from several vocal tracks to compile one perfect take.

If, however, you're pasting three or more tracks, or two non-adjacent tracks, you have to paste the data back into the same tracks as the source data. You can't paste data in a position that would cause it to overlap the original data, otherwise the original data will be altered, creating a time paradox and the possible destruction of the universe -- well, it might mess up your song, anyway.

Another new feature is that you can now program multiple pastes in one go, allowing you to repeat the same musical sequence many times. Now what type of music could possibly need a facility like that, I wonder? Copy start and end points may be captured on the fly with the Hold button, though one potential shortcoming is that you always need to press more than one button to store a start or end location, which makes working on the fly rather difficult.

In all other respects, Copy and Paste is about as straightforward as setting up an auto punch-in/out sequence on a cassette multitracker. If you try to paste more data than you have disk space for, a warning message will appear in the display. All conventional bouncing obviously must occur in the analogue domain, as there's no onboard mixer.

• MOVE
Move works in exactly the same way as copy, except that the data is erased from its original location and the clipboard is emptied after the operation has been completed.

• UNDO/REDO
Edits can be undone or redone using the Undo and Redo buttons, but these may only be utilised while the recorder is stopped. Only one step can be undone, so if you start recording again or make any other edit, your previous edit will become permanent. Similarly, you can't undo an edit if, in the meantime, the machine has been switched off.

 

pros & cons

FOSTEX D80 £1499

PROS
• As easy to use as a tape recorder.
• Excellent sound quality.
• Simultaneous recording on all eight tracks.

CONS
• No external drive connections.
• Unbalanced audio ins and outs.

SUMMARY
A viable and very cost-effective alternative to digital tape multitrack, with the caveat that the recording time is limited, and the time required to save and restore your work to and from DAT is not inconsiderable.

 

info

£ D80 £1499 (includes 80Mb hard drive); COP1 optical/co-axial interface £49; 8051 optional footswitch £26. Prices include VAT.

A SCV, 6-24 Southgate Road, London N1 3JJ.

T 0171 923 1892.

F 0171 241 3644.

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