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Sound On Sound - Oct. 2000

Sound On Sound
Oct. 2000
© 2000 Sound On Sound Limited

Fostex VF16 16-Track Digital Multitracker
by Derek Johnson and Debbie Poyser

Everything comes to he (or she) who waits, as the proverb says, and in the case of 16-track digital multitrackers it's certainly true. Those musicians who kept their nerve during the initial rush of portable hard disk eight-track machines, confident that greater numbers of tracks for not too much more money must surely follow, have now reaped the benefits of their patience. A slow start saw the market dominated by early birds Akai, with their 12-track DPS12, and Roland, with their very full-featured but occasionally complicated 16-track VS1680. Then Korg successfully stretched their appealing D8 concept to 16-track status. Now two further digital 16-track mixer/recorder combos, from Fostex and Akai (the DPS16 was reviewed last month), are poised to hit the hi-tech music stores, and coming soon is a promising Yamaha contender. As the old bus adage has it, there's none for ages, then loads come along at once...

One might have expected Fostex to have entered the stakes earlier with their VF16 portable 16-track, which is the subject of the review in hand. After all, the company has a five-year history in digital recording, a healthy back catalogue of eight- and 16-track professional and project-studio machines, and a record of early popularisation of new technologies. A closer look at recent Fostex history, however, might fuel some speculation about why there's been a slight delay. Though they've made digital recorders aplenty, it's only around 10 months since the release of the first ever Fostex digital mixer, the moving-fader-equipped VM200. If Fostex wanted their portable 16-track to have the advantages of a digital mixing section (as opposed to the analogue mixers of their previous four- and eight-tracks), it made good sense to wait until the necessary technology was in place.

But though Fostex haven't managed to be first with a portable hard disk 16-track, they have managed to be cheapest — so far. The VF16, which features 16-track simultaneous recording, 'virtual' tracks, editing functions, the aforementioned digital mixer with automation and 16 physical faders (plus master fader), built-in effects, and onboard dynamics, comes in at just £1099. Aside from cost, another advantage of the new machine for anyone who's used previous Fostex digital recorders is familiarity. They've stuck with their usual reliable operating system, which runs through the whole Fostex family from top to bottom and offers a tape-like feel with largely straightforward operation.


Digital mixing isn't Fostex's only departure for the VF16. It's also their first product in ages not to be finished in Fostex 'greige', that smart but nondescript shade that matches many a computer. Instead, the VF16 has a rather more appealing charcoal paint job with pale-grey accents. It's reassuringly chunky in build, with a solid, compact wedge shape, and is pleasantly heavy to pick up.
The left two-thirds of the front panel are devoted to mixing duties, hosting two rows of 60mm faders (with illuminating channel-select/mute buttons) and three sets of buttons dealing with automation, effect editing, and setting up of channel parameters such as pan, EQ, and aux sends. Obviously, with a machine of this size quite a bit of the setting up is done in software, via the display, but at least Fostex have provided a hardware fader for every channel. However, even before we started to use the VF16 we were sorry to see that there were no hardware pan controls, and this feeling didn't go away when we did start to use it. Panning is such a basic part of mixing that one really does miss a hands-on control One idea for a VF16 update might be a software switch to turn the faders into pan sliders that just happen to have been rotated by 90 degrees (no extra hardware required).
The rightmost section of front panel is the recorder, looking very much like a stretched VR800 (Fostex's recent stand-alone digital eight-track recorder). The rather small backlit display, made to look larger than it is by an imposing raised surround, is accompanied by a group of round buttons concerned with audio recording and editing functions, plus a transport section and Jog/Shuttle wheel. Four utility buttons round off the recorder section.

The VF16's eight analogue inputs (1-6 on unbalanced jacks only, 7 and 8 with additional XLR connectors) are situated towards the rear of the front panel, which is good for accessibility. As you'd hope, the two XLRs have phantom power (switchable, but only as a pair), for the quality condenser mics so many project studios use these days, and insert points for favourite external processors. Each input also has a trim pot, plus a peak LED that flashes 2dB before clipping occurs.

A nice feature of the VF16 is that its eight digital inputs, in the shape of an ADAT-format optical connector (this and its accompanying ADAT output double as stereo S/PDIF I/O), can be recorded at the same time as the analogue inputs. You don't even have to put your thinking cap on to see that all 16 tracks could thus be recorded simultaneously, potentially good for live recording of even a large band. Add Fostex's £199 VC8 two-way ADAT-to-analogue converter box and all 16 tracks of simultaneous recording could be analogue, with help from the interface's eight phono inputs. Accompanying the digital I/O on the VF16's back panel are a small SCSI socket for connection of backup hard drives and CD burners (but not for direct recording); a footswitch socket for foot-operated punch in/out; MIDI I/O; an analogue master stereo output (on phonos, sadly); the two aux sends, sharing one stereo jack; and the mains power socket.


The VF16 comes with its supplied 5.1Gb internal EIDE hard disk ready-formatted and capable of storing more than 15 track hours, dynamically allocated, with 16-bit resolution at a sample rate of 44.1kHz. The fitted drive, by the way, can be easily replaced with a more capacious one if desired. Alongside the 16 'real' tracks assigned to mixer channels, up to eight additional 'virtual' tracks are available, offering limited flexibility for alternative takes, and also some spare capacity for track management during bouncing.
Fostex's OS is actually beginning to look a little elderly with respect to virtual tracks. It would appear that their software allows for a maximum of 24 tracks, whether those are real or virtual. In the case of the company's recent 8-tracks that figure breaks down to eight real and 16 virtual, but is carved up into 16 real and eight virtual with the VF16. Ironically, when you have 16 real tracks at your disposal, opening up the possibility of more complex arrangements, it's arguable that you need more virtual tracks, not fewer. Surely Fostex will attend to this shortcoming soon. In the meantime, eight virtual tracks will have to suffice — it's no bad thing to have to make certain decisions early, anyway.

Recording audio with the VF16 can be undertaken via either the 'Direct' or the 'Buss' method. The former uses a simple, fixed input-to-track relationship, whereby the inputs, labelled A-H, are routed directly to tracks 1-8 and/or 9-16. So when you choose Direct recording, audio from analogue input A will always be routed to track 1 or 9, or both, if desired — though no practical application of the last option comes to mind! Incidentally, if you have ADAT-equipped instruments, or an ADAT-to-analogue converter unit, and want to record to all the VF16's tracks at once, Direct record mode is the one you'll need. For those who have an S/PDIF-rather than an ADAT-equipped sound source, up to 10 tracks of simultaneous recording will be possible: two from digital inputs through the ADAT connector (doubling as an S/PDIF port), and eight from the analogue inputs. The only thing to bear in mind is that there are no digital processing facilities available to the input channels, so you won't be able to record with EQ, for example.

 The second recording method, called 'Buss' mode, is rather more flexible and allows audio appearing at one or more of the analogue inputs to be routed to one or two tracks of your choice. You might use this method, for example, to record a drum kit miked up with four mics to a stereo pair of tracks, but the technique can also be used for bouncing multiple existing audio tracks into mono or stereo. In the case of Buss recording, the mixer section effectively acts as a submixer — all audio, whether external or on disk, has access to pan, EQ, onboard effects and, to a certain extent, dynamics. As with the VM200 digital mixer, subgrouping as such isn't provided, but Buss record provides just enough of the same facilities for most uses. Buss mode also allows you to simply route one analogue input to one track of your choice, rather than being restricted to the preset routing of Direct mode. It would be useful especially when a mic is the sound source, as the two XLR mic connectors are on inputs G and H, which are automatically routed to tracks 7/15 or 8/16 in Direct mode. If you need the mic inputs to go to other tracks, Buss mode is a must.

Once you've decided how you'd like to record, the process is as easy as with Fostex's other hard disk machines. First, decide the tempo and whether you'd like a metronome, then set up a tempo track within the VF16 if your song includes tempo changes. A nice feature is that audio is captured during the count-in period (if you've set one), so there's no need to ever lose an up beat. Next, set the right level for the incoming audio with the relevant trim pot — the display, small as it is, fortunately provides clear and accurate feedback of the pre-fade level going to a track. There's an Auto Repeat function that lets you set up a loop to rehearse with, if you like, and then it's simply a matter of committing the performance to disk.

If what's been recorded is not quite up to scratch there's one level of Undo, and if just one or two bits need redoing there are three ways of accomplishing punch-ins: manually (via a front-panel button), with a footswitch, or by pre-programming the drop-in using the dedicated Auto Punch In and Out buttons. It's easy to do and results are very good indeed.

Generally navigating through tracks is straightforward. The fast-wind buttons behave like those on an analogue machine, but with the option to instantly return to zero, and for more exact location the Jog/Shuttle dial can be used to move quickly through a track and then zoom in precisely, scrubbing through the audio one sample at a time if you wish. Up to 99 locate points per Song can be set too.
The audio editing capabilities of the VF16 won't compete with the typical sampler or computer recording system, and editing is not 'playlist' style (where no new audio is created by copying operations, the original audio segments simply being rapidly referenced and played back at the desired points). However, for basic assembly editing the VF16 offers enough flexibility. Cutting, pasting, moving and erasing operations, across single or multiple tracks, are pretty much identical to those on previous Fostex digital recorders: simply highlight a region of audio using the Memory keys, and select the edit function required. One thing we've moaned about virtually every time we've reviewed a Fostex hard disk multitrack is that audio pasted to a new location overwrites the audio already at that point. No option exists for shoving the existing tracks along to make way for the new section. Fostex haven't yet attended to this small irritation, and you still have to get around it by using 'Move' to make space into which audio can be pasted.

One enhancement over older machines comes, paradoxically, courtesy of the display which, incredibly, actually appears smaller than on Fostex's earlier FD8 eight-track — and even that wasn't terribly generous. At a time when Fostex really could make their displays bigger, to compete with the likes of Korg's D16 touchscreen and Akai's sexy DPS16 flip-up LCD, this could be seen as rather odd. However, on the plus side, the VF16's display definitely is brighter, higher resolution, and more suited to graphics than earlier Fostex LCDs. It now supports a full waveform display, rather than simply using bargraph meters to represent a waveform, as with previous machines. Fine-tuning start and end points while manipulating audio is consequently much easier.

It's also good to know that, because the VF16 can export tracks one at a time in the popular WAV file format, via the SCSI interface, VF16 audio could be edited with a computer editing package. Since WAVs can also be imported, edited tracks could subsequently be returned to the machine for mixing.
The VF16's mixing section has a decent set of features (though we were unable to find a way of soloing channels) and can be thought of as a straightforward 16:2 stereo mixer. The three-band EQ, offering identical swept mid and high bands and a shelving low band, is available to every channel and the master output, and is set up via a neat, grid-like graphic display showing an EQ curve which changes in real time as parameters are altered. Speaking of neat graphic displays, Fostex do their best to make panning as painless as possible via the LCD, given that there are no real pan pots: hit the Pan button and a screenful of 16 graphic knobs appears. Pressing a hardware channel-select button for the channel in question causes the corresponding on-screen knob to flash, and then its setting can be altered with the Jog/Shuttle wheel, which doubles as a parameter dial. Still not as good as real pan-pots though. The aux send display, which you need for setting up the two sends to external processors and the two to the internal effects, works in a similar way. Sends, by the way, are individually switchable pre-/post-fade.

Additional helpful screens include Channel View, which graphically presents level, pan and aux sends for an individual channel of your choice, and Fader View. The latter gets around the problem of drastic mismatches between the front-panel positions of the physical faders and their functional levels within the operating software, especially when automation is being used. There are also some useful options to help you relocate the physical faders to their correct values as shown in the display, something which could be necessary at various times during automated mixing.

It's good to see that Fostex have included dynamics processing, which was a notable omission from the VM200 digital mixer, on the VF16. The facility runs to a conventionally specified, workmanlike stereo compressor fixed to the master output and a further dual compressor which can be applied to channels 13/14 or 15/16 (you can choose to use just one half of the compressor). The latter can't be deployed anywhere else on the VF16, though it's possible to get any track compressed by indulging in a little track exchanging. Unfortunately, when a compressor is selected, the EQ for both the channels in the selected pair (even if you only want to compress one channel) is disabled. This is processor-power juggling reminiscent of the compromises found on the VM200 (though, happily, engaging the master compressor has no effect on master EQ availability). Fostex redeem themselves slightly by making it possible to compress incoming audio with the dual compressor, using Buss record mode. If you need more than the onboard compressors offer, don't forget that you can make use of an external compressor (or any other signal processor) via those insert points on analogue inputs G and H.

The VF16's dual effects processors are based around the same ASP (Advanced Signal Processing) technology used in the VM200 mixer. They offer more in the way of algorithms than the VM200's processors, but they don't have the VM's preset library or user memories. One processor is devoted to reverbs and delay/reverb combinations (28 effects in total, including rooms, halls, auditoriums, stadiums, garages and plates), while the other offers the same 28 effects plus 10 extras (delays and timed delays, a chorus, a flange, and two pitch-shifters). The chorus, flange and delays are usable enough, and it's good to see a dedicated tempo delay, but the reverbs tend to be ringy and metallic rather than natural-sounding, and are best used sparingly and carefully. The effects are not extravagantly editable, either, having just five parameters each (Level, Reverb Time, Pre-delay, HF Ratio and Early Reflection Level in the case of the reverbs). The lack of memories means that any user effects setups have to be saved in mixer Scene memories (see 'Automatic For The People' box for more on the VF's Scene automation).

 Overall, we felt that the reverbs weren't really up to being used on anything other than demos, but fortunately the external aux sends mean that you're not locked into the onboard effects, though the lack of dedicated aux returns opens an interesting can of worms. Normally, in the absence of aux returns, one would expect the analogue inputs to be deployed for returning effects. Korg's D16 and Akai's new DPS16 both let the user do this and offer extra mixer horsepower in order not to compromise the playback of disk tracks. Not the VF16, unfortunately: the analogue inputs can be used during a final mix, for effects and/or inputs from synths, samplers etc that are being sequenced, but only at the expense of the audio that might be occupying the corresponding hard disk track. In short, the mixer channels with analogue inputs can either play back the audio tracks you've recorded or be used to bring effects or sequenced instruments into a mix — not both.

In trying to find a way around this, the best we could come up with was bouncing together some of the 16 audio tracks to free up inputs. To accommodate an external stereo submixer, for example, you'd simply need to free up two audio tracks. The submixer could then handle any sequenced sound sources or external effects returns. The sans-submixer alternative is bouncing your funky 16-track mix down to eight tracks just so you can route the stereo outputs from a couple of synths and a couple of effects processors through the multitracker's analogue inputs! If there's any way Fostex can redeploy DSP in a software update, they should.


On the whole, this is a good machine. It's easy to use, very stable (never crashes, just like every other recent Fostex hard disk recorder we've encountered, and so unlike every recent computer system we've had!), and is capable of producing great results. We would love to be wholeheartedly positive about it, but there are those downers — a limited number of virtual tracks, the small display (though it is perfectly usable), slightly inflexible compressors, underwhelming reverbs, a few automation niggles, and (most annoyingly) the fact that the analogue inputs can't be used freely on mixdown. The VF16 also doesn't offer anything other than 16-bit, 44.1kHz recording, while some of the competition is now providing up to 24-bit, 96kHz (though, to be fair, few people actually need these facilities yet).

There's strong competition out there for the VF16, and you should consider carefully which machine best fits your requirements for the money you have to spend. Nevertheless, it's a measure of how usable this one is that its flaws don't, in our opinion, turn it into a lemon, as long as you go into any purchase fully aware of them. We enjoyed using the VF16, felt it was fast in operation, and got some fine-sounding material from it. Fostex are still offering the open-endedness of an ADAT interface, have been sensible enough to fit phantom power and insert points, have allowed you to export and import material as WAVs, have provided a fader for every channel, and are only asking you to part with £1099 for simple-to-operate 16-track digital. It's got to be worth a look.