Self-contained ministudios are always about compromise. Features, I/O and components are all shaved and rearranged with an eye on the all-important price. Get it right and you’ve got a product that’s versatile, affordable and useful. Skimp too much on important areas and you end up with something that “slices and dices” but can ultimately be frustrating.
Product PointsApplications: Home studios; some live recording
Key Features: 44.1/16-bit uncompressed hard disk recording; SCSI port; digital mixer and built-in effects, editing and automation; optical digital I/O
Contact:Fostex at 562-921-1112; www.fostex.com.
+ Uncompressed CD-quality audio, clean sound
+ Compact package with nice look and feel
+ SCSI interface
– Poor manual
– Odd EQ implementation
The Score: Overall, a versatile, low-cost standalone multitracker for home or on the road.
That said, compromise is becoming less necessary for those in the market for a compact, inexpensive recording and mixing device. As someone who spent hours messing with cassette-based portable studios as a youngster, I can only imagine how much I would have drooled over the features and quality of today’s digital devices. Features like built-in effects and compression, automation, recall, archiving, rudimentary editing and MIDI control are all available at lower price-points than ever.
The VF-16 is no exception. The engineers at Fostex have squeezed all the above and more into a deceptively small package. The result is a multipurpose unit aimed squarely at jingle and songwriters, bands and small project studios.
The VF-16 ($1,399) is a digital multitrack recorder and mixer with six channels of 1/4-inch unbalanced inputs and two channels that offer both unbalanced 1/4-inch and XLR input, for a total of eight. These last two channels are also equipped with TRS (send and receive) 1/4-inch inserts and menu switchable phantom power. Each analog input features its own preamp with trim knob and peak light.
Digital inputs are optical, and they are switchable between S/PDIF (IEC 60958) and ADAT lightpipe. The lone aux send jack doubles as sends 1 and 2 (with send 1 as the tip and 2 as the sleeve). There are no returns.
As mentioned above, good design of these units depends on making artful tradeoffs, and Fostex has made some interesting choices in this department. While the numbers of analog inputs and outputs are limited (and, at ö10 dBV, are not compatible with most pro gear), the company has included only optical digital I/O, usually found on more pro-oriented equipment. This slightly bipolar trend continues as we move through the feature list.
Rounding out the I/O are MIDI in and out, and 1/4-inch jacks for monitor output, punch in/out and headphones. The lone analog master bus outputs are on RCA jacks. This means the only way to play your mixes is through unbalanced connectors or to a device with the optical digital interface. The Fostex does thoughtfully provide a 25-pin D-sub SCSI connector for backing up audio data to an external SCSI device. This feature allows the user to take the raw tracks in WAV.
Within the unit, recording takes place on an internal 3.5-inch EIDE hard drive. All audio data is saved as uncompressed 44.1/16-bit data in a Fostex proprietary format (FDMS-3). The unit can, however, transfer files to the external drive as either FDMS-3 or WAV. This is where this unit really makes a case as a professional device – good resolution uncompressed audio with the ability to offload data to standard media.
You can record and play back up to 16 tracks simultaneously, limited of course by the number and type of inputs. The included hard drive yields approximately 15 hours of mono track time. A/D is accomplished with a 20-bit, 64X oversampling DAC and then dithered to 44.1/16 bits. Once your audio is in the box, all operations take place in the digital domain.
The front panel has 16 channel faders and a master fader, standard tape deck controls, and a large jog/shuttle wheel that doubles as the main data entry device. Features are accessed via momentary buttons, all of which are lighted from the rear to indicate status – a nice touch. Better yet, the channel mute/select buttons change from orange to green to red and can flash to indicate various configurations.
The LCD screen is small, about 2 inches by 3 inches, and its default page has tiny meters for each track/channel and the output bus. With the press of a button, the screen switches to any of a myriad of menus to adjust parameters and view information.
On the signal processing end, there are two effects busses – the first with 28 reverb presets, and the second with the same reverbs plus additional effects such as delay, chorus, flange and pitch shift. Compression is included, but it can only be assigned to the master bus and to Channels 13 through 16, presumably for submixing/bus mastering. Each channel has its own pan and EQ controls. All these are accessed in standard digital board fashion by choosing the parameter, selecting the track and tweaking away.
In addition to the standard transport controls you can set up to seven locate points, although some of these do double duty as edit points. The scrub function allows you to view a waveform for a specific track and fine-tune a location with the wheel. Editing is by simple cut/copy and paste, with an option for repeated pasting to set up loops. Tracks are easy to reassign and, using the bus record, you can bounce tracks to submix or to run a final mix back onto open tracks. Fader levels and mutes can be saved as scenes, and scenes can be saved as events, for effective automation, although dynamic fades are a little tricky under this regime.
The VF-16 has a lot of features for syncing up with external MIDI gear and can either generate or slave to MTC as well as MMC. In addition to absolute time or MTC, the unit’s time base can also be set to bars/beats mode and there is a built-in metronome.
With all those features, just getting started might seem a little intimidating. Unfortunately, the manual appears to have been translated into English from another language, perhaps one not of terrestrial origin. Especially for a consumer unit like this, a more linear and less jargon-laden approach to getting started would be helpful. The learning curve is fairly steep; nearly all functions are accessed by navigating through menus, which are often confusing. (In the U.S., Fostex has addressed the manual deficiencies by releasing its own “Quick Start Training Guides”-Ed.)
Once you’re up-and-running though, the operation is speedy. If you’re used to tape-based recording, you will definitely not miss waiting for the tape to wind. Once learned, the procedure for assigning inputs to tracks is comprehensive.
The recorder excels as a scratchpad for songwriting or tracking. The built-in preamps were quiet and faithful, although the amount of headroom is a little low. Overall sound quality is very good, and there is more than enough storage space for most applications. In general, the unit is transparent and quiet.
EQ and effects are easy to manipulate, but the EQ section is where I first started to second-guess some of the tradeoffs made in the design of this unit. The EQ has a very informative display with a graphic response curve. Controls are for three bands – the high and mid controls are almost fully parametric, with controls for level, frequency and Q.
The low control is a HPF, with only a level control. The drop-off starts at 400 Hz, an extremely odd, and high, frequency choice. A low shelf is most often used for eliminating rumble and noise buildup across tracks, but this cutoff was too high to avoid getting into frequencies I wanted to keep.
Compounding the problem, neither of the other bands can be adjusted below 500 Hz, although both can be set all the way up to 20.2 kHz. How do you, for example, add a little 80 Hz to the kick drum? Apparently you don’t.
On the effects front, some of the reverb patches sounded great and others sounded cheap and digital. The magic adjustment (the “suck” knob if you will) turns out to be High Ratio control, essentially a high frequency damper. With this adjusted downward, some of the spaces sounded very realistic, and the NormVocal preset sounded positively dreamy. Other effects also sounded very good, especially the pitch transposition and delay. Keep in mind that all the effects are on busses, so a little creativity is required if you want to remove the direct signal. Luckily, each channel send can be toggled pre/post fader.
The editing functions are extremely handy, although, again, a bit confusing. To cut and paste you must find and assign markers to the clipboard in and out points, then find the insert point, set another marker, and then go through a couple steps to execute the edit.
The combination of the large jog wheel, wave display and audible cuing makes it possible to do some pretty tricky edits. Also, if you’ve been working on your song in bars/beats mode, you can quickly do some simple sampling and looping.
Automation is well implemented – simply a matter of setting up scenes and saving them, more or less on-the-fly. Fader and mute data are saved and recalled in real time, with up to 99 events per program. Which brings up the last of the inexplicable missing features. There is no solo button anywhere to be found, which makes auditioning EQ, effects or inputs very difficult. I find this and the odd EQ implementation puzzling. Being a digital mixer, these could be rectified with some programming. Perhaps Fostex will do so for the next software revision?
The VF-16 is an impressive tool for writing songs, tracking demos and even recording live shows. It sounds great, it’s very small and lightweight, and it lets you do some things that have only recently come within the reach of semipro gear.
Certain computer-based packages, such as the Digidesign Digi 001, are very competitive in terms of features and price, but as a standalone, the F-16 is a very useful tool. I would recommend it especially for songwriters, as it is inexpensive and simple enough to not interfere with the creative process, but flexible enough to be able to do some advanced work.
The clean operation and uncompressed audio are great too, since you always have the option of keeping tracks if you go into the studio to rerecord; we’ve all been in those situations where the demo had a certain feel that was hard to duplicate.
The compromises? Most of my real criticisms of this unit are things that would not cost too much to include. For example, the poorly adjustable EQ, no solo button and badly written manual. Some of these can be frustrating. I hope Fostex will address these in future versions of the product.
Although these issues make it less suitable for a studio-type environment, that’s not really what the recorder is for. It’s a solid musical scratchpad, and, if you need to be able to do something advanced, you probably can. The VF-16 is a worthy portable, all-in-one solution for songwriters and home recordists.