Take Two: MIDIVERB
Paul Gilby scrutinises the world's cheapest MIDI controlled stereo digital reverb, the MIDIVERB.
No sooner had Dave Lockwood despatched his review to us of the brand new Alesis XT:c reverb, when Alesis announced the introduction of an even cheaper stereo digital reverb in the shape of the MIDIVERB. Paul Gilby tried it and couldn't believe his ears!
Since the introduction of digital reverb units from manufacturers such as Lexicon and AMS a few years ago, the production of records has changed to take advantage of the exciting perspectives such devices can add to a sound. The work of producer Trevor Horn on records such as Videotheque by Dollar and more recently the Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Grace Jones LPs, has done much to bring the discerning listener's attention to the use of digital reverb. This use, and the widespread exposure to the records, in turn, has resulted in you and I wanting exactly the same effect on the music we produce. In short, digital reverb has become a very hot property!
To service this demand, we've seen a variety of digital reverb units burst onto the scene. A brief retrospective will reveal that Yamaha's R1000 was the first budget unit at around £500 but it was mono and offered little variation amongst its four preset reverberation effects. Nevertheless, it was an important step. But if you were looking for a stereo reverb with programmable parameters that offered great variation and a maximum reverb decay time of around 24 seconds, then your only option was the MXR01 at £2000 - budget-priced when compared to the likes of the Lexicon 224 at £7500 and the AMS RMX-16 at £5000.
How times have changed. Both Roland and Yamaha introduced their stereo digital reverbs around the £1500 mark and for that price both units offered programmable memories and superb flexibility.
In America, the Alesis company emerged and have been developing a range of digital reverb units to suit all budgets. Their original XT has now been replaced by the XT:c and the soon to be introduced Alesis Ai will compete at the very top end of the market. But it's their latest unit, the MIDIVERB, that's going to have a far-reaching effect on the state of recording we reckon.
The MIDIVERB is a totally preset device that can simulate an enormous variety of room sizes from very small tight-sounding 'bathrooms' to huge open 'concert halls', all at the push of only one button. The first 50 programs (it's crazy isn't it?) contain small, medium and large room sizes, each with either a choice of bright, warm or, what is called, dark reverberation characteristics. Though why a room should sound different with the lights out I don't know! ...just joking.
The reverb decay time increments in small steps of .2 of a second up to the 2 second mark and then in .5 sec steps to 4 seconds, finishing off with bigger leaps until a full 20 second decay time is finally reached... phew! If the truth be told, there are a couple of others in the pack as well, like .3 of a second in Program 5 - it's those little details that count!
Phil Collins fans will be pleased to know that Programs 51-59 offer you 9 different gated reverbs and the remaining 4 give you reverse sound effects, all in the privacy of your own studio.
So that's it. A reverb effect for every occasion at the touch of a button, what more could you ask for? 'MIDI control' did I hear you shout? You got it!
...Is rapidly becoming this year's saying and if a product's got a computer in it, then you can bet your life MIDI is living on the back panel too.
Not just satisfied with giving you a flexible reverb unit, Alesis have made it MIDI controllable too, hence its name. The inclusion of MIDI In and Thru sockets opens up a whole field of applications for sequencer controlled effects during mixdown, automatic reverb selection from keyboard synthesizers and much more. And it's this aspect of the MIDIVERB that makes it so desirable for a completely different set of reasons than just its sonic offerings.
The unit can be set to receive on any one of the 16 MIDI channels and a simple process of pressing MIDI CHAN and using the Up/Down buttons gets you there in no time. Now as we're dealing with MIDI, program change numbers enter the discussion. If you connect the MIDIVERB to a keyboard via the MIDI sockets, you can select Program 1 on the synth (say, a piano sound) and the MIDIVERB will automatically select number 1 of its preset reverbs. In this example, '.2 Sec SMALL BRIGHT'. Selecting program 46 on your synth (say, bass slap) will switch the MIDIVERB to preset 46 which is '10 Sec LARGE BRIGHT', the result could be a thunderous bass bouncing around a big room and messing up your funky playing style.
The problem is obvious. Because we are dealing with a preset unit, the program select number you choose has a fixed reverb attached to it and may not suit the synth sound you want the reverb on. There are two solutions. You either choose the type of reverb you want on the sound first, and then copy your synth voice into the corresponding program number of the synth memory bank, or you wait until Alesis release the program change adaptor which will enable you to match the MIDIVERB programs to your keyboard's without having to copy voices into a different memory. Those of you who want to use the first option may also run into a few difficulties if you're using one of the first generation MIDI synths that only have 32 program buttons.
On the level side of things, the MIDIVERB offers inputs and outputs via phono sockets at the -10dB standard and lets you know there's an input signal present when the -12 green LED flashes on its front panel, but screams at you with a red LED when the signal approaches clipping.
It's unusual to find a stereo input on a unit of this price and is indeed yet another example of the considerable thought put into its design. One drawback of every 'mono in - stereo out' digital reverb on the market is that you can't add overall reverb to a final stereo mix by plugging it into the insert points on the mixer's group outputs. The MIDIVERB, however, allows you to do this and, what's more, the Mix control on the back panel lets you adjust the balance between reverb effect and straight sound making it ideal for use on both mono auxiliary effects sends and stereo groups.
In the hardware department, the MIDIVERB utilises an external power supply to keep weight and costs down. And if you're wondering about the size of the MIDIVERB, well those Alesis people have designed it to be half the width of a standard rack module, which allows you to rack two, side by side, in a Roland Micro Rack housing. Alternatively, you could place the unit on your mixer (a la Lexicon 224) as the MIDIVERB lives in a lightweight plastic casing that won't scratch the paintwork.
So what does it sound like? Well, in a word, excellent! The variation in room types caters for many applications whether they be the more usual drum kit and vocal processing or something a little strange in the audio-visual field.
If you want monks chanting in a monastery, get a friendly monk in front of a microphone and select Program 50 - 20 Sec EXTRA LARGE DARK - and he'll feel right at home listening to the results. The smoothness of the reverb decay is outstanding, with beautifully spaced reflections and a very full bass end that hangs in the air. This particular program is superb if you're into recording slow Eno-type ambient music.
As previously mentioned, almost all of the room types offer three differing qualities - Bright, Warm and Dark. These characteristics are really tonal changes, with Bright obviously giving a lot of presence. Warm takes some of the treble out leaving an emphasised middle sound and Dark seems to serve as a treble cut with a strong, slow, bass end decay.
It's these basic variations and range of decay times that give what you would otherwise think to be a rather limited preset reverb unit a great amount of flexibility when faced with the real task of fulfilling your reverb demands. But let's not stop there. The gated reverb programs are good too, offering a range that starts with a 100ms gate time, for very tight gating effects, up to 600ms gate time for a rather more obvious chopping off of the sound. And talking of abrupt endings, the last four programs give you reverse reverb effects which are quite stunning, especially the last one, Program 63 (600ms), where you can actually hear the reverse sound pan automatically across the stereo field. There's a pretty clever bit of software living inside the MIDIVERB.
To sum up, the MIDIVERB looks poised to become the new reverb standard in a wide range of studios. Many years ago it was the Grampian spring reverb; in more recent times, the Great British Spring. I'm in no doubt though that this little box is going to impress a lot of people who already use digital reverb, and if you're one of those who have been waiting for the prices to come down even further, then your prayers have been answered.
There must be a compromise somewhere and the most obvious place is in the 10kHz bandwidth, which does take a little sparkle off some instrument sounds but is still on a par with the SRV2000. Digital noise is inevitably present in the background, though Alesis must be congratulated on achieving such a low level. I was far more concerned about the tape hiss on my recordings than the noise heard on some of the reverb programs, to be honest!
If you're on a small budget the MIDIVERB offers excellent quality, stereo digital reverb at the most affordable price yet. If your budget's a little bigger, you could probably hang one of these little units on the end of every auxiliary send on your mixer.
Finally, if there's one drawback with this unit, it's probably that you would never believe something could ever sound so good in such a humble black plastic case costing only £395.
Review by Paul Gilby
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