Fostex E16 Multitrack
16-track Tape Recorder
Ever since its launch, the Fostex B16 has dominated the budget 16-track studio market Now Paul White tests its successor, the E16, and finds out if the improvements are worthwhile.
For the past few years, the Fostex B16 has been the centrepiece of thousands of small 16-track studios all over the world. Now all that is set to change with the introduction of the machine's successor, the E16.
EVER SINCE THE B16 was first announced, I've been half-expecting a competitor to appear. Now, more than two years on, Fostex have supplanted the B16 with the E16, and still the competition hasn't emerged.
There should be some, of course, but maybe the initial predictions of woe that surrounded the B16's launch were enough to deter would-be rival designers. After all, the pundits of the day were a constant source of horror stories as to what might happen as soon as anyone tried to record 16 tracks onto a miserly half-inch wide strip of tape - which is just what the Fostex B16 set out to make possible.
They predicted horrendous drop-out problems (which we didn't get), and intolerable crosstalk (which the Dolby C noise reduction kept to a minimum). They said the results would be noisy (which they weren't), and that the noise reduction would ruin the sound (which it didn't).
True, there were one or two early reliability problems, but things soon settled down and the format was quickly accepted. Even the "Nirvana is a two-inch tape running at 30ips" brigade grudgingly conceded that they were impressed.
Still, there's no such thing as the perfect machine, and the B16 did offer scope for improvement. So what do we have in the new E16?
First - and most immediately obvious - the styling has changed to fall into line with newer Fostex products. This is a very subjective thing, but my personal view is that the B16 looked a lot nicer. The E16 is now finished entirely in darkest matt black with orange trim. The control buttons are also black, so it's getting to be a little like Hotblack Desiato's spaceship in Hitch-Hiker's Guide; all it needs now is black lettering to complete the picture. The meters now shine through a sheet of orange perspex instead of neatly machined slots in the front panel... But what the hell? It all works.
In the facilities department, there are now multi-pin accessory sockets on the rear panel, one for the Fostex 4030 synchroniser and one for the 4050 autolocator. Because of the number of B16s already being used for A/V production work, the ability to plug a SMPTE synchroniser straight in with no mods or interface boxes is bound to cause a lot of interest. Furthermore, you could lock two E16s together to give you a 30-track recording system.
There's also a socket for connecting the meters, should you want to mount them away from the machine. This is useful if you want to use the recorder in a horizontal position, and a meter remounting kit is available for this configuration.
There are several refinements to the transport control section, including autolocate and autoplay in addition to the stop-at-zero facility that the B16 had. This enables the tape to be cycled between pre-programmed start and stop points, and even allows drop-ins to be terminated automatically and accurately. Though no mention is made in the manual, it seems the drop-in and drop-out times are faster than on the B16, so you can drop in or out quickly without erasing parts of the existing recording that you want to keep.
One improvement instantly evident to B16 users will be the much-improved transport start time. Now the tape reaches running speed almost instantly, whereas the B16 took a good second or so. This really helps when cueing up the start of the tape prior to mixing, where you want a clean start to avoid all those bumps, bangs and count-ins that somehow got left on tape.
Additionally, there are said to be marginal improvements to the high-end frequency response of the machine. Well, considering that the E16 doesn't cost much more than the B16, these improvements have got to be good news.
FOR THE benefit of readers currently returning from a five-year trip to the planet Tharg, I'll start from the beginning in describing the E16, assuming that you haven't seen a B16 before.
"A headshield covers the tape when the E16 is in use, and prevents magnetic fields from causing hum problems. It's possible to work with this shield retracted for marking edits."
The new machine is a compact 16-track multitrack recorder capable of simultaneously recording all 16 tracks, onto half-inch tape running at 15ips. Because of the narrow track arrangement, Dolby C noise reduction is fitted to keep down crosstalk and noise. This works surprisingly well, and doesn't dull the sound like Dolby B or kill transients like budget dbx systems.
The machine accommodates a single reel size of 10½" diameter, and varispeed is fitted so that any recordings can be tuned to fit in with less accommodating instruments - such as Steinway grand pianos which, despite their prestigious market position, still don't have a Master Tune control.
The same head is used to record and play, thus eliminating sync problems, and the whole machine is no larger than some competitors' eight-track recorders. Both input and output signals are to the -10dB standard, and there are no level controls or mic inputs; you have to use a mixing desk with the E16.
Control-wise the E16 is fairly conventional, but there are one or two nice touches to make monitoring easier and so on. So, the next stage is to see how the beast looks from the driver's seat.
Bar-graph peak-reading meters are used as an alternative to the VU meters found on other makes of recorder, and one is provided for each of the 16 channels. These monitor the signal level going onto tape in the record mode, and the off-tape level in replay mode. Above each one is a Record Status button, which puts that track into ready-to-record mode. Once a channel is thus armed, an LED flashes above the switch, and when the machine is put into record, the LED stays on.
The transport control section is a little on the busy side due to the extra autolocate and autoplay buttons. There are 12 altogether, and these include the usual Play, Stop, Record and fast wind buttons. The others are Reset, Memory 1 and 2, Autoplay, Locate 0 and 1, and finally Autoreturn 1-2.
Reset zeroes the tape counter, which incidentally indicates tape running time rather than some arbitrary tape counter figure. Pressing Memory 1 stores the current counter readout in memory, and Memory 2 operates similarly.
As you may have guessed, Locate 0 causes the tape to return to and stop at zero. Locate 1 causes the tape to return to and stop at memory 1. If the Auto Play button and either of the locate buttons are then pressed, the tape transport will automatically go into play from fast wind when the memory location is reached. Similarly, when Auto Return is active, the tape stops and then rewinds automatically once it reaches the memory 2 location. If both are used together, the tape can be made to cycle between memories 1 and 2, repeating the section ad infinitum so that you can practise drop-ins or solos. This is also invaluable for setting up effects, since there's nothing so frustrating as getting the reverb nearly right, and then having to cross the room to re-run the tape.
By setting memory 2 at a drop-out point and invoking Auto-return, the system can be used to drop out of record for you prior to rewinding to memory 1. Though it may sound complicated, this method is actually surprisingly accurate and simple to use.
MONITORING IS simple with the E16. If the tape is stopped, pressing a Record Track button arms that track and the LED blinks. If the Record button is pressed but not Play, the meters and the line outputs monitor the input signals for any tracks that are armed ready to record. Pressing Record again cancels this mode and returns to monitoring tape out. If the Record and Play buttons are now pressed simultaneously, the machine goes into record.
"Recording quality is excellent, and though the Dolby C does have subtle side-effects, these are somehow positive rather than negative, making recordings sound clean and tight."
The outcome of all this is that any already recorded tracks can be monitored off-tape at the same time as the input signals from the tracks being recorded. And you can set the monitoring to change from off-tape to input as you drop-in to record, which means you can monitor the track right up to the drop-in point. If, however, the Input Monitor button is down, all the outputs and meters monitor the line inputs - a quick way of checking all your input levels.
Another neat touch is the Varispeed control. When this control is being used, the tape counter reads the tape speed in terms of its percentage deviation from normal. When the pitch control switch is set to off, the varispeed LED goes out and the tape speed is fixed at 15ips.
Threading the tape is easy, and there's also good access to the heads for cleaning as the entire head cover now hinges up. A headshield covers the tape when the machine is in use, and prevents stray magnetic fields from causing hum problems, it's possible to work with this shield retracted for marking edits, and it needs to be moved for tape threading.
Tape must be on 10½" reels with NAB centres, and the NAB hubs fitted to the machine lock the reels very positively. A photoelectric end-of-tape detector stops the transport when the tape winds off the reel in either fast wind or play modes, and a cue lever is fitted to the head block so that the tape can be monitored in fast wind. This should be done with the monitors turned down; if it isn't, you could cook your tweeters. Be warned, also, that excessive use of this facility is likely to cause premature head wear. Fortunately, you can still hear the tape by only partially depressing the cue lever; the signal may be at a reduced level, but working this way is less likely to cause wear problems.
All the line inputs and outputs are on phono connectors located on the E16's rear panel. Here too are the accessory sockets mentioned earlier, and the connector for the meter extension cable. Additionally, and most usefully for solo recordists, there are two footswitch jack sockets - one for remote dropping-in/out, and one for Play/Locate 1. When the machine is in stop, the latter switch starts it. If it is not in stop, the tape winds to memory 1 and then stops.
SUBJECTIVELY, I must admit I couldn't really detect any difference in sound quality between this machine and my B16.
But the improved and added features are certainly welcome. The snappier drop-ins and quicker standing starts really do help, even if you're not doing anything sophisticated. And the extra auto functions are a boon when you're working alone; I used them most for practising drop-ins, setting up effects and automatically dropping out (maan).
On the negative side, I found the new control layout a bit cramped, and it's going to take many users some getting used to. There's a tendency to panic when the drop-out point is coming up, and when that happens, you can't remember where the Stop button is. Coloured buttons would have been a much better idea.
The transport solenoids are also a little on the loud side, as indeed they were on the B16. If you're sitting by the recorder, engineering, singing and trying to drop in at the same time, you could end up recording a clunk as you drop out again. The best way around this is to drop out by hitting Stop immediately followed by Play, which has the effect of exiting record without the transport stopping. On the B16, this could be done by running your finger across the switches, but the new button shape and layout makes it more difficult.
In all other respects, the transition from B16 to E16 is quite painless. The sound quality is excellent, and though the Dolby C does have subtle side-effects, these are somehow positive rather than negative, making recordings sound clean and tight. Crosstalk is minimal unless you happen to have a heavily recorded timecode next to your acoustic guitar track, but in any event, it's best to leave an empty track between the timecode and the rest of the tracks.
So quite apart from being the only half-inch, 16-track tape machine currently available at any price, the new E16 is a synchroniser-compatible machine that can earn its keep by producing master quality music recordings or complex film soundtracks - and you don't have to spend a fortune on external noise reduction.
The B16 was a miracle. This is better.
Price £5000 including VAT