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Fostex XR5

4-track Cassette Recorder By Derek Johnson
Published May 1995

Though recording technology is turning increasingly to digital, there's still a ready market for the fun and easy to use analogue cassette multitracker, and Fostex have just released three new models. Derek Johnson looks at one of them.

After a fairly quiet period on the cassette 4‑track front, Fostex have broken the silence with the release of three new multitracks, the XR3, XR5 and XR7, in ascending order of price and sophistication. We're looking here at the XR5, which the musician on a budget will find a comprehensive, no‑nonsense machine, offering just enough facilities for the more ambitious beginner, whilst remaining relatively simple to use.

Build & Facilities

Pick up the box from your friendly hi‑tech retailer, and you'll notice one thing right away: the XR5 is very light, though construction seems sturdy enough. As with any cassette multitracker, the XR5 is divided into two sections: the tape transport, and the mixer. The transport offers double‑speed operation (recording on up to two tape tracks at once), Dolby B noise reduction, and clunky mechanical (rather than soft‑touch electronic) controls. The mixer is a deceptively simple 4‑in/4‑out affair, although, rather unusually, the XR5 really scores on the output front — apart from the main stereo out, there's a separate stereo monitor output (so you can feed your mastering deck monitor amp independently), a mono foldback output, and individual outs for each tape track, which allow you to add an external mixer at a later date.

Each mixer input features the following, from bottom to top:

  • Input jack socket.
  • Input fader.
  • Level switch (Inputs 1 and 2 only): High, ‑10dB; Mid, ‑30dB; Low, ‑50dB.
  • Channel select switch: selects signal from tape or mixer input.
  • Foldback knob: turn left to monitor the input jack signal, and right to monitor tape playback.
  • Pan pot, for stereo placement and track assignment.
  • Low EQ, 100Hz, +/‑10dB.
  • Hi EQ, 10kHz, +/‑10dB.
  • Aux send: turn left for aux 1 and right for aux 2.
  • Aux send select switches, for using auxiliaries on main channel or foldback signal.
  • Insert point (Inputs 1 and 2 only).

Global controls include a master fader and level controls for the two aux returns and monitor output (with a switch for selecting the option to monitor the foldback, main mix or both together); a varispeed control offers a shift of approximately two semitones up and three down. You'll also spot a noise reduction defeat switch (global) and a pair of record select buttons. All that remain are the meters (they can monitor all four tape tracks or the overall mix plus two aux sends), a mechanical tape counter, and the tape compartment.

So far the XR5 looks like — and certainly is — a straightforward, and well‑featured machine. However, since it is aimed at the entry‑level market, it may be worth pointing out where the budget cuts have struck. First of all, the transport offers double speed only, so you won't be able to play back normal‑speed tapes, as you can with many other 4‑tracks. I found this particularly galling, since my first multitrack was a Yamaha MT44, and I have a collection of old single‑speed, Dolby B 4‑track tapes that I would have liked to remix. The XR5 does offer a tape sync facility, but I haven't mentioned it so far because there are no dedicated controls. Input 4 is used to record a code, and individual output 4 is used to play it back. There doesn't seem to be any way to disable noise reduction on track 4 (unless you use the global noise reduction defeat switch), but neither does it seem to impede the use of a sync code. Also lacking are a return to zero facility, and rehearsal modes.

In Use

Using the XR5 is not difficult, but if you're new to multitracking, check out the manual, which explains all basic multitrack techniques — plus a few advanced ones — quite clearly, although it's cluttered up with some over‑busy diagrams. Recording is as simple as plugging a signal into an input, setting the level, selecting which tape track you want to record onto and pressing record. To monitor or mix down, set the input(s) to Tape.

Although I prefer dbx on cassette multitrackers, there were no real problems with the Dolby B noise reduction. Overall sonic peformance was good, if a little dull, and I was able to bounce a couple of generations before noise became at all obvious. Effects and processors can be used in a number of ways — in‑line at the handy insert points or via the aux sends; the signal from the aux returns can be recorded to tape live or during bouncing.

On the subject of noise, however, there are a couple of small points worth airing. When listening critically, with the volume turned up, there is a certain amount of crosstalk between tape tracks; I also noticed that when erasing a track, there is some residual signal left on the erased track. However, pull the volume back down to normal levels, start recording, and these problems are not so noticeable. Results are certainly par for the medium.

Operationally, there isn't much to complain about, although complain I will. First of all, the transport tends to hum a bit, and hums even louder when you go into record. I'd rather it didn't. One of the strangest things about the XR5 is that every rotary pot on the input channels is centre detented (there's a gentle click at the centre of each pot's travel) — except, that is, for the pan pot, the knob which could arguably most benefit from this feature. Strange. And for me, the foldback knob is in the wrong place. It's quite easy, initially at least, to mistake it for the pan pot when working quickly.

The Bottom Line

There's a strange phenomenon I notice whenever I get back to using a cassette‑based multitracker: I have fun, not to mention finishing tracks more quickly. With units such as the XR5, you don't have loads of inputs, aux sends and tape tracks, so you just cut the crap and get recording. The planning and bouncing stages may seem to use up valuable time, but this could be illusory: if you have more inputs, auxiliaries, EQ, and general parameters to adjust, chances are you'll spend time adjusting them.

Though the majority of buyers of the XR5 will probably be entry‑level musicians, experienced recordists looking for a scratchpad could also consider the XR5. Price‑wise, it's pretty good value, although it's in the same price range as Tascam's Porta 07 and Yamaha's MT50, so it's not without competition. Overall, it seems built well enough to withstand a fair amount of use, the mixer is very flexible for such a budget unit, and the sound is perfectly acceptable.

So the bottom line is that the XR5 offers just enough features to get your ideas onto tape, with plenty of options to keep it relevant as and when your setup expands.

Extra Inputs?

Although the XR5 seems to offer a simple 4‑channel mixer, with adequate expansion opportunities — either of the stereo aux returns could be used to patch in line‑level signals or an external mixer, for example — there is one sneaky way to get yourself four extra line inputs for nothing. Basically, use the monitor output as your main mix (ie. plug the monitor out into your cassette deck rather than your amp), set the monitor switch to Stereo + Foldback, and plug your extra four sound sources into the main mixer inputs, using the foldback knob to set each input's level. The downside is that your new inputs are mono, and that although you could add effects, these can only be used on either off‑tape or input signals. OK, so it doesn't turn your XR5 into an SSL G Series desk, but it does help extract just a little bit more from a budget machine.


  • Light & compact.
  • Affordable.
  • Sounds fine.
  • Nice EQ.
  • Surprisingly flexible mixer at this price.


  • Some crosstalk.
  • Only records on two tracks at once.
  • Only one pot for two auxiliaries.
  • Transport hums a bit.


Not much to criticise here; if the above cons don't cause you to break out in a sweat, you'll probably be happy with an XR5. A good first machine.