Hands-On Review:Fostex MR16HD/CD Digital Multitracker
How the Fostex MR16 saved my D-A-W’s B-U-T-T
By Mitchell Goodrich
Before I talk about my experiences with the new MR16HD/CD Digital Multitracker, let me tell you a story. It’s called, "How the Fostex A-8 saved my Synclavier." The year was 1981. I was working in downtown Manhattan during the day and going to music school at night. NED introduced the Synclavier II and Fostex introduced the first and only eight-track open reel recorder that could use ordinary 1/4" tape.
Realizing that the Synclavier with its 16-track built-in sequencer was the future of music, I had a choice. I could save up for a year, buy into the low end of the Synclavier range, and continue to live at my cousin’s apartment in Queens; or I could get a loft in the city and be a slick young urbanite. Needless to say, when the Synclavier arrived at my alcove, I was pretty excited, but soon discovered that after spending $14,000 of my favorite dollars for an eight-voice unit, the most sequencer polyphony I could get with a string patch was two tracks (it’s an additive synthesis thing). Disappointed! Now I had another choice to make. In place of the Synclavier’s sequencer, I could buy a 1/2" eight-track recorder alone or the Fostex A-8 plus a mixer for about $800 less, not to mention save big bucks on open-reel tape—a "brainer" of the "no" variety. The A-8 fully delivered on its promise; eight tracks of quality audio on 1/4" tape and its size was definitely alcove-friendly. But that’s what Fostex excels at—giving you more recording power in less space for even less money. Now let’s fast-forward to the new MR16.
Fostex, the next generation
The MR16 is Fostex’ newest 16-track (eight mono, four stereo) multitracker and incorporates the latest features of the MR series. Audio is an uncompressed 16-bit/44.1kHz. The preamps are clean and surprisingly offer a sense of dimension. The MR16 provides four XLR mic/line inputs with phantom power and four tracks of simultaneous recording. There’s also an onboard hard drive, CD-R/RW burner (on the MRHD/CD model), USB 1.1 and 2.0 ports, and a 16-channel digital mixer. Four input channels on the top panel grant easy access and are routed to each track. Input "A" features a guitar input with a dedicated distortion pot and a TRS insert. On the output side of the tracks, you have left and right mains, two headphone jacks with level control, two aux sends (all 1/4"), plus TOSLINK optical and MIDI out.
Rather than paying for effects you may not use and cutting corners elsewhere, the MR16 offers you the convenience of a few well-chosen quality effects, or the ability to use it with outboard processors via insert and aux sends. Dedicated effects include six mic/amp models, reverb/delay, and mastering. Onboard EQ is accessible on the control surface via backlit push-buttons, while the menu offers 33 musically useful presets.
Fostex has obviously put a lot of thought into gearing the MR16 to facilitate the home recording process with features such as auto punch with locate points and footswitch control, pre- and post-roll, tempo-mapping, click track, and three playback modes. Better still, rather than promise hundreds of virtual tracks living in a parallel dimension only accessible through a rift in time and space, you can bounce all 16 tracks to another song file and continue to record. Or, you have four opportunities to bounce to stereo within the same song for a playback total of up to 56 simultaneous parts.
Rather than load you up with submenus and marginally useful features (do you really need a General MIDI player?), Fostex focuses on sound quality and ease of operation. Putting that to the test, I didn’t consult the manual at all. Once I figured out that I had to press the scroll wheel in order to access the menu, I was on my way. Most everything is a button-press away on the top panel and getting around the menu options is as simple as it gets. Be advised though, there are some subtleties and features that do warrant a trip down "manual lane."
We’ll test it in combat, Scotty...
I’d been working on a song in Logic and reached a sticking point. Not for lack of ideas, but processing power. You’d think a dual processor would see me through, but with three virtual instrument tracks, a handful of guitar tracks with bypassed plug-ins, and a bass track, I couldn’t play through the entire song without a "processor pooped" message slamming on my brakes. With the MR16’s ability to sync to MTC, I found myself doing exactly what I did with my A-8 and Synclavier—but now I had 16 digital tracks and the ability to bounce without the high-frequency losses of analog tape.
With my VI tracks playing back on the MR16, I was able to remove the bypass on the plug-ins and actually hear the sonic picture I was trying to paint. It also gave me the opportunity to experiment and record more parts. Plus, I used the sends to "fly the Lexx" (my Lexicon PCM 80) for some world-class effects. Now here’s a shocker: I was actually able to finish the song! Once again, it’s an affordable Fostex to the rescue. This time, saving my megabuck DAW’s butt.
The Final Frontier
This machine is not trying to be all things to all people. It does what recorders do best—capture audio. I’d say it’s mainly for singer-songwriters and DIY musicians who use a combination of external sound modules, sequencers, and live instruments. Bands might find four simultaneous tracks of recording a tad limiting, but that’s not a reason to pass on the MR16. With the money you’ll save, you can get an eight-channel pre for more simultaneous I/O. Overall, I’d say the greatest thing about the MR16 is that it can integrate comfortably with all types of gear up and down the spectrum. For me, rather than taking a $3,000 journey back to square A with another computer, I’m going for an MR16 and some really sweet outboard gear. You?
Features & Specs:
- Internal hard disk drive
- Recording: 16 tracks, 4 simultaneous
- 16-track digital mixer
- Hi-Z guitar input
- Digital effects including delay/reverb
- Insert effects including mic/amp simulation and distortion
- Mastering effects
- Input EQ with 33 presets
- 5 track-bounce modes
- Versatile editing functions
- Built-in CD-R/RW burner (MR16HD/CD)
- 4 XLR mic/line inputs
- TRS insert
- WAV file import/export via USB
- Copy digitally to an external digital device via TOSLINK
- Synchronization to MIDI (MTC, MIDI clock)
- Rhythm guide function for recording
- Phantom power supply
- "2 MIX" file playback mode
- To stereo bus function
- 2 aux out jacks
- Sampling frequency: 44.1kHz
- Quantization: 16-bit, linear (nonexpanded)
- File Format: FAT 32
- ADC/DCA: 24-bit, (delta-sigma)
- Input level: -48dBu (mic) to –4dBu (line)
- Input impedance: 1.5kOhm or more
- Frequency Response: 20Hz-20kHz
- Dynamic range: 90dB or more (typical)
- THD: 0.06 or less (typical)
- Weight: 7.7 lbs (3.5kg)
- 15-7/10"W x 3-5/16"H x 10-2/5"D