Test Drive: The Fostex D-80 Digital Multitrack Recorder

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by Jerry Vigil

The abundance of hard disk multitrack recorders on the market today gives the buyer lots of choices, each one having features and functions that set it apart from the rest. The trick is to know what you need in a digital multitrack before you go shopping, then look closely at what's out there. Fostex appears to have filled a niche with the D-80. If you need eight tracks of digital recording in an affordable and easy to use system, the D-80 is worth a look. It immediately got my attention when I saw the price tag of just $2,195.

The D-80 takes up three rack spaces and features a removable front panel. It removes quickly by simply lifting and pulling away from the main unit. With the optional five meter extension cable, all of the controls for the D-80, with the exception of the Power On/Off button, can be placed anywhere, from a small area on a desk top to your lap. Two mounting screws could even be placed on a wall or other flat surface to hang the control panel. The panel is roughly the size of two VHS tapes sitting side by side and has a rubbery backing that prevents slipping. The ability to bring all of the D-80's controls, including metering, to such a small control panel is definitely one of the D-80's biggest features.

For its modest price, the D-80 delivers simultaneous 8-track recording with eight unbalanced analog inputs and eight unbalanced analog outs on RCA phono connectors. 2-channel digital I/O (S/PDIF) is available on optical ports. The digital in can be assigned to any tracks. The 2-channel digital out is not a stereo mix (there is no internal mixer) but is used for digital backup of track data (two tracks at a time, in real time). MIDI IN, OUT and THRU connectors wrap up the rear panel and allow remote control of the D-80 with MIDI Machine Control codes or FEX (Fostex System Exclusive) messages. The MIDI connectors also enable syncing up to three D-80s for 24-track operation.

Behind the control panel is access to the D-80's removable hard disk. The unit comes standard with an 850 meg disk which delivers about eighteen minutes of recording on all eight tracks or about 160 track minutes. Many larger drives are compatible with the D-80. The sampling rate is fixed at 44.1kHz, and the D-80 uses no data compression. So you get very clean digital recording. However, 32kHz sampling would have been nice for broadcast production to save disk space.

The removable front panel is well laid out and simple enough to use that one can begin recording without a glance at the manual. Using the editing functions does require a little reading time, but it doesn't take long at all to get up to speed on the unit. The large display features bargraph meters for each track, a time display (Absolute Time, MIDI Time Code, or Bar/Beat/Clock), and a Program indicator. Below the display are the eight track select buttons used to arm tracks and select tracks for editing. To record on track 1, just press the button for that track and set levels. (There are no level controls on the D-80. Record levels are set at the source. Playback levels are handled externally as well.) Amber colored indicators flash in the display to show which tracks are armed. Press PLAY and RECORD to begin recording. It's that simple. Don't like the take? Press the UNDO key. Change your mind? Press the REDO key. The Undo and Redo work on the editing functions, too. There's one level of Undo/Redo.

The D-80's most used functions appear on the front panel. Press the AUTO PLAY/AUTO RETURN button to enable automatic return and playback from user preset playback and return points. Set punch in/out points and press AUTO PUNCH for automatic punch in/out recording complete with Rehearsal mode. Several of the keys double as locate points. Set points on the fly by pressing the HOLD/> key. This "holds" the current time in memory. Press the STORE key then the CLIPBOARD IN key, for example, to store the time in that location. Locating to that point then is a matter of pressing the CLIPBOARD IN key and the LOCATE key. The CLIPBOARD OUT and the AUTO PUNCH START, IN, OUT, and END keys can also be used as locate points.

The D-80 offers edit functions that utilize an audio clipboard. To copy audio from one place to another requires using two functions. First mark the in and out points of the area to copy using the CLIPBOARD IN and OUT keys. Then press the COPY key to copy that audio to the clipboard. Locate to the destination point and store that location in the AUTO PUNCH IN key, select the destination track, then press the PASTE key to paste the audio at the new location. The audio overwrites any audio at the destination point and does not move existing audio "down the track."

Press the MOVE key instead of COPY to remove the audio from the source track and place it on the clipboard. You can audition audio in the clipboard at any time by pressing STOP and PLAY together. When performing the Move function, the audio does not get removed from the source track until the Paste function is used. When pasting, the display prompts you to tell it how many repeats to perform on the paste. This is especially helpful for musicians but also enables doing some loops to extend music beds or to stutter a voice track. Both of these functions are not instant. The system takes a significant amount of time to write the new file (for Undo and Redo functions most likely) depending upon the amount of audio involved. Moving a segment of two or three seconds in length takes maybe five seconds after the EXECUTE key is pressed. That's not necessarily a long time, but I moved a thirty-second segment and this took nearly sixty seconds!

The Erase function creates "silence" in a specified area on selected tracks. You can erase data on up to seven tracks at once. If you set all tracks to be erased, the D-80 performs the Cut function which deletes all audio on all tracks from the set In point all the way to the end of ABS time, disregarding any Out point you may have set. Use the Cut function to reclaim disk space by resetting the project's end point, deleting unwanted audio that may be further down the tracks.

This is the extent of the D-80's editing functions, and in comparison to most DAWs out there, these functions are very limited. At first, I thought the Cut function was going to be the standard "cut and splice" function where you mark two points, perform the Cut, and have the two points brought together. Wrong. To perform an edit like this, you basically have to use the Move and Paste function. For example, let's say a track has the following on it: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8." You want to cut out the "4" so it says, "1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8." You would need to mark an In point at the beginning of the "5" and an Out point after the "8" and Move that section to the clipboard and Paste it on top of the "4." As mentioned, this takes a long time and makes this kind of editing impractical on the D-80.

I was very pleased with the way the jog/shuttle wheel functioned. For scrubbing audio, the D-80 loops a short segment of audio much like using the search function on a pro model CD player. The unit is very responsive, and locating edit points is smooth and accurate, almost as good as RAM based scrubbing. The outer wheel shuttles playback forward and backward at fast speed with audio, and the inner wheel automatically engages the jog mode when turned. There's no JOG button to press before using...nice. The jog/shuttle wheels are also used to input data when the display is in the data edit mode or in Setup mode. When the time display is in ABS time mode, there are 25 frames per second and 100 sub-frames making it possible to locate to 1/2500th of a second.

The D-80 has five "virtual reels" or Programs as they are referred to. This means you can store only five projects per drive. This is limiting in radio production because you can create five projects in one hour on a busy day. Having to back up to DAT every time you needed to open a sixth project could be very time consuming. But for musicians, this is probably plenty of "reels." You could switch hard drives every time you needed new "reels" but this could be costly with drives still a couple of hundred bucks each and more.

The limited editing functions and limited Program storage may be major drawbacks to the D-80 in radio production, but it certainly doesn't rule the D-80 out of radio production. For someone who wants to make the big step from analog multitrack to digital, the D-80 makes the transition very smooth by acting much like its analog ancestor. Remove the editing functions altogether, and for the money, this is still a pretty nice digital recorder. It has eight inputs and eight outputs, something you don't find on a lot of digital multitracks. This gives you the ability to bring the audio to your mixer for quick and simple addition of EQ, effects, etc.. The D-80 is certainly worth considering if you're thinking about getting a tape-based digital multitrack where cut and paste editing is impossible anyway. And it surely has a place in the home studio. You get high quality, 44.1kHz recording in an easy to use and inexpensive box from a company that has done a tremendous job of catering to recording professionals.

If you're looking for digital recording with high-speed editing, you might want to look elsewhere. But if you're looking for high quality digital multitrack recording and a wonderful price, check out the D-80. If your station has several people producing, a box like the D-80 can bring the friendliness of analog multitracks to the studio very inexpensively. It's ideal for jocks who want a multitrack but don't need fast editing functions, and who don't want to deal with a long learning curve. It's ideal for those quick projects that require basic multitracking without all the extras. This would be a good machine to put in a studio where copy is put into donut jingles. Put the jingle on tracks 1 and 2, and up to six VO tracks on the other tracks. And again, the detachable control panel is a major plus where space is limited. Again, the trick is to determine what you need, then see if the D-80 fits the bill.

Specs on the D-80 include 16-bit linear recording with 16-bit A/D and D/A converters with 62x oversampling. The edit crossfade time is 10ms, frequency response 20-20kHz, and dynamic range >92dB.

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