Fostex DV40 DVD-RAM Multitrack Recorder

What a lucky recording engineer I've been this summer! Courtesy of Pro Audio Review I evaluated two of the three hippest standalone digital recorders currently available, right here at my studio - the TASCAM DS-D98 and now the Fostex DV40.
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What a lucky recording engineer I've been this summer! Courtesy of Pro Audio Review I evaluated two of the three hippest standalone digital recorders currently available, right here at my studio - the TASCAM DS-D98 and now the Fostex DV40.
Product PointsApplications: Remote recording, studio master recording video, post production.

Key Features: DVD-RAM media; one, two, and four-track recording/playback at standard sample rates; stereo recording or playback at sample rates up to 192 kHz; extensive time-code and synchronization facilities; PS/2 keyboard control; "tape-like" or standard "computer-type" recording.

Price: $6,000

Contact: Fostex at 562-921-1112, Web Site

DV40 Update

As of press time, Fostex promised an optional six-channel read-capability upgrade for the DV40. Though the DV40 itself only records to four channels the retrofit is designed to work with the upcoming PD-6 six-channel portable DVD-RAM recorder to be introduced by Fostex by year's end.
Features

The Fostex DV40 looks like an expensive heavy-duty professional DAT machine, but instead records to 4.7GB single-sided DVD-RAM media. But this is no ordinary DAT replacement. It can record four tracks at 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz, and two tracks at 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz or 192 kHz, and can even record a single track at a time at any of its supported sample rates. Try that on your DAT recorder!

Its front panel contains a huge assortment of 40 small pushbuttons (plus seven slightly larger ones for standard "transport" functions), five toggle switches, nine knobs of various sizes, a large jog/shuttle wheel, bright 4-inch fluorescent display, as well as headphone, keyboard, mouse jacks, CD drawer, and power switch! The rear panel sports a large assortment of XLR, 1/4-inch, BNC and GPI connectors, as well as DB15 and DB9, RJ45,and IEC jacks and a couple of tiny toggle switches for 75-ohm termination.

One can input and output up to four balanced or unbalanced analog tracks, four channels of digital I/O and time code in/out/thru via XLRs, video I/O and work clock in/out through via BNCs, as well as the aforementioned GPI and Sony nine-pin machine control connectors. There's even an expansion slot for some undisclosed future purpose, and the manual claims one can install a 2.5-inch hard disk inside.

The DV40 formats its disks in the UDF "R.1.50" format. It can read disks formatted in either the "R1.50" or "R2.0" formats using a personal computer without difficulty. However, Mac OS 9x supports only R1.50, while Windows 98 machines support both types. A word to the wise should be sufficient in order to ensure maximum interoperability amongst DAWs and the DV40.

By the way, the manual has a nifty chart (on page 2-12) seemingly indicating how many tracks one can do in the various recording modes and sample rates. It appears to claim that recording is not possible at 192 kHz - only playback, and I believed it, until I was informed otherwise. Silly me; recording at 192 kHz is definitely possible, as you'll see later on in this article.

In Use

The operation manual is at least as complex as the layout of the front panel, and I will not even begin to describe the various permutations of things I eventually learned that this recorder can do. It took me several readings of the manual to become confident in the DV40's operational features, but I eventually clawed my way sufficiently up the learning curve to attempt to make a recording.

In a nutshell, here's what I did. I first formatted a 4.7GB single-sided DVD-RAM disk (it will read but not guarantee proper recording operation with the 2.3GB variety), and then set up the DV40 for the first of its two different recording modes. In the standard (computer-like) one, the user simply presses record and stop (in addition, of course, to naming takes and storing them in the proper directory); up to 200 takes can be recorded in this mode, and the recordings can be made sequentially or done in "insert mode"-which, itself, can be programmed as either replace or append.

Once I had formatted the media and properly set up all the requisite parameters, recording was actually pretty simple: I just pressed the "new file" and red record buttons, and the DV40 started recording. If you're used to frequently adjusting the setup parameters on, say, a DA-78HR or even an Alesis MasterLink, you'll feel right at home on the DV40, but if your idea of recording is to simply pressing the record and play buttons on a cassette or DAT machine, you may find this recorder a bit too forbidding to operate. And everyone needs to read the manual!

The DV40's "tape mode" is the more interesting mode of the two, as it is not available on any DAW to my knowledge. That is to say, once I had appropriately set the recorder up in this mode, the Fostex created two 2GB "soundfiles" (with no audio content in them yet), and I was then able to press the record and stop buttons to my heart's content until the first 2 GB limit was reached, as I was basically in "insert/append" mode in relation to that single sound file. Then, if I had so desired, I could have moved on to the second sound file, and done the same thing. The chief "plus" of recording in tape mode is that, if power is lost during recording into one of these sound files, after rebooting the machine, the user will be gratified to notice that all audio recorded up to the point of power failure is still there! Good job, Fostex!

Operational features are limited in tape mode, but it sure would come in handy if I were still recording classical concerts as I did in the late sixties and early seventies. The other 0.7GB of space on the DVD-RAM cartridge not reserved for these two sound files can be used in "normal" mode and, since I did not need the second sound file for my initial test recordings, I deleted it, and then had 2.7GB of space available for recordings in normal mode. Later on during my tests, I copied data from a 2 GB sound file (done in "tape mode") to the second partition (formatted for "normal mode"), trashed the original sound file, defragmented and optimized the media, and subsequently recovered just about all that space on the DVD-RAM disk, ready to use for further recording. Cool!

Speaking of copying, the DV40 possesses the usual cut, copy, and paste editing facilities (coupled with insert and append features) one would expect in a DAW-like recorder. Furthermore, takes can be renamed, moved around, and exported to computer DAWs; I quickly learned that this task was made much easier when I plugged the PS/2 keyboard usually attached to my Merging Technologies Pyramix DAW into the appropriate port on the front panel of the DV40.

The exporting of files to DAWs such as Pyramix or Pro Tools is greatly facilitated by the DV40s networking capabilities. Working as an FTP server, it can send and receive BWF and SDII files to and from a client computer using TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). When sending and receiving data, a FTP client application is required.

Listening to recordings made on the DV40 was almost an anticlimactic experience after climbing up that learning curve. But when I was finally able to play them back, the recorded sound was exemplary. Fostex's converters sound very smooth and - as I expected - better (airier and more "relaxed") at 96 kHz than at 44.1 kHz. And at 192 kHz, they were better still. It's analog output sounds very beefy, and drives long cables well. I made mixes of an multitrack/44.1 kHz recording of the Sonya Kitchell Band I had made at a local club (from analog - via the eight channel DAC board present in my Apogee Trak2, feeding a Crane Song Spider mixer), and output the Spider's digital stereo bus at 88.2 kHz (bit split via an Apogee PSX-100) to a TASCAM DA 88; I simultaneously sent its analog "monitor" output to the DV40, set to record at 192 kHz. The latter sounded clearer; there is now no question in my mind that a good 192 kHz converter will sound better than a good 96 kHz converter, all other things being equal!

Careful reading of the manual (and its thirty five page "Version V1.2 Supplement") gave many tantalizing hints about future developments for this machine. For example, between V. 1.0 and 1.2, serious improvements were made to its FTP facilities, ALE (Avid Log Exchange) file list and, audio CD playback functions. One can now playback audio CDs with complete synchronization in both directions, and treat them just like a computer hard disk audio file (or Fostex DVD-RAM disk) with regards to editing specificity and frame by frame playback. The DV40's built-in timecode generator now even includes the new 23.9 FPS HD camera mode. Legacy FAT16 disks can now be handled, 4 POP tone was added to the slate menu, and extra functionality was given to the keyboard interface (although mice are still not supported).

A single line at the very end of the main manual (on page 17-4) mentions that a 2.5-inch hard disk can also be installed as an option, but nowhere else in the manual is anything else having to do with hard disk recording referred to. If one can actually put a 60GB laptop-type drive inside the DV40 - and record to and playback from it just like the 4.7GB DVD-RAM medium - then it would seem to me than many other avenues would open up for this recorder. Since I characteristically make at least half a dozen mixes of each tune, I would love to be able to record all of them at 192 kHz to such an internal hard disk, and then copy and paste the ones finally chosen for an entire CD project onto the DVD-RAM disk. Perhaps this is yet another feature undocumented in the manual; and if it is, in fact, not yet implemented, I am fully confident that it will be only a matter of time before it appears in a subsequent OS upgrade.

Summary

Although the DV40 performs exactly as advertised - and would be a godsend for particular types of live recording situations, as well as for high sample rate stereo mastering - its rather complex operational scheme precludes its ability to replace tape and DAT in many audio scenarios. Pity, because it has an extensive feature set and sounds really good!