A multi-disciplinary journey in music, sound, and field recording.

Gateway Drug to Bigger Toys: The Fostex FR2-LE

Posted: July 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: field recording, gear

(Part 2 of a 3-part series: Part 1 | Part 3)

The Fostex FR2-LE: superb value, challenging ergonomics in the field.

The Fostex FR2-LE: superb value, challenging ergonomics in the field.

Ah, yes. This little minx of a box was so very enticing and lovely: 24-bit recording, 96kHz sample rate, two solid and quiet mic preamps, pre-record buffers, FireWire, stupid-proof record button mechanism…why didn’t my relationship with the Fostex FR2-LE work out in the long run?

Now, before we begin, don’t let me lead you astray: I loved the FR2-LE…for a while. Many, many people will love it as their one-and-only field recorder, and that’s awesome. It’s an insane value, especially if you get it (as I did) as a refurbished unit or one with cosmetic issues. For the price, you make some compromises – all plastic construction, noisy headphone amp – but in terms of pure value, seriously, nothing can touch it.

I upgraded from the Zoom H2 because the H2’s external-microphone preamp was noisier than a colic child at a wake. Trying to plugging decent mics into it to get a clean sound was a total non-starter. With the FR2-LE (doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?), there was so much to like. For its price class, I got the preamps I deserved – really clean, reasonably detailed. Good times.

My relationship began to sour once I really started getting into field recording in a serious way, and two things arose that were problematic. The first was its insane system of needing to format Compact Flash cards for either mono or stereo. Yes, you had to switch cards to go from mono to stereo. Talk about killing the moment.

But the other was the physical interface. Now’s a good time to remind my readers that I’m a professional interface designer, and I totally realize that price point and device complexity are huge constraints in designing a great user interface for a device as deep as this one. The FR2-LE’s biggest failing is its controls being laid out on two sides of the device. This device is meant to be used while hanging around your neck; it has LED audio meters on the top, but they’re so pale as to be literally invisible in the daylight. If you want to see the much clearer LCD audio meters, they’re on the side (from your point of view with it around your neck). In order to see it without using another hand, you need to extend your belly, or use a knee, or some other kind of contortion. I’d need to drink a whole lot more beer to get enough of a gut to be able to see this data without A) using a second hand (uh, what if I’m holding a boompole?) or B) looking like a hunchback in need of a pee break. If Fostex fixed those top LED meters, I’d still be using this unit daily. I  bought a signal mirror and gaffer-taped it to the inside of its case, just so I could see those controls without needing to angle the FR2-LE in just the right way.

Invectives aside, after about twenty excursions, I started to realize that this was going to drive me mad. This just wasn’t for me and how I wanted to work, ergonomically speaking. (Again, props to all who love the unit, such as Ric Viers of the Sound Effects Bible and many at the Nature Recordists group.) For now, it sits as a rainy-day backup unit in case my newer recorder needs servicing, or if I need two additional tracks for recording a tricky subject. What’s supplanted the FR2-LE in my daily recording? More on that in an upcoming post.

For this post’s audio clip, here are some cool groaning metal samples from a cow gate in the hills of western Marin County, California. Rusty and resonant, just how I like it!

[Røde NTG-2 mic, Fostex FR2-LE recorder]

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