The Art of Updating
Art Multiverb III & SGE Mach II
Art seem to update their range of multi-effects processors faster than everyone else. Dave Lockwood checks out two of their very latest incarnations.
If it seems like only five minutes since I was last writing about the latest versions of ART's multi-effects processors, that's because in normal product development terms it is! The Multiverb II and EXT [reviewed SOS March 90] have now been further augmented by the Multiverb III, plus a refined version of the SGE [reviewed SOS October 1989], entitled the 'Mach II'. The SGE, which is primarily orientated towards guitar usage, now offers an unprecedented 12 simultaneous effects! The Multiverb III is a little less obviously enhanced, still being based on combinations of four effects, but includes new programs and useful utility features, such as MIDI data monitoring to aid in setting up the 'Performance MIDI' real-time control feature. Both units maintain the 16-bit, 20kHz audio bandwidth (44.1kHz sampling) performance of their predecessors, with 20-bit internal processing facilitating the complexity and speed of number-crunching required for this level of performance. There is still a generous 200 memory locations, all of which are available as user-memory if necessary, with the first 110 locations containing the protectable/recallable factory presets.
ART multi-processors always seem to be housed in 1U black rack cases, with distinctive front panel graphics. All connections are made at the rear, via unbalanced 1/4" jacks (1MOhm input impedance, 1kOhm output impedance), with both input and output being stereo. Only the 'dry' signal is true stereo by the time it reaches the output, with the processed signal being synthesized stereo, derived from the sum of the two inputs.
Short-travel sliders, mounted horizontally on the front panel, are used to control signal levels, which are monitored by four LEDs. With a theoretical dynamic range of 90dB, system noise is sufficiently low to make level setting non-critical — but clipping the A/D convertor is definitely to be avoided. Input and output sliders have centre-detents indicating unity gain at the nominal (+4dB) line level, with sufficient gain available within the system to match a wide range of sources, including direct connection of instruments. The third slider governs the dry/effects mix, accessible instantly from the front panel, which can be important for live performance applications.
The Mix control on the SGE is slightly unusual, reflecting its orientation towards guitar usage, for it allows certain effects to be defined as processes that will work on the 'dry' signal, and thus still be heard when the mix control is in the 'no effects' position. This is done primarily for the guitar 'voicing' effects, such as Distortion, where it would practically never be desirable to set up a mix between the distorted and direct signals. However, in this mode, the Mix control is still available to govern the balance between the distorted guitar sound and other effects, such as reverb or delay. This is a logical and flexible way to handle what could otherwise have been a bit of a problem, for whilst effect levels can be memorised as part of each preset, mix settings cannot.
Visual feedback is handled by the obligatory two-line LCD, for parameter/value display, in conjunction with a three-digit LED array showing preset numbers and memory locations. Although the LCD viewing angle can be adjusted, it is of the 'black-on-green' variety, which are always a bit harsher on the eyes than either the Yamaha or Akai types, and I cannot say that I found it comfortable to work with over a long period.
The following features are common to both ART review models. Presets can be recalled by scrolling the Preset Select buttons, or via direct entry from the numeric keys (the function buttons double as a numeric keypad). Fast scrolling is facilitated by pressing the key for scrolling in the opposite direction, whilst still holding down the first one, as with the mouse buttons in some Atari software. Presets are displayed with their names and a list of the effects that they include. Entering edit mode, via the dedicated Edit button, allows you to step sequentially through the editable values, which can be numeric (eg. delay time in milliseconds) or system variables, such as position in the signal chain. The full results of any editing are always heard in real time without leaving the Edit mode, which is pretty essential for efficient tweaking of sounds.
Putting an additional effect into a preset, or taking one out, comes under the control of dedicated Add Effect and Delete Effect switches, and couldn't be simpler. Pressing Add Effect whilst in edit mode causes the display to offer a new effect; if you wish to accept it, you just press Recall/Enter, if not, then a further press of Add Effect will dial up a different offering. You can simply cycle round the options, if you wish, just to have a look at what's available. There is no problem with calculating whether there is enough processing power to handle the effect you wish to add, for you are only offered the options that are actually feasible.
You can store your edit in any of the user locations (111-200) or, provided you have disabled the memory protect feature, you may overwrite any of the factory presets. Whereas with the previous models 'Factory Reset' was a global function which reset everything, it is now available individually to each memory — a significant enhancement, which lets you experiment without the need to make a copy of anything particularly valuable.
The ART operating system lets you achieve what you want with the minimum of aggravation and can be used intuitively, straight out of the box, by the average user. There aren't many devices you can say that about, these days!
MIDI functions (see panel) are very comprehensive on each model, both in terms of data exchange and storage, and real-time parameter control ('Performance MIDI' as ART call it). The ARTs are perhaps the easiest units I have come across for setting up MIDI control of parameters — assignments are simply made through the Add Effect routine, with plenty of help from the display, in plain English wherever possible. For example:
'#1 (controller 1)... IS CONTROLLING... REV:DECAY'
My favourite assignments include Note-On Velocity to Flanger Regeneration, or Delay Time, and Key Number (ie. pitch) to Reverb Decay (the higher up the keyboard you play the more reverb you get). Some of the most interesting experiments I performed with the SGE involved a Casio MIDI guitar, using the MIDI output simply for effects control whilst routing the ordinary guitar sound through the SGE audio stage. This possibility is unique to the much maligned pitch-to-MIDI guitar, and although the number of control sources on my Casio model is limited to just Note-On Velocity, Pitch Bend, and Controller 7 (Volume), processing via C-Lab Notator's Real-time Transform facility lets me simulate others. Playing guitar with effects that respond to touch is a very stimulating experience, and perhaps indicates a potential usage for pitch-to-MIDI, long after we have found a better method for dedicated MIDI guitar controllers.
The basic range of effects available on the Multiverb III is the same as was offered by its predecessor — the restriction to four effects in a preset, one of which must be EQ, also remains unchanged. The SGE Mach II consists of the same digital effects array, but with a 'dynamic' (analogue) effects stage tacked on to handle processes such as distortion, which are better handled in the analogue domain.
The digital effects common to both units begin with EQ (called Low Pass Filter on the SGE, to differentiate it from the extra EQ in the analogue stage). Rolling off at one of 13 selectable frequencies between 15kHz and 665Hz, the EQ operates only on the 'wet' branch of the signal, and is useful for softening delays, taking the edge off modulation effects, or helping the dry signal stand out from its effects. You only have to play with some of the presets to realise that this humble little facility has a major role to play in forming the character of some of the multi-effects combinations.
The Flanger offers Speed, Width, and Regeneration parameters, and can be selected to appear Pre or Post any delay/reverb effects. Unlike many digital units, this flanger is really good! I am not quite sure how ART do it, but this is about as close to true tape flanging as you can get without using the real thing, including the ability to flange low pitched percussive sounds. It doesn't really begin to happen until you add a short reverb as well, but I can't reproduce the effect with separate components, so ART must be doing something special!
Chorus similarly has Width and Speed, although Regen is replaced by Delay, which sets the base delay time — much more useful for chorusing. Placement before or after delay effects is again available, so chorused reverb is an option. The chorus can be quite rich, but to my ears, most of the chorus factory presets have too little width and excessively fast modulation, giving an obvious 'wobble'. Setting up my own chorus presets produced results that I was very happy with, so perhaps this is a matter of taste.
A full-featured transposer is included, which means that it doesn't just offer the micro-shift options of some units. A whole octave up or down is available, with a choice of three algorithms determining the speed versus quality balance: Smooth, Normal, and Quick. You will need Quick on anything percussive, to avoid obvious flamming, and whilst Smooth is certainly worthy of the name, it does delay noticeably if the transposed signal is exposed. Normal actually turns in a pretty good performance for a multi-effects transposer, and whilst it is nice to have options, I was happy to use it most of the time.
A Fine Tune parameter is available for detuned doubling effects, but the resolution of six cent steps has not been improved from the original models, and is not really fine enough in my opinion. Single cent steps should be available for several cents on either side of the zero point, after that the size of step really doesn't matter so much. The Transposer is still mono, sadly, preventing simultaneous up and down micro-shifts.
Regeneration is available for weird spiralling special effects (if desired), and a Base Key can be defined by entering a MIDI note number to facilitate external control of the shift interval by a MIDI keyboard or, more practically, a sequencer. If you enter middle C as the base key, then send the unit the D above, it will set the shift interval to +2, or a tone above. Send it E flat, and you will get +3, or a minor third. In this way, it is possible to overcome the inherent limitation of all but the latest generation of 'intelligent' pitch transposers — namely their inability to generate anything other than parallel harmonies (correct harmonies change interval from note to note). By feeding a stream of MIDI notes from a sequencer locked to tape, into the transposer, you can set the desired transposition interval for every note. It works really very well, without glitching when changing interval. I specify 'a sequencer locked to tape', for that is the only way of really ensuring that the 'pitch instruction notes' are all in exactly the right place.
There are just two parameters to the auto-panner: Modulation, which controls how wide the signal will go, and Speed to set the rate.
The animation provided by auto-panning can sometimes enliven an otherwise uninspiring effect — it is used extensively in the 'Imaging' presets.
The digital delays fall into four main categories: Mono, Stereo, Regenerated, and Multi-tapped. Each variant is provided with a Short and a Long option which lets you economise on processing power in the multieffect combinations.
Mono delays have just Delay Time as a parameter, up to a maximum of 1800ms (1.8 secs), and are best used as simple slapbacks or as pre-delay to a reverb. The Regenerated delays are effectively the same, with just the addition of the feedback path under the control of the Regen parameter. Logically, the increment size increases from 5ms over the first 250ms, up to 50ms at the maximum delay (I wish ART had done that with the transposer's Fine Tune parameter!).
Stereo Delay is available up to a maximum of two seconds per side (1800ms if the Short option is employed). Regeneration is always available in this algorithm, and HF Damping is added to give significantly more control over the delay character. The ability to set differing delay times in the two channels is crucial here, and produces the best 'guitar hero' sounds if alternating channels' echoes are programmed to fall in time with the beats of an implied triplet rhythm over the top of a normal 4/4 beat (the original note provides the first beat of the triplet). Roll off a bit of top on the delays, and regenerate according to taste.
The Multi-taps are a delight on these ART units. Everything you could possibly want to do with a multi-tap, and more, is here. Up to seven taps are available, individually selectable, within a maximum of 1800ms on the Long algorithm. A choice of three amplitude slopes is available, ie. you can have the taps grow louder, quieter, or stay the same, but the best bit is that you can vary the spacing. If Lengthened is selected, the taps become progressively farther apart towards the maximum delay time, while Shortened causes them to close up near the end. Used with discretion, the multi-taps can very effectively increase the apparent complexity of the reverbs, and give the impression of a great deal more going on than there actually is in some effects combinations. The shorter settings sound great in conjunction with the modulation effects.
The Reverb algorithms on the Multiverb III and SGE Mach II give you plenty of parameters to play with and offer four basic 'characters', with three alternative levels of complexity. Hall, Room, Plate, and Vocal are the basic algorithms, with variants 1, 2, and 3 offering increasing levels of complexity and density. As you might expect, Plates are bright and dense, Halls are more natural, whilst Rooms have the most colouration. I think Vocal is the nicest of the algorithms, sounding like a cross between the crispness of the Plate and the smoothness of the Hall. Although the less dense programs are significantly coarser, they are actually often better when used in combination effects, where a tight reverb has much less tendency to sound like ambience overkill.
Although their fundamental character is different, the most basic parameters remain the same for all the reverbs. Decay Time can be varied in rising increments up to a maximum of 25 seconds, and HF Damping can be applied to tame the high frequencies a bit. A Position parameter allows you to place the listener at one of seven positions from the front to the back of the hypothetical acoustic space. This actually works very well, and I made particular use of it with the Room programs to give a bit more 'air' around a signal, as if you had miked it from a little further away. I am not at all sure what it is that you are altering with this parameter, but moving one 'step' closer to the front, when you want to tighten up the sound a bit, is more pleasing than reducing either decay or pre-delay.
Reverb 3, the most dense algorithm, adds a Diffusion parameter to determine the smoothness of the reverb field, and control the extent to which you will be aware of discrete reflections in the decay. I commented in my previous review on the subtle modulation applied by the ART reverb algorithms, and that property remains unaltered in these models. These are not the most natural sounding reverbs around, but in reality 'natural' reverb is often exactly what you don't want in modern music production! It is too diffuse, not bright enough, and lacks 'character' in comparison to what we have become so used to hearing from digital reverb units. These reverbs are at their best when they are not trying too hard to simulate natural space — they can be as crisp or as warm as you like, and in a production context, you can always find something that will do the job.
The Gated programs complete the reverb set, and have two main parameters, Decay (max 400ms) and Diffusion, to control density. Again, the three variants determine the fundamental complexity, but you have an additional choice of Sloped, Flat, or Reverse to control the decay amplitude. Sloped allows some decay before the abrupt cutoff and is a good compromise when you want a reverb 'tail' to be evident, but don't want it to hang around too long. Reverse has the usual effect of 'swelling' the decay, providing a virtual repeat; Flat is the classic, dense gated sound, for really big dance drums, and this one works as well as any I have tried.
Short and Long Sampling options are provided, with a maximum time of two seconds. Sampling can be initiated from the front panel, by audio level, or via MIDI, and couldn't really be made any simpler. It defaults to Record Ready and having grabbed a sample, sits there waiting to be replayed in either Single, Repeat (looped), or MIDI mode. Using the Sampler+Transposer option enables playback at different pitches under MIDI control, in the same way as the Transposer, but samples made under the Short Sampler algorithm can now also be subjected to reverb (types 1 and 2 only). This was not possible on the previous Multiverbs and represents a useful advance. Sampling 'on the fly' (as ART term it) is now also possible, for creating layered effects in live performance, but perhaps the most significant advance is the addition of sample truncation, which can now be done from either start or finish.
These are the analogue effects (referred to as 'dynamic effects') present only on the SGE Mach II, dedicated to guitar or instrument usage.
The Harmonic Exciter is allegedly "an exotic level and attack sensitive circuit which accents the natural harmonic content of the signal and gives it a brilliant edge"! Sounds like a stripped-down Aphex to me! There are two parameters: Range, which actually sets threshold, and Position, which inserts it pre-Compressor or post-Distortion. It actually works quite well in restoring a little of the attack lost by using multiple effects, and puts a bit more 'touch' in the hands of the player.
Unlike the Multiverb III, this EQ works on the 'dry' signal, and offers +/-12dB at 100Hz, 1 kHz, and 10kHz. It can either be first in the effects chain, or after the distortion, but is most useful in the latter position, I feel, where it can more effectively 'voice' the overdrive effect.
The Compressor/Limiter actually counts as two effects, although the two processes cannot be separated. Three slopes are available: 2:1, 4:1, and Limit. Threshold is fixed, and the signal varied around it with a Drive control. Attack Time is also fixed (very fast), but Release is selectable between Slow and Quick. You wouldn't really expect a full-featured compressor in a device like this, but as a guitar unit it is fine, and can really 'squash' and 'pump' when you want it to.
You get four basic distortion voices on the SGE Mach II: Overdrive, which is quite subtle; Distortion, which isn't; Turbo Overdrive, which is Overdrive with a bit more bottom end; and Turbo Distortion, which does much the same for the Distortion program. Drive Level is actually the most important parameter to play with here, for there isn't a lot left under the control of the player's touch on the instrument. Bite, the final parameter, sounds like a presence peak, which accentuates pick attack. You will either like these distortions, or not. I doubt whether anybody would like just a few of them. As a guitar player brought up on Fenders and Marshalls, I prefer my distortion to respond to right hand pressure, but I find many players these days want just the opposite, preferring to speed all over the neck, hammering and tapping, without picking at all. Of course you need killer sustain to do that, and if you crank up the SGE through an amp, it will sustain for weeks, going into feedback whenever you want.
The Expander/Gate also counts as two effects (now you know how they get 121 — see panel). It actually has four modes: Expander, Gate, Expander + Gate, and Envelope Filter.
The Expander, with a slope of 1.5:1, is best used for subtle noise reduction, whilst Gate is much more obvious, with a sharp cutoff. The combination of the two (the Gate threshold is automatically set 12dB below the Expander threshold, set by the Range control) is used in many of the guitar presets, to combat both internal noise and the stray pick-up inevitable with high gain. You get a choice of placement: first, post-Compressor, or last, with the default position being first, which would seem likely to be the least often used option in practice. The Expander stage is used for the Envelope Filter facility, with a Tuning parameter setting the sweep over a two octave range, from 110Hz-3.5kHz to 28Hz-875Hz. It is claimed that the Envelope Filter "recreates the sound of the vintage waa waa pedals", but I think it sounds an awful lot more like a vintage envelope filter!
The final effect is the Line Equaliser, which has the task of simulating the tonal modification provided by a loudspeaker. Guitar speakers are renowned for the non-linearity of their performance, and their peaks, notches, and marked HF roll-off contribute significantly to giving a distorted guitar sound a pleasing character — without it, they sound insufferably harsh and brittle. When guitars are DI'ed (direct injected), either for separation purposes or to facilitate low-level recording, the speaker element is missing from the sound, and must be simulated by the guitar preamp device if the sound is to be at all convincing. Whether that response can ever be truly replicated by electronic means alone is the subject of some debate.
The SGE lets you choose one of three different Line EQ curves: Warm SS (Speaker Simulator), Bass SS, and Edge SS. The distortion quality of the SGE Mach II is, in my admittedly highly subjective judgement, significantly sweeter when played through an amp than when DI'ed via its Speaker Simulator. Whilst I fully appreciate that this is to some extent inevitable with any DI system, the difference is nothing like so marked with my Tom Scholz module, and if they can do it then why can't ART? With a better Speaker Simulator, I suspect the SGE Mach II would attract many more guitarists as the ultimate 'all in one' box.
The Expander/Gate settings on many of the Distortion presets are no tighter than they need to be to combat the noise floor, and yet they rob sustain from the natural decay of notes. This is unfortunately a problem you are likely to encounter in any situation where distorted guitars are being DI'ed, and arises out of attempting to defy the laws of physics — when a guitar is played loud through an amplifier, it is not distortion or compression (although both of these may occur) that provides the bulk of the sustain, it is primarily the vibration of the air around the guitar feeding energy back into the string, thus prolonging its decay. DI'ed guitars are rarely played at performance levels and therefore this element is usually missing. Designers of guitar preamps for DI recording have to compensate by maximising compression and distortion to put back the elusive sustain. Not only does this not sound quite authentic, it makes for such a high gain front end, that noise is always going to be a problem.
I am glad to see that all my favourites from the previous Multiverbs have survived into this model — 'Silky Strat', '60s Rock', and 'Guitar Dream' are still there, as are the excellent percussion treatments 'Ambient Perc' and 'Thunder Snare'. Highlights among the new set are the monstrous 'Watertank Drums', which is a bright, hard reverb, with a hint of flutter in it — great for snare or toms. 'Studio Drum Room' is a more refined, but equally effective, drum treatment. The evocatively named 'Abbey Road Rm#2' is an excellent, well balanced general ambience treatment, whilst 'Notre Dame' obviously must have been the programmer's favourite among the big reverbs, for he stuck it in at number 1. There were also one or two presets that I failed to fully appreciate last time, especially 'Twin Voices', a particularly fine doubling program.
Among the SGE presets, 'Rock Concert Gtr' and 'British Stack' couldn't fail to appeal to the heavy rock player, along with 'British Thunder' for that totally over the top sound. Personal favourites were 'English Tubes', which displays a little more touch sensitivity than most of the other distortions, and 'Warm Jazz' which perfectly replicates the sound of a semiacoustic with thick strings and a small, clean amplifier with no top end! A special mention also for the excellent 'Chicken Pluck', which turns any guitar into a Fender Telecaster and really made the most of my efforts to sound like Albert Lee. A quick mention for my favourite ART program name this time around, which has to be 'Pigs In Space' — although 'Total Weirdness' came very close!
Having been very impressed with the Multiverb II when I reviewed it, I couldn't fail to appreciate a further enhanced model. However, this is my first look at the SGE, and it strikes me that it has something of a dual personality. As a guitar effects device for stage use, I think many of the subtleties in the presets may be lost through a guitar amp. In addition, if I were using a combination of, say, compressor, distortion, chorus, and delay, I would want the compressor and distortion effects before the guitar amplifier's preamp, and the chorus and delay patched between preamp and power amp. I certainly wouldn't want the whole lot going into the front end of the amp, potentially causing intermodulation distortion. For use as a DI preamp for recording, the potential purchaser would have to fundamentally like the distortion/speaker simulator combination in order to fully appreciate the extensive and exotic range of sounds offered by the presets.
Quite apart from guitar usage however, there is always the option of simply taking advantage of the analogue processes to enhance normal effects operation, such as using the compressor to ensure optimum input level whilst employing the expander to minimise noise.
All the ART multi-effects units are powerful and sophisticated devices, with a wide range of potential uses. They are genuinely user-friendly and encourage adventurous programming with their well chosen defaults and logical operating procedures. Whilst I am sure nobody is going to rush out and try and sell their Multiverb II or original SGE because they can't live without the refinements of these new models, the enhancements are nevertheless worthwhile. Provided that they are not replaced next week by a Multiverb IV and SGE Mach III, I am sure these models will prove very successful.
SGE Mach II £729, Multiverb III £539 Inc VAT.
Harman Audio (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by Dave Lockwood
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!