FOSTEX FR-2LE FIELD MEMORY RECORDER
Fostex portable recording just got, well, more portable. The FR-2LE is smaller than the FR2, has built-in mics, and a lower price tag.
Text: Alistair McGhee
Please welcome the FR-2LE stereo compact flash recorder. This little guy is essentially a spin-off of the larger and bulkier Fostex FR2 – itself a good product. The FR2 was (and still is) a reasonably priced, sturdy, flexible and easy-to-use location recorder, but it’s a little on the bulky side and its cavalier attitude to battery consumption would shame a pedigree Spaniel [çhé? – Ed.].
So, fair play to Fostex – it’s chosen to refine the FR2 design into this smaller, less expensive, and more battery-friendly device. The new Fostex FR-2LE is about the size of a large paperback – slightly smaller than my Linux in a Nutshell 5th Edition and weighs about the same (800g). Battery requirements are four AA cells; rechargeables will work, as will a Tamiya battery pack. The manual claims four hours life on a new set of Alkalines (eight on the Tamiya battery pack). But when I filled it up with Duracells, and with a Rode NT4 stereo mic plugged in and phantom power on, I got an hour and a half.
The amber display of the FR-2LE has moved to the top plate but the front panel features peak level meters, which are a reasonable guide to level setting, if not dynamic representations of every nuance of signal. The front panel also carries mic trims, monitor level, and concentric gain controls. All of these, though, are black-on-black, which makes it a little hard to read.
If you’ve handled an FR2 before, the first thing you’ll notice about the FR-2LE is that the build quality has taken a hit – but then again, if you’re used to the lower cost hand-held recorders the FR-2LE is actually competing against, you’ll probably think it pretty solid. I have an unhealthy obsession with doors of all kinds and the FR-2LE has two – a cover for the compact flash slot, and the battery door. Make sure you put the battery pack in the right way round or your battery door will bow alarmingly.
The Fostex has a couple of mic/line inputs on combi connectors – XLR for mics, and ¼-inch jack for line input. There are no switches and no digital inputs, and the analogue outputs are on RCA connectors, with headphones on mini jack. There’s a USB port for file transfer and a small internal speaker completes your output options. One new feature is the internal microphones: two of them (one on either side of the top plate), and two new menu settings accompany these – low or high gain – when the built-in mics are selected.
CHOOSE YOUR MIC
I had a bit of fun plugging various mics into the LE with pretty good results. The Fostex stands at the gateway to the professional world by offering XLR inputs and phantom power, although I’d prefer to have the phantom power selectable on a physical switch rather than as a menu option. I used Beyerdynamic and Neumann condenser microphones, as well as dynamics from Audix and Beyer. With a half decent pair of headphones, the differences between the mics was easily audible and so you can be pretty sure that as a recording tool the FR-2LE is giving you an honest insight into what you’re putting on the card, especially at the highest sampling rate of 24-bit/96k.
So in terms of making a decent recording, the Fostex is on solid ground. I’m not so sure about the built-in mics, although, understandably, I think Fostex has looked at products from the likes of Edirol and M-Audio and felt pressured into adding an on-board mic option that doesn’t really sit well with the package. It’s not the mics themselves that are problem – I recorded a nice little duet between my wife and I with her at the piano and me warbling (must remember to delete that off the card). But, unlike a hand-held recorder, you can’t ‘point’ the FR2, so the mics are best thought of as ‘note takers’, which isn’t a feature to be sneezed at. One feature added just before this review went to press was a mono recording option – because reporters will have to mono their recordings at some point if they’re working with a stick mic, which most will be.
Compact Flash storage continues to advance in leaps and bounds and once you get over a couple of Gigs you’ve left DAT durations behind. I think we can all just stop worrying about storage at this stage. I’ve never lost a recording from the FR2, nor have I had to come to the aid of any of my colleagues in difficulty, so the system has a good reliability record.
LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION
So did I like the FR-2LE? Well, in one sense, what’s not to like? It has professional connectors and makes professional recordings. It’s better on the size and weight front, though I still want more from battery life. My caveat is really about the build quality. The Fostex FR-2LE is an entry-level recorder and it’s wrong to compare it to its bigger and chunkier brother (or its DAT forebears, the PD-2 and PD-4), but then Fostex has invited the comparison in the naming scheme.
Strangely, one thing that did make a big difference was putting the LE in a soft case, attaching the strap, and putting it over my shoulder. As soon as you stop trying to hold it in your hand, the format makes much more sense. It stops being a bulky hand-held and becomes a dinky over-the-shoulder recorder. In this format, having all the gain controls on the front is brilliant (there’s also a handy little wired remote included), although I did find the front panel meters hard to read in bright sunlight. So I say forget the ‘FR2’ bit, and just ask yourself if you need these facilities and at this price? And if you do, get a nice case to put it in.