David Mellor looks at a 16-track machine which brings a new level of sophistication to the world of 'personal' multitrack.
There are multitracks and there are multitracks, ranging in price from under £2,000 all the way up to more tens of thousands than you or I might care to imagine. In any other business one would expect a piece of equipment which costs less to be less sophisticated and generally built to a lower grade design, with lower grade materials. You would then say that it was positioned at the 'budget' end of the market, with all the implications that word has concerning quality. But right now, there are two multitrack tape recorders available at the bottom of the price range of machines suitable for professional use which cannot, in any meaningful sense except financial, be described as 'budget multitracks'. These are the Tascam MSR16 and the new Fostex G16. They are not cut down versions of studio multitrack recorders, nor are they overtly 'built to a price'. The best way, I think, to describe them is as well designed, high quality personal multitracks, by analogy with personal computers. Some of these machines will be used in commercial studios but their true vocation is in private studios, operated by their owners, where they will provide excellent results at a very acceptable price.
The Fostex G16 is a replacement for the successful E16. Now the E16, in appearance if not performance, was a budget multitrack and looked as if it would get blown away in a strong wind. The Tascam MSR16, when it appeared, was altogether different and looked and felt as though it was built from recycled Chubb safes in comparison, although the sound quality was not quite as good due to the use of dbx rather than Dolby C noise reduction. We can now thank Tascam for setting a trend, because the Fostex G16 is every bit as chunky and confidence inspiring as the MSR16, and the fact that two manufacturers are competing for the same market means that the high quality of either machine is available at a very reasonable price. (The thought occurred to me that if these tape recorders were cars, they would be BMWs selling at Skoda prices!).
Sound quality is a very important topic, of course, but I can deal with it very quickly by saying that the sound quality of the G16 is every bit as good, in all respects, as that of the E16. I doubt if better quality from half-inch 16-track will ever be available, unless a different noise reduction system is used which can clean up the bass end while keeping the clarity of Dolby C. (Dolby C works only at mid and high frequencies). Also, another important point about sound quality, which is purely a matter for speculation at the moment, is that I would imagine the G16 will keep its performance longer than the E16, due to the generally sturdier quality of construction.
So, if the sound quality is in keeping with the standards set by the E16, the improvements are going to be in the construction, which I have commented on already, and the extra facilities. Extra facilities, the G16 has in abundance — over-abundance, one might just be tempted to say.
On my first meeting with the G16, I casually thought it would be good to unplug my E16 and run a session on the new machine. After all, I've never come across a tape recorder before that I couldn't operate straight away. Well the G16 was rather different, because it combines the normal collection of tape recorder functions with an integral autolocator, which is similar in capability to the E16's companion autolocator, the Fostex 4050. More than this, the particular G16 which I had on loan had the optional synchroniser card (Model 8330) fitted, which adds yet another level of functions. I don't want to frighten anyone into thinking that you need a degree to operate the G16, but I can assure you that there is plenty to learn and understand before gaining the status of 'G16 expert'. Of course, this is the price to pay for having a tape recorder that can do a hell of a lot, and the G16 certainly can.
When I look at a sculpture, I always like to look around the back to see if it is as well finished as the front. It shows that the sculptor took pride in his work. It's the same with audio equipment — it is not advisable to be fooled by a pretty front panel.
The Fostex G16 has the usual array of phono connectors on its back panel, plus a number of others. At this juncture I will throw in my usual gripe about phonos, in the hope that one day someone will invent a better connector that is appropriate to this type of equipment and will allow a reliable, balanced connection. For track 16, the timecode track, Fostex have thoughtfully provided an input loop-through connector, so that timecode sent to track 16 can be conveniently sent on to another destination. There is also a parallel output on the same track, so that timecode replayed from that track can easily be sent to both a synchroniser and a sequencer, for instance.
Also on the rear panel are jack sockets for two footswitches, one for punch-in and the other for play/locate, where the transport winds to a predetermined point and enters Play mode. I find this twin footswitch feature very useful on my E16 for performing guitar drop-ins (I can never get it right in one take!) and I am sure G16 purchasers will be similarly pleased to have this low-tech facility available on an otherwise very hi-tech machine. The two other connectors, not counting the IEC mains socket, on the back panel are for remotely mounting the control panel (more on this later) and for the connection of an external synchroniser. A three-position switch sets the Dolby C noise reduction to all tracks On or Off, or tracks 1 -15 On and track 16 Off, which is preferable for use with timecode.
As fascinating as the rear panel may be (actually, it becomes much more complicated with the optional Model 8330 synchroniser card installed), the G16 front panel is bound to be more interesting. Probably the first thing you'll notice, after wondering how tape recorders ever grew so complicated, is that there are two sets of transport controls. One set is very small with buttons that are almost flush with the panel, the other set has sensibly large buttons with a very pleasant positive action.
So why are there two sets of controls? The answer is because the control panel is removable and can be used as a remote control, leaving the small controls for use when you're standing at the machine itself, during editing perhaps. This is a brilliant idea, which Fostex first introduced on their 8-track R8 recorder. They didn't get it quite right, however, because the R8 panel didn't fix as firmly to the machine as it should have when not being used as a remote, although the R8 is otherwise an extremely good machine.
As well as being convenient, having a removable control panel means that you don't have the expense of buying a separate remote control — although you will have to shell out for the cable and dummy front panel. If you don't need to use the G16 control panel remotely, then it can be angled at 30, 45, or 90 degrees to the main front panel. This could make it easier to operate if the machine were mounted in a vertical rack.
Moving up to the tape transport itself, you will notice that everything feels just that bit chunkier than on the E16. The tension arms, in particular, are not the spindly things that were previously very vulnerable to bending when the tape is improperly loaded and suddenly snatches (something that happens sooner or later, no matter how much care you take when threading the tape). The head block also looks more able to take hard use and stay properly in shape; in fact, everything has generally been designed to a higher standard than before.
Of course there does have to be one quibble, simply because nothing in life ever seems to be perfect: the pinch roller is hidden underneath the head cover and is difficult to access for cleaning purposes. This is bad, because the pinch roller really does need to be cleaned every day or performance will deteriorate until it is. The chosen position does not encourage the user into good habits, I'm afraid. Another slight quibble is that there isn't much space to mount an editing block, although you could just about squeeze one in front of the heads. Fostex should have designed the front panel so that an editing block could be mounted firmly — people do still use them, you know!
Before I move on, I will just mention that there seems to be space in the headblock for a third head. Will a three-headed G16 ever see the light of day? If it did, it would perform just a fraction better and would be much easier to align. I hope Fostex will give users this option.
On the Fostex E16, editing wasn't one of life's great joys and neither was spot erasing. The problem with editing was that you couldn't hear the tape sufficiently clearly when moving it by hand. Perhaps this was arranged intentionally to minimise the likelihood of damaging speakers when the tape is moved either faster or slower than normal speed, thus producing potentially harmful levels of high or low frequencies. Personally speaking, I'm prepared to take the risk, because I would rather blow the occasional tweeter than cut the tape in the wrong place and ruin perhaps several days' work.
In comparison, editing on the G16 is crystal clear, and it is very easy to scrub the tape backwards and forwards by rotating the left or right reel while aiming the Chinagraph pencil with your free hand. There is also an edit wheel, which shuttles the tape backwards or forwards at any speed, but I have to say that although it does what it claims to do, it's no good for finding an edit point — sorry Fostex.
Spot erasing is quite possible on the E16, but with a little bit of fiddling about. Fortunately, the G16's spot erase function makes life a lot simpler. Once the section to be erased is marked, pressing the Spot Erase button sets the machine into Spot Erase and Edit mode. Then while the Erase On button is pressed, current is sent to the erase head. With a bit of practice, spot erasure can be carried out to perfection, getting rid of all those unwanted clicks, breaths, and other short but undesirable noises that always seem to accumulate during recording.
The 16 LED bargraph meters are rather smaller than those on the E16, but still effective with 12 segments. However, these meters have more to them than meets the eye, because there are in fact four modes of operation. In Normal mode, they behave as you would expect meters to behave. In Permanent mode, the highest segment to have illuminated during Record or Play remains illuminated until the Meter button is pressed. This is very useful for checking that no overload has occurred, even if you haven't been able to watch the meter all the way through a take. Temporary mode is similar, but signal peaks are held only for a second or so. In Calibration mode, which you would only use during alignment, the scale is expanded around the zero position so that the 12 segments cover only seven decibels, with 0.5dB resolution between -2 and +2dB.
The rest of the G16 control panel is where the fun begins. Take it from me that, although it's straightforward to learn the basic operating procedures, you are probably never going to be able to put away the manual, particularly if you install the optional Model 8330 synchroniser card, as there are so many options to choose from. This is a good thing, of course, because it lets you more or less tailor the machine to the way you want it. On the other hand, if — like me — you feel you have to know everything about how to operate any piece of equipment you own, then you will need to get used to living with the probability that you'll have to dive into the manual from time to time.
If you are moving up from an E16 and 4050 autolocator, then you already know practically all that you need to operate the G16 autolocate functions, but let me explain as much as I can starting from scratch...
There are two timer displays on the G16, both indicating hours, minutes, seconds, and frames. The topmost timer indicates the tape position. Without the synchroniser card it can't read timecode from track 16 but calculates the tape position in the normal way, from tach pulses. The lower display shows time data in the memory or being edited. It also indicates the setting of the G16's many (a lot more than I will mention here) so-called 'Second Level' functions, such as the alternative meter modes, in a hard-to-read alphanumeric script.
"...the sound quality of the G16 is every bit as good, in all respects, as that of the E16."
The main function of the autolocator is, of course, to memorise positions on the tape by their counter value and to be able to send the recorder scuttling off to them whenever necessary. There are 10 memory locations available, which can be set by capturing the current timer display or by manual entry. There are two ways to locate to these positions, once set. The first is to press Recall, followed by the number of the point you wish to locate to, then Locate. It's a three-key operation which deserves simplification down to one — and the G16 can do this. There is a Second Level function called Direct mode in which the machine can locate to any of 14 positions at one keypress. These are: the supply side zone limit (it is possible to set a time zone on a reel which the machine will not spool beyond); the take-up side zone limit; cue memories 0 to 9; the locate point; and the last play point. This can provide a very quick operating method as long as you can remember how to get into this mode (press 'RCL' and 'STO' simultaneously, then '70' — it's ever so slightly cryptic).
Other standard autolocator functions include a user-settable pre-roll, as well as auto return and auto play between cue points, but exclude automatic punch-in/out. This is not an oversight on Fostex's part, it is designed to encourage you to buy the add-on synchroniser card, which brings into action the three buttons to the left of the control panel and their corresponding LEDs. But seeing as the Tascam MSR16 has a particularly straightforward auto punch-in system as standard, it makes me angry at this decision by Fostex's marketing people (it must have been them) not to have auto punch-in on the G16 itself; or perhaps it's an admission that location without the aid of timecode is very nearly but not quite as accurate as Tascam can manage.
With the Model 8330 synchroniser card installed, the G16 is transformed from a sophisticated piece of machinery into something that is simply one step beyond. With this, you have virtually all the functions of an E16, 4050 autolocator, and 4030 synchroniser rolled into one — and you get the promise of control via MIDI. Let me start by describing what the 8330 does, and continue by telling you something about the promises.
Basically, the Model 8330 card (actually, I would have called it a 'module' rather than a card) is a simple chase synchroniser which allows the G16 to compare incoming timecode with the timecode on track 16 and lock to it, with or without an offset. With the appropriate interface cable, it can accept transport commands from the master machine, which makes chasing much quicker. Alternatively, if the master machine outputs code in fast wind mode, it can accept that too. The two numerical displays will show both the internal and external timecode values, the LEDs showing when good code is being received and when lock is achieved. The 8330 also contains a timecode generator, by the way, so here we have a machine which stripes its own tape, although you have to remember the correct Second Level code and press rather a lot of buttons to do it, rather than just one big red button marked 'Stripe'.
There are two sync modes available, as all good synchronisers should have. These are 'Frame Lock', where the G16 locks very precisely to the incoming code, and 'Sync Lock', which is just as accurate over a long period of time but is a slightly 'looser' lock, which will not attempt to match any wow and flutter present in the code from a video machine.
There is a third mode which combines the two automatically, using Frame Lock to position the G16, then Sync Lock to maintain synchronisation thereafter. Other features include:
• PARK & START, where the slave G16 will park slightly ahead of the master machine, so that when the master is started, the G16 can use its time advantage to read the code coming in and lock up quickly.
• The CHASE WINDOW sets the distance the slave must be from the master for it to enter fast forward or rewind to achieve synchronisation. This is variable between 1 and 9 seconds. If the slave is within the Chase Window, it will simply play faster or slower until the master and slave timecodes match.
• PLAY TO PARK allows the G16 to match the master's position accurately when the master is stopped. It winds back before the locate point for a few seconds and then plays up to and stops at the correct position.
• AUTO RECORDING is for automatically punching in and out of record. Pre-roll and post-roll can be used. There is also an automatic spot erase function which operates in a similar way.
While the 8330 card does provide all the functions you would like to have, it is fiddly to operate with all the Second Level functions being identified only by codes rather than labelled buttons. It will need a very clear owner's manual to guide the new user and definitely also a 'quick reference' card outlining the many and varied Second Level functions on the G16 itself and on the extras provided by the Model 8330 synchroniser.
If you already own a Fostex B16 or E16, then the thought of trading it in for a shiny new G16 must by now have crossed your mind. Of course, if your old machine still sounds alright and has all the functions you need, then there is little point in spending money to gain extra functions you might not have a use for. But if you like the idea of having the latest personal multitrack on the block, and don't mind spending a few evenings with your head in the manual, then you won't regret buying this new model.
If 16-track operation is something you have yet to aspire to, then you have a choice between the Tascam MSR16, perhaps with the MTS 1000 MIDIizer synchroniser, and the Fostex G16, possibly with the 8330 synchroniser card. The Tascam model has the advantage of built-in auto punch-in/out, but the G16 has the advantage of Dolby C noise reduction. They are both, however, very well designed high quality machines which are worth a few thousand of anybody's money.
In four words, I like the G16. Yes, it is quite complicated to operate, but it does quite a lot too, and it sounds good. Maybe if we shout loud enough Fostex will also produce an F16 machine, as chunky and robust as the G16 but with simpler controls (like the previous E16) and at a lower price? I'd be willing to bet that plenty of people would go for it. As it is, I'm actually going to stick with my trusty E16 for the time being, but if I was in the market for a 16-track right now, the G16 is the one I would buy.
£4,995 inc VAT.
Fostex UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Mellor
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