Fostex VF160 Multitrack Recorder/Mixer

The VF160 ($899) is the only digital multitracker presently available anywhere near that price which can record 16 tracks simultaneously via the standard non-compressed 16-bit, 44.1 kHz digital audio format to hard disk, mix them down later to the same hard disk, and then burn a CD or CD-RW with the finished product. Some of its competitors can do some of these things, but none can do all of them, and certainly not for $899.
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I've owned digital mixers since my original Yamaha DMP7 in 1988, and digital multitrackers since the very first one - the Yamaha DMR8/DRU8 - set the standard for all to follow. It was huge, recorded up to 24 20-bit tracks onto three synched proprietary "S-DAT" tapes lasting only 20 minutes apiece, and cost nearly $75,000 in 1990! But then Alexis burst upon the scene a couple of years later with the ADAT recorder, and the Yamaha system became my first high-tech museum piece. Recently, the mating of computers doing digital audio with tape-based multitrackers created a new generation of hard disk-based all-in-one solutions for recording and editing music. The Fostex VF160 is one of the lowest-cost members of that family and, in my opinion, exhibits the incredible results of a successful set of compromise decisions aimed at keeping its price considerably below $1,000.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, location

Key Features: 16-channel mixer/recorder; internal 30GB IDE hard disk drive; CD-RW drive; 16-bit/44.1 kHz; scrub and zoom; EQ and DSP effects; mic preamps

Price: $899

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

Plus

+ 44.1 kHz/16-bit DAT/CD quality sound

+ Extensive analog and digital I/O capability

+ Very stable and flexible Fostex FDMS-3 disk management system

Minus

- Analog line input gain cannot be reduced sufficiently to input +4 dBm signals without clipping

The Score: Despite its diminutive size, this is no toy multitracker! It's fully capable of recording, editing, mixing and mastering high quality sound and is extremely flexible.
The VF160 ($899) is the only digital multitracker presently available anywhere near that price which can record 16 tracks simultaneously via the standard non-compressed 16-bit, 44.1 kHz digital audio format to hard disk, mix them down later to the same hard disk, and then burn a CD or CD-RW with the finished product. Some of its competitors can do some of these things, but none can do all of them, and certainly not for $899. I have no idea how Fostex accomplished this feat, but I do remember that a group of former Synclavier engineers from New England Digital joined Fostex a few years ago, with the stated goal of developing "affordable" digital audio products designed to a high standard. Well, if these geniuses were involved in the VF160, I'd say they've succeeded big time!

Features

In a box roughly 16 inches x 14 inches x 4 inches, Fostex has packed a computer with a proprietary operating system, a full-featured 16-channel digital mixer/recorder with extensive DSP, recording and editing functions - complete with eight channels of analog and eight channels of digital I/O, a 30GB Maxtor hard disk, a Plextor CD-R burner, and enough goes-ins and goes-outs to satisfy just about any sane engineer. Its high sound quality is due, in part, to its multiple 20-bit, 64X oversampling delta/sigma ADCs, 24-bit 28X oversampling DACs, and transparent analog electronics wrapped around them.

Most inputs and outputs are via 1/4-inch jacks on the back of the top panel, but there are also two XLRs with phantom power for fancy microphones; those two input channels have TRS insert jacks as well. The eight analog inputs can take anything from mic level to -10 dBV "consumer" line level, but even with their trim pots turned all the way down, overload when presented with +4 dBM "pro level" sound sources. There are monitor and headphone outputs with separate level controls up there, as well as a pair of RCAs for line level outputs on the rear panel. That panel also contains jacks for MIDI I/O, SCSI (for an external disk drive), footswitch, ADAT ODI digital I/O, and the standard IEC AC power connector.

The mixer section features 60mm faders and three-band EQ with parametric mid and high for all 16 channels, two pairs of compressors for master and stereo channel use, two independent multi-effect DSP blocks complete with an elaborate set of presets, extensive scene memory and event locate functions and - even more unusual in equipment of this sort - a zoomable waveform editing display for one track at a time. To access this, simply hit the "scrub" button when playback is stopped, and select the track you want to tweak. Instantly, a waveform appears, and you can use the jog wheel to scrub the audio forward and back as you listen. Simply amazing!

In Use

The VF160s operating system works in terms of "direct recording" and "BUSS recording," and the user learns how to route between the two sets of eight "input channels" and the 16 "record tracks." Direct recording allows one to record up to the full quantity of 16 record tracks simultaneously and, after doing that, one can still record another eight virtual tracks to the HD. Only 16 can be played back simultaneously, but extensive track bouncing, ping ponging, and track replacement features facilitate dealing with all of them.

With BUSS recording, one can record onto one or two tracks, but send them a mix of any or all input channels, with effects added along the way. Mixdown mode allows the 16 playback tracks to be, well, mixed, and effects added - all while recording to a set of stereo tracks reserved for this function. One can then copy the HD mix file to the built-in CD-RW drive.

The other concept the user must get his/her head around is that the operating paradigm of the VF160 is very much that of a tape machine. After selecting one of the 99 possible "programs" (which are sort of like folders on the hard disk into which one can record your tune's sound files) and routing your tracks appropriately, you simple press the record and play keys, and you're off. But if you record for an hour straight, you'll then have to "rewind the tape" to hear it played back. Sure, there's a shortcut for rewinding all the way to the beginning in a hurry but, in reality, unless one gets into the habit of setting some of the 14 locate points and/or 99 "event locations," one will have to do a lot of "fast-forwarding" and "rewinding" in order to find the audio to play back.

The very well written 150+ page manual gives specific instructions (with multiple screenshots of the VF160's small orange display) on how to perform every single function of which the unit is capable. Recording, editing, mixing down, CD-burning, disk management, syncing to MTC, setting up tempo maps, backing up and loading digital audio data and other session files to and from internal and external hard disks and CD drives, etc., etc. - it's all in there. The 2.25-inch x 1.25-inch display's abbreviated menus are necessarily nested, but the manual helps considerably in negotiating them, and the machine never once crashed or locked up on me.

During the review period, I first used the VF160 to record a couple of complete pop productions with my kids in the living room (while most of my expensive pro gear sat back idly) and found it quite easy to use and really good-sounding. I then used it to record a live band at a local club, and was truly amazed how quickly I could set up, do the sixteen-track recording, and get out of there! To get all 16 tracks down at once, I A/Ded the other eight tracks and then sent them to the VF160 via ADAT mode from the teeny red Fostex VM88 digital mixer I bought two summers ago on sale for $279 - another Fostex bargain!)

Finally, I took the VF160 to New York City for a major label classical recording session, and used it as "backup multitrack" (feeding it from the direct outs of my Crane Song Spider mixer) for my eight-channel 176.4 kHz master recording. Once I figured out a way to attenuate the Crane Song's "pro level" direct outs to "consumer level" without affecting my main stereo mix and the levels sent to my primary system, I managed to record every single note played at that three-day session to the VF160 - and only used up 23 GB of the Fostex's 30 GB hard disk! We're talking many hours of eight-track, 44.1 kHz/16-bit recording. Obviously, Fostex's FDMS-3 protocol is quite a bit more efficient than "normal" recording to a computer hard disk formatted by a PC or Mac.

Summary

Sure, the VF160 doesn't sound as good as thousands and thousands of dollars of professional recording gear. But I'd say it sounds at least 90 percent as good, and I'm not kidding! I think it's a no-brainer for any band that wants to record its gigs, and not mess with a separate sound person to do the mix. Sixteen tracks at once is quite sufficient to capture enough "elements" to create a good-sounding mix later on, and there are many low-cost eight-channel converters with ADAT outputs which can supply those extra eight tracks.

I remind myself that 44.1 kHz/16-bit recording onto DATs used to be quite sufficient for many engineers for many years - including yours truly - and is still frequently used today. Well, I think of the Fostex VF160 as a modern day 16-track DAT recorder, complete with mixer and CD burner. How did they do it for $899?