The mid‑priced XR7 is at the top of the new Fostex cassette multitracker range. Shirley Gray checks it out.
Despite speculation about the demise of analogue recording in all its forms, 4‑track cassette‑based multitrackers continue to proliferate, and this year's Frankfurt Musikmesse saw a whole raft of new models floated on the market. In principle, there was nothing really new, but as expected, the trend was towards an increase in sophistication and a continuing fall in prices.
The Fostex XR7, one of the above‑mentioned machines launched at Frankfurt, leans towards the budget end of the recording market, and as such has been designed to be easy to use. Commendably, the manual has been written with the recording newcomer in mind and includes step‑by‑step instructions for recording a first session. The XR7 also has a few rather advanced features, such as a Rehearsal mode, which, as well as saving in setting‑up time, can be a great help for those doing their first few overdubs.
The XR7 is a 4‑track, 6‑channel multitracker and is powered by mains only, via the supplied 12V PSU. The machine features footswitch punch‑in/out recording, but if you want to make use of this, you'll have to provide your own footswitch. Simultaneous recording is possible on all four tracks, which is a plus, as many similarly priced units only allow you to record on a maximum of two tracks at once. In practical terms, this means you could record a whole band at once, whereas the more limited machines are better suited to the solo musician building up a recording one or two tracks at a time.
Fostex have stuck with Dolby C noise reduction, which seems to provide a realistic compromise between noise reduction and audible side effects without going to the more costly Dolby S system. The XR7 also features pitch control, high and normal tape speed, insert points on two of the mixer channels, two Aux sends, three‑band EQ, a sync facility on track 4, and direct tape outputs. The latter provision is very important if you want to mix down via an external mixer with better facilities. The machine weighs in at a mere 3kg and is extremely compact, measuring only 405 x 321 x 105mm.
Overall, the XR7 looks to be well thought out, but a more thorough rundown of the inputs and outputs may help you decide if it's exactly what you need. On the front panel are the input jacks 1‑6; 1‑4 are designed to handle line levels, such as electronic instruments, while 5 and 6 can handle either line‑ or mic‑level signals. In most home studio situations, this isn't a limitation, but if you have a regular need to multi‑mic acoustic ensembles of any kind, you'll need either an external mixer or some outboard mic preamps, and if you don't have these already, buying a multitracker with more mic inputs is definitely the cheaper option. In addition, there's a jack for headphones and one for the optional punch in/out footswitch.
The rest of the connections are on the rear panel. There are two insert jacks, which you can use to process individual signals while you're recording to tape or during mixdown — typical applications would be using a compressor/limiter on vocals, or (if you're slightly 'outboardly challenged') recording an instrument or voice complete with its effects, thus freeing the signal processor to be used with a different setting when you come to mix. To use the inserts, you need the usual 'Y' cable with a stereo jack at one end splitting into two mono jack leads at the other; one of these goes to the processor's input and the other to its output. You can also use the inserts on the L/R buss during mixdown — for example, if you wanted to add compression or enhancement to the overall mix. The Aux Sends and stereo Returns are mono jacks.
There are several sets of output jacks, the first labelled Foldback, which is a single, mono jack; this might be used to feed a headphone amplifier for the benefit of the musicians in the studio. Next come the Stereo Out jacks, for connecting to the input of your 2‑track mastering machine for mixdown. Monitor Outs provide the signal for the monitor amp and speaker setup, while the Tape Outs (direct outputs from the individual tape tracks), can be used either to feed an external mixer for mixing down, or even as extra effects sends relating to the individual tracks.
And now for the guided tour around the control panel... Each of the six mixer channels has an Input Fader to adjust the level of the signal going through that channel, and associated with these faders are input source switches, which determine whether the incoming signal is derived from the Input jack or the Tape track. Channels 1‑4 have a Foldback (pre‑fader) level control, which can be sourced from either the input signal or the tape signal, depending on what you want to listen to. All six channels have a Pan control.
The EQ on channels 1‑4 is rather basic — just High (10kHz +/‑ 12dB) and Low (100Hz +/‑ 12dB). However, on channels 5 and 6 there's a sweep mid, which makes these channels rather more tonally flexible. The manual refers to this as a parametric equaliser, but this isn't, strictly speaking, accurate, as a parametric has further controls to set the width of the band of frequencies affected by the equaliser. The fact that the sweep mid facility is only available on the two 'extra' channels means that if you want to use the sweep mid on mixdown, you have to connect a lead from the tape out of the relevant track and feed it into the input of channel 5 or 6. Not an ideal solution, but at least it's possible.
The Aux Send arrangement is the same on all six channels. There's only one pot per channel, despite the fact there are two Aux Sends; the pot is centre zero, so you turn it anti‑clockwise to send to Aux 1 or clockwise to send to Aux 2. Obviously this means that you can't have both effects on a channel signal simultaneously. There is a switch associated with the Aux send system which selects whether the signal you are sending to your effects processor is derived from the channel (ie. input/tape signal) or the foldback buss. This means in practice that you can have effects on your monitor mix when you're doing your overdubs — a nice touch, as most people sing better with a little reverb in the cans. Finally, the Master section has overall level controls for Aux Sends 1 and 2, Returns 1 and 2, Monitor level, and the stereo left/right output (Master Fader).
The tape deck offers nothing startlingly new in the control department, except for the fact that there is no Pause button. Pressing Record without the tape playing allows you to monitor the signal you are about to record and set its level. To record on a particular track you have to select it via one of four Rec Select switches. You can then monitor its status from flashing (record ready) to continually lit (recording). In Rehearsal mode, depressing the footswitch switches the track monitoring from the off‑tape signal to the input signal, which allows you to hear how your punch‑in would sound before actually committing yourself to doing it.
The LED display contains the metering, and has six bar meters, four for the tape tracks and two for the Left and Right buss. The colours used are rather happy shades of golden honey and lemon, and the Rec Status lamps are quite large, so you're unlikely to miss the fact that one is flashing! There's also a cute little LED diagram of the tape, which imitates the tape travel, showing whether you're in Play mode, Fast Forward or Rewind. There's quite a bit of headroom on the meters, so you can go a couple of bars into the red (actually gold) before you get distortion.
The compact, lightweight nature of the XR7 has an unfortunate side effect; it's too easy to pull it off its perch by tripping over a lead! If I owned this machine, I'd put it on something with a high friction co‑efficient, or find a way of firmly anchoring it down — perhaps one of those double‑sided suckery things for holding the soap down in the soap dish? The power supply came with sensibly long leads, which is unusual, and definitely a bonus.
Aesthetically, the XR7 is rather attractive, though plasticky in feel, and is laid out sensibly, with the connections easily accessible and clearly labelled. The knobs, which have a rubbery surface, are smooth in action and quite slim — just as well, as they're rather close together. The faders feel positive, but a little coarse.
My first favourable impressions of the XR7 were rather marred by the fact that after about a minute of use, the display 'crashed', leaving all the LEDs on, and nothing would operate. I couldn't do anything except turn it off and start again. I did try to make this fault repeat, but fortunately it appears to have been a one‑off, and subsequently the test session went fairly smoothly. Some operations weren't quite as intuitive as they might have been, but there's usually a way of doing pretty much anything you want to, although it might take a few moments to work out exactly how. If you get stuck, there's always the manual — remember them?
The XR7's sound quality is very good, considering the limitations of the cassette recording medium and the budget nature of the machine. The use of Dolby C noise reduction means that there is none of the coarseness which can occur with dbx, especially on a bounced track. I was pleased to note that the mixer is surprisingly quiet in use; crosstalk between tape tracks is possibly a little more apparent than on a machine with dbx, but I still had to listen pretty intently to hear breakthrough from a recorded sync‑code during periods of (otherwise) absolute silence. The EQ is very pleasant and smooth — not peaky, boomy or harsh — and the sweep‑mid controls on channels 5 and 6 allow for a wide range of EQ possibilities. Sadly, the full works are only available on mixdown on two of the four tracks (and then only by connecting the tape out to the input of channel 5 or 6), or on the entire stereo buss, but as is often stated in these pages, people have a habit of over‑using EQ anyway.
The XR7's headphone amplifier quality is much better than I've heard for a long time on a budget machine — so often the circuit used is cheap and noisy, because it is assumed that you'll only use the headphones for doing your takes, rather than for actually checking out your sound quality.
Punch‑ins are quiet and positive, but as usual, you have to make sure you leave a little bit of a gap, otherwise you don't erase the very start of the section you want to replace, leaving a slight overlap. Similarly, you need to punch out during a pause wherever possible, because you always end up with a small unrecorded gap at the punch‑out point. This is inevitable on this type of machine, and is simply a function of the distance between the erase head and the record head.
Punch‑ins are most easily managed using a remote footswitch; although you can punch in manually (as opposed to footually) by holding down Rec and hitting Play, I couldn't find a way of punching out using the tape transport controls other than by pressing Stop, which leaves a click on tape. Unusually, you can't use the Rec Select buttons to punch in or out. This makes the footswitch essential for any serious work — which begs the question: why is it optional?
The Rehearsal feature was helpful and easy to use. I liked the idea of having centre detents on the Aux and EQ controls, but they should be on the Pan controls too — it can be quite difficult to judge the centre position.
As always with a unit that's built to a price, there are compromises, but Fostex have tried hard to provide a good level of basic quality and enough flexibility to let you get around most of the common restrictions. You do get insert points and three‑band EQ, but they are on either channels 5 and 6 or the Left and Right buss, leaving just two‑band EQ on the other channels. There are two Aux sends, but you can only have one on any particular channel because of the centre‑off pot arrangement.
On the completely positive side you get the fancy and informative LED display; Search Zero and the Rehearsal features; pitch control; a tape sync facility; and a couple of extra channels to plug your MIDI gear into. Personally, I'm most impressed with the sound quality, which is above average; both mixer noise and tape noise have been kept to a minimum, given the target price range. At the end of the day, no matter how many features you've got, it's the sound of the finished product that counts, and with this unit you've got more than a fighting chance of coming up with something that sounds like a professional demo. Despite a couple of minor gripes then, the verdict on the XR7 is generally good.
- Frequency Response:
- Mixer 20Hz‑20kHz
- Recorder 40Hz‑18kHz (high speed)
- Crosstalk 60dB (1kHz)
- Distortion Less than 0.05%
- Wow/Flutter +/‑ 0.07% at high speed (IEC/ANSI)
- Power DC12V (12‑16V), 13W
- S/N ratio 65dB (Dolby C in)
- Tape Speed 9.5/4.75cms per second
- Good sound quality.
- Cost effective.
- No Pause button.
- Punch‑out awkward without a footswitch.
- Inserts, mic inputs and three‑band EQ only on two channels.
- Aux system only allows one send to be used per channel at any one time.
A very adaptable little machine capable of making good‑sounding recordings.