Hands-On Review:Fostex MR-8
By Emile Menasche
Sketchpad recorders provide a convenient way to record your song ideas, whether you're at home or on the road. Unfortunately, due to their compact size and modest features, these mini multitrackers have typically been limited to four tracks of audio. Now comes the Fostex MR-8, the first solid-state memory recorder to provide eight tracks of recording using popular CompactFlash cards. It also sports effects (including delay, reverb and distortion), mic and amp simulations, cut/copy/paste editing, internal mixdown and a built-in metronome with tempo map. There's even a MIDI output that lets you synchronize a sequencer or drum machine to the MR-8's internal clock. To top it off, the unit runs on both AC power and batteries. Not bad for a unit about the size of a hardcover book.
Like most disk-based recorders, the MR-8 organizes its memory into self-contained songs (up to 99). Recording time depends on audio mode (resolution) and the size of your CompactFlash card (the MR-8 supports cards of up to 256MB). Normal mode offers superior 16-bit/44.1kHz uncompressed audio quality and 25 minutes of mono-track recording (roughly three minutes of eight-track recording) on a 128MB card. That's tight, but workable. Extended mode doubles recording time-albeit at diminished, 16-bit/22.05kHz sound quality.
Tracks 1 through 4 on the MR-8 are mono, while tracks 5 through 8 are grouped in stereo pairs (5/6 and 7/8). The unit can handle a variety of signals, thanks to the two analog inputs that switch between 1/4-inch and XLR connections. With modes for mic, line and guitar, input A is the workhorse; it even features a good-sounding built-in condenser mic. Input B, on the other hand, can only be routed to the even-numbered tracks.
The Guitar and Mic/Line inputs feature rudimentary amp and mic simulation effects that lend a small degree of tone control. The guitar simulation has modes for Brit Stack, US Metal and 60's Combo, although to my ears there was little difference between their sounds. The mic simulator has modes for Dynamic, Condenser and Tube, and while each sounded fine, they didn't appear to change the mic tone to any significant degree.
Outputs on the MR-8 consist of two 1/4-inch outs, an optical S/PDIF out and two headphones outs-a very nice feature that facilitates collaborative recording. In addition, the unit's USB connection allows the MR-8 to interface with your PC for easy transfer of audio files.
Basic recording is straightforward: simply arm a track (or two), use the onboard trim controls to set levels, and you're ready to go. Unlike some digital recorders, there's very little in the way of menu-surfing. The MR-8 lets you manually punch in and out (an optional footswitch gives you hands-free operation), or set up auto-punch with the onboard locators.
Editing and Mixing
Like any good random-access recorder, the MR-8 offers an array of editing and locating features. Editing options include pre-roll, loop playback, auto return and the ability to cue or review recorded material at three times the normal speed. The unit's locate options let you "tag" various spots in a track so that they can be found quickly-useful if, for instance, you want to locate a midpoint in a song. The locate points can be set while playback is stopped and as the track plays.
In Part Edit mode the locate points determine edit boundaries, and the ability to set them on the fly is a big plus. While the MR-8 can't rival a computer for editing power, it's good enough to get you through the songwriting process. It also offers one level of undo protection.
Mixing features are basic but user-friendly. The mono channels offer faders, pan and effects send controls, while the stereo channels have faders but no sends or pan. The sends access spatial effects; you can choose among Room, Hall, Plate and Delay. While they aren't up to snuff with pro-studio gear, they are certainly satisfactory for a sketchpad recorder.
The MR-8 lacks effects like dynamics control and EQ, but its Master section does include three presets-Powerful, Natural and Bright-that add punch to your mix. When all is set to your liking, you can bounce your mix internally to one of the stereo track pairs (provided you have the memory space), or to an external device via either the analog or digital outs.
The Bottom Line
The Fostex MR-8 faces stiff competition in the compact digital recorder class, some of which feature built-in drum machines and more effects. But with eight tracks (the most in its class), high-resolution audio, flexible I/Os, computer connectivity and an incredibly low list price, this is one powerful traveling partner.