Test Drive: The Fostex D-20 Digital Master Recorder


by Jerry Vigil

Even in a recession, you see it. When a $20,000 console will do the job, it's the $70,000 console that gets purchased. When an analog 8-track will do the job, it's the latest digital workstation that's selected, at several times the price. Some stations simply won't settle for second best, at anything. (Maybe that's why many of them are winners.) This drastic price swing occurs with DAT machines as well as consoles and multi-track recorders. You can buy a DAT deck for under $600, or you can get one for five figures. You can buy a new Ford Escort, or you can save up for a new Mercedes Benz. Both DAT decks will record and playback digital audio, and both cars will get you to work.

This month we take a look at one of several high-end DAT decks on the market. The Fostex D-20, together with its $800 remote control, is yours for only $9,300! The D-20 has been around for a couple of years, but there are still only a few DAT decks available that can do some of the tricks the D-20 can do.

What kind of tricks? How about a vari-speed function just like the one on your analog 2-track reel-to-reel? It's easy to understand how vari-speed works in the analog world, but the D-20 is reading ones and zeros off the tape, slowing down (or speeding up) the tape, converting the ones and zeros into audio, and changing the pitch of it, all at once! Impressive or not, this is a trick in the digital world that involves a bit more than speeding up the capstan motor. The range of the vari-speed is plus or minus ten percent, and it sounds incredibly good in either direction. Is entering the vari-speed mode any different that doing so on an analog deck? Not really. A simple key punch enters the mode and "+" and "-" keys alter the speed. Speed is adjustable in .1% increments, and the current speed is displayed on the LED readout.

What other tricks? It was especially nice to see a DAT deck capable of numbering programs beyond ninety-nine. In radio production, if you're archiving, let's say, ten-second sweepers, and you're putting them on a 120-minute tape, you'll run out of program numbers before you use up the first twenty minutes of the tape. The D-20 adds that third digit to the program number. If it weren't for the fact that start IDs need about nine seconds of tape for each ID, the D-20 could probably record up to 999 start IDs on one 120-minute DAT. However, 120 minutes divided by nine seconds is 800 start IDs, and that's the most you'll get on a DAT until lengths longer than 120 minutes are available. The unit itself won't let you record an ID number larger than 799. Still, when you're used to stopping at 99, eight hundred is several times more than enough! This figure of 800 is really theoretical. The manual suggests that nine seconds be placed between each start ID (which itself is nine seconds long). This is probably to ensure accurate program search operations. Therefore, the shortest program you could have would take up nine seconds for the start ID. Add nine more seconds after that, and you get a minimum of eighteen seconds per program. That gives you, more realistically, a maximum of 400 programs on a 120-minute DAT. Still plenty! If you master promos to DAT, and they average forty seconds each, figure on being able to get about 180 promos on one 120-minute DAT. The high numbering capability also makes DAT more feasible for storage of sound effects and other production "work parts."

Any more tricks? The punch-in/out recording on the D-20 is pretty slick! Not only is it slick, but punching in and out is just as easy to do as it is on a reel-to-reel deck. Monitor outputs on the rear panel let you hear the playback of the tape. When you're ready to punch in, press PLAY and RECORD simultaneously. You're instantly and digitally punched in. The monitor outputs switch from playback audio to input audio as you'd expect. To punch out, press PLAY. The monitor output switches back to playback. Don't forget, this is digital punch-in/out, so digital crossfading is available. The crossfade time on the D-20's punch-in/out function is 10ms. If you're the kind of producer who does a lot of punch-in/out recording of voice tracks, this is a feature you'll enjoy. The D-20 makes it possible to record those voice tracks digitally, ensuring not only smooth, clean punch-ins and punch-outs, but clean digital audio as well.

The punch-in/out recording and digital crossfading is made possible by the D-20's 4-head design. This also allows for "off-the-tape" monitoring or the ability to listen to playback as you record. The delay time between the input and the playback signal is 200ms.