Digital Reverb Unit
Digital reverberation technology is recognised for making reverb units cheap, but the same technology means a little more money buys a lot more power. Vic Lennard reflects on the R880.
One of the benefits of digital technology is quality reverb at budget prices, but it has also made mid-price reverb units a very sophisticated proposition.
WITHOUT A DOUBT reverb is the most important effect currently in use in a recording studio. It can make the difference between a good track and a good track, if you know what I mean. And with reverb, as with many other aspects of music, fashion has its place. Ask the purists and you'll be told that current reverb styles have too much top end - hence the inclusion of multi-band sweep EQ on many semi-pro units such as the REV7 and Roland SRV 2000.
For far too long now, the likes of Lexicon and AMS have ruled the roost when it has come to fully pro reverb units - with price tags to match - and while the bottom to mid end of the market has been more than catered for, there has been space for a machine with excellent sound quality at the right price. This appears to have arrived in the form of the Roland R880 and graphic controller GC8.
THE R880 IS a two audio input, four audio output reverb unit with input A feeding outputs 1 and 2, and input B feeding outputs 3 and 4. Inputs and outputs appear as four different types of connectors, namely balanced cannon, unbalanced jack, coaxial digital (SPdif) and Roland's proprietary optical digital. The front panel has 12-segment input level LEDs for each channel, applicable only to analogue inputs, and channel 1-4 output metering of a similar nature. A MIDI channel selector and display, and analogue input rotary are the only other front-panel controls. The rear panel houses the connectors, MIDI sockets (in/out), RRC DIN sockets (for connection to the GC8 remote control unit and daisy-chaining to other R880s) and a unigain switch for level matching (-20/+4 dBm).
AN R880 CONSISTS of two independent effects blocks, each of which has an audio input (A or B) and can select one of the various main effects modules - namely reverb, plate and non-linear - along with a mixture of secondary units chosen from equalisation, delay, compressor/gate mixer and chorus. The basis of an effect is an algorithm which sets up the units to be included within a block, including their interconnections and various unit levels. There are editable parameters for each unit.
The GC8 is a Graphic Controller capable of controlling all the functions of up to 16 R880s operating on different MIDI channels. The panel of this remote consists of five function keys with a shift button; four brown cursor keys for moving around the display and two white cursor keys for changing to upper and lower levels of pages; a numeric pad; four keys labelled Help, Control, Cancel and Enter; and five unlabelled multi-purpose rotaries. The 255X63 character display will show up to 99 internal memories and card memories (using D256/128 cards). The unit uses software booted up from a ROM card (allowing future improvements to be made).
THERE ARE FIVE main pages for Algorithm, Parameters, Mixers, Functions and Memories accessed by using "shift" and one of the five function buttons. Each has a menu down the right-hand side of the display whose headings can be chosen by further use of the function keys. Selections and alterations within a page are made by the use of the rotaries (for adjusting values) and the brown cursor buttons (for movement around the page). Different "levels" of editing are possible on most pages with the Upper level being used for rough setting of values and the Lower levels then being used for a higher degree of accuracy. Moving between levels is achieved by using the two white cursor keys on the keypad.
Memory (shift/func 5) lists the internal and card presets along with their input and output status (see later) and their names (up to 16 characters). Int/card and patch number can be selected by scrolling the left-hand two rotaries, and patches can be read into memory, copied from one location to another, named, deleted and initialised. The entire card can also be backed up.
Function (shift/func 4) controls the MIDI program change table, checks connections to multiple R880s, allows the clock to be changed and accesses the digital interface data from the R880 including user setting of emphasis.
Algorithm (shift/func 1) brings us to the heart of the machine. Each block can use one principal type of effect with a choice of Reverb or Plate with stack (RS or PS) for room or hall and tap (RT or PT) for synthesising deeper settings or Non-Linear Reverb (NL) for more original creations. The second block also offers you "sync" for matching its settings up to those of the first block. If either Reverb or Plate are selected, you may also incorporate one of two gate effects (A or B) into part of the pre-effect with the reverb output while the other uses post effect, the choice of which depends on the situation. Choices are made by using the cursor keys for movement around the display and the rotaries for selection. The only other choice available for the main effect is the number of inputs and outputs:
All this information, along with a graphic diagram showing the setup for the main effects for each block is shown in the upper part of the algorithm page, and any changes are followed by the prompt "Warning Transmit? (Yes:Control, No:Cancel)", which gives you the choice of continuing without sending the edit to the R880 or being able to hear the effect of the last edit.
The lower half of the algorithm page presents what can probably best be described as a maze-builder's paradise. Option 2 on the menu, which is called Joint, is the flow diagram for the patch showing channels A and B at the left-hand side, outputs 1-4 on the right-hand side and the connections between the various units used in between. This page has four choices on the left hand side - Joint, Break, Clear and Transmit. The first two options allow interconnections to be either made or broken. Clear breaks all connections (without the ability to restore them), while Transmit sends any alterations to the R880. Option 1 on the algorithm menu is the Move option which displays the modules used in the present patch inside a rectangle (a "workbench"), with unused modules to the left, a large cursor above these and the word Clear beneath the workbench. Moving the cursor to any of the modules and pressing "enter" picks that module up and allows it to be moved to any page where it can be released. The Clear icon does precisely what it purports to - it clears the workbench and places all modules to the left.
To create an algorithm from scratch, select the main module and then move to the lower level and clear the workbench. Certain rules have to be followed, some due to the limitations of the machine and others to end up with an acceptable result. The number of inputs and outputs vary with the type of module - for instance, an early reflection unit has one input and three outputs, the centre one of which bypasses the early reflection effect, while a reverb module has two inputs and two outputs for stereo. Many of the units have only one input (although most of them can have as many outputs as necessary) and so a mixer module will be needed if outputs from two units are to be sent to a module with only a single input. Also there will always be an early reflection unit preceding the main effect if it's a reverb module, and any main unit is always preceded by an equalisation module - while these are not actual "rules", they are necessary if a decent result is to be obtained, and all the presets adhere to them. Certain laws do exist which you become aware of when attempting to edit an algorithm; compressor and gate share the same unit, so that if a reverb is used with a gate characteristic, the compressor module will disappear; compressors require an integral mixer as do gates in mode B, so causing the disappearance of one from the left-hand side of the workbench. Custom algorithms are tricky and require time to experiment. Fortunately, many of the presets can be used as templates.
Parameter (shift/func 2) allows editing of all modules used within a patch along with the delay and chorus units and any others on the workbench such as compressor or gate. The principal parameters for the main unit and its counterpart appear on the upper level of the page and vary subject to the type of main module:
The type of plate reverb appears to affect the tonal quality while the form of the non-linear reverb changes the shape of the envelope.
Editing any of the upper level parameters by use of the rotaries and cursor movement keys causes a function called auto-calculation to come into effect. For instance, reverb has three other lower pages of parameters for reverb (Type, Size, Pre-delay, Reverb Time, Density, Low/High Damping/Frequency), sub-reverb (Pre-delay, Level) and early reflection (Form, Pre-delay, Density and a three-point envelope on one page followed by the number of reflections, delay and level on a second page) whose parameters will be altered by changing those on the upper level. Getting lost by moving through the various pages is prevented in two ways; the menu cards on the right-hand side "stack up" to show the depth of editing and a key labelled Help graphically displays the various edit pages, as well as showing which pages have already been altered. The upper level of parameters also have a visual side to them, with Type and Size shown as a three-dimensional block, Reverb Time and Early Reflection level in a graph and Brightness by a slider, all of which change as parameters are altered. Lower levels of parameters are also displayed graphically.
An example would be to consider which lower level parameters are changed by altering the upper level ones, for, say, a main module of reverb:
Additionally, the two sub-reverb parameters change with each upper level alteration meaning that between 4 and 13 lower level parameters change each time.
Editing parameters while listening to the results is quite a strange experience because, while it's acceptable to change any of the lower level parameters real-time, any alterations to the upper level ones brings up the "Warning" sign as changes at this level affect many other parameters as seen above. Pressing Control to send these changes to the R880 takes enough time for there to be an audible difference - effectively a glitch. This would seem to make real-time editing during a mix impractical.
The depth of parameters on the R880 is quite astonishing - two modules each of a three-band peak/shelving equaliser (whose display alters according to the frequencies as on the E660), chorus unit with Pre-delay, Rate, Depth and Phase, delay unit with Delay Time and Feedback, gate with Threshold Level, Attack and Release and finally, compressor with three threshold levels and ratios, Limit Level, Attack and Release.
Mixer (shift/func 3) has three menu choices; Input level for setting the analogue and digital gain (remember that the rotary input control on the R880 only affects the analogue input); Output level for setting analogue and digital output and Internal Mixer level for adjusting the input and output levels for each of the mixer modules used in the patch. The first two selections are adjusted at the upper level in integers but can be both displayed on the same page by switching to the lower level where changes may be made accurate to one decimal place.
Selecting internal mixer takes a moment to bring the display of the present algorithm into view with input A in the top left-hand corner being shaded in. Pressing Control brings up a box showing the analogue and digital input levels for channel A in number and as a graphical block and disappears upon a second press of the same button. Leaving the box on screen and using the movement cursor keys allows access to all mixer modules and displays each of the two input levels along with the output in a similar manner to the previous example with alterations possible via the rotary controls. Moving to the lower level displays all of the parameters for the mixers in two pages so removing the necessity of movement around the algorithm.
THE SOUND QUALITY of the R880 is its strongest feature: true stereo, it's an absolute delight to listen to. Its user-friendliness, however, is not such a delight. Any major alterations to the preset sounds can rarely be heard when the edit is taking place as they have to be sent from the GC8 to the R880. Building an algorithm from scratch is also likely to present problems to all but the most technical of users.
The idea of using RAM cards to store patches on is a good one, but as it takes around two seconds to load a patch into the R880, it's not practical to make MIDI patch changes during mixdown. I tried but could not get the R880 to dump the parameters of a patch via System Exclusive as an alternative.
AT THE PRICE, there's nothing to touch the R880 in terms of its sound quality and facilities. Lack of ease of programming will mean that many users will be dependent on presets and it would be nice if Roland brought out a library of settings which could then be mildly altered to suit particular uses. Still, time spent learning the intricacies of the GC8/R880 is time well spent as practically any conceivable effect can be obtained from this magic black box.
Prices R880. £2100; GC8, £528. Both prices include VAT.
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Review by Vic Lennard
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