If you're looking for a cost-effective way to add multitrack tape recording to your sequencing setup, it couldn't come much more cheaply than with Fostex' X18. Simon Trask goes back to basics with this new cassette multitrack.
Combining ease of use and affordability, Fostex' latest multitracker is an entry-level machine in the tradition of the X15. Is there still a place for the humble four-track in today's hi-tech recording setup?
When Fostex brought out the X15, their original budget four-track, back in 1983, multitrack tape reigned supreme as the recording medium for music. Nowadays multitrack tape machines take their place alongside multitrack MIDI sequencers in the modern hi-tech recording setup - if they're needed at all. What's more, the master-slave relationship between tape machine and sequencer, which has traditionally seen the latter slaved off the former, is shifting in favour of the sequencer as master - an indication, if one were needed, of which way the proverbial wind is blowing. Fostex can take the credit for having pioneered this new relationship by collaborating with Steinberg to produce the innovative R8/MTC1/Cubase system. However, now that an official MIDI Machine Control protocol has been ratified by the MMA and the JMSC, it looks as if we can expect a fairly decisive shift towards the sequencer as central controller of the modern hi-tech recording setup (although, of course, it will still require timecode to be recorded on tape). As an indication of the current state of play, Steinberg, C-Lab and Dr T's have all hooked up with Fostex to support sequencer control of the latter's R8, G16 and G24S multitrack tape machines via MIDI Machine Control from within their software.
But if traditional multitrack analogue tape machines are adapting to meet the challenge of MIDI by getting on first-name terms with it, there are other challenges which may well be less easy to counter. As any MIDIot knows, MIDI sequencers don't record audio. But multitrack digital tape machines do, and Alesis' much-hyped ADAT with its use of S-VHS video cassettes as a recording medium looks set to make waves in the tape-machine market. At the same time, a new generation of disk-based digital audio recording systems is knocking on the studio door. Ranging from Passport's impressively cheap Audiotrax software for the Mac to Korg's stand-alone SoundLink system (which is simply impressive) via the likes of Opcode's StudioVision, Digidesign's Pro Tools and Roland's DM80, this new generation has the integration of digital audio recording and MIDI sequencing as a common theme running through it - which is hardly surprising when you consider that the companies involved have backgrounds in MIDI software and/or hardware. What's more, these systems are bringing the cost of disk-based digital audio recording - traditionally confined to somewhat rarified financial heights - down to new levels of affordability. Which isn't to say that they're sounding the death knell for tape, but tape-machine manufacturers would do well to keep one ear to the ground and another to the heavens so they can listen out for ominous rumblings and tolling bells.
For the moment, though, as a mature recording medium, multitrack analogue tape in its various formats has many advantages over the digital pretenders to its throne, not least in the areas of affordability and availability. And the most readily affordable and most widely available format of them all is the blank audio cassette tape. Equally, if you're looking for an affordable entry into multitrack audio recording, it doesn't come more affordable than cassette four-track. What's more, MIDI sequencing's rise to prominence in the recording process has, if anything, given four-track machines a new appeal, by shouldering a significant part of the recording burden. For the recording musician working primarily with a MIDI sequencer and electronic sound sources, a vocal part or a guitar part may be all that needs to go to tape - aside, of course, from the sync code needed to lock sequencer and tape machine together (which requires a track to itself, leaving you with three tracks for musical parts).
There again, if your MIDI setup doesn't provide you with enough polyphony, parts and/or effects to let you run all your electronic parts live off the sequencer, you may want to offload some parts to tape in order to free up your MIDI instruments for other parts. Depending on how you approach this, four (or should I say three?) tracks may not be enough. To an extent, track bouncing can help you out, albeit at a loss of some flexibility and quality. It's also worth bearing in mind that, for the difference in price between a budget four-track and a budget eight-track, you may be able to add another synth medule or an old synth or two to your MIDI setup - assuming you've got enough spare inputs on your mixer to handle them. Life can be so complicated.
Fostex' latest entry-level cassette multitracker keeps things simple, yet it's also a pleasantly versatile machine for its price. The recording quality doesn't scream "budget machine" at you, either; in fact, it's rather good: crisp, clear and well-detailed, with a pleasing vitality to it. The X18 is designed for use with I EC Type II High Bias tapes bearing the 70usec EQ designation (Maxell UD-XLII, TDK SA); although you might save a bit of money buying lower-quality tapes, the resulting increase in background noise on your recordings will soon have you hunting for the right type.
Tapes on the X18 run at the standard speed of 4.75 cm/sec (1⅞ ips). Noise reduction is Dolby B, as you'd expect on a Fostex machine at this price level, so don't expect a complete absence of background noise; at the same time, don't expect anything offputting - unless you're recording sparse, delicate acoustic music, perhaps. The machine's technical spec quotes the signal-to-noise ratio at 58dB or greater and the frequency response of the recorder section at 40Hz-12.5kHz (the mixer section, on the other hand, is quoted at 20Hz-20kHz - relevant if you're routing some parts straight from input to output while others are coming off tape). Sensible recording practice should help you to optimise the quality of your recordings.
"MIDI sequencing's rise to prominence in the recording process has, if anything, given four-track machines a new appeal."
If compactness and portability are what you desire in your equipment, you should find the X18 very satisfying (er, perhaps I could have phrased that better). Measuring a modest 11.75" by 6.75" by 2.5" and weighing just under 3lbs (excluding AC adaptor and batteries), it's yet another testimony to the miniaturisation skills of Japanese engineers. If only they could figure out a way to miniaturise the power supply - the external AC adaptor (supplied) weighs almost half as much again!
To take full advantage of the X18's portability, you can run it off batteries - to be precise, off 10 (as in 10) Type A alkali dry cells. And what running time do you get for your investment in battery technology? According to the manual, approximately two hours "under normal operating conditions"; presumably, abnormal operating conditions would include the subzero temperatures you'd encounter when scaling the north face of the Eiger on a mission to sample the abominable snowman. In fact, if you're looking for a good machine to take out on sample-collecting excursions, a Sony Professional Walkman is even more compact than the X18, runs for longer on fewer batteries, can record on both sides of a cassette, and gives you a choice of Dolby B or Dolby C noise reduction; however, as a multitrack recording machine it makes a good paperweight.
Although a four-track machine has to have four tracks whether it costs £300 or £600, there are plenty of areas in which savings can be made in order to produce a cheaper machine. As the cheapest of the Fostex four-track pack (which includes the X26 at around £300 and the X28 at £385 - see MT, February '92 for a review of the latter), the X18, not surprisingly, has its share of economies: four input channels compared to the X26's six and the X28's eight, simultaneous two-frack record compared to the X28's simultaneous four-track record, mechanical rather than logic-controlled transport functions, no return-to-zero feature, no master fader, no individual tape outs, and, perhaps most significantly, no EQ. But there are features to applaud on a machine costing around £250: simultaneous four-channel record, effects send/return routing on mixdown, and dedicated Sync In and Sync Out sockets. Fostex have designated track four as the sync code track (though you can use it as an ordinary audio track if you have no need of a sync code), provided a direct line between it and the Sync sockets in order to isolate the sync code from the musical parts as much as possible, and fixed the record level (at 0dB) so you haven't got to worry about finding the optimum level yourself. In practice, syncing on the X18 proves to be easy to implement and trouble-free to operate. Although the Dolby B noise reduction isn't switchable, this presented no problems - and nor did recording a punchy drum track with some serious transients in it onto the adjacent track. But then, the amount of crosstalk on the X18 has been kept to a creditably low level. I did notice the sync code I'd recorded to track four (from a Korg KMS30) at the Line L/R outputs (though not the Monmix output), even with all output levels zeroed. It was faint enough not to be a serious problem, but in quiet musical passages it was noticeable as background noise.
Although you wouldn't expect a budget machine like the X18 to offer anything new, Fostex have come up with one novel feature: the Teach Buss. Signals appearing at the Teach Buss input on the X18's rear panel are routed directly to the machine's headphone circuit. Therefore a teacher monitoring the recording efforts of a classroom full of students in a language lab-type situation could use the Teach Buss to talk to the students individually or as a group via their headphones - which is presumably the sort of application Fostex had in mind. In fact, boosting educational sales of the X18 appears to be the Teach Buss's sole raison d'etre - I can't see its inclusion being of any advantage to the individual user.
A little over half of the X18's front panel is taken up with the cassette tape housing, LED bar-graph level metering, the tape counter and accompanying reset button, and the transport controls, leaving the mixer section looking a bit cramped in the remainder of the space. In practice it feels less cramped than it looks, but not all that much. A certain amount of "finger collision" is inevitable on the knobs if you do much twiddling, while the short travel of the switches lends them a fiddly feel which is accentuated in the case of the four three-position switches (two Rec Select and two Input Level) by the minimal distance between positions. If you're not careful, you may find that you're recording (over) a track when a casual glance at the Rec Select switches gave you the impression you'd disabled recording for that track.
"This is a mature, stylish machine which packs in a healthy amount of quality and flexibility for such an affordable price."
The pleasingly smooth travel and long throw (as long as you could reasonably expect on a machine of the X18's dimensions) of the four channel faders, on the other hand, contrive to give the front panel a less constricted feel. Hi/Mid/Low input level selection on channels one and two allows the X18 to handle a variety of input sources, from electronic instruments (which tend to have a high output level) to electric guitars to low-output mics; input channels three and four are best suited to electronic instrument levels.
Located on the front, below the tape transport controls, are the four input channel sockets, a punch in/out socket for footswitch-controlled drop-ins and drop-outs, and a stereo headphone socket - all quarter-inch jacks. To the left of these sockets is a pitch-control dial which allows you to adjust the tape speed (and therefore the overall pitch) within a ±10% range. A useful feature it may be, but unfortunately the dial itself is not one of the X18's design strong points. It's awkward to adjust unless the machine is raised up from the surrounding surface, and the centre detent which is supposed to help you reset the machine to normal running speed could do with being more assertive - instead, it's all too easy to set the dial slightly off centre (and the tape therefore slightly off pitch) and not realise it.
In addition to the Sync In, Sync Out and Teach Buss sockets, the X18's rear panel provides Monmix, Line Left and Right (main stereo mix out), and Aux Return Left and Right connections - all RCA phonos. In case you're wondering what happened to the Aux Send socket, the Monmix output takes on this function when the X18 is in Play/mixdown mode - but more on this later.
Although it has four inputs and can record and play back up to four tape tracks, the X18 is only able to record onto two tracks at a time. The reason for this is that it has two busses, Left and Right, which are routed to the Line Left and Line Right outs, with a feed off each buss going to the tape section. Signals appearing on the Left buss are routed to either track one or track three when you're in Record mode, depending on the setting of the relevant Rec Select switch; similarly, signals appearing on the Right buss are routed to either track two or track four, again depending on the setting of the relevant Rec Switch. Whether an input channel is routed to the Left or the Right buss depends on whether its Pan knob is turned hard left or hard right. For example, to record all four channel inputs onto track one you would pan them all hard left and set the relevant Rec Select switch to track one. If you wanted to record the two halves of a stereo signal being routed into, say, inputs three and four, you could pan input three hard left and input four hard right, then choose two tracks to record to using the two Rec Select switches; one would have to be track one or three, the other track two or four.
While recording, you're effectively limited to monitoring via headphones or a powered speaker plugged into the X18's Monmix output - and either way you get only a mono mix. The overall output level at the headphone jack can be adjusted using the Phone's knob, while the playback level of each individual recorded track at both the headphone jack and the Monmix socket can be adjusted independently using the four Monmix knobs.
"The X18 shows that a budget price tag doesn't have to mean cheap, and that entry-level doesn't have to mean simplistic."
You're "effectively limited" because, although the Line L/R outputs deliver a stereo signal, due to the X18's method of assigning channels to tracks via the two record busses, the signal(s) you're recording will be panned hard left and/or hard right - only at the playback/mixdown stage can you pan the recorded parts to the positions you want. More importantly, perhaps, if you monitor from the stereo outs while recording, you can't monitor recorded tracks and record new parts via the corresponding mixer channels at the same time - whereas monitoring on headphones or via the Monmix output does allow you to do this. Reference to the signal flow diagram included in the X18's manual clarifies what's going on. Signals coming from the machine's tape section are sent out in two directions: to the Monmix output via the Monmix 1-4 level controls (with a feed going to the headphone jack) and to the four input channels of the mixer section. Let's say you've recorded onto tracks one, two and three and you want to record onto track four from inputs one, two and three. So you pan the three inputs hard right and set the relevant Rec Select switch to track four. Then, when you start recording, the Monmix monitor section picks up not only the output from tracks one, two and three but also the three input signals which are being routed to track four in the tape section via the Left and Right busses. However, when you plug a lead into one of the inputs so you can record from an external source, you break the connection which routes the corresponding tape track through the mixer section and onto the Left and/or Right busses - and so, in the recording example just given, the Line L/R outputs get the three external inputs but not the three tape tracks. This either/or situation also stops you from adding further parts when you mix down the recorded tracks - unless you use the Aux Returns to bring in a stereo signal, in which case you can't add effects processing on mixdown.
When you're monitoring on headphones during playback, the Monmix section only gives you what's on tape, not what's appearing at the channel inputs - which isn't a lot of good if you want to rehearse a part before recording it. All you need do, however, is set the Phones switch on the X18's front panel to L/R+M rather than M. The headphone circuit then draws feeds from both the Monmix section and the Left and Right busses.
This setting also allows you to monitor a proper stereo mix of up to four tracks on the headphones; all you have to do is zero all the Monmix level controls (so that you don't have a mono mix competing with the stereo mix) and pull out all the leads from the channel inputs (so that the tape tracks can be routed via the mixer section - where you can balance and pan them - to the stereo buss and the headphone feed). However, if you decide that you want to add effects processing on mixdown, forget the headphones option - unless you're happy to have a stereo mix and a mono effects send mix in the headphones together.
Track bouncing is a time-honoured way of getting more than four tracks on a four-track machine, albeit at a loss of some mixing flexibility. On the X18 it's simply a matter of routing up to three recorded tracks via the mixer section (where you can balance their levels) onto the Left or Right buss as appropriate, and recording the mix onto a spare track. The inputs matching the tracks to be bounced down must be left unplugged, but the other one or two inputs can be used to record further parts while you're bouncing down. You can also use the Left or Right Aux Return input (depending on which track you're recording onto) if you want to add in a further instrument.
The X18 doesn't evince any great build-up of noise or loss of clarity on first-generation bounces; in fact, even second-generation bouncing produces very useable results. But one of the advantages of using tape in parallel with MIDI sequencing is that less demand needs to be placed on the tape machine. How you actually combine tape machine and MIDI sequencer is an interesting question. You could, for instance, mix any stereo signal, ranging from the output of a single drum machine or synth to a stereo submix of an entire MIDI sequence, into the X18's stereo buss via its L/R Aux Return inputs, and adjust the signal's level using the Aux Return Level knob (at the expense of adding effects processing to the tape tracks on mixdown, of course).
Alternatively, you could turn this arrangement on its head by routing the X18's Line L/R stereo outputs into a couple of spare inputs on your desk - assuming you have a couple of spare inputs - rather than routing the output of your desk into the X18; this would leave the machine's send/return loop free for adding effects processing to the tape tracks. Taking this approach to its logical conclusion, you could route three of the X18's four tracks to separate channels on your desk by panning one track hard left (to the Line L output) and another hard right (Line R output) and routing the third via the Monmix output, with the Monmix output levels of the first two tracks and the channel fader level of the third zeroed so that each track only goes to its intended output. The very significant advantage of this routing scheme is that each of the three tracks can be independently EQ'd and effected on the desk (so the lack of EQ on the X18 itself is no longer a problem). If you're running tape and MIDI in parallel, the fourth track will of course be devoted to sync code, and consequently routed via its own output (the X18's Sync Out socket) to your synchroniser.
Don't let the X18's junior status in the Fostex family of cassette multitrackers fool you. This is a mature, stylish machine which packs in a healthy amount of quality and flexibility for such an affordable price. Of course, there are a number of ways in which it has been scaled down to fit its price level (fewer inputs, only two record busses, no EQ, no master fader, no separate track outs), but at the same time such features as four-channel recording, effects send/return routing on mixdown, and special handling of sync code aren't exactly signs of a stripped-down, lowest common denominator machine. The X18 shows that a budget price tag doesn't have to mean cheap, and that entry-level doesn't have to mean simplistic. All in all it's a well-designed, well-balanced and well-judged machine which you shouldn't overlook if you're intending to buy at the budget end of the cassette multitracker market.
Price £259.99 including VAT.
More from Fostex (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask
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