Fostex A8 Tape Recorder and 350 Mixer
Fostex A8 eight track and 350 mixer.
A lot of people who would once have turned blue with fright if left alone to work an 8-track studio, must be thinking nowadays about buying their own 8-track. The Fostex A8 recorder and its companion mixer, the model 350, are available to the careful shopper for under £1500. This makes them a very attractive buy for a wide range of musicians and it seems worthwhile to scrutinise them here in a different way to a product review.
The A8 is dwarfed by a professional 2-track such as a Revox being about the size of a smallish record deck stood on its end; the next machine in it's category is more on the lines of an 18 inch TV and heavy with it.
Although it is an 8-track recorder it has only four inputs, each of which serves two tracks; input A can send signals either to channel 1 or channel 5, input B to 2 or 6 and so on. A button below the tape counter selects a group of four tracks, 1-4 or 5-8. This means that you can't record on more than four tracks at once, but more importantly you must make sure you won't need to record simultaneously in the two 'zones', so plan your track sheet to avoid stereo recording on tracks 4 and 5 for example.
Track sheets come much more into play if you intend to end up with more than eight sounds on your eight tracks and, in truth, if you don't usually plan that way you're probably under using your machine, given that you'll want a finished mix with a 'studio feel'. Track bouncing on the A8, with its Dolby C noise reduction, is impressive for the price, but you must always leave a spare track between the tracks which are being mixed together and the one(s) on which they are being recorded to avoid unnecessary crosstalk. The spare track doesn't have to be blank but it must not be involved in the mixdown.
If you do bounce between adjacent tracks the sky won't fall in, but you'll get a worse sound and occasionally some internal feedback which will slam the VU meter needles over the end of the scale. Careful track planning is called for if you're going to have more than about twelve tracks, but it's worth doing because you can plan to mix suitable instruments together and have them all conveniently arranged on the desk for your final mixdown. More about how track bouncing is done when I look at the recorder and the mixer working together.
One more thing before we go on to the mixer; in the handbook it says that you should demagnetise the heads after every twelve hours of use, which is sufficiently often to justify buying a demagnetising tool. Be careful! It can mess up your machine and wipe your tapes. Keep tapes well away from it when in use and don't be sloppy. Demagnetisers often don't do anything reassuring like hum or light up when working so take care.
Now this is the hard bit. At this point it becomes apparent that the A8/350 package is much more the smaller relation of a small studio setup than just a big Portastudio. The first thing to grasp is the progressive reduction in the number of channels used to carry information. The configuration of the Fostex mixer is known as 8/4/2 which means that for multitrack recording any combination of eight inputs can be sent down two out of the four outputs to the multitrack recorder; and that a stereo mixdown can be achieved by using only one pair of outputs.
There are four outputs, not eight; but remember that the recorder has four inputs, each serving one of two tracks. On each channel of the mixer, in the '4 chan buss' section, you make two decisions about routing the signal for that channel to the outputs. Firstly, is it going to outputs A and B (switch left) or to C and D (switch right)? Secondly, how much of the signal should go to the left (A/C) and how much to the right (B/D)? To record a sound on to track one it's switch left, pan left; track two is switch left, pan right etc. Remember if you've got the second group selected over on the recorder they'll come up on tracks 5 and 6.
This section of the mixer is most commonly used for monitoring. It can also be used as a stereo effects loop in addition to the individual Send/Receive sockets available on each channel of the mixer, and to create a foldback mix which is differently balanced to the main output mix. Unlike all the other controls on a mixer channel the link with what's actually coming into the channel is optional; that is to say, if you plug a lead into the jack socket behind channel 1, the Aux buss controls on channel 1 won't necessarily affect that signal. There's a very good use for this facility, nothing wrong with it, but I do feel that it's confusing putting this section right slap in the middle of the channel. On the Portastudio and on the studio desk the foldback controls are located away from the rest over to the right, but if this was not possible then perhaps Fostex should have shaded the whole section in a different colour.
Anyway, on to how it works. There's a switch marked Pre, Post and Tape. The first two functions are fairly straightforward; Pre gives the chosen input to the mixer channel, Line/Mic or Tape, before it reaches the EQ and the fader; Post gives the input sound once it's gone through the whole works. Tape however relates to the tape head and not the input to the channel. What's going on tapewise for a certain track may be simply conveyed by playing back a recorded track; but if the monitor controls on the recorder are set to 'input' then selecting Tape on the Aux buss will allow you to hear any signals which have been directed to that track. Note that the Tape setting isn't affected by the EQ and fader, they affect only the input. This facility can also be used to allow you to stay plugged into the same input whilst recording and monitoring successive tracks. Just keep everything switched to Tape once you've set up your sound.
Great! The parametric equalisation provided on the 350 mixer is a massive improvement over simple treble and bass controls. By weeding out unwanted harmonics and rings and setting the main emphasis of the sound just where you want it, this section probably makes the largest single contribution to the quality of the results available from the 8-track package.
If you haven't encountered parametrics before, they work like this: the 'bass' and 'treble' sections have two controls each; the Frequency control selects a particular area of the frequency spectrum for adjustment, the associated Gain control boosts or cuts that part of the signal by the desired amount. Simple, but you'd have a job deducing that from the manual unless you're a compulsive dictionary reader.
As a synth player (among other things) I've found this section really exhilarating to use. My synth has always suffered in recording from having a couple of strong overtones which make the sound go mushy when it's multitracked. Now, using the parametric everything's sharp and clear - wonderful. The accompanying table provides useful settings to help you get the best out of your parametric EQ.
Set the input selector on the mixer to Line/Mic and choose which output busses will receive the signal. Select Pre or Post on the Aux buss and select your monitor source, usually Aux Buss L/R, from the pushbuttons above the headphone volume knob. If you've selected Post make sure the fader is up. You should now be able to hear the signal in the monitor and carry out any equalisation. On the recorder the lower set of pushbuttons sends input or tape signals to the inputs of the mixer and to the VU meter. Select 'input' for the track(s) being recorded. Remember to choose between 1-4 and 5-8. You should now have a reading in the meter. If you're using Ampex Grand Master tape as recommended you needn't be shy about recording levels within reason. The peak LEDs on the mixer are only affected by the Trim control, not by the fader. Press in the relevant Safe/Ready buttons and you're away. To hear your recorded track you must set the recorder's pushbuttons to Tape.
In the manual it says that you should strive to keep all your recordings as dry as possible and add any effects during the mix-down. Rubbish. Even in a well equipped studio there's nothing easier than running out of available effects units when you're mixing. Do it now! and remember that, as more tracks are added, the perceived amounts of echo and reverb often diminish.
For drop-ins the rule is this: if you keep the Aux buss and the recorder switched to Tape you'll hear what's happening directly on the tape. While you're in Play mode that'll be the recorded track. When you enter Record mode however, it'll be the incoming signal.
Let's assume you're going to mix tracks 3, 4 and 5 on to 7 and 8, with 1, 2 and 6 staying as they are. The way we usually do this is to route all four busses through to the monitor by releasing the Aux buss L/R pushbutton and depressing A, B, C and D. Since tracks 7 and 8 are fed by outputs C and D you must pan the tracks to be mixed down between these busses. Stick the other on to A and B.
It is of course possible to mix down on to one track by panning everything to one side. Switch to Tape on mixer inputs 1-6 to bring the taped tracks up on the desk. Beware! Selecting Tape when the switch on the recorder is on Input will bring forth an unholy rumbling, howling or squealing depending on the EQ settings. If you monitor as loud as you dare, as we do, you may find black confetti behind your speaker grilles. It's your funeral.
It's advisable to start with all channel faders down because the returning tape signals are often much louder than the original inputs. Now to a nice feature of the mixer; the provision of two master faders, one for each pair of output busses. Keeping the AB fader down for now, the signals to be mixed down can be equalised and balanced. A rough mix of the tracks on the other fader will show how it all sounds in perspective.
I really like this quick comparison, which is also a check that no 'rogue sounds' will appear on your mixdown. In fact, once you've ploughed this far through the sequence of operations, using the 8-track becomes increasingly rewarding and creative, and you can really start to think about 'going for it' and not just trudging through the dull business of making the thing work at all.
Much the same as for submixing, except that all the tracks are dedicated to one pair of outputs which are connected to the receiving stereo recorder and the whole thing is monitored through the second machine's output. Alternatively the monitor output can supply the mastering machine and the tracks can be assigned to either pair of busses, which allows you to fade a number of tracks simultaneously, however far apart they may be on the desk.
As might be expected from such flexible equipment, there are plenty of ways of getting it wrong. I feel that Fostex should offer a much more comprehensive and more understandable combined handbook for the A8 and 350 and that the style of the current instruction manuals overestimates the competence of some of the people who will use them. A lot of perfectly intelligent players could be misled by the 'Personal Multitrack' slogan and by the associations of the manufacturer's name, into thinking that the Fostex 8-track package is an expanded Portastudio rather than a condensed recording studio set-up.
It isn't hard to imagine that, on balance, someone's creativity could suffer, due to the brainwork that the equipment initially demands, rather than be enhanced by the freedom of extra tracks. I'm still not saying "any fool can work this", but I hope I've helped anyone who's new to the gear and maybe helped others to decide about whether they should give it a try or stick with the very real, but costly, advantages of making demos in a commercial studio.
For more information on the Fostex A8 and 350 mixer, contact Bandive Ltd, (Contact Details).
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User Report by Stuart Lambert
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