Paul White takes a look at the smallest of Fostex's 'D' range of pro DAT recorders.
Fostex have been building pro DAT recorders almost since the format was introduced, and even now, they've resisted the temptation to produce a budget, consumer‑grade model. Nevertheless, the D5 on review compares favourably in price with the two‑track analogue machines that it replaces. Unlike most consumer machines, the D5 has switchable sampling rates, balanced audio and digital I/Os on XLRs, and there's no hint of SCMS anywhere in the manual (for those new to DAT machines, SCMS is a supposed anti‑piracy system which prevents you making digital backups beyond one generation from the master tape. In practice, this is a major inconvenience for legitimate users, and no deterrent at all to pirates, who can easily afford a couple of hundred pounds of their ill‑gotten gains to buy an SCMS stripper box!).
The D5 is a 3U professional DAT machine with a clean and simple front panel layout. Surprisingly, the machine is very light — probably about half the weight of my original Sony DTC1000. Though the construction gives no real cause for concern, the tape door and retractable plastic tape tray feel a touch on the flimsy side. The D5 can be controlled via the included infra‑red remote, though it is possible to switch the wireless reception mode off, which might be a good idea if you have more than one of the same type of machine. For those preferring wired or computer‑controlled operation, a rear panel DIN socket is fitted, and this provides access to Stop, Play and ID search in either direction. The inputs have an impedance of 4.7kΩ, and must be pulled down to ground to activate them. This simple arrangement means that conventional pushbuttons could be used to build your own remote control.
Most of the facilities offered by the D5 are pretty standard, though I was rather surprised to find balanced digital I/Os, and optical S/PDIF digital I/Os, but no phonos. OK, so phonos aren't professional, but when you want to make a quick and dirty hookup to clone a DAT tape from one machine to another, the phono facility is pretty handy. Likewise there are no audio phonos, so to get sound in and out of the D5, you'll need XLR leads.
A sensible inclusion is the option of switching to either ‑10dBV or +4dBu input operation; the output is always set to +4dBu. The headphone output will feed any phones from 8Ω upwards, and I can confirm that there's plenty of power available. The recording level is set using a level and balance control rather than two independent level controls, and in most situations, the adopted approach is more comfortable.
One neat feature is that if you're making a digital copy from a CD, the Q code on the CD is directly translated into DAT Start IDs
One neat feature is that if you're making a digital copy from a CD (and let's face it, there are legitimate circumstances under which you'd want to do this), the Q code on the CD is directly translated into DAT Start IDs, so you don't have to worry about ID's being missed when one track runs into another, or unwanted IDs popping up whenever there's a break. Like most modern DAT machines, the D5 records a real‑time subcode onto the tape to provide a real‑time display. All the usual ID editing and renumbering facilities are fully supported.
Soundwise, the D5 uses single‑bit converters fed from a clock system designed to minimise clock jitter, now widely acknowledged as one of the main reasons why some machines sound noticeably worse than others. The result is a signal‑to‑noise ratio and dynamic range in excess of 90dB, and an audio bandwidth from 20Hz to 20kHz within +/‑1dB. There's also a long‑play mode (rather out of place on a pro machine?), and this provides the same kind of dynamic range and noise performance, but with the upper frequency limit restricted to 14.5kHz.
During my tests, the machine worked flawlessly, sounded great, and happily played tapes made on other DAT machines. Ergonomically, I don't like the small round buttons used for ID search and ID editing, but the main transport controls are fine, and the motorised tape tray works smoothly enough. The display, while a little on the small side, carries all the usual information as well as metering, and the tape handling is both positive and very fast. I felt that Fostex might have included a shuttle control, because I find the one on Tascam's DA30 MkII invaluable for cueing up songs, but other than that, the machine is a joy to use. You can buy cheaper DAT recorders, but some of the cheaper consumer models don't tend to last very long in a studio environment. When you work out what you spend on your other recording and musical equipment, buying a decent DAT recorder makes a lot of sense.
Another advantage the D5 has over consumer machines is its error readout system, but as no details are provided as to what type of errors the system detects, or over what period, it can only be regarded as a general guide. The manual skips over this facility in just a few lines without giving much away, other than to say that there's an independent error readout for the left and right channels. When I tried it out, I consistently got an error readout of 0 playing tapes I'd made on my Sony machine, but whenever I stopped the tape, the readout set itself to the maximum value of 9. A quick phone call to Fostex's UK distributor SCV London shed a little light on the way the system works; it seems the number generated is related to the number of errors found, with a '9' readout indicating a tape with severe problems. Nevertheless, the exact relationship between the number of errors found and the error readout number remains unclear!
- Simple to use.
- Good tape handling.
- Excellent sound quality.
- No SCMS.
- Switchable sample rates.
- Rather lightweight construction, especially the tape drawer.
- No shuttle wheel.
- No phono analogue or S/PDIF digital connectors.
A sensibly‑priced, pro DAT recorder for those who don't want to make do with a consumer machine.