Fostex 160 Multitracker
Four-track Cassette Recorder
A new mid-price four-track machine from the people Tascam love to hate. Paul White finds it to be elegant, well designed, and startlingly good value.
A new entry into the personal multitrack war, Fostex' futuristically styled 160 incorporates some ingenious design innovations to make it more flexible than its predecessors.
CASSETTE-BASED MULTITRACK all-in-one studios appear in many different guises, ranging from the basic to the incredibly sophisticated. The new Fostex 160 is positioned somewhere in middle ground, boasting simultaneous four-track record capability, double tape speed, and both EQ and auxiliary send facilities. It also includes a separate input for recording timecodes cleanly onto track 4, not to mention channel insert points and separate monitor outputs.
But some compromises are always necessary to maintain an attractive retail price. For example, the 160 has only four input channels rather than the six found on top-of-the-market models, and the routing facilities it offers are slightly unconventional. The way in which effects are connected is not quite as comprehensive as on more expensive systems, and the tape transport buttons are mechanical, rather than the soft-touch type that we have come to expect from stereo hi-fi machines.
Physically, the 160 is compact, yet has an open layout that allows easy access to all controls, while the black moulded plastic case sports clearly screened white legending.
Rather than adopt the approach of having the mixer on one side and recorder on the other, Fostex have opted to locate the recorder above the mixer, resulting in a narrower unit than most. This is arguably a sensible space-saving move, and though you do have to reach over the mixer section to operate the tape transport controls, this doesn't present a problem thanks to the relatively small size of the machine.
All the phono inputs and outputs are located on the top panel in plain view, so there's no groping around the back when repatching. Meanwhile, the Mic, Line, Phones and Punch In/Punch Out jack sockets are mounted in the traditional position along the front edge of the mixer section.
The 160 comes complete with a separate AC adaptor which powers the unit, but outdoor types should note that there's no provision for battery operation. Now for a look around...
ASSUMING THAT THE recorder section performs up to scratch, it's the mixer of any multitrack recorder that determines the system's capabilities and limitations.
The Fostex' mixer is a little unusual in that its channels are not routable via routing buttons when recording (channel 1 feeds track 1, and so on), though you can use the Mix option to feed the channel input to all channels simultaneously. You then use the Pan control to set the balance feeding odd and even numbered tracks.
This method allows you to set up a mix on all four channels and record it onto any track you wish. You can also bounce two or three tracks down to one once you've filled up a few tracks, and here again, routing is handled by the Mix buttons and Pan controls. When you come to do the final mix, channels are directed to the stereo buss and the pan-pots are used to position the sounds between the left and right speakers.
Four bar-graph meters monitor either the four tape in/out levels or the two-track output signal, depending on the status of the Meter switch. And the output monitor sockets may be switched to carry the stereo mix, the aux buss or both.
The way the system is arranged, you can't monitor the input signal unless the Record switch has been pushed once. At this stage a green LED flashes and the input signal is monitored for all channels that are set in ready-to-record mode. When you enter record, the flashing green LED becomes a steady red LED.
Let's take a look through the channel controls to see how all this hangs together.
There are four line inputs but only two mic inputs, the latter accepting unbalanced low-impedance mics and feeding channels 1/3 and 2/4 simultaneously. If a line input is connected, the mic input is overriden and the line takes priority. Unlike a conventional mixer, though, the 160 offers no separate input gain control to set - the channel fader takes care of that.
Channel layout is also a little unorthodox, as the Aux control is nearest the fader. The aux buss may be fed either from the channel or from the off-tape signal, depending on the setting of the Source/TRK switch adjacent to it, and the auxiliary output is in the form of a phono connector at the top of the unit; there is no master auxiliary control.
"The mixer channels aren't routable via routing buttons when recording, though you can use the Mix option to feed the channel input to all channels simultaneously."
These controls may be used during recording to set up a monitor mix. When switched for use as effects sends during mixdown, their operation automatically changes from pre-fade to post-fade - a neat idea.
Next in line is the Pan control, which routes between odd and even busses, and at the mixdown stage is used for positioning sounds left to right. The associated Mix/Direct switch bypasses the Pan control during recording, and feeds the channel output directly to the corresponding tape channel.
EQ is a conventional but effective two-band shelving cut/boost affair, giving 15dB of cut or boost at 10kHz and 150Hz. Though this isn't ideal for complex equalisation tasks, it's adequate for most sound-tweaking requirements.
Between the EQ section and the channel fader is the Input/TRK button. This determines whether the channel carries the mic/line input signal or the off-tape signal, and is set to tape (TRK) during mixing or bouncing.
The main output stereo fader is to be found to the left of the mixer section (rather than to the right, as is more usual), so if you're right-handed, you'll have to avoid disturbing the channel faders with your shirt cuff during fades.
Returning to the Cunning Innovation Department, we find the line input jacks are in fact stereo jack sockets, and can double as insert points when a suitably wired stereo lead is connected. When a mono lead is used, they revert to being line inputs. This is handy for patching in effects and signal processors when mixing or bouncing tracks, and is another novel way of conserving space.
As mentioned earlier, channel 4 has a separate sync code input. This doesn't generate any code, but simply provides a clean signal path to and from tape for FSK or sync pulses, which will be unaffected by EQ or noise reduction. When this socket is in use, the mic and line inputs for that channel are overridden.
THE CASSETTE MECHANISM runs at 3 3/4ips - twice the normal cassette speed. Naturally enough, this gives higher recording quality, but offers only half the recording time for a given tape length. Whatever you do, don't yield to the temptation to use C 120 cassettes, as these use very thin tape which cassette machines of all types love to eat.
A standard two-head setup is used, so recording and playback are carried out by one head, erasure by the other. You don't have to worry about sync problems, as everything you record will be in time with any material already on tape (playing skills permitting, that is).
Fostex have given the 160 Dolby C noise reduction, in my view the best non-professional NR system available. It manages to keep the noise down without doing anything unduly detrimental to the sound quality, but you can still bypass the system if you wish.
Elsewhere, the obligatory Varispeed control gives as much as 15% of speed control up or down, and the mechanical tape counter features a stop-at-zero facility.
The transport controls are absolutely straightforward, and as I've said, take the form of mechanical switches rather than soft-touch buttons. Even so, their feel could still be described as refined, as it lacks the dreaded bangs and clunks of lesser designs. Ready-to-record status is selected on a track-by-track basis using the four Record Track buttons.
"Dolby C noise reduction manages to keep the noise down without doing anything unduly detrimental to the sound quality, but you can still bypass the system if you wish."
It's worth mentioning that all the buttons have coloured sleeves that show when the switches are in their out position, the idea being that this makes it easier to see what's going on. But while this system is a good one, the coloured bands could have been larger as they're still fairly difficult to distinguish.
Dropping-in on a track is accomplished by running the machine during playback with the appropriate Record Track buttons pressed down. When the drop-in point is reached, you press the Record and Play buttons simultaneously, and monitoring goes from off-tape to input automatically. To exit record, you simply press Stop, or an optional punch in/out footswitch which does the same job.
Remember that dropping out always leaves a slight gap, due to the time it takes for the tape to travel from the erase head to the record head. So if you drop in or out on a strong beat, preferably where there's something like a snare drum sounding, it'll help you to disguise any discontinuity that may occur due to imprecise playing.
That's all there is to it in the control department, so it's time to see how the 160 handles out on the road.
IF YOU'RE USED to working with a conventional mixing console, the 160's lack of routing buttons is a bit disconcerting, though it only takes a few minutes to get the hang of things. You just have to remember to push the Record button to get into input monitoring mode, and this soon becomes second nature (though you may spend a minute or two wondering where the signal has gone).
Having recorded something onto tape, I was pleasantly surprised at how quiet and clean the recording sounded. There was no evident breathing from the noise reduction, even on complete mixes, and the percussion sounds were still as bright as when they started out. Bouncing three tracks down onto one was no problem, and I could still add extra parts live while bouncing via the mic or line inputs.
I found the cueing system a great help in locating positions on tape. If the fast wind buttons are pressed when the machine is in play mode, the monitors carry an attenuated version of the fast wind sound output, and as soon as the wind button is released, the machine goes back into play. Neat (again).
Drop-ins are implemented most easily using the optional footswitch, and are precise and free from noticeable clicks.
Mixing down is also straightforward. You can connect effects processors to the insert points and use the auxiliary controls to drive an external effect, bringing the outputs back into the stereo buss input sockets. The only disadvantage here is that some effects units don't have an output level control, so you could end up with unnecessary noise if you have to reduce the input to the effects unit in order to regulate the amount of effect.
And if you use an effects unit with no input gain control, you have to reset all four aux sends when setting up the input signal level, as there's no aux master output control on the Fostex.
For four-track use this compromise isn't too tiresome, and anyhow, you could stick a ganged pot in a coffee tin and use this to knock down the input to your effects unit if it's too high.
AN ELEGANT MACHINE, both in terms of its features and its construction, the Fostex 160 also offers a remarkably high sound quality. I think it's fair to say that the degree of sophistication on offer belies the machine's reasonable selling price, and that the sound quality would bear comparison with any cassette-based home studio, regardless of cost.
The mixer section may not work in an absolutely conventional manner, but it's fairly flexible and does everything you could reasonably expect of it. It's easy to say that additional aux sends and extra channels would be nice, or that more EQ bands are needed, but you have to call a halt somewhere if you're to keep a machine like this one within its target price range. And you can still feed the tape outs to a separate mixer, or plug a small mixer into the stereo buss returns, if you need more channels at mixdown with a MIDI system running off the sync track, say.
Used properly, the 160 is capable of producing some very sophisticated recordings, and the manual gets you off to a good start. You can get away with two or three track bounces without adding much in the way of noise, and the sync facility means you can run your drum machines and sequencers from code without running into mis-reading problems.
Price £499 including VAT
Review by Paul White
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