Fostex FD8

8-track Hard Disk Recorder

Published in SOS January 1999
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Reviews : Multitrack Recorder

Fostex's new portable digital recorder uses virtual tracks to expand its potential and proves that 24 into eight really does go. Bob Dormon does the maths...

At the beginning of this decade, exciting developments in the multitrack world, pioneered by the likes of Fostex and Tascam, were changing the way people worked in the studio. Cheap(er) format multitrack recorders were appearing, offering up to 24 tracks on 1-inch tape, aided by semi-pro noise reduction such as Dolby S or dbx. Even more irresistibly, some machines even had built-in timecode reader/generators dishing out MTC (MIDI Time Code) at the drop of a hat and jogging along to MMC (MIDI Machine Control) messages if your software could manage them. This was a big deal back then, with the only drawback being the quality the analogue format could deliver. It kept most demo studio owners happy, though, and their punters too. Science doesn't stand still, however, and today Fostex have wholeheartedly embraced digital multitrack, producing a range of recorders to suit all manner of applications.

Now, as this decade closes and nearly three years after their initial foray into digital multitracks, Fostex have begun the task of updating their early portable models by delivering the FD4 (a 4-track that's secretly a 6-track) and the FD8, a portable 8-track that takes advantage of the virtual recording world to become a 24-track machine.

FOSTEX FD8 £649
pros
Can slave to other devices.
Integrates well with ADAT digital audio format.
Numerous backup options.
cons
Effectively restricted to 2-track recording with analogue sources.
Copying existing audio sections uses disk space.
Functions difficult to visually distinguish due to colour scheme.
summary
An extremely versatile digital recorder with an inflexible mixer that doesn't do it justice.

All this is without a tape in sight -- and, what's more, Fostex leave all the storage issues up to you. You want a Jaz drive? OK. Fancy a Syquest Syjet instead? Why not. Want an internal drive? All right, if you insist. And they're not alone. With the obvious exception of the Minidisc multitracks on offer, storage is a simple matter of you paying yer money and taking yer choice. By adopting this approach, manufacturers have almost entirely succeeded in relinquishing responsibility for the biggest hassle of them all: moving parts. No more whirring analogue wheels -- just a delicate clatter in the background, and the opportunity for them, if your chosen disk should crash, to shrug and say "It's nothing to do with us..."

Am I being a pessimist? Let's just say a realist. But for those who want to have their take and keep it, UK Fostex distributors SCV also happen to be the main UK suppliers of Syquest drives. Stick with the drives they proffer and you have at least got some redress. Especially if, while you tune in, your drive drops out.

Overview

The FD8 follows the fashion set by the FD4 (see review in SOS June 1998) and on the surface appears simply to have had an additional four channels welded to it. The control section is exactly the same as the FD4's and so is the LCD screen, the only giveaway being the presence of an ADAT logo in the top left corner.

Appearances can be deceptive, and a glance at the rear panel reveals the true nature of the beast. While the headphone socket and jack inputs for all eight channels line the front of the FD8, the clever stuff lurks round the back. Two pairs of phonos deliver monitor and stereo mix outputs. Alongside these is an array of unbalanced -10dBV quarter-inch jack sockets for aux sends 1 and 2, plus two stereo aux returns which conveniently sum to mono if you plug into the left side only. Two inserts for channels 7 and 8 are provided via a TRS quarter-inch jack arrangement.

Channels 7 and 8 get special treatment because they can be fed from either the front-panel jacks or the balanced XLR sockets at the back. Unfortunately, these are not phantom powered. Incidentally, you can't use channels 7 and 8 with both jacks and XLRs, with jacks taking priority.

Below is another level of interfacing that kicks off with a typically inconveniently placed power switch. The accompanying IEC mains socket is an interesting departure for Fostex. Usually, their portables have captive mains leads which does mean you never leave home without one. Now, you can customise the length of your mains lead and, of course, forget to take it with you! There's pros and cons whichever way you look at it.

The SCSI interface, a 25-pin D-type, is the business end of the FD8 when recording to external media. Unlike the FD4, the FD8 can chain two SCSI devices so that one drive is allocated the task of recording and the other (which has to be set to SCSI ID 6) is used for backup. The adjacent optical input/output has a variety of functions. You can use the output to mix digitally to DAT (although this is just an A-D conversion of the analogue mixer's output) or the input to import digital audio. As you would expect, these digital I/Os can also be used for archiving to DAT. The real boon is that you can back up to ADAT, which saves a considerable amount of time -- even if it does mean you'll need an ADAT, which defeats the purpose of the FD8 somewhat. Conversely, ADAT songs can be ferried over to the FD8, but ideally you should send MTC to the FD8 too, to slave it properly.

In actual fact, using the ADAT interfacing is the only way to get the FD8 to record eight independent tracks simultaneously. The FD8 can record eight tracks at a time, but the limitations of its mixer mean that you'll end up with the same stuff on a number of the tracks. Use the FD8's digital input set to ADAT and any ADAT-compliant multi-channel source can be transferred. One implication of this is that material could be transferred to the FD8 from computer-based hard disk recorders fitted with suitable interface cards; even multi-channel A-D convertors could join in the fun with the addition of a separate mixer. The adventurous could always hook up the FD8's output to a digital mixer and transfer their work to a variety of different formats, or perhaps have a stab at a more sophisticated mix.

  Disk Of The Day  
  When Fostex began producing digital multitracks, the Fostex Disk Management System (FDMS) was in its infancy. It worked in much the same way as Minidisc multitracks do today, in that disk space was set aside for all eight tracks even if you were only recording one. So just one track lasting a minute would take up 40Mb of disk space instead of just 5Mb. On the first model, the DMT8, the internal drive offered a mere 500Mb of storage, and the recording time only just made it into double figures!

With FDMS3, the system has come of age and disk space is used up track by track. However, FDMS3 still isn't very economical. Copying recorded sections actually takes up space, as there isn't a playlist that just refers to the original section. Instead, the recording is copied to disk as many times as you specify.

One feature that Fostex were always pleased to point out, in light of the competition, was that their digital audio recorders were linear and did not indulge in any of the data-reduction processes that technophiles so readily criticise. Bowing to common sense and the fact that most punters aren't so picky, Fostex have now introduced ADAC (Advanced Digital Audio Acoustic Coding). This is claimed to be a lossless compression system and comes into play when you format a disk to Normal mode. The effect is that the available recording time is multiplied by over three and a half times compared to the optional uncompressed Mastering mode. Is there an audible difference? Well, I couldn't hear one...

One thing you should be aware of is that whatever disk drive you use on the FD8, you can only format it to 44.1kHz. This means that any ADAT tapes intended for editing on the FD8 will have to be at 44.1kHz (or sample-rate converted prior to digital transfer). You can cheat and varispeed the older models down to 44.1kHz, do the transfer, then varispeed the FD8 up to its 6% maximum, but you'd still be over 2% slow. If you're just editing with a view to exporting the audio back to the ADAT, the slower speed might not matter, and you could then send it back to an ADAT at 44.1kHz and wind it back up to 48kHz. Whatever you do, you have to format the disk to Mastering mode for use with ADAT sources, which rules out smaller capacity disks such as the Iomega Zip and Syquest EZFlyer that can be used in the compressed Normal mode.

 
On a more mundane level, the rear panel also hosts the punch-in/-out jack socket and the MIDI In and Out. The FD8's MIDI input enables it to slave to MTC or respond to MMC messages. The MIDI output delivers MTC or MIDI Clock, the latter from a customisable time signature and tempo map that allows 64 steps.

The final back panel treat is the curiously entitled 'Recorder In', which simply comprises two phonos and enables the monitor section audio to be re-routed and sent out of the main stereo output (I'll explain this in more detail later). Recorder In can also be used as an alternative input for recording to tracks of your choice.

Fade To Grey

The FD8's mixer is very basic and doesn't even have a row of input gain trim pots heading each channel strip. Instead there's a detent-centred aux send for each channel, which is turned left for send 1, right for send 2, or stays at 12 o'clock for no send at all. Gain adjustments for channels 1-6 are made with the channel fader, as these inputs are fixed at line level. Channels 7 and 8 have preset high, medium and low input-gain switching that works in conjunction with the fader. This is rather limiting, but not uncommon practice for portables.

The EQ has three bands: a high and low shelving section and a sweepable mid-range. It's nothing to write home about, delivering a high end crispiness (rather than sparkle) at 12kHz and a bottom end boost (rather than blast) at 80Hz. The mid range covers 200Hz-5kHz, yet it's somewhat imprecise, due to what appears to be a broad fixed Q factor, even with a fierce application of the +/-15dB of gain offered on all sections.

Below the EQ is the monitor section, with a dual-function level control that works in the same way as the aux sends: turn it to the left for the channel input and to the right to hear the recorded track. The monitor section does benefit from having its own pan pot, which enables it to be used during mixing for additional inputs, as well as being earhole-friendly during recording. Pity there's no aux sends or EQ here, though.

Beneath the monitor pan pot are the channel pan pot, input selector switch (input, off or track) and the channel fader itself. It has to be said that the pots of the FD8 are very wiggly; in fact there's barely a protrusion on it that doesn't wiggle in some way. The selector switches don't line up with the adjacent legends, which could well confuse beginners and would even make pros look twice to be sure of the channel status. The fact that everything is either grey (faders and switches) or pale blue (pots and function keys) doesn't help either. Obviously you get used to it, but this penny-pinching colour scheme virtually eliminates 'intuitive' use.

The remainder of the mixer is taken up with the two stereo aux return pots, the monitor master volume control, with a three-way switch to select the monitor output source (L/R mix, L/R mix plus monitor mix and just monitor), and the L/R master fader.

In Use

The visible functions available in the control section of the FD8 are virtually unchanged from those appearing on early Fostex digital multitracks such as the DMT8 and DMT8VL (see SOS December 1995 and December 1996 respectively for reviews). The large jog/shuttle wheel can be used for high-speed cueing or for fine editing, but now the LCD display comes into play when used in scrub mode, utilising the metering segments to create a staircase-like representation of the waveform of the selected track. The transport controls are typical of any recorder, although a combination of these keys can be used for speedy locating and replay of the current clipboard contents.

The editing features are what you'd expect to find on any digital multitrack these days, enabling copying and pasting of track sections, aided by locate points which can be refined either with the scrub facility or by listening to high-to-low or low-to-high level changes at the edit point and making the necessary positional adjustments. The latter method also appears on the Minidisc multitracks from Yamaha and Sony.

A variety of time displays can be used, including incoming MTC and beats and bars. I used the bar counter almost exclusively throughout my testing, as it is the most musical and by far the easiest. This is helped by the Resolution function within the Set-Up menu. Abbreviated to 'Reso', this useful feature has been available on all Fostex digital multitracks, but is frequently overlooked by users allergic to manuals. All it does is round up to the nearest beat any locate points you store in the five available memories. You can do this on the fly and then copy and paste your performances without having to bother refining the relevant locate points. It works without a hitch, although you'll have to ensure that you've got the right tempo and time-signature information entered. It doesn't matter if you don't intend to use the tempo map with MIDI Clock either, so long as the correct info is there.

Recording on the FD8 presents few hassles, but those few are quite significant. As you might have noticed from the mixer description, there's no multi-channel routing/bussing. Basically, all eight tracks are set up conventionally as odd and even (pan left or right) and receive audio from the left or right mix that you hear. That goes for effects too. When recording, you must use the monitor section for playback of existing tracks. If you don't (playing back instead through the channel faders while recording on another channel), those playback channels will also end up being recorded on your virgin track. In short, when recording, switch all used tracks to 'Off', listen to them from their monitor section above, pan the input channel to suit the odd or even track being recorded and make sure your aux returns are muted if you don't want to record with effects.

  Specifications  
  Inputs 1-8 (Line): 8 x quarter-inch jack (unbalanced)
Inputs 7-8 (Mic): 2 x XLR (balanced)
Insert (Ch 7-8): 2 x quarter-inch TRS jack
Aux Send (1/2): 2 x quarter-inch jack (unbalanced)
Aux Return (1 L/R, 2 L/R): 4 x quarter-inch jack (unbalanced)
Stereo Out/Monitor Out: 2 x phono
Headphone Out: Quarter-inch stereo jack
Recorder In: (L/R) 2 x phono
Data In/Out: 2 x Optical S/PDIF or ADAT optical
MIDI In/Out
Punch In/Out: 1 x quarter-inch jack
SCSI: 1 x D 25-pin; a maximum of two units can be connected (auto SCSI ID select)
Equaliser (Ch 1-8): High Shelving (12kHz ±15dB), Low Shelving (80Hz ±15dB), Parametric Mid (200Hz-5kHz variable ±15dB)
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20kHz (Mixer & Recorder, typical values)
Dynamic Range 105dB (Mixer, typical), >90dB (Recorder, typical)
THD 0.008% (Mastering Mode)
Simultaneous recording: 2 tracks (8 using ADAT optical)
Simultaneous playback: 8 tracks
Vari-pitch: ±6%
Dimensions: 552mm (w) x 110mm (h) x 355mm (d)
Weight: 5kg
 

The upshot of all this is that you can't do more with the analogue mixer than record in stereo, although you can have multiple input sources. The fact that there are only two mic inputs also limits the usefulness of the FD8 in live recording situations. If you want to record more separate simultaneous tracks, you need to go digital and either combine a 2-channel S/PDIF digital input with the analogue setup, or access the whole caboodle digitally using the 8-channel ADAT protocol.

Although the analogue routing aspects of the FD8's mixer have obvious shortcomings, Fostex positively revel in the possibilities that exist in the digital domain. Not only do they now offer data compression in the form of ADAC (see 'Disk of the Day' box), but virtual tracks too. The FD4 made use of two tracks that you could record onto but couldn't hear, enabling a 4-track mixdown. These were called Additional Tracks (L/R), and you'd swap them with one or two of the existing four tracks to listen to them, swapping back if you liked. This was the Fostex answer to the bounce features found on Minidisc multitracks, where you can replay a track and simultaneously record over the top of it.

The FD8 does things slightly differently. There are two layers of additional tracks: 9-16 and 17-24. You can't hear these either: you just swap them around -- individually or as groups of eight -- with the real tracks 1-8. It's all done with the Track Exchange feature in the Edit menu and takes virtually no time. Applications of this feature include importing and exporting multitrack material to ADAT interface-equipped gear or, more simply, bouncing six tracks to two. Following a bounce-down, you can quickly swap all the real tracks to an additional tracks location (9-16, for example) to free up the recorder. You can now move your bounced track pair back into the empty real tracks area (1-8) and continue recording with the six extra tracks as necessary. You could eventually move all these new takes to location 17-24 and start all over again. Very handy.

The icing on the cake is the Recorder In feature, which enables a 16-channel mixdown using the monitor section (receiving live MIDI-sequenced tracks, for example, from the front panel inputs) together with recorded tracks playing back through the channel faders. Although you can hear the track and monitor sources simultaneously, by switching to L/R+Mon, the live monitor stuff won't be fed to the main stereo mix output and, for that matter, the digital output. But if you connect the Monitor mix outputs to Recorder In while the FD8 is set to L/R+Mon, this mix combination will make it directly to both the main analogue and digital mix outputs.

Conclusion

The FD8 makes the most of having a digital mind, at some cost to its analogue body. If you've got plans to go walkabout and then transfer your musings to another machine, the FD8 is certainly appealing. It can be used as a halfway-house editing workstation for ADAT tapes without even using its mixer for recording. If, on the other hand, you've got your heart set on multi-mic live recording, this isn't the machine for you -- unless you're willing to buy some extras, which will probably include another mixer and an 8-channel A-D converter!

In essence, the FD8 offers basic multitrack recording that can integrate with almost any setup, plus the means to take your work beyond its modest limits.

 information
£699 (without drive);
£799 (with internal 2.1Gb IDE drive); Syjet 1.5Gb removable drive £249.99;
Syjet cartridges £64.99 each, or £169.99 for a pack of three; EZFlyer £129.99;
EZFlyer cartridges £21.99 each, or £54.99 for a pack of three.
Prices include VAT.
SCV London +44 (0)171 923 1892.
+44 (0)171 241 3644.
Click here to email
www.scvlondon.co.uk

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