Fostex B16 Tape Recorder
To describe the B16 as 'revolutionary' would be an understatement. Using the skills learned in the production of their eight-track recorder, the A8, Fostex have successfully managed to come up with a package that fits an unbelievable 16 tracks onto half-inch tape, and is compact enough to fit into the boot of a car.
To overcome the inherent disadvantages of the narrow track format, Dolby C noise reduction has been built into the machine, though it is still possible to switch the process out of circuit if desired.
The B16 uses half-inch tape running at 15 ips standard tape speed, allowing full 16 channel multitrack facilities. The unit operates at the commonly accepted domestic line level of -10dBV, and is compatible with all other Teac/Tascam and Fostex products, and most types of mixer. Construction and appearance of the recorder are exemplary, Fostex having chosen a design non-too dissimilar to Teac's model A3340 recorder, with a two-tone grey casing that exudes a more professional air than their previous offerings.
The machine accepts 10½" inch diameter reels which are held in place by standard, black plastic NAB hub adaptors. No provision has been made for the use of smaller 7" reels, though with the reduced playing time that these would offer, it's unlikely that there would be too great a demand for this facility.
Tape threading is simple, with the tape passing under the small tension roller, over the larger idler roller, between the tape presence sensor, across the heads and then between the capstan and rubber-coated pinch roller, over the second idler roller and finally under the remaining tension roller to the reel. This arrangement makes for superb tape handling with no 'snatching' and an overall smooth operation. The tape presence sensor works optically and automatically places the transport in Stop mode if the tape breaks or is completely wound onto the reel, as with the Revox.
The B16 has two heads - Erase and a combined Record/Replay. Most professional machines utilise the three head system of Erase, combined Record/Sync with a separate Playback head. The primary reason for not adopting such a system is one of cost, but it does have its other advantages - namely the removal of azimuth discrepancies between separate record and playback heads, since the tape is played back on the same head that it was recorded on. The Erase head surface is arranged in two 'stacks' of eight channels, which means that certain of the tracks get erased slightly after the others. The Record/Playback head, naturally, has the sixteen head gaps side by side as otherwise 'sync' recording would not be possible. However, this does mean that the gaps are extremely narrow and will be prone to clogging from tape oxide deposits, so thorough head degaussing and cleaning is essential if you wish the stated frequency response of 40Hz to 18kHz to remain so. Irregular head cleaning is the surest way known of reducing your top end response so take heed; the head-block is easily accessible for cleaning purposes so there's no excuse.
Located centrally below the heads is a small black pushbutton which raises the headshield, protecting both heads from stray hum fields. Another pushbutton on the headblock edge causes the tape lifters to be defeated when pushed upwards, allowing you to monitor the tape programme in either fast wind mode for quick and simple cueing. It's not advisable to overuse this feature though, as it promotes accelerated head wear due to the abrasive action of the tape passing across the head face at speed.
A translucent orange perspex strip running the full width of the machine divides the grey panel into two halves. The bottom half contains 16 vertical LED bargraph meters which indicate both source and tape signal levels at the outputs, depending on which mode has been selected. All sixteen meters are clearly labelled with their corresponding track number and are brightly lit and easy to see. These meters exhibit a peak reading response and are calibrated from -20dB to +6dB in twelve segments. The four segments from 0dB to +6dB are red LEDs, while the others are green, which affords a clear visualisation of the onset of distortion and clipping.
To the right of these are solenoid-operated function buttons which are arranged neatly in two rows of three with Zero Return, Rewind and Fast Forward on the top, and Record, Stop and Play below. Both Record and Play buttons have their own status indicator, but I would still have liked to have seen the Record function button coloured differently to the others for safety's sake.
The orange perspex strip covers the 16 track indicators (which glow when selected) as well as housing a very readable five-digit real time tape display indicating the time in hours, minutes and seconds relative to the zero, which can be reset using a small pushbutton to the right.
Above the strip is an on/off Power switch and 16 small Record Track selector buttons. When pressed in, these ready their respective tracks for recording causing the number indicators to flash constantly as a warning. When Record mode is actually entered, which is achieved by pressing the Record and Play buttons simultaneously, the indicators stop flashing and remain lit, until recording has ceased. The red LED above the Record button itself also lights when the Record mode has been entered.
The Input Monitor pushbutton to the right of the track selectors has two modes: 'All' and 'Indiv'. If 'All' is chosen, the meters monitor the input signal for every track, the green LED lights and the input signal is sent to the output sockets. If 'Indiv' is selected then various ways of monitoring the input signals, instead of those off-tape, are made possible, depending upon the position of the Record Track status buttons. Input monitoring of a channel is only possible in Individual mode if the Record Track selected has been set to 'Ready' (more of this later).
The final front panel controls are a dual concentric geared knob and an on/off pushbutton labelled 'Pitch' which are used to obtain variable tape speeds. With the pushbutton in, a red LED flashes and the tape speed can be altered by +/-15% via the outer ring of the knob (which gives a course pitch adjustment) and the inner one which permits fine tuning. Both controls appeared very stable over the duration of the test sessions. It is also possible to preset your required speed change with the knobs and then punch it in exactly when required using the on/off pitch selector.
A recessed panel on the rear of the B16 contains all connections. Two rows of sixteen phono sockets provide unbalanced inputs and outputs to and from a mixer, and there is a small slider switch to control the selection of 'external' or 'internal' noise reduction. This is basically an on/off switch for the built-in Dolby C which will always be in circuit one suspects as the noise and crosstalk levels increase without it. Even if this is the case, there should still be some front panel indication as to the status of the noise reduction system, since it's quite easy to overlook the rear panel switch (though a quick listen to a recorded passage will determine immediately whether or not the Dolby is in circuit).
Other connections are a ¼" jack socket for the punch in/out footswitch facility (as on the Fostex A8) and three locking multipin sockets labelled 'Synchronizer', 'Meter' and 'Remote Control'.
The 'Synchronizer' socket is for connection to a proposed interface which will let you synchronise two B16 tape recorders together via a time code recorded on one track of each machine, making available up to 30 tracks of simultaneous recording!
The 'Meter' socket on the other hand serves a less exhilarating yet equally useful purpose, as the front panel bargraph meters can be removed and located away from the recorder, if required, with connection being made via this socket. This is a handy feature if you wish to store the B16 in an alcove, away from the main recording area, yet still need to monitor record levels other than on your mixer.
This is also when the third socket becomes useful as it connects the Fostex Model 8090 Remote Control Unit to the recorder via a 25 foot long, ½" thick, 40-way multicore, that is permanently attached to the Remote Unit. This both saves on the cost of another multipin socket and removes the risk of losing the multicore cable if it was detachable.
This is a lightweight, rectangular metal case finished in grey and orange to match the main recorder. It can be mounted onto a microphone stand with the adaptor bracket if wished, or can simply lie next to your mixer. It duplicates most of the controls on the recorder and has a few extra of its own for good measure.
The transport functions are identical to the B16 and remain permanently active regardless of the position of the Remote on/off button, so that both control buttons may be used in parallel. A real-time display is also provided which likewise remains on. This has an associated 'Reset' button and an additional 'Cue' function which can be pressed to select a cue point on the tape. Depression of the 'Repeat' button will cause the tape to return to zero, play to the cue mark, then rewind automatically to zero again and continue the cycle until stopped by selection of any other transport mode (ie. Stop, Fast Forward). This cue point is retained in memory unless power is removed from the Remote Unit or a new cue point is selected.
Although very useful for rehearsal of a drop-in, overdub or musical passage, the fact that the recorder always returns to Play mode after cycling back is limiting. If you were able to pre-select Record each time as well, then it would really open things up.
With the Remote switched on, the unit's own Input Monitor and Record Track selectors are activated. These operate in an identical fashion to those on the B16 itself. However, through some quirk in the Fostex design, this group of controls on the B16 and Remote Control Unit are mutually exclusive - the Remote always overrides the main recorder. This leaves you with the confusing situation of being able to select Record for tracks via the selector buttons on the B16 (with the Remote off), but when the Remote is then switched on, if the identical track buttons have not been depressed on the Remote as well, those tracks will not enter the Record mode, as the Remote will override them if different. Virtually all other remote control/autolocate devices have all their functions wired in parallel with the tape recorder, so I don't understand why Fostex have to be different, as it only leads to confusion about which channels are monitoring input signal and which are monitoring off-tape.
The full, logic-controlled transport system employed in the Fostex B16 makes operation a pleasure - shuttling back and forth is easily accomplished to find edit points, there being no need to enter Stop before each new mode. The 'Zero Return' facility proved very accurate indeed, infinitely better than that of the notorious Tascam 38 eight-track, for example. Even from a full spool of tape, the brakes activated at around the thirty seconds from zero point, then gently slowed the tape with no overshoot. Pressing 'Zero Return' then 'Play' on the B16 shuttles the tape back to zero and immediately into playback, allowing a quasi-cycle facility for those who don't possess the Remote Control Unit.
An interesting operational feature is the self-diagnostic tape tensioning. 'Stop' activates the brakes, but pressing 'Stop' again releases them allowing the tape to halt by the balanced tension from both reels. If the tape does not stop correctly but continues moving slowly from one side to the other, then you know that the tension is incorrectly set and needs adjusting.
Because the B16 utilises a combined Record/Playback head there should never be any problems encountered with loss of synchronisation.
Initial recording is achieved by selecting the tracks you wish to record on, via the Record Track pushbuttons, then simultaneously pressing Record and Play transport controls. Monitoring will automatically be switched over to the input signal on entering Record mode.
Overdubbing requires the Track selector to be depressed, readying that track for recording, and the Input Monitor to be set for 'Individual'. Pressing 'Record' alone, switches the readied tracks over to monitor the input signals. Pressing 'Record' again, sets all channels to the 'Sync' mode and upon simultaneous selection of 'Record' and 'Play' buttons the machine will enter Record mode, with the input signal (source) being monitored on those tracks in record, and the sync playback signal on the remaining tracks.
Playback only, requires the Record Track selectors to be set for 'Safe' and Input Monitor left on 'Individual' before pressing 'Play'.
'Drop-ins' or 'punch-ins' are very easy to execute on the B16. The procedure is as follows. You set your channel for drop-in to 'Ready' by selecting the Record Track button. With the Input Monitor on 'Individual' a drop-in can be rehearsed by selecting 'Play', to monitor off-tape, and then 'Record' to hear the input signal. Continually pressing 'Record' will effectively cause the monitor signal to toggle between input and playback states. To 'drop-in' you simultaneously press 'Record' and 'Play' at the point from which you wish the recording to commence, and 'drop-out' by hitting 'Stop' or releasing the Record Track selector.
Depressing a footswitch connected to the 'Punch In/Out' socket on the B16's rear panel obviates the need to press 'Record' and 'Play', which makes recording a feasible one-man operation.
An alternative method for drop-ins is to set the Input Monitor to 'All', press 'Record' and 'Play' and then punch-in and out using each Record Track selector button. In this case, all monitoring is of Sync playback signals.
Whilst reviewing the Fostex at HHB (Hire and Sales) I was played an 'undoctored' recording made on the B16 and mixed down onto a Sony PCM F1 digital recorder. It sounded unbelievably good, and anybody who has doubts about the recording quality that can be achieved with this machine should go and catch an earful themselves. Signal-to-noise ratio is quoted at 60dB (unweighted) with Dolby C and 80dB (weighted), which is above par for any domestic or semi-pro recorder. Crosstalk figures of 55dB are given and test listenings seemed to confirm this as a justifiable claim.
Maintenance and calibration of the B16 should be no problem, as the front panel meter housing unscrews and hinges forward to reveal six small presets which adjusts Erase, Bias and Record levels, the Record and Replay equalisation (which follows IEC specified curves) and the Replay calibration level.
With their model A8 recorder, Fostex brought the creativity and convenience of 8-track recording within reach of the home musician. To say confidently that the B16 will do a similar job for 16-track would be foolhardy. At around £3,000, the machine is unlikely to sell in vast numbers like the X-15 or the Multitracker, but what it will do, however, is bridge the abyss that currently exists between affordable 8-track and 16-track packages. Quite simply, there is nothing to beat it for the price.
The cost factor is aggravated further, though, when you begin to add on the price of a decent mixer to use with the B16. There are no onboard level controls, and no headphone monitoring, so all mixing must be done via an external desk.
My biggest criticism though is not of the B16, but of the Remote Control Unit. It costs a whacking 10% of the total price of the B16 itself, and at £300 or so does not represent good value in my opinion. The only feature that is not available on the tape recorder is the Repeat/Cue facility, which might have been worth paying for if it was a lot more flexible, with increased memories for example.
However, criticisms apart, the Fostex B16 does represent a formidable package that is both attractive in terms of its facilities and cost. It is well designed, functional and portable. The built-in Dolby C noise reduction maintains a very respectable recording quality that belies its 16 tracks on ½" format. In short, this is a marvellous machine, I only wish I could afford one.
Many thanks to Bob Styles and all at HHB for their help with this review.
The recommended retail prices are as follows: Fostex B16, £2,995 (ex VAT); Remote Control Unit, £299 (ex VAT).
The B16 is distributed in the UK by Bandive, (Contact Details).
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Review by Ian Gilby
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