Take the Fostex X15, restyle it, add new features, raise the price by the cost of a dirty weekend in Blackpool and you've got their new X30 multitracker. Nicholas Rowland finds out if they're on the right track.
Fostex personal multitrackers leave their 'teens behind as the successful X15 gives way to the X30. More features and more style make this an attractive introduction to home recording.
ITS BEEN A while since the Fostex X15 burst upon the scene with its seductive promise of a studio in the palm of your hand in exchange for an all too reasonable amount of silver crossing that of your local music shop owner. Subsequently, this convenient, compact multitrack medium has proved an essential addition to many a musos bedroom, along with the trusty DX7 and the yellowing Rick Wakeman dartboard.
Of course, the success of the X15 has inspired the appearance of other budget multitracks, offering today's burgeoning songwriter a bewildering choice of facilities, price tags and (most crucial) colour options. In the face of considerable competition from the likes of the Tascam Porta-Ones and the Vestafire MR30s, it was inevitable that Fostex would eventually come up with something to replace their four-year-old brainchild. They did - the X30.
This has involved taking the basic formula, packaging it in a stylish box and adding a few useful extras and £50 to the launch price of the X15. The resulting machine has the same simplicity and convenience, plus a little more versatility (though similar limitations), but at £349 is sure to win many friends among those who wish to keep up with the Quincy Jones's on a budget.
The most startling difference between the X30 and any of Fostex's other products is its styling, with wind-tunnel tested curves and futuristic slider knobs. The front-panel graphics have a similar pizazz, adding to the futuristic hi-tech feel of the machine, but more importantly, making it much easier to understand what each control actually does. This should provide added incentive to the 99.9% of musicians who only reach for the instruction manual as a last resort.
Other important improvements on the X15 format include switchable Dolby B and C noise reduction, a sync input for time codes from drum machines and sequencers, two Buss In sockets for patching effects and a Zero Stop facility on the tape counter. However, the tape still runs at normal speed (1⅞ips) the speed at which all hi-fi cassette recorders work. More on these points later. First, let's have a look at two holes on the front labelled A and B.
LIKE THE X15, the X30 can only record two inputs at a time. If you're building up a composition track by track fine, but if you're a mixer-less band who want to record yourselves all at once, you've got problems. The good news is that, unlike the X15, the input channels can each record onto any of the four tracks, effectively giving you a two channel mixer. It may not seem much, but it's better than nothing. And it's certainly better than the X15, which had a fixed bussing system.
Both inputs are switchable for line or mic, but note that the setting of the latter makes it only good for use with high impedance mics, a practice which seems to be common to all budget multitracks. The gain slider takes care of the rest, while a further slider pans the signal to the right or left signal buss. If you think all this talk about busses is some aspect of tape transport, I'll explain the system briefly.
The left buss feeds either track 1 or 3, while the right feeds 2 or 4. Hence, if you're recording both inputs onto track 3, you need to select track 3 with the track record selector, then set the input pan controls to the left. If you want input A to appear on track 1 and input B to appear on track 2, you'll need to pan A to the left and B to the right. Got it? If you haven't, refer to the X30's extremely well laid-out instruction manual and you soon will.
After passing through Input faders, the incoming signals pass onto first the EQ controls then the Master fader. There are two sets of tone controls, consisting of a simple bass and treble slider. Each set is in line with the buss rather than the input channel. In plain English, this means that the pan control for each of the inputs determines which set of EQ controls effects the signal. Set to the left, it's the left-hand set; set to the right, it's the right; set in the middle, it's both equally.
Both bass and treble controls do their job extremely well. Remember though, when it comes to recording and EQ'ing two individual inputs onto the same track (the bass and snare of a drum machine for example) you'll also need to slide both A and B's pan controls over to the same buss so you forfeit the facility to EQ each input independently of the other. In plain English: don't expect miracles at this price.
As you might guess, the Master fader controls the overall signal reaching tape, whether from one input or two. As with the X15, there are twin bargraph meters which keep you informed as to the level of the signal: in my opinion, much easier to read and far more accurate than the usual VU meters.
As far as patching in effects is concerned, this is achieved by taking a line out from one of the individual Outs at the back of the machine, feeding it to the effect and then patching the effect return into the buss In sockets. Which of the four outs you use is determined by the track you're recording on; from which you can see that if you're recording on more than one track you're going to have difficulties patching in a mono effect. Also note that because the X30 has no facility to control the volume of the effects return signal, you're really going to need effects units with their own variable output. Be warned: not all have them.
Monitoring is conducted via headphones, and you can choose to listen to what's on tape, what's coming in through the inputs or a mixture of both.
Finding your place in the music is aided by a fast cueing system which involves pressing either the fast forward or reverse control while in play mode. Another feature is the Rehearse Mode, which allows you to practise drop-ins before attempting the actual take. To keep you informed as to what's going on, the record LED situated between the track select switches, changes colour (green), reverting to red when things are for real.
"The X15's Monmix section used rotary controls which were impossible to manhandle without help, hence the X30's sliders are a very welcome convenience indeed."
Punching in is a simple matter of pressing Record, then clicking the Track Select into place at the right moment. If you're on your lonesome, you'll find the optional footswitch handy. This plugs into the front of the machine alongside the phones output.
Oh, and finally, if you need to tune to awkward instruments (like the Spotnik MIDI balalaika), there's a varispeed control under the tape cover.
HAVING GOT YOUR various signals onto tape, EQ'd, effected and otherwise, we can have a look at the set of grey sliders which form the Monmix section. As with the X15, there is a separate gain and pan control for each track. These come into play when you're mixing down to stereo (through the stereo outs) or if you need to bounce several tracks down to one, in order to free those tracks for further recording. Without going into a long explanation, suffice it to say that the system is extremely easy to use once you get to grips with the bussing principles discussed earlier.
Incidentally, for those that specialise in truly epic sound creations, it's possible to mix in further sounds or effects through the inputs or the Buss In as you're bouncing down.
I reckon this facility allows you to build up something in the region of 14 different parts per composition. Naturally, you'll sacrifice sound quality and flexibility in final stereo mix, but it shows what can be achieved with careful planning on this modest machine.
One way of expanding the capabilities of the machine is to use three tracks for recording and the other for sync code for your sequencer or drum machine. As I mentioned earlier, the X30 has a sync input socket at the back which automatically routes sync code to track four. Relaying the sync back is a simple matter of connecting the output from track four to the sequencer/drum machine's incoming sync socket. The extra parts can then be added during final mixdown through the input channels or even the buss in.
When it comes to that all important final mix through the stereo outs, the tone controls and the master fader come into play again. This is handy for tweaking the sound to replace some of the bottom or top that's usually lost during bounce-down operations. The master fader comes in handy for smooth fade in/outs too.
One small point worth a mention: the X15's Monmix section was made up of rotary controls rather than sliders. If you tried to achieve reasonably complex mixdowns with accurate fades and pans, the X15 controls were impossible to manhandle, without a friend (and a very close friend at that) to help. Hence the presence of sliders is a very welcome convenience indeed.
AS I'VE ALREADY explained, the tape speed of the X30 is the standard 1 7/8ips. You may or may not know that more expensive multitrack machines tend to run at double speed, thereby compensating for the loss of high frequency signals which inevitably occurs when squeezing sound onto the relatively narrow cassette format. However, the X30 features Dolby B and C, the latter being arguably the best non-professional noise reduction system around. A switch on the back panel determines which system applies. Purists can also switch the whole lot off.
That, then, concludes our tour of the X30. There's no doubt that like its forerunner, it is extremely simple and convenient to use. It's ideal for the musician needing a format to lay down ideas quickly and/or for someone who wants to learn multitrack recording techniques. In other words, that old adage of a studio in the palm of your hand still applies.
There are limitations, though, which might not be immediately apparent to the novice, but which are going to reveal themselves as you acquire experience (and more outboard gear). The lack of an auxiliary loop, for a much more controlled application of effects is one serious omission, especially given the current availability of high quality budget effects, particularly reverb. Sure, there's the Buss In facility, which for many a musician's needs will prove adequate, but having to patch and repatch according to whichever track you're recording onto proves a little cumbersome.
If this becomes a problem, you could acquire an external mixer, capable of handling more inputs, with better EQ and so on. Naturally it defeats the idea of having a whole studio in the palm of your hand, but if you buy the X30 merely to dabble, then find that you're getting serious about recording, this may well prove the best way of increasing the life of your initial investment. And at £349, for a system that'll get you up and running in five minutes, but which with careful thought is capable of producing sophisticated results, that's modest enough.
Price £349 including VAT and power supply
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Review by Nicholas Rowland
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