Eight-track reel-to-reel recorder
As 8-track tape recording takes its first steps onto cassette, Fostex introduce another revolutionary idea: the reel-to-reel tape deck with a detachable control panel. Vic Lennard does it from a distance.
Fostex' latest 8-track recorder incorporates a novel approach to remote operation, but how stiff is competition from the new cassette machines?
THE R8 FOLLOWS on in the format that Fostex themselves established some years ago with their A8 and subsequently followed up with the A80, M8 and E8 machines. In fact, no other company has challenged Fostex for this particular market position: 8-tracks on ¼" tape. But even without competition they have continued to improve their machines both in terms of facilities and quality. So, how does this recorder match up to its predecessors?
THE R8 RECORDS eight tracks onto ¼" tape at a speed of 15ips (+/- 10% via a pitch controller) utilising the Dolby C system for noise reduction. The facility of switching this off on track eight for tape sync purposes has been omitted but, in my experience, this particular type of noise reduction does not tend to affect a sync code. Inputs and outputs are via phono jacks and there is a synchroniser connector for the Fostex 4030 and a serial port for the future use of a Model MTC1 MIDI time code controller.
The revolutionary aspect of the R8 is that the whole of the front panel is removable hence creating the perfect remote control unit (which can be moved up to 5 metres away from the machine by use of a special extension cable). Once removed, the basic transport controls are duplicated on the main body of the recorder.
ON POWER UP the word "Fostex" scrolls across the seven-segment bar graph display. Thread the tape and away we go.
The control panel has no less than 15 indication LEDs onboard and two time displays, one named Tape Time, which displays the current tape location in hours, minutes and seconds unless being used for a special purpose (which we'll call window 1), and the other called Memory, which displays assorted data dependent on the function (which we'll call window 2).
The first track to be recorded is probably going to be for synchronising to a sequencer. It is customary to use an edge track, so let's settle for track 8. Press Safe/Rdy and a small "t" appears to the left-hand side of window 2 asking which track is to be set to Record mode. Select the track number from the numeric key pad and it will be displayed on the right-hand side of the window - a mistake can be cancelled by pressing Clr (clear) and repeating the procedure.
The rest of the recording process is very similar to this (unless you're not using a sync track) except that there is an easier method for putting more than one track into Record Ready mode: after pressing SAFE/RDY, key in the range of tracks to be recorded on. For instance, simultaneous recording on tracks 1 to 4 would be keyed in as "1-4".
Punching in and out is often a cliffhanger of a situation and involves the changing of the monitoring from tape to input at the point of the punch. A rehearsal mode is a useful facility and an automated rehearsal mode is even more desirable. The R8 has the unautomated variety in the form of a footswitch plugged into the Punch In/Out socket on the side of the remote. Select the track(s) to be dropped in on as before and step on the footswitch while holding the Record button down, and an amber LED above it will flash, showing that the machine is in Rehearsal mode. Alternate depressing of the footswitch will toggle the monitoring between tape and input. To carry out the actual punch in, either press the Record button or step on the footswitch at the relevant moment. Some people are bound to claim that this removes the flexibility of putting a recorder into Record mode and then simply depressing the track safe button at the punch point, but this procedure is far safer and more likely to give accurate results. I like it.
THE R8 HAS ten memory locations which can be set "on the fly" or while the tape is stationary. If the memory time is known, it's a simple matter of clearing the display of window 2, inputting the time with the keypad, storing it and finally selecting the memory location. If a time is to be picked off of the tape as it is moving, pressing Hold will transfer the currently displayed time from window 1 onto window 2.
A memory can be recalled by pressing Rd followed by the memory number. The memory time will now appear in window 2, and the Locate function will automatically wind the tape to that memory setting if depressed (even in Record mode). If the play key is selected while the location is being found the recorder will instantly play when it arrives at its destination. A neater way to do this is to use the Auto Play function which will put the machine into Play mode whenever the tape is rewound or fast forwarded.
Most remote controls allow the use of a shuttle facility to automatically rewind to a point when another location is reached. The R8 goes one better - you can shuttle between any two memory locations by selecting them in either order as the remote will put them into the correct time order. Clear window 2 and use the numeric keys to choose the two memory locations and then press Store followed by Auto Rtn. Rd and Auto Rtn will show the only two memory locations that are presently memorised. An additional pre-roll feature allows the tape to run for a short amount of time before a memory point so that a short section of the music preceding that point can be heard. This can be set up to 9 seconds.
There is a second jack socket on the side of the remote labelled Play/Locate which allows you to cue the tape to a selected locator on the panel with the first depression and set the recorder into play with the second.
The R8 offers two methods of designating a length of tape outside of which the machine cannot be cued. Tape Reel Zone Limit sets up the boundaries for the start and end of the tape so allowing free rewinding and fast forwarding with no danger of running the tape out of the tape transport - especially useful on rewind when the song is the first one on the tape.
PRESSING THE STOP key obviously halts the motion of tape and puts the recorder into Standby mode. Pressing the Stop key again transfers the R8 to Release mode (where the pinch wheel is retracted to a greater distance from the capstan) for easier editing.
A further aid to editing and cuing is the double operation of the Rewind and Fast Forward keys. Hold either of them down initially and the tape movement will be slow, release them and normal speed is attained. Alternatively, when already in fast wind, pressing either key will slow the tape down, making it easier to arrive at a particular cue point. Couple this with the ability to defeat the lifter mechanism (which usually keeps the tape away from the heads during fast winding) by depressing either of the fast motion keys and pressing Play once, which allows the signal on tape to be heard, and you have a very efficient editing system. One point to beware of: excessive use of this method of cuing is likely to increase wear of the heads.
THE R8 HAS the ability to display all of the locators in order along with the last selected locator and the current tape position. Pressing Rd and Clr brings up a display similar to the following;
6 3.2 L.1 4 C 5 220.127.116.11
the case of the "L.1", tells you that locator 1 is the current locator. Put the tape into motion and "C" (Current position) will move around to show where it is presently situated.
Other additional facilities include a meter normal/fine switch which changes the marked scales on the bar graphs from a 28dB range to 7dB (which is particularly useful when setting the level for timecode); error messages which display various error conditions which can occur during the normal course of usage and Meter mode switches which change the display characteristics of the bar graphs.
Recording quality is excellent - practically identical to the original signal monitored from a sequencer. Using edge tracks showed no audible sonic difference, and though crosstalk performance was perhaps slightly inferior to Fostex' own E16 (16 tracks on 1/2" tape), it is still good. When bouncing tracks, I found a little care is needed with levels when using adjacent tracks, but results overall are good. Generally, the machine is a joy to use.
In the light of the recent arrival of 8-track cassette machines (Toa's MR8T and Tascam's 238) the desirability of a reel-to-reel machine has to be brought into question. While a cassette machine is obviously smaller and more convenient, the width of the audio track and gap between adjacent tracks is significantly larger on a reel-to-reel, giving superior sonic performance by design. Reel-to-reel tape is also a better quality and more stable medium to work with than cassette tape. Finally, the alignment and care of the heads on an 8-track cassette system is so critically important as to make it difficult to work with - and while care of the reel-to-reel heads is also highly important, they are more tolerant of both wear and alignment.
The R8 is a very fine semi-professional 8-track recorder with practically every function imaginable on such a machine and with excellent audio quality. I want one.
Price £1599 including VAT
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Review by Vic Lennard