Fostex R8 - The 8-Track Take-Away
In these space-conscious times, Fostex have developed a diminutive new 8-track tape recorder you can store out of sight and control fully from its detachable front panel remote control/autolocator. David Mellor takes it for a spin...
In these space-conscious times, Fostex have developed a diminutive new 8-track machine you can store out of sight and control fully from its detachable front panel remote control/autolocator. David Mellor takes it for a spin...
Good grief! It's raining multitracks. First the substantial Tascam MSR16 16-track recorder (reviewed SOS December '88) and now the compact Fostex R8 quarter-inch 8-track machine. It may be enough to make you wonder whether the pace of technological change is fast enough to justify the rate of release of new models onto the market.
But actually, what is happening is that developments which are firmly established on the professional studio scene are filtering down from the megabuck level to the more easily affordable, and that can't be a bad thing. Put the creative tools in the hands of the people, says Citizen Mellor.
The novel feature of the Fostex R8, to the home studio, is the full remote/autolocator which comes as standard, allowing the engineer total command over transport and metering functions. The existing front control panel of the R8 is detachable, and together with an extension cable becomes the remote controller. This control panel can be placed in a convenient location while the R8 itself is well out of the way in a separate machine room (the cupboard under the stairs?). A neat idea which puts the cost of the concept well within the realms of reason. But why is remote control necessary? What advantages does it bring?
One day, when the 'workstation' concept reaches its ultimate conclusion, we will make all the music we need without leaving the comfort of our anatomically designed studio chairs (with built-in low frequency loudspeakers for extra involvement in the music). All the machinery that actually does the work will be in a 19" rack somewhere, but the all-important interface between musician and musical technology will exist within an arm's span.
At the moment, we are at a halfway stage. It used to be the case that it was necessary to have a mechanical link between knobs and switches and the function they controlled - in mixers, recorders and other studio gear. One by one, these mechanical links are being replaced by electronic links. When you press Play, you don't physically push the tape against the heads and kick-start the motors into rotation. Relays and solenoids do it for you. It only takes a little more machine intelligence, and you don't have to go near the recorder once the tape is threaded.
To say that the Fostex R8 is compact is like saying that mud-wrestling is dirty - understatements both. The foldaway carrying handle increases the impression of portability. It would make a nice pair with a Seck 1282 mixer, also with carrying handle. If you wind the wiring loom twice around your waist, you won't even have to disconnect the two to move them about!
The R8 doesn't pretend to be a fully-fledged studio multitrack. Its small size dictates that it can only use 7" reels of tape, which isn't a drawback quality-wise but does limit the scope of tape interchangeability between studios. Fostex sensibly supply a reel of tape with the R8, not only to get you started, but to demonstrate which brand the machine is aligned for - in this case, Ampex 457. This is the long-play version of the well-established 456 tape ('long-play' meaning that the base material of the tape is slightly thinner). You can expect about 22 minutes from a 7" reel running at 15 inches per second.
All the mechanical features you find on big tape machines are present here too, like tensioners and flutter damping rollers to smooth the tape's path. All components seem to be of sufficient chunkiness to survive reasonably vigourous home use - although engineers used to more studio-oriented machines may like to see more metal and a little less plastic. The head block - a vital component for longterm stability - looks like the gun turret of some recently retired battleship. This is made of metal, and pretty solid it seems too.
Rather less solid is the fixing of the remote control panel to the front of the R8 (for when you don't want to use it as a remote). This is my only real point of criticism of the R8, the panel has a distinct tendency to fall off. Also, the fold-down plastic clips that hold the panel on to the recorder are in my estimation hardly likely to see out the guarantee period, they look so frail. If you have a permanent set-up, then you probably won't be troubled by this. If you intend to move the R8 around a lot, then be careful.
While I'm in a critical mood, I could also comment on the type of plastic that the case of the R8 is made from. You know how some types of plastic look sleek and tough, and other types don't look so high in quality? Well, this is the second type. It has a textured surface, but beneath that is a kind of mottled appearance - as though it didn't come out of the mould right. I'm sure it's not structurally vital, but it doesn't give the same confidence as the appearance of other Fostex products.
Aside from the fold-down clips, the way the control panel mates with the body of the machine is interesting. The panel has a short cable that attaches to a multipin connector in a recess, with enough space in the recess to roll up the cable and keep it hidden. When you want to use it as a remote, an extension cable is used with which you can operate the machine from a distance of up to five metres. With the control panel removed, four small transport control buttons are revealed, so there is still some local control if you need it (for editing perhaps).
Most of the intelligence of the R8, as far as the operator is concerned, is in the removable control panel. All the transport controls, the record-ready buttons, the meters and the autolocate functions are here. In fact, when the R8 is powered up the bargraph meters display a scrolling 'FOSTEX' to show you how clever the unit is. Just a bit too flash, perhaps? (If this display were user-programmable, it might be possible to have it show the owner's personal logo or serial number instead, to help identify the machine in case of theft. How about it Fostex? - Ed.)
Let's start with the most basic transport controls, and there is more to them than may meet the eye. Even the humble Stop button has two modes of operation; one where the tape is 'firmly' stopped, the other (set by holding the button down a little longer) where the transport slackens its grip slightly so that you can move the reels by hand more easily. Rewind and Fast Forward have two modes also. One where the tape moves quickly and the output is muted, the other where the tape is allowed a little nearer the heads so that you can hear the music whizzing past, for cueing purposes. This is a sensible mechanical alternative to the manual method of pushing the pinch roller forward, necessary on many other machines.
"When the time comes for putting the R8 to work, the autolocate functions will be worth their weight in gold discs."
Now we get more advanced. Since the main claim to fame of the Fostex R8 is that you can put it in a cupboard and operate it completely from the remote, how does it manage to re-thread the tape when you have inadvertently let it spool off the end of the reel? The answer is that with the Zone Limit function, you will never find yourself in that embarrassing situation. On the Tascam MSR16 there is a rudimentary Zone Limit function, which will prevent the tape spooling off in one direction only. The one on the R8 will completely save your bacon (together with the error message displayed when the tape becomes slack for any reason).
Zone Limit can work in one of two ways. Either you can define start and end points of a section that you wish to work on, that could be any length; or you can use what's called the Tape Reel Zone, which will calculate the start and end points itself, based on easily entered information concerning reel sizes (5" or 7") and whether or not the tape is back-coated. It always powers up in the 'two 7" reels of back-coated tape' mode, which will most often apply.
But we haven't recorded any music yet. When the time comes for putting the R8 to work, the autolocate functions will be worth their weight in gold discs.
Like on the big boys' studio autolocators, the R8 can store several locate points, which could mark the verses and choruses of a song - anywhere you might want to get to quickly. The easiest point to store and to get to in a hurry is timer zero, stored by pressing Reset, and returned to by pressing Locate Zero. The Auto Play function will set you into Play mode as soon as you touch base, if that's what you require. Another 10 locate points can be stored, like this: As you can see from the photograph, there is a Tape Time display and also a Memory display (why they both include two 'hours' digits escapes me for the moment). Clearing the memory display and pushing 730 STO 1 enters a tape time of 7 minutes and 30 seconds in memory 1. Launching the tape off in search of that time is a matter of RCL 1 LOCATE. In fact, when you Recall a location, the Locate LED blinks at you to prompt what to do next. Memories can also be set while the tape is running, to the current timer reading.
Associated with these memory points is an Auto Return button which lets you shuttle continuously between any two memory points. A Pre-roll of between zero and nine seconds can be set, which gives you a few seconds 'play-in' before the actual memory point.
As in other fields of endeavour, it's not until you get actual hands-on experience that you know whether the relationship is going to work. But once a space had been I cleared for the autolocator among my keyboards, computer bits and pieces, MIDI cables, notepads and mouse mat, I quickly found out.
It's great to be able to get away from the multitrack, even if only five metres away. If it were not for the squeaking of the brakes and servos, you wouldn't know the machine was there. And what's more, musically speaking at least, you wouldn't care. What you have in front of you, in the form of the autolocator, is a versatile 8-track storage medium for sound. The fact that reels of tape are actually spinning, and being recorded onto, somewhere is immaterial.
But no matter what the storage medium, you can't get away from the monitoring and level setting requirements of multitrack recording. So it's as well that Fostex make things simple. The metering is via eight 7-segment bargraphs calibrated from -20 to +8 (I can't help thinking that if something is calibrated, then there ought to be an indication of what unit it is calibrated in - decibels, for example).
There are three options for these meters: Perm, Norm/Rst and Temp. In English, you can have normal peak reading meters, meters where the highest peak is held permanently until reset (RST), or meters which hold peaks temporarily so that you have a better chance to see them as they pass by. The normal setting will do for me thanks, but it's nice to see other opinions catered for.
Selecting tracks for recording is done with the keypad - there are no individual track ready buttons I'm afraid. The Safe/Rdy button followed by the track number, or numbers, is the way to do it. Needless to say, any combination of the eight tracks may be recorded at one pass. The usual (these days) input monitoring facilities are provided. Pushing Record by itself will switch any track in Record Ready to monitor the input, whatever the transport mode. Otherwise, any track being recorded will follow the input. Any track not being recorded will output the sound from the tape.
Also on the autolocator can be found the pitch control (+/—10%, not calibrated) and a pair of footswitch jacks. The Punch In/Out jack does what it suggests, with the bonus that you can use it to rehearse punch-ins as well. In this situation, the monitoring will switch from tape to input when you hit the switch, but nothing will be recorded on - or erased from - the tape. The Play/Locate footswitch jack allows you to return to a selected memory point and go into play automatically. Very useful for the guitar-wielding recordist with a plectrum in one hand and a fiendishly difficult chord in the other (hope he hits the correct footswitch).
"...although the acceleration from Play or Stop modes into fast wind is very high, it is very smooth too, with not even a hint of tape snatching."
It may seem from what I have written so far that the Fostex R8 is a complicated little beastie. It is at first, especially to remember how to access all the functions and to catch on to the fact that a steady LED means one thing and a flashing LED means another. But in this case, familiarity breeds content and operations quickly become second nature.
But there is more to a tape recorder than the user interface; like how does it sound, what about tape handling, is it easy to look after?
To the first question - how does it sound? - the answer is excellent, and well up to the high standard set by the larger E16. If I can't put my hand on my heart and say it is as good as a studio standard 8-track using one inch tape (four times as wide as the quarter-inch used on the R8) and Dolby SR noise reduction, then that is in the nature of things - a good big'un will always beat a good little'un. But the sonic difference is small, and the cost difference large.
As far as tape handling goes, I have often found small centre 7" spools to be a problem and prefer the large centre ones you can find if you look hard enough. The difference between the smallest diameter hub (when there are just a few turns on the reel) and the largest (when the reel is full) is more than can be borne by a tape recorder with fixed tape tension.
At first sight, the R8 seems to throw the tape around quite roughly. Since Ampex 457 tape is on the thin side to start with, that could be a recipe for disaster. But looking closely, although the acceleration from Play or Stop modes into fast wind is very high, it is very smooth too, with not even a hint of tape snatching. And this is at all positions along the length of the tape, so some sort of tension adjusting mechanism must be hard at work.
Tape handling during editing operations is good also. And despite the trend set by the E16, there is room to mount a splicing block - as long as the control panel is off the machine.
Tape alignment is a point of considerable importance. It would be easy to think that if you stick to Ampex 457 for ever and a day, then all will be well on that front. But what happens when Ampex change the formulation slightly, with different bias and EQ required? And what happens as the heads wear down? Yes, at some stage you will have to re-align the machine - or get someone to do it for you. Even if you have someone else do it, then it's important that alignment is straightforward, because it will cost you less, and there will be a better chance of getting a good job done.
On the R8, the alignment controls for each channel are under clip-off plastic covers beneath the control panel, all accessible and identified (with the black on black embossed lettering that seems to be compulsory these days - even for the Fostex logo). To assist line-up, there is a switch that can make the bargraph meters more accurate around the 0dB point - a nice touch.
In this case won't be too hard to do, because it means I will get my other eight tracks back (I own an E16 you see). But using the Fostex R8 on material which didn't need a lot of tracks convinced me that the multitrack tape recorder as we know it is on the way out - out of the studio and into the machine room that is, leaving only the autolocator and metering behind. If this arrangement has been possible for years, it doesn't lessen the achievement and value of having it at the home studio level. Thank you Fostex.
Add to it the possibility of SMPTE/EBU synchronisation via the top panel multipin connector, plus a link for a planned MIDI Time Code unit, and the R8's IQ - Impressiveness Quotient - is high.
It's a shame that you only have to see the control panel fall off once (just tilt the recorder forward by 20 degrees) to get totally the wrong idea. In normal use, you will be using the control panel as a remote autolocator and whether it fixes firmly to the main unit will be neither here nor there, because everything else about the R8 is right.
In conclusion, Fostex have done it again. Over to you Tascam...
£1499 inc VAT.
Atlantex, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor