Ibanez UE400 and UE405
Two versatile effects units that aim to combine the best of both worlds: the flexibility of pedals and the neatness of rack-mounting systems.
Ed Stenson takes a look at two established modular effects units whose design attempts to combine the flexibility of a set of pedals with the neatness of rack-mounted systems.
Whatever else is said about the business of making music, it is seldom the cheapest proposition in the world as far as the average individual is concerned. An instrument alone can set you back a fair bit and an amplification system as much again. If you then want to set about recording yourself with any appearance of high quality a further arm and a leg are often at stake. There seems no end to it all.
In fact, things are improving all the time, as indicated by the seemingly endless stream of new and better equipment that appears almost daily. This is undoubtedly due to the great advances in electronics made recently - who said the space race would lead to nothing? - and is most noticeable in the areas of keyboards (at both ends of the price range), recording equipment, and outboard effects.
One of the more interesting developments in value-for-money equipment is the range of Ibanez Multi-Effects. These are by no means new (E&MM mentioned them as far back as May '82) yet they are still of interest since they offer the studio approach of rack-mounted equipment for the price of good pedal effects and so will find favour, I suspect, with a good many potential buyers. Don't get me wrong: pedals are fine and are often ideal for the guitarists they are really designed for since they allow easy switching whilst playing, and in fact a good many household names use commonly available units. However for the keyboard player who is used to button-pushing when playing anyway and for the recording enthusiast, pedals can have drawbacks. Each unit needs its own battery, liable to run out at any moment or a power supply (more expense). Pedals get kicked around the floor (hardly the most sensible place to put pieces of quality electronic equipment) and jack plugs can part company with their sockets with surprising ease. A viable alternative is to get hold of a Multi-Effect - a rack mounting box containing four useful effects with a common power supply and a separate pedal board for switching each effect in and out - which will cost about the same as four good effects would if bought individually. Such a system can be kept well out of harm's way and so might hope for a longer life than a typical pedal.
Of course, the drawback with such an arrangement is that a Multi-Effect must be purchased as it stands and cannot be bought in stages as and when cash is available. Also, if any of the four effects is disappointing then the whole system is let down, whereas a weak link in a set of pedals can be easily avoided. Hence systems like these two from Ibanez must be very carefully designed to have any chance of success...
The two systems under review here are each housed in 2U high, 19" cabinets which measure just 8" deep. The facias are black with gold legends and possess a scattering of small red LEDs showing status. The case itself is also finished in a smart metallic gold: presentation is excellent and the units would grace any home set-up. Input and output connections are on the front panel and an 8-way connector at the rear allows the pedal-board to be connected via a good length of cable (at least 3m). The connector is polarised and so cannot be fitted the wrong way round.
The pedalboard itself is finished in the same gold as the main unit. It houses five pedals - on/off for each of the four effects plus a master on/off switch which bypasses the whole unit. LEDs on both the pedalboard and the control box show which effects are on at any time and also show when the whole unit is bypassed. The pedal switches seem very rugged and sturdy and perfectly capable of withstanding the rough treatment they will inevitably receive at some time in their life. Two large sponge pads beneath the board help to stop it sliding around in use, which is another nice touch.
Signal connections are input, main output, and a separate stereo chorus output which is discussed later. Also present on the front panel are sockets for external effects Send and Receive. These connections allow any pedal effects to be added to the system to take advantage of its comprehensive switching facilities.
Each unit has 16 controls - a mixture of rotary pots and rotary switches - and a mains power switch. As can be seen from the photographs, the controls for each effect are split up into functional groups. In fact, the controls are very similar to those that would be found on simple pedal effects so no familiarity problems should be experienced.
The beauty of these systems is that each of the four effects is totally independent and may be connected to the others in any desired order using what Ibanez refer to as the 'insta-patch position' controls which work as follows. Each Multi-effect is divided into five functional blocks - the four effects plus the external FX loop. The blocks must be connected serially to form a chain of effects but the order in which they are connected is up to you. Each block has an insta-patch selector - a five-position switch to determine whereabouts in the chain the effect is placed. Hence, if the compressor is chosen to be first in the chain (a sensible move for a guitarist) then its' insta-patch is set at number '1'. If we then wish to add chorus (say), the insta-patch on the chorus generator must be set at '2'. This makes life very much easier than it might be if a series of pedals were regularly reconnected using jack leads.
Fortunately, the switching system has been very well thought out and an 'insta-patch error' LED is provided which flashes if an attempt is made to patch two effects into the same position in the chain. If such a deadlock situation occurs, the output is disabled until the conflict is resolved. The system is only happy when each patch selector is set at a different number.
To illustrate this, suppose we set up a sequence of effects in which the phaser is third in the chain (insta-patch 3) and the overdrive is fourth (insta-patch 4). If we then decide to put the overdrive before the phaser (since phased fuzz invariably sounds better than fuzzed phasing) then the phaser insta-patch must be set at 4 (causing a temporary error situation) and the overdrive insta-patch must be set to 3. Such an arrangement might seem slightly complicated at first (it took me a while to figure it out, since the manual is not overly clear) but it really is marvellously powerful and easy-to-use, and could not conceivably have been made any simpler. External FX must be patched into the chain just like the other four modules even when no external unit is being employed.
Ten screws hold the unit together and once these are removed the front panel and electronics slide out easily from the case. In strictly mechanical terms this is one of the neatest arrangements I have seen. The circuitry is mounted on one large PCB including the power supply. The transformer is placed at one edge with a metal shield to reduce stray mains pickup. The PCB is single sided and, measuring about 16" by 8", fills the whole case.
All the LEDs and switches - and some of the pots - are mounted directly onto the PCB although there is still a great deal of (unshielded) stray wiring which can sometimes cause problems in a piece of equipment such as this. No apparent attempt has been made to keep the wiring short, which is surprising in a machine which seems well thought out otherwise.
Quality of construction is good in general although I did notice one or two slightly doubtful bits of soldering which, again, is surprising. Nevertheless, these comments are only really of any value to the perfectionist and it seems likely that anything that's going to fail will do so during the guarantee period so I wouldn't be inclined to worry too much.
The UE400 is the cheaper of the two systems and retails typically at about £320. The four effects circuits included in it are compressor, phaser, overdrive, and a combined flanger/stereo chorus. Hence the system can actually produce five separate effects (or even six if you consider stereo chorus as distinct from mono chorus). The easiest way to discuss the unit is to take each module in turn.
This has two controls: output level and sustain level. The insta-patch control may be taken as read from now on since it is present on each module. The output level may be used to set the signal level as high as possible to the rest of the circuit to ensure that noise is minimised. This, of course, presupposes that the compressor is placed at the start of the chain. The sustain control sets the compression ratio, with low settings causing very little compression and allowing the signal to pass more or less unchanged. Sadly, the two controls interact and increasing the sustain level also increases the output level, making setting up just slightly more involved. Compression range is quoted as 40dB.
It is slightly curious (though very welcome) that both a phaser and a flanger are included in the same unit since the two effects are essentially similar. The phaser features the usual controls - speed, feedback (or depth) and width.
A wide range of effects may be generated, ranging from typical high quality phasing through to the characteristic poor imitation of a rotating speaker. This is obviously a good example of a phaser: it features eight phase shift networks and for my money outperforms most of the phasing effects available from DDLs.
The overdrive is extremely flexible, with controls to set overdrive level (the actual harshness of the sound), tone, and output level (to bring the signal level back into line with that of the input). In addition, if the overdrive is placed immediately after the compressor, a judicious tweak of the compressor output level can add a bit of muscle to the effect. After all, who's going to worry about distortion setting in?
The module can produce a useful range of effects varying from soft, gentle colouration to full, power-driving heavy-metal, and for a transistor unit the results really are quite respectable. The module is best used in conjunction with the compressor to get a more professional sound; the two effects complement each other well.
Obviously the most flexible of the modules, this features the same controls as the phaser with the addition of a switch (operated by pulling the width pot) to switch from flanging to chorus, since only one or the other is available at any one time.
The flanger ranks alongside DDL flangers in terms of quality and character and offers delay times from 1.46ms to 12.8ms, which is comparable to its digital brethren.
The chorus may be operated in one of two modes. If the main output alone is used a standard mono chorus reminiscent of a 12-string effect is obtained. However, if the stereo chorus output is used as well, an anti-phase, pseudostereo image is produced if the two channels are amplified separately. The results are very reasonable and thicken up a signal (especially a guitar) immensely.
The '405 is slightly more expensive at around £399, due I suspect to the inclusion of the analogue delay. Again taking the modules in order we have:
This differs from the simpler version discussed above since it includes controls for threshold level and attack time. In addition to providing sustain (by amplifying low-level signals) the module also reduces high-level signals back to more manageable proportions, quoted as 0dBm in the spec sheet. The circuit therefore acts as a compressor in the true sense of the word. The response time is variable between 6ms and 20ms, shorter settings tending to cope with sudden peaks better.
This behaves in a very similar manner to the chorus/flanger on the '400, though no feedback control is included. The omission of a flanger combined in this module is surprising since it would add another useful effect to the system and would be unlikely to increase the price by very much...
The equaliser has controls for frequency, bandwidth (Q factor) and equalisation (the degree of boost or cut). The circuit employed can offer amplification or attenuation of up to 15dB and may be set to operate on any part of the frequency spectrum from 25Hz to 10KHz, using the frequency control.
The bandwidth is claimed to be variable from one octave to seven octaves! Of course, this is somewhat meaningless without quoting the corresponding attenuation seven octaves away from the centre frequency. Clearly they cannot be referring to the 3dB bandwidth - the range of human hearing is only about ten octaves, after all.
The equaliser may be used effectively to reduce unwanted frequencies (especially hum) or to make up for anomalies in the response of a guitar, for instance. If the frequency control is manually swept, an effect akin to wah or (rather poor) phasing is produced.
The delay has controls for setting the delay time, repeat level (feedback fraction), and dry/delay mix. The effect is very similar in performance to the Ibanez pedal of the same name. Delay times from 10ms to 300ms (albeit with a bandwidth of only 2kHz) are available.
The circuit can be made to oscillate at high feedback settings and I have heard this used very effectively as an effect in its own right, though I doubt if you would wish to use it too often. Short settings of delay with medium feedback give an approximation to reverb which is not without its uses.
I like the approach taken with these systems very much. To a guitarist the boxes appear little different to a set of pedals in that they must be set-up manually beforehand and may be switched using the pedalboard. In addition, the controls may occasionally be manipulated by a pair of unseen hands to ring the changes in a piece since the control box need not be kept particularly near to the player. For the keyboardist the systems represent very useful effects boxes (particularly the '405) which can sit happily next to a synth or two.
Having said that, I think the units were designed essentially for the guitarist, judging by the effects that are included. For the recording enthusiast the units seem almost ideal due to their convenient format, high quality and low cost. It doesn't take a great deal of mental arithmetic to realise that the asking price for these units is really quite reasonable when compared to equivalent effects pedals. Ibanez stress that 'each effect has studio quality built in'. Normally I would take such a claim with a pinch of salt but it is not entirely unfounded. Specifications for the noise performance of each module (quoted as equivalent input noise) vary between -90dBm and -106dBm. Note that these are not signal-to-noise ratios, however.
The modules all work well and there are no noticeably weak links in either system. I found it slightly difficult to choose signal levels suitably and tended to run out of headroom, driving the units to distortion. However, I did not have very long to play with the systems and perhaps practice would have improved matters. I would have liked to have seen an input buffer amp to enable levels to be set more easily, but this problem can usually be overcome by using the compressor level control.
Apart from that, the boxes are a pleasure to use. The manuals however are of a predictably low standard and tell you little that could ngt be deduced by fiddling with the controls for a few minutes.
The units score over DDLs (as far as comparisons can be made) in that they can produce several effects at once whereas a DDL cannot. Despite the fact that the Multi-Effects can achieve some of the same effects that a digital delay could, I can clearly see the two types of system complementing each other. The '400 in combination with a good delay line would be quite a formidable arrangement. There are still a few tricks that a DDL cannot be expected to do and even the most expensive of units must often be supplemented by compressors, fuzz boxes, equalisers and so on. A Multi-Effect seems like a good way to 'fill the gaps' in a DDL's repertoire.
The prices quoted in the text for the UE400 and 405 are what you can expect to pay in the shops: no RRPs exist as such.
For further information, contact Summerfields, (Contact Details).
Review by Ed Stenson
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