Ibanez DM1000, Cutec CD424, MXR System II
These two are examples of how different minds tackle the same limitations. They're both based on the digital delay technology that has populated studios with expensive AMS units and the like.
They're pitched at the same chunk of the market, hence the near matching price tags, and are made possible by the availability of cheaper memory chips. What you do with your mass produced ICs after you've bought them is another matter.
Somewhere within spitting distance we review the new Roland SDE-1000 which has a recommended retail of £399... a few bob more perhaps, but it is the next step up the ladder from this pair, featuring some degree of programmability and further refinement of the delay electronics.
Now, no doubt Ibanez and Cutec will be upgrading their models, but for the time being anyone with £350 in his pocket may well spot these two as he strolls around the shops... before being mugged by One Two correspondents, so how do they shape up?
Early echo machines worked by recording a signal on tape, playing it back a fraction of a second later to create a repeat then returning that echo to the beginning of the circuit to loop round again and again. Digital delays store the signal on chips instead of tape and once the material's been electronically encoded in this way there's far more you can do with it. Flanging, chorusing and automatic double tracking are all based on delay techniques but producing long echoes AND retaining a wide frequency response requires a lot of high quality memory space.
The first section our optimistic signal meets in either manufacturer's device is the input stage. As you may want to treat anything from a vocal mike to a high output synth it's essential to have a way of adjusting the input sensitivity to get the maximum signal without distortion so reducing hiss and volume-loss further down the chain.
The Cutec has its sockets at the rear with levels switchable between -20dB (line) and +4dB (mike) plus a volume control at the front and a line of LEDs to monitor the signal strength. The Ibanez has a socket at the front, a volume control which pulls out to provide mike sensitivity, and its own LED display. I found the Ibanez harder to distort and the three red/two green LEDs were easier to judge than the Cutec's all red meter. First blood to Ibanez.
The DM1000 has a tone control, the CD-424 boasts bass and treble eq so wins back a house point. From here both machines take separate forks in the road. The Ibanez adds a modulation section offering width and speed controls to create chorus and flanging effects. The delay time is divided into eight sections on a rotary pot — 3.5/7/14/28/56/113/225 and 450 milliseconds — while a knob next door pans between the top and bottom limits of each section. The maximum delay time is 900 milliseconds.
The Cutec, on the other hand, concentrates its efforts on getting the greatest possible delay time — a healthy maximum of 1024 milliseconds. It also has a four figure LED readout for the delay and it's altered not by knobs but by buttons... one for up, one for down and a third that alters the adjustment speed from slow to fast.
Even on fast it's not as speedy to set as the Ibanez. Changes from slapback to long echo are a twist of the wrist on the DM1000, but several seconds of button pushing on the CD-424.
That said, the Cutec's display means you can reproduce echo times exactly, to a thousands of a second. Its rival relies on judging the position of a knob. That could be important if you're one of these people who plays against echo to create a rhythm.
The Cutec also introduces a sub-echo, a second delayed signal at one of eight preset times. The controls for it are on the rear panel. It can fill in gaps between the main echoes or provide a sort of echoed ADT effect when the sub and main times are almost identical.
A nice enough trick but for sheer usefulness, the Ibanez' modulation section takes the prize as the flanging and chorus sounds are both pretty good and if you're thinking of lashing out some cash to improve your home recording set up, the DM1000 could be a better investment if you're not already fixed up with such gadgets.
Finally, the Ibanez has two additional smarts up its sleeve that swing the score in its favour. A hold button takes whatever you've just played and locks it into the memory, repeating it without change or deterioration but still allowing you to layer extra material on top. It stays until you hit the hold button again, or there's a socket at the rear for a footswitch that does the same job. The Cutec can be coaxed into the same antics but it involves setting the feedback control at a critical level, and even so the results may still run away from you.
The Ibanez is also able to invert the phase of its output which allows for many more tonalities when used as a flanger, and makes reverb settings far more convincing. Digital delays are not too hot at reverb. Their very clarity means your ear always hears lots of short, distinct repeats rather than the seeming mush of sound that true reverb is. The inverted phase helps to blur those repeats but it's still not, in my ears, as good as a halfway decent spring line.
As far as noise goes, the Cutec is marginally ahead. The DM1000 seems to produce background row across the entire frequency range whereas the CD-424 just hisses at the top. However the Ibanez is much kinder to your signal's upper frequencies — the echoes sound brighter and clearer. The Cutec's treble control had to be turned up full to match the presence of the Ibanez when its tone knob was flat.
Still, it should be pointed out that both machines are well down on noise and well up on clarity compared to tape operated echoes or foot pedal delay lines. They're certainly high enough for the home recording market.
So, considering the extra facilities, the hold button, the slight price difference and the phase inversion, I'd have to give the battle to the Ibanez DM1000 which just seems to make better use of its electronics. But if you already have flangers and so forth, and what you really want is a machine with long echoes and precision setting, the Cutec is yer man.
Unfortunately this review wears a frown, and in fact the MXR isn't a bad item of equipment. Just not good enough. MXR seem so concerned about doing it their way, they've failed to look at the opposition and realise there are useful lessons to be learned... programmability, LED input meters, extra remote facilities — these are the features anyone investing in a DDL will expect today. They won't take less.
Gear in this article:
Review by Paul Colbert