Lately I’ve been digging out a lot of my pre-digital recordings (pre-digital audio, that is, although some are even pre-MIDI!), and it’s prompted me to spend more time in the present recording with old hardware instruments rather than doing most of the work in the virtual domain. There’s something about using hardware instruments that you don’t get with a computer. Even though most of the keyboards/beatboxes are actually digital, they still seem to prove more inspiring and result in more exciting recordings than a raft of VST simulations.
Of course, once you start powering up old hardware, thoughts turn to more esoteric methods of recording… Like, I wonder if my old Apricot PC will still power up?… Ooh, perfect boot – nice!… And before you know it you’re dusting off your MIDI merge boxes and heading into the realm of tape-based multitrackers and MIDI-syncs… All of which brings me to the subject of this post – the Fostex R8.
Above: 1990 UK pictorial ad for the Fostex R8.
The Fostex R8 was a cleverly marketed eight track reel to reel tape recording device. It was first announced in January 1989 as a successor to the Model 80. The R8's most memorable marketing campaign focused almost entirely on the machine’s MTC1 MIDI time code interface, and the hardware’s ability to integrate seamlessly with a Cubase package running on an Apple Mac or an Atari. Cubase was still a new phenomenon when the R8 went to market, so this was all very exciting and forward-reaching stuff.
The idea was that once the user had set up the R8 with a mixer and linked it with a MIDI cable to the computer, literally everything was controlled from Cubase, which had a dedicated driver-link with the Fostex’s MTC1, and thus recognised and commandeered the tape machine to the extent where the owner would not have to even touch the Fostex. In 1989 or 1990, this notion of a musician or home producer being able to sit in front of a computer and control not only all the MIDI hardware, but also all fully-synchronised audio tracks, from the software, with a mouse, was a very, very attractive one indeed.
In a well implemented system, time code could facilitate something which would feel, to the user, roughly in keeping with a virtual studio. And Fostex’s system was very well implemented. The intuitive, all-encompassing, graphical interface was extremely liberating for people who’d previously had to put up with laborious or haphazard processes and perhaps had to record tracks in stages, inconveniencing the musicians along the way. The brilliance of it was that household computers could not record audio at the time. The Fostex R8 presented itself as a kind of contractor – performing the role that the computer could not yet handle, but still completely deferring to the digital machine’s far superior human interface and putting the computer firmly in charge.
ARE YOU SITTING DOWN?
However, there was a price to pay. If not a Mac, you’d at least need an Atari ST, and Cubase was a significant purchase too (typically retailing at £399 standalone in 1990). Cubase’s brief predecessor Cubeat was still lingering around here and there at reduced prices, and that was compatible with the R8 too. Some specialist music tech dealers, however, would sell Atari 1040s with a monitor and Cubase already loaded ready to go for around £850. That was about the best you could do short of going secondhand or into back-of-lorry land. As you’ve probably guessed, these prices are all gleaned from 1990 UK dealer ads… After that, you’d be looking at around £2,000 for the Fostex R8 and a mixer, so edging in the direction of three grand for the full setup – and that was just to record. A good mic, a drum box and even a cheap secondhand synth like a Yamaha DX100 would take you up well over the three grand.
In 1990 that was some investment financially, BUT it was also some investment in terms of its value to the musician or home producer. We tend to be very blasé about recording options today, what with so much being available for free (although I’ve made VSTis and FX myself so I know that creating virtual gear can be as much fun as using it). But in 1990, very few amateurs had fully computerised recording in their lounge, and it really was a dream come true to have this kind of potential within the financial reach of a hard-saving home recordist.
If you can remember this era, and whether you owned a setup like this yourself or maybe knew some local home studio fanatic with a Fostex R8 and an early Cubase release, I’m sure your memories will be fond ones. Computer recording is so ubiquitous today that it’s inevitably become quite run-of-the-mill and uninspiring. But systems like the Fostex R8 and its MCT1 link, whilst not perfect and obviously more of a challenge to use than the average home studio setup of 2014, brought a magical feeling into people’s lives, and that magic would so often end up preserved in the essence of the recordings. I listen to some of my old tape/computer hybrid recordings today, and I know I could never recapture their magic in the VST environment. Music is a product of everything you’re feeling when you create it. If it feels exciting to create, it’s probably going to be exciting to listen to – forever.