Paul White discovers a sensibly priced CD recorder capable of handling any type of recording session without throwing a tantrum.
The Fostex CR300 is a 2U, rackmountable CD-R recorder, based on the same Pioneer mechanism as the HHB CDR850 reviewed in the May issue of Sound On Sound, and can write to both CD-R and CD-RW discs. However, HHB claim that their machine is built especially for them, so there may be small differences, other than the very obvious one of colour. Either way, the CR300 is worthy of special attention, because it is one of the few sub-£1000 CD-R machines able to handle silences in a satisfactory manner. If this doesn't ring any bells with you, let me explain.
A number of low- and medium-cost CD-R recorders use a silence-detecting system to determine when the recording should end, ostensibly to prevent you filling the last few minutes of the disc with recorded silence if you happen to be out of the room. Unfortunately, many of these recorders don't allow you to adjust the length of silence that is recognised as an end signal, and what's more, the threshold that decides what is signal and what is silence is often fixed at a level higher than that of some of the quieter sections in classical music. In machines where this function can't be disabled, the outcome is that some pieces of music are quite impossible to record -- the CD-R machine simply switches off. Possible casualties are tracks with deliberately long gaps between them, tracks with long, quiet sustained last notes, classical pieces with low-level passages and so on.
Wisely, the designers of the Fostex CR300 allow the user to adjust the threshold level below which silence is deemed to exist, and for those occasions where gaps of longer than 10 seconds are necessary, you can switch off the automatic system, set your alarm clock (as I actually do when I'm making CDs), and press the Stop button manually as soon as the last track has finished.
FOSTEX CR300 £899
It's not purple.
Excellent range of interface options.
Good recording quality.
Sensible handling of pauses and long silences.
It's not purple.
Manual isn't quite as to-the-point as it could be.
No audio delay to save you having to move DAT start IDs.
At the price, this is an excellent CD recorder that won't embarass you on awkward sessions where you have to deal with long periods of silence or very low-level music.
The rear panel sports a fine array of connectors, with a choice of AES-EBU, S/PDIF co-axial and S/PDIF optical digital inputs, and both flavours of S/PDIF digital output. Analogue ins and outs are on both phonos and balanced XLRs. There is an 8-pin DIN socket for connecting a wired remote control, though a wireless remote control is provided as standard. The power supply automatically adjusts to mains voltages between 120 and 230V at a line frequency of 50 to 60Hz.
The CR300's front panel is clearly set out around a central disc drawer and display, with slightly larger buttons being used for the main transport controls. Source selection is via a simple rotary knob rather than an obscure menu, and a large knob provides input level control for analogue sources. The fluorescent display includes a signal level bar-graph meter and an alphanumeric section to show track numbers, times, setup information and so on. There's also a record level margin readout which shows the unused headroom for both channels independently.
The infra-red remote control duplicates the main transport controls' transport/track access functions and, as is often the case, provides a number of programmable playback functions that can't be set up from the front panel, including fading levels up and down and programming a new playback track order.
The Fostex CR300 has five distinct recording modes, four of which are designed for use with digital sources and one with analogue sources. When recording analogue sources, track IDs may be entered manually, or they may be triggered by a signal exceeding the user threshold level following a pause between tracks. Of course automatic IDs of this kind will inevitably be recorded slightly late, especially on songs that have a fade-in, so this mode isn't recommended for creating masters. Though entering the track IDs in real time requires concentration, it is generally safer than using auto ID mode.
An important part of the machine's operation is the Digital Synchro function, which can be used when recording from DAT, CD or other consumer digital sources with embedded ID information. Pressing the button once means recording will stop when the track ID for the next track is read, whereas pressing it twice records a whole album, automatically inserting the track IDs based on the source DAT, CD, DCC or Minidisc track IDs. This doesn't work when using the AES-EBU input, however, as this interface doesn't carry track IDs.
The other two alternatives are to have the machine finalise the disc automatically after recording all tracks in digital input mode, or to allow manual recording from a digital input. In this latter mode, recording is started manually (much like a tape recorder) and track IDs may be set to enter automatically based on signal level and track gaps or they can be added manually in real time.
CD-RWs can be recorded and played back on the machine, but most domestic CD players can't play CD-RW discs, which means their uses are limited. Once a disc is recorded, it may be erased either a track at a time starting with the last track recorded, or erased completely. It's also possible to erase just the table of contents on a finalised disc, which may be necessary if you want to erase a track or two and then record some new ones.
Finally, both CD-Rs and CD-RWs can be made with either no SCMS protection, copying limited to one generation or copying prohibited altogether.
Despite a few ambiguous sections in the manual, the CR300 is generally straightforward to operate. For serious recording from a DAT source, you should reposition your DAT start IDs a second or so before the actual tracks start. The auto-stop delay setting can be set to immediate, 10 seconds or manual, while the threshold setting can be set to anywhere between -36dB and -66dB, so even quiet classical music isn't usually a problem, even in automatic mode. In the worst case, you can select the manual stop option.
Digital copies made on the CR300 were subjectively indistinguishable from the source material, regardless of whether the sample-rate converter was needed, and the playback quality was also comparable with a decent domestic hi-fi CD player.
I tested the A-D converters using a high-quality analogue source, and again, the subjective quality was so close to that of a digital recording as to be indistinguishable. Once the disc is full, it must be Finalised to build a table of contents, which takes around four minutes. Most machines require you to press Finalise followed by Record, but just to be different, this one required Finalise and then Pause to get it under way.
In most respects, the Fostex CR300 is a straightforward CD recorder that just happens to have a better than usual array of input and output options. It's a neat, efficient machine that does the job required of it. There's not a lot to choose in price between the HHB and Fostex machines (both are very attractive) and from what I can tell, the essential facilities are identical. It's really down to whether your studio decor goes best with beige or purple!