Value outshines quirks in Fostex's latest multitracker.
When Fostex made the leap from cassette-based multitracks to digital audio recorders, it didn't forget the legions of songwriters and other musicians with big dreams but limited budgets. The company's previous models often emphasized low cost and flexibility over bells and whistles, and this approach is clearly evident with Fostex's newest offering, the VF-16 digital multitracker. With two rows of 60 mm faders, two built-in effects processors, a 5.1 GB internal hard drive, a SCSI interface, variable pitch control, a jog/shuttle wheel, and a modest $1,499 price tag, the VF-16 will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows (see Fig. 1).
The VF-16 provides 16 tracks of uncompressed digital audio along with 8 "virtual" tracks for a total of 24 tracks per project. (The virtual tracks serve mainly as holding places for alternate takes.) With many digital multitrack recorders, you can easily swap virtual tracks and primary tracks, which makes cutting, copying, and rearranging data simple. The VF-16's implementation of this feature is a bit different. Its virtual tracks (17-24) are swappable with primary tracks (1-16) by means of the Track Exchange command, but you can't edit or hear a virtual track until you exchange it with a primary track. That limitation makes the editing process more awkward than it could be. With a little care and planning, however, you shouldn't have much trouble.
The VF-16 uses a 20-bit A/D converter and a 24-bit D/A converter, but the output is limited to 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio. To store its digital information, the VF-16 uses Fostex's proprietary FDMS-3 format, which increases hard drive efficiency by optimizing data on the fly. Recorder status, mixer status, waveforms, menus, and various other functions are displayed on a backlit, 64 5 128-pixel LCD screen. Some of the top-panel buttons illuminate or flash to let you know what mode you're in, and the large jog/shuttle wheel is a big help when editing.
INS AND OUTSYou can record up to 8 tracks at once using the 8 analog inputs, or record 16 tracks at once using the onboard ADAT Lightpipe interface in addition to the eight analog inputs (see Fig. 2). Two of the eight unbalanced input jacks are doubled by balanced, phantom-powered XLR jacks. These channels also include a TRS insert jack for adding an outboard device like a compressor/limiter. The phantom power is turned on from the Setup menu, but the VF-16 doesn't retain the setting when you shut down. Each analog input channel includes a Mic/Line trim pot and an LED clipping indicator. I used my Rode NT-1 to test the VF-16, and I found the mic preamps to be detailed and transparent, although a bit quirky in their gain stages. I noticed a smooth, gradual gain rise from line level to about the four o'clock position. (The pots are calibrated with dots rather than numbers.) From four to five o'clock, however, very slight adjustments made big gain differences.
Although the mixer is flexible in other areas, its primary shortcomings are its lack of auxiliary returns and the inability of the line inputs to function as aux inputs at mixdown. That means if you're bringing in signals from external effects or MIDI gear, you'll need to sacrifice mixer channels. Submixing your outboard gear to a stereo pair still leaves 14 channels, but with the recorder's two aux sends per channel and full MIDI sync features, the lack of aux returns and inputs is puzzling. Another bit of inconvenience is that the onboard Metronome click is automatically routed to track 16. If you have anything on that track, you have to move it, deselect it, or do without it.
Two recording modes govern your tracking: Direct and Bus. In Direct mode the signal bypasses the mixer and is routed through the trim pot directly to the recorder on the corresponding track. You can use Direct mode to record through eight inputs simultaneously. Bus mode offers greater flexibility by letting you send any input through the mixer to any track. With Bus mode you can record multiple inputs to two tracks, and you can bounce tracks. The VF-16 manual suggests that Direct mode results in better recording quality because the signal doesn't pass through the mixer section. Technically speaking, that may be true, but I couldn't hear any difference. If your hearing is especially acute, you can always do your tracking in Direct mode and use the Track Exchange function to send your recording to whichever track suits you.
Generally, getting from input to recorded track was pretty straightforward, but some operations were less intuitive than they could have been. For instance, Input Source is not the same as Input Select. You must activate both and engage Record to hear your input. Additionally, you must turn up the fader to monitor a recording track. Logic and previous experience would suggest that's a sure way to get feedback. This could be a source of frustration for beginners who will no doubt be drawn to this unit because of its affordability. Help is available, however, in the form of two thoughtfully prepared Quick Start guides (in PDF format), downloadable from the Fostex Web site. They turn the somewhat daunting language of the owner's manual into an easy-to-understand walk-through of Direct and Bus recording options.
Like most similar devices, the VF-16 generates sync signals. MIDI Clock (bars/beats) and MIDI Time Code (MTC) are both supported, and in my road test with Emagic's Logic Audio, both methods worked flawlessly. You can assign a tempo and time signature when using MIDI Clock/Song Position Pointer, and you can set a global preroll time before a locate point. MIDI Time Code options include an offset and a frame-rate selection. The VF-16 can also act as a slave to an external MTC signal.
MIXING TOOLSA 3-band EQ (parametric High and Mid with shelving Low) is available for each input. High, Mid, and Low settings are graphically represented on the LCD screen, and each band has its own button for speedy access to its parameters. Unfortunately, you can control the frequency and Q setting (the width of your EQ curve) only for the High and Mid sections. The Low section simply provides gain boost or cut. Because proper low-end control can really make or BREAK a mix, it seems a shame there isn't more flexibility in this section. A built-in stereo compressor (with control over threshold, ratio, attack, and gain) is assignable to tracks 13 and 14 or 15 and 16, but only with the EQ turned off. You can, however, combine the EQ with a second stereo compressor dedicated to the Master output.
The VF-16 has two independent built-in processors; each channel has two internal effects sends along with the two aux sends. The first processor provides a bank of 28 reverbs along with a few delay/reverb combos. The assortment of halls, auditoriums, plates, rooms, and other reverb types employs a new Fostex technology dubbed Advanced Signal Processing. The company claims that this feature significantly improves processing efficiency and provides greater detail for early reflections. After using the VF-16, I have to admit that the reverbs sound lush and natural with smooth decays and plenty of presence.
The second effects processor provides the same 28 reverbs, along with ten extra effects: delays (including tempo delays), chorus, flange, and pitch shift. Though the number of effects isn't huge, the VF-16 covers the most-used categories, and each effect has a full array of editable parameters. Unfortunately, no storage space is provided for saving your customized variations. As I mentioned earlier, the aux sends are a nice touch, but their potential use is hampered by the mixer's return limitations.
One great advantage of using a digital mixer is that you can store snapshots or "scenes" that recall a particular configuration. The VF-16 provides this feature and a lot more. All level, pan, and effects settings can be saved along with a title to any of 100 Scene Memories. These scenes can be recalled directly with the push of a button, or automatically during playback as part of a scene Event Map. It's not quite the same as "flying faders," but you can automate changes for a hands-free mixdown.
The procedure is easy. First, you define a separate scene for each change you wish to make. Then you create a scene Event Map by entering locations (with the jog/shuttle wheel) to show where the changes are to occur. The Event Map sequences are editable too, in case you want to hear your mix another way. This is an impressive feature considering the modest price of this unit.
SLICE AND DICEVF-16 users can section off areas of a track for editing and manipulation by using one of seven Memory buttons. The standard Cut, Copy, Paste, Erase, and Move commands are provided, along with a Clipboard to which the audio is sent before it's pasted or moved. With a couple of clicks, you can hear just the portion you're about to send somewhere (or obliterate), which is a handy double-check feature for editors with itchy trigger fingers.
The Memory buttons also let you mark sections to punch in, repeat, or automatically return to, and by pressing the Shift button, you can set seven regular marker points to quickly tag any place in your song. Because the seven keys serve double duty, some extra button pushing is involved. Pushing a Memory button doesn't simply take you to a location; you must hit Locate, too. Moreover, the Locate buttons aren't lit like some others, so you can't tell at a glance if you have points set. An Event Memories display lets you view and edit all your locate points, however. You can also locate precise audio points with the Scrub feature, which includes a waveform display and audio feedback.
Editing is generally easy and flexible, although you get only one level of Undo. This saves Event memory and increases efficiency, but you'd better like your edit before you hit Record again, because you can't go back.
The VF-16's owner's manual has a few shortcomings. Aside from its lack of an index, the 121-page manual, translated from Japanese, has some serious readability problems. Fostex claims that it's working to improve the instructions, but I have no idea what this ominous warning means: "In the case whereby data registered in the Clipboard is the actual sound point and head of the measure is behind this, then even though you attempted to paste this head of the measure in alignment with this previously head, it will be pasted off alignment by this procedure due to the Clipboard In=Align Sel function."
BACKUP PLANChanging clients as often as I do, I can't let a hard drive's contents pile up for long. The VF-16 comes standard with a SCSI interface and can back up files using optical S/PDIF (switchable to ADAT). Unless you have an ADAT Optical-equipped audio card for your computer, the SCSI option is the best way to go. The S/PDIF approach basically dumps two tracks at a time into your digital recorder in real time. That means waiting eight times as long as your song if you've recorded all 16 tracks. The SCSI hard disk route lets the VF-16 send all the data at once to disk if you initialize your media with Fostex's proprietary format. You can also save songs to a DOS-formatted drive as WAV files. This method is handy because it lets you easily manipulate your sound files in an audio editing program. It also lets you save all scene settings and offers the option of saving all or only certain tracks (including virtual tracks).
For speed and convenience, many users will choose to archive their VF-16 recordings with a high-capacity removable-storage device like an Iomega Jaz or Panasonic DVD-RAM drive. But if you have an Iomega Zip drive, the VF-16 can also save to multiple disks. Though not as convenient as dumping everything to a single hard drive, the lower cost of Zip disks and the huge installed base of Zip drives makes this an attractive alternative.
If your studio has optical and coax digital connectors, you'll want to check out Fostex's COP-1 coaxial/optical converter box ($94). I used it to get the VF-16's signal to my sound card's coax inputs and vice versa. Digital output from my Mac's audio card and from my Johnson Amplification's J-Station guitar modeling preamp flowed effortlessly into the VF-16. You can route digital input to any two tracks using the Setup menu.
To expand your recording capacity, Fostex has made the internal EIDE hard drive easily swappable with larger-capacity drives. Although the company doesn't officially recommend taking on the job yourself (it voids the warranty unless Fostex makes the swap), the manual offers an illustrated step-by-step guide to replacing the hard drive.
FINAL TAKEI used the VF-16 during the review period for on-location recordings, studio tracking, and audio transfers between the recorder and my Mac. It performed well in these settings and ought to make a worthwhile investment for bands, songwriters, or project-studio owners.
Fostex has done an admirable job of capturing the middle ground in the digital-multitrack arena by offering an attractive balance between price and power. With a little shopping, you could add a removable storage drive and an outboard multi-effects unit and still keep the price tag around $2,000.
On the flip side, the VF-16 could stand a software overhaul to make it more flexible and user friendly. According to a company spokesperson, an update may soon be available through Fostex in the form of a flash ROM upgrade through the SCSI port. Even in its current state, though, the VF-16 offers a lot of recording power at a very reasonable price.