Fostex DVD824 DVD-RAM Recorder

Say what? A $7,500 multitrack digital recorder which tops out at eight tracks at the lower sample rates and only four at the higher ones — and with only a 40GB hard drive available only as an option? Is that a misprint? No, gentle readers, this machine is not meant to compete with the considerably lower priced TASCAMs, Mackies and Alesises — not to mention Fostex's own 24-track hard disk recorders.
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Fast FactsApplications: Studio, post production, broadcast, field.

Key Features: DVD-RAM media; up to 8-track simultaneous recording at 24-bit/48kHz; up to four-track simultaneous recording at 24-bit/96kHz; optional timecode/sync (Model 8348) card permits both internally-generated and external timecode; optional 40GB hard drive (Model 9057) permits dual disk recording as well as auto backup functions; optional IEEE1394/USB 2.0 card (Model 8370) permits fast data transfer to/from PC/Mac.

Price: $7,495 (includes "option" cards)

Contact: Fostex at 310-329-2960, www.fostex.com.

Plus

+ Timecode

+ Reliable file recording

+ BWF file format and UDF disk format

+ Flexible programmable playback function

+ Runs cool

Minus

- Track count and recording times insufficient for multitrack live recording at high sample rates

- Lack of "split files" results in extremely large multitrack files

- Learning curve

The Score

If your pro audio uses for a digital recorder include any of the applications listed above, you should consider this device. It's in a class by itself. Say what? A $7,500 multitrack digital recorder which tops out at eight tracks at the lower sample rates and only four at the higher ones — and with only a 40GB hard drive available only as an option? Is that a misprint? No, gentle readers, this machine is not meant to compete with the considerably lower priced TASCAMs, Mackies and Alesises — not to mention Fostex's own 24-track hard disk recorders. Nor is it aimed at precisely the same market as the high end Genex 9000 and 9500 machines. It's really designed specifically for the film, TV and post industries, and in those applications, it's pretty awesome.

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Consider the concept of "magless dailies." On the film lot, by using a DVD824 as master audio recorder running off a battery on the sound recordist's cart, the day's audio can be loaded directly from its DVD-RAM disc into a nonlinear editor — complete with all auto-generated scene, take, reel info in just a couple of minutes for each hour of audio. After syncing to picture, an export to another DVD-RAM disc produces the "daily disc." The editor gets all his labeling done for him by the acquisition machine, along with a guide audio track; the production team is able to watch rushes in original digital audio; and most importantly, the whole operation saves tens of thousands of dollars (1) by not having to use (and store) expensive mag stock, and (2) by saving hours from the post process. Try to do that with a $2,000 "music store" hard disk recorder!

Luckily, my review unit had been maxed out with all the option cards, so I was able to test all its numerous functions.

Features

Okay, let's run down the most obvious features of the Fostex DVD824. First of all, it records primarily to 4.7 GB DVD-RAM media. I also had a box of 9.4 GB double-sided discs on hand (for use in my Panasonic DMR-E500H DVR) but, of course, I had to turn them over in order to record on both sides. The internal (2.5-inch laptop sized) hard disk is formatted as eight "pseudo-DVD-RAM" partitions, in order to facilitate copying back and forth between the two media. This, of course, is a double-edged sword, for it also limits total recording length. Nonetheless, it's amazingly cool to be able to record simultaneously to the hard disk and a DVD-RAM disk at the same time; for this to happen, one has to format the hard disk specifically for this function. Thus, the Fostex DVD824's hard disk is not designed for long-term storage of files; it's really only for backup and duplication of the DVD-RAM media and would, under normal operation, be wiped and/or reformatted each day.

And if your computer is anything like mine, make sure you set the DVD824's preferences so that it doesn't make files larger than 2GB (which is the standard BWAV file spec). Fostex allows you to go up to 4GB, but I didn't have a single computer in the studio that could deal with high sample rate multitrack files much over 1.7GB. At 88.2 kHz, four tracks use up that amount of space in less than 20 minutes! I wish that Fostex had implemented the BWF spec in the same way that the Sound Devices recorders do; those enable the user to choose to make a series of smaller split multitrack files (like Pro Tools) rather than imbedding them all together. Merging Technologies' Pyramix high-end DAW software also allows one to choose between split and "merged" multitrack files. Fostex doesn't.

The DVD824's timecode features are more elaborate than any I've ever experienced. With the Timecode/Sync (Model 8348) card installed, one can have either both internally-generated and external timecode (via XLRs) with 1ppm accuracy and elegantly implement sync with film and video machines into the recording process. An LTC offset can also be set independently for each file. Fostex even includes a DB9 bi-phase input connector for synchronization to film projectors.

Physically, the DVD824 is a reasonably light (12 pounds) and cool-running double rack space size unit. It's interesting that the similarly-sized TASCAM DV-RA1000 — reviewed here two months ago — takes only a single DVD-RW disc inside, yet requires a four rackspace case in order to ensure proper ventilation for its extremely hot chassis. The Fostex has a hard disk and a DVD-RAM mechanism inside, yet it ran cool as a cucumber.

The front panel comprises a left section with a slide-out tray for the DVD-RAM media, power switch, USB connector, and two knobs and headphone jack which control the elaborate analog monitoring possibilities — mono, stereo mix, or any pair of tracks can be monitored. The center section contains the same bright orange LCD display used in many Fostex products, including my trusty little VM88 digital mixer. To the left of that are eight, 18-segment level meters. Underneath the LCD section are six large square pushbuttons for transport control. The right side of the panel houses sixteen smaller square pushbuttons for accessing various menu items, and a large pseudo "click-wheel" which is kind of like a jog wheel with a protruding pushbutton in the center.

The rear panel's facilities are equally impressive: sixteen XLRs for analog I/O, a DB25 connector for AES/EBU digital I/O (following the Yamaha, Apogee, Fostex pinout protocol). Next are a pair of word clock BNCs, an Ethernet port, connectors for a parallel remote, P2ES buss I/O (RS-422A, for connection for connection with video editors), a couple of termination switches, and a four-pin XLR male jack with which to connect the supplied AC "line lump" or an appropriately configured pro video battery supply. The timecode option adds XLRs and that bi-phase DB connector; in my unit they were just part of the rear panel (as opposed to a slot with a card in it), so I just figure that stock units are supplied with these three chassis holes filled in. The computer option adds a standard USB 2.0 "type B" port, and both six pin and four pin (camcorder type) FireWire 400 ports (IEEE 1394a).

In use, oddly, neither the USB nor the FireWire connections would transfer data for more than half a second into either my two Mac OSX (Panther and Tiger) systems without an error message, but they all worked fine with my "vintage" PowerMac 9600 (upgraded to 800 MHz G4 status) running Mac OS 9.1. So, as alleged "king of the work-arounds," I simply transferred the Fostex files first to the 9600 and, then via removable FireWire or USB flash drives, to the newer Macs.

In Use

When the unit was first turned on, it defaulted to the system setup screen, where I was able to set the date and time. Inserting a new DVD-RAM disk brought up the format screen. It takes about an hour and a half to do a "physical format" of each side of a new 4.7GB disk; subsequent quick formatting takes about a minute and a half. If one intends to mirror recordings between the internal hard drive and a DVD-RAM disk, you must first reformat the HD appropriately, and then format the disk.

I couldn't even count how many separate menus (and submenus) there are — but I've never seen a recorder with so many options. Space constraints here preclude listing them; if you're curious, just download the PDF manual from www.fostexdvd.net. Suffice it to say, that any naming or locating or manipulating or tracking function you've ever seen on any recorder are all here, somewhere, and a whole lot more! The same sort of "shift key" one sees on TASCAM DTRS recorders is present on the front panel; press it and you'll find a whole new universe of possible commands and adjustments. The "click wheel" permits relatively rapid location and execution of menu choices.

In one use, I digitally transferred four track 88.2 kHz material from a TASCAM DA-78HR to the Fostex, in sync via timecode from the TASCAM, but quickly became frustrated when I figured out I had to press stop every 20 minutes due to the quickly escalating file sizes. Nonetheless, as long as the files weren't too long, they would open up in Digital Performer, or Peak (for the stereo ones) — once I had gone through the work-around described earlier.

I recorded several audio events with the DVD824 as well as a stereo track recording with a TASCAM DV-RA1000 master recorder. Both sounded good with the internal converters set at 88.2 kHz, but the TASCAM sounded a more airy in its high res presentation, more like the top class converters I am used to. Of course, the TASCAM is a "master" class unit even at its $1,300 price, and you would expect top sound quality out of its 24-bit/192 kHz converters.

And just as I stated in my review of the Fostex DV40 several years ago, mastering the DVD824's menu structure has a certain learning curve associated with it. Once you've done something, you can much more easily do it again, but there are so many things you can tweak on this machine, that having the manual close at hand for a while is a must. And don't make the same mistake I did, and believe that, just because you think you know what "delete" means, you can get along without that manual. I lost an entire live concert because I tried to record it on two DVD-RAM media whose files I had "deleted." Ha! Fostex's "delete" is closer to putting the file into Apple's "trash can" or Microsoft's "recycle bin;" it simply turns an active file into a hidden file, so I got only the first minute or so of each half of the concert because the disk space wasn't available!

For me, the best feature of the unit was the reliability of its recording system. It's always writing file information, so even if you lose power, you still have your recording up to the point when the power failed. Try that on any other digital recorder!

Summary

The Fostex DVD824 is a truly unique machine, purpose-built for specific uses. For a sound recordist om a motion picture or TV set (or his post production buddies back in the studio), it will simplify life considerably and save hours of time and money. It's extremely well thought-out, very reliable and always performed as I expected (as long as I had read the manual enough to know what to expect.) It's not cheap, but it is good!