The best things come in small packages, decides Paul Ireson as he puts this budget six-effects-at-once processor through its paces.
Yamaha have an admirable track record in signal processing, and their FX500 multi-effects unit looks like being another small milestone along the road of increased performance for minimum price. The 1U halfwidth six-effects-at-once unit is apparently based on the circuitry of the SPX900, and whilst being aimed primarily at guitarists, its outstanding sound quality, versatility, and value for money make it an excellent choice as a multi-effects unit for the average home recordist.
The front panel is encouragingly user-friendly, incorporating a large backlit display and a logical layout of the buttons needed to access all functions. The top row allows you to select the five effects sections - Compression, Distortion, EQ, Modulation (chorus, flanging etc) and Reverb - either to access their parameters or to turn sections on and off within a program. Five red LEDs indicate which sections are in use at any time. The Reverb section, by the way, can produce reverb and delay simultaneously, hence the 'six effects at once' tag.
The left of the front panel incorporates LEDs for signal and peak, a large input level control, a power switch, and an input jack socket. This socket, along with the fact that Compression and Distortion are among the effects sections, point to the guitarist orientation of the FX500. Personally, I feel that compression, and especially distortion, can be almost as useful to keyboard players as to guitarists - if only because relatively few players use distortion to further alter their sounds. I think Jan Hammer might back me up on this one. However, should you find yourself using the FX500 in a home recording context, wired into the effects loop of a mixer, a front panel input is unsightly at best, so Yamaha have thoughtfully duplicated the input socket at the rear. Also round the back are stereo outputs with switchable level (-20dB or -10dB), a socket to accept a feed from the 12V external transformer, two footswitch jacks (Bypass and Memory Increment/Decrement), MIDI In, plus a headphones socket and associated rotary level control.
The audio architecture of the FX500 is simple: the input signal is passed in series through the five effects sections, in the order they are listed above. Alternatively, you can reverse the order of the last two stages, which is a very handy facility - flanged reverb sounds completely different to reverbed flanging. If any section is switched off, then it is bypassed. You can vary the output level of each section, from -41dB to +4dB of its standard level, to compensate for level changes produced by extreme compression or EQ, for example; but note that it is quite possible to overload the inputs of subsequent effects stages, and introduce undesirable distortion.
MIDI effects programs can be recalled from the front panel or via MIDI. MIDI-wise, the FX500 is fairly well equipped, offering four user-programmable banks of MIDI Patch Change to Program Number tables, and the ability to employ real-time control of two effects parameters using MIDI Continuous Controllers. The choice of the two Controllers is global, but the assignment of Controller 1 and Controller 2 to effects parameters can then be made for each program individually. All effects parameters, including the Reverb algorithm, are potentially assignable to MIDI Controllers, and the final output level can also be controlled - useful for MIDI mixdowns.
Whilst on the subject of effects programs, I must make my only real complaint about the FX500. Of its 90 memory locations, 60 are occupied by unerasable ROM presets, leaving only 30 for the user to programme themselves, and there's no MIDI Out to allow bulk dumping of programs. The presets, whilst offering some effects suitable for treating vocals, synth strings, drums and bass sounds, are overwhelmingly devoted to guitar effects, making full use of the Distortion section in particular - a goldmine for imaginative keyboard players, and obviously most guitarists, but not what everybody's looking for. The FX500 is quite capable of creating simple delays and chorus effects, but few such humble treatments are included in the factory presets.
The quality and versatility of the five effects sections is excellent and all five are independent, in that the choice of simple or complex effects in one section never compromises the available range of effects in another. 44.1 kHz, 16-bit linear conversion is used, and my ears gave me no reason to challenge the quoted 20-20,000Hz frequency response.
The Compressor comes first in line. It has a Threshold variable from -60 to 0dB, and you can set compression Ratios from 1:2 to 1:Infinity, and Attack Time from 0-20 milliseconds. The Distortion section offers Drive Level variable from 0-100%, enabling you to create anything from a totally distortion-free effect to outrageous heavy metal screams. A noise gate is incorporated with a trigger level variable from -80dB to -30dB. With the Distortion Drive Level set to 0%, this allows the Distortion section to double as a noise gate. The distorted signal also passes through a low pass filter - you can vary the cutoff frequency from 400Hz to 16kHz, or switch it out entirely.
"The quality and versatility of the five effects sections is excellent..."
The clean and effective EQ section is of the three-band shelving type, with up to 15dB of cut or boost at Low (280Hz), High (16kHz) and Mid (sweepable from 400Hz-16kHz) frequencies. The Modulation section can produce any one of four types of effect: Chorus, Flanging, Symphonic and Tremolo. Symphonic is an effect somewhere in between chorus and flanging, which is quite subtle, but adds a great deal of stereo depth to a sound. There's not really the space here to go into more detail, but suffice it to say that you have full control over these four effects, and all are top-notch stereo treatments.
In the Reverb/Delay section, you can choose any of 13 different algorithms: four Reverbs, four Early Reflections, Delay, Echo, and three Delay/Reverb combinations. The quality of the four Reverb algorithms (Hall, Room, Plate, Vocal) is good, if not quite outstanding. Maximum delay time is a majestic 40 seconds, with a predelay of up to 335ms. The four Early Reflection algorithms (Hall, Room, Random, Reverse) offer not diffuse reverbs, but sets of closely spaced multiple echoes - this is an effect that is not as universally applicable as reverb, but is usable nonetheless, and the characteristics of the Reverse and Random settings go some way towards making up for the omission of a gated reverb algorithm. Delay and Echo are both stereo delay effects, with independent delay times for each side of the stereo picture. Input, as for other sections, is mono. They differ in their maximum delays - 750ms for Delay and 380ms for Echo - with the regenerated signal being fed back to the mono input in Delay, whereas in Echo each side feeds back only to itself.
The Reverb/Delay combinations allow you to use the two effects in parallel, or in series, with either Delay or Reverb first. In all three configurations, the Delay section is identical to the full Delay described above, but with a maximum delay time of only 380ms. The Reverb element here uses a fixed algorithm, with a maximum decay of up to 40 seconds. It is smooth, if a little simpler and less detailed than the four dedicated algorithms. In all the configurations that involve delay, a footswitch connected via the memory increment/decrement jack socket can be used to determine the delay time via a handy 'tap tempo' function.
This unit may be aimed primarily at guitarists, but it offers a great range of high quality effects for relatively little cost, which by anyone's reckoning must make it a bargain. The guitaristic nature of the preset effects means that you will quickly find yourself having to create effects programs of your own, rather than plucking one off the shelf as it were, but that almost inevitably means that you'll create exactly what you want rather than settling for an existing approximation - and the FX500 has the versatility to cover a remarkable amount of effects ground.
Ignoring the presence of the Distortion and Compression sections, the FX500 could reasonably be compared with the Alesis Quadraverb, ART Multiverb, and other £400+ multi-effects units, both in terms of its facilities and sound quality. At just under £350, therefore, it's great value. Add in those two extra sections and, whether you need them or just think you want to try something different for a change, the FX500 has to be the effects bargain of the year.
£349 inc VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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