Down among the four track cassette recorders there's a stiff battle between Teac and Fostex, but if you're considering an eight track home/professional system then Fostex have almost stolen the market away. My technical expertise stops well short of the soldering iron, but I've been recording on the Fostex system for over a year so this is a user's guide to what it can do and how it performs.
My first piece of advice would be to buy from a shop which is not going to mind you going back from time to time to ask any technical questions. You might be lucky enough to have a friend who knows his way around tape decks and mixers, but the uninitiated won't get a great deal of help from the Fostex manuals which read like an Eskimo's guide to floor lacquering.
The eight-track recorder is amazingly small, weighing only 29lb, is very neatly designed and easy to use. The revolutionary aspect of the machine is that it uses ¼" tape to record eight tracks, thus making home recording much cheaper and simpler. The breakthrough between tracks is minimal (better, I've found, than some professional 24 tracks), which is very important if you are using it as I do to record multisynthesizer overdubs running off a recorded click.
It is only possible to record on four tracks at one time, i.e. either tracks 1-4 or tracks 5-8, so it would be impossible to record a band playing live on eight tracks, but for overdubbing track by track this of course doesn't matter. The quality of recording is very faithful and, having had it for about a year, I have never known it to distort. The machine has a built-in Dolby C system which reduces tape noise well within professional standards.
The tape runs at 15 i.p.s. with a varispeed control of plus or minus 10 per cent, which on the 1" spools that the machine takes gives you 22 minutes running time for 1800 feet. The machine has a very useful zero return counter which is a Godsend when overdubbing many times and Fostex supply a remote control unit and a foot drop in/out unit which means that it is possible to do very nifty drop-ins even when attempting light fingered arpeggios. The record and play heads are close together, which means that you are always in "sync".
Monitoring is done on eight VU meters which are easy to read and each has an individual light to tell you if you are in record or ready to record. The LED digital counter is accurate, though it would have been helpful if the numbers related to seconds (it seems to run at 70 per 60 seconds).
The machine is simple to lace up with tape and has a guard to prevent people like me messing up the tape while it is running.
The connections to the mixer are standard phonos. The lining up I found to be impossible as the servicing holes in the manual bear little relation to those on the machine.
It's vital to do this well so the heads are properly aligned with the tape and set at the right angle to get the best from the machine. It might require outside (and experienced) assistance.
Sometimes there are drop-in-and-out clicks, so I find it handy, if possible, always to drop in and out well before and after the piece of music. To sum up, the machine is excellent: very attractive to look at, of very high sound quality and well designed for the solo musician.
On to the mixer. My comments about the manual apply much more to the mixer, which took me ages to work out even with the help of two recording engineers, and we only sorted it out in the end by twiddling knobs to see what happened. This was mainly because a lot of the controls on the mixer double up functions, but, like all desks, once you have grown used to it, it seems quite easy to understand and simple to use.
A meter bridge is an essential extra to buy so that monitoring is straightforward. The eight channels have jack inputs and the routing to the recorder is done via groups A-B or C-D. That is tracks 1, 2, 5, 6 are A/B and 3, 4, 7, 8 are C/D. Generally I put all instruments through one particular channel which I have connected via a phono "RCV Send" to a compressor.
Therefore, if I am recording onto track 8 through channel 3, I flick the "4 Chan Buss" switch on 3 to C-D, flick all the others to A-B to ensure that only Channel 3 goes to 8, and then record.
When recording, I have the "Buss" controls on "Aux Buss" which means that foldback comes through on the "Aux Buss" knobs.
When mixing I switch over to the "4 Chan Buss" and the "Aux Buss" knobs become the amount of level sent to reverb or F/X units.
This is what confused me when I first got the machine, but now I understand it, I can whizz round the controls like a Martin Rushent.
The other controls on each channel are the level controls for recording and the EQ knobs which are rather crude and probably the main drawback to the mixer as they consist of two frequency controls between 800 and 12K and 80 and 1.2K and the corresponding boost or cut.
It's probably best to use a graphic EQ to overcome the limitations though, to be honest, I haven't got one and for synthesizers find it adequate often just to increase the "top" to make them cut a bit more or boost the bass to make tracks more heavy.
There's a headphone socket for when you're recording vocals or using mikes... or when the neighbours/wife/dog have had enough of your monitor sound.
Overall I've been very satisfied with both the recorder and the mixer. The quality of recording was good to start with and has improved as I have grown to understand the quirks of such a neat little system.
It's been used to record two albums, one of them synthesizer library music which has been used on TV (a credit to the recording quality) and the other a commercial album, turned down by record companies of very low intelligence, not because of the sound (which received several compliments) but because the songs were... ah... "too weird".
So it's certainly not just a home toy for messing about on, but an able machine capable of producing work of a certain kind to a professional level. Its size means that it is possible to fit it into a small room — I use butchers' tables bought from Habitat to stand the machines on as they're the right height, sturdy and cut down outside vibrations.
Thoroughly recommended... but be prepared to ask for help.
User Report by John Hyde