The gear piles up in your home studio, and you realise you can't manage another mix without a decent desk - but how can you afford it? Nigel "Mixmiser" Lord puts Fostex' budget desk through its paces.
The gap between live and studio musicians has almost disappeared; nowhere is this more apparent than in the rise in importance of the audio mixer. Could the Fostex 454 be the missing link from your setup?
WITH THE RECOGNITION of the mix, and more recently, the remix, as quite distinct elements in the production of contemporary music, there has emerged a new breed of musician/producer/studio engineer whose skill in tailoring a piece of music for use in specific environments has elevated the mixing process into something of an art. Up until recently, of course, this usually involved optimising a track for the dance floor or over the airwaves. But with an increasing number of reputations being forged on the basis of songs which have been dismantled, rearranged, cut together and rebuilt, awareness is growing of a much more radical approach to mixing which some would argue puts it on a par with the songwriting process itself.
From this, it follows that the principal instrument of this new art is the mixing desk, and recent designs have clearly reflected a shift in emphasis to accommodate its changing role. These days, we are provided with far more control of outboard equipment through the use of auxiliaries and insert points, and with the inclusion of facilities such as parametric equalisation, we can even begin to explore the creative potential of the desk.
But given the kind of surgery to which a piece of music may be subjected these days (and the hours of patient knob twiddling this usually entails), it's hardly surprising that we have come to regard our mixing desks as much more than mere signal routing devices. What is perhaps surprising is that manufacturers have been so reluctant to take on the (relatively simple) task of including a MIDI interface in their designs. Indeed, it could be said that the mixer has come to represent the final frontier in terms of the "MIDIfication" of the recording process. Only recently have we begun to see the emergence of a number of desks, which like instruments and outboard equipment before them, can be brought to heel by a few well-aimed MIDI data bytes.
But what has started as a trickle will almost certainly turn into a flood, and I'm sure that within the next 12 months or so, MIDI will become standard issue on all the better quality desks - no matter what the format.
SO WHY, YOU might ask, have Fostex decided that this is an opportune moment to introduce a non-MIDI mixing desk onto the already overcrowded market? I must confess, I don't really know, but with its 8:4:2 format this is clearly the kind of mixer which is destined to find its way into home MIDI setups throughout the country. I can't help feeling it would have been nice had it been given the power of communication with the equipment with which it will almost certainly be surrounded.
But ours is not to reason why (is it?), ours is to look at the facilities which are included and make up our minds on the strength of them. And strength is not an inappropriate word here, since in the 454 we have a well-thought out and eminently usable mixing desk which could hold its own amongst much more costly rivals.
It's also a very attractive machine. Though not straying too far from conventional mixer design, it has that air of individualism about it which makes you want to get to know it better. Functional and elegant, the layout and graphics spell quality in a quietly understated way, and this is borne out by the standard of construction, which is uniformly excellent.
The spacing of the knobs, for example (so often a compromise on larger desks), is just about perfect here. And the four-and-a-half inches of travel afforded by the input faders together with their logarithmic scaling and deeply concave buttons doesn't leave much room for improvement either. The raised LED meter panel, besides looking very imposing, really does makes life easy when the mixer is in a horizontal position and you're trying to keep an eye on it from a distance. Similarly, the recessed connection panel (replete with graphics which can be read from the rear) has obviously been designed to make those tedious (re)connecting sessions that bit less of a drudge.
In fact, my only criticism of the machine ergonomically, would be the rather limited travel of the push buttons: if you're looking directly over the desk, it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain whether these are switched in or out. And if you think that sounds like a rather desperate attempt to introduce a little balance into this part of the review, I won't attempt to deny it.
DOES THE 454'S internal design match up to its winning looks? Well, I think the first thing you'd have to say is that with one exception (which we'll come to in a moment), we're looking at pretty standard mixer technology here. But of course, this needn't be any sort of disadvantage if the price is right - and those of you who have already checked this out at the end of the review will know that it is. Opting for a tried and trusted format offers many distinct advantages over more radical designs - not the least of which is ease of use. And the 454 is indeed very easy to use. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's take a look at the facilities on offer...
The eight identical input channels are sectioned off into five control areas. The first of these (at the top of the unit) comprises: an input Trim control to optimise signal levels for anything from mics (-60dB) to line (-10dB), a selector to switch between the Channel inputs on quarter-inch jacks (and balanced XLRs) on the rear panel or Tape inputs on phonos on the recessed top panel, and the send control for the first Auxiliary - a mono signal which is sent out post-fade and post-EQ.
"Functional and elegant, the layout and graphics spell quality in a quietly understated way, and this is born out by construction, which is uniformly excellent."
In the second section we find the controls associated with Auxiliary number two, and first, we have the selector switch which determines whether the signal is sent Pre-fade (but Post-EQ) or Post-fade (and Post-EQ). In its third position, it is used to connect the Tape input for that particular channel to the second Auxiliary buss, making it useful as a tape monitor when overdubbing.
Just below this is the Gain control which determines the send level of Auxiliary 2 and just below this is the Pan pot, which as I hope would be pretty obvious, means that this is a stereo auxiliary we're looking at. Of course you could, at a pinch, use it to provide separate mono inputs for two different external processors. This would mean the Pan pot acting as a sort of balance control between the two send signals, but it would allow you to use three separate processors with the desk in addition to those connected through the Insert points for each channel.
The main channel Pan pot is situated in the next section along with an Assign switch which determines whether the eight channels are sent to output busses 1-2 or 3-4. Thus, in combination, the Pan pot and the Assign switch make it possible to direct channels 1-8 to any of the four main outputs.
We come now to the EQ section - and it is here that we find the rather innovative design work mentioned earlier. Instead of the usual static high and low controls with a sweepable mid range, the 454 features two sweepable EQs - ranging from 60Hz-1kHz and 400Hz-6kHz respectively - and a static 10kHz control for the treble. Rather than being labelled low and mid, the two sweep EQs are referred to (somewhat confusingly) as Hi Mid and Mid Lo, but between them they cover the audio spectrum right up to 6kHz with plenty of overlap.
As anyone familiar with recording will know, this covers all the likely "trouble spots" associated with modern instruments and mics, and with a generous ±15dB to play with (many mixers offer only 12dB), it should be possible to handle most eventualities. I must, however, take issue with the instruction manual here: these are not, as is stated, parametric EQs, as they do not feature a "Q" control by which you can adjust the breadth of frequencies which are to be boosted or cut. They are more correctly described as sweep equalisers as they simply allow the frequencies affected to be shifted up and down the audio spectrum. Sorry to be pedantic, but this is becoming quite a common "mistake" these days and I feel it is not one which should be encouraged.
Finally, just below the EQ section, we find the PFL (Pre-Fade Listen) or solo buttons, and, on the main fader panel itself, eight perfectly formed red LEDs advising us of an overload condition in the pre-amp or EQ stages, or the fact that a PFL button has been depressed.
Over on the right-hand side of the 454, we find the four level faders associated with each of the output busses, and immediately above them their respective PFL (solo) buttons, Pan pots (for mixing down to stereo) and Buss In gain controls. These latter pots do not, as you might imagine, adjust the overall gain of the four output busses, but are used to match signal levels arriving via four Buss In phono sockets on the recessed panel. Typically, these would be used as returns for effects and processors, but they can be used as a means of connecting other mixers and external gear, should the necessity arise.
Monitoring facilities, though comprehensive, are kept quite straightforward on the 454 (if only this were true of all mixers). Along with level controls for output and headphones (two pairs may be connected), a single row of push-button switches allows you to select the signals you wish to listen in to. In addition to the four output busses, these include Auxiliary 2 send, the Master Stereo out and 2 Track in (from a stereo mastering machine). You can, of course, select these in combination if you need to monitor more than one signal at a time, and where this involves two or more of the four output busses, the 454 automatically pans 1 and 3 to the left, and 2 and 4 to the right.
An overall level control is provided for the PFL (solo) function, and there is of course a Master level control for main stereo out - not, sadly, a fader (or pair of faders), but a humble rotary control situated near the bottom right-hand corner of the meter panel. As is often the case on small desks, the four LED ladders which form the bar graph display are dual function and their operation is determined by a push button switch just below the Master level control. In the "out" position, signals from the four output busses are displayed. In the "in" position, the first two meters display the main stereo out level, while the second two can be used to keep an eye on the signals from the two Track in sockets over on the top right-hand corner of the desk on the recessed rear panel.
"Even at high settings of gain and EQ, the 454 remained transparent in operation, imposing little of its own character on signals on their way to tape."
A further switch also situated (for some strange reason) on this panel, is used to select between normal PPM displays and peak hold readings - the hold time being approximately one-and-a-half seconds. And to round things off we have an extra PFL warning LED built into the raised meter display (next to the Power On LED), and this ties in with an extra function for the fourth meter display (on the far right) which switches it over to monitor PFL levels whenever one of the solo buttons is depressed.
Mentioned earlier were the balanced XLR connectors for the main inputs, and it is through these sockets that the 454 provides a 24V power supply for phantom-powered mics. A small switch at the very top of the desk is used to (universally) switch this supply on or off, and though the manual is probably correct in stating it should be left in the off position when using conventional mics, this doesn't make any allowance for situations where both types of mics are used. The only solution would seem to be checking thoroughly the wiring of all mics with XLR connectors to ensure they comply with the pin layout on the sockets on the 454.
Incidentally, although primarily used for balanced mics, the XLRs will also accept unbalanced signals, provided the plugs are wired in accordance with the pin layout shown in the manual. Conversely, the quarter-inch jack inputs, though normally used with unbalanced signals, will accept balanced lines (via stereo plugs) with the "hot" and "cold" wires connected (respectively) to the tip and ring of the plugs. Again the manual tells you everything you need to know.
With the exception of the input sockets and Insert, Monitor and Auxiliary 1 out sockets - which are on quarter-inch jacks on the rear of the desk - all other connections (including direct outs from each channel) are via phonos mounted on the recessed panel. This, though not exactly standard practice on mixers, does make the 454 more compatible with Fostex's own tape machines, and also means that there isn't the usual array of huge, ungainly jack and XLR plugs sprouting from the top of the desk.
IN USE, I really couldn't fault the 454. With any mixer at this price, there are bound to be certain facilities which have been omitted or which you'd like to have more of. But I found myself coming up against few real restrictions - and even fewer that couldn't be got round with a little thought.
In terms of frequency response, noise and distortion, performance was exemplary. Even at high settings of the gain and EQ controls, the 454 remained virtually transparent in operation, imposing little of its own character on signals as they made their way onto tape. Using it in conjunction with a Fostex Model 80 tape deck, it was quite apparent that the two sat very happily side by side - as I'm sure would be the case with later (and earlier) Fostex machines.
A study of the spec for impedance and signal levels reveals nothing that would prove problematic for any other machine either, and I could certainly see a role for the 454 as a replacement for the often limited mixer sections in many cassette multitrackers where you're happy with the performance of the tape deck and don't want to lose your shirt selling on the secondhand market. Equally, as the manual points out, there is nothing to stop you using the 454 in a live situation - the desk is certainly portable enough. A monitoring (foldback) system could be set up using Auxiliary 2, leaving Auxiliary 1 for use with the main reverb/effects unit. And of course, you could always connect a tape machine if you want to save your performance for posterity.
The manual is comprehensive enough, but the translation leaves you wondering just how arms reduction treaties between different nations ever see the light of day. Try this, for size: "The Model R8 multitrack recorder's input is 8-channel. But each of 4 INPUTS 5 to 8 of Model R8 has a connection switch connected parallel to INPUT 1 to 4. But when nothing is connected to 5 to 8, the same signal is each sent to the INPUTS 1 & 5, 2 & 6, 3 & 7, 4 & 8...". If there's anyone out there who can speak Japanese and has a good working knowledge of hi-tech equipment, there's a fortune to be made out of the electronics industry in Japan.
One of the advantages which a company like Fostex will always enjoy is the fact that a proportion of people who have (or are about to) invest in one of their tape machines will always feel happier buying a mixer which has come from the same stable. And of course, where there's a tape deck, there always has to be a mixing desk, so there's a guaranteed market here. But you'd be hard pressed to find a more suitable companion for any four- or eight-track studio setup. Despite my reservations about the absence of MIDI on what is a new contender in the mixing stakes, the 454 deserves the most serious consideration by anyone looking for a desk for use in a small studio environment.
Price £599 including VAT
Review by Nigel Lord
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