Alesis Midiverb III
In the beginning was the Midiverb; the Midiverb begat the Midiverb II and the Midiverb II. Nigel Lord checks the latest incarnation of Alesis' standard-setting reverb.
Having already enjoyed its second coming, the Midiverb is now on its third - so what have Alesis added to their already successful formula for 1990?
IN OUR RUSH to condemn the system by which we are constantly entreated to upgrade in favour of "this year's model", few of us, I suspect, ever spare a thought for the hapless designer whose job it is to see that we surrender to our acquisitiveness and reach for the cheque book or credit card. But consider the lot of the designers at a company like Alesis: not only have they been lumbered with their own reputation for releasing gear which has consistently broken all barriers in terms of cost/performance, they also have rivals like Applied Research and Technology (ART) breathing down their necks, fighting for every inch of ground they gain.
I refer here, of course, to the battle of the budget reverbs, which, since the release of the original Midiverb in all its plastic-cased, controlless glory, has raged in R&D departments across the world - well, America and Japan, anyway. Following the emergence of Yamaha's hugely popular SPX90, a few years ago, it quickly became clear that the way forward was the area of multi-effects, where a single unit was capable of providing reverb, chorus, ADT, flanging and delay in various combinations - and, of course, under the control of MIDI.
The manufacturers would, I'm sure, argue that this simply represented the next logical step in reverb unit design, but I have a suspicion it had something to do with musicians and studio engineers soon realising that having 30 or 40 different reverb patches to play with sounded great, but trying to discern more than about a dozen of them within the context of the average mix was damn near impossible.
Whatever the reason, the user (as is so often the case with mass-market equipment), has come out on top, and with the current crop of machines offering three or four simultaneous 16-bit stereo effects at about the same price you'd have paid for a unit with three or four different 8-bit reverb patches a few years ago, there seems little for us to complain about. Certainly, this new level of sophistication has made them a viable (and cost-effective) alternative for guitarists and other instrumentalists - the days of dead 9V batteries and flangers taking the short way off the front of the stage may soon be over. There's no doubt that the specifications of the Midiverb III - the latest in Alesis' range of budget reverbs - would put your average double bucking, tube screaming, electric cry-baby effects pedal to shame: 16-bit, 16Hz-15kHz ±1db, 0.1% distortion and a dynamic range of 85dB - it features four fully-programmable effects, 100 factory and 100 user programmed patches, stereo operation and extensive MIDI control. Of course, it is finished in a rather conservative shade of black as opposed to the electric puce more familiar to our guitarist friends, but I'm sure even they could learn to live with it.
IN THE ALESIS scheme of things, the Midiverb III slots in just above the Midiverb II (which, I understand, is still available) and the altogether more sophisticated Quadraverb. It achieves this status by virtue of being programmable - which the Midiverb II is not - but having fewer effects and a slightly less impressive spec than the Quadraverb. Actually, given the multiple effects of which each of these units is capable, it is perhaps a little odd that Alesis should have stuck with the verb suffix in the naming of their products. I'd have thought they might be tempted to move away from the kind of name which suggests these are simply reverb units. But then, I don't suppose Alesis need any marketing lessons from me. All the same, people with no prior knowledge of this kind of unit (our guitarist friends, for example) might well undervalue the Midiverb III and that would be a shame.
The three other effects of which the Midiverb III is capable are delay, chorus (including flanging) and EQ. The last of these, EQ, though not, perhaps, an effect per se, is nevertheless highly useful on a unit such as this, as it can be applied individually to the input signal and to any of the other three effects, making it possible to determine the 'colour' of the reverb, for example. More on this later.
Being designed primarily for use in studio racks, the Midiverb III is a 1U-high, 19" rack unit with all controls situated on the front panel. These comprise: three rotary controls for audio Input, Output and Mix levels, a three-digit LED display, a pair of increment/decrement Value buttons, Program and Store buttons, Edit and Bypass buttons, selectors for the four main effects groups, three MIDI function buttons plus Mix, Configure and Modulation buttons. All audio inputs are high impedance for optimum signal matching to external gear, and this may include a directly connected microphone if you're prepared to put up with a little extra noise.
In common with most reverb/effects units these days, the Midiverb can be fed from a mono or stereo source - a stereo output being the result in either case - and when used in conjunction with a mixer, the Mix control makes it possible to separate dry and effected signals for connection through a send and return loop. Incidentally, though overall output level is not programmable, it is possible to program the dry/effected levels of reverb and delay using the Mix button. The chorus/flanging level, however, is fixed. Finally, there are Signal present and Clip LEDs to provide visual indication of input levels and the onset of distortion.
I won't insult you with a description of the Value, Edit, Bypass, Store or Program number buttons, but Configure and Modulation require a few words of explanation. In edit mode, Configure (in conjunction with the Value increment/decrement buttons) is used to determine the signal flow options available within the Midiverb. For example, in some configurations the chorus effect is connected directly to the output whilst in others it is applied to the input of the reverb or delay effects. There are 15 configurations in all, consisting of various effects combinations - though in all cases, the input filter of the EQ section comes first in the chain.
In a number of configurations, the Delay section is used to provide a pre-delay for the reverb to simulate the effect of very large rooms, whilst in others it is used as a conventional digital delay. Rather disappointingly, delay time is limited to 100ms in all but two configurations, and even here a figure of 490ms represents the upper limit. So if, like me, you enjoy writing percussion tracks which use delay as an implicit part of the rhythm, you're likely to find the Midiverb somewhat restricted, particularly on slower tracks. On a more positive note, the manual contains individual block diagrams for each of the 15 configurations, and lists the various effects possibilities available from each.
THE MOD (MODULATION) button provides you with the option of MIDI control over various parameters on the Midiverb using keyboard pitch wheels, modulation wheels, aftertouch, velocity, note numbers, sustain or volume pedals and breath controllers. The six parameters available for control are reverb decay time, reverb level, delay time, delay level, delay regeneration (feedback) and chorus speed - giving a total of 48 routing options together with control of modulation amplitude by either a positive or negative amount. This kind of facility, as you might imagine, makes the Midiverb highly useful in live situations, where a player may find it difficult to move away from his or her instrument - another indication, perhaps, that Alesis were looking to extend the appeal of this unit beyond that of the home and semi-professional studio user.
"In some configurations the chorus effect is connected directly to the output, whilst in others it is applied to the input of the reverb or delay effects."
MIDI control proper is established using the MIDI button and MIDI Mapping Program and Internal Program buttons situated on the bottom right of the front panel. MIDI mapping is less complicated than it sounds and is simply a means of setting up the unit so that program change numbers sent via MIDI may be directed to any of the Midiverb's 200 programs. As the manual points out, without MIDI mapping, selecting MIDI program number 23 would always select Midiverb program number 23 - which would defeat the object of MIDI patch changing somewhat.
Setting up a MIDI map is quite straightforward: once in edit mode, the MIDI Program button is used to set the number of the external controller whilst the Int Program button is used to set the program number of the patch you wish to access with it. Incidentally, all mapping functions are global and cannot be stored with individual programs.
IN KEEPING WITH its status below that of the Quadraverb, programming is restricted to two parameters for each of the four effects. These are accessed by first selecting the relevant effects button and then pressing the Edit button once for the first parameter, and again for the second. The first of the two reverb parameters, Reverb Algorithm, offers you a choice of 20 different reverb types from a list which includes halls, chambers, rooms, plates, reverse and gated effects.
The overall decay of each of these effects can be adjusted using the second of the two available parameters, Decay Time. This is quite straightforward in operation apart from its use with gated reverb effects where it is used to determine the length of the gated sound, and on reverse reverb where, for obvious reasons, it has no effect at all.
Combined, these two parameters provide a surprisingly wide range of reverb effects, and unlike some units I've used, the range is fairly consistent, so there is less chance of defaulting to one or two tried and trusted settings each time you switch on. And don't forget, the judicious application of a little high frequency roll-off (courtesy of the EQ section) can provide extra interest in terms of sound colouration should it be required.
When describing the Midiverb III as being stereo (as I did earlier), I may have given the impression that this applied to the delay section too, which it doesn't. Of course, in practice, being restricted to mono delays means little more than not being able to set up those intensely irritating ping-pong' effects which seem to crop up on most units these days (if you think you've just unearthed an underlying prejudice of mine, you'd be right).
Control over delay consists of two straightforward parameters for adjusting Delay Time and Regeneration (feedback) - which, when you think about it, is really all you need. As explained earlier, the maximum 490ms delay is available only in the last two configurations (14 and 15), which do not include any reverb effect. In all other configurations a delay time of 100ms is the most you have to work with.
To be fair, I really think you need to look at the delay section as being included primarily to provide pre-delay for the reverb programs rather than as a fully-fledged effects section in its own right. And this being the case, actually having a half-second delay at your disposal in any form can only be regarded as a bonus.
As with reverb, the first edit parameter in the chorus section allows you to choose the algorithm which forms the basis of each program. A total of 24 algorithms are available, divided equally between chorus and flanging effects. These two groups are then sub-divided to each provide six mono and six stereo effects, varying in intensity - from small to big depth, as the manual so quaintly puts it. The second parameter, Chorus Speed, gives you control over the modulation rate of the effects - pitch in the case of chorus and time in the case of flanging.
Switching between edit parameters in the EQ section is effectively to switch between input signal EQ and effect EQ. As explained earlier, the high-cut filters which form the basis of the Midiverb's EQ section may be applied individually to either. Roll-off is at a fairly sedate 6db/octave so it's not possible to produce extreme effects, but with a working range of 13kHz down to 160Hz in 30 steps the filters are quite effective, particularly when simulating the natural high-frequency roll-off which occurs in any reverberative environment.
"Beyond a certain point, you can do little to a reverb program which will benefit the music - the Midiverb III keeps you on the right side of that line."
Once again, we're looking at a facility which has been included primarily as a means of producing more convincing reverb effects, but it does have its place in tailoring the overall sound of the unit, which for those without individual EQ controls on the effects loops on their mixing desks and so on, should prove quite useful.
I should point out that in addition to the increment/decrement Value buttons, programming may also be carried out using the main bank of buttons on the right of the unit as a keypad. This is achieved simply by pressing Program and inputting a value directly using the ten buttons sub-labelled 0-9. Whether you decide to do it this way depends very much on what it is you need to input, but I found myself using the keypad more and more after getting impatient waiting for the increment button to step from program 6 to program 53.
On the rear panel of the Midiverb, there are no real surprises: standard jacks are used for left and right inputs and outputs and also for the bypass socket. which is simply a footswitch-controlled version of the front panel button. MIDI connections take the form of a single MIDI In and a MIDI Out or MIDI Thru socket, depending on whether the MIDI Echo function is enabled via the front panel MIDI button.
Finally, there's the simple but all-important 9V socket through which the Midiverb draws its power. As with all Alesis units, the Midiverb III uses an external adaptor, which, it should be noted, provides an AC output as opposed to the DC supplied by almost every other make of equipment - so you can't interchange adaptors. Actually, this is tied in with the fact that Alesis used to fit miniature 3.5mm jack sockets for the power supplies on their equipment. Though they prevented you from using any other make of adaptor, they had a tendency to short and produce a nasty spark if the plug was withdrawn with the supply still connected to the mains. All things considered, I think using the new sockets and sticking to the right power adaptor is the best approach.
AS MOST DEALERS will tell you, whatever its level of programmability, most equipment stands or falls by the presets it arrives with after leaving the factory - and effects units are no exception. The 100 ROM programs included on the Midiverb III, (despite not being described in the accompanying manual) are in all ways representative of the sort of results it is capable of producing. And for a unit retailing at just over £350, those results are pretty impressive. Without ever getting too bizarre, the programs are imaginative and cleverly conceived. In fact I'd go so far as to say I don't think it would be possible to achieve much more with what's available. Obviously each program is likely to be tailored to suit individual applications, and parameters will be tweaked and adjusted, but it really isn't possible to stray too far from what's already provided.
I think it's fair to say that on most multi-effects units, reverb quality provides the best yardstick by which it may be judged. And the Midiverb III, sounding a lot like the Midiverb II, really can't be faulted for basic sound quality. Smooth, with none of the tendency toward "ringiness" which mars a lot of reverb programs, it moves from small, live rooms to huge empty halls with consummate ease.
And despite its inherent limitations the delay section acquits itself too - even below the 100ms mark, you can coax enough slapback echo and ADT effects out of it to make it earn its keep. The chorus and flanging effects, though not the most convincing I've ever heard, are certainly very usable, especially at the more subtle end of the range. But you do need to optimise your signal levels if noise isn't to become a problem, particularly with flanging.
On the negative side, I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed by the three-digit LED display. Even with its restricted programming options, the Midiverb soon exhausts the range of conventional characters and starts to rely on cryptic combinations of upper and lower case letters which often defy recognition without the instruction manual in your hand. I realise that cost is a consideration here, but this kind of display should have died out years ago.
Beyond that, however, I can think of little to criticise. In releasing the Midiverb III, Alesis have effectively created a market within a market. I've no doubt that competitors will soon appear, but right now there's nothing to compare it with at the price. To my mind it offers just the right amount of programmability for an effects unit - and if that seems to imply I think some units offer too much, I won't attempt to deny it. Reverb programming is a law of diminishing returns, and beyond a certain point you can do little to a program which will ultimately benefit the music. The Midiverb III keeps you on the right side of that line and for that reason alone I'd recommend it wholeheartedly.
Price £365 including VAT
Review by Nigel Lord