Jim Betteridge opines on a resounding success
Only a couple of years ago I was moved to expound joyously, with a few reservations, over the fact that Yamaha could produce acceptable digital reverb for under £500, even though the R1000 effectively offers only two decay times and is about as quiet as the monsoons.
Today I sit with the Alesis Midiverb on my lap, with its 63 vastly superior presets, MIDI compatibility and £395 price tag and have the unmitigated audacity to raise questions regarding its value for money. Things are moving very quickly on the processor front.
The Midiverb comes in a black moulded plastic casing, with blue and white markings, and operates at -10dB line level as standard although a 0dB conversion is possible by changing a couple of resistors. Two of these devices can be mounted in a 1U 19" rack space using the soon-to-be-available adaptor; and incidentally, one of them will (quite by accident) slip into a spare space on a Boss Micro Rack rack. They feature an external, plug-in adaptor type power supply thus precluding any problems with induced hum and interference from that quarter.
In consideration of the name one shouldn't be too surprised to find MIDI IN and THRU sockets on the rear panel. These allow remote programme selection from another MIDI device, the only limitation being that you can't programme which reverb effect to have with which synth/drum machine preset — if you select preset five on your synth, you'll get effect five on the Midiverb, and so on. Worry not, however, for there is a small and inexpensive box soon to be available that will make such things possible. Even as it stands you should be able to select any of the one to 16 MIDI channels on which you wish the Midiverb to receive, although the review model would only work on channel one. It is important to point out that, once again in our effort to bring you news of the latest equipment quickly, the unit I looked at was a pre-production model, and though there will be no major changes, small improvements may be made to the final product, eg working MIDI channel selection.
It's a stereo system and can operate 'two in/two out' for use in-line with a stereo system, or 'one in/two out' when using it with a normal mono effects send on a mixing console. As with almost all digital reverbs, no matter what their price, any stereo input is actually summed into mono before being processed and in fact it is only the direct signal that is true stereo with the reverb being a pseudo stereo matrix effect. Even so this is an important facility to have if you're using it in line with a stereo instrument, and it is with such in-line applications in mind that a 'mix' control has been included allowing the proportions of direct and reverberant sound to be balanced. If you're using it with a mixer's effects send and return such balancing would be accomplished on the desk and the mix control would be hard over the 100% reverb setting.
Operationally the Midiverb couldn't be simpler. The controls aren't facing forward on the front panel, but are laid flat on a shelf-like arrangement. This causes no difficulty at all, and is probably easier to use, unless the device is mounted above eye level, in which case you wouldn't be able to see the two-digit LED programme number display — highly unlikely, I would have thought. There are only four front/top panel controls in all, all of which are rubber covered touch-pads with a good positive click action: bypass, MIDI channel select and programme number nudge up and nudge down. The 63 programmes can only be accessed serially, ie if you're on programme one and you want to select 63, you have to hold your finger on the nudge up button and race through all the other numbers. This is no big deal in practise, it takes under five seconds and the new programme doesn't take effect until you release the button. Of course, if you're controlling it remotely from another MIDI instrument such minor limitations won't apply.
The removal of four screws is sufficient to completely dismantle the Midiverb revealing a single, double-sided printed circuit board. Not only is this very neatly laid out, but all the chips are plugged into IC holders, as opposed to being hard-soldered into the actual PCB. All this makes for very easy maintenance.
Apart from the MIDI channel, there is nothing programmable here and the 63 presets are completely fixed. This might at first seem like a limitation, and of course in literal terms it is. But the presets cover decay times from 0.2 seconds to 20 seconds in tolerably small steps and with a wide variety of room sizes and colourations. In addition there are nine gated effects from 100ms to 600ms and four reverse effects from 300ms to 600ms, and bear in mind that you can still eq the sends and returns if you desire, or add extra pre-delay, gating, compression etc, if needs dictate. People tend to react against a lack of programmability, but in practise few actually make significant use of it. Unless you understand how reverb works and how to create the spaces you want, or perhaps if you have unlimited time and patience, being able to alter each parameter is not all that important. At £399 the Midiverb is aimed at downmarket studios, home studios and PA's, in which cases speed and convenience count for a lot. If the presets weren't much cop this logic wouldn't work, but they are well thought out and generally affective.
In digital reverberators the nature of the actual processing is very simple. Most of the time it's just a matter of adding or multiplying a couple of numbers dead fast, and there aren't many 'if x=y, then do this' — type complications to deal with. Presumably with this in mind, Midiverb's designer has plumped for a new kind of system known as RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) in which only a very small set of instructions can be implemented but at an unusually high speed: ideal for reverb. The use of RISC hardware is apparently a major factor in being able to produce such high quality reverb at such a low price.
Apart from hardware that will run at very high speeds, high quality, natural sounding digital reverb is all about writing clever software. There was no mention of how many bits they use or at what sampling frequency, but the review model did exhibit some low level noise at the tail of the decay, although this has apparently been completely eradicated in the final production model by a few alterations to the software. This kind of noise is generally more prevalent when using programmes of greater complexity which are often needed to produce natural sounding reverb. Hence there can be the trade off of noise against naturalism. Such noise is often generated because the same number of bits are used for the internal processing as in the original A/D conversion. Multiplying two 16-bit numbers together will give you more than a 16 bit answer, and so it has to be rounded down for processing, thereby creating noise — unless, like some upmarket manufacturers, you use more bits for internal processing.
Having mentioned the slight noise present on the review model, which hopefully won't even be there on the final product, one of the really striking features of the Midiverb is how incredibly quiet it is. At normal operating levels in a home studio environment, you'd hardly know it was in circuit and the chances are your desk itself will be substantially noisier. This is important when you are recording separate reverb effects on each of the multitrack tracks, in which case noise can built up to unacceptable levels very quickly. In this respect the R1000 is not good.
Generally a very quick and effective tool at an unprecedentedly low price. The effects range from natural halls with built-in pre-delays to different simulated room sizes, to overly dense, resonant ringing spaces, to crisp, snappy reverse effects and the obligatory gated programmes. It isn't absolutely totally perfect, but at the price it's as close as you'll get at the moment. Suffice it to say that I'm seriously considering getting one myself.
Review by Jim Betteridge
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!