FOSTEX FD-4

Digital Multitracker Review

ã 1998 by Eddie Ciletti
 
MANUFACTURER: Fostex Corporation of America; 15431 Blackburn Ave. Norwalk, CA 90650. USA vox: 562-921-1112 fax: 562-802-1964 web: http://www.fostex.com

APPLICATION: Personal Digital Multitrack Recorder/Mixer 

SUMMARY: 4-tracks, two sends and two stereo returns. The DB-25 SCSI-II port supports various media. Review unit tested with SyQuest ezFlyerä 230 MB removable media. 

STRENGTHS: MIDI I/O, two auxiliary tracks for bounces, digital patch bay, optical S/PDIF port, 2 XLR mic preamps. 

WEAKNESSES: Access to pitch could me more conventional. Manual should be converted to an HTML document and supplied on a CD-rom. 

LIST PRICE: $599 without drive (internal 2.5 IDE drive optional – factory installed) 

The Syquest ezFlyerä drive available for $149.95 through the dealer with one cartridge ($30). 10 cartridges for $250 


 

FUZZY LOGIC

If my web camera were online right now you’d see one very fried geek. Why? ‘Cause I’ve been up till 4am two-nights-in-a-row recording my latest hit, "Get a Life." This is what happens when I review gear that requires "content." If you’ve never owned a personal cassette multitrack, skip that path altogether and buy the Fostex FD-4 Digital Multitracker. As a writing tool, the FD-4 delivers amazing sonics for less than a third of the price of the best analog cassette system. 

The FD-4 delivered above and beyond my expectations (at this price) by overcoming one "obstacle" that has long plagued anyone who’s ever "bounced" tracks. Fostex removes the stress of creating sonic real estate by providing three alternatives before "making a commitment." Songs can be organized into separate folders so that each can be individually backed-up to DAT. You can also take advantage of the built-in digital patch bay, which can route any pair of tracks to the optical SP/DIF port. At minimum, those rare and elusive magical performances can be exported and preserved on a DAT. 

Once "saved," up to four tracks can be mixed to the two "virtual" tracks (along with "live" material). The virtual tracks can be swapped with any of the four tracks (you have to do this in order to hear playback) and you can easily toggle back and forth until being satisfied with the bounce mix. (Virtual tracks can also be included in the back-up process.) 

MODE EARN

The FD-4 has three recording modes: Normal (DAC), Mastering Mode-1 (16-bit) and Mastering Mode-2 (16-bit). ("DAC" stands for Digital Acoustic Coding, a data compression algorithm.) Both Normal (32 kHz) and Mode-1 (44.1kHz) allow four Real tracks and two virtual tracks (sample rates in parenthesis). Mode-2 (44.1kHz) is four tracks only. 

The "luxury" afforded by the FD-4 is its ability to take advantage of various recording media. Almost any SCSI-II device is fair game from the "traditional" external Hard-disc, to removable media including Zipä (33min/17min), ezFlyerä (78min/42min) and Magneto-Optical (MO) drives. (Recording time at 32kHz / 44.1kkHz sample rates.) As a factory-installed option, an internal hard IDE drive makes the FD-4 that much more portable. 

The manual is otherwise very thorough, but an addendum was included to detail how each mode affects the total available recording time and media performance. In a nutshell, DAC mode will run on "slower" media such as the Zipä drive because the data compression and lower sample rate reduce the throughput requirements. Mode-1 is the most demanding (6 tracks at 44.1kHz) while Mode-2 reduces overhead by dropping the two virtual tracks. There’s a lot of technology in this box! 

SY’s QUEST: HOW I WON THE WAR

A song was taking shape in my head at the same time I was doing a favor for Kasim Sulton, the multi-talented, multi-tasking manipulator of the bass and treble clefs. I enlisted his services to create a rhythm track after laying out the changes on a regular stereo cassette deck. Two days later Kasim returned with the FD-4, a smile and four tracks: stereo drums, guitars and bass on tracks 1 and 2, plus two individual guitars on tracks 3 and 4. 

Kasim recorded in the default 32 kHz "DAC" mode. I dumped the raw tracks into my Soundscape workstation — to convert up to 44.1kHz — locking via MIDI Time Code (MTC). The tracks were then backed up to DAT and the drive was reformatted to 44.1kHz. It takes under six minutes to format the 230MB SyQuest media after which there were 43 available "track" minutes. (Divided by 4 tracks, that’s 10.75 "song" minutes.) 

After sample-rate conversion, I made some arrangement changes, then digitally dumped a mono mix from Soundscape to the FD-4 locking via MTC. Sure, a workstation precludes the need for a "personal and portable" system, but at the very least, interfacing the two was a valid test of the FD-4’s functionality. In addition, a "clipboard" feature allows the user to "paste" a bounce later in time after the original recording (rather than the traditional method). While I did not test this feature, it is possible to keep all the pieces if desired. 

Track
Step one
Step two
Step three
Step four
Step five
Step Six
             
1
Drums Bounce 1 L Mono Bounce Mono Bounce Mono Bounce Mono Bounce
2
Bass Bounce 1 R Lead vox 1 Vocal comp Vocal comp Vocal comp
3
Guitar 1a Guitar 2a Lead vox 2 Bkg vox 1a Bkg vox 2a Bkg comp1
4
Guitar 1b Guitar 2b Lead vox 3 Bkg vox 1b Bkg vox 2b Bkg comp2
5
Bounce 1 L *Mono Bounce* Vocal comp Bkg 1 compà Bkg 1 comp  
6
Bounce 1 R       Bkg 2 comp  

Table One: The Six Steps of production for "Get a Life."       * indicates detour to workstation for format conversion.
 
 
 
Table One shows the six steps of production for "Get a Life." By step three, the lead vocals had been recorded on the "real" tracks, then compiled and bounced to a virtual track. The same applies to the background vocals although the first comp was stored in the virtual domain to keep two open tracks for the second set of "bkg’s." Then, both "comps" were exchanged with tracks three and four. 

IN and OUT

The FD-4 has a generous supply of I/O ports. There are two mono effect sends and two stereo effect returns (somebody was thinking). There are separate mix and monitor outputs (for overdubs) and a monitor switch to select between the either or combines. The three-band equalizer has fixed bass and treble frequencies plus mid sweep. (ART’s Tube EQ would be a perfect complement to the FD-4!) 

I was very surprised to see a pair of XLRs on the back panel for microphones (only on channels three and four). All four inputs appear as quarter inch jacks on the front panel. Using them bypasses the balanced microphone circuit. 

INTER RE-ACTION

While the FD-4 is incredibly powerful and the manual is both generous and generally helpful, managing all of those details is a challenge. The recurring theme on many pages is the phrase "refer to page xx for more information." This information would be more effectively delivered as linked hypertext (HTML) via CD-rom. 

The Display is where most of the "feedback" occurs including metering and access to default parameters. There are plenty of user tweaks that require help from the manual the first few times, but the "system" eventually reveals itself and you can pretty much figure out the rest. The FD-4 does feel like a five hundred dollar recording studio-in-a-box, most notably, the "scrub" wheel needs a felt shim to keep it running smooth. As a control surface, I wouldn’t mind seeing larger buttons and a "standard" pitch control knob combined with an in/out switch. Beyond the "feelies" you just can’t knock the power in this package. 

OUTTA HERE

Well, I can honestly say I didn’t expect to have this much fun! Thanks to trickle-down technology, the Fostex FD-4 can greatly increase the quality and the dimension of your art with no damage to the wallet. I say good riddance to analog cassette decks! 

Eddie Ciletti moonlights as Italian heavy-mental crooner, Fred Zeppole.

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