Fostex Model 80 Tape Recorder
A second generation 8-track from Fostex that offers autolocate and timecode control to the budget studio. Paul Gilby opens the box to discover the secrets of the black magic.
When Fostex launched the world's first eight-track on 1/4" tape format they produced an excellent budget multitrack tape machine that's had a profound effect on the growth of recording facilities and the musician's approach to songwriting. Paul Gilby looks at what's on offer from their new Model 80.
In these days of fast moving music technology, the Fostex A-8 tape recorder has had a good long run when compared to most keyboards whose lifespan is lucky to extend past twelve months.
So why a new eight-track from Fostex? Well, other than for purely commercial reasons of superceding an old model with perhaps a slightly improved specification and changes in cosmetics to a more contemporary hi-tech black, there is an important difference: synchronisation.
The Model 80 is in fact part of a new range of products from Fostex released several months ago. These include the Model 20 two-track and the 450 mixer, which together with the Model 80 are preparing the ground for the introduction of SMPTE/MIDI control.
At £1575 inc VAT, the Model 80 is very good value for money. It offers simultaneous or selective recording on all eight tracks, travels at 15ips (+/-10% varispeed) and comes complete with built-in Dolby C noise reduction, though a flick of a switch will allow you to connect an external noise reduction system of your choice - dbx, for example.
The major and most obvious improvement over the older A-8 is the inclusion of a simple autolocate system that relieves you of a lot of tedious stop, start, rewind button-pushing and results in a faster, more accurate routine when dashing up and down the length of the tape.
In common with all tape machines, the usual Stop, Play, Record, Fast Forward and Rewind are all present - nothing new here then. It's the other buttons which hold the black secrets of the autolocator...
On power up, the two memories are cleared and the tape position counter set to zero. We'll assume that the complimentary reel of Ampex Grand Master 457 supplied has been laced up and wound on a dozen turns or so. Resetting the counter to zero at this point will give you a good safety margin to cope with those times when the tape goes shooting past zero and flies off the spool, which it shouldn't do of course unless you want it to.
Two cue memories are available and these work in conjunction with the Locate 1 button. They're simply programmed by pressing Memory 1 to store a start cue point which can be any position on tape, or pressing Memory 2 to store the end cue. To programme a new setting you just hit the button again.
Now if you try to program Memory 2 with a smaller number than Memory 1, the machine will alert you to this fact by flashing the tape counter number. You see, the autolocate plays from Memory 1 to Memory 2, fairly logical really, so if the cue point for Memory 2 comes before 1, it'll play from cue 1 but it won't ever stop because the end cue point will never arrive. The inclusion of such a warning system is just one example of the sort of thought that's obviously gone into designing this machine.
Well, we've dealt with the memory buttons that programme the autolocate but it's the four remaining buttons that allow you to control it.
The >>0<< button (Locate 0) returns the tape to the zero counter position whether you're on the plus or minus side of zero. Only << Rewind will take you past zero and wind the tape off completely.
Pressing >>1<< (Locate 1) will also return the tape to zero if you haven't programmed a cue. However, if a cue is in memory then pressing this button will return the tape to the counter position of the cue eg. 1 minute 20 seconds, then it'll stop.
Selecting AUTO > (Auto Play) first and then pressing the Locate 1 button would result in the tape returning to the cue but this time the machine will enter the play mode.
The further selection of button 1<<2 (Repeat) will put the machine into the cycle mode which means that pressing Locate 1 will return to the counter number in Memory 1 (1min 20sec) and drop into the play mode until it reaches Memory 2, say 2min 30sec. Upon reaching the second cue point the machine will stop and rewind to cue 1 at 1min 20sec where it will then enter the play mode again.
The usefulness of this feature is obvious. No more overshooting whilst winding back for the guitarist's overdub again and again, just a smart push of a button and the machine does all the work leaving you free to get on with something else.
The eight Record Select buttons located below the tape counter enjoy a close relationship with the RECord function found on the main control section. Between them they sort out when and on which tracks the sound is recorded. With the tape standing still, pressing one of the track select buttons arms that track ready for recording, the selection being confirmed by the flashing of an orange track number light. By pressing the Play and Record buttons, the machine will enter the record mode just like any other tape recorder, with the record mode being confirmed by the flashing orange light changing to constant illumination.
Whilst the machine is travelling in the record mode you can drop out of record by simply depressing the track select switch, and in a case where there's only one such track selected, the orange record light will change to green to tell you that the machine is actually still in the record mode and ready for you to select a track. A very useful little indicator when you're overdubbing and waiting for just the right moment to drop in. And whilst we're on the subject of drop-ins, or drop-outs for that matter, you'll be pleased to know that they're silent.
Signal inputs on the Model 80 are via the predictable phono sockets found on the rear panel and these accept the homely -10dB input levels which eventually find their way onto the large bargraph displays configured as peak reading meters.
On the point of inputs, the Model 80 has a cunning arrangement where if you only possess a mixer with four group outputs you can wire these up to inputs 1 to 4 and they'll be automatically normalised to tracks 5 to 8 as well. Just how this is done with phono plugs I don't know, but plugging into, say, channel 8 will disable its tie with channel 4. The actual choice of which track the input is recorded on is, of course, controlled by the record track select buttons.
Still on the topic of phono connectors, when you've got the machine wired up ready for use you may decide you'd like to lie it flat rather than standing vertical. Sorry - but the lack of adequate feet means that the phono plugs stand proud of the back and deny you the choice, though you do have the option of fitting rack-mounting ears at extra cost.
As mentioned at the start, one of the prime reasons for the launch of the Model 80 was probably to produce a machine capable of SMPTE/MIDI control.
The introduction of the new Fostex Model 4035 Controller and Model 4050 Synchroniser/Autolocator will open up a whole new field of machine control and allow two Model 80s to be run in sync to give a 14-track audio system (two tracks for timecode) or link a video to audio for soundtrack work, and what's more you'll be able to drive MIDI equipped musical instruments or effects via the SMPTE timecode recorded on tape.
Both these units utilise the IDC accessory sockets at the rear of the Model 80 tape machine, which incidentally are the same type of connectors used on the BBC Model B home computer.
As with all tape recorders working on such narrow gauge tape, the problem of crosstalk is a major one, particularly if you start using timecode recorded on track 8. Signal spillage onto track 7 can cause problems and there's no getting away from that. The solution is to leave what's known as a guard band ie. don't record on track 7. However, that reduces the capacity to a 6-track system. I did find that if you recorded the timecode at around the -7 level you could use the adjacent track without any real problems, though you couldn't bounce down adjacent tracks when recording as feedback occurred. But that's a common limitation of all narrow format tape machines.
Quality-wise, the Model 80 is probably adequate for the majority of purposes. It would be an ideal machine for a small A-V production suite where its flexibility would be greatly prized or equally the sound quality on offer is sufficient to produce good quality demo recordings. The question of robustness is a difficult one to predict but I would say that constant daily use is going to be a tough test for a compact machine such as this, so consider that when you get a chance to take a closer look for yourself.
Overall, the Model 80 is well-made, lightweight, packed with facilities you only find on the more expensive professional machines and, finally, it's excellent value for money. Definitely worth a listen.