Fostex Reel to reel tape deck – Summary

Fostex was a relative latecomer to the semi pro and home recording industry, bringing out their first tape deck, the A2, in 1981. Fostex only marketed to the recording studios, and generally speaking, Fostex wasn’t sold for home stereo use (although several of their ½ track mastering decks are used as such today).

Fostex A2

Fostex was the first and only company that made numerous 1/4” 8 track machines that used 7” tape, for a tiny, portable multitrack reel to reel that ran at 15 IPS. The only other company making an 8 track ¼” machine was Tascam, when they released their 388, combination multitrack and mixer unit. The Tascam however runs at 7 ½ IPS only, so a tape made on a Fostex cannot be played on a Tascam 388 and vice versa.

The summary of Fostex is pretty simple. Generally speaking, they were priced less than Otari and Teac models, so a ton of their decks were sold into the home and semi pro recording studio market. The decks worked well, and sounded decent, with a good frequency response. The downside of the Fostex units is that the design and build quality wasn’t as good as Teac or Otari, so 40 years later, the machines, especially the high hour units, don’t fare as well on the used market. Throw in a couple of lemon models (detailed below), and you may end up with a deck that needs a ton of repairs before it’s serviceable. Still,  many demos and albums were made on Fostex decks, and you may just have an album in your collection made solely on Fostex equipment.

The frequency of most Fostex machines are pretty similar, flat to 20Khz with the heads being in good shape, with  a typical 3-4db boost around 50-100Hz for that nice ‘tape’ sound. Consistency in frequency response between channels is good, and the weak point of cramming 8 tracks onto ¼” tape is that channel separation is less than decks  that put 8 tracks onto ½” tape. At the price point that Fostex was, however, the company did exactly as intended for their decks, and they were very popular in home studios.

Fostex also made a line of mixers and speakers as well as pro audio amplifiers in the 80s, designed to work with their 2 channel and multitrack decks. To also complement the decks, Fostex made wired remote controls as well as MIDI interfaces, to sync the tape deck with MIDI synthesizers, a large trend in the 80s.

A series

Fostex made  the A2, A4, and A8 7” reel to reel models, from 2-8 tracks respectively. All used ¼” tape.  The A2 and A4 were 3 head decks, and 7 ½ and 15 IPS, the A8 was a 2 head deck, so monitoring off the tape while recording was not possible, and it was a 15 IPS deck only. Fostex did make an A8L 7 ½ IPS model, however we haven’t seen any through our shop in the last 10 years, so our guess is that not a lot of the slow speed A8s were ever sold.

The original Fostex A8 had 8 tracks, however the electronics only had 4 inputs, so tracks 1-4 could be recorded on, or tracks 5-8 could be selected. Any or all 8 channels could be played back while others could be recorded on, so only having 4 inputs wasn’t too limiting to most musicians. The later A8L series had 8  inputs as well as 8 outputs, making the decks more flexible when recording.

The weak point of the deck is the transport, using belts for the capstan motor as well as the reel motors. While belt failure is expected after 40 years, the reel motors use two belts, and significant strain is put on the belts in FF and REW when the reel is full, so the belts tend to stretch more quickly than other brands of belt driven decks. Still, changing the belts isn’t difficult (usually!), and they are available. We automatically change all belts in all Fostex machines when they come in for servicing.

Other Fostex ¼” 7” decks

Fostex made a few other ¼” tape, 7” reel decks, including the 20, the 80,  and the R8.  The later models went to digital LED VU meters, and these are prone to burning the LED segments out, usually in groups of 3 LEDs, due to the way the display is matrixed within the chip that is embedded in each PC board for each VU meter strip. When one LED burns out, it takes 2 others with it. Failure of the LED VU meter strips is more or less expected with Fostex. We’ve seen some Youtube videos that show how the individual surface mount LEDs can be changed out, however this is very labor intensive, and generally isn’t worth doing. Most people simply live with the burned out LEDs, and use the working ones to estimate the recording and playback levels. Fostex still used belts for all the motors, which are a weak point  of the transport.

Fostex Lemon # 1:

With the last Fostex model made, the R8, Fostex cut a bunch of corners on the tape transport. The tape tension pulleys and pinch roller are held on with cheap snap-on plastic covers, which wear over time. Lose one of those covers, and you’ll be looking forever on ebay to find a replacement. Worse, the motor pulleys for the capstan and reel motors are plastic, and are press fit onto the steel motor shafts. Over time and with the heat generated with use, the plastic deforms, and eventually the plastic pulley slides off the motor shaft, and sits under the front cover. Our cure is to pull the front cover off (easy to do), roughen up the motor shaft with sandpaper, and then use an epoxy or J-B Weld to hold the pulleys to the motor shafts. We do this with every R8 we get in, whether the pulleys are slipping or not. This fix isn’t always permanent, we’ve had the odd pulley spin off a second time, so you may need to redo the repair again.

The capstan pulley has spun off on several decks as well, and there’s actually a 4th motor in the deck, that drives the cam in the middle of the transport, that can also spin off.

In addition, the R8 uses plastic caps over the tape tension lever pulleys, which themselves are also plastic. Ditto for the cap on the pinch roller. Once these crack or wear out, they are almost impossible to find, and since the pulley and pinch roller under the caps spin, so gluing down the cap isn’t an option. Finding replacement caps in good shape is almost impossible, as many other decks have them missing as well.

While the sonic quality of the R8 is the same as earlier decks, we far prefer the earlier, better built decks over the R8.

B series

Fostex released the world’s first ½” 16 track tape deck,  great news for the home studio owner. According to  one website online, Fostex sold so many of these that Ampex complained that they couldn’t produce tape fast enough to satisfy the demand of Fostex owners!

Generally speaking, the B series of decks was reliable, although the capstan belt needs to be changed every so often, and are usually toast at this point if they are original. Sonically, the decks are limited, the same way the 7” 8 track decks are, due to the narrow track width provided for each track. Still, at a fraction of the price of a pro 1 or 2” 16 track unit, the Fostex decks got the job done, and tons were sold.

The front of the unit unscrews, accessing all of the audio channel PC boards, with all trimpots being clearly labeled for easy adjustment of the playback and record settings (by a qualified tech!)

Fostex B16

The weak point of all multitrack decks are the heads (and are also one of the more expensive parts in the deck. Whether Fostex or Tascam or Otari, etc, once the record/playback head(s) have been run for some time, they develop wear, as the friction of the tape wears down the metal over time. Generally speaking, the outside tracks,  channels 1 and 16, (or 1 and 8, or 1 and 24, etc) lose contact with the head first, causing weak high end frequency response, or cause a variation of volume as the tape makes and breaks contact with the worn head. While eBay sellers have lots of used heads for sale, many are in bad shape, and it’s very difficult to tell head wear, even with a high resolution picture. We know what to look for, and have purchased several junk heads on eBay as a result of not being able to test the head in a known working deck. Many Fostex decks have come in with worn heads. This is a testament of how reliable the deck was in decades past, for it to be used to the point that the heads are unuseable.

E series

 The E series was a refinement on the B series, and Fostex switched to direct drive capstan motors in all of these decks.  We’ve seen the E-2 mastering decks through here on occasion, and they are solid tape decks for ½ track mastering.  There’s apparently a ¼” 8 track model available, the E-8, however we’ve never seen one. We have seen several of the E-16 ½” 16 track units through here, and other than the direct drive capstan motor, it’s very similar in design and performance to the B-16 model.

The digital VU meters in the E series seem to be a bit  more reliable than the small 7” machines, but on occasion we do see burned out segments on both the B and E series.

G series- lemon # 2 (sort of!)

The G series was the last of the Fostex multitrack decks. Additional refinements were made to the transport, with a jog wheel, and two sets of tape counters to keep track of where the tape was at, etc. Overall, the decks were great performers (both the 16 and 24 tracks when they were made), but…

Fostex G24 (credit to Teletech.ca for the photo)

Fostex switched to surface mount components with the G series, and double sided PC boards. Generally this wouldn’t be a problem, however the amount of heat generated within the audio PC board compartment is such that the electrolytic capacitors leak like crazy, which then eat away the tiny PC board traces.  Each and every  G16 and 24 that has come in has been a writeoff until about 2 years ago, and then we received a local Fostex in from a good client. He had some transport issues, but proclaimed that all 16 channels were in good functioning order. Curious, we opened up his deck.. and found that apparently some earlier G 16 and G24 models used the same PC boards as the E series of decks, that did not have the leaking capacitor problem. We’re not sure how many of the G series used the old style boards, but if you can find one of those decks, they are still solid decks for the most part.

Below are the two styles of boards that Fostex used in their G series of decks. The ‘old’ style board is a good bet, the ‘new’ boards simply cannot be repaired.

 

Fostex G16 ‘old’ style board (good)

 

Fostex G16 new style board (bad)

 

 

Fostex decks – good points

  • a budget conscious deck that generally performs well (with noted exceptions above)
  • pinch rollers don’t deteriorate the way other brands do (Teac/Tascam)
  • electronics generally are reliable, and need minimal adjustments over time (assuming good head(s)
  • a nice ‘tape’ sound out of these decks, with a 3-4db boost at 50-100Hz

 

Fostex decks – bad points

  • service manuals are written poorly compared to Teac/Tascam and most Otaris. Online scans can be missing sections or pages
  • digital VU meters are prone to burned out segments, which are very difficult to repair
  • power supplies can have bad regulators in them (generally easy to repair)
  • not as many available parts online as compared to Otari and Tascam
  • record/play relays on the 7” older decks can go intermittent. Certain relays are obsolete, requiring board modifications to get a currently available substitute to work.