I've found a replacement for my aging portable DAT recorder: the FR-2 from Fostex. The FR-2 is a little larger than the DAT, but it's lighter than it looks. The control layout makes sense. Slide your right hand down the strap; the first thing your finger hits is the Record button, which is accessible but well protected from unintended bumping. The dual-concentric input-level knobs are right under your thumb, exactly where you'd want them. When you're ready to start recording, there's no session to create or files to name. Just turn a rotary switch to choose the sampling rate (from 22 to 192 kHz), flip a switch for 16- or 24 bit and another for mono or stereo, then press Record.
Each new recording ends up as a Broadcast WAV file on your choice of a PC Card hard drive or a CompactFlash card (not included) (see the sidebar “Media Matters”). After recording, pop the media out of the FR-2 and stick it in your computer (with the requisite card reader or PC Card slot). Drag your recording to your hard drive, and it's ready for editing or CD burning.
The FR-2 is about the size of an 800-page hardcover book. You can slip it into a bag or hang it from its sturdy strap; in either case, the long edge of the unit will face up. The front panel (imagine the spine of a hardcover book) is where you find the controls you'll need to access most often (see Fig. 1). The top panel (our imaginary book's front cover) contains the controls that you'll use less frequently. You can easily access both surfaces when using the shoulder strap, but if you slip an FR-2 into a bag alongside other equipment, the top-panel controls are less accessible.
Critical front-panel controls include a big, red positive-acting Record button and a smaller Record Standby button, which lets you monitor live input; it also pauses a recording in progress. Those critical buttons are well protected from inadvertent bumping. The front panel also has record and headphone levels, as well as a button to drop locate markers and skip between them.
A 1-by-2-inch dot-matrix monochrome LCD shows a number of details, including recording level, sampling rate, bit depth, mono or stereo selection, time remaining, and file-name information. Although that's a lot of data, it's efficiently displayed. A switchable backlight and an adjustable contrast for the display keep it readable in nearly all situations. A small click-and-turn menu knob selects various menu options and settings, which allow you to set the time and date clock, set the default file name for new recordings, and rename and delete existing files, among other options.
The larger top panel contains most of the set-and-forget controls using tactile, recessed toggle switches (one per function) and rotary controls. Sampling rate can be set to 22.05-, 44.1-, 48-, 88.2-, 96-, 176.4-, or 192 kHz, at 16- or 24 bits. Two flush-mounted trim controls with a 34 dB range let you adjust the gain of the mic preamps. Even with such a wide range of gain, the mic pre is somewhat noisy when it's wide open. The switchable peak limiter works well, and 100 Hz low-cut filters are independently selectable for each channel. There's also a small loudspeaker for playback, which I found surprisingly useful. It's nice not having to slip on headphones every time you want to hear a quick bit of a recording.
Play, Fast-Forward, and Rewind buttons are also located on the top panel. Holding down the Play and Fast-Forward buttons simultaneously results in double-speed audio, whereas holding down the Rewind and Play buttons gives you single-speed backward playback — a cool feature. Note that the Stop button doesn't stop a recording in progress; use the Rec Standby for that purpose.
See the Other Sides
Analog and digital connections are on the right and left side panels, respectively. In the analog section are a pair of XLR mic/line inputs, a single +48V phantom-power switch, and RCA line outs (see Fig. 2). The power switch is there, too. It's small and partially hidden by the removable strap's buckle, making it nearly impossible to turn off by accident.
The digital-connection side panel furnishes two USB connectors — one to transfer files to a computer, and the other to attach a keyboard for typing in file names. Fostex warns that a keyboard with built-in USB hubs may not work, and I couldn't get my Mac keyboard to talk with the FR-2. While I appreciate the option of using an external keyboard, the Menu knob was adequate for entering text.
The left panel furnishes digital I/O on XLR jacks; you can select between AES/EBU and S/PDIF format in a menu. Note that the digital input supports sampling rates only as high as 96 kHz. You must use the analog inputs to record at 176- or 192 kHz. I ran into a few issues when recording through the digital inputs (see the sidebar, “High-Sampling-Rate Issues”).
The FR-2's DC input is also on the left, using a slightly beefier-than-usual (but not latching) consumer coaxial power connector. (You can find a male version of that connector at well-stocked electronics supply stores.) For strain relief, you can thread your external power cable through a conveniently placed plastic hook.
The Powers That Be
The FR-2's battery implementation is adequate, but not inspired. Eight AA cells fit in a well-latched compartment on the back panel. Because there's no battery sled, you can count on spending a full minute swapping eight individual batteries and placing the spent ones away in your pack. Using the latest generation rechargeables, expect from one to three hours of operation between battery changes. Considering the physical size of the FR-2, I would have preferred an option for an internal rechargeable battery.
I often use an external EcoCharge system, which can power the FR-2 alone or the deck and other gear (such as my Grace mic preamp). Although the external battery adds considerable bulk and weight, I can run for many hours without ever thinking about power. One benefit of keeping a set of internal batteries is that if your external power goes down for any reason, the batteries will automatically kick in, and your recording will continue uninterrupted.
I ran a number of current consumption tests (see the table “Current Consumption”). Note that using a spinning hard drive draws about 20 percent more current than using a solid-state CompactFlash card.
What's My Name?
Although the FR-2 is almost as simple to use as a tape recorder, each of your recordings does need a unique file name. With a little forethought, you can come home from a day's field work with all your files sensibly labeled. I love this, as it speeds my workflow and improves record keeping.
Each recording creates a new file. All files go into a single directory called bwff. You can rename or delete files from the FR-2, but you can't split or join them as you can with a MiniDisc recorder, nor can you create subdirectories to groups files together.
There are two ways to name files. The first is a thorough time- and date-based name, such as B13h43m24s02Dec2004y. I prefer the second option, which Fostex calls its Scene/Take scheme. Using that method, you select a name from a user-defined list (by default, named Scene1, Scene2, and so on). Each subsequent recording inherits that Scene name with an incrementing take number appended to it.
I changed the Scene names to descriptions such as CREATURE, SCRAPE, and VOICE_OVER. That resulted in file names such as CREATURE_001 and SCRAPE_001 through SCRAPE_005. One minor problem was that the WAV files have a time-date stamp, but that information is stored in the last-modified rather than the date-created field. That means when you edit and save the file later, you lose the reference to the actual time of the original recording. I use the Mac OS X command-line utility SetFile to add the correct creation date as needed.
While recording, you can drop markers to use as locator points when listening back in the field. The markers are stored in the Broadcast WAV metadata, but I haven't found any Mac or PC programs that can read them. Instead, I find a pile of stray markers on the first sample when opening FR-2 recordings.
There's a lot to like about the FR-2. It's easy to use, and dedicated switches determine all the critical settings. The menu system offers many additional features, but you can explore those at your convenience; you don't have to dip into the menu while recording. The FR-2 has professional connectors and solid, easy-to-operate controls, and it makes fine-sounding recordings. You can even get an optional SPMTE timecode board, although my review unit didn't come with one.
Not to say that the unit's perfect: it is a little large and feels somewhat plastic. The battery implementation is adequate, but I'm not crazy about it. And the FR-2 lacks an onboard M/S decoder, which means that if you're using an M/S mic pair for single-point stereo, you'll have to wait until post-production to hear your recordings played back in left-right stereo.
But my few complaints are easily outweighed by the benefits of the FR-2, which I've now used for about four months in all sorts of situations. I've done a lot of recordings for the upcoming CD Field Recording All-Stars (www.dielectricrecords.com) — mostly in urban environments. I took the recorder into the field with a team from Wild Sanctuary (www.wildsanctuary.com) to record the ultrasonic calls of Townsend's bats, pairing the FR-2's top sampling rate of 192 kHz with the 50 kHz bandwidth of a Sennheiser MKH800 microphone.
The FR-2 is also a fine choice for recording music. I recorded an ambient drone band at a San Francisco club and a saxophone quartet on a street corner in Berkeley. I even used it to capture voice-over work. I chose the Fostex FR-2 instead of recording straight into my computer not because of its portability, but because of the feeling of confidence that it gives. The FR-2 has never crashed on me, and its input section has an analog limiter, which is a nice safety net.
I have yet to miss a recording, thanks to the FR-2's prerecord buffer. When enabled, the FR-2 is constantly capturing sound to a RAM buffer, even though you are not in record mode. When the buffer fills, the earliest recorded audio is discarded to make room for new sounds. When you push Record, the contents of the buffer are written to disk, followed by the rest of the take. In other words, the FR-2 is a time machine that takes you back a few seconds to the moment that you wish you had started recording, but didn't. That is fantastic when recording unpredictable sources. Animal calls, crowd reactions, train whistles — the list is endless. Rather than risk missing the beginning of a great sound or recording minutes of nothing, you can simply hang out in Rec Standby mode, secure in the knowledge that when something cool happens, you already recorded it. Of course, the deck needs to be powered on for that feature to work; it takes about 18 seconds from powering on to the start of recording.
We Have a Winner
I certainly haven't described every feature of the FR-2 here. For instance, an optional alert beeps if the battery is low, if you're clipping the A/D, or if you're running out of storage space. You can change the length of the prerecord buffer, control the metering's peak-hold time, and more. But what really sold me on this deck is its simplicity of operation. I'm sure I could strap an FR-2 over your shoulder, give you a five-minute orientation, and send you out to record, confident that you'd come back with the goods.
Rather than send my review unit back to Fostex, I bought it. The FR-2 is a highly functional and (so far) perfectly reliable recorder. I look forward to spending more time in the field recording great sounds.
Author Rudy Trubitt thanks Michael Grace, Toshiba, SanDisk, Bernie and Kat Krause, Bill Rainey, Charles Maynes, Scott Gershin, Bruce Koball, and Drew Webster for their participation in this review process.
Recording Tracksstereo/monoRecording FormatBroadcast WAVRecording MediumCompactFlash, PC Card16-Bit Sampling Rates22.05-, 44.1-, 48 kHz24-Bit Sampling Rates44.1-, 48-, 88.2-, 96-, 176.4-, 192 kHzAnalog Inputs(2) balanced XLR with 48V phantom powerAnalog Outputs(2) unbalanced RCA; (1) ¼" stereo headphonesDigital I/O(1) XLR input (software-switchable);
(1) XLR output (software-switchable);
formats: S/PDIF, AES-EBU (176.4-, 192 kHz not supported)USB 1.1(1) Type A; (1) Type B connectorLocate Memory99 cue pointsPower12V DC; (8) AA batteriesDimensions9.84" (W) × 8.66" (D) × 3.03" (H)Weight3.31 lbs. (without batteries)
For this review, I tested a 5 GB PC Card hard drive (model MK5002MPL, $199) from Toshiba and a 4 GB CompactFlash card ($399) from SanDisk. As the FR-2 does not include any storage, don't forget to factor media cost into your budget.
You can have either or both cards installed simultaneously, but you may record to only one at a time. After recording, pop the card out and stick in your computer's CompactFlash card reader or PC Card slot. It will show up on your desktop as a standard FAT32 volume so you can copy recordings to your computer's hard drive. You also can connect the FR-2 to your computer using USB 1.1 (recording and playback are not possible when the FR-2 is in USB transfer mode).
On my Windows XP computer, I read from the CompactFlash card using a USB card reader. My Apple PowerBook G4 (running Mac OS X 10.3) couldn't mount the card until I reformatted it on the Mac (use Apple's Disk Utility and check the OS 9 driver compatibility option to enable DOS formatting). From that point on, the CompactFlash card worked well everywhere. The Toshiba drive worked in my Mac right out of the box without reformatting.
Which media type is best for you? The spinning hard drive is much less expensive. I heard from two different sound recordists using FR-2s (with non-Toshiba PC Card drives), however, who encountered disk-write errors in extremely noisy acoustical environments (one was a low-altitude jet flyover, and the other was trackside at a NASCAR event). I suspect the massive low-frequency vibrations were enough to bounce the heads temporarily out of position. Though I didn't encounter any such acoustical extremes in my testing, the Toshiba drive I used worked 100 percent. Note that the drive did make an extremely quiet whirring sound during operation, similar to the noise from a MiniDisc recorder, but that isn't an issue except in the most quiet of recording situations.
CompactFlash cards lose out in a cost comparison, but they draw significantly less power, which translates into more recording time between battery changes. Additionally, I suspect that a CompactFlash card would be less sensitive to extreme vibration, as it contains no moving parts.
Both drives are fast enough to record at the FR-2's maximum data rate, 24-bit stereo at 192 kHz, which works out to about 9 Mbps. When you move your recordings over to the computer, be aware that your transfer times may vary. I recorded a 100 MB file onto both my PC Card drive and CompactFlash card (100 MB = 1.5 minutes @ 24-bit/192 kHz stereo, or 6 minutes @ 24-bit/48 kHz stereo). I timed the transfer of file to my PowerBook using several different methods (see the table “Transfer Times for 100 MB Audio File”). A rough rule of thumb is that recording at maximum FR-2 resolution will result in file-transfer times of roughly 1x real time. At normal resolution (24-bit, 48 kHz), you can expect a transfer speed of anywhere from 2.5x to 6x.
I initially had trouble making 88.2- or 96 kHz recordings when patching my Grace Lunatec V3's digital out into the FR-2's digital in. The resulting files played back at the wrong pitch and speed, indicating an incorrect sampling rate in the file's headers. While sorting out the problem, I learned something that applies to the V3 and FR-2, as well as other high-sampling-rate devices.
You'd think that a digital audio recorder would know the sampling rate of an incoming signal, either by reading a hidden flag in the data stream or by measuring the time between samples. And you'd be right most of the time, but not always.
Although there is a flag indicating a digital audio stream's sampling rate, the information it conveys is surprisingly limited. The S/PDIF format (IEC958) mandates a subcode flag identifying the current sampling rate as either 32-, 44.1-, or 48 kHz. What happens when a S/PDIF device outputs an 88.2- or 96 kHz audio stream? One of the three sampling-rate flags must still be indicated, even if it is wrong (for example, inserting a 44.1 flag into an 88.2 data stream).
In the AES/EBU format, things are a little better. It has a fourth possible subcode flag called “sampling rate not indicated.” That should be used when the actual sampling rate is not 32-, 44.1-, or 48 kHz. (An additional set of subcode bits in the AES3 spec can properly flag other sampling rates, but it's not clear how many manufacturers use this potentially more useful but optional flag.)
Essentially, S/PDIF may have the wrong flag in the subcode, and AES/EBU may be thinking, “I don't know what the sampling rate is!” What should the recording device do?
Regardless of the subcode flag, a recording device should derive its word clock from the incoming sample data (and the FR-2 does). But the FR-2 will attach any sampling-rate flag (even if it's incorrect) to the header of the recorded file. With the V3/FR-2 combination, then, the solution is to perform the following steps:
- Set the V3 internal jumper to Professional mode, or use AES/EBU output 2, both of which allow the “sampling rate not indicated” flag when appropriate.
- Manually set the FR-2's rotary sampling-rate selector knob to match the V3's output.
Some manufacturers work around this problem by adding hardware (at some additional cost). It's possible to design a circuit that measures the timing from sample to sample, thereby deducing the actual sampling rate, but the FR-2 doesn't do that kind of autoset. If you do end up with a file containing an incorrect sampling rate, you can change the header information with most sample-editing programs.
CURRENT CONSUMPTION Condition Current Draw (milliamps)
FR-2 power on, no media2155 GB PC Card, record standby5805 GB PC Card, recording6454 GB CompactFlash, record standby5084 GB CompactFlash, recording510LCD backlight on9Phantom power on (with 2 Neumann KM140 mics)10
portable digital recorder $1,499
OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4
PROS: Great sound and features at a reasonable price. Surprisingly easy to use. Clever file-naming system speeds workflow.
CONS: No M/S decoder. So-so battery implementation.
TRANSFER TIMES FOR 100 MB AUDIO FILE Transfer Method Time (minutes:seconds)
FR-2 reading PC Card over USB 1.12:34FR-2 reading CompactFlash over USB 1.12:37PC Card in laptop slot1:07CompactFlash in USB 1.1 reader2:01