Test Drive: D-160 Digital Multitrack Recorder from Fostex

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fostex-d160

By Jerry Vigil

If you've been around for a while, you can remember when four tracks used to be plenty. Then they weren’t enough. And when they wheeled that 8-track in, you were in heaven. Now, the busy production pro is in need of even more--extra tracks for those updates and more tracks for those extra stations. Many workstations now offer additional "virtual" tracks, but you are still mixing eight channels. And many software driven systems tout "unlimited" tracks, as long as you have a hefty enough computer to handle the load. For the producer in need of more tracks, without compromise, Fostex has come to the rescue with their new D-160 Digital Multitrack Recorder ($3995), sixteen real tracks priced to fit anyone’s budget.

This fully self-contained unit takes up three rack spaces and comes with a detachable front panel which, with the optional 16-foot Remote Extension Cable ($50), brings all the controls of the D-160 to the desktop with a footprint approximately 14½ by 4½ inches. All that remains in the rack unit is the removable hard disk and the power on/off button. Not only is this a space-saver and convenient, but there are several ways to keep unwanted hands off your projects. For one, remove the disk and take it with you. There’s also a lock next to the disk that must be in the locked position to access the disk. A turn of the key disables access to the disk. Or, one could disable the entire unit by removing the front panel, a simple task of unplugging the cable and lifting the panel off the unit. The removable disk also means each producer can have his/her own disk to store projects. The D-160 accepts standard 3½-inch IDE hard disks, so additional disks are easy to obtain. The D-160 comes standard with a 2.55-gigabyte hard disk that provides about eight track hours of recording time (no compression schemes used) at 44.1kHz sampling. (The only other sampling frequency available is 48kHz.)

To the rear

The D-160 offers simultaneous recording and playback of up to sixteen tracks. There are eight unbalanced analog inputs and sixteen unbalanced outs on RCA connectors. Four optical connectors provide stereo S/PDIF I/O or sixteen tracks of ADAT digital I/O. Simultaneous 16-track recording is done by using the eight analog inputs and one of the digital inputs with the ADAT digital format selected (from the Setup menu). A SCSI port is next to the digital I/O, which can be used to connect the D-160 to external drives for additional storage space. The D-160 is compatible with several types of external drives including Iomega Zip and Jaz drives, SyQuest drives, and some MO and fixed disk drives. Only one SCSI device can be connected to the D-160, and this port is intended more for saving and loading projects. Real-time recording and playback are possible to an external SCSI device if it meets certain criteria, but Fostex does not guarantee perfect operation. Storage/backup is also possible to ADAT and DAT. Finally, MIDI IN, OUT, and THRU connectors wrap up the rear panel. The MIDI connections enable connecting several D-160s together to expand tracks. Synchronization with a sequencer is also possible. The D-160 can be controlled remotely via external MIDI Machine Control (MMC) and can output MIDI Time Code (MTC), MIDI clock signal, and MIDI Machine Control (MMC).


Front panel

Having full control of a 16-track digital recorder from a control panel smaller than a computer keyboard is quite amazing. The large FL display takes up most of the left side of the panel and offers sixteen 11-segment level meters with overload indicators. Above these is an easy to read 16-character display that shows the current tape time (ABS, MTC, or MIDI Bar/Beat), remaining time on the drive (in hours/minutes/seconds and megabytes), and program titles. It also provides prompts for user input during most functions. Indicators on the right side of the display show which time base is selected, what sampling frequency is selected, when digital lock is obtained, when certain functions are “Completed,” and more.

Below the display are eight Record Track keys and a Shift key. The Shift key switches control of the eight Record Track keys between tracks 1-8 and tracks 9-12. Below these are three LED indicators. The Locked LED lights when the D-160 is locked in the Slave Mode function. The HD Access LED lights when the unit is writing to or reading from the hard disk. The MTC In LED lights when MIDI Time Code is detected at the MIDI IN port.

The right half of the front panel contains the transport controls (Record, Stop, Play, Rewind, F.Fwd), the large concentric Jog/Shuttle wheel, and the various editing and function keys. The Auto Play/Auto Return key toggles between the automatic rewind and playback modes and has two LEDs to indicate which mode is active. When both LEDs are lit, the Auto Repeat mode is engaged. Start and End points for this function are set with the Auto Punch/Auto Rtn Start and End keys, which obviously share duties and set the in and out points for the Auto Punch function. Clipboard In and Out keys are used to mark edit points. The Copy, Move, Paste, and Erase keys are used to perform each of those editing functions. (More on editing in a moment.) The Undo and Redo keys offer one level of undo/redo when editing or recording. The Auto Punch key activates the auto punch-in/out mode, and Rehearsal and Take LEDs indicate when the D-160 is in the Rehearsal mode (automatic monitor switching) or actually recording a take. (Manual punch-in/out is available using a foot switch that plugs into the side of the front panel.)

Use the Locate key to move the transport quickly to a desired place in a project. The Clipboard In and Out keys and the Auto Punch/Auto Rtn Start, In, Out, and End keys all store locations. When one of these keys is pressed, followed by the Locate key, the D-160 locates to the point stored in that key. The Locate key then retains that location in its memory and locates to that point whenever it is pressed again, until a different point is located to using the Locate key. In effect, there are seven memory keys on the D-160 that can be used as autolocate keys counting the six mentioned above and the Locate key. Edit/locate points are stored by pressing the Store key then pressing the key you wish to store the current time to. The time in the display can be edited by pressing the Hold/Digit Move key. This key also freezes the current time in the display when the D-160 is in Play or Record modes to enable storing edit and locate points on the fly. Just press the Hold/Digit Move key followed by the Store key, then the key you want to store the point to. Pressing the Recall key followed by any of the seven keys mentioned above retrieves that locate point and enables editing of the location in the display using the Jog/Shuttle wheel. (Actually, just pressing any of the seven keys alone puts the unit in the time edit mode, with the exception of the Locate key. Pressing it actually locates to that point. Pressing Recall first enables editing the Locate key’s stored time without actually locating to that point first.) Simultaneously pressing the Stop and Rewind keys and Stop and F.Fwd keys locates to Absolute Zero and Absolute End respectively.

At the top right of the front panel, Execute/Yes and Exit/No keys perform the functions of a computer’s Enter and Escape keys and are used for executing editing functions, accepting parameter changes in the Setup mode, and canceling/exiting functions. The Display Select key toggles the display between the current time, the remaining time on the disk, and the Setup mode. Pressing the Display Select key together with the Execute/Yes key enables setting the time base for the current project (Absolute Time, Bar/Beat/Clock, or MIDI Time Code). The Vari Pitch key (±6%) wraps up the front panel tour.


Recording/Playback

One of the biggest advantages of the D-160 over its earlier cousin, the D-80 [January 1997 RAP Test Drive], is that the number of projects that could be stored on the drive was increased. The D-80 can only contain a maximum of five separate projects on the drive, although there might be plenty of disk space available. The D-160 can store 99 projects or programs, as they are referred to. Of course, whether 99 programs will fit on the drive depends on how long your average program is, but 99 is more than enough for the average radio production environment. If you have that many projects going, you’re too busy!

Starting a new program is a matter of entering the Program Change mode and scrolling past current programs to get to the “New Program?” prompt. Press the Execute/Yes key to continue. The D-160 then enters the Setup mode ready to accept the default name, “PGM12” e.g., or you can give the program a name up to sixteen characters long. When through, press the Exit/No key to exit the Setup mode and begin recording. Or, you may want to scroll through the other options in the Setup mode, since they might apply to your new program. Some available parameters include the sampling rate (44.1kHz or 48kHz), pre-roll time, and which tracks to send the digital input to, such as from a CD or DAT. (Musicians can also set time signatures and tempos, set the metronome on or off, and more.) Many parameters are saved with each program individually.

Once you’ve exited the Setup mode, you’re ready to record. Press the desired Record Track key(s). Flashing indicators on the display show which tracks are in the record ready mode. Press the Record key to enter input monitoring mode and set levels. Press Play and Record together to begin recording. When done, press Stop. The unit takes a second or two to complete the recording process and is again ready to record the next segment of your project. All sixteen level meters are always visible, so a glance at the display gives you an idea of what tracks your audio is on.

The sixteen tracks of the D-160 came in very handy for several projects. I found myself using ten tracks often, and twelve tracks a couple of times, and I’m sure if I had the unit long enough, some client would have requested a donut jingle with twenty scripts. In that case, even sixteen tracks wouldn’t be enough. But have no fear; the D-160 can handle it with its eight additional virtual tracks. Yes, although the D-160 doesn’t try to emulate a digital workstation, it has several of the features associated with those machines. The virtual tracks, tracks 17-24, cannot be mixed with the sixteen upon playback. Basically, they are storage tracks. Audio recorded to one of the sixteen tracks can be moved to one of these extra tracks, thus freeing up the original track. This Track Exchange, as it’s called, is done in the Setup mode where any single track from 1-16 can be swapped with one of tracks 17-24, or eight tracks can be swapped all at once (1-8 or 9-16 with 17-24). In this era of producing for multiple stations, these extra tracks could be handy.

Playback on the D-160 is as straightforward as you’d expect using the transport controls to move about a program. You can’t hear audio in the Rewind and F.Fwd modes unless you press Play first. Then, the unit skips through the audio, but at least you get an idea of where you are. I found myself looking at the time display to determine where Rewind and F.Fwd had taken me. The Jog/Shuttle wheel allows fast-forward and rewind with control of the speed, and I found this to be the better way of moving about a thirty or sixty-second project.

Loading programs is a quick process taking only a few seconds. To select a new program, enter the Program Change mode by pressing the Hold/Digit Move and Store buttons simultaneously. Scroll through the available programs, then press Execute/Yes, and the program loads quickly. Deleting programs is done from the Setup menu. Other useful functions in the Setup menu include the Rec. Protect function, which lets you prevent recording and editing to a program. This very nice feature protects projects from destructive accidents by forcing you to enter the Setup mode to turn the Rec. Protect function off. This setting is stored on the disk with each individual program.


Editing

Thinking back to the Test Drive on the D-80 last year, I recall that editing on the D-80 was limited and sluggish. While the D-160 still doesn’t offer a full array of editing capabilities, it is faster than the D-80, thanks probably to the speed of technology—faster and better drives and CPUs. The D-160 offers four editing functions: Copy, Move, Paste, and Erase. The Copy and Move functions use the clipboard to store the audio to be pasted with the Paste key. Pressing the Stop and Play keys together at any time plays the audio in the clipboard--a good way to check and make sure your clipboard audio is what you think it is. To copy, let’s say, a segment of tracks 1 and 2 to tracks 3 and 4, first select tracks 1 and 2 with the Record Track keys. Then use the Jog/Shuttle wheel to scrub the audio to find the in and out points. The Jog/Shuttle wheel is very responsive when scrubbing audio and makes it possible to mark exact edit points. When the in point is found, press Store then Clipboard In. Find the out point then press Store then Clipboard Out. Press the Copy key to copy the audio to the clipboard. Now, locate to the point on tracks 3 and 4 where you want to paste the audio. Press Store and Auto Punch/Rtn In to store the destination point. Deselect tracks 1 and 2 and select tracks 3 and 4 as the paste destination by pressing their Record Track keys. Then press the Paste key. You are given the option to select the number of repeats up to 99—a good way to loop beds and sound effects. Depending upon how much audio is involved in the Paste function, the process can take a few seconds, or it can take minutes. The D-160 is rewriting the file, and keeping an undo file as well. For most short editing tasks, such as moving a car horn sound effect or copying a sixty second voice track, the time spent writing the file is just a few seconds. But if you ask it to copy and paste sixteen tracks of a sixty-second commercial, the process takes about a minute. Ask for repeats, and it’s longer.

The Move function is much the same as the Copy function except that the audio at the source tracks is removed once the Paste function is performed. Audio further down the source tracks remains at its original location. The Erase function simply erases audio between two points on any or all tracks. It can also erase audio from any point to the Absolute End of the program. Or it can erase all audio within a program.

It may seem that the common Cut function is missing from the selection, the type of edit where audio between two points is removed and the two ends are spliced together. Actually, with just about any digital editing system, this is a combination of two or three functions rolled into one. On the D-160, rather than mark an area to be cut, you mark the area to move and paste it at what would normally be the start point of a typical cut/splice function. For example, to edit the phrase “big red dog” to just “big dog,” you would use the Move function on “dog” then use the Paste function at the start of “red.” Compared to other digital editors, this can take several more keystrokes on the D-160, but the function is there. Still, it would be nice to have a key that combines some of these editing steps into one.

Summary

The D-160 is a great replacement for your analog or digital tape-based multitrack recorder. (Of course, if you have an ADAT system, the D-160 is the perfect compliment, too, considering the synchronization and digital audio transfer capabilities.) The 8-input configuration requires at least a 4-buss console, and an 8-buss is ideal. Since radio production rarely requires recording more than two channels at the same time, it would be nice to see an option in the D-160’s Setup menu that shuts inputs 3-8 off, leaving only inputs 1 and 2 active and feeding all sixteen tracks in an odd/even configuration. This would allow installation on a console as small as 16x2, like Yamaha’s ProMix 01. But with 8-buss consoles as good and as inexpensive as they are, this is not a big issue.

 What I like a lot about a box like the D-160 is that it gets you back at the console for your mix, for your EQ, pans, and effects. Too many of the DAWs out there are trying very hard to do it all, with internal mixers, effects, etc.. Sometimes they fall short. The D-160 gives you the quality of digital and gives you sixteen tracks of it. Plug it into a good console with a decent selection of outboard effects, and you have a very powerful studio. And with the D-160’s removable disk format and SCSI port, storage space is unlimited. Because of the D-160’s limited editing capabilities, the ideal setup would be to have a software-based editing program like Sound Forge in the same room. Even multitrack programs such as SAWplus and Samplitude can inexpensively and effectively compliment the D-160 with their editing capabilities without forcing you to use their internal mixers and effects. Just do your intensive editing elsewhere, then dump it into the D-160.

There’s nothing difficult about the D-160. The learning curve is very short, and once you understand the basic editing steps, the manual will begin to collect dust. It may be difficult for some of you to believe, but there are still quite a few analog multitrack radio production rooms out there. For the price of a cart machine, or even less, a resourceful GM can unleash a ton of quality and provide a lot of creative room by replacing that old 4-track or 8-track with the D-160. And since it works like a tape-based recorder, everyone will be up and running on the unit within minutes.

If your console is balanced, don’t fret. The model D-160B is available with balanced I/O for about $500 more. Those into producing audio for video will want to check out the model D-160TC with the optional Timecode Function installed for $4890 complete. The D-160TCB gives you both for $5435.

Specs on the D-160 include a frequency response at 20Hz-20kHz. The crossfade time is 10ms. A/D converters are 18-bit delta sigma 64x oversampling, and the D/A converters are 20-bit delta sigma 128x oversampling. Quantization is 16-bit linear with sampling rates, as mentioned, at 44.1kHz and 48kHz.

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