MEL FX1001 multi-effects
Group six versatile effects units together in a 2U rack case, add MIDI control, a 3.5-inch disk drive with onboard microprocessor, and what have you got? Ian Gilby provides the answer...
Group six effects together in a 2U box, add a 3.5-inch disk drive with onboard microprocessor and what have you got? Ian Gilby describes the answer.
The Yamaha SPX90 turned the signal processing world on its head when it arrived earlier this year, offering many different effects from a single unit at a remarkably low price. But it has one major limitation - you can only use one of its effects at a time. How long would it be then before some enterprising company rectified the matter by releasing a multi-effects processor that allows several effects to be used simultaneously? The answer is 'not very long', for the FX1001 from a new UK company, Multi Enterprises Limited, does just that. But before you runout and flog your SPX90, I'd advise you to read on...
The FX1001 comes in a sturdy 2U high, 19" rack-mounting black case. In its basic format it comprises six separate effects: delay, chorus, flanger, phaser, parametric EQ and gate/shaper. I say 'basic format' because the FX1001 adopts a modular approach with each effect available on a separate PCB card which slots neatly into the rear of the case. On the basic unit there is room for a further four effects cards to be added (making 10 altogether), though MEL also have an add-on expander unit in the pipeline which will take another 16 effects.
The FX1001 is therefore best described as a flexible 'system', very much along the lines of both the Rebis and Tantek rack systems. Each effect has its own independent direct input and output jacks on the rear panel which allow effects to be isolated from the main FX1001 signal path and patched into a specific channel on a mixer, say, to treat another instrument directly. This is obviously a welcome feature.
Where the FX1001 differs tremendously from devices like the Rebis rack is in its programming capability. As well as being able to individually programme and store every single parameter for each of the six effects - including both overall input and output levels for the unit - the FX1001 allows you to chain any or all of the six effects together in any combination you like and to store the chain and parameter settings in one of its 50 non-volatile memories.
The FX1001 is extremely easy and quick to programme with all parameters shown clearly on the blue fluorescent display. Being poorly recessed behind its plastic cover, however, this display can be slightly difficult to read if it's not viewed head on (MEL are already changing this they inform me).
To call up an effect, you simply press the touch switch labelled 'Effect' on the front panel, and the name of the device currently occupying the first slot position is displayed eg. chorus. If you wish to move to the next effect you simply press '+' and the display advances stating the new effect's name. A quicker method is to punch in the slot number (0-5 on the basic model) of the effect, using the touch keypad, and it will be instantly called up.
With an effect selected, you can begin to programme its parameters. Each FX1001 effect has a different set of parameter controls with values between 0 and 100. These are as follows:
Chorus - rate; depth
Flanger - frequency; resonance; rate; depth
Delay - period; mix; delay time
Phaser - resonance; rate; depth
Shaper - attack; sustain; decay; threshold
Para EQ (1 & 2) - gain; lift; Q; frequency
To hear an effect, you set the Input and Output Level values using the '+/-' nudge buttons or 10 digit keypad - the default setting on power-up has in/out levels matched and the effect switched off; in other words it's bypassed so you hear the direct signal only. Selecting 'Effect' and pressing 'Parameter' followed by 'Level' gives you the option of switching the effect in question into the signal chain (a chain position is indicated) or setting it for external 'stand alone' use, but still retaining control from the main unit. A nice touch.
Pressing 'Parameter' again allows you to step through the chosen effect's controls - depth, rate etc - and to assign each one a value. Where MEL have been clever is in allowing you to hear the signal being treated whilst you are setting up or modifying parameters and to hear the results of your actions as they take place. You always have the choice of incrementing or decrementing values one step at a time using the nudge buttons, or changing it wholesale by keying in a new number and pressing 'Enter'.
This procedure is repeated for each effect you wish to form part of the effects chain: it can comprise a single effect, or four or five linked together, or any permutation of the available six. Once the chain is finalised, it can be stored along with all programmed parameter settings in one of the 50 onboard memories at your disposal, simply by pressing the 'Memory' button. The display subsequently tells you which is the next unused memory location open to you, let's say 9, and if you're happy with that you can store the chain by pressing '+' followed by 'Enter'. The resulting display reads STORED IN MEM 9 confirming your actions. To save to a specific memory, you just key in the desired memory number before pressing '+' and 'Enter'. You repeat the same operation to recall a memory but press '-' instead. Pretty foolproof really and very quick to come to terms with.
Alternatively, memories can be called up via MIDI, using a program change command transmitted by a MIDI keyboard/sequencer but on MIDI channel 1 only. The MIDI program number always corresponds to the equivalent memory number too, so there's no way to call up memory 27, say, if program change number 10 is received at MIDI In. No MIDI Thru socket is provided either.
I earlier described the FX1001 as best suited to live performance. This is mainly because of its track mode. This useful feature is accessed by pressing the 'Track' touch button and keying in a track number (eg. 7) whereupon the display would read something like:
TK7 STP 00 MEM 08. In a nutshell, what track mode allows you to do is to order your stored memories into a (maximum) 25 step sequence, referred to as a 'track'. You can programme and store up to 10 such tracks then use a footswitch (not supplied) to advance the chosen track to the next step, with each press, and recall the effects chain stored in the associated memory.
The remaining three red front panel buttons - 'Insert', 'Delete' and 'Move' - make life easy when setting up a track by allowing you to shift memories from one step to another as well as add or delete extra steps in each track if your band suddenly re-arranges a song, say, and you need to quickly change the order of your effects set-up accordingly. All in all, a flexible and invaluable facility for stage use, I'm sure you'll agree.
The final, rather unusual, feature to be found on the FX1001 is a disk-drive. This accepts 3.5-inch disks (no special formatting disk is required thankfully) and provides a very good long term storage medium for your effects programs. Even though the FX1001 can store programs in its 50 memories (a not inconsiderable number I hasten to add), the provision of a disk storage facility enables you to save all memory contents and track sequences as a single data file - and you can store 25 such files on a single disk costing around £3.00 in the shops.
How's that for value? What this also means is that you could walk into any studio that owns an FX1001, plug in your keyboards or guitar, boot up your own disk and you're away. Now that's what I call using technology!
You're probably wondering why I've waited this long before mentioning the effects themselves. Well, having been seduced by the hi-tech looks and superb programming facilities of the FX1001, actually listening to and using the effects proved something of a disappointment.
Patching the unit into a Soundcraft mixer's auxiliary send/return and setting up a delay effect, only to be greeted by a muffled flutter echo coming back at me from the studio monitors, I immediately suspected something was amiss and checked the relevant connections etc. I soon discovered the source of the aggravation - it was the FX1001's delay unit. For some reason or other, it had never crossed my mind that the delay in the FX1001 would not be a digital one. In fact, it is an analogue delay which uses bucket brigade devices to delay the input signal, and the limitation of such devices is the trade-off they make between delay time and bandwidth; they're also noisy. The FX1001's delay unit thus offers a very limited maximum delay time of around 200 milliseconds, with a low bandwidth of 3kHz or so. Now you know why I was disappointed!
The chorus, flanger and phaser all use the same or similar circuitry, I would assume, since those effects all utilise variations of the delaying technique to produce their characteristic treatments. The effects I obtained from the FX1001 were in my opinion little better than those I could obtain from cheap guitar-type effects pedals. The depth of effect on the flanger and phaser sections I particularly felt was fairly shallow - I couldn't achieve the characteristic 'hollowtunnel' and 'jet' sounds you normally associate with these two effects.
One reason for this may be that there is no means on the FX1001 to obtain a separate 'effect-only' output.
The unit has just a combined mono audio output jack on its rear. Only the delay section actually offers an effect/direct 'mix' control, but even when set to 0 the main output still contains a certain amount of the original input signal. That is also true of the direct output from each effect. What this poor design means is that you can't really create convincing stereo effects when using the FX1001 for recording applications; even if you pan the original signal hard left and the FX1001's combined delay/direct signal hard right, the spatial image still appears to come at you roughly from the centre instead of from two distinct point sources. Very restricting.
To its credit, the FX1001's parametric EQ functions well - provided you can set it up correctly. It is the dual band variety offering full control of gain, frequency, bandwidth (termed 'Lift' by MEL) and the 'Q' or filter resonance. My major criticism of its design is that you have to set up the EQ by ear - the frequency parameter (like all other parameters) uses arbitrary values between 0 and 100 which are absolutely meaningless and give you no reference point or indication of whether you are boosting a frequency at 1 kHz or 200Hz, or whatever. No specifications were provided either so I am unable to tell you the operating range of each control.
The FX1001 I found to be something of a conundrum. Its programming and disk storage facilities are very appealing indeed but it has some severe limitations, the main ones being the quality of its effects and its selling price. It is these, after all, that are going to attract potential purchasers to the unit. In my view, it doesn't matter how good the programmability aspect is, if the effects you can obtain are of poor audio quality and too limited in what they do, then the unit loses much of its appeal.
Neither is the FX1001 really suitable for serious recording applications, the sound quality, mono configuration and lack of an effect-only output see to that. It must therefore be viewed as a live performance tool. But how much would you expect and, more importantly, be prepared to pay for the luxury of using such a device on stage? Does £1265 including VAT sound like a bargain to you? At that price the FX1001 is surely going to appeal only to pro musicians, and for that sort of outlay they are certainly going to want better quality effects than those currently offered by MEL. Improve the quality, guys, and you could be on to a winner... but keep an eye on the Japanese or they might just steal your thunder.
Review by Ian Gilby
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