Fostex B16 Multitrack & RSD 16-16-2 Mixer
Six months ago David Simpson bought a Fostex B16 recorder and RSD mixer as the foundation of his studio. Both devices have been well used since and here David brings us his opinions, based on experience, of these popular machines.
With the launch of the Fostex B16 last year, a new generation of mixing desks has arisen to cater for 'budget' 16 track set-ups (although by the time the recorder, desk, master machine and assorted add-ons have been purchased, the term 'budget' becomes fairly subjective!). Of all the manufacturers that have designed a desk to mate with the B16 though, only RSD have made one with 16 full outputs, as against the usual eight outputs with 16 monitor inputs. The latter means that you can only record on eight tracks simultaneously, but it is possible to monitor from any or all of the 16 tracks on tape. This latter configuration incidentally, is known as 16-8-16. The first number represents the number of input channels, the second is the number of full outputs, and the third is the number of monitor inputs. Thus the RSD would be 16-16-16 (normally abbreviated to 16-16).
Leaving aside considerations of cost and compactness, the argument for this 16-8-16 format hinges mainly upon the view that in any budget set-up, it is likely that you will not want to record on more than eight tracks simultaneously, most of the recording consisting of overdubs. Thus, sixteen full outputs are unnecessary, and merely push up the cost of the desk.
This is fine in theory, but as I have said, the word 'budget' is not easily applied to any 16 track set-up. You simply do not buy a B16, set it up in a bedroom and do rough demos. Judicious bouncing on a Tascam 38 will prove more than adequate for such a purpose, and considerably cheaper. Instead, at least in my experience, by the time most people have reached the stage of assembling a B16 based set-up, they will want to hire it out, either on a professional or semi-professional basis, in order to recoup some of their capital expenditure.
As soon as this happens though, it becomes necessary to cater for a wide range of possible recording formats. If the session consists of synthesisers and drum machine only, it may well be that eight outputs are adequate. However, as soon as a drum kit is introduced into the equation, more than eight tracks of simultaneous recording will soon become necessary. I would normally use a minimum of five channels for the drums (bass drum, snare, hi-hat and stereo kit), and with the addition of bass guitar, guitar, keyboard and guide vocal, already the tracks to be recorded exceed eight.
The point of all this, is that unless you are totally positive that you will never want to record more than eight tracks simultaneously, and I would argue that such a view is misguided, then the RSD 16-16-2 is at the present time, the only logical choice of mixing desk to mate with the Fostex B16 in my opinion. This in itself represents a good reason for forking out the extra few quid and buying one. The desk does, however, have several features which lend it to closer inspection in its own right, most noteworthy being the quasi-parametric equalisation on the input channels.
A standard three band EQ system will normally comprise treble, middle and bass controls. Turning any one of them will cut or boost the frequency allocated to that particular control; for instance, the treble control is usually centred at around 10kHz to 12kHz, the bass around 100Hz.
With the RSD however, the EQ section is comprised of five rotary controls. The one nearest the top of the desk is a standard 10kHz treble pot. The middle and bass sections however, each have two controls, in each case the top one controlling which frequencies are to be affected, and the lower one giving up to 16dB of boost or cut. The mid is sweepable between 200Hz and 8kHz, and the bass between 25Hz and 350Hz. This combination, represents the ability to cut or boost any frequency between 25Hz and 8kHz, plus those at 10kHz, and the importance of being able to relate the equalisation to the signal cannot be overemphasised. Rather than have the EQ determine the signal, the signal can determine the EQ. Great stuff!
It takes a bit of time to get used to this form of equalisation particularly if you have been used to fixed band controls. It is very easy at first to set both controls at twelve o'clock and then turn the knob which determines the frequency band. This alone of course, has no effect at all, since the boost/cut control is set at 0.
I have found in practice, that the quickest way to equalise a signal, is to set the boost control at plus or minus about eight dB (your ears should tell you which; if they don't, try both!). Then sweep the frequencies from top to bottom. Find the best sounding position, and then fine-tune it, using the boost. Repeat with the other EQ band, bearing in mind that frequencies between 200Hz and 350Hz are affected by both mid and bass sections. A few hours use should open your eyes (and ears!) to the possibilities involved. In addition there is an EQ defeat button, which allows instant comparison of the equalised and unequalised signal, enabling you to judge if you are equalising to advantage without disturbing your settings.
It is worthwhile noting that equalisation is also possible on the master output sections, with a slightly different frequency band for the treble control (20kHz), and fixed bands for middle (1.5kHz) and bass (20Hz). These are well chosen, permitting a final mix to be given an added sparkle, a presence boost or perhaps the tightening up of the bass end. As on the input channels, the EQ can also be defeated using a single button on each output.
Each input channel has three effects sends: one being post fade, two being switchable pre/post, and three is pre-fade. The third would normally be used for foldback purposes, and since you do not usually want the level of the input fader affecting the level of signal being sent to the headphones, prefade is preferable. I would have liked to see the third send also being switchable, since in a mix you do want to see the level of the signal being sent to the effects units determined by the level of the input fader, otherwise, even with a fader down, a signal may still be returned via the master returns. This latter point assumes that in a mixdown situation, you will require more than the first two sends; certainly I always seem to.
The effects are returned via two inputs in the master output section, and are each routable to any of the output sections and pannable left and right. There are only two returns (as against three sends) because one of the sends is (as I have said) usually used for foldback, which requires no return. Cost considerations aside though, it would have been nice to see a third return input provided, or at very least, the two existing returns made stereo. At present, if a stereo reverb is used, the left hand signal utilises one of the returns, and the right hand signal the other, thus leaving no more returns for any effects which might be driven from the remaining two sends.
RSD no doubt, would argue that these can be returned via spare input channels; this method would provide the additional bonus of being able to EQ the returning signal. If you are using all 16 tracks to record on, however, there are no spare input channels. RSD have provided additional modules, each containing four input channels, and the purchase of one of these would provide four more returns, but this, of course, pushes the cost up, and for most of the time the spare inputs are not required. Incidentally, having bought an addon unit, I was surprised to find that the connections consisted not of a simple slot-in connector, but some 30 wires which had to be soldered onto the adjoining circuit board. Come on RSD. You can do better than that!
The remaining features on each input channel are fairly standard. At the top is the gain control, affecting not only mic and line input level (dictated by a button), but also input level during remix, handy if you have under-recorded the signal. A solo button allows you to isolate any channel by muting all the others, in order to check EQ perhaps during a mix, although I have found this of limited use, partly because there seems to be a lot of distorted bleed through from other channels, particularly the percussive ones, and partly because when I mix, I monitor off-tape, and the solo button has no effect.
What is handy, however, is the overload LED at the base of each input channel, giving warning of approaching distortion before it occurs. Incoming signals though, might still be too strong, even with the gain control set at minimum. There is in case of this, a pad switch which attenuates the signal by 20dB, and should prove sufficient for every eventuality.
I have already mentioned the solo facility on the input channels. In addition, each output channel has a solo button, as well as all three auxiliary sends. On the send used for the foldback, I find this invaluable, enabling me to hear the signal being sent to the headphones over the monitors. I can set up a good fold-back mix in seconds, with precise adjustment being possible. Any time a signal is being solo'ed, a light above the Aux 3 master send control indicates that the desk is in this mode. If no signal is present over the monitors, and the solo light is on, you are probably soloing a channel with nothing recorded on it!
There are two ways of sending a signal to the master recorder. The first is via the main outputs, calibrated at +4dB and with Cannon (XLR) connections. The second is via a pair of sockets marked '2T OUT' which is set at -10dB, and suitable for budget recorders. The master recorder can be returned via the two sockets marked '2T IN', accessible by pressing the appropriate button, allowing off-tape monitoring.
So much for the main features of the mixing desk. Now for a few small points. I'd have liked to see some sort of plastic strip, immediately below the faders, enabling channel identification during recording and mix-down. Using a chinagraph pencil is unsatisfactory in as much as the screenprinted lettering on the desk itself will stand only so much cleaning before it fades away forever.
On a different tack, although each of the control knobs on the desk is colour-coded, allowing easy function identification, the coloured plastic inserts in the top of the knobs are sometimes loose. At best they revolve, making zeroing of any particular control confusing; at worst they get lost altogether, defeating their purpose. On the positive side, I liked the 1kHz test tone built into the desk, making recorder-mixer lining up easy. I also liked the substitution of bargraph-type LED columns for the conventional VU meters. Why though they chose to calibrate them as VUs rather than PPMs, which are so much easier to read, is beyond me.
Finally, at least as far as the desk is concerned, two points which I regard as important. The first, concerns the absence of any channel muting button, alas all too common on smaller mixers nowadays. It is just not good enough to expect the user to try and mute the signal by releasing the channel routing buttons. Although in theory, this means that the signal is silenced simply by not being routed to any output group, in practice, any effects send on the channel remains operative. If on a quiet recording passage, you try to stifle a cough by releasing the routing button, you are apt to find the offending sound coming through over the reverb. Highly annoying!
The second point concerns the patching facilities. Each input channel is provided with a stereo jack on the back panel. Using the sleeve as ground, the tip as send and the ring as return, it is possible to connect an external effect to any input channel. The position of this socket though seems puzzling. It is situated immediately behind the line and mic input sockets, which when connected up, make inserting the patch lead somewhat fiddly.
I also found the absence of any insert points on the output groups, especially the master outputs to the stereo recorders, highly frustrating. RSD do sell an add-on patchbay, but even this does not allow patching on the main stereo outs. Even putting a compressor over these involves a lot of fiddling about with leads, therefore I finally bought four Accessit Modpatches and wired the whole desk to them. Since then, life has been a lot easier.
I shall concentrate less on describing the facilities of the B16, because there has already been a comprehensive review of it in HSR (see January '84). As I suspect everyone will already know, it is a 16 track machine, utilising ½" tape, Dolby C circuitry keeping crosstalk and noise levels under control. There are, though, some points which I feel are worth making.
In common with every review I have read concerning this machine, I am personally amazed by its performance. The quality is staggering, and crosstalk negligible. This is only the case, however, if three golden rules are observed:
Firstly, only use the tape the machine is set up for - Ampex 456. It is expensive, but think of the money you saved buying the B16! It is the only tape which can handle the levels needed to maintain the signal-to-noise ratio you need to produce a top quality recording.
Which is the second point. Push the recording levels as much as you dare. This is made easier by the fact that the bargraph-type LED meters are calibrated to read the peaks with a relatively slow release time. I found myself actually using these rather than the meters on the mixing desk to obtain optimum recording levels. Another tip, is to do all the recording/monitoring off-tape. This makes it possible to detect any distortion caused by overloading the machine during trial run-throughs, instead of after an important take, and also enables compensation for the very slight high frequency loss which seems to occur when recording onto the B16. I find it helpful to EQ each signal, and then boost the treble control by 4 or 5 dB on the desk. Ij the sound is still too trebly after it has been recorded, it is a simple matter to take it down in the mix, at the same time reducing some tape hiss!
The third method of ensuring good quality recordings is common sense really; just frequent cleaning and demagnetising. When you buy the tape recorder, Fostex obligingly provide a little bottle of tape head cleaner. Alas, you are expected to buy your own demagnetiser!
Several features which the B16 has, I have found particularly useful. The pitch shift is invaluable for tuning the track to an instrument such as a keyboard without an onboard tune facility, and the real-time tape counter makes me wish I had one on my Revox! The drop-ins on the recorder are not just quiet - they are inaudible, and I have even made running drop-ins such as continuous keyboard tracks, with no discernible loss of signal. In fact, the only feature I would have liked to see which isn't already built in, is present on the remote unit; namely the repeat/cue facility. However, I am not paying an extra three hundred quid just for that!
Now for the niggles. The first concerns the front panel. It is designed so that the meters may be removed in order that they be made more accessible, to be replaced with a plastic panel on the front of the tape recorder. As a result of this construction, the front panel indents ominously every time a control is depressed, leading to doubts about its durability. It may well be that my fears are groundless - I hope so!
The second may prove to be rather more serious. I am already on my third B16, the other two having been returned to the factory, one with a defective motor, and one which mysteriously ceased to function; why I have not been able to discover. My present one suffers from a problem with the tape tensioning, which prevents me using the return to zero facility. This problem occurred soon after I received it, but I simply have not had time to take it back, due to recording commitments. I must though, take this opportunity to praise Don Larking Audio, who, as the supplier has gone out of his way to deal with the faults, swapping my faulty machine with his own demo machine if need be. Full marks Don!
This leaves though, at least as far as I am concerned, a question mark hanging over the reliability of the machine. I am assured though, from several sources, that my experience is far from typical amongst B16 owners. Maybe I am just unlucky!
I have set out to raise various points connected with both the RSD 16-16-2 and the Fostex B16, which I as a current user feel are valid. If I have given the impression at any time that both items of equipment do not represent the best value for money in each class that I have yet discovered, I apologise. If I had the same amount of money that I started out with now (6 months later), I would still go out and buy them again.
I do feel that to get full use from the desk an add-on four channel unit and a separate patchbay are essential though. Given this, the combination of RSD and Fostex, at least as far as 16 track is concerned, seem to me at the present time to be unbeatable for the money.
If you would like further details of the RSD mixer please contact: RSD, (Contact Details).
The Fostex B16 is available from leading audio stockists: check the adverts in this issue for details.
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User Report by David Simpson
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