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Fostex Model 80 8-track Tape Recorder

Eight track for the reel world

Article from Home & Studio Recording, January 1986

It seems like only yesterday that Fostex rocked the boat by bringing out an 8-track tape machine complete with Dolby C noise reduction for just over £1000. Naturally, there were those who scoffed at its diminutive stature and it's ¼" inch tape format, but I think it would take a good pair of ears to tell the difference between a Fostex 8-track and its ½" inch (or even 1 inch) rival. Hot on the heels of the A8 came the B16, now responsible for recording much of the music we hear on TV, radio and even in the charts, and just when we all expected Fostex to unleash a 24-track digital Walkman they turned round and gave us the Model 80. But the Model 80 is more than a repackaged A8 as I think you'll soon discover.

Judging by Appearances

Looking very sleek and sophisticated in jet black, the Model 80 weighs in at a mere 29lbs making it light enough to carry anywhere (although with no carrying handles). Its tiny proportions measure 14" x 13½" x 6¾", making it small enough to fit in the pokiest of recording environments. Overall, the machine is very sturdy and would take a fair bit of usage by the looks of things without parts falling off and, assuming that this piece of equipment will sit in a home studio, I can foresee no drastic problems in its reliability department.

The original A8 had only 4 inputs which could be switched between 1 and 5, 2 and 6, 3 and 7 and 4 and 8. This saved quite a few quid as there was less in the way of circuitry. Fostex worked on the assumption that the A8 would sit in home studios being used by people working alone who would not normally want to record on all 8-tracks simultaneously. It seems that, up to a point, they were right, but there was a demand for a machine where tracks 1-4 are normalised to tracks 5-8 so that owners of 4-track mixing desks (ie. those with only four group outputs) need not exchange their mixers. Owners of such desks can select which channel you wish to record on by using the track select switch on the Model 80 (remember that you will need to get a small mixer for monitoring, though). Owners of 8-track desks will have no problems, as inserting plugs into tracks 5-8 on the Model 80 will override the normalising and the machine will perform as a 'proper' 8-track and allow simultaneous recording on all tracks. Quite how they've managed to make phono sockets switched is beyond me but they have. Of course, each output is available separately for monitoring and mixing and so forth in the usual way.

In Use

Using the machine is simplicity itself. Fostex naturally supply a manual but the Model 80 needs little in the way of explaining (though I must admit that the input monitoring system is a little convoluted). To begin with, there is a button marked Input Monitor, the purpose of which is to switch all 8 channels to monitor incoming signals instead of signals off tape. Alternatively, with this button switched out it's possible to monitor incoming signals by selecting the appropriate track select buttons and tapping the Rec button and this does much the same thing. Had I designed the Fostex I would have used the Input Monitor switch to perform the function of tapping the REC button as, in use, I have found no use for the Input Monitor switch. To record something I found it easier to select the appropriate track and tap Rec to set levels. Then I put the machine into record by pressing Play and Rec simultaneously. Having done that, I rewind the tape, select another track and repeat the above process.

Dropping in is no problem either and happens in much the same way by selecting the appropriate track and tapping Rec as before to check levels or to run through. At the right moment you press Rec and Play simultaneously and you are dropped in. You can monitor what's on tape by not tapping Rec (or tapping it once again) but as soon as you drop in, the machine will switch to input monitor so you hear what you are playing. You could, of course opt not to hear the previously recorded part on that track in which case the procedure is practically the same as for basic recording. You'll be pleased to know that drop-ins are absolutely silent. I tested it by recording a length of sustained string sound. I then rewound the tape and dropped in the same tone on that sustained note and I couldn't hear the join. Further experiments with other noises yielded similarly pleasing results.

The Spec

The spec sheets give a frequency response of 40Hz to 18kHz ±3dB and this seems to be accurate enough as the sound coming off the tape is clear and uncoloured right across the frequency range. Because of the built in Dolby C noise reduction, the signal-to-noise ratio is quoted as being 72dB. Some hiss is apparent, I must admit, but under normal circumstances, this is more than acceptable and by the time everything is going hell for leather, you won't hear it. Any undue hiss could always be gated out, of course. In truth, I can only imagine the hiss level would be unacceptable in very quiet music with lots of silent spaces. DBX would give you a better noise figure but at the expense of some side effects which many people consider unacceptable. The Dolby seems to have no apparent side effects. As our illustrious editor tells me that a Drumatix is the one thing that will cause a noise reduction system to flee the country, I gave the Fostex an unhealthy overload of mine. I'm pleased to report that all was well with no loss of punch or attack, no 'pumping' or 'breathing' on the bass drum and no transient distortion or saturation on the snare drum or hi-hats, even at hefty levels. Other sounds were handled equally well with very high and low strings and brass recorded simultaneously onto one track with no intermodulation distortion. The headroom seems to be very generous with no evidence of distortion except with gross overload levels showing on the meters. Whilst on the subject of the meters, they're of the LED bargraph type and whilst not being PPMs, they're not quite VUs either and fall somewhere in between. Whatever type they are, they give a very good indication of what's going on level-wise in the machine, making setting up an easy procedure as they give a good response to transients.

"Crosstalk figures are also very good and although no figures are given in the specs there seems to be only slightly more than other machines, but certainly nothing that would be heard in a mix."

Crosstalk figures are also very good and although no figures are given in the specs, there seems to be only slightly more than other wider format machines and certainly nothing that would be heard in a mix. I would imagine that a recording of a live group using mics would give you far more problems with spillage, and you would be more likely to pick up unwanted sound from the vocalist's cans than you could from adjacent tracks. I tested crosstalk by putting a smacky bass drum at very high levels on track 1 and a very high pitched synth on track 3, again at very high levels. Whilst I could hear a very low, muffled version of these noises when I listened to track 2 in isolation at high volume, it was certainly good enough to meet the most exacting demands unless you intend to master on Compact Disk.

Another test, of course, is the ubiquitous sync code. This is notorious for spilling everywhere and leaking onto other tracks. On the 80, this is not so. When recording, there is some meter movement on adjacent tracks but these sounds are not recorded onto those tracks. No problems in the recording department.

Inputs and outputs are set to the current Japanese standard of -10dB or 0.3V high impedance, unbalanced — but this should be no real problems to prospective purchasers as I would imagine that a compatible 'home studio' mixer will also be bought so there should be no interfacing hassles.

To further assist with recording there's a socket on the rear of the unit which accommodates a ¼" inch jack plug to which can be connected a footswitch that allows you to remotely drop in or out. To use this, you repeat the above process and, at the required moment, hit the footswitch which will drop you in and then you hit it again to drop you out. Alternatively, there is a remote control unit which has all the transport functions duplicated and you can use a combination of these as you wish. Simple, effective and a Godsend to us 'one man band' types whose hands are usually more gainfully employed at the time of drop in.

In other words, the process of recording is extremely easy and leaves you free to concentrate on making music rather than wrestling with the recording side of things.

"All in all, this mini autolocate is disgustingly wonderful especially, again, for those of us who work on our own."

But if all these straightforward procedures weren't enough, Fostex have seen fit to incorporate a miniature autolocator in this machine and whilst the recording process is much the same as on the A8, the Model 80's transport functions are what set it apart from its older stablemate and other, more costly supposedly 'professional' machines where autolocate is often available but only as an expensive option.

As well as the usual Rec, Play, Stop, Rew and FFwd functions, there's also a Return to Zero which will rewind or fast forward to the zero setting. This is common enough on many recorders nowadays, even the humble multitrack cassette machines. Also on the Model 80 there are two memory locations which can be punched in simply by pressing the appropriate button. Normally, memory 1 is plonked in before memory 2 and this allows you to cycle back and forth between the two points using the Auto button and the 1-2 Repeat button which, when switched in, will automatically rewind the tape to memory 1 and then put the tape machine into play as soon as it reaches that memory location. This allows you to keep cycling between the two points to rehearse takes and then, when you're happy, you could use the footswitch to drop into record. The Auto function also works on the Return to Zero which is also very useful and there's also a Return to 1 button which will rewind or fast forward to memory location 1. All in all, this mini autolocate is smugly wonderful, especially for those of us who work on our own. For my purposes, the Model 80 is ideal; much of the work I do is for TV and many of these cues are often only 30 seconds or so long but they still need as much mixing as a full length piece. My problem is that no sooner have I set the machine in motion, gone to the desk and moved a slider than the bloody piece has finished, I have to get up, stop the machine, rewind it and start all over again. With the Model 80, all I need do is punch in memory 1 at the start of the piece and memory 2 at the end, press the 1-2 Repeat and Auto buttons and all my legwork and exertion is over. Marks out of 10 — about 25!

In operation, the transport is smooth and relatively noiseless and has a start up time of under half a second. The transport function controls are likewise very smooth and respond well to touch. Naturally, the transport is logic controlled so it is possible to go from one mode to another without tape spillage or breakage, although just to be on the safe side, I would recommend you go into an opposing rewind or fast forward mode before going into stop or play to give the tape a chance to slow down first.

All that's left to mention on the machine is the tape counter which gives a clearly legible LED readout of minutes and seconds. There is also a varispeed control giving a total variation of 10% up or down. On the rear of the unit, as well as the 16 phonos for the inputs and outputs, there are the aforementioned footswitch sockets and also two multiway sockets to accommodate the new SMPTE/MIDI Autolocator and Synchroniser that Fostex have just brought out and for the optional remote.

"Some hiss is apparent, I must admit, but under normal circumstances, this is more than acceptable and by the time everything is going hell for leather, you won't hear it."

The Final Analysis

But specs apart, how does the Model 80 sound and perform? Well, sounds coming off tape are much the same as those going in and tape hiss, whilst being present, isn't at all obtrusive and your mixer is likely to contribute more to noise levels than tape noise, as is your guitar hero's Marshall stack and effects pedals! The transport functions are smooth and the autolocator makes it too easy to use. I'll admit, it's not a Studer or an Otari but, in the right hands, it's a phenomenally potent piece of gear and any naff recordings made are going to be the fault of the operator, not the machine. Its size makes it portable enough to do some pre-recording in the comfort of your own home before taking it to a larger studio where it cap be transferred onto the 24-or 16-track. Alternatively, you could take it to a large studio and record your mega drum sound and then take it home for keyboard overdubs or whatever. In a flight case, it could be used for gigs with backing tapes as well. How well it will stand up to the pressure of non-stop working remains to be seen, of course, but its home studio orientation makes me think that it would not be in use day and night as would be the case in a professional studio. Having said that, I can't see why it should give you any problems if you look after it.

If I have any criticisms, they are mostly due its compactness. The tape threading is straightforward enough but with the wheels and rollers so close together, I wouldn't like to lash up this machine with half a pound of sausages for fingers! The machine has facilities to line it up (as it should) but these are accessed via a panel beneath the unit. This is hardly the most accessible of areas for the controls to facilitate regular lining up. I would rather have seen them behind the front panel but then you can't have everything, I suppose. Again, as it's intended to sit in a home studio lining up is not as crucial as in a professional studio.

On the plus side, I'd like to mention the excellent handbook, giving full details of recording techniques and going so far as to include running drum machines and sequencers off a sync code during mixdown, bouncing down, use of SMPTE, test tones, editing, as well as lining up and maintenance, and there are none of the usual literal Japanese translations that tend to crop up in other manuals.

In conclusion - I have a 1 inch 8-track and side by side comparison showed no glaringly obvious deficiencies in the Fostex and the Model 80 is a damned sight easier to use. I want one!

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

At Home In The Studio

Next article in this issue

Tim Hunt - Recording Engineer

Publisher: Home & Studio Recording - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Home & Studio Recording - Jan 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Review by Steve Howell

Previous article in this issue:

> At Home In The Studio

Next article in this issue:

> Tim Hunt - Recording Enginee...

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