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Fostex FD4

Digital Multitracker By David Mellor
Published June 1998

Fostex FD4

Though the FD4 doesn't have a built‑in recording drive, it records to a choice of popular types, costs less than £400, and has been designed to be almost as easy to use as a cassette multitracker. David Mellor goes back to basics...

The Fostex FD4 is a hard disk multitracker without a hard disk. Pardon? You'll have to read on for the detail, but I'll say at the outset that the FD4 isn't weighed down with features (as some hard disk recorders are) and that Fostex seem to have struck a happy balance between features and usability in their new machine — they appear to have remembered that most potential purchasers will probably be complete novices in the recording arts.


Fostex FD4

The FD4 is a fairly compact unit, quite light in weight at just 4kg (no doubt the fact that it doesn't have a built‑in hard drive contributes to this) and neatly divided into a mixer section and a recorder section. The mixer is pure analogue, which makes it easy to learn and operate, but rules out any form of automation or programmability. The recorder section is fitted with the usual transport buttons that you'd expect, and additionally has editing functions that take a little bit of learning but work well once you've made the effort. There's also a jog/shuttle wheel, that I'll comment on later.

On the front of the unit are four inputs, on quarter‑inch jack sockets, and a headphone output. At the back are found separate pairs of stereo and monitor output phono sockets, two auxiliary sends, and two stereo auxiliary returns. I might only have expected a single auxiliary on a unit of this price, so I'm pleased to see this. Another surprise is the provision of two balanced XLR mic inputs which feed channels 3 and 4 via insert points where a compressor, equaliser or noise gate could be connected. Very nice — and if they had 48V phantom power for capacitor mics they would have been perfect. Capacitor mics are now affordable and manufacturers should remember that. Also on the rear panel are two additional phono sockets for direct access to the recorder, bypassing the mixer section, and a quarter‑inch jack for the obligatory punch‑in footswitch.

As well as analogue audio connectors, the rear panel also sports a pair of MIDI sockets, In and Out, but no Thru. I suppose Thru boxes are cheap enough, but I can't see that a full set of MIDI connections would have been too much of a problem to provide. A pair of digital optical connectors offer digital input to the recorder section and digital output of individual tracks or the entire mix. A backup function is also available. There are no S/PDIF phonos, I'm afraid, although the Fostex COP1 optical/co‑axial converter is a relatively inexpensive accessory. Last, but not least, is the computer‑style SCSI socket with which the necessary external hard drive is connected.

Since you have to source your own disk drive, or allow your dealer to assemble a suitable package, it's useful to know the alternatives. The Iomega Zip drive is compatible with the FD4 in two of its three recording modes, which allow, according to Fostex's figures, 8.25 minutes of 32kHz data‑compressed 4‑track recording, or 4.25 minutes of full 16‑bit linear 44.1kHz 4‑track recording (disk space is dynamically allocated, so these figures can be increased proportionately if you use fewer than four tracks). If these maximum recording times seem rather short, you might prefer to use something like a 230Mb Syquest EZflyer, which would allow 10.5 minutes of full‑quality 4‑track recording, or a 1Gb Iomega Jaz drive, which allows 50.25 minutes of full‑quality recording, again on all four tracks. Magneto‑optical drives can be used too, but since they are slower than magnetic hard disks there is one restriction on performance, that I'll come to later. Unlike many other hard disk recorders, the FD4 can only be used with one disk at a time. The SCSI specification allows for up to seven connected devices, plus the host, but the FD4 can only recognise one, which isn't too much of a drawback for recording but unfortunately eliminates the possibility of backing up from one disk to another, which some might have found useful.

Although the FD4 is marketed as a diskless unit, it is actually possible to have an internal IDE drive fitted by an authorised Fostex service agent. Suitable disks of up to 3Gb in capacity are available (yielding around 150 minutes of full‑quality 4‑track recording) and having one fitted internally does make the unit self‑contained. One further alternative would be to use a fixed external SCSI hard disk.

Mixer Section

Fostex FD4

The mixer section of the FD4 isn't totally conventional, but it isn't so unusual that a reasonably experienced recordist couldn't get used to it in about five minutes. A novice would take a little longer, and I have to say that I worry slightly that such a person would expect all mixers to work in a similar way and then find out at the threshold of the next stage of their career that they don't.

As you might expect in a low‑cost and fairly simple unit, there is no gain knob at the top of each channel, but since the levels of equipment used in a domestic setting are fairly predictable, this shouldn't be a problem. Channels 3 and 4 do, in fact, have a gain switch, with positions for High, Medium and Low output devices. The M position is also suitable for the direct connection of an electric guitar. Each channel is routed to the main left‑right stereo buss via the pan control, so if you want to record on tracks 1 or 3 you pan left, or pan right to record on tracks 2 or 4. To record from channel 1 to track 4, for example, you would set the Input Select switch of channel 1 to 'Input' and pan right.

The monitoring arrangements of the FD4's mixer are simple to use but just a little bit more difficult to explain. The mixer is of the in‑line variety, meaning that there are two signal paths in each channel — one for the input and one for the signal from the corresponding track of the recorder. During recording and overdubbing you would route an input signal through the channel fader via the master fader to the recorder. You can monitor any tracks already recorded via the monitor section in each channel, which consists of level and pan controls. The outputs from these tracks go only to the headphones and monitor outputs and not to the recorder. The net result is that you can record one track while listening to other tracks you've already recorded, which is exactly what you need to do! If you've used similar equipment before, you'll understand what I'm saying. If you haven't, it's probably all a bit of a blur, but you can take my word for it that Fostex give you everything you need, in the simplest way possible, and you'll soon get the hang of it. One peculiarity that I referred to earlier, that sets the mixer section of the FD4 apart from other mixers, is in the monitor level controls. Rather than being a switch, so that it can be swapped between input signal and recorder track, the monitor level control has a zero position in the centre where it sends no signal. Turning it to the left increases the level of the input signal in the monitor, turning it to the right increases the level of the track signal. It's strange, but it works.

Other features of the mixer section include two auxiliary sends, which are operated by a single knob, in the same way as the monitor level control. This unfortunately precludes sending a signal from one channel to two effects units simultaneously. I suppose the provision of an extra knob per channel would have increased the cost of the unit. Both auxes are post‑fade, which is appropriate for a unit of this type.

The EQ section is quite versatile, with high‑frequency and low‑frequency controls, and a mid control with two knobs for frequency and level. It works surprisingly well, the HF control adding or subtracting brightness (some HF sections only manage to add harshness or dullness!) and the LF section adding warmth or 'thinning out' a signal in a very useful manner. The mid control has a slightly sharper resonance (Q) than I would normally prefer, but it's still capable of a very useful degree of control.

Recorder Section

With a cassette multitracker, you slot in a cassette and start recording. To record another song later on the tape, you just take a note of the counter reading and perhaps set the zero locate. With disk systems things are, I am afraid, more complicated. First of all you have to format the disk. Fostex offer three formatting options, known as Normal, Mastering 1 and Mastering 2:

  • Normal mode offers longer recording time but is recorded at a 32kHz sample rate with data compression, which results in a frequency response only up to 15.5kHz and a sound quality which is not entirely transparent, but still very acceptable, being almost comparable to MiniDisc.
  • Mastering 2 mode offers full 44.1kHz, 16‑bit quality.
  • Mastering 1 mode has an additional two virtual tracks, referred to by Fostex as Additional tracks, which can be used to store material in sync with other tracks but cannot be played back. The Mastering 1 format cannot be used with a Zip drive or a magneto‑optical disk, since they are a little slower than other disk media.

Once you've formatted your disk, you can start recording your first song immediately. If you want to record further songs on the same disk, you can simply start further down the timeline, as you would with cassette, but the recommended option is to create a new program. Each program corresponds to a song, and you can have up to 99 on a disk, as space allows. It isn't immediately obvious how you create and select programs, but if you look long and hard enough at the FD4's control surface you'll notice that certain buttons are linked together with horizontal lines. These include the Hold and Store buttons, which, when pressed simultaneously, allow program creation and selection. It takes a little time to get used to the way the FD4 works, but it's reasonably straightforward after a little practice.

Recording tracks follows a standard procedure: hit Record Select buttons and operate the Record and Play keys. As this is a hard disk recorder, access to any part of the recording, once made, can be almost immediate, but to ease the transition for those used to tape‑based equipment, Fast Forward and Rewind buttons are provided. The FD4 also has several locate functions that need a little explanation. Firstly, there are six locate memories, which are labelled Start, In, Out, End, Clipboard In and Clipboard Out. You can ignore their names and use them as simple locators, where you store a locate time in any one and go back there very quickly. Alternatively, you can use Start and End as markers for the Auto Return and Auto Play functions, where a section of interest can be looped and played repeatedly. Within that loop there can be an automated punch‑in, which is quite easy to set up. The clipboard In and Out points are used in editing. Punch‑in, by the way, is click free although you can only punch in and out once each time you record, and when you punch out the monitor signal is muted for several seconds, which is disconcerting, although the recording is OK.


I have a feeling that some users of the FD4 will never use its editing facilities, although they will always be there should the need arise. As with all non‑computer‑based hard disk recorders in the lower‑than‑stratospheric price bracket, editing is really only useful for cutting sections out of songs, repeating choruses, and that kind of thing. If you want to build up a song out of loops and short audio segments you need a computer and appropriate software. Nevertheless, the FD4's editing functions are very useful in the right context. Marking out a section to be cut, for example, involves setting start and end points. Start points can be found approximately by hitting the Hold or Store key on the fly. They can then be fine‑tuned using the jog/shuttle wheel or the preview function. The jog/shuttle wheel, I have to say, is one of the worst I've come across. It's partially recessed — thus difficult to get a firm grip on — and it doesn't 'scrub' like other hard disk recorders do, emulating the old method of manually moving analogue tape against the recorder's heads. When it's implemented well, this method provides a quick and easy method of finding an edit point, and all the pro machines have it. The FD4, on the other hand, repeatedly plays a very short segment of audio — around 100ms, I would estimate — which slides backwards and forwards in time as you turn the wheel. It's usable, but far from ideal, and it sounds pretty unpleasant too. The preview function is a little better, where the FD4 creates a two‑second cycle, allowing you to hear the last second up to or after an edit point. This you can trim in real time as it loops around. Once you've found your edit points, you can copy a segment (from any number of adjacent tracks) and paste it elsewhere, or move the segment, leaving silence behind. If there's something on the disk you don't like, you can simply erase it. What the FD4 lacks is a delete function that will close up the gap, so that you can get rid of a whole section of a song and butt the remaining portions together. You can achieve much the same thing using the copy function, but it's not as straightforward a process as it could be. The editing functions also include track exchange, where data can be swapped among playback tracks, and also to and from the two Additional tracks in Mastering 1 mode.


If you can sacrifice the convenience of an all‑in‑one unit, you might find that you can be as much at ease with the FD4 as you would be with a cassette multitracker (though you could opt for an installed internal disk, which would actually make the FD4 an all‑in‑one unit). And there are bonus tricks that only a disk can do, such as editing without cutting tape, and the provision of those two 'virtual tracks' in Mastering 1 mode.

In terms of its sound quality, the FD4 is well up to current digital standards, and even the data‑compressed Normal mode, if not entirely transparent, is surprisingly good through three or four generations of bouncing (see 'Bouncing Tracks' box). It's definitely far better than cassette, and it's attractively priced (even with a Zip or EZFlyer drive taken into account) compared to similarly featured MiniDisc units. Overall, I'm confident that the FD4 is capable of excellent results, and I would be happy to recommend it.

Thanks to Iomega and their UK press representatives Byte for the loan of the Iomega Jaz drive used with the FD4 in this review.

Bouncing Tracks

Since the FD4 has only four tracks, inevitably the recording process will include bouncing, so that a more complex arrangement can be made. On a cassette multitrack you can bounce three tracks onto the remaining one, releasing those three tracks for further use but sacrificing the individual recordings they contain. On the FD4, when working in the Mastering 1 format (not available with Zip or magneto‑optical drives), there are two additional tracks which can be used as destination tracks for bouncing, in mono or stereo. The additional tracks can be swapped for playback tracks whenever necessary. Although there is no dedicated 'bounce forward' feature, where mixing takes place to a point further along the timeline, this can be achieved through the editing functions and the original four tracks can be retained. A little long‑winded, perhaps, but it works.

Digital Input

Since in Normal mode the FD4 operates at a 32kHz sampling rate, and in both of the Mastering modes at 44.1kHz, it follows that the sampling rate of any digital source should correspond to these, as appropriate. There is no provision for 48kHz recording, or for mixing or converting sampling rates.


The FD4 outputs MTC (MIDI Timecode) during record and play, to synchronise your sequencer of choice. In addition, the FD4 will send and respond to MIDI Machine Control (MMC) data, so that you can control the unit from a sequencer — or you can control external equipment, in a basic way, from the FD4. The FD‑4 also features a tempo map (and internal metronome) so that a sequencer can be synchronised via MIDI Clock and Song Position Pointers in the more old‑fashioned way.

8‑Channel Mixdown

The in‑line mixer section of the FD4 has two signal paths per channel, and it's possible to use both on mixdown by using the monitor output as the main output, or by following the instructions in the manual on mixing eight channels into the digital output. Remember, also, that there are two additional stereo auxiliary inputs, making a total of 12 channels possible on mixdown.


The FD4 outputs MTC (MIDI Timecode) during record and play, to synchronise your sequencer of choice. In addition, the FD4 will send and respond to MIDI Machine Control (MMC) data, so that you can control the unit from a sequencer — or you can control external equipment, in a basic way, from the FD4. The FD‑4 also features a tempo map (and internal metronome) so that a sequencer can be synchronised via MIDI Clock and Song Position Pointers in the more old‑fashioned way.

Iomega JAZ Drive

The Iomega Jaz drive has become something of a standard in the audio industry, as far as removable‑cartridge drives are concerned. The standard Jaz drive offers a capacity of 1Gb, and a new 2Gb model will shortly be available. From a Jaz drive you should be able to get at least eight tracks, with appropriate equipment (of course, the Fostex FD4 is only specified to be a 4‑track recorder). Akai's DPS12, with special formatting, shows the Jaz to be capable of a very useful 12 tracks. The great advantage of Jaz, besides its removable‑cartridge design, is the fact that the drive itself is quite cheap to buy and is usually supplied with one cartridge. The cartridges themselves are not as cheap as optical cartridges, nor do they claim to be as abuse‑proof, but the low cost of the unit still makes it a very attractive option. Be warned that, like all hard disks and optical disks, it makes clicking and whirring sounds when in use, but the Iomega‑cased version (Jaz drives from other manufacturers are all Iomega products internally) incorporates WhisperDrive technology, so it is at least as quiet as you could reasonably hope it to be, bearing in mind the immense amount of activity going on in multitrack digital recording.


  • Low‑cost entry to hard disk recording.
  • Digital sound quality.
  • Good EQ.
  • Easy to use, once you know how.


  • External drives are a bit fiddly to set up.
  • Jog/shuttle wheel difficult to use.
  • No editing function to delete a section and close up the gap.
  • No 48kHz digital recording.


The Fostex FD4 is a very effective 4‑track hard disk multitracker. It has a sound quality far superior to cassette and is a very interesting alternative to MiniDisc models.