FOSTEX DV-40 Review

ã 2002 by Eddie Ciletti

For years, Fostex portable time-code DAT recorders have had few competitors in the nerve-wracking world of location recording, a gig that demands reliability, flexibility, portability and minimal battery consumption. To replace DAT, Fostex has created a proprietary DVD-RAM format and, while a six-track portable (PD-6) is not yet available, the DV-40 ($5995 msrp) is a 4-track rack-mount version currently in use on soundstages to confirm performance. (A six-track playback option is in the works for compatibility with the PD-6.)

With sample rate up to 192kHz and 24-bit dynamic range the DV-40 records audio either as a Broadcast Wave File or as an Apple-Compatible Sound Designer "SDII" file. (BWF is a time-code stamped version of the windows-compatible ".wav" format.) The portable will use a 3-inch DVD-RAM drive that is also used in professional cameras and aviation applications because of its ability to withstand high G-forces and still perform.

FIRST FLOOR

As a truly professional piece of dedicated hardware, the "ground floor" of the front panel has familiar knobs and switches — Frame Rate, Clock, Time Code Generator, various Sample Rates, Pull-up / Pull-down, Record level, Monitor Switching and Level. Also on the Lower-Level are keyboard and mouse ports (an optional VGA card allows video access in the rear), Local and Remote (rear-panel via RS-422 or Network port), Record Mode (Mono, Stereo or Multitrack) plus Analog or Digital selection.

CADDY SHACK

Like the early CD drives for computers, the DVD-RAM drive requires a caddy or carrier with an integral disc. You can use a disc without the case for playback. Data Protection is an important on many levels, both for long-term storage as well as minimizing errors during file transfer. Consider how disposable CDs are now and how often they are not put back in the case. Not all DVD drives accept DVD-RAM although the DV-40's drive accepts bare-naked CDs.

I took the DV-40 out of the box once before taking it on location for familiarization purposes. There are two DVD-RAM formatting options. Tape Mode is like pre-striping a tape (simultaneously recording silence while formatting). As such, the user must choose — and is locked into — the sample rate, bit depth and audio format (BWF or SDII). Tape Mode adds an extra level of data insurance allowing the DV-40 to tolerate a power interruption while recording without losing the track (up to that point) or its neighbors. It is also the recommended mode for long term storage. Normal Mode allows multiple recording options on the fly.

WEE BAIRN

As of review time (July 2002) the current software version is 1.2 with V1.3 in beta, DV-40 updates are available online and must be burned to CD for transfer, a painless process. This is a young product to say the least. It is obvious that Fostex plans for additional features such as a built-in hard drive, an optional file format (in addition to BWF and SDII) as well as two additional tracks (substituting the optional VGA card for two additional playback channels). The manual is "thorough but not clear" and is in serious need of a re-write. While the machine is fairly intuitive, you'll definitely want to learn on your own time and take notes.

ON THE ROAD

I took the DV-40 on location to a not-yet-finished facility to record a Jazz Trio. ProTools HD served as the multitrack, seven tracks for seven mics that were either mixed live or during playback via Yamaha DM2000 and sent as a stereo pair to the DV-40 — a completely digital signal path captured at 88.2kHz / 24-bit. The other pair of tracks were fed by one of two Audio Technica Stereo Shotgun mics (from the balcony), through a Great River preamp directly into the DV-40's analog inputs. 

The session is described in slightly more detail in the Sidebar of my October "Tech’s Files" column as well as at tangible-technology.com where you’ll also find a very respectable mp3. Sennheiser HD600 headphones were used to monitor the DV-40. There are three monitoring options: all four tracks summed to Mono or either pair of tracks in Stereo. A Grace 901 headphone amp was also used, taking advantage of both it's digital AND analog inputs to monitor each pair of tracks.

MANHATTAN XFER

Once back at home base, the DV-40 was interfaced to an Alesis Masterlink via AES port, for real-time transfer of the main stereo pair at full resolution. Since I didn't have a multi-channel AES interface, the next step was to download the four channels via Network port, using TCP/IP protocol, a standard Cat-5 networking cable, a hub and Cute FTP (a simple File Transfer Program). No dice. For round two, I enlisted the help of my friend Dave Meyers at Overkill Audio this time using the recommended shareware FTP software and a "cross-over" cable, one designed for direct computer-to-computer connection sans hub. Once communications were established, we tried once again to use a standard cable and hub with no success. Fostex is updating the manual to include a step by step guide to walk users through the complexity of the FTP interface.

Ultimately the DV-40 should effortlessly connect to any network. Perhaps by the time this review sees wood pulp the editors will receive word that it does. Meanwhile, the networking feature does support multiple users and passwords plus all the typical TCP/IP tweaks (IP address, subnet mask and gateway). It would be cool if the DV-40 also allowed dynamic IP address assignment from a gateway or address server to eliminate potential conflicts. 

FILE TRANSFER

The four-channels are embedded into a single file that will appear in the FTP window. Once transferred to computer, I used Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro (CEP) to open them up. Since my hardware did not support the higher resolution, a CEP plug-in utility down converted each of the four tracks to 44.1Khz / 32-bit to make them playable on a Soundscape Mixtreme card. At the moment, the transfer process is a little more like Rush Hour than the Indy 500, but the DV-40 otherwise works reliably and it sounds good. 

While the network feature is cool, until the transfer rate is upgraded (to 7x faster than real time) I suspect most users will either transfer via AES or have a workstation outfitted with a DVD-RAM drive. The disc formatting is readable by both Windows and Apple computers (the latter running OS9.1 or later). For our test, a 6 minute, 600 MB file transferred in just over an hour. (That’s the amount of space consumed by a six-minute, four channel, high resolution recording). 

I connected a Keyboard and Mouse hoping to be spared spinning the Shuttle Wheel to select alphanumeric characters. So far, the keyboard is mostly used for hot keys (an overlay would be nice). "F1" brings up the Track Rename feature using the "arrow" buttons instead of the machine’s shuttle knob. Future software revisions will include file naming via the QWERTY section of the keyboard.

THE CRYSTAL BALL

Three things I would like to see on the DV-40 are a hard drive (coming in December), a beeper and an "Auto Play" feature. The 4.7 gig DVD-RAM capacity is fine for traditional sample rate and bit depths but a full-length classical or jazz recording (4-channel / 88.2 kHz / 24-bit) consumes about 100MB / minute for about 47 minutes recording time. I have a feeling some audiophile recordists are going to jump on this box big time for its high resolution; a hard drive would eliminate the time obstacles imposed by a single DVD-Ram disk and its default partitions of 2G + 2G + .7G. It is possible to use 9.4 gig discs to increase total recording time and Version 1.30 software will increase the partition size to 4G allowing longer continuous recording. 

There were moments when I felt the need for more feedback from the DV-40 such as a "confirmation or warning beeper." The DV-40 executes some commands instantaneously, but when skipping from track to track it takes a moment. Pressing Play before it reaches its destination yields nothing — it doesn't "stack" the PLAY command.

THE PAYOFF

As a proud parent of young children I can relate to Fostex and their DV-40. They should be proud too. While very young in its development there were no failures or glitches, just features I’d like to see implemented. The DV-40 is very professionally outfitted, is generally intuitive after poking around the menus, with well-appointed front and rear panels. As "just" a high-resolution recorder, the DV-40 is sexy. As a replacement for the Timecode DAT format along with a compatible portable, the pair will be a knockout.