Digital Effects Processor
A programmable reverb that also offers delay effects, or a multi-effects unit with reverb as its strongest suit? Paul White deciphers the latest box of treatment tricks.
Despite its grand title, the DEP3 is first and foremost a digital reverb that can produce straight delay effects as an alternative. Is the compromise a good one?
THE PROBLEM WITH producing an exciting machine is that, if you want to follow it up with some cheaper but less sophisticated models, those models inevitably pale into insignificance alongside the device that started it all. Yamaha certainly found that to be the case with their DX synths, and now Roland must be wary of treading a similar path with their DEP series of effects units.
DEP stands for Digital Effects Processor, and so far there are just two models in the line. The first, the DEP5, was unveiled last year and proved a runaway success, since in addition to offering a wide array of high-quality reverb treatments and longer delay effects, it also offered the unique option of letting you use two of those effects simultaneously.
Now the DEP5 has a smaller brother, the DEP3, and comparisons are inevitable. The DEP3 is somewhat cheaper, and is designed specifically to create reverb (including gated and reverse effects) and unmodulated digital delays, with or without regeneration. You're also restricted to using one effect at a time, as per just about every other piece of outboard gear going. But while that brief description may seem fairly unexciting on the face of it, the fact of the matter is that the DEP3 is probably the cheapest programmable reverb around - no small feat in itself.
THIS IS A 16-bit, mono-in, stereo-out system, with a specification that indicates low noise and negligible distortion, along with a bandwidth that makes even the delay settings bright enough for demanding studio applications.
For a programmable reverb unit to be cheap, though, compromises have to be made. For a start, the DEP3's designers have left out all but the most important variable parameters: the reflection density is not variable, nor is the early reflection spacing or reflection pattern.
But you can still choose a basic reverb type, vary the decay time and pre-delay, and muck around with such things as high-frequency damping and a three-band equaliser - and all those parameter values can be incorporated into programs.
Luckily, none of those wretched, unfriendly, non-interactive up/down buttons are involved in setting up an effect, only good ol' fashioned knobs and dials. True, there are up/down buttons for selecting the memory number, but in the light of those rotary controls, I think most musicians should be able to live with that.
All the connections are to be found on the back panel, where unbalanced standard ¼" jacks are used for the input, the left and right outputs and the inevitable remote socket, which accepts a conventional footswitch for bypassing the effect. There's a switch to cancel the dry or direct sound for when the DEP3 is used with a mixer, and there's the very sensible inclusion of a dual level switch to enable the machine to work at +4dBm or -20dBm. For recording, -10dBm would have been preferable, but it seems almost all effects manufacturers are now catering for those perverse people who plug instruments straight into the things without going via a mixer. It all sounds quite unhygienic to me. Still, the levels are close enough to match up to budget recording gear with no problems. The only other feature on the back panel is a lone DIN socket to handle any MIDI In signals you might care to feed it - more on this later.
When you unpack your shiny new DEP3, you find that the first 20 programs (out of a total of 99) are inhabited by factory samples. These may be overwritten if you need the space, but can always be recalled if need be using a specially contrived power-up sequence that is unlikely to be repeated by accident.
Working from left to right, the first thing you come across is a six-section input level LED meter logically situated next to the Input level control. The meter reads from -14dB to +12dB, but in practice, the DEP3 is pretty tolerant of high input levels anyway.
The EQ section is a straightforward three-band affair offering 12dB of cut or boost at 100Hz, 1kHz and 10kHz. Without going wild with this, it's possible to change the character of the reverb treatment quite dramatically - but the extra range is there if you need it.
To set up the reverb sound itself, there are only four parameters to vary. First there's an 11-way selector switch offering a choice of three room settings, three halls, two plates, one delay, and both gated and reversed reverb. To this can be added predelay of up to 120 milliseconds, and the decay time can be varied up to a maximum of 99 seconds for the longest hall setting. A tweak on the high-frequency damping control, and you've got yourself a simulation of the effect caused by high frequencies being absorbed by soft furnishings and curtains.
There's only one thing to keep in mind when setting up or modifying a treatment, and that's that the parameters may bear no resemblance to the knob positions. This is because any program can be recalled, but the front panel knobs will still be indicating the last setting they were set to. To get a knob to work, it must be moved slightly, after which the internal computer relinquishes control of that particular parameter. If you want to set up a brand new effect from scratch, it's good practice to give all the knobs a twirl before starting, including the EQ section and the selector switch.
Considering the ease of use of a system using control knobs rather than those unspeakable buttons, this minor inconvenience seems a small price to pay - and users of early programmable synths (like the Prophet 5 and Juno 60) should be quite familiar with it in any case.
Another thoughtful touch involves the Manual button, which lets you recall a program, alter the parameters, and then compare it to the original version before committing it to memory - again, synth programmers will already be familiar with this system. The button is mounted next to a two-digit LED numeric display which normally shows the program number currently being used. During programming, the display can also indicate which of 16 MIDI channels the DEP3 has been set to receive on.
Overall, the Roland's front panel is perfectly logical to use, and for those who don't like reading, the unit's entire operation can be worked out without the aid of the manual in just a few minutes.
On the MIDI side, the DEP3's 99 programs respond to program-change information in the same range, but unfortunately there's no way you can assign specific effects to specific program numbers; you have to arrange for your synth sounds to be in the memory locations that correspond to your desired reverb treatments - or vice versa.
As already indicated, you can control the DEP3 on any one of 16 MIDI channels, though there's also the option of using Omni mode so the unit will respond to patch-change information regardless of which channel it arrives on. For the more ambitious, the reverb parameters themselves can be accessed by means of MIDI System Exclusive codes, all of which are documented in the manual.
THE SMALLEST ROOM setting (not that smallest room), is a clangy, metallic tunnel echo which is great for special effects such as robot voices, trashy dancefloor drums and so on. It doesn't sound like a natural reverb, but then again, it's not intended to.
The next two rooms sound more like rooms and are good for filling out a sound or just adding a touch of ambience. They have a certain amount of colouration and flutter, just like a real room would have, and as such are not unconvincing.
The Hall settings are less coloured than the rooms and also less dense, so that they re-create the longer delays between reflections that naturally occur in a large building. The HF rolloff helps enormously here to simulate boomy, cavernous effects, and a bit of pre-delay also heightens the impression of space.
Both Plate settings sound bright, with just the right degree of metallic edge to conjure up the old mechanical plate sound, still a popular drum treatment for producing an up-front, attacking sound despite its age. Plates are also used to add brightness and shimmer to vocals, and these simulations are equally adept when put to this use.
Delay is a simple echo effect with no modulation, so there's no chorus or flanging available. Here, the Pre-delay control sets the delay time (up to a maximum of 500 milliseconds), and the Reverb Time control sets the feedback for repeat echoes. With the feedback at maximum, the sound cycles around for several minutes before dying away.
The first of the Non-linear selections is gated reverb, though the DEP3's version of this is far from conventional. The Predelay control may be used as normal, after which you set a reverb decay time which is nothing to do with the gate time, the latter, in turn, being set with the HF Damp control. Confused? Well, what happens is this. The reverb is initiated by a drum (or whatever) and, after the required pre-delay, starts to decay. However, if the decay is not complete before the gate time has elapsed, the reverb is chopped off in its prime, giving a classic gated reverb sound. The beauty of this system is that you can arrange to hear some decay in level before the gate cuts off by setting a fairly fast decay time, or you can have a level burst by setting a long decay time and then chopping that off before it's had a chance to decay.
The function of the DEP3's Reverse setting is also a little unusual. Here the reverb starts to build up as soon as the drum beat has occurred, again at a rate according to the setting of the Reverb Time control. Then, when it reaches a maximum level, it abruptly shuts off, giving an illusion of reversed reverb. That's pretty standard stuff, but what Roland have done is to use the pre-delay time as a sort of mute or gate to create a dead space between the sound and the reverb following it. This is not the same as normal pre-delay, since the reverse envelope is still doing its stuff during the pre-delay period - it's just that you can't hear it.
THIS IS A good compromise between a fully programmable reverb and a preset system. The parameters that make the most difference are all there to vary, and there's no shortage of memories to store the results in.
The use of user-friendly controls makes the machine a joy to work with, and the sound quality, though not as refined as a really expensive reverb might offer, is certainly well up to home recording standards, and wouldn't be out of place in a small professional studio.
The MIDI program-change facility makes the DEP3 a candidate for semi-automated use running from a MIDI sequencer - though the lack of patch assignment could put off any live players who rely heavily on MIDI to set up their configurations.
The delay effects are fine as far as they go, even if some kind of external modulation input would have been handy.
But put the virtues of this machine in one hand, its price in the other, and perform the usual balancing act, and I think I can honestly say that you get your money's worth.
Price £515 including VAT
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Review by Paul White
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