Test Drive: Fostex FR-2LE Field Memory Recorder

BATTERIES AND STUFF

While Fostex includes everything in the box you’ll need to perform basic recording and playback on the FR2-LE, there are a few items you’ll want before you can do any serious work. These include batteries, a bigger memory card, and an extra USB cable for file transfer.

The FR-2LE accepts four AA batteries that can be alkaline, Ni-Cd (rechargeable NiCads), or Ni-MH (rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride, the same stuff that’s used in laptop batteries). I bought alkalines for my initial testing, but have since bought a rack of NiMH cells and a charger for them — check online for the best pricing, but they’re not expensive. In any case, you need to tell the recorder what flavor of battery you’ve installed via the Setup menu, so the recorder can track battery life properly.

The removable battery holder is a bit strange. It holds the four AA-size batteries, and connects to the recorder using a pigtail with a nylon connector. Another pigtail inside the battery compartment mates with the holder’s pigtail. The batteries slide right in to the holder, which has markings on it indicating polarity. At first it wasn’t clear to me what I was supposed to do with the connector and extra bit of pigtail once I’d got the batteries installed in the holder. Simply pushing it into the compartment did not seat it so the cover would fit without stress. Digging through the manual, I discovered that the small cutout at the bottom of the compartment is for stashing the connector, and another cutout on the side of the compartment is where you stuff the extra pigtail cable. Once I’d sussed that everything fit well, and having done it once I had no further trouble. But I recommend you look at the manual before installing batteries for the first time.

You can also install a single Tamiya 7.2 volt battery (used in radio control cars) without using the battery holder. Unfortunately Tamiya batteries come in several shapes, some models have a mini-connector that probably won’t fit the female pigtail in the FR-2LE, and it requires its own charger. I didn’t pursue this option.

Next, you’ll want a larger CF memory card. Fostex maintains a list of tested and recommended CD cards on its website, and you should definitely check there before buying. However, I found that the brand and model of card is more important than the capacity — the list shows that a 1GB SanDisk Extreme III card is approved, but I bought the 2GB card and it works fine. Just make sure that you get a Type II card from one of the recommended manufacturers, and everything should be okey-dokey. By the way, I was on the road when I found that 2GB card when at Best Buy for $45, but you can probably do better online. Still, not a bad deal for over three hours of 16/44.1 stereo.

Note that you must specify the audio file format for a given card — you can’t mix formats. If you’ve been recording at 16/44.1 and need to record a long program in MP3 format, you’ll have to transfer your existing recordings to your PC first, because you have to re-format the entire card for MP3 recording.

All Setup parameters are available on the multifunction LCD in pages. To begin, you press the MENU/ENTER button on the top and choose one of four submenus: File (lets you see, rename, mark, and delete recordings), Disk (where you reformat the disk, set a “reel number” for film work, and can check the disk info), Setup (where you set all the preferences, including engaging the built-in compressor and limiter, the 100 Hz high-pass filter, and the two-second Pre-Record buffer), and USB mode (for transfer, this turns the recorder into a USB volume on your computer’s Desktop). Pressing the Stop button will always take you out of Menu mode.

Finally, the Quick Set button lets you set the most-used preferences without dropping down into menu pages. Hold Shift and press Menu/Enter, and you can set the state of the ALC (compressor/limiter), the HPF, phantom power, and the input source without leaving the main display. Handy!

IN USE

Once you’ve set up the preferences, the recorder is truly simple to use. Connect a microphone, press Record Standby and set your levels, and slide the Record button. This is all quite convenient to do while wearing the FR-2LE on the shoulder strap, as it should be. The only minor inconvenience is glancing over the edge to check the record time, but that’s no big deal.

You can drop cue points or markers on the fly during recording, which make it easy to navigate your recording later. The recorder will name your recordings by default with the date and time for easier media management. You can rename them later while they’re still on the CF card, via the menu system.

When you’re done recording, you put the recorder in USB mode via the menus, and connect it to a PC or Mac computer. The FR-2LE formats the CF card in FAT-32 format, so it will shortly show up as a volume on your Desktop. You can transfer files from there using USB 2.0. It’s not blindingly fast, but it’s okay — an hour’s worth of BWF files at 16/44.1 took about five minutes to transfer from my 2GB SanDisk Extreme III CF card.

So, how does it sound? In a word, great. The FR-2LE is a significant step up from the other portable Flash recorders I’ve used. The mic preamps are very quiet, much more so than those in the Edirol and M-Audio recorders I’ve tried in the past. But like those units, there’s only about 40 dBu of gain in the mic preamps, so I had to crank the input levels on the dynamic mics I used, including an RE-20, SM-57, and EV 635A. Condenser mics fared much better and didn’t require as much gain. But even when cranked, the preamps remained quiet — the specs claim 85 dB signal-to-noise when cranked, and I believe ‘em.

The headphone output was not as quiet, as it needed to be cranked for my AKG-240s. But I confirmed that the additional noise was in fact coming from the headphone amp, as the recordings were clean even when the cans got a bit noisy. And the built-in microphones are really only suitable for slates or voice memos — their quality is not good enough for anything serious.

SOFTWARE UPDATES

Fostex makes software updates for the FR-2LE available from their website, and the process is about as painless as any I’ve ever experienced. My unit came with version 1.01 installed, and checking the www.fostexinternational.com website showed that they released version 1.10 in June. I downloaded the update and unzipped it, which yielded a .MOT file. I then put the recorder in USB mode and connected it, and copied the .MOT file to the root of the volume that appeared on my desktop (I did this on my Mac, but it works on PC as well). I ejected the recorder volume and turned it off. When I turned it on, the FR2-LE found the .MOT file and loaded it into the system. Done deal... sweet.

I should also mention that the early buzz on the FR2-LE included complaints that it lacked two features: the ability to completely delete a recording from the front panel (that is, without having to hook it up to the computer), and the ability to record in mono. The 1.10 version added a few goodies, but the important one is mono recording mode. You can now set the recorder to work in mono, doubling the record time in any format, although again, you have to format the entire card to work in mono, but since nearly all of my work is speech in mono anyway, this was still a must-have. You still cannot delete a recording and reclaim the disk space without connecting the FR-2LE to a computer, since Fostex say they cannot guarantee the integrity of the directory (and therefore all your other recordings) without performing the delete operation from a computer. In this instance I’ll take safety over convenience. But props to Fostex for listening to their users, and giving the people what they want.

WHADDYA THINK?

Despite the nits I’ve described, I like this recorder a lot, especially considering that it retails for $749 and seems to hit the streets for under $600. That’s a bit more than you’ll pay for an Edirol, Zoom, or M-Audio recorder, but there’s no question that the Fostex unit sounds substantially better. Keep in mind that this recorder is new and in short supply at the moment, and the street should drop a little in the coming months.

There’s really nothing missing here that is necessary for recording in the field. Most of all, the FR-2LE has been completely reliable in the month and a half I’ve had it — there’s not been so much as a hiccup from the software, and no hardware failure whatsoever. It’s clean and quiet, and does the job. I’m keeping this one.

The Fostex FR-2LE Field Memory Recorder carries a US retail price of $749.00. For more information worldwide, visit www.fostexinternational.com. 

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