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Fostex A-8 Retrospective

Article from One Two Testing, March 1986

Classic retrospective re-evaluated

Some three years after its launch, the Fostex A-8 is still the cheapest form of eight-track tape recorder on the market. Or should I say Cost Effective?

After many years as a professional recording engineer and equipment reviewer arguing the pros and cons of 1", ½" and ¼" eight-track tape formats, when it came to the point where I wanted to buy an eight-track machine, I unashamedly went for the chea... most cost effective option: the A-8. This decision undoubtedly meant that I suffered a few dB when it came to crosstalk, and that the frequency response/distortion figures weren't going to win any prizes, but if I'd decided to go for the next most affordable option up the price list, the chances are I'd still be without a machine. The A-8 is no longer made and so we are looking either at shops with old stock or the second hand market. It has been superceded by the Fostex Model 80 which claims slightly superior audio performance and greater operational sophistication, but nothing that allows you to do anything much more than on the A-8.

Eight tracks on ¼" tape gives the same track density as four tracks on ⅛" cassette tape. The main difference in terms of straight forward audio quality is that the A-8's tape speed is 15ips as opposed to the 1⅞ or 3-¾ips found on Portastudio-type cassette formats. Also, the design of the C-format cassette (that's the proper generic name for the standard C60, C90 etc) results in difficult editing and some quite serious limitations in physical performance: increased wow and flutter and azimuth and an increased tendency of the tape to slide up and down the heads. In such matters reel-to-reel formats are generally capable of displaying superior characteristics, and so all-in-all it would be wrong to think of the A-8 simply as an eight-track, reel-to-reel Portastudio.

Although Tascam now have their Model 388 'Eight-Track Portastudio', which combines a sophisticated eight-track recorder and mixing console for a price of a little over £2,700, it is a relatively recent addition to their range and the A-8 remains the only really low-cost eight-track system on the second hand market. Tascam's Model 38 (eight tracks on ½") is undoubtedly an excellent machine and has been very successful in the more professional audio/visual market. To set one up with noise reduction (NR), however, will cost more than twice the price of an A-8 complete with built-in NR. For someone trying to gradually and inexpensively ease themselves into eight-track recording, the A-8 is on its own.

The term 'crosstalk' refers to the degree to which the signal from each track is isolated from its neighbours, and in this respect the A-8 isn't all that impressive. It only really becomes a problem when you want to have something soft and sparse, such as a minimalist flute part, on its own in the mix for a couple of bars in which case the adjacent tracks are likely to be audible, though at a very low level. Possibly a more serious effect is that of 'inter-modulation' between tracks where a percussive sound such as a hi hat or snare drum actually causes a sustained sound, such as a legato bass guitar or piano, to pulse in time with it. This is particularly apparent when bouncing down such a mix of tracks on to a single track or stereo pair of tracks. This phenomenon, it seems, is far more noticeable on older models. The original machine I got for review some years ago suffered quite considerably from this complaint, whilst the one which I bought more recently appears less prone. It would be wise, therefore, to test any second-hand machine you intend to purchase by recording a drum machine on the first three tracks (bass drum, snare and hi hat) with a sustained bass guitar on the fourth, and see if any pulsing takes place on playback. Then bounce the four tracks onto tracks seven and eight and listen again. I really wouldn't touch a machine that pulses, it could prove a not inconsiderable source of grief.

Talking of pulsing, it must be said that the A-8's in-built Dolby C NR system is quite excellent, especially considering the price. Noise is kept very low and even the spikiest drum machine snare or hi hat won't provoke any nasty breathing/pulsing noises. Compared with other low cost systems this makes it very easy to use in that you don't have to be continually paranoid about what you're recording and at what level.

Whilst it is very good, and vastly superior to a four-track cassette, the transparency of the system is audibly imperfect, ie you can hear a slight diference between the original sound and that coming off tape. Hence, I tend to limit myself to only one bounce, otherwise things can get a little mushy. Another limitation is that dropping-in and out is rather slow, and is necessary to leave a space of about ½ second to ensure that you don't clip anything. The same difficulty is generally experienced on four-track cassette systems.

The most basic A-8 has only four inputs which feed either tracks one to four OR five to eight (full eight outputs for monitoring) meaning that you can only record four tracks at a time. This keeps the price low and for normal home recording applications it shouldn't be a restriction. If you do want all eight inputs a little more cash might secure you an A-8LR which will oblige.

The machine is simplicity itself to operate with LED counter and RTZ (return-to-zero), and having eight illuminated VU meters means that you can get away with using a mixer without meters, ie a less expensive one. As eight-track machines go it is singularly compact although this does result in a 7-½" tape spool size restriction. Also the ¼" tape format keeps operating costs down. Being only a two-head machine (record/playback and erase) it is not easy to re-align electronically, although if kept under stable conditions it should remain tolerably transparent.

The A-8 has no really major failings and is definitely excellent value for money. Assuming that none of the reservations as outlined above will cause you any problems, the A-8 comes highly recommended.

FOSTEX A-8: secondhand £800ish

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Jellinghaus MIDI Synchroniser & Interface

Next article in this issue

London Calling

Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Mar 1986

Retrospective (Gear) by Chris Dale

Previous article in this issue:

> Jellinghaus MIDI Synchronise...

Next article in this issue:

> London Calling

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