Fostex pioneered the project‑studio multitrack with reel‑to‑reels like the R8 and, more recently, have also been quick off the mark in introducing digital recorders. Derek Johnson reviews the latest addition to the latter range.
Flicking through the pages of Europe's biggest recording and music technology magazine — past ads brimming with gear, product reviews, and interviews with musicians who make their living using these very products — it's easy to forget that the project studio sector of the market SOS serves is still a young one. The ability to produce good‑sounding recordings on your own terms, for not too much money and in your own time, has only really existed for around 20 years. And right there almost at the start were Fostex. They participated in the birth of the home‑recording revolution, and they're not about to drop the baton now that the digital recording revolution is upon us.
Indeed, Fostex are clearly trying to do with digital technology what they did with analogue — make a coherent range of recording products that covers all the bases at a reasonable price. They were first to market with a truly affordable hard‑disk multitracker, the DMT8, in 1995. Though flawed, it was acclaimed for its ease of use for those used to analogue tape recorders. Successive Fostex HD recorders have taken a similar approach, and the company has continued to refine their operation and correct shortcomings over several generations. These days, Fostex digital recorders use a common operating system and all work in a similar way. The similarities even seem to extend to file compatibility between some models.
The model we're looking at here is the D108 8‑track HD recorder, latest in a line that began with the D80 and D90 (reviewed SOS June '96/August '97). Packaged in a smart 'studio beige'‑faced rackmount box, it's designed to behave as much like a tape machine as possible, but offers a few well‑chosen digital editing facilities as a bonus — and to remind you that this is 1999!
Alongside the main eight tracks, which are recorded with 16‑bit resolution at 44.1 or 48kHz to an internal IDE drive or external fixed or removable SCSI drive, the 108 has 16 'additional' (virtual) tracks. A virtual tracks feature wasn't present on the D80 or the D90, though it is offered by the newer FD8 and FD4 portable multitrackers. Almost needless to say, it makes the 108 a fair bit more flexible than its predecessors, allowing many different takes to be recorded, then the best eight chosen for playback. It allows more track bouncing to be contemplated, too.
Also new is a facility that's present on the D160 v2 16‑track: the ability to export audio in WAV format, for computer editing (Mac or PC, though files must be saved to a PC‑format drive) and subsequent return to the 108. In addition, a SCSI‑2 interface is standard, rather than being a £150 option, as on the D90, and a new display feature turns the 108's level meters into a waveform shape, for use when editing.
Not a new, but certainly a useful, aspect of the D108 is its eight channels of ADAT I/O, present as well as analogue connections. Fostex saw the way the wind was blowing fairly early when they went with the ADAT interface protocol (their RD8 was the first ADAT recorder not to bear the Alesis brand). Its inclusion means that the 108 can be effortlessly connected to several current digital desks, and interfaced with ADAT‑format digital tape recorders and some other studio gear.
The obligatory tour begins with the 108's detachable front panel. This excellent idea should already be familiar to users of Fostex machines such as the R8 analogue 8‑track. It forms a built‑in remote hosting all recording, playback and editing controls, plus a display, and is connected to the main unit via a rather short cable. The drive supplied with the 108 makes little noise (a low‑level whine, and the occasional chug) but if you have sensitive recordings to do and would like to banish the recorder out of mic‑shot, you'll have to invest £35 in a 5m extension cable for the panel.
The 108's large, bright, two‑colour display shows bar‑graph level meters during recording and playback, a clear time readout (calibrated in bars and beats, absolute time or MTC — MIDI Time Code) and a list of rather too small text prompts regarding the 108's current status in terms of sample rate, sync, the completion of an editing operation, and so on. The display is exactly the same as the 16‑track D160's — even down to having space for 16 meters when the 108 only needs eight, and D160‑specific legends, referring to tracks 1/9, 2/10, and so on, under the track‑arming buttons!
To the right of the display are a set of transport controls, a group of editing buttons, and a line of locate controls (the latter for defining sections of audio to be edited and also for setting up punch‑in/out operations), plus sundry buttons related to global settings and a (+/‑ 6 percent) Vari Pitch control. The button layout seems rather random, with keys related to the same operation not always grouped together. However, there's little use of multi‑functional buttons, and all controls are clearly labelled, so you tend to get used to it. The only other thing to say about the buttons is that they're all beige, except for the red record button!
If you want a hard disk recorder, but don't want to mess about turning you computer into one, the D108 is highly recommended...
Completing the front panel is a large jog/shuttle dial, which offers various functions depending on what the D108 is doing. For example, when the machine is stopped, turning the inner jog wheel scrubs audio in either direction. The outer shuttle wheel provides several fast‑winding options; in play mode, the current song is audibly cued at ‑7 to +8x playback speed, and when stopped, it's possible to silently shoot through a song at up to 64x normal speed. The two wheels also double as parameter select and value‑change controls.
When the front panel is removed, a handle is revealed. This allows the lockable caddy which holds an internal IDE hard drive to be removed when a drive is full. Then you simply buy another drive, stick it in the caddy, and carry on. Spare caddies cost £35, and with hard drive prices at an all‑time low (the review D108 came with a 5.1Gb Quantum Fireball drive, normally around £70), the option of collecting a stack of drives in caddies is more economical than 2‑inch analogue tape. And that 5.1Gb drive provides around 17 track hours of audio! This figure highlights another advance for the D108 over the D80/90: recording time is allocated dynamically, so there's a pool of track minutes, whose size depends on the recording drive, which you use as you like. With the older machines, a fixed amount of time was available per track, and if you didn't use all one track's quota you couldn't take advantage of it on another.
The back panel features eight unbalanced analogue phono ins and eight outs; MIDI In, Out and Thru; two optical connectors that can behave as 8‑channel ADAT I/O, stereo S/PDIF I/O, or as a data interface for backup to DAT or ADAT; a SCSI connector for extra recording or backup drives (up to two); a mains socket; and two blanking panels. These can host the 5040 Balanced Analogue I/O option, which uses two 25‑pin D‑Sub connectors and thus would need a special loom to connect to a desk or patchbay, and the 8345 Timecode/Sync option. This adds professional video sync facilities and word clock.
You can almost sum up recording with the 108 by saying that it's just like using a tape recorder. That's maybe a bit of an over‑simplification, but it's not far off the truth. The process starts with formatting the recording drive, if it's not already formatted (OK, so you don't have to do that with an analogue tape machine...). If you're planning to sync a sequencer to MIDI clock generated by the D108, the next step is setting up a time signature and tempo (or tempo map) so you'll have a consistent metronome while recording audio. The D108 can generate a click, or you can use your sequencer's. MTC (MIDI Time Code) sync is also available, but this would need a tempo map set up in your sequencer.
You'll also want to define which inputs the D108 will record from — the digital input parameter should be set to 'ADAT' if an ADAT‑equipped digital desk (such as Spirit's 328 or Fostex's forthcoming VM200) is being used, and 'no input' if the desk is analogue. It's possible to record two S/PDIF tracks alongside six analogue, though the tracks assigned to S/PDIF aren't then available to the analogue inputs.
Now it's just a matter of pressing the appropriate track‑enable buttons, pressing Record to monitor the audio level coming in, and then Play and Record together to commit a performance to disk. There are options for manual, footswitch or automatic punch‑in/out, and, as you'd hope with a digital system, these are seamless, with a small crossfade taking care of any stray clicks. A couple of points against the 108 here are the awkward way in which punch‑in/out points are assigned, and the fact that it's not possible to perform multiple punches, manually or automatically, in one pass of a track — but on the whole, the act of recording is as painless as analogue.
And as soon as you start messing about with the audio, the D108 surpasses analogue in many ways. For example, if a recording or punch‑in doesn't work, simply press Undo (one level only). To compare original and new audio, press Redo. Those additional tracks are another digital bonus; fill up all eight playback tracks, then use the 'Track Exchange' function to squirrel some of them away while you fill up their slots again. We used this to offline backing tracks while recording and bouncing massed backing vocals. Once all the vocals were in their final stereo mix, the backing could be exchanged back to replay tracks.
Editing with the D108 is a simple and occasionally frustrating affair. The processes available boil down to: Erase, where a section of audio on any or all tracks is cleared (returning the erased disk space to the pool); Move and Paste, which moves audio to another point in the Song; and Copy and Paste, which copies a section of audio and writes it to another part of the Song, leaving the original audio intact. Up to 99 copies of a section of audio can be pasted, disk space allwing. One frustrating aspect of Fostex's editing tools is that the Move and Copy functions create new audio — no playlist editing here. The other irritation is the fact that audio being pasted overwrites the audio at the paste point, for the length of the moved or copied segment, so an option to insert a segment, pushing the audio at the insert point to make way for the inserted segment, would be most welcome.
There's a way of dealing with the latter issue — basically, making careful use of Move to create empty space, into which a Copy operation can be completed — but it's long‑winded. One issue that can't be dealt with is the tedious defining of edit points, using the same techniques as for setting locate and punch‑in/‑out points. Locate and edit points can be entered on the fly, but since this involves hitting the Hold button at the right moment (to capture the position) then pressing Store plus one of the locate buttons immediately, it's not exactly convenient.
Since points captured on the fly usually need editing anyway, our preferred method was to note the rough area where an edit point was required, zoom in on it with the audible scrubbing feature (as mentioned earlier, scrubbing individual tracks turns the bar‑graph display into a virtual waveform display, while the audio loops on individual samples), and set the desired point. Being able to set the time display to bars and beats, as well as absolute or MTC time, makes selecting edit and locate points in this manner almost as easy as doing the same job in a MIDI sequencer.
If you want a hard disk recorder, but don't want to mess about turning you computer into one, the D108 is highly recommended (furthermore, it comes from a company whose mainstay is recording equipment, unlike the average computer). The 108's dynamic time allocation was probably overdue on a Fostex recorder, as were virtual tracks, but now they're here, and the new WAV file compatibility will be welcomed by many. The WAV saving and loading procedure works fine, though whole Songs (including additional tracks) rather than individual tracks have to be exported. You can import individual tracks, if required, however.
The presence of both ADAT and analogue interfacing means that the D108 can slot easily into many existing studios, whether primarily analogue or digital. The only things we could really suggest to improve it, apart from a rethink of the procedure for setting edit/locate points, would be a few more editing features (including, perhaps, playlist editing and copying of audio between Songs), a little DSP, and maybe more virtual tracks.
This is a unit that's equally at home in the well‑equipped project studio and the professional facility. It's affordable, genuinely easy to use, very stable, and represents one of the most focused and polished implementations of 8‑track digital on the market.
Though the market isn't flooded with stand‑alone HD 8‑tracks, the D108 isn't completely without competition. Akai's DR8 may be the closest current equivalent. The DR8 has great features, including a built‑in digital mixing facility with
99‑scene snapshot automation, AES‑EBU digital as well as S/PDIF, 109 autolocate points, playlist editing, and a neat 'take' feature (similar to virtual tracks but more flexible). However, the basic machine costs £700 more than the 108 and some facilities, such as internal drive, ADAT interfacing, and MIDI connections, must be bought as extras. It's a mature, professional machine, but it could be argued that the 108 is better priced for the average project studio.
Emu's Darwin, if you can find one, cost much more than the 108 on its release, though it offers playlist editing, 16 levels of Undo, an internal MIDI‑controllable mixing facility, optional DSP board for normalising, fades, pitch‑shifting, timestretching, and so on, as well as, WAV‑file compatibility. It has an impressive spec, but only four tracks can be recorded simultaneously, and ADAT interfacing and sync are optional extras.
Other alternatives include Vestax's HDRV8, which gained a glowing SOS review in March 1997. However, it's currently uncertain how actively it's being supported and developed at the moment. Yamaha's D24 magneto‑optical 8‑track also looks interesting, but it won't be available until the end of the year.
- Max HD size: unlimited. Fostex recommend suitable drives.
- 8‑track simultaneous recording/playback.
- 16 additional (virtual) tracks.
- Save/load audio in WAV format.
- S/PDIF and ADAT interfaces.
- 8 channels unbalanced analogue I/O (phonos).
- MIDI In/Out/Thru.
- 44.1/48kHz sampling rates.
- Up to 99 Songs.
- Audible scrubbing.
- 6‑point edit memory, 99 locate‑point memory.
- MMC support.
- Tempo mapping: up to 64 tempo/signature changes per song.
- Transmits MIDI Clock (with Song Position Pointer); transmits/reads MTC.
- SCSI interface.
- 20‑bit A‑D/D‑A converters.
The current Fostex HD recorder family is quite cleverly layered. At entry level are the FD4 and FD8 multitrackers, sharing some features with the D‑series machines higher up, but with built‑in mixers and lesser displays. You could think of these machines, which offer a data‑compressed recording option, as being something like an all‑in‑one hi‑fi system, whereas the forthcoming VR800 stand‑alone 8‑track, derived from the recorder section of the FD8, is like moving up to hi‑fi separates, for those who need the flexibility of an external mixer. To continue the metaphor, the D108 and D160 are more like the posh separates in one of those hi‑fi shops that are too scary to go into. They do a similar job to the recorders further down the scale, but they look more swish (good in studios with paying customers) and have options that set them apart as professional. The clever thing on Fostex's part is that anyone who starts off modestly with the FD4 could move through the Fostex range right up to the D160 while retaining the familiarity of the same kind of operating system and features. We even found that uncompressed files recorded on an FD8 transferred perfectly to the D108.
The D108 can transmit MIDI Clock for sync'ing MIDI equipment, and transmit or lock to MIDI Time Code. MIDI Machine Control is also available, allowing external control of the 108's transport. These features will be enough for most project studios, but for more demanding environments there's the 8345 timecode/sync option. This offers a dedicated timecode input and output, for transmitting or receiving MTC as LTC (Longitudinal Time Code, typically recorded on video tape); word clock input and output, for providing the master digital word clock, or slaving to another master; and video In and Thru connectors, for slaving to house video sync signals. No Sony 9‑pin interface or ADAT sync connector is provided.
- Easy to use.
- ADAT interface as standard.
- WAV file support.
- Excellent sound quality.
- Good value.
- Some editing features awkward.
- Dreadful manual.
- No playlist editing.
Extremely hard to beat at this price point, striking an excellent balance between tape‑like ease of use and hard‑disk flexibility.