8 Track Recorder/Reproducer
Until some months ago, Fostex was virtually unknown in the U.K. and Europe generally. Even so, since its emergence at the Los Angeles AES convention in early May, news had begun to filter across of the impressive line of lightweight, "affordable" pro quality open reel recorder/reproducers, mixers and other "creative sound" instruments for musicians.
Fostex is a relatively small division owned by Foster Electric Co Ltd of Japan, supplying a large range of electro-acoustic components from speakers to microphones, to major manufacturers such as Sony and Phillips. Yoshiharu Abe, formerly a director and chief audio engineer at Teac/Tascam, is now managing director of the Fostex team. Fostex joins the number of Japanese companies that are prominent in the recording field, including Teac/Tascam, Otari and Sony.
The current A-series range of recording equipment includes the A-2 3-head 2-track, A-4 3-head 4-track (both with 7½/15in/s and varispeed) as well as the A-8 2-head 8-track 15in/s featured in this review. In addition, there is the 250 "Multitracker" 4-channel cassette recorder/mixer (reviewed in December) and the 350 recording mixer (8x4x2). All are styled in the Fostex smart presentation. Ancillary units include digital delay, graphic equaliser and 4-channel Dolby C noise reduction unit.
The A-8 Recorder/Reproducer represents a significant development that is likely to affect the recording industry in general. In retrospect, the introduction of the first multitrack machine came in the 1940's and the next 20 years were limited to mainly 4 and 8-track recording for professional studios. The production of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album marked a major milestone during a time when recording began to develop rapidly. More equipment became available and studios using the new technology profited. By the end of the 60's, the pro musician had become dependent on multitrack and the Teac A3340 (originally made in Japan, but sold in America with Simul-Sync) established itself as a hi-fi machine for the demo studio — starting a new industry that enabled more musicians and songwriters to work independently. Incidentally, the Teac machine was originally intended for the "quad" hi-fi market, but when this began to flounder, the manufacturers added the Simul-Sync to steer it in the new direction.
Now we have the opportunity for another big change, with the possibility of many artists (and this must include the ever increasing number of musicians making music in their home studio), producing high quality recordings and demos. The combination of the A-8 8-track recorder and the 350 recording mixer makes a package that is a cost investment equivalent to buying your own micro system. The A-8 also costs half the price of its closest competitor (with ½" tape).
Fostex range has been designed to be ultra compact and appealing for domestic use in the home or in the small studio. It weighs only 29lbs, measures 14"(W) x 13½"(H) x 8"(D) including headblock, and consumes 60W of power. This obviously puts it in a different light from previous semi-pro machines that are heavier and larger — in fact, when you see it alongside other machines, it's hard to believe that it can hold all the mechanics and electronics required.
The A-8 has avoided most of the problems that have put off potential 8-track users, through the use of standard ¼" tape which reduces running costs and yet maintains an acceptable level of performance by incorporating built-in noise reduction. All unessential features have been omitted, e.g. headphone monitor, level controls, infra-red stop, oscillator, pause, dual speed and full input record facilities at any time.
As a result, the facilities of the A-8 go a long way towards making the Fostex philosophy of "Personal Multi-track" as simple as possible, allowing the musician to concentrate on his creative composing. The Fostex term "Personal Multi-track" is quoted to mean "high quality recording equipment that's easy to use and truly affordable". Eight track recording eliminates a lot of the chore of bouncing tracks from one 2 or 4-track machine to another and the A-8 is designed to be usable even from an 8-channel stereo mixer. At the same time, the A-8 provides some very desirable improvements, such as solenoid operated transport functions that are all remote controllable, return-to-zero button, punch in and out, and 4-digit LED counter with ½-inch high numerals that operates via the supply reel. Simul-sync is not needed either, as the record/replay come off the same head and is therefore always "in sync".
One tape speed of 15 inches per second (38 cm/s) is available which gives around 22 mins running time foran 1800ft reel of 7" tape. Tape wind time in fast forward and rewind is approximately 128 seconds. The speed can be varied smoothly with the pitch control over ±10% during record or play. Nominal 15 ips is positioned at its centre "click-stop". The recommended tape thickness to avoid print-through and stretch is 1 mil (or 35 microns). The review model was evaluated with TDK LX35/90B successfully with no noticeable print through after a month of storage. The reduction of the maximum size spool from the usual 10½" to 7" contributes to considerable cost saving in choice of motors and chassis support.
The transport control buttons are situated at the lower right of the front panel and features the "soft touch" of many current hi-fi machines, whilst retaining sufficient positive feel to let you "play" the controls with one hand. Micro-chip logic safely controls transport functions so that switches can be selected, e.g. from "f.fwd" to "rewind" without using "stop" in between. An additional item is the "return-to-zero" rewind button that will stop the transport at your chosen reset point ("0") of the LED counter, e.g. at the start of the new piece. Switch-off occurs at zero and gives a 1-4 digit "overrun" that in practice leads in nicely to a replay (provided you've sufficient leader tape if you're returning to the tape start). Actual tape locations do remain accurate — often a failing of the usual mechanical counter.
An Edit in/out switch turns off the take-up reel motor and spills tape (only during play, for safety), so that it can be spliced.
Since the ¼" tape format makes the eight "tracks" very narrow, the new Dolby-C noise reduction system is built into the recorder to maintain an acceptable signal-to-noise ratio (quoted as 73dB weighted): However, it may be switched out if you wish to use an external unit. A high standard of reproduction is achieved using Dolby C and is quoted to give 10dB improvement over the Dolby B system, yet maintaining full dynamic range and high frequency transients. It is nice to see the Dolby incorporated as part of the A-8 instead of being an expensive extra.
To the left of the transport controls are nine push switches that define the recording/replay modes. Four input record amplifiers only are provided, so that either tracks 1-4 or 5-8 may be selected in one go — certainly no problem for the home studio musician working alone. Pressing record and play buttons simultaneously puts the tracks (chosen from the upper row of four buttons) into record. Any track can be dropped from record by releasing the appropriate switch.
Monitoring is done via the eight VU meters (-20 to +5dB) mounted in two banks of four and when a track is selected for record, its red LED just above the appropriate meter flashes a useful warning of correct track selection. Once the transports in record mode, the LEDs of recording tracks remain lit, as well as the tape counter LED.
One of the most important innovations of the A-8 must be its "punch in/out" function. By inserting any SPST switch with a ¼" jack (e.g. guitar or effects switch) at the rear of the machine, record start and stop may be made using your foot, leaving your hands free to play. "Record" mode is not selected, simply "play", and at the appropriate point in the music you "punch in" your correction or additional track.
The lower row of push buttons selects line in or replay for monitoring the track group in use. The other group of tracks not in record mode is always in replay. When using the A-8 with the Fostex 350 mixer, only one switch change on a channel puts it into tape replay immediately — a useful time saver when concentrating on the instruments. The group selected for record will also remain in replay mode but the "ready to record" tracks will drop into "line in" once recording commences. If a track is switched to line in it will remain so in record or replay.
Another important point is that the locations of the erase head is close enough to the record/replay head to allow quick drop-ins. Using the punch-in facility the continuous movement of the tape prior to record "punch-in" ensures silent change over, although using the record/play transport functions requires the usual small manual windback of the tape to remove the "click" at the start.
All level setting of the A-8 inputs and outputs is done from your external mixer and signals are medium impedance, unbalanced at a normal level of -10dBV. The input and output sockets are RCA phono types and the remote control connects via a multiway socket.
Threading tape on the A-8 is quick and easy. A suitable 7" reel of tape is placed on the left hand supply reel table and fastened with a knob that screws on to the centre pillar, having first located a smaller post in one of the tape hub holes (most tapes have this extra hole although it may be covered by a label). This simple method is quite adequate in use and holds the tape securely.
A take-up reel is clamped similarly on the right hand table — Fostex supply a well made metal 7" reel for this purpose. The supply reel tape passes under a moving tape guide that also acts as a tension arm, over the supply idler roller, which lines up the tape and acts as a mechanical filter. It then passes under the headblock containing two heads for erase and combined record/replay, between the metal capstan and rubber pinch roller (the latter well enclosed with a removable metal cover), over the take-up idler roller, under the take-up tape guide (and tension arm), and finally on to the take-up reel.
The headblock presents no problems during threading as the tape simply passes under it and will locate itself correctly when the tension is taken up.
In the headblock, three height guides are used and have internal rotating plastic inserts similar to the other guides. Height and azimuth adjustments can be made using the three screws that fasten each head to the top metal plate. There is also a pillar that mechanically lifts the tape away from the heads during fast transport. A spring-loaded "cue" button protruding from the block allows monitoring of the recorded tape during fast forward or rewind.
An unusual feature is the additional headshield that is manually "push-switched" into place over the tape (at the record/replay head) after the tape has been threaded. If the headshield is not depressed during threading, of course, no sound will be heard as the tape does not make contact — a task easily forgotten! It is provided to shield the sensitive recording circuitry from stray hum and noise.
Once the tape is threaded on the A-8, it is necessary to turn the take-up reel sufficiently for the tension arms to be under tension, otherwise the transport will switch off. Thus, when the tape is finished or when a tape reel is knocked accidentally, the transport will stop.
The audio electronics are fully modular using screened PCBs and there is a large mains transformer mounted away from the heads between the reel tables. Beneath the transformer are three small DC motors (which are less affected by heat than AC motors), that drive the two reels and capstan. The reel tables and capstan are each indirectly driven by a strong rubber band that has a life expectancy ten times longer than the record/play head (the latter should last over 1000 hours continuous use). The main fuses are easily reached at the top of the chassis, with the transport and micro control board able to be lowered for access. Dual channel replay and record modules plug into a mother board with master bias oscillators. All interconnections are neatly made with connectors and coded ribbon cable.
Under the top outer casing of two tone grey plastic is a pressed metal deck plate which, despite the overall light weight, appears to be quite adequate. Complimenting the smart outer appearance of the machine is a brushed aluminium meter panel, and logo and trim lines in "Fostex" orange (a favourite colour of Abe, the M.D.).
Four press studs secure a bottom plate and these can be prised off with some difficulty to reveal all the trimmers necessary for complete setting up of the machine. Channels were not numbered on the review model but were found by gently touching a small screwdriver tip as it rests on one of the eight presets in the selected adjustment, for level or EQ (future A-8's have labelling). No sophisticated equipment is needed for setting up and most of it can be done using in/out checks with the meters, an oscillator and an oscilloscope, although alignment tapes are quoted in the manual along with procedures.
Of course, regular cleaning and demagnetisation are essential and the 16-page manual supplied gives instructions in these areas as well as full operating details. Lining up different tapes is not really a problem and is done by adjusting the various presets for record and bias according to the straightforward instructions.
The Fostex has been used daily for over a month in the production of E&MM demo cassettes and for backing tracks and music at recent exhibitions and lectures. During that time, my initial sceptiscism of the machine turned to one of complete confidence in the recorded results. E&MM's electro-music studio is packed with recording and computer equipment at one end and synthesisers, sequencers, drum machines and rack mixers/effects at the other. By mounting the recorder on one of its packing pieces, I could situate it directly behind the equally small 350 mixer and take up very little shelf space indeed. I then positioned a Yamaha guitar on/off switch with a long lead at the keyboard end ready for punch-ins. With remote control at your playing position and optimum levels set for undistorted input, it was simply a matter of selecting the track(s) for record and getting on with the track laying.
The reset-to-zero is a boon in use and the LED counter is readable from at least 15 feet away. The combined record/replay head may be regarded as a limitation for the more advanced studio (since off-tape monitoring cannot be done on the tracks in record). But for the musician who does both the recording and playing it becomes an advantage, as simul-sync switching is not required and the whole operation is simplified.
When cueing up a track, movement of the tape in "stop" mode is against the head for aural monitoring of the correct position. It takes under half a second for the transport to pick up, so instant drop-ins from one section of music to the next are best done using the punch-in facility.
Despite the small size of the VU meters, they are accurate enough and the extra 2dB headroom is useful. The LED indication of "record" and "ready to record" is a good implementation too. Anyway, I tend to meter from sub-mixers for the keyboards and have a Brenell PPM dual meter box in the playing area monitoring the stereo line in.
The A-8 is certainly best with noise reduction and because it's highly unlikely that you'll want to play a master tape on another machine, there are none of the usual stringent setting up requirements.
In the whole 1½ months of use, I did not encounter overload distortion problems, even though I kept the signal (without limiting) well up to 0dB average. This implied adequate headroom in the input, noise reduction and output stages (and of course, a good tape!). At one point I was recording over used tape new material and this, as with most semi-pro recorders, is best done after a "silent" record run-through to avoid the chance of clicks and extracts breaking through. The erase function was satisfactory even on high levels of the full eight tracks.
Once the system is connected up, I must admit to staying with the A-8, rather than use the 4 track! On first use, the pulley drive noise during fast wind worried me slightly, but the transport is perfectly reliable with no tape slipping or breakage. This is where the micro logic control plays its part.
Dolby noise "breathing" was not evident although on occasional punch-in's clicks were recorded. The Edit spill is usually a pro studio machine facility and was a new feature for me as I've got used to spooling my own tape by hand over the years. The pitch control musically provides a noticeable change, and although the amount of control (just a fraction under a tone up or down) is fine for matching instruments, voices etc., I still had to resort to Revox Varispeed for larger pitch jumps and analysing music at slow speeds.
One slightly disturbing effect that occurs on record, is that the meters adjacent to the tracks in use pick up part of the signal as well. On playback, however, all is as it should be. It is possible to detect during playback through a mixer a slight breakthrough of sound on adjacent clean tracks, but this is no worse than some 4-track machines and has no deterrent effect unless you're monitoring "silence" with blank tracks full up and full tracks with sliders down. For horizontal operation, clearance has to be made for the connection sockets at the rear.
In conclusion, the A-8 will produce recordings of a high quality, acceptable for concert and stage masters and radio stations, and may well provide demo cassettes that find their way on to records. In the studio, I was able to put together 8-track tapes very quickly with a minimum of operation. Doing a live recording of a gig or concert is much less hassle with gear, as the complete 8-track system of A-8 recorder and 350 mixer sits easily on the front seat of your car. There are plans for dealer "recording" workshops with the Fostex which is good news and a tape competition too.
If you're one of those dedicated musicians who, like me, has spent years first bouncing tracks from mono tapes/cassettes, stereo reel to reel, right up to the luxury of 4-track, then the A-8 has to be a very serious proposition in view of its potential, portability, performance and price.
Recommended retail price is £1177.80 exc. VAT. Further information from the U.K. distributor: Bandive Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Mike Beecher
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