Fostex E16 Multitrack Recorder
Many people own one and even more would like to, for the E16 is the 16-track tape machine to aspire to. Gareth Stuart finds out why.
The Fostex E16 is a 16-track analogue tape recorder. It operates on ½" reel-to-reel tape, employs Dolby C noise reduction, and retails at £4999 (inc VAT). But who needs analogue multitrack tape machines these days, with MIDI expansionism exerting such a strong influence over traditional recording methods? I know I do.
Even if many of the current chart successes consist entirely of sequenced backing tracks with just one human vocal track, how many demo tapes have been made on a local level recently with slightly smaller markets than global distribution in mind, where the drummer has been kicked out for sounding human, or the guitarist has been sampled and sent home? One? Lots?? MIDI-based studio facilities are fine for establishing arrangements and trying out new sound combinations, but unless you're working purely in an electronic music environment or using computer-driven sounds as a substitute for human performance, at some stage the combination of multitrack tape recording and multitrack MIDI recording is inevitable.
Which is where the Fostex E16 comes in. The machine is a delight to work with, very user-friendly (as is its owner's manual - sensibly sized at 22 pages) and, since it works on ½" tape, relatively cheap to run. In terms of price and tracks, its nearest rivals are the Akai 1214D (the 12-track rackmount model minus the mixer) at £3499 (inc VAT), and the Tascam MS16 - recently reduced to £6325 (inc VAT) but without dbx noise reduction at £2070 for 16 channels. Now just in case you're wondering if there's anything else around in this price range with the same number of tracks, there's not - OK. The next contender is the Otari MX70 one-inch 16-track at £16,031 (inc VAT). How deep are your pockets? How deep are your entrepreneurial recesses? How about the Fostex E16?
I've spent a generous amount of time by review standards with the E16, and consider that I know its applications and limitations pretty well by now. So let me take you through its functions, step-by-step.
Having bought your E16, you'll be pleased to find a reel of Ampex 456 ½" tape included in the package. The machine comes ready lined-up for use with Ampex 456 IEC EQ at 15ips. It's a nice touch and means that no matter how disorganised you may be, you can get down to recording on the correct tape type straight away.
Before plumbing the E16 into your system, it's worth noting that high impedance unbalanced inputs and outputs are used throughout. Fostex recommend that all connecting cables be kept to the shortest practical length, with a maximum of 10 feet (3 metres). This is to guard against high frequency loss and to reduce susceptibility to hum. Also, the input and output cables should be kept at least a few inches apart and you should try to avoid running them close to or across AC power cords. If AC and signal cables must intersect, they should ideally cross at right angles.
Before working with the E16 I'd been using a Tascam 38 8-track. Two things sprang to my mind immediately upon the E16's arrival: firstly, would my old 8-track tapes play on the E16? (Handy to know if I decided to buy one...) And secondly, AAAGH! I had to make up 16 more leads to plug it into my existing set-up.
Initially, I managed to find another eight leads, so at least I could plug in all the outputs. With half my inputs and all my outputs connected, I promptly started recording. A very interesting thing happened, which could be useful to know about if you get an E16 and are immediately booked to record a session with insufficient time to install it. When you enter record mode on tracks 1-8, all the bargraph meters on these tracks indicate an input level as you might expect, but if you also engage tracks 9-16, the signal sent to 1-8 is duplicated on the other tracks. This could be very useful in the short term to substitute for having to switch the groups on your mixer from 1-8 to 9-16 (depending on your mixer, naturally). However, if you want to record more than eight tracks simultaneously, you will have to connect up the remaining tracks.
I then tried replaying my 8-track ½" tapes on the E16. First thing I had to do was disengage the Dolby C noise reduction (one switch on the rear panel turns the noise reduction on or off across all 16 tracks, as indicated by a small front panel LED next to the power switch - I'll return to this in a minute) then wait to hear what happened. As you might have suspected, a signal which on the 8-track machine occupied a single track now took up two tracks on the E16. However, the amount of signal on each track differed, as did the nature of the sound. I phoned Harman UK for a basic explanation and they were very helpful. They told me that the 8 tracks on ½" tape occupy a slightly wider track width and are also spaced out to leave a wider gap between each track (which helps reduce crosstalk). Since 16 tracks now occupy the same tape width, the track width and gap between individual tracks is necessarily smaller. The previously recorded 8-track signal now covers two tracks on a 16-track tape head, but because of this squashing together of tracks and the fact that they aren't aligned exactly with those on the 8-track, the E16 sees more of the original signal on one track than on the other. Naturally enough there is a loss of quality, and probably the most sensible thing to do would be to hire in an 8-track machine to replay your 8-track tapes or to transfer them to your E16. But in desperate situations, this ability to interchange 8 and 16-track playback of ½" tapes may come in handy. It did for me on one occasion.
On the subject of heads, I think now is as good a time as any to point out that the E16 is a two-headed machine - one for erase, one for record/playback. The main difference between the E16 and more expensive multitracks is that the latter have three heads dedicated to erase, record/play, and playback. It's interesting though, in the case of the Tascam MS16, that in their advertising literature Tascam take great pains to point out that their combined record/play head has a response equal to that of the playback head - so you can quite happily stay monitoring this head while making critical mix (balance and EQ) decisions. Now, if Fostex have put all their eggs in one basket by adopting a two-headed system, you can be pretty sure they've done their homework and made the reproduction quality of the record/play head as good as possible. If there are limitations caused by having a combined record/play head, you only come across them when bouncing ('ping-ponging') various tracks. In fact, you're advised in the E16 manual before you start the procedure that "there are a few limitations to which tracks can be transferred in any given ping-pong. The limiting factor is signal leakage in the record/play head which could cause feedback. Play back and record between immediately adjacent tracks with great care to avoid feedback."
It's an interfacing world out there and, as the E16's rear panel shows, Fostex have recognised this fact. The Accessory 1 multipin socket is for connecting the E16 to a synchroniser - not the FSK or SMPTE/MIDI type, but the type used to lock two or more machines together, eg. two multitracks or a video recorder and multitrack. Even though I didn't have a chance to test this facility, it's great to know its available, as it allows you to make future plans - budget permitting - to upgrade your studio to 32-track (30-track really, since the 16th track on each machine would need SMPTE timecode striped on it) by locking another E16 to your existing one.
Another case where you might find this accessory port particularly useful is for a voice-over or music-to-video project, where it's necessary to synchronise a video tape recorder to your E16. Hiring in the necessary synchroniser and cables should be no problem. Examples of synchronisers the E16 can lock up to are the Fostex 4030, Adams-Smith Zeta 3, Audio Kinetics Q-lock 3.10 and 4.10, and Applied Microsystems CM250.
Accessory 2 is for connecting Fostex's 4050 Autolocator (see 'Using the Fostex 4050' SOS April 88) which provides full autolocate facilities and memorises more than the two cue points already available on the E16. The third multipin port is labelled 'Meter' and, with the necessary cable, allows you to unscrew the E16's front panel meter bridge and reposition it where you like - above the mixer, for instance.
Alongside the three multipin ports are two jack sockets labelled 'Play/Locate' and 'Punch In/Out', which permit hands-free transport control via two footswitches. When the E16 is in stop mode, the Play/Locate footswitch puts the transport into play mode. When already in play, pressing it again sends the E16 in search of the tape position stored in Memory 1. (Memory 1 and 2 are set with their corresponding front panel buttons.) With the tape running, stepping on the Punch In/Out footswitch engages record mode, and disengages it with the second press. Both these facilities are mighty useful if your hands are busy playing an instrument. And just in case you're thinking it would be nice to have a return-to-zero facility activated by footswitch as well, don't forget that Memory 1 could itself be 0000.
Even though Dolby C noise reduction is an essential part of the recording chain on the E16 - recording without it will give you mega-hissy results - a rear panel switch gives you the choice of having Dolby C on all 16 tracks, or off completely. If you're worried about this when you come to record a timecode on track 16, say, and feel that you should follow the instructions in the synchroniser manual saying switch out any noise reduction on this one channel for record and playback... don't be. I synced up a Roland MC500 sequencer using FSK, recording the code with Dolby C on, and it didn't impair the lock-up in any way. Still, if you feel you must have the facility to defeat the noise reduction on individual tracks, you could always switch off the Dolby C and spend another £2000+ on 16 channels of individually switchable dbx - it's up to you.
One further point about timecode. A while ago, when I was looking around at what was available in terms of budget multitracks, I was warned of the 'apparent' problems people had been having on the E16 related to recording timecode on the 16th track. I was told that, being so close to the edge of the tape, the timecode was prone to accidental damage should you drop the tape or mistreat it in any way. Well, that's true of any signal recorded on either of the outer tracks on any tape recorder. Also, because of crosstalk problems between the 16th track with timecode recorded on it and its neighbouring track (15), that the recording of some sounds on track 15 was a no-no. Well, this is certainly worth considering if you're recording a quiet acoustic instrument, say, but I certainly haven't come across these problems in all the time I've been using the E16.
Taking a look at the E16's transport, you'll be immediately aware that you have a few extra buttons to press apart from the standard Play, Record, Stop, Fast Forward and Rewind (even some of these have dual roles, which I'll come to in a moment). The extra buttons are Memory 1, Memory 2, Auto Play, Locate 0, Locate 1 and Auto Return.
Locate 0 does exactly what you might expect when pressed: it returns the tape to the 0000 tape counter position (set with the Reset 0 button). But unlike other return-to-zero facilities, which shuttle backwards and forwards around zero and then land in roughly the right region, the E16 whizzes off either forward to or back to zero and, on approaching zero brakes, slows the tape right down and stops perfectly every time on the mark.
Memory 1 allows you to programme a second location point, either before or after 0000. Pressing the Locate 1 button sends the E16 in search of that particular point. To activate this function, you simply press the Memory 1 button at the chosen point on the tape. Unfortunately, nothing visual or aural happens when you do this - no flashing lights or bleeps. In order to check you've actually entered the right point, press Locate 1 and your mind should be put at rest.
Memory 2 can be used to mark the end point of a particular section of the tape you may wish to review/listen to, ie. Memory 1 is the start point and Memory 2 the end point of a potential loop. After programming Memory 1 and 2, engaging the Auto Return and Auto Play buttons (a green LED comes on in each case) tells the E16 to play the tape from Memory 1 to Memory 2 (then rewind) in a constantly repeating loop. This is ideal for rehearsing parts. Incidentally, I found Auto Return in conjunction with Memory 2 to be quite useful as a quasi-automation facility.
These are all extremely useful features in day-to-day recording and engineering - imagine all those times when either the singer or guitarist wants to be left alone for a few moments to try out new ideas. While you go and make the coffee, the E16 takes care of business!
What about the dual functions I mentioned earlier? Well, both Rewind and Fast Forward have similar functions in that with a single press the E16 begins spooling quickly in the chosen direction, but when either button is held down it spools at close on normal play speed (15ips). If the FF/Rewind and Play buttons are pressed simultaneously, the tape will travel at approximately half-speed in either direction. The manual points out that this is very suitable for neatly winding the tape. The Stop button stops the tape, as you might expect, when pressed once. If pressed again, the left and right brakes are released and the tape is held by balanced tension from both reels. Thus, manual editing becomes possible using the tape cue lever, allowing you to nudge the tape in either direction with the minimum effort.
Above the tape transport controls is a real-time digital tape counter with an easy-to-read, brightly lit hours/minutes/seconds LED display. Tape positions below zero are indicated by a minus sign in the hour window. Working to a real-time counter is quite a relief after using various manufacturers' arbitrary tape counter displays. It saves a great deal of time in working out song lengths or the total duration of one side of a cassette or album master, for example.
Above the tape counter is the pitch control on/off button and coarse/fine adjustment knob. The standard operating speed is 15ips (inches per second) but this can be varied by approximately +/-15%, and you can display the percentage variation in the tape counter window by pressing and holding your finger on the adjustment knob.
You'll be pleased to learn that the E16's LED bargraph meters are peak-reading, as opposed to average-reading VU types, and are calibrated from -20 to +8. Above each meter is a Record Track selector button and associated status LED telling you whether the track is in Safe, Ready or Record mode. To the right of the 16 meters is the Input Monitor selector, which has two positions: All or Individual. I didn't have cause to press this button too often in most recording processes, but what it allows you to do is monitor the input signal of all channels without having to individually press the Record Track button on each of the 16 tracks. Also, when laying down test tones at the start of your tape or checking alignment, depressing all the Record Track selectors (Ready mode) and the Input Monitor selector (All mode) and applying a 1 kHz signal to the recorder inputs at nominal -10dBv level, the 16 meters should all indicate 0dB.
The Record Track buttons, of course, can also be used for overdubs, to manually drop in and out of record on individual tracks. This process is absolutely silent and click-free on the E16, and I found that I was only ever limited in achieving a successful drop-in/out by the ability of the person being recorded to play consistently at the same volume and with the same feel.
Finally, if you're the type of person who prefers to maintain their own equipment, you'll be pleased to know that the necessary trim pots for playback and record alignment are very easy to gain access to - according to the manual. By removing the four screws on the lower side of the E16, the hinged amplifier panel swings down. Well, I tried but certainly didn't find what I was looking for. No clearly marked four screws. In fact, I undid eleven screws on the lower front side of the E16 and thought I'd found what I was looking for, only to see various adjusters labelled Sync-X-Talk and Meter Adj! None of which corresponded to what the manual stated. I'm sure all the necessary adjustments are in there somewhere, but after spending 20 minutes undoing screws and not finding them I started to get that nervous 'Oh no, something's going to go wrong if I start investigating' feeling. [Perhaps it's just Fostex's way of keeping their service personnel in a job! - Ed]
So what do I feel about the E16? I think it's great value for money. It gives good quality sound, is very easy to use, has useful transport autolocate facilities, very low crosstalk, accurate reproduction and silent operation. These days I think a particularly important criteria for buying any piece of equipment is its flexibility and expandability. With the option via its accessory ports to put together a totally synchronised system to suit your working methods, the E16 fulfilled that criteria admirably. Thumbs up for Fostex!
Price £4999 inc VAT.
Contact Harman UK, (Contact Details).