Head To Head
Fostex R8 & Tascam TSR8 Recorders
Paul White checks out Tascam's TSR8 and Fostex's R8 open reel, 8-track machines side by side.
When it comes to open-reel 8-track recording, there are really only two current contenders, both offering different facilities and with different design priorities. Paul White puts them through their paces.
Only a few years ago, the serious private studio owner aspired to 16- or 24-track recording, because in those days, everything was recorded to tape. Working methods have changed since then, and for those running MIDI sequenced instruments directly into the mix, fewer tape tracks may be quite adequate. Four-track machines are still somewhat limiting, because after sacrificing one track to timecode, the remaining three give very little flexibility for bouncing or recording parts in stereo. On the other hand, an 8-track machine leaves seven tracks free after striping up the time code track. Since vocals and electric guitar are often the only non-MIDI parts, seven tracks offer plenty of scope. Indeed, using a simple 8-track recorder with a MIDI sequencer and a decent mixer is probably the most cost-effective way to produce really high quality pop music.
With most open reel machines relying on noise reduction to keep tape hiss at a minimum, the multitrack is no longer the weakest link in the chain — in fact, it's probably true to say that most noise now comes from instruments being recorded, improperly optimised mixers, or noisy effects units. For those working extensively with MIDI, there is a good argument for deploying one's budget on an 8-track recorder and a really good mixer, rather than on a 16- or 24-track recorder and a mixer which is at best a compromise. Both the machines reviewed here have been used to make successful commercial records, so the choice is really down to facilities, price and the amount of wear and tear your prospective purchase is likely to get.
I first used a Fostex R8 back in 1989 and I remember being surprised at just how small it was. However, appearances can be deceptive and this neat little 8-track recorder incorporates a number of powerful features and extra functions which are of particular use in MIDI and/or video-post environments.
At the heart of the R8 is an 8-track, open reel transport system running at 15ips (with varispeed) and using 7" reels of quarter-inch tape, to give a maximum playing time of a little over 20 minutes per reel. Access to the heads and guides for cleaning is excellent, and in common with most semi-pro multitracks, there is a combined record and playback head which keeps the cost down and avoids any potential sync timing problems when overdubbing. Dolby C noise reduction is effectively employed to keep tape noise to a minimum.
One very novel feature of this machine is the detachable control panel, which — with the aid of an optional extension cable — doubles as a remote control. All the transport controls are on the panel, as are the level meters, and in addition to the more usual transport functions, there's a 10-point autolocator and a very handy 'zone' memory system, which remembers where the ends of the tape are and puts the brakes on whenever the tape is in danger of winding off the end of the reel. The R8 can be made to loop around a section of music, defined by the user, for rehearsal purposes, and a pre-roll time can be added to give the user a few bars to get into the swing of things. There's also a Return-to-Zero facility.
With all this automation, you might expect an auto punch in/out system, but this isn't provided. There is also no spot erase function, which can be frustrating when you want to remove a short click, cough or other unwanted short noise from a recording. However, it is possible to drop into and out of record using an optional footswitch, and using the MMC1 interface box, all the transport and record status functions can be controlled from a suitable MIDI sequencer. This is one of the most powerful aspects of the R8 — it can be completely integrated into a MIDI sequencing system and then controlled from the sequencer. The R8 can be made to chase the sequencer's bar position, rather than, as is more usual, the sequencer chasing the tape machine; drop-ins can be accomplished quite automatically by working in this way. There's also a serial port for connecting to the MTC1 MIDI Time Controller for timecode applications.
Because the transport control is so sophisticated, it is also a little more complicated than on a conventional multitrack, and the usual record/safe buttons have been replaced by a computer-style keypad. Above the controls are two windows, one to show the elapsed tape time and the other to show the currently accessed memory time. These counters are in the form of red LED numeric readouts, while the bargraph level meters can be switched to operate in three different display modes, depending on whether you want a peak hold facility or not.
The whole machine has a bit of a 'plastic' feel to it, but don't be put off, as the transport is built on a rigid metal chassis and the head arrangement is very solid. As with most semi-pro machines, the operating level is -10dBv and line connections are on unbalanced phonos.
The sound quality produced by these little machines is remarkable, especially when you consider the narrow tape format and the fact that Dolby C noise reduction was originally developed for consumer hi-fi cassette machines. Perhaps the noise and crosstalk level isn't as low as you'd get from a wide-format machine running with a professional Dolby or dbx noise reduction system, but the reality of the situation is that the tape noise is still likely to be significantly lower than the noise generated by the sound sources you're actually recording. What noise there is tends to take on the character of a very low level 'grumble', rather than a bright hiss, because of the spectral characteristics of the noise reduction system.
The R8 produces a bright, transparent sound, the high frequency response extending up to 18kHz. Though the low frequency response extends down to 40Hz, the bass end seems a little lightweight when compared to professional machines, but this is not serious and can, largely, be compensated for by the careful use of equalisation. There is no noticeable noise when dropping in or out of record and the gap when coming out of record is minimal.
The sophisticated transport system is a little less obvious in use than a conventional machine and I feel that some of the options — such as three types of metering — are somewhat gratuitous and serve only to confuse the user. However, the autolocate is excellent, as is the ability to control the machine over MIDI using the MMC1 interface. Negative points are few, and include the lack of a spot erase function and the rather insubstantial fixing of the remote front panel.
Fostex R8 £1880 including VAT.
Fostex UK, (Contact Details).
Tascam's TSR8 offers fewer added features than the Fostex R8, but it does allow automatic punching in and out of record. Running on half-inch tape at a fixed tape speed of 15ips, the TSR8 accepts 10½" NAB tape reels, giving it a maximum recording time of almost 45 minutes. The noise reduction system used is dbx, which some people are suspicious of, due to its inconsistent performance on some budget cassette multitrackers. It's true that dbx only works well on a machine which has a good basic specification to begin with, and in the case of the TSR8, it works exceptionally well, producing a signal-to-noise ratio that significantly exceeds that of budget digital machines.
The computer-controlled tape transport has a Return-to-Zero facility plus two locator points, and it is possible to set up automatic punch-in and out points for hands-free drop-ins. This facility includes a Rehearse mode that switches the monitoring from tape to input and back again at the appropriate times without actually entering record. Punch-in and out is gapless, courtesy of a microprocessor-controlled timing system, and a remote footswitch option is provided for those musicians working alone. Spot erase is possible with this machine, the reels being moved by hand while the offending section is erased, and the dbx noise reduction can be turned on or off in two groups of four tracks or disabled on track eight for use with time code. Also welcome is a level selector switch for track eight, which allows external tape sync units to be level matched. The reason for this is that, unlike Dolby C, dbx sometimes causes problems when used on timecode signals.
The metering on this machine is by means of peak-reading bargraphs, while the tape counter measures true elapsed tape time derived from the reel tacho system, which makes it reasonably accurate but not precise. Connection ports are provided for remote interfaces which allow for external computer control and synchroniser interfacing. MIDI transport control is possible using an external interface box and suitable sequencing software. The operating level is -10dBv and the line connections are on unbalanced phonos.
The tape transport is both gentle and positive on this machine, which is very reassuring. Locating to zero or to either of the memory points is smooth, with none of the overshoot that beset its predecessor, the model 38. Without the dbx switched in, the recording quality is good, though the noise level is still a little too high for comfort. Even so, it is usable without the noise reduction, which is not really the case for quarter-inch machines. With the dbx switched in, the tape noise simply vanishes, and the good basic performance of the machine means there is no obtrusive noise pumping, or dulling of the sound. The measured frequency response extends up to 20kHz. Even percussive sounds record perfectly well, always a good test for dbx, and there's no need to drive the meters into the red all the time because the noise reduction is so effective.
Punching in and out of record is both silent and gapless, though it is still best to do the deed on a drum beat to mask any discontinuity between the material on tape and the new section being recorded.
The conventional control layout makes this a very simple and logical machine to use, while the well-behaved transport and high sound quality make it suitable for a variety of professional applications as well as for home recording.
Tascam TSR8 £2016.50 including VAT.
TEAC UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Paul White
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