If your studio is anything like mine, the proliferation of digital multitrack equipment employing incompatible transmission formats has necessitated the purchase of several format conversion boxes. From my original Digital Domain FCN-1E, VSP-PRO and Spectral Translator boxes of the mid-90s, to the Kurzweil DMTi, Z-Systems z32.32r, M-Audio S.A.M., Apogee Trak2 and Merging Technologies Onouris units I have reviewed to the various digital patchbays I’ve put together over the years, I seem to have accumulated a rather large number of such gizmos. But still, I have no box in my studio which does as many things as simply and as elegantly as the Otari FS-96 ($3,499).
Product PointsApplications: Studio
Key Features: Four digital audio formats – ADAT, AES/EBU, SDIF-2, TDIF-1 – and one “optional” format (MADI or mLAN) are supported; 24 channels of digital audio signals in one format can be converted simultaneously to all of the other signal formats, and at any desired standard sample rate from 44.1 to 96 kHz
Price: $3,499 (optional MADI card: $995)
Contact: Otari at 818-598-1200, Web Site.
The rear panel of the FS-96 gives one a pretty good idea of what the box can accept as inputs and outputs. The left half is taken up with nine female 25-pin D-sub connectors – three for TDIF I/O, three for AES/EBU input and three for AES/EBU output. On the right half of the panel are three double sets of TOSLink connectors for ADAT ODI I/O, a pair of DB-50s and BNCs for SDIF-2 I/O, and another pair of BNCs for word clock I/O. The obligatory IEC power connector allows multi-voltage AC input.
The front panel is simplicity itself. A large power button and an anachronistic-looking yellowish-green 16×2 LCD display occupy almost the entire left half. The rest is filled with twelve square pushbuttons and fourteen tiny status LEDs. Two of the pushbuttons select either Setup or Routing mode, four are arrow keys for changing the LCD screen or moving the cursor around on it, and two more are for Enter and Cancel. Finally, four square pushbuttons are dedicated to four Presets – combinations of setup and routing parameters. The status LEDs indicate the source, the sample rate, the reference clock and the presence or absence of sample rate conversion.
To use the unit, one must first connect all your multitrack digital equipment to the rear panel. And, unfortunately, here’s where the trouble begins. While ADAT and TDIF equipment use pretty standardized connectors, the AES/EBU world has produced three incompatible different pin assignments on identical 25-pin D-sub connectors. Wrong, make that four! Rather than sign on with one of the other three protocols (TASCAM/Digidesign, Yamaha/Mackie/ Apogee, or the RADAR II/Spectral/Sony PCM800 format), Otari continued to use its own proprietary pinout format – which it introduced about ten years ago, long before the TASCAM and Yamaha protocols had been concocted.
Nonetheless, they must have learned that users were having trouble connecting their gear to the FS-96, since last fall Otari published an amazingly complete 98-page “Applications Guide” in PDF format on their website (www.otari.com) which gives extremely detailed instructions on setting up the FS-96 and the digital multitrack equipment connected to it, and on making the necessary cables. With typical understatement, its language on page 93 reads, “The AES/EBU interface has a wide variety of alternate standards in the pin assignments of the D-sub connector. Refer to this section when signal adapters are required.”
And when you do read this document, you’ll be rather amazed at the fact that the FS-96 can connect, format convert, and route multitrack data between virtually every digital audio gizmo the world has ever known – from the Sony 3324 DASH recorder I first used at MTSU in 1988 all the way to the hip new Yamaha DM-2000 and Sony DMX-R100 digital consoles – and do it all via AES/EBU, TDIF, ADAT, mLAN, or MADI!
Well, as luck would have it, although I do have sets of multichannel AES/EBU cables in all three “previous” protocols, I did not have any spare DB-25s available to make crossover adapters. No problem; I simply put in a call to Otari and received a set of “Otari pinout to Yamaha pinout” 25-pin D-sub adapter plugs by overnight delivery. Based upon Otari’s longstanding reputation for well-designed digital circuitry, I was not at all surprised to find that its sample rate conversion circuitry sounded at least as good as similar asynchronous circuits I remember testing, such as those used in the Lucid SRC 9624 and MOTU 1296 boxes while, at the same time, not providing the last measure of high quality obtainable with synchronous conversion, such as is used in the dCS 972 and Weiss SFC2 units. Each of those two stereo-only, single function digital-to-digital converter boxes, however, costs more than the entire FS-96!
I especially enjoyed the opportunity the Otari unit gave me to swap individual channels around between input and output, and its ability to easily save its routings as presets, accessible with a single button press. The FS-96 can route any channel to any other – or all – channels! And, although I was unable to test it, this feature is also said to be present when the new mLAN interface option card is installed. This means that one does not have to rely on the Yamaha mLAN “console” application, running on a host PC or Mac, in order to effect routing schemes.
Although the FS-96 deals handily with the latest MADI and mLAN formats, the situation is not quite as favorable for users who must rely on the older ADAT ODI and TDIF connections for transmitting high sample rate digital data. On page 5, the ED.2 manual warns in boldface type, “The FS-96 supports the signals of up to 24-bit and 96 kHz in all of the above digital audio formats. However, the 96 kHz signals are not supported officially in the formats other than the AES/EBU format. Thus, please be aware that Otari does not guarantee the performance of the 96 kHz signals in these formats.”
The interface problem with ADAT and TDIF equipment operating at the higher sample rates has been well documented for some time now; “double-wide” versions of both formats have appeared on just about all the appropriate gear released during this century. Products made by Apogee, RME, Swissonic, Genex, Merging Technologies and MOTU (to name just a few) support S/MUX II (which transmits four channels of 96 kHz digital audio on each ADAT ODI connector) and TASCAM’s IF-AE8HR (reviewed in PAR 9/01), converts directly between TDIF and AES/EBU using either high speed or double-wide protocol.
The FS-96 is a unique piece of equipment. It is very well-designed and possesses an elegant user interface and flawless operation. Nonetheless, I think it slightly misses the mark for one segment of the pro audio marketplace in the year 2003 due to its lack of support for the higher sample rates, and by making no provision for format conversion while transferring 96 kHz ADAT and TDIF data using today’s widely-available protocols – S/MUX II and double-wide TDIF-2. But maybe that’s just me.
I do understand, however, that the FS-96 was designed primarily for the high-end of the pro audio and film/video post production worlds, and those segments of the industry have embraced MADI for multichannel digital audio transmission. Even yours truly will soon be able to use MADI (over a single glass fiber cable) to transfer multitrack digital data hundreds of meters between my Genex GX-A8 converter, and a Merging Technologies Pyramix DAW on my classical recording sessions. So perhaps Otari made the proper choice after all – going with MADI for the high end, and mLAN for the rest of us!