Digital Multitracker Review

ã 1999 by Eddie Ciletti
MANUFACTURER: Fostex Corporation of America; 15431 Blackburn Ave. Norwalk, CA 90650. USA vox: 562-921-1112 fax: 562-802-1964 web:

APPLICATION: Personal Digital Multitrack Recorder/Mixer 

SUMMARY: 8-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, 16 virtual tracks, digital patch bay, optical S/PDIF port, 2 XLR mic preamps. 

WEAKNESSES: Scrub wheel still needs to be smoother. Manual could be more concise.

LIST PRICE: $ 899.00 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 


In the summer of 1998 I reviewed the Fostex FD-4 Multitracker and was honestly surprised. Why? Because it is so superior to any analog cassette-based "personal multitrack." The FD-8 is just that much better. Instead of two "virtual" tracks for non-destructive bouncing, the FD-8 has 16 tracks. This means you can audition bounces before blowing away the individual tracks and, worst case, all raw tracks can be backed up to DAT or...

Both the FD-4 and the FD-8 include a DB-25 connector for an external SCSI drive (your choice) as well as an internal IDE port for a 2.5-inch laptop-style drive. Last time, I used the Syquest ezFlyerä 230 MB removable drive. This time I requested a 2 gig IDE drive which, as an authorized service center, I was able to install. (It is an option that I believe should be standard though it would obviously raise the price.) No matter whether you are a weekend warrior or a full-time pro, you'll like the idea that the FD-8 can be self-contained, hanging a drive off the back makes it a bit less portable (for tour buss or hotel use), but very useful for archiving and normal recording. 


The FD-8 has three recording modes: Normal Mode (A.D.A.C.), Mastering Mode (16-bit) and Backup Mode. ("A.D.A.C. " stands for Adaptive Digital Acoustic Coding, a data compression algorithm developed by Matsushita and Fostex.) Normal mode is the most forgiving of removable drives, which are slower than "fixed" hard drives. Therefore, to avoid data compression, use a fixed drive. (On the FD-4. I used the 32kHz sample-rate with compression and survived!) Backup mode does not care how fast the drives are. You can use Iomega's Zipä (17min), Syquest's ezFlyerä (42min) any SCSI hard drive, plus a Magneto-Optical (MO) drive. (Recording time based on 44.1kkHz sample rates.)


The manual is very thorough perhaps too much so because it tends to be redundant in a way that is more confusing than helpful. First the step-by-step procedure is provided as an overview without detail, then the detail is added when it should have been integrated. In short, the FD-8 is easier to use than the manual suggests! If I could add one feature, it would be a "speaker" so that the FD-8 could communicate with the user, beeping after completing a task, for example. (The speaker could also be used with the built-in metronome.) Once familiar with the FD-8, I would often press buttons before the machine was ready. 


I'd been singing an a capella version of Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" for fun and had even offered a very rough version as an outgoing answering machine message. This time, I had plenty of tracks to make a fool of myself. Fortunately, the FD-8 has plenty of tools to help me choose the best performance. I started with a Wurlitzer electric piano and voice to get the feel and lay down a basic road map. . (Later I learned that the FD-8 has a built-in metronome.) Then I set about recording five tracks of lead vocal, using a Sennheiser MD-421 dynamic mic. 

Click here to listen to Mercedes Benz

The most important button on the FD-8 is STORE because it captures a location point, which can then be entered into five possible locations: START, Punch-IN, Punch-OUT, END, Clipboard-IN and Clipboard-OUT. There is even an adjustable pre-roll. I used the clipboard to copy the best vocal attempts and paste them into a composite on track 3. (See Table One for the step-by-step.) I chose this method to keep the vocal in the digital domain. I could have brought all of the vocals up on faders, which occasionally did happen when an accidental double occurred. (Like the ones you could never do on purpose!) 

Step 1
Step 2
Step 3
Step 4
Step 5
Step 6
Step 7
Step 8
Lead vox 1
Lead vox 1
Bass pno-1
Lead vox 2
Lead vox 2
Lo -bkg-2
Bass pno-2
Lead Vox comp
lead vox 
lead vox 
lead vox 
lead vox
lead vox
Lead Vox 4
Lead Vox 4
Lo -bkg-3
Bass pno-3
Lead Vox 5
Lead Vox 5
Lo -bkg-4
Bass pno-cmp
Bass cmp
Bass cmp
Insert hi-bkg
Insert lo-bkg

Pilot track

Table One: The step-by-step for Mercedes Benz
In addition to using the clipboard to create the best lead vocal, I also used it, in stereo, to fly the backgrounds from the first chorus into the second chorus. Even during mix down, the punch-in/punch-out feature was helpful as "automation," allowing the levels in each section to be optimized.

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) Plus a Monitor Switch to select between either or a combination via the headphone jack. The three-band equalizer has fixed bass and treble frequencies plus mid sweep. 

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


The Display is where most of the "activity" occurs, including metering and via the setup button access to parameter defaults. There are plenty of user tweaks including the choice of a Timeline, represented by either Bars or Absolute time. Up to 99 songs can be named (if you write short songs or have a large-capacity drive). 

Since the FD-4 and the FD-8 are identical save for the number of recordable channels, I did not attempt to repeat my previous test, but chose instead to explore more of the feature-set. For example, last time I linked the FD-4 with my Soundscape workstation via MIDI and the optical digital interface. The latter doubles as both adat light-pipe (eight channel) and SP/dif (stereo) I/O. This time I took more advantage of the FD-8's cut and paste features as well as using the internal IDE drive.

The FD-8 is incredibly powerful despite its somewhat cheesy feel, the analog mixer being especially "frommage." Adding a grommet to the shaft of the "scrub" wheel to made it smoother and faster a crucially needed modification because I relied so heavily on it to create precise cuts, pastes and mutes (by erasing). The control surface, by contrast, feels more solid. It is compact, yet functional.

Again, it was a real surprise to get such great sonic results that were not compromised by bounces. (This would have been the case if the recording media had been an analog cassette tape.) In addition to challenging the user's creativity, I think the person who wrote the manual may have also been overwhelmed by "the power" and that perhaps the information could be more effectively delivered as linked hypertext (HTML) via CD-rom. 

Both the Fostex FD-4 and the FD-8 show how technology really has become more powerful and more affordable. Thinking of buying a used analog cassette multitrack??? Think again! And again I say, "good riddance to analog cassette decks! "