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Fostex MR-8HD

Hard-drive based 8-track excellence, 4-tracks at once

By Naren Singh

Fostex has already earned a solid reputation for straightforward, accessible multi-trackers designed for musicians rather than computer techs. They were among the first to make digital recording available and understandable to the average financially challenged home recordist.  But with the MR-8HD, they've really outdone themselves. It's the first very affordable digital recorder to offer four-track simultaneous recording, and the first in this price range with a hard drive. This compact, lightweight marvel offers at least 15 hours of eight-track recording time at CD quality, a USB port, and the ability to burn directly to a standalone CDR drive.  All this plus the world's most intuitive recording process and a host of advanced studio capabilities make the MR-8HD by far the top runner in its price range.

Click to Englarge Four-way street
All the cool inexpensive little portable digital recorders made over the past few years have shared the same glaring, stifling weakness—none of them have offered more than two tracks of simultaneous recording. Anybody who's done much serious recording knows that isn't enough. If you want to record a stereo acoustic guitar, for example, two tracks of simultaneous recording don't allow you even to record your vocals at the same time.

Fostex has finally transcended that limitation with four-track simultaneous recording from four complete analog input sections, each featuring balanced XLR jacks with phantom power, unbalanced 1/4" jacks, trim pots, peak LEDs, and on/off buttons. The first input also features an insert TRS jack, mic modeling, and a guitar preamp with a distortion control for sweet natural-sounding distortion plus amp simulation and other cool guitar effects.

Fostex has very cleverly avoided the huge amount of operational complexity that usually comes with input-to-track routing on digital machines. Just as with the cassette multi-trackers of yore, you simply select the input, arm the recording tracks, and go. The lowest active input is automatically assigned to the lowest armed track. This simple operating system makes recording with the MR-8HD a real joy.

Though it's an eight-track machine, you're not really limited to eight tracks. The MR-8HD lets you record eight tracks, then bounce (mix) them onto two tracks of a new song, thus freeing up six more tracks. So it's very easy to record 14 tracks. The only drawback is that you're committed to the mix on those first eight tracks.  For my solo work, eight tracks is plenty, but with just a little mixing practice the 14-track method is easy to master.

Serious gray matter
The other critical weak spot for the man-on-the-street digital multi-trackers has been inadequate storage. The first digital recorders to dip down into the genuinely accessible area offered so little recording time that you had to go out and immediately buy a larger memory card.

That was especially vexing for guys like me.  I prefer to keep the original tracks around so that I can remix them to taste whenever I get around to making a compilation. With at least 15 hours of full eight-track recording at CD quality (16 bit/44.1kHz) on the 40GB hard disk, I could record three versions of every song I write for the next seven years without running out of disk space on the MR-8HD.

A USB port lets you transfer WAV files directly to or from your computer with no rigmarole.  You can use this function either to transfer your final mixed songs for burning onto CD, or even to store the original mono tracks for later re-importation or mixing on a computer-based recording system, PC or Mac. Free WAV Manager software is available on the Fostex website for this purpose.  This software gives you complete control over your MR-8HD's hard drive from the computer. There's also a S/PDIF digital out for digital mastering to an external MD or CD recorder.

Another really slick feature of the MR-8HD is the ability to drive a standalone CDR burner without the need for a computer.  Almost any off-the-shelf external CDR burner will work, allowing you to go from the concept to the finished CD with just the MR-8HD and a burner!

Stellar studio goodies
Aside from this feast of gourmet features, the MR-8HD sports a whole cupboard full of sweet recording treats.  An innovative push/dial jog wheel gives you quick access to a very intuitive menu system presented on a good-sized LCD screen. But almost all the critical functions are handled by sliders, knobs, and self-illuminated buttons on the top.

Onboard digital effects include several reverbs and delay plus the aforementioned guitar amp and mic simulations. There are 99 songs possible plus ABS time mode and Bar/beat mode for easy flexibility in managing your song's timing, with global time signature settings or song maps.  You can synchronize the recorder with external MIDI devices, such as a sequencer, using MTC or MIDI clock. The MR-8HD has all the cool editing features—cut and paste, copy, export, exchange, and erase. Dual headphone outs facilitate two-person recording with headphone monitoring while 1/4" stereo line outs let you plug directly into powered monitors.

All-in-all the MR-8HD is an amazing little unit that transcends the storage and simultaneous-recording limitations of all previous digital recorders in this price range, then goes a whole lot further. If you've been waiting for all the pieces to fall in place before you go digital, now's the time to make your move.