ART Multiverb Alpha
In their efforts to establish their signal processors as strongly in the UK as they have in the States, ART can't seem to bring out enough effects units. Nigel Lord evaluates the ART with aspirations to be number one.
They say you can never have enough reverb units - and to keep your options as wide as ever, ART offer us the Multiverb Alpha.
And still they come. More effects processors than you can shake a MIDI lead at. There was a time when it was easy to keep track of effects unit genealogies; now things are rather more complex. As more and more machines are released (often with the models they're intended to replace still selling well) the punter faces a bewildering variety of prefixes and suffixes to the universal "...Verb" common to almost all their names.
Additionally, an increasing number of more specialised units are beginning to emerge, with models directed exclusively at the guitar, vocal and studio user. Before you begin to assess the subjective difference between dark, medium hall reverbs and warm, large room reverbs, you're faced with a considerable amount of decision making which ultimately can only be resolved by the money you have in your pocket and (I suspect), by whatever models they happen to stock at your local music store.
Latest in the plot to confuse the hell out of potential purchasers of effects units is the proclivity towards 20- and 24-bit processing technology, "performance" MIDI, and in the case of the new Multiverb Alpha, the addition of a new acronym - ASIC - or Application Specific Integrated Circuit, as we in the trade have been told. What it all adds up to is a full 20kHz bandwidth, better than 90dB signal to noise ratio, 50 different effects - six of which may be used simultaneously - 200 memory locations (including 110 factory presets), full programmability of all parameters and a price tag which brings it in at under £350, if you don't count the government's bit.
Helping to lift the Alpha above the commonplace is a built-in sampling facility offering just under two seconds of sampling time and a pitch transposer which not only provides an impressive two octaves of shift, but may be programmed simultaneously with other effects - including memory-devouring hall reverb patches. So this competition business might not be such a bad thing after all.
The first thing you notice about the Multiverb Alpha is its rather large knob (the great British double entendre outlives Frankie Howerd). To you and me this is simply a data entry knob; to ART, however, it is the Alpha's multi-function rotary encoder. Whatever you choose to call it, it makes programming easier and is certainly a tremendous improvement over increment/decrement buttons.
The reluctant programmer should also find life made simpler by the inclusion of a two-line LCD and a large LED for numerical patch identification. Other hardware includes MIDI In, Out and Thru ports, four unbalanced standard jacks for stereo input and output of signals and an external 9V dc supply (the Alpha is itself mains powered) for connection of the X15 remote MIDI footswitch unit. Input and output levels are controlled by two front-panel sliders together with three LEDs to indicate signal present (green), normal (yellow) and clipped (red) states. Unlike many comparable machines, the Alpha does not come equipped with a "hard" mix control, but is instead designed to have its dry/effect levels programmed individually for each preset.
Selecting a preset summons forth a patch number in the LED window and a patch name on the LCD, with a brief outline of the effects included. In addition to the aforementioned reverb and pitch transpose effects, these are: seven-band equalisation, acoustic environment simulation, low-pass filtering, flanging, chorus, panning and delay - all fully programmable and selectable individually or in combination. Though some repositioning of effects is possible, the chains into which they are slotted are preset by the Alpha, and thus it's not as flexible as it might at first appear. But in practice, the chains are quite logical and preclude the need for constant reassembly every time you set up your own patch.
As you might expect, the seven-band equaliser comes first in the chain and offers a healthy 15dB of cut or boost at 40Hz, 100Hz, 250Hz, 640Hz, 1.6kHz, 4kHz and 10kHz. Gain adjustment is unfortunately divided into six steps rather than being continuously variable, but this is still a very usable facility which benefits from its essentially analogue design (it is only controlled digitally, it is not digital in operation).
Also offering EQ facilities, though not programmable, is the Acoustic Environment Simulator which provides a range of mid- to high-frequency sound-absorbency simulations intended to recreate the effects of different acoustic environments. Thus, we find such presets as 'Dead Room', 'Heavy Carpet', 'Ceiling Drape' and 'Open Ambience'. Exactly how effective or accurate these are has to be seen in terms of their use alongside other effects (most notably reverberation) - and in relation to cost. Accurate room simulation doesn't come cheap and you'd be lucky to find it on units many times the price of the Alpha.
Like the seven-band EQ, this is essentially an analogue stage; digital processing only begins in earnest with the introduction of the Low Pass Filter which offers some 30 roll-off frequencies to choose from. There are no further parameter adjustments to be made here - surprisingly not even for roll-off amount - but this is, nevertheless, an indispensable link in the chain of Alpha presets and offers quite accurate filtering of the effects side of the signal.
As mentioned earlier, a full octave of pitch shift in either direction is possible using the Alpha's pitch transposer, and there's a choice of three types of transposition also available. Basically, you have to decide between how clean or smooth you want the transposition to be and how quick. Though Normal offers a pretty usable compromise setting for most applications, you can also opt for Quick, which, as its name suggests, provides a shorter processing delay time (traded against quality) and Smooth, which results in a cleaner, more precise sound (traded against speed).
"This is a confident, assured performer which, no matter how many competitors it may be faced with, will hold its own for some time to come."
Obviously rhythmic-based sounds require processing at the faster speed and, being of brief duration, would probably not require transposition at such high quality. Synth or vocal sounds, on the other hand, benefit from the quality of the Smooth setting, and in many cases are actually improved by the introduction of a slight delay in the onset of the transposed pitch. The choice, as ever, is yours.
Normally, pitch shift is adjusted in half-step increments over the two-octave range, but a Fine facility is also available and offers tuning in six-cent steps over a range of ±4 semitones. All processing is strictly mono, I'm afraid, but there is a regeneration function which makes possible incremental pitch shifts when used in conjunction with delay effects. In these days of intelligent pitch shifters, it should also be stressed that what the Alpha offers in this department is likely to be of limited use for vocal applications and so on, but in terms of thickening and adding depth or top end to sounds, it fits the bill rather well.
I could also say this of the flanger and chorus stages but we've come to expect this, given the number of years these have been included in effects processors (not to mention the relatively light demands they make on processors). Nevertheless, the Alpha is equipped with two very worthy examples, and offers control over width, speed and regeneration in the case of the flanger and width, speed and delay in the case of chorus.
Both effects may be programmed to occur either before or after other delay effects in the Alpha's preset chains - much depends on the complexity of the input signal. Obviously, where a relatively pure signal is present, routing this through the reverb and/or delay stages first gives the flanger or chorus rather more to work with. And this can make a considerable difference in terms of the richness of the effect.
One processing effect which really does seem to have come of age recently is that of auto-panning, and reflecting this, the Alpha offers not only control over speed and modulation depth (stereo width), but also makes possible MIDI control over pan position in real time. Tremelo effects are also available here and, like pan, can be adjusted for speed and depth, though I have to say I'm damned if I've ever found a use for tremelo modulation in all the years I've been using signal processors.
Reverb, of course, is an altogether different matter and, despite the tremendous strides made by all the leading manufacturers in recent years, is perhaps the effect which above all determines the fate of multieffect processors such as this. The Alpha divides its reverb patches into two main categories - natural and gated - and within this broad division lie three sets of reverb algorithms which vary in terms of complexity and quality.
Reverb 1 patches represent the most simple and are normally only used in multi-effect setups where quality is not of paramount importance. Reverb 2 patches are more complex (and therefore of higher quality) and tend to use longer delay times to simulate a more natural reverberatory effect. The highest complexity/quality reverbs, however, are found in the Reverb 3 category and are intended to be selected wherever reverb is used in isolation.
Within each of these categories, you'll find plate, room, vocal and hall effects of considerable character and realism - each of them adjustable for decay, damping, position (front to rear), level and (in the case of type three reverbs), diffusion. Maximum decay time is an impressive 25 seconds and, like the flange and chorus effects mentioned earlier, it is possible to place reverbs either before or after any delay effects that may be programmed as part of the same preset.
Gated reverbs are also well represented on the Alpha. Again they're divided into three types and again, these divisions relate to the level of complexity of the reverb. Gate-verb 1 and Gate-verb 2 both feature forward and reverse-gated algorithms which are less complex than Gate-verb 3 settings. But whereas Gate-verb 1 patches are more dense than Gate-verb 2, they also have shorter delay times. In all cases you are limited to control over two parameters (not including level) - decay and diffusion - but there is a further choice to make in terms of the decay envelope, which includes sloped, flat and reverse settings.
And talking of choice, if it's delay you want, you'll find stereo, regenerative and multi-tap options on the menu, each broadly divided into long or short settings. Of course, delay time is fully adjustable within these ranges - up to a maximum of 1100ms for regenerative and multi-tap effects and 1300ms for stereo delays - and you'll find a full complement of control parameters to assist with the accurate setting up of DDL patches.
"The Alpha is the type of unit which is bought by those in need of a good all-round effects processor, and that is where its real strength lies."
In case you were wondering, independent settings for each side of the stereo delay are possible and combined with this is a high-frequency filter which allows you to progressively roll off the HF content of delayed signals over successive repeats. In multi-tap mode, repeats can be of progressively lengthened or shortened spacing and may also be programmed to increase or decrease in volume.
Finally, we come to what could be considered the Alpha's ace in the hole - the sampler. With almost two seconds of sampling time available, this is clearly going to be a much-used option for those without samplers or those whose samplers are overburdened by their musical requirements.
But a single line in the instruction manual sums up the Alpha's shortcomings here: "You cannot store an audio sample". It's especially annoying when you learn that using the sampler doesn't preclude the use of reverb: Type 1 and 2 patches are still available and may be combined with samples, providing they're of short duration.
You can edit samples to adjust their start and end points, tune them, set one-shot or repeat modes and fire them manually, using an audio trigger or via MIDI. All it seems you cannot do is save your hard-earned work for later use, either internally or via a MIDI dump. Such is life at the budget end of the market - you'll just have to save samples on cassette or DAT and re-sample them each time you switch on. So near and yet so far...
I have to confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by performance MIDI systems. Even in a live situation, the prospect of being able to adjust, in real time, a flanger's regeneration level or reverb decay time seems unattractive to me. Whether you consider this a realistic or worthwhile facility or not, this is what the Alpha's MIDI performance facility is all about. Up to eight individual parameters may be controlled in this way, with recognition of MIDI controllers #0-#120.
In conjunction with a soft- or hardware-based sequencer, performance MIDI does perhaps start to make more sense, but again, apart from real-time control over EQ effects (which is admittedly useful at times), I cannot see this being considered an indispensable part of the Alpha's design. This is particularly true given its reluctance to handle fast MIDI data changes from external controllers - which I would have thought the sine qua non of any performance. Under these circumstances you're too frequently confronted with a MIDI Data Error message.
In many ways, I think the creative chapter of performance MIDI has yet to be written. As a real-time MIDI device, the Alpha is well appointed but it still has limitations - perhaps the most important of which is likely to be the user's imagination. We shall see.
With so many effects processors on the market, any new contender is likely to stand or fall on the strength of its onboard presets. If creative naming of effects were any measure of their appeal, the Multiverb Alpha would score highly indeed: 'Summer Ballroom', 'Afterburner', 'Glasscutter', 'Watchtower', 'China Dreams'... It's all evocative stuff but inevitably the Alpha falls some way short of providing an accurate sonic representation of this rather emotive language.
Nevertheless, what we have here is a very inventive and usable set of presets, grouped together to provide "areas" of the best effects for percussion, vocal and guitar applications and so on. Certainly, they provide an accurate representation of what the Alpha is capable of and that, clearly, is what any set of factory presets is intended to do. Personal favourites include 'Glistening Plate', 'Trail Mix GTR', 'Jetson' and 'Smokefilled Bass', though if I were being honest, I'd have to say I used these less than some of the more utilitarian patches such as 'Natural Space' and 'Vocal Booth'.
As regards the Alpha itself, I can't do otherwise than give it the all-round thumbs up. This is a confident, assured performer which, no matter how many competitors it may be faced with, will, I'm sure, hold its own for some time to come. Even my criticism over the lack of a sample save option has to be seen in the light of the price tag, which for a unit of this complexity and sophistication, is almost laughable.
The Alpha is the type of unit which is bought by those in need of a good all-round effects processor and that, clearly, is where its real strength lies. If you're not in a position to afford three or four machines to cover your keyboard, vocal and (perhaps) guitar effects requirements, look no further than the Multiverb Alpha. It will not disappoint.
Price £399 including VAT.
More from Harman Audio Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Nigel Lord
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