Tascam TSR8 vs Fostex E8
The 8-Track Challenge
The 8-track challenge: with the release of a new Tascam machine and the recent price cut on the Fostex E8, we thought it opportune to compare the two models. David Mellor adjudicates in the battle of the budget 8-tracks.
David Mellor adjudicates between two prime contenders in the multitrack market.
Suppose you owned a shop selling Wellington boots. Suppose also that another shop opens just a few doors down the road, selling boots of apparently equivalent quality some 30% cheaper. What would you do? Two choices that spring to mind are to reduce your price to match, or to promote your boots more aggressively.
It may seem a strange analogy but this is exactly the situation that has recently arisen in the 8-track tape recorder market. Fostex have had for some time their model E8 available for what they, and obviously their customers so far, consider to be a reasonable price. Now Tascam have come along with a new 8-track machine at a lower price - £1999 inc VAT - and Fostex are not unaware that Tascam are capable of being very effective technological competition. Fostex have reacted to this competition and have reduced the price of their E8 recorder from £2999 down to £2499, to more closely match that of the newcomer.
So who benefits from this price war? The potential 8-track purchaser, of course. Now, not only is there an extra product in the shops from which to choose, but the existing product has been made a more attractive purchase. All you have to do is make your mind up.
There are now quite a few 8-track machines on the market. Including cassette-based multitracks, the list goes something like this: Toa MR8T, Tascam 238, Fostex R8, Tascam TSR8, Fostex E8, Revox C278... I could continue up the price range until I reach the Studer A800, but at around £15,000 I think I ought to consider that a specialist item!
The Toa and Tascam cassette machines are certainly very good for what they are, but the top end of cassette 'portastudios' and the bottom end of serious multitrack are totally different worlds. I don't think it's unfair on the cassette-based machines to say that the most basic level you can enter into proper multitrack is the Fostex R8. As I said in my review [SOS January '89], although the R8 looks a bit cheap when you get close up, it's only the plastic case - the mechanics and the sound quality are very good indeed. It has a very handy remote control panel and autolocator, too. The only drawbacks are the small tape spools and the fact that it wouldn't look all that impressive in a commercial studio (and if you're hiring out a studio for cash, appearances are very important - how else can potential clients such as record company A&R assistants judge?!).
The Tascam TSR8 and Fostex E8 definitely look the business as mid-range professional multitrack tape recorders. And, of course, they are. Apart from the restrictions imposed by the number of tracks, there is no reason why any song in the current Top 40 couldn't have been recorded on either of them. In both cases, the sound quality is perfectly good enough for the vast majority of musical productions. Not up to the same standard as 16-bit digital or one-inch 8-track with Dolby A or SR noise reduction, of course, but very close.
But there is more to a tape recorder than sound quality. The way a machine handles is of vital importance if a session is to run smoothly. Both the TSR8 and E8 have clever functions which will speed a recording towards a successful conclusion. When it comes to making a choice it is not just a matter of knowing that the sound is up to scratch, but also that the selected multitrack will be an efficient business machine. Even if you are a solo musician/engineer, these points are important.
Alphabetical order? Age before beauty? For whatever reason, let's examine the more established machine first...
You are probably thinking that the E8 reminds you of something - could that something be a Fostex E16 perhaps? Yes, the E8 is indeed an E16 with half its innards removed - or so the distributors, Harman UK, tell me. Is that a good thing or should Fostex have designed the E8 from the ground up? Well it's obviously a good thing for Fostex because there is less tooling up to do for manufacture. And it's a good thing for us too, because if the E16 is robust enough to handle heavy reels of halfinch tape, then the E8 must be over-engineered for the lighter quarter-inch reels it uses. A common inventory of spare parts will probably make servicing quicker should the machine ever need it.
The tape format also has a lot in common with the E16. Eight tracks on quarter-inch tape corresponds to the same track width as the E16's 16 tracks on half-inch tape (once thought to be an impossible feat). A little mathematics will reveal that this is roughly the same track width as on a standard stereo cassette. Noise reduction is therefore mandatory (at these track dimensions it ought to be legally enforceable!). Dolby C is the noise reduction system used on the E8. It can be switched off at the rear panel, but in practice this would only be done for routine alignment.
Metering, monitoring and transport functions are the same as on the E16 - except that there are only eight meters, of course. The meters are LED bargraphs with 12 segments covering the range between —20 and +8dB. The monitoring system is very simple once you get used to it. If you want to hear all the inputs to the multitrack through your mixing console tape monitors, then the Input Monitor selector will do the trick. ALL is for all-input, INDIV is for the normal track-laying process. In INDIV mode, the monitoring system works like this:
- When recording: the input to each record-ready track is returned to the console; the tape output from each non-recording track is heard.
- All other modes: the tape output is heard from all tracks unless the Record button is pressed by itself, then all record-ready tracks return their input to the console monitors.
In other words, monitor switching is as automatic as it can be, and you always have the option of hearing what is being sent to the recorder without having actually to record. (If you're saying 'So what?', then I ought to mention that things haven't always been as convenient as this in the multitrack world - even quite recently).
Transport controls include basic autolocate and repeat functions. There are the normal Record, Stop, Play, Rewind, Fast Forward, and Reset 0 buttons. Also, there are two tape timer memory stores. You can locate to either the 0 or Memory 1 positions, or alternatively auto-return to Memory 1 from Memory 2. An Auto Play function will put the machine into Play mode whenever it is located to a memory position.
The E8 runs at a tape speed of 15 inches per second, but a varispeed control is provided which can change the speed up or down by a quoted maximum 15%. This control is dual-concentric with coarse and fine resolution, and - nice feature - when you touch it, the tape timer changes to a percentage speed change display.
Moving to the back of the E8, we find 16 phono (ugh!) input/output connectors. Inputs 1 to 4 are normalled to inputs 5 to 8, so if you don't envisage recording on more than four tracks at a time you can save yourself a few cables. In addition, there are footswitch jacks for Punch In/Out and Play/Locate 1. The Play/Locate 1 socket performs a dual function: in Stop mode, it puts the E8 into Play. In modes other than Stop it locates to the Memory 1 position - very valuable for the solo recordist.
Also on the rear are the vital - vital for progress into the multi-media arena, that is - 'Accessory' connectors. The accessories in question are for synchronisation and autolocation; two facilities which can greatly multiply the abilities of a multitrack. Accessory 1 for the E8 can hook up to either a synchroniser, such as the Fostex 4030, or the model 8031 remote control. Accessory 2 is for the 4050 autolocator/MIDI synchroniser. It is also possible, via a connector on the rear panel, to mount the meter panel away from the machine itself.
To dispel any illusions which may just be creeping in at this stage, although the Fostex E8 is a 'cut down' E16, the Tascam TSR8 is definitely not an 8-track version of the excellent MSR16, which I reviewed in S0S December '88. Think of the TSR8 as a multitrack recorder in its own right, and as a replacement for the by now long-in-the-tooth Tascam 38.
The first thing that strikes you about the TSR8 is how small it is, considering that it takes full-size (10½" diameter) reels of half-inch tape. It is certainly not lightweight for its size, however. There is an in-built chunkiness that does help to inspire confidence in the machine's robustness, and also makes you wish there were a couple of carrying handles on the sides, like the E8 has.
The mechanicals of the TSR8 are reminiscent of the old 38 although some details, like the tension arms, have had a technology injection which should aid tape handling. Down below, in the control and metering area, a lot more changes have taken place.
Like Fostex in their 'E' range (including the E2), Tascam are standardising their control system. From the 238 Syncasette to the MSR16, Tascam recorders have identical autolocation functions with programmable punch in/out. Monitoring facilities are similar, too.
Since I described - or attempted to describe - the complexities of Tascam's monitoring system in my review of the MSR16, I shall take the opportunity of giving it a miss here. But if I assure you that the Fostex monitoring system plus two variations are available, and that it is a lot simpler to use than to describe in print, you can be pretty well certain of obtaining what you want, monitoring-wise. (By the way, if you do check back to the MSR16 review, please note that a typesetting error shifted the word 'Ready' about an inch to the right in Table 1: MSR16 Monitoring Variations. 'Play/Record' should be 'Play/Record Ready' and 'Record Ready' should be simply 'Record').
The TSR8's autolocate functions expand slightly on the E8 with the ability to send the tape to a Memo 2 position (equivalent to Memory 2 on the Fostex, which is for auto return only). Where the TSR8 does score over the E8 is in the provision of automated punch-in/out. It is very easy to use, and since I have previously reviewed two Tascam machines with the same system I found that I was able to follow the procedure from memory without even a glance at the manual. That is meant to be a compliment, by the way, to Tascam's punch-in system, not to my memory!
I was slightly less happy with the manual punch-in, however, since you have only to press the Record button to enter the Record mode on selected tracks when the tape is running. I really would prefer the safeguard of having to press Record and Play buttons at the same time.
Noise reduction on the TSR8 is dbx Type 1, with two front panel on/off switches provided for tracks 1 to 4 and 5 to 8. The machine powers up in dbx-off state, so don't forget to switch the noise reduction on before you start work (although with half-inch tape, recording without noise reduction is just feasible). Metering is like that on the Fostex E8. The pitch control has slightly less range than the E8, no coarse and fine controls, and no display of percentage change.
Round the back of the TSR8 we see the same phono inputs and outputs (is anyone out there busy inventing a more reliable connector? Someone should be), punch-in footswitch jack socket, and multipin connectors for hooking up to a remote control, a synchroniser (such as the Tascam ES50), and the forthcoming Tascam MIDIizer. A useful novelty is the provision of a variable gain switch for track 8. As we all know, track 8 is generally used to record sync pulses or timecode - and how many sync boxes have a level control on their output? (Put it another way, how many should have one? All of them!). The selection is among -10dBv and +4dBu fixed, and +4dBu to +30dBv variable. A curious mixture of dBu's and dBv's but a very good idea. And you can also switch the dbx off for track 8 with Tascam's ingenious Sync Lock button, which prevents inadvertent over-recording of the vital timecode track.
OK, this is it. Stand-up-and-be-counted time. Which machine is the best? Let me draw up a table of comparisons between the two machines and see which wins most rounds:
There is no space on either machine to mount an editing block in front of the tape heads.
On the E8, it is possible to fix one to the head cover. On the TSR8, the raised 'Tascam' logo may make this difficult.
The feet on the TSR8 are too short to allow the machine to be used horizontally with phonos connected.
There is no headshield on the TSR8, although no hum problem was encountered.
There is better access to the heads for editing on the TSR8 than on the E8.
Access to line-up presets is fair on both machines. All presets are identified.
The TSR8 is much more 'clunky' than the E8, and the capstan motor is noisier.
Tape tension control seems better on the E8. The tension arms jerk a lot less.
Locate to zero, or to a memory point, is more accurate on the TSR8, although still good on the E8. There is no overshoot on either machine.
Editing is physically easier on the E8. On the TSR8 the tension arms move too much when the reels are turned by hand. The TSR8 has a dump edit mode.
The E8 has a slow archive wind mode, the TSR8 does not.
The E8 makes a click when switched into All Input monitor mode, the TSR8 does not. Neither records any noticeable click onto the tape on punch-in/out.
The 'spot erase' feature on the TSR8 makes a click on the tape when leaving Record mode.
There is no 'spot erase' feature on the E8.
The recorded signal is not clearly audible during editing on the E8.
On both machines, switching the mains power off is not harmful to the tape in any transport mode.
The edge track performance of both machines is very good.
With noise reduction on, track-to-track crosstalk is almost inaudible on the TSR8. It is audible, and potentially a problem in critical situations, on the E8.
Head crosstalk on the TSR8 makes bouncing onto adjacent tracks difficult, but possible with care. The E8 performs better in this area.
Tested with noise reduction switched on, noise is noticeable when the signal is absent on the E8. It is noticeable when the signal is present on the TSR8, but dbx effectively silences no-signal passages.
Very good on both machines.
So those are the details but what about the big question: which machine sounds better? Well, if your definition of 'sounds better' means on which machine can you hear the least difference between line in and off-tape signals, the answer has to be the Fostex E8.
I recorded a variety of material - live, synthesized, sampled, CD - on both machines and very rarely was I in any doubt whether I was listening to the off-tape or line input signal on the TSR8. Not wishing to over-emphasise the point, the TSR8 adds a very slight 'graininess' to everything you record. Once you have tuned in to this characteristic sound, you can't miss it. I would lay the blame on the dbx noise reduction system employed.
The E8 treats the signal more kindly and, although I'm sure I can hear a difference between input and tape, I wouldn't like to be tested on it.
Of course, you may have different criteria on which to judge a multitrack recorder. If you are interested in low crosstalk, and many people - especially broadcasters - are, then the TSR8 easily wins. It wins on autolocate functions and potential operating efficiency, too. Many people might like the sound of the TSR8 and think it more 'bright' or 'punchy', but I feel that if it's brightness and punchiness you want, then you should be adding it to the signal before it goes down on tape.
If I had to make a personal choice then it would be the Fostex E8. At its new price, some £500 more than that of the Tascam, the Fostex seems a much better constructed and better performing machine, even though it lacks Tascam's excellent auto punch-in function. At 16-track level, the choice between a Tascam MSR16 and Fostex E16 is a difficult one. The MSR16's mechanics are very impressive. If Tascam had made an MSR8 to compete against the E8, the choice would have been similarly vexed. But in the match between the TSR8 and the E8, to my mind there is a clear winner.
Tascam TSR8 £1999 inc VAT.
Teac UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Fostex E8 £2499 inc VAT.
Harman (Audio) UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by David Mellor
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