This site consists of 5
basic parts: After a short intro this page reviews the Fostex XR-7
4-tracker. Part 2 describes how this
unit is incorporated into the rack setup I use. Part 3 deals with recording techniques and
mixdown. Part 4 talks about copy
mediums. Part 5 looks at recording
directly to your computer. Part 6
covers a few often missed details, links to addendums
inspired by viewer mail, contains studio photos, and links to the Musician's Resource pages or to the Minor Notes main menu.|
Hope you find it informative and entertaining,
and feel free to send your comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org thanks!
Note: This is archival material from 1998, no longer relevant in the digital world. The most current information is in Part 5, which addresses more modern techniques.
View from the basement: by Jim Weyand
Part 1 : Overview of Fostex XR-7 4-tracker
Since I was 8 years old I’ve been fascinated with the concept of recording sound. I was so excited to get my first tape recorder. It was a Midland with these tiny hard to handle 31/2 " open reels, not much more than a toy, really. It wasn’t until I got a fancier 5” model that I began to experiment, adding an extra head for echo effects, putting a switch on the erase head so I could “overdub”, recording on the tape inside-out for psychedelic backwards effects, pots on the capstan motor, and on & on. Cassettes were a Godsend for practicality, but equipment-wise pretty much hack proof. By then, however I was actually playing music rather than trying to manufacture it, so the cassette was a perfect no-hassle medium for taping those mom-annoying teeth grinding Sabbath-wannabe fuzz-chords that at 18 years old were just so cool to play but never sounded quite so good on playback. Hence the first rule of recording : TAPES ALWAYS LIE UNLESS IT SOUNDS GOOD. It wasn’t until I got my hands on a Teac Simul-Sync 4-track open reel and later the “Syncaset” rack mount cassette version that I recognized the importance of single source separation / isolation and the always underestimated crucial mix-down process. Those early attempts with the Teac yielded some very nice results that inspired me towards a home studio.
Which brings us to the basement. Many years later, and with what little earnings I could salvage from countless bar gigs, I’ve slapped together an extremely modest yet effective and user friendly 4-track studio that uses the Fostex XR-7 as it’s heart (see diagram #1a ). The Yamaha 4-track was my first choice but was a little pricey at the time. Now with hard disks and MD’s you can pick up about any analog 4-tracker for under $500. Digital is definitely the way to go, but for those of us on a tight budget it’s still premature to put that Porta05 in the garage sale heap.
The XR-7 is the full solenoid transport version of the XR-5, and for that reason alone is worth the price difference. Push-latch controls work fine on home decks, but are clumsy and tiring in the perpetual rewind world of song writing. The XR-7 has 6 channels, 2 with gain, parametric EQ and insert points, 4 channels with 2-band EQ only (plus the 2 FX loops and pan standard on all 6 channels). Personally, I have rarely used all 6 inputs at the same time, even for drums (I like 4 mics : 1 snare, 2 bass drums, 1 overhead). I would rather sacrifice those 2 channels and have the trim, inserts and 3-band EQ on the remaining four. Still not a bad on-board mixer (see diagram #1b ). The deck itself has a much narrower frequency response than the mixer and not only must use chromium tape (I use MAXELL XLII 100’s) but the heads need to be cleaned often. The Dolby NR exaggerates this and at times causes a “sweeping” effect that sounds like the tape is very slightly sliding up and down against the head. I’ve heard DBX is not as quirky as Dolby, but it works OK and if I turn it off the tape sounds saturated. What works for me is I turn the Dolby off BEFORE recording so it doesn't give the input signal that high end boost. Then I can play it back with Dolby and it has a nice fat sound without sounding "splattered".
The recording controls take a little getting used to, since you can record direct ( input 1 to track 1, 2 to 2, etc.) or any combo on the board to an assigned track using the L/R record mode switch. It reads 1-L, 2-R, 3-L, and 4-R which makes it sound like tracks 1 & 3 only record on the left side, but there really is no left and right. This is just a way to group inputs through panning.
The tape head monitor setup works good, or as Fostex calls it, "Foldback". It actually works the same as Teac’s “Simul-sync” head monitor mentioned earlier, except that if you don’t use the foldback feature on overdubs, every time you punch in, the track records not only the input signal but records the sound from the other three tracks as well unless you run direct (1 to 1, 2 to 2, etc.) The input and/or foldback signals are routed to the headphones, but to play both through the studio monitors you have to unplug the stereo left or right and plug it into the FB output. The track volume level and input level are controlled by a separate panpot just above the fader. To further complicate matters each channel has a switch that can run the head monitor signal through the effects loop. I’ve yet to find any use for this whatsoever.
One thing I find very useful in the XR-7 and most other 4-trackers is the ability to loop from the track outputs back to the inputs. If you need to enhance (or in my case, salvage) two out of four tracks, those two can be run from track 1,2,3 or 4 out and plugged into inputs 5 & 6. Switch those from L/R (bus) to INPUT, turn off the main sliders for those two tracks and you can then utilize the parametric EQ, gain and inserts for compression for those tracks. The mixdown loop can also include any outboard gear. The XR-7 has inputs 5 & 6 set up as inputs or main stereo bus, allowing for parametric EQ, compression, etc. over the entire mix. I use the loops to process each track, routing them directly to the mixdown deck without any further EQ. More about this in part 3. Changing tape speeds on the XR-7 is a "hidden" feature, and without the maunual you would never figure it out. To change to normal cassette speed, press the "rehearsal" button and the "stop" button at the same time. The rehearsal light will start blinking which means now when you hit play it will run at 1-7/8 speed (the pitch control is disabled in this mode). To switch back to high speed hit the "rehearsal" button once again. Why Fostex set this up like that is beyond me.
Although I got off track a bit (no pun intended), I think I’ve covered all the non-standard features of the XR-7 and features common to most all similar units. In summary I found the transport section to be smooth and accurate, the tape guides a little sloppy, the Dolby NR quirky and high biased (I don’t know if this can be user-tweaked), I loved looping tracks through inputs 5 & 6 because of the full features on those two channels (Still wish it had 2 more), the head monitor (foldback) is very flexible though a little confusing at first, and the head monitor effects switches for my money just take up valuable space. If this sounds like a slam-Fostex session it’s not. I really like this unit and do not regret buying it. Pound for pound it holds it own against anything else at that price.