Most modern rock recording is based on the principle of multitracking. The principle itself is simple: multitracking means multiple tracking, whereby one can record on one or all tracks (usually from four to 32), with the facility to build up, alter and modify in section any or all of the separate tracks. Players can listen back to other tracks already recorded in synchronisation with the track they are recording — overdubbing. Once everyone is satisfied with the various performances on the multitrack tape, it can then be balanced into a stereo master tape recorder, with any changes to EQ and stereo position of the tracks (hence the 'pan-potted mono' label of many stereo mixes) made at this final stage. The result: a stereo master tape with all the benefits of the diversity and, if necessary, complexity of multitrack.
Multitrack tape machines started life as large, studio-bound objects — some of the earliest ones look decidedly clumsy, all metal casing and huge meters. But over the years, and especially the last ten, technology has aided the recording medium to bring multitrack facilities to smaller, more efficient and simpler machines. Teac, the large Japanese electronics company, have of course done much to bring multitrack to the musician — you'll have often heard players telling how they 'worked it out at home first on the Teac'. The company's 4-track ¼in reel-to-reel tape recorders have become industry standards, and very good results can be obtained with them.
And so we get to Fostex. Also a Japanese company, it has been boosted recently by the addition to its ranks of several (surprise surprise) ex-Teac engineers who wanted to do more with the multitrack medium. As Fostex say in one of their publicity leaflets, their 'recording equipment (is) built with the understanding that music today is conceived, composed, developed, practiced and realised on multitrack recorders. Four and eight tracks are as vital and natural today as ink and paper were to Bach'. You may reject that as advertising blurb, but it does at least show that their hearts are in the right place down in Akishima, Tokyo.
The new, first range of Fostex equipment includes the subject of this piece, the 250 Multitracker, or Recorder/Mixer Model. It's described as a 'self-contained, portable recording studio', and uses cassette tapes as its recording media. This idea was originally formulated by (you guessed) Teac, with their 144 Portastudio. While there are differences between the 250 and the 144 (and many similarities!), the 250 does have the benefit of nearly two years more technological development, and is generally easier to use. And it's about £100 more expensive. But this review is not a comparison of the two — we're looking at the new Fostex. But is it worth a whole £100 more?
So do you use the 250? Well, in the time that I had to work with it I concentrated on its home-demo facility, which does seem to be its primary raison d'être. You can build up complete songs or pieces of music in the comfort of your own front room/garage/rehearsal room/patio, should you so desire — its uses in this context are endless and limited only by the operator's imagination and creativity (and, admittedly, four tracks). It is quite conceivable that the 250 could be used to record certain types of music for short-run record releases; Teac machines have certainly been used for this sort of application.
The 250's control layout seems sensible, uncluttered, clear and easy to work with and follow. Bottom right is the cassette section — a flap raises to reveal a standard-looking cassette transport, and below this are the expected associated controls: Rewind, Fast Forward, Record, Stop and Play; along with a Zero Return switch which will fast wind the cassette to a pre-set zero — handy for returning to the start of a take or the start of a piece. The four-figure index is of the digital read-out type, which is actually usefully clear and easy to read. Below it are the Record buttons for the four tracks which, like the Record button, have associated red LEDs which flash when ready and stay lit when recording is in progress. The last control in this section is a Pitch knob, nominally set at 0, but allowing the home recordist to slow down or speed up the tape by up to 10% if necessary. The cassette tape itself is helped along at 3¾in/s — twice normal cassette speed — and uses the new Dolby C noise reduction system, which (despite some moans from the hi-fi press) seems to work as well as any. For those violently opposed to noise reduction systems, there is a switch hidden away in the innards of the Fostex that allows one to by-pass the Dolby, but really some sort of noise reduction is needed with a machine like this — otherwise, the limitations make the machine virtually impractical for the multitracking it's intended to carry out.
The rest of the machine is occupied by the mixer. A simple and ergonomically obvious choice has been made by Fostex to put the input socket (large jack) for each channel of the mixer at the front of the unit, so that the operator can see exactly what's plugged in and can change things around easily. Each channel's controls are identical: moving up vertically from the input socket we get the channel fader, then a Line/mic trim knob, and then a Line/mic or Tape status switch. These three combine either to feed signal (from a mic, electric or electronic instrument) into the 250, or to feed a signal already on tape into the mixer section for mixdown or monitoring. We'll see how this works later.
Above the input section are two EQ controls for high and low frequencies, set at 4kHz and 300Hz. These are adequate for most uses. Above these (labelled EQUAL on the mixer) is the Pan section, consisting of a pan rotary and a 4-CHAN BUSS switch. In recording mode, the operator combines the two controls to route the channel input signal to one of the four tape tracks; in mixdown mode, they're used to place the recorded tape track in the stereo picture on the master tape.
Moving up, we then come to the AUX BUSS knob, which controls the level of a signal that can be sent to external processing equipment, should this be necessary. Above this knob is the MON MIX rotary, which controls the level of a mono mix which you can use for musicians' monitors if you have the band round to play with your new toy, or it controls the level sent to your headphones in one-person recording sessions. There are in fact two headphone jacks on the front panel — the overall level and source fed to your cans is controlled by the headphone rotary above the master fader, to the right of the four channel faders.
So that's what you get on each channel. Along the top of the machine are four large VU meters — unfortunately not angled towards the operator which would have been useful. Some people will have wished for PPMs, but the VUs appear to do the job required quite competently, although readings can be a little erratic on some programmes. The peak LEDs on the VUs are useful in this context — I often found myself on recording paying more attention to the LEDs than to the needles. A meter switch, above the headphone level control just mentioned, selects RECORDER or MIXER — on RECORDER, the four meters show record and playback levels; on MIXER, meters 1 and 2 show the Line Out signal monitored when mixing down to stereo.
There is a comprehensive selection of sockets on the back; as well as the pair of Line Outs just mentioned (used to connect to the stereo mastering machine, reel-to-reel or cassette) there are (all phono sockets): Tape Outs 1 to 4, with tape track 1 coming out on Tape Out 1, and so on; Aux In 1 and 2 bring a stereo signal into channels 1 and 2 via a control marked RCV1-2, below the meter switch on the middle section of the unit; Aux Send carries a mono mix determined by the AUX BUSS control on each channel; MON MIX carries a mono mix determined by the MON MIX control on each channel; Direct Out 1 to 4, with channel EQ 1 coming out on Direct Out 1, and so on; Record In 1 to 4, with Record In 1 applying signal to tape track 1, and so on; and Punch In/Out, taking the optional Remote Footswitch unit that allows drop-ins to be performed and activated by one person — hands playing, feet punching.
I recorded a number of pieces on the Fostex and got some very pleasing results. The only machine problem I encountered was the sudden break-up of sound on channel/track 3, as I was about to mix a piece. It took me about an hour to track down the fault to channel 3's EQ section — after some fiddling, the sound returned to normal. One suspects dodgy contacts, so watch out.
Other than this I had a smooth time, apart from some operator/machine interface problems (jargon for my stupidity). As I mentioned at the start, I concentrated on the home-demo aspect of the machine — but the 250 is, of course, suited to other applications. The fact that you can record on all four tracks simultaneously if you want to (on the Portastudio, remember, you can record on a maximum of two of the four tracks at any one time), means that the 250 is useful for taping gigs and other live performances, as well as for storing ideas from rehearsals, with the option of adding to them later, making the recorder a handy notebook for developing musical arrangements. Of course, an additional mixer with more input channels would be useful for submixing drums, say, in a fair-sized band. Fostex claim that this four-at-once facility makes the 250 well suited to Audio-Visual use too, using one track for a sync pulse to lock soundtrack and picture.
But back to my front room and a pile of instruments surrounding the Fostex. As I worked with the machine, it became clear that it is very well designed and laid out. The apparent intricacies of the mixer soon dissolved, and the dexterity required to hit the right combination of Record and Tape transport controls became more natural as I spent time with the 250. As with most machines, familiarity breeds ease of use. All manner of combinations of basic track laying, bounces (which can be fiddled to include a new instrument as well as the tracks being combined), drop-ins, other inputs, signal processing and mixdown juggling can be used, re-used, improved upon, expanded and experimented with.
The Fostex is the sort of machine that would improve with continued use; my initial tumblings have certainly made me want to push the machine further to find out all its possibilities — a long job! One none-too-small item which must be mentioned: the owner's manual (instruction book) is excellent, and reads as though it was actually written in the UK, and not translated from the Japanese as so many have been to end up with incomprehensible streams of Eastern consciousness that have you dangling from the chandelier with a jack lead in one hand and a mains lead in the other. No — Fostex have got the instruction book just right. Useful information is clearly presented without condescension.
Lastly, a few notes on tape: the 250 is set up to take gamma-ferric oxide high bias 70u sec tapes (known usually as Group 2 or Type II), like TDK-SA, Maxell UDXL-II, Ampex Grand Master II, Memorex High Bias, and so on. I stuck with SAs and had no problems. The recommended C60 and C90 sizes will give you 15 mins and 22½ mins playing time each side respectively.
So, to come back to my earlier question: is the 250 worth £100 or so on top of the Teac Portastudio? If you need to make this decision, make sure you get long demos of both machines before making up your mind. My own view is that, well, if it was £50 more... But you have to decide for yourself — you're the expert on your music. Certainly the Fostex 250 4-track Recorder/Mixer is a machine that furthers the cause of Musicians' Multitrack; its ergonomic good sense, its adaptability and its plain usefulness make it a very interesting proposition for any earnest musician or band.
Recommended retail price is £618.60 (ex VAT).
Further information from the UK distributor, Bandive Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Tony Bacon
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