Alesis Microverb III
Now in its third revision, the popular Microverb has attained full rackmount status and boasts an incredible 256 effects programs. Nigel Lord is drowning in reverb.
They said it couldn't be done - yet Alesis' Microverb III incorporates improvements over its predecessors while retaining its "budget" status.
WHEN YOU THINK about it, the design and selling of a new piece of hi-tech musical gear for the budget end of the market must cause manufacturers more headaches than a unit at the top of the same range. Both have to provide value for money - but this is usually much easier for the public to identify in budget equipment. Similarly, both need to offer some technological improvement over previous models (and over their nearest rivals) - but make your entry-level unit too good and you're left with a problem as to what to include on units higher up the ladder.
Nowhere are these dilemmas more acutely felt than in the reverb/effects processor market, which, in case you've been visting a neighbouring planet for the last couple of years, has grown to saturation point, with units of incredible sophistication retailing for just a few hundred pounds. And with more and more models competing for whatever gaps are still left in the market, the pressure on manufacturers has grown in intensity and the need to come up with a best-selling design has taken on a new urgency.
Though they couldn't claim to have actually set the ball rolling - that accolade has to go to Yamaha for the 1983 release of its ground-breaking R1000 design with four (count 'em), separate reverb programs - Alesis have probably been responsible for filling more "U"s of rack space with effects processing gear than any other company. I'm sure that when it came to designing and marketing the Mk III version of their entry-level reverb unit - the Microverb - no-one will have been more aware than they of the need to pitch it accurately. Too sophisticated, and it would cast an unfavourable light on the Midiverb and other units in the range; not sophisticated enough, and they risk owners of the earlier Microverbs deciding it isn't worth the cost of upgrading. Too expensive, and they get overtaken by their rivals; too cheap, and they don't make any money. It's enough to give you ulcers...
Some of you might be wondering why it's necessary to produce a Mk III version of the Microverb. After all, the Mk II offered 16 first-class stereo reverb effects at 15kHz bandwidth - and if you shopped around you could often pick one up for about £175. What more could anyone reasonably ask? As of now the answer is 256 stereo programs including delay, multitap and other effects, individual low- and high-frequency EQ, a standard 1U-high rackmount box and a price which will still leave you with change from two hundred small round bronze ones.
MIDI is still not an option, I'm afraid, and the Microverb remains resolutely non-programmable. However, its extensive range of reverb and delay effects have been chosen to offset this rather rigid format and make this a machine of potential interest to both first-time processor buyers and those looking to complement an existing unit.
Before getting to grips with the Microverb III's sonic capabilities, I should just mention a few of its physical attributes. Firstly, the box. Whoever it was at Alesis that made the decision to put the Microverb into a standard 19" cabinet should be warmly congratulated. One-third rack size cases (which were home to the first two Microverbs) were not only a pain to accommodate, but always seemed to carry the stigma of "non-professional" equipment with them. And although the Microverb III is eclipsed by most other rack-mounted effects units in terms of onboard facilities, its performance cannot be judged to be anything but professional.
Secondly, knobs. As owners of earlier models will be aware, the Microverb was one of the first pieces of equipment to feature a revolutionary new concept in parameter control - the knob. Carrying the torch in this exciting new field, the Microverb III comes equipped with no less than seven of them - for control of Input, Mix and Output, Low and High EQ, and for selecting the effects program itself. For those not familiar with the idea let me explain that this form of control involves gripping a round plastic "knob" which protrudes from the front panel, and turning it either in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction.
The amazing thing is, including just a few of these controls eliminates the need for any sort of display: all the visual information you require is printed on the front panel. And it's so intuitive: need to tweak the high EQ a little? Just turn the knob marked High EQ. Fancy a longer reverb time? Just switch the rotary knob to the next position. Not only that but you can actually adjust more than one knob at a time, making it possible to listen to the effect of two parameters interacting with each other. Interestingly, I notice E-mu's Proformance 1 piano module (reviewed MT, November '90) used a similar system. Perhaps we're on the verge of a new era in technology. Anyway...
The rear panel socket complement, as you might expect on a non-MIDI instrument, is fairly basic. A pair of audio input jacks (the left doubling as a mono in), a pair of output jacks, a Defeat (bypass) jack for the connection of footswitch and a power socket (for a 9v AC adaptor) - and that's it.
ONE OF THE great things about reviewing the original Microverbs was that with only 16 programs, it was quite feasible to run through each one and describe the quality of the effect. With 256 to wade through, however, I'm sure I'll be forgiven for not offering a blow-by-blow account of individual effects.
Basically, all the most popular reverb types are catered for, and alongside Small, Medium and Large Rooms, we find settings for Medium and Large Halls as well as Chambers, Plates, Gated and Reverse effects. A total of 16 different effects for each reverb type are available, arranged, for the most part, in ascending order of reverberation time. In addition, there are settings for Short, Medium and Long Delay effects, for Medium and Long Regenerative Delay effects and for Multitap and other "FX" - again, with 16 different varieties of each arranged in ascending order of delay time.
For the most part, I found the effects comparable to those on units costing two and three times as much (though of course, on the Microverb, they are only available individually). The days of a reverb unit having a particular quality of sound are thankfully at an end. No longer is it possible to characterise an entire processor as being "ringy" or "woolly". There are still ringy and woolly reverb sounds around: the Microverb III has both of them, and in the right context they're very usable. But it also has a whole range of other reverb types to choose from, and to refer to them as anything other than stunning would be to admit to having become blase about reverb effects in general.
"To refer to the Microverb III's reverbs as anything other than stunning would be to admit to having become blase about reverb effects in general."
It's reassuring to see Alesis prepared to take a few chances, too. Ordinarily on this kind of machine you could have expected to find only fairly safe effects designed to please everyone but with no real character. However, the sheer number of programs has meant that some rather interesting reverb and delay effects have also found their way in and really do make this a fascinating machine to work with.
LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I often find myself in need of a secondary reverb unit for use alongside my multieffects processor which is frequently tied up providing one of those elaborate programs which demand all its processing power. In this respect, I found the Microverb III an excellent workhorse that provided an extensive range of sounds which worked well both with vocals and instruments.
To this extent, the absence of MIDI clearly represents no drawback at all. But what about systems in which the Microverb III would be called on to provide the sole source of effects? Well, obviously, life without MIDI-controlled program changes would be that much more difficult, but I don't think that the type of programs provided by the Microverb need to be changed mid-song very often. After all, when was the last time you heard a record which featured a change of reverb halfway through? Generally speaking, it's the more exotic multi-effects which require switching in and out, and this tends to obviate the need for MIDI on a unit like the Microverb III. Added to which, manually switching to a different reverb setting on the Microverb III doesn't generate any of the peculiar changeover effects which occur on some units. So, provided there is a suitable point at which to do so in the song, you could always switch in a different reverb or delay program by hand.
You might expect a budget reverb unit to be fairly simple in operation, but the kind of simplicity we're talking about here is one which doesn't compromise overall performance and ultimately makes this such an attractive machine. Joking aside, to be confronted with a piece of equipment which features individual controls for each of its parameters is most welcome in this day and age. I genuinely thought knob twiddling had vanished for good.
That said, you do need to consult the manual fairly regularly when you're trying to remember the effect settings for each position of the switch on the right of the unit - this sort of information would be included in the LCD on more expensive models. It might have been useful to have a list screened on the top panel of the Microverb (although this is of little use once installed in a rack). Happily, you soon begin to remember the settings with a little use.
Though the inclusion of EQ controls on a reverb unit is by no means new, having two separate controls dedicated to the job does seem to open it up as a means of tailoring a particular effect to your needs. At more extreme settings, you can achieve some pretty dramatic results too. In fact, using the delay effects, I created a repeated signal so different from the original it sounded like another instrument altogether. This was particularly interesting when creating rhythmic effects in conjunction with a drum machine.
Like all non-programmable machines, using the delay settings involves adjusting the tempo of your music to suit the repeat time of the effect. And this can be a little restrictive - particularly when working with other musicians ("could we slow down by about 3bpm, chaps, my delay unit's out of sync?"). In practice I found the delay times to be very sensibly chosen and sufficiently closely spaced (remember you have 16 settings for each delay type) to ensure tempo changes are kept to a minimum.
The Microverb's tri-colour LED isn't exactly the last word in signal monitoring, but it does its job. On the review model, it appeared to warn of an overload situation long before there was any audible evidence of one occurring. Given the rather unpleasant nature of digital distortion, however, this is perhaps no bad thing.
I'M SURE ALESIS would be the first to admit that the Microverb II was nothing more than an upgraded (and somewhat cheaper) version of the original Microverb. The Microverb III is, in all respects, the Microverb II's successor. More importantly, it's everything that a piece of budget audio equipment should be: competitively priced, with compromises made only in the facilities it offers, not in its audible performance. It does nothing my multi-effects processor can't do, yet after using it for less than a week, it carved out a niche for itself which was left open when I returned the unit to its box. Whether it represents your first foray into the world of effects processing or you're looking to use it alongside an already overworked reverb unit, the Microverb III will not disappoint.
Price £199 including VAT
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Review by Nigel Lord
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