ART DR2 Digital Reverb
A surprisingly flexible and easy to use unit that offers first class results.
The ART DR2 successfully combines ease of operation with true flexibility. Despite the fall in cost of digital reverberation, it still represents a significant proportion of any small studio's budget.
Originally, reverb devices were invented in order to simulate the natural properties of a live acoustic environment, but digital technology means that it is also possible to create unnatural effects that are artistically viable in their own right. Examples of this that instantly spring to mind are the non-linear gated effects and the reverse reverb patterns that have no counterpart in nature and yet are used regularly in contemporary music productions.
The DR2 offers no special effects as such, but as we shall see later, it is possible to go some way towards simulating these effects by combining certain of the the existing parameters. More of that later; first let's look at the hardware.
Discerning HSR readers won't need to be told what format the packaging takes but you may like to know that it measures nine inches front to back. I suppose we could start a new class war of U and non-U.
You might notice a similarity between the styling of this unit and certain MXR products, and that is not surprising as I am informed that the DR2 was created by the same team of engineers. The unit is not strictly speaking programmable, but the seven buttons on the front panel give access to no fewer than 1944 different reverb effects and just in case you think my O level statistics have let me down, some of the buttons have to be pressed more than once or in combination to access all the options. All the buttons work in conjunction their own red status LED so you know exactly what is going on at any given time and, as the photograph shows you where they all are, I'll move on to the subject of what they all do.
Firstly, don't look for the power switch because there isn't one, the unit is permanently on as long as it's plugged in. This isn't a bad idea as it stops you inadvertently switching it off whilst operating the controls and the reverb sound is in fact muted on power up so you won't suffer heart failure every time you switch on the studio.
The first button is labelled 'Preset' and this allows the user to store any two reverb settings for instant recall during a session. Any settings are stored when the unit is powered down and the same two settings appear at switch-on. Pressing this button steps through setting 1, setting 2 and bypass, so if you want to get from setting 2 to setting 1, you have to press the button twice. Because the effect is muted whenever a different setting is selected, hitting the button either once or twice in quick succession gives a clean change with no bursts of digital garbage to muck up your mix.
Though there are only three 'room type' buttons, you can access nine different types of reverb simulation; three plates, three rooms and three halls. Pushing the button steps through the first bank of Plate, Room and Hall, and to get to the other two banks you have to hold down both Decay Time buttons whilst pressing the Room Type button. In this mode, the Room Type LEDs blink and indicate the bank selected and this may be changed by again pressing the Room Type button, still holding down the Decay Time buttons. In bank select mode, the three LEDs indicate banks one, two and three respectively. Once in the desired bank, the Plate, Room or Hall options are selected in the usual way. This may sound devious on paper but it is in fact logical and quick in reality.
User selectable parameters include four pre-delay options from 0 to 75 milliseconds in 25 millisecond steps. Predelay is essential for the creation of many reverb effects and it is nice to know that you won't have to tie up one of your DDLs to get it.
"The seven buttons on the front pannel give access to no fewer than 1944 different reverb effects."
High frequency damping comes next, and this again is used to simulate an effect found in nature. Hard, bare walls reflect the whole audio spectrum very efficiently but a real room is more likely to contain objects and materials which tend to absorb high frequencies more readily than low ones. This has the effect of causing high frequencies to die away more rapidly than low ones and our brains subconsciously respond to this information in order to deduce something about the type of acoustic environment. Two levels of HF damping may be called up, if indeed any is required, though many modern drum sounds benefit from a very bright sound which is easily achieved by not using any HF damping at all.
Next along the panel is the Position function and this transpired to be an almost invaluable addition. This determines whether the reverb sound being simulated should match that heard at the front, middle or rear of our imaginary room and has a profound effect on the initial reflections stage of the reverb which contains powerful auditory clues as to the nature of the environment and the position of sound sources within it. The front position is characterised by a rapid build up of reverberant energy whilst the Rear position takes a perceptible time to reach its maximum level. As expected, the mid setting lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Lastly comes the decay time section which allows six choices of decay time for each room type. The exact maximum decay time depends on the room type selected and can vary from from 0.1 to 12.8 seconds. These steps are logarithmically spaced and so the transition from one step to the next is smooth and natural and doesn't leave you feeling that there is a decay time between two settings that you can't get to.
There is no input gain control on this unit: you have to set up the levels on your desk but there is a two position sensitivity button on the rear panel. Operating levels of either 0dB or -20dB may be selected and a four section LED meter indicates the input signal strength. However, as reverb involves mathematical manipulation of the digitised input signal, you really need to watch the OVF LED which tells you if the arithmetic processor is overflowing, a condition that will result in distortion.
This is a mono in, stereo out unit, as indeed are most high quality reverb units and all connections are made on the rear panel via standard jack sockets. There is an additional socket for an Effect On/Off footswitch and a Dry Kill button allows the reverb only sound to be selected for use with a mixer. If the device is to be used without a mixer, a reverb depth slider on the front panel allows the direct and reverbed sounds to be mixed as desired. A mono mixed output is also provided but the effect is so much better in stereo that you will be loath to use this.
But what does it sound like?
As usual when checking a reverb unit, the first thing I try is an electronic drum kit, in this case a digital one. On stepping through the different plates, rooms and halls I was surprised that the tonal/colouration characteristics were so diverse and all three plate settings exhibited the bright metallic property of true plate devices. One plate setting is highly coloured and fairly well damped sounding and would probably correspond to a small commercial plate damped by laying a towel over it. The other two are slightly less coloured and have longer decay times so I would equate these with larger plates with little or no damping.
All three room settings create the illusion of rooms of different sizes and the varying amounts of colouration, presumably produced to simulate natural comb filtering in parallel sided enclosures, give a good range of basic room characteristics. In all cases it's possible to create a far longer maximum decay time than you could reasonably expect from a typical empty room, so in this respect you are not confined to natural effects.
"By using the Rear setting in conjunction with the shortest reverb decay time and a little pre-delay, it is possible to create a reversed or non-linear effect."
The halls are a much more cavernous proposition entirely, the colouration being present at much lower frequencies, thereby creating the illusion of immensity. Again all three choices are subtly different and they are useful for enhancing vocals when set to a suitable decay time. As intimated earlier, the 'Position' setting has a profound effect on the character of the reverberant sound and I confess to being impressed by the sound produced by the 'Rear' setting as this gives a powerful rush of reverb with a slightly softer attack than the 'Front' setting. This effect is probably a bit over the top for drum treatments, one of the plates or rooms combined with a front setting gives a more natural, tighter effect.
All the simulations benefit from a little pre-delay which is of course generated by the DR2 as outlined earlier. So far so good but without any HF damping, all the sounds are far brighter than their natural counterparts unless you are used to recording in the hold of an oil tanker. This is not a bad thing however, (no - not playing on an oil tanker - the bright sound!) as this very bright treatment can be very flattering to electronic instruments and is a vital ingredient in producing brash gated drum sounds. By setting the HF damping to High, the top end decays at a faster rate than the mid and low frequencies which is more in keeping with the way a man made room behaves; the undamped settings sound more like what you would expect from a cave with its hard walls. Personally, I found the intermediate damping setting to be too subtle and it would have made more sense to use the present maximum setting as the mid setting and to introduce a more severe maximum setting. This is not a big problem however, as it is simple to roll a little top end off at the desk which has the added benefit of improving the already excellent noise performance.
I used this unit extensively on percussive material, conventional instruments and vocals, all with good results but its usefulness doesn't stop at creating straightforward reverb effects. By selecting a suitable room and setting a very short decay time, the programme material may be enhanced so that it sounds as though it's being played in that room but without any noticeable reverb being added. As this is a stereo unit, any mono sound source treated in this way may be given a stereo identity and the pre-delay may be used in its own right to produce short slap-back reverb effects if used with very short reverb decay times.
Finally I hinted that there was some way of creating some 'special effects' using the DR2. By using the Rear setting in conjunction with the shortest reverb decay time and a little pre-delay, it is possible to create a gated or non-linear effect and some of the room types give a reverse attack character to the sound. If no HF damping is used, this tactic can produce some interesting contemporary drum sounds.
Falling as it does somewhere between budget digital reverbs and ultra-sophisticated room simulators, this unit performs very well with only a few minor criticisms. Firstly there was an audible hum from the transformer of the device, not a serious one but it shouldn't have been there all the same. No hum or significant noise was present on the output but the presence of even a low mechanical hum in a studio can be very annoying. This problem may well be confined to my review sample so listen carefully to the unit you intend to buy. Next we have the absence of input level controls. This is fine if you are using a mixer but it could make stand alone use difficult or even impossible - and stand alone use is obviously meant to be possible otherwise there wouldn't be a reverb depth control would there?
Well that's enough nitpicking because this really is an impressive sounding unit that sounds as clean and bright as you could ever want it. With the latest fad for programme memories or MIDI control, this system of operation may seem a little dated, but in practice, any reverb patch can be set up in seconds and you do have the preset function which allows for instant switching between any two previously decided patches. The other advantage is that you don't need a member of MENSA to guide you through the handbook, in fact you hardly need the handbook at all. MIDI control is attractive for live use or synth based recording sessions, but it can be a problem having to sit with a DX7 on your lap when mixing, just to execute a fast patch change.
Where this unit really scores though is in the sound department, and even though most home based recordists will have to think at least twice before laying out £1200, the potential improvement in the overall sound of your recordings makes it worthy of very serious consideration.
Further information is available from; Turnkey Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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