When cassette multitrackers were new they said everybody should have one - now that there are machines like the X28 around, everybody can. Nigel Lord says small is beautiful.
If your MIDI sequencing setup has taken you as far as it can go and you're looking to incorporate a few tracks of audio tape, Fostex' X28 could be your next buy.
There's nothing like spending money - especially other peoples'. Recently, a friend asked me for some advice on the best way to spend a few grand he'd "come into" (...I enquired no further) in order to fulfil a long-cherished ambition to write and record his own music. After an hour, I'd come up with a bewildering variety of options, and a sheet filled with names and model numbers which, on reflection, did little to help him through the maze of gear he'd already found so off-putting.
Acknowledging his penchant for high-quality sound - he was the first person I know to buy a CD player - I paid particular attention to the choice of multitrack recorder and suggested one of the better four-track reel-to-reel machines, or at the very least, the highest-quality personal multitrack that lay within his financial reach. It depended, I told him sagely, on whether he needed the convenience of cassette or the quality of quarter-inch or half-inch tape. He seemed dismayed. After discussing the finer points of computer sequencing systems and the editing facilities he could expect to find on even the most basic sampler, he couldn't believe I was suggesting he would still have to commit the fruits of his labours to magnetic tape.
Were there no digital systems available, he wanted to know? Not unless he planned spending his entire budget on a Mac and a hard disk, I advised him (the ADAS system for the Atari had yet to see the light of day at this time). What about DAT - hadn't they developed four- or eight- track DAT machines yet? Er... no, not yet. As a matter of fact, the two-track machine had a somewhat inauspicious start in life.
Try as I might, I could do nothing to convince him that spending thousands of pounds on digital technology and then committing it to an analogue recording system wasn't completely crazy. And yet, year after year, that is precisely what thousands of buyers of multitrackers and reel-to-reel machines are convinced of when reaching for their cheque books.
And until the cost of mass digital storage systems drops to a fraction of its current level, that's how things are likely to stay, particularly while companies like Fostex can build a four-track machine with logic-controlled transport functions, pitch control, an eight-input mixer, simultaneous four-track recording, switchable Dolby B and an auxiliary send and return - into about a square foot of desk space and for less than four hundred quid.
The X28 is the latest in a long line of Fostex multitrackers, the exact genealogy of which I've long-since ceased to keep track of (no pun intended). The X28 is portable in every sense of the word (small, compact, light), and its layout, like so much hi-tech gear these days, can only be described as a triumph of miniaturisation - though I'm sure Fostex's service engineers have quite a different name for it...
Whilst colour coding of knobs is employed as an aid to use, the overall appearance of the X28 is actually rather sedate and functional - unlike a number of recent machines whose attempt to assist the application of technology has resulted in some pretty frightening front-panel layouts and hideous colour schemes.
As seems de rigeur these days, all of the metering and visual indicators are consigned to a single, large (by the X28's standards) liquid crystal display situated over on the right-hand side just above the transport controls. These are positioned - sensibly enough - along the front (or bottom, depending on your perspective) edge of the unit. In addition to the four record-level bar-graph meters and a pair for the main stereo buss, you'll find a three-digit tape counter, a tape movement indicator (which changes according to tape direction), all the transport control indicators, Dolby "in" indicator (along with its associated pushbutton over on the left of the display) and a "rehearsal" mode indicator.
The rehearsal facility is used in conjunction with the punch in/out function which the X28 also includes, and allows you to practise drop-ins by switching the monitor system between the originally recorded part and the one with which you intend to replace it. It is not, it should be stressed, a rehearsal facility which controls the transport system and automatically plays and rewinds the tape between two locator points (as found on many reel-to-reel machines), though there is a return-to-zero function to make life a little easier, and this can be used with an auto-play facility which may be selected whenever the tape is fast forwarding or rewinding.
"I've come to the conclusion that like or dislike of a multitracker is based almost entirely on the mixer section - the X28 acquits itself well."
As mentioned earlier, simultaneous four-track recording is possible on the X28, and record warning lights underneath each LED meter flash to indicate record-ready mode on whichever of the tracks happen to have been selected. The tape deck is equalised for high-bias tapes only, and these it plays at the standard cassette speed of 4.75cm/s (1⅞ips). I particularly liked the logic-controlled transport buttons which are a delight to use, and take care of any problems which might ensue, for example, when switching from rewind to play without first pressing stop. On the negative side, I did feel that the fast forward and rewind speeds were on the slow side, and on a number of occasions I found myself counting sheep waiting for the tape to return to the beginning of a track.
Having said that, the fact that the X28 runs at the standard speed means that you have far less tape to shuttle through than would be the case with a high-speed machine, so I suppose you're no worse off in that respect. On which subject, I was somewhat surprised to find Fostex still opting for a standard-speed tape deck on their machines. Though the quoted frequency response, crosstalk and noise figures (40Hz-12.5KHz, 50dB and 58dB respectively) are wholly creditable for a machine at this price, you can't help wonder what might have been achieved with tape running at twice the speed. I know recording times would be halved, but that still leaves room for a 20-minute track on a C90 - and who records them any more?
In my experience of using cassette multitracks, I've come to the conclusion that like or dislike of a machine is based almost entirely on the facilities offered by the mixer section. In this respect, the X28 acquits itself well, though I think it fair to say that what economies have been made on this machine as a whole have been made here.
The X28 boasts an eight-input mixer, each channel having its own level, pan, aux send controls, and additional trim controls for the four mic level channels (1-4). The other four channels (5-8) may be used for recording line-level instruments or for routing signals from the four tape tracks on mixdown. To facilitate this, each channel features a push button to switch between tape and input signals, and also dual-function auxiliary send controls which, apart from being pre-fade (unlike the mic inputs which are postfade), can be used to direct signals from either tape tracks or the four inputs to whatever piece of external equipment you have connected. If this happens to be a reverb unit with a stereo output, both left and right signals may be fed back into the X28 via individual sockets on the rear panel and adjusted (like the auxiliary send signals) by a master level control.
The main stereo buss can also be pressed into service when recording, as a means of combining two separate inputs onto a single tape track. And the presence here of the X28's only EQ facilities - individual low and high controls - certainly make it useful when input signals need tweaking in some way (which is nearly always). The EQ offers nothing more sophisticated than a 12dB cut or boost at 100Hz and 10KHz, but it's enough to make the X28 a machine on which more than simply input levels can be controlled.
Determining which tracks are to be recorded is the job of the four record-select switches immediately above the aux send controls over on the left of the unit. With a centre Off position, these can be switched to one of the four tape tracks (bypassing the pan and EQ controls) or to the left or right channels of the stereo buss. As you'd expect, a master fader controls the overall output from the stereo pair, which may be routed through to the rear panel for connection to an external master machine for mixdown.
Monitoring on the X28 is taken care of by two slide switches, a level control and the provision of a headphones jack and a pair of phono left/right output sockets on the rear panel. The first of the switches determines whether stereo signals from channels 5-8 are sent to the stereo buss (as they would be in most recording and remixing situations) or to the monitor buss - a setup referred to as Monmix in X28 parlance.
"There's a clarity and spaciousness about the X28's recordings which took me by surprise - aren't multitrackers supposed to sound compressed and woolly?"
The main monitor selection switch has three positions, the first of which combines Monmix signals (from channels 5-8) with those from the stereo buss and makes them available for monitoring. The second position allows monitoring of the auxiliary send signals, while the third combines these with signals from the stereo buss. It's not the most comprehensive system in existence (why do so many manufacturers offer monitoring of aux sends but not returns?) - but it's enough to get by with in most recording situations.
Connection hardware on the X28 includes quarter-inch jack sockets for each of the eight inputs which, like the sockets for phones and (optional) punch in/out footswitch, are situated along the front of the unit. Also here is a socket for the connection of a footswitch which duplicates the action of the return-to-zero button on the top panel. According to the manual, this is the same kind of switch used for the punch-in facility, so providing you don't need to use both at the same time, you should find it possible to get away with buying only one.
All rear-panel connections are via RCA phono sockets and in addition to those I've already mentioned, you'll also find four tape out sockets should you wish to do your mixing down on a separate desk. The last of these - Output 4 - is also marked as the socket to use if you're involved in MIDI/tape synchronisation. However, other than the fact that it is one of the outside tape tracks (and therefore less likely to bleed through onto other channels) there's nothing special about it in terms of signal levels. Neither is it possible to disconnect it from the noise reduction system should you experience any problems reading sync code - though Dolby (as opposed to dbx) is less likely to present any problems on this score.
No one with any experience of cassette multitrackers, should have difficulty operating the X28. Unlike that of some machines, the signal routing section of the mixer section is quite straightforward and not once did I find myself scratching my head wondering why the synth I had connected to input 6 hadn't ended up on tape. I suppose this could be said to reflect the inherent simplicity of the system and its lack of flexibility - but that's budget multitrackers for you. If it's versatility you need, then I'm afraid you're looking at a significantly higher investment - most likely in a separate desk and recorder.
On to the all-important question of whether or not you can make good-quality recordings of four or more instruments on this machine. The answer, unequivocally, is yes. In the X28 you have a multitracker with a performance to match that of a good-quality reel-to-reel of less than a decade ago - and the significance of that shouldn't be understated. There's a clarity and spaciousness about the X28's recordings which - I have to confess - took me by surprise. Aren't personal multitrackers supposed to sound compressed and woolly? Apparently not.
Life isn't quite so sweet with second-generation recordings which have been bounced down, but the advent of MIDI, the sequencer and the recording of virtual tracks has drastically reduced the need for this. Indeed, more and more people are finding themselves recording direct to stereo mastering machines and avoiding the multitrack stage altogether. Of course, this is only a realistic proposition if you have enough MIDI-equipped devices and few people can regularly get by with only two tape tracks. Nevertheless, in the current scheme of things, a four-track machine does look a much more attractive option than it did a few years ago - and in this light, the X28 undoubtedly fits the bill for a great number of people.
Given this new lease of life for four-track, I'd have thought it an obvious move for manufacturers (like Fostex) to have included built-in MIDI sync devices on their machines. I accept that though not everyone is likely to need MIDI synchronisation, a very large percentage of multitrack users do, and buying a machine with built-in facilities would be a real plus. Indeed, the inclusion of a MIDI socket on the rear panel would, I believe, be of considerable psychological importance in convincing punters that the development of the multitracker is keeping pace with the rest of music technology. As it is, the reaction of the friend I introduced earlier is likely to be typical of people asked to spend a significant proportion of their budget on a recording device.
But I've no wish to take anything away from the X28; this is a most attractive little machine which I got on with extremely well. It's quite capable of adopting a central position in any budget recording setup and becoming the real workhorse of the system - if you can attach the term workhorse to a device of such diminutive proportions. Frankly, on any piece of equipment which contains mechanical as well as electronic components, I'd be looking to find a name like Fostex before I'd be talked into parting with my money. Too much of what arrives from the Far East these days is considered disposable, and anything that moves must eventually wear out. When that happens it's nice to know there's a service department somewhere that can sort the problem out. Buy with confidence...
Price £327.66 excluding VAT.
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