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Fostex Model 20

Article from Home & Studio Recording, July 1986

Who needs a 3-track mastering machine? Fostex think you do so read all about the Model 20.


Fostex Model 20 Stereo Tape Machine: a versatile mastering machine with centre code track.


Once upon a time, life was simple. Tape recorders had one track and the result was gloriously monophonic. Then some bright spark invented stereo, and another quad. A Japanese fellow modified a quad machine for 4-track multitrack recording and then some greedy sods wanted 8, then 16, then 24 and then, God save us, 48! What next? 72-track? 96-track? No. 3-track. Surely not, we reply but I'm sorry to say that in the not too distant future, a studio won't even be worth ligging if it doesn't have a 3-track machine in the not too distant future.

It seems that whilst keyboard players, drummers, guitarists and countless others spend endless hours talking about MIDI, studio engineers have been busy developing their own hip buzzword. That word is SMPTE, without which it would seem no self respecting studio is complete.

Indeed, this offshoot of the space program for syncing shots of the moon to endless James Burke commentaries is becoming a commonplace feature in many a studio the length and breadth of the country. Fostex have seen this as an ideal opportunity to produce a machine that allows us to fully utilise this new technological phenomena.

Why Three?



Their new Model 20 stereo tape machine features a centre code track for the recording of stereo soundtrack and SMPTE or some other sync code. For those unfamiliar with this concept I will explain.

The left and right stereo image we are familiar with is something of an illusion as, to be more precise, it is actually two synchronised mono tracks which, when played back together, give an impression of a stereo image. The heads of a typical stereo machine have, therefore, two sections on which to record. In between these two sections, however, there is a minute gap and Studer, realising that sync codes don't need the same exacting recording requirements of an actual audio signal decided that it was feasible to use the tiny gap in between the left and right sections of the head as a means to record timecode and so the worlds first three track tape machine was built. Up until this time, if you needed music, effects, a voiceover or whatever and timecode, you had to record in mono on one track and leave the other free for timecode. The new three track head, of course, allows either stereo recording of music plus separate timecode or a mono mix on one side, voiceover on the other and timecode on the centre track, thus leaving the video producer or editor full control over synchronisation and the music/voice over balance. With such a system being highly desirable, it was only a matter of time before the orient moved in and this is where Fostex enter the scene as being the first manufacturer to produce such a machine and, for all intents and purposes, the Model 20 is a scaled down version of the Studer in terms of the facilities it offers.

Small Spools



To begin with, the Fostex takes only 7" spools. This is not a serious limitation as it still allows 22 minutes recording time at 15ips or 45 minutes at 7.5ips, but seeing as most audio visual work is quite short, if it is your prime reason for buying a Model 20, then this shouldn't present itself as a problem.

This seems to be the only area of compromise however as, with regard to the specification at least, the Fostex is well up to professional standards.

It has a frequency response of 30Hz-22kHz at 15ips and 30Hz-20kHz at 7.5ips and listening back to recordings made on it, the results were clean and uncoloured as indeed they should be. The signal to noise ratio is quoted as being 70dBs weighted and 67dBs unweighted which puts it on a par with the Model 80 8-track that has built in Dolby C noise reduction. Using some form of external noise reduction on the Model 20 such as the Bel or, indeed, Fostex's own Dolby C, noise figures would be in the region of 90dBs which is very good indeed.

Crosstalk is rated as being 70dB at 1 kHz and there were no noticeable problems with stereo imaging here. As for crosstalk between audio tracks and the centre code track, none of the leakage problems that manifest themselves on multitrack machines were apparent. Another good thing with the Model 20 was that stereo material played back in mono had none of the phasing problems apparent on some machines which is essential if music recorded on it is going to be used for TV, radio or whatever, as it could be, considering the design of the machine.

Other aspects of the specification are extremely good as well. Distortion figures are rated as being less than 1% whilst wow and flutter is never more than 0.06% either way so all in all, it looks good on paper and sounds good to the ears.




"...whilst its main appeal is for timecode work, there are a number of other possibilities open to those who aren't equipped with such facilities..."


The inputs and outputs are fairly standard for Fostex machinery and come in the form of phono sockets with four sockets for audio in and out, left and right and a further two for the centre code track which Fostex call 'Cue'. As with all Fostex gear they operate at the -10dBv level which means that they will accept and give levels in the region of 300mV, but this figure can be exceeded as the headroom seemed to be fairly generous and so I can envisage no serious interfacing problems unless you're in a pro studio working at the +4dBv level in which case you'll need to find some form of attenuator/amplifier to take down levels coming from your mixer and to boost levels going to it. As it stands, with any of the -10dBv mixers there should be no problems.

Also on the rear are two jack sockets, one for a remote drop-in/out controller and another for a remote autolocating (more of which anon). Underneath these are two multi-way sockets. One is for connection to their standard remote whilst the other is for connection to a synchroniser. It is this latter socket that allows us to precisely sync two (or more) machines together or to a multitrack or VTR. The timecode tracks of both slave and master machines are fed to the synchroniser which, in turn handles the transport functions of the machines in relation to information derived from the timecode. There is a lot more to it than that, I hasten to add, but that is more to do with the synchroniser than the tape and video machines and we'll cover this in more depth when we eventually get our hands on the Fostex synchronisers.

Operation



Recording on the Model 20 is a piece of cake. Pressing 'S/R' puts the track(s) into record ready mode. At this point, you would be well advised to set your levels and this can be done logically enough via the input level controls on the front. But one word of warning. The excellent PPM-type bargraph level reading meters are after the output level controls and so you must ensure that the output level is set to the CAL position on the control which will tell you that the readings on the meters correspond to what is actually coming in.

As the machine is of the three head variety, it features an 'Input' switch for you to monitor at the machines outputs any signals coming in. The button marked 'Repro' allows you to listen to what is coming off the playback head. Unusually on a machine in this price range, you have the facility of switching the record head for use as a playback head using a button marked 'Sync' and so you can use the Model 20 as a very basic multitrack machine. This feature is also invaluable for adding synced voiceovers to a music track recorded on the other channel without having to resort to real multitracking. In the 'Sync' mode, whilst the frequency response is not quoted, it sounded very clear to me so you can be sure you're not going to be faced with the limited frequency response problems we had on the old Teac A3340.

The recording operation is much the same as any other machine in that pressing Rec and Play simultaneously, drops you into record mode. Alternatively you can use the footswitch. Either way, you can monitor off the input, the sync head or the playback head which should be enough for any application.

Recording on the Cue track (the centre code track) is also straightforward. Set the level using the track's level control, press the little round S/R button directly beneath it, press record and play and you're away — simple. Of course, it is possible to 'overdub' timecode onto the cue track as the recording functions are available separately from the audio tracks.

But what are the benefits of having this centre code track? Well, the idea for its development is for striping (a hip word for recording a timecode!) a timecode of some form for synchronisation purposes, but if you are not using SMPTE (and, contrary to popular belief, it not essential unless you are doing some serious audio visual work), the Model 20 has many other uses.



"...the Model 20 is an excellent machine and even without the centre code track is well worth the money."


Stretching Multitrack



One of the most effective ways of getting more out of an 8-track system (or indeed, a 4-track system) is to record a backing track on all tracks, mix that down to stereo on a stereo machine and then bounce that back onto two tracks of the multitrack where a further six tracks can be added. The only problem with that is that if you are using some form of sync code for syncing sequencers and/or drum machines you have to lose the sync code on the mix and bounce procedure. Now, with the Model 20 you can have a stereo mix and retain your sync code which you can bounce back to the multitrack and send the centre code track directly to track 1 or 8 so that you can add successive sequencer or drum machine overdubs later.

Another application might be for bands or performers who use backing tapes. A lot of contemporary music, like it or not, uses a lot of sequencer and drum machine parts but, at present, because of the limited song storage capabilities and the general sensitivity of computer based units such as sequencers and drum machines, perhaps the best option is to put all these parts down onto a backing tape. Sadly, playing to a sequencer or rhythm unit directly is not ideal for drummers to keep time it is often essential to record a click track as well for the drummer to keep time to. In order to retain a stereo image, most bands have to resort to using a trusty old Teac reel-to-reel 4-track whose noise specification leaves a bit to be desired especially through 5kW or more of PA amplification or to use a 4-track cassette which again is not suited to high level amplification. Using the Model 20, you can be assured of good recording quality and have the ability to give the drummer a separate click track.

For audio visual applications such as slide show presentations, the centre track could be used for the manual or automatic cuing of slide changes whilst retaining a gloriously stereophonic soundtrack. Alternatively, one channel could carry the music, the other a voice over leaving the sound engineer free to balance the two against each other as he or she wishes.

Also, because of its 'Sync' head facility, the Model 20 may have some appeal to singer/songwriter types who want excellent quality demos but whose instrumental complexities extend only to a guitar or piano and voice.

So, whilst its main appeal is for timecode work, there are a number of other possibilities open to those who aren't equipped with such facilities and who don't need them.

To get back to the actual machine itself, however, it's worth mentioning a few other features.

As well as the usual Play, Rewind, Fast Forward and Stop controls, the transport also has a mini-autolocator as found on the Model 80 8-track. Rather than go into great detail on that and repeat what was said in the review of the Model 80, this has, as well as a standard return to zero button, two memories which, once punched in, allow you to cycle between those two points. A handy feature, I must admit, but one whose applications aren't as obvious as they are on a multitrack machine. What I do find odd is that there is no pause button which is common to most stereo machines, but the transport mechanism is tight and fairly smooth and its logic system can handle the most awkward of button pressing.

Also on the front panel is a speed control which offers 15ips and 7.5ips with a green LED to indicate that the lower speed has been selected, which is handy. There is also a varispeed control allowing 10% of speed variation either way. Finally, there is an easily visible counter which displays minutes and seconds via an LED display. What is sadly lacking, however, is a headphone socket. This I found to be a nuisance as I like to listen to recordings at source with no external amplification, EQ, room and ambient noises and is very useful for editing or checking for anomalies.

Summary



In conclusion, the Model 20 is an excellent machine and even without the centre code track is well worth the money. If I have any grouses they are minor and include the aforementioned lack of a headphone socket and pause control. I'd also have liked to have seen the meters positioned before the output level controls for more accurate and fuss-free setting of levels. I'm sad to say that the machine is not ideal for editing as its heads are somewhat inaccessible, especially in a horizontal position for which it seems to be designed. It does have an edit button which allows you to dump unwanted tape very quickly but I would have liked to have seen better access to the heads. Even with the head cover removed (which necessitates the use of an Allen Key, by the way) the heads are still hard to get at which also makes cleaning more of a nuisance than it needs to be.

Other than those minor quibbles which are not particularly serious, it's difficult to fault the Model 20. I greatly enjoyed using it and found it easy to do so, even without using the manual (which, I will hasten to add, is excellent and well up to the usual Fostex standard). I'm sure its main appeal will be for studios whose recorded output is going to be used on TV, video, radio, or whatever and, as such, as many of these use the higher level of +4dBv, I feel that Fostex would do well to market a simple attenuator/amplifier to make it compatible with such systems. (How about a design in H&SR, Paul?) (We've done them already Steve. Don't you ever read your back issues? — Ed) Otherwise I feel they may lose a few sales.

Even if you don't need a centre code track, if you're in the market for a well made, professional quality stereo mastering machine and you are on a bit of a budget, then I feel that you would be well advised to shell out a few greenies for a Model 20. After all, with the way things are going, you may well need that centre code sometime. If you are entering the world of timecode, then, apart from the Studer and other such truly professional units, you have little or no choice.

With a nice machine, a nice performance and a nice price, what more do you need?

The Fostex Model 20 costs £995.90 including VAT.

Further details are available from: Turnkey, (Contact Details).



Previous Article in this issue

Readers' Tapes

Next article in this issue

XLR Connectors Sounded Out


Publisher: Home & Studio Recording - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Home & Studio Recording - Jul 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Review by Steve Howell

Previous article in this issue:

> Readers' Tapes

Next article in this issue:

> XLR Connectors Sounded Out


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