Hands-On Review:Pro-Digital Quality and Flexibility for Home Studio Prices
Fostex has been a big player in the single-unit recorder/mixer market since the early days. Back when digital recording was a thing that happened only in high-end studios for serious bucks, Fostex was making high-quality, reliable cassette mulitrackers available to musicians at every link of the food chain. That’s how Fostex and I met, somewhere around a decade ago. I saved my nickels and came up with the modest chunk of change for an X-26 cassette multitracker. I trace my true descent into gear-junkiedom back to that purchase. Having that kind of power at my fingertips stimulated my songwriting like nothing before or since.
So of course I waited with bated breath for the day when digital became available to the common man (a moniker which, sadly, still applies to me). That day has arrived in a big way with the Fostex VF-08.
VF-08 - plug in, hit record, and PLAY!
This thing reeked of power from the second I pulled it out of the box. Though it has a tiny footprint and weighs less than five-and-a-half pounds, it feels really solid. The metal housing and flash, professional-looking front panel promised a good experience. I was not to be disappointed.
I skipped the first 25 pages of the manual and went straight for the "Basic Recording" section. I stuck with that for long enough to find out what the numbers on the LCD meant, and bang, I was recording. The book lists eight steps to the actual point of recording, but they all amount to "plug in, set your levels, and hit record." After you lay down the track, you press stop and rewind at the same time to get back to the beginning of the song (with no annoying wait for the tape to actually rewind), switch tracks and lay down track two. It was so easy I just kept at it till I had eight Tele®’s playing "House of the Rising Sun." And they all sounded PERFECT. I practically had to look at my fingers to tell whether I was playing or listening to what I’d just played. I literally laughed with glee. This was like the X-26 front-end gone digital and hooked to an eight-track digital dynamo.
16 additional tracks, full mastering
Pretty much all resemblance to the X-26 ended there. After I had my eight tracks of guitar, I went on to record eight more tracks of vocals (I never knew there were so many ways to sing "House of the Rising Sun"), then four tracks of bass, and four MORE tracks of percussive weirdness - 24 tracks in all. Then I sat around for another two hours just playing mix-and-match versions of the song. It was TOO much fun. The next night I got into the mastering section, and that was even more fun. With manual EQ, reverb, compression, and limiter settings, I had total control of the tone. I’m not normally a preset guy, but I actually liked a few of the preset mastering libraries.
A universe of possibilities
The farther I got into the VF-08, the farther I realized I could go. With non-destructive editing, including copy, move/paste, and erase functions, editing is so simple and easy you’ll be doing a lot of it in no time. And compared to the old "punch-in/punch-out" option on analog multitrackers, it’s a whole other world (of course you can still punch in and out, but if you mess it up you can do it over again, as many times as you want without losing anything). You really don’t have to be a computer whiz to pull it off (believe me). You just mark points in the track that has what you want, then move the marked block wherever you want it.
Whenever I mastered from my old analog multitracker, I had long sheets of penciled-in mixer settings. With the VF-08 those days are gone forever. Now you memorize a scene (a bundle of mixer settings) with the punch of a button and apply it wherever you want, for the whole song, or for any area within the song that you’ve marked out. You’ve got 99 scenes per program to play with. Of course it’s got all the MIDI smarts you could ask for. And there’s nifty little editing tools like bar/beat resolution and +/-6% vari-pitch in 0.1% steps.
And then there’s the greatest cheating tool ever invented. Is that lick just too fast to learn? Record it off a CD onto your VF-08 and slow the sucker down, in the same pitch it was recorded in. (It can also be fun just to stretch out vocal parts - "Thhhhheeeeeerrrrrr iiiiiiiiissssss aaaaa hhhouuuuuuuusssse iiiiinnn Nnnnewwwwww Ooooorrrrrlllleeeeeeeannnnssss...")
VF-16: big muscle for great tracks
When I got my hands on the VF-16, I knew it was going to take the whole gang to put it through its paces. Where the VF-08 is perfect for the lone home recordist, a whole band in the basement requires the advantage of eight-track simultaneous recording (versus the VF-08’s two). I called over a few of my fellow noise-making enthusiasts for an evening’s fun.
Incredibly simple start-up with devastating digital tone
Even with four guys playing tug of war with the manual, we were able to get everybody on board and the levels set with a minimum of foofaraw. Before the drinks were warm, we were up and running. As with the VF-08, the controls were very intuitive, once I learned the function of a few critical buttons. Since everybody felt the need to play in stereo, we each hogged two tracks for the initial run through (they shouted down "House of the Rising Sun"; we went for "Smoke on the Water" instead).
Also like the VF-08, the sound quality was mind-boggling. Everybody was so happy with the purity of the tone, we were able to dispense with a lot of re-takes and move right on to the fun part. We still had 16 tracks left to play with. It proved to be more than we needed to lay down a satisfying mix, with vocals and harmonies, percussion, and double-tracking. And it all happened quickly.
Phenomenal flexibility from first tracks to mix down
We recorded in direct mode, giving each input its own track, but alternately we could have recorded in buss mode, used the mixer to set levels, EQ, and effects for each input, then laid the signal down on two tracks.
Like the VF-08, the VF-16 has amazingly flexible and simple editing functions with true CD-quality uncompressed digital audio. You can display scrubbed audio graphically, making on-the-fly intricate edit points simple and intuitive to designate.
The VF-16 has its act together on the computer score, too. It’s got a high-capacity hard drive and SCSI-2 port for quick import/export and backup to external fixed or removable drives. Even cooler, you can export and import audio (all tracks, one track, or any part of a track) as standard .WAV files, enabling you to do editing, processing, and sound file conversion on popular PC music software. The hard drive is easy to upgrade to keep you up with the latest technology.
The digital mixer is top-notch, with 60mm faders for all input channels and master; ’distortion and hiss-free’ input stages (including two with XLR, inserts, and 48V phantom power); trim pots; and the ability to handle anything from the lowest level mic signals to the hottest instrument/effects signals.
The EQ controls proved adequate to every task I threw at them, with parametric mid and high on all 16 channels, and a separate EQ for the master. Assignable channel compressors and master compressor; two AUX sends per channel for adding external effects; and a monitor out with level control and handy insert points on two inputs for adding compressors, limiters, etc. all add up to a whole lot of flexible connectivity.
There’s more to this mind-blowing unit than I can lay out here, but rest assured you WON’T be disappointed.
Two fantastic recording solutions for small and home studios
By the end of the night, I’d sold a VF-16 for Musician’s Friend. The bass player had to be asked to leave at two in the morning, his bleary eyes beneath the headphones still intent on the mixing board. I went into this thing expecting to be dazzled, but in the end I was astounded. Both of these multitrackers offer plenty of recording time and phenomenal uncompressed sound. For the price of the hissing, cumbersome analog units of yore you can now own genuine digital excellence.
You don’t have to wait anymore. The digital multitracker of your dreams is available now. And you won’t find it for less anywhere than right here at Musician’s Friend - we guarantee it! Place your order today and make music like you’ve never made it before.