Test Drive: The Fostex D-20 Digital Master Recorder

For radio production, the Fostex 8320 Remote Control for the D-20 is a must. The D-20 alone does not record program numbers and start IDs, though it will read and locate them. The 8320 brings the familiar start ID, skip ID, end ID, ID search, erase, write, and renumber functions to the D-20. The 8320 also echoes the majority of the D-20's front panel controls and adds a few of its own. Both the D-20 and the remote control unit employ large, easy to read LED displays that are never cluttered with information but, instead, are switchable between various information displays by pressing the DISPLAY button.

For the experienced DAT user, most consumer model DAT decks and low-end professional decks are easy to use, right out of the box. Due to the many functions of the D-20 and its remote control, a visit to the manual is in order, even to get the hang of the D-20's transport controls. While you do get large "broadcast" transport control buttons on the D-20's front panel, you'll notice there isn't the familiar Pause button or Review/Cue buttons. The functions are there; the buttons are not. During playback, the pause mode is entered by pressing STOP. The STOP and PLAY buttons will be lit with the PLAY button flashing. This is the pause mode. Pressing PLAY resumes playback. If the unit is left in the pause mode for three minutes, it will automatically enter a full stop mode.

To enter the Review/Cue mode, press the SHIFT key then the CUE key. (The SHIFT key is much like the ALT or CTRL key of a computer keyboard in that it enables other keys to have more than one function.) Once in the Review/Cue mode, pressing REWIND or FFWD will put the D-20 in a 5X normal speed mode with the audio circuits on. Pressing SHIFT then CUE again shuts off the audio circuits. To enter full rewind or fast-forward mode (100X normal speed), press REWIND or FFWD twice.

The D-20 comes with four locate buttons: Z.LOC, LOC 1, LOC 2, and P.LOC. Z.LOC is a zero locate. P.LOC searches to the last point that the PLAY button was pressed. LOC 1 and LOC 2 are extra memory locations which can store points on the fly. (The 8320 remote control doesn't have these buttons on its panel but instead provides ten auto-locate points using the ten buttons on the numeric keypad.) The REPEAT button engages the D-20's shuttle mode which will repeat playback between points LOC 1 and LOC 2. The remote control adds programmed playback of up to 99 programs.

The locate points utilize the common Absolute Time subcode recorded by most DAT decks. We found searching and cueing with A-Time on the D-20 to be extremely accurate, to the point of possibly replacing start IDs altogether. Rather than keeping a log of program numbers and programs, the log would function just as well by recording A-Time for each program. Of course, locating one hour, twenty-seven minutes, and thirteen seconds into a DAT would require a few more keystrokes than punching in, let's say, program 24.

Other front panel controls include input LEVEL and BALANCE controls, a headphone jack and level control, a COPY GUARD switch which lets you copy protect your DAT masters, an EMPHASIS ON/OFF switch, and a SAMPLING FREQ switch switchable from 48kHz and 44.1kHz. Several of the front panel controls of the D-20 are for use with time code. Until such time that radio production studios are using time code to some significant degree, we'll spare you the details of the extensive time code support provided by machines such as the D-20.

The only shortcoming we could find in the D-20 was its inability to automatically record start IDs when sensing the first bit of audio at the inputs. Instead, start IDs are recorded as soon as the unit is placed in the record mode, or they are recorded manually. If necessary, the position of the start ID can be adjusted using the D-20's "rehearsal" function. This doesn't make the D-20 an ideal mastering machine if you plan to make a lot of dubs from DAT to cart because the position of start IDs with reference to the start of program audio will vary from program to program, thus making it difficult to know exactly when to start the cart deck. However, one could, with practice, learn to write start IDs manually after recording at just the precise location for proper cueing. Of course, if you're one of the lucky ones who have done away with carts and entered the nineties with digital cart decks and storage systems, this is probably an insignificant shortcoming; and for anyone outside the "dub to cart" world of radio production, it might mean even less. Whatever your case might be, this is a small sacrifice in exchange for vari-speed, punch-in/out recording, and considerable autolocate functions.

The back panel of the D-20 provides balanced XLR inputs and outputs and unbalanced, 1/4" phone jacks for the monitor outputs. Time code and digital ins and outs are also balanced XLRs. Also on the back panel are the external sync ins and outs, a DATA COM jack for the remote control, three dip switches, and two ACCESSORY connectors, one of which is for the Fostex Model 4030 synchronizer, the other an expansion bus. Specs include THD at 0.05% with emphasis applied, dynamic range at 90dB, frequency response at 20-20kHz, crosstalk at less than 80dB (at 1kHz), and fast wind time at 80 seconds for a 120-minute DAT. List price on the D-20 is $8,500. The 8320 Remote Control lists for $800.

A photo of the 8320 was unavailable to us, but take our word for it; the attractive remote control would look great next to your console, not to mention that the rack-mountable D-20 wouldn't hurt the looks of your equipment rack at all. The D-20 and 8320 may be a bit pricey for some, but if you like driving to work in a Mercedes, you would enjoy the D-20 as part of your arsenal.

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