Zoom 9030 Instrument Effects Processor
David Mellor straps on his vintage Stratocaster and plugs into the effects unit of the future.
Back in 1962 when a craftsman at the Fender factory was putting the finishing touches on an instrument built with love and care from the finest materials, he could never have imagined that one day its owner would be using it with a digital electronic gadget designed to transform the unique sound of the Stratocaster in an almost infinite number of ways. In 1962 there were virtually no effects, except the distortion inherent in the valve amplifiers of the time, and if you wanted a different sound, you bought a different guitar or changed your playing technique.
29 years later, craftsmen in digital signal processing techniques have developed a device which, in its way, represents the ultimate in multi-effects units as much as the Stratocaster arguably remains the ultimate achievement in electric guitars, more modern instruments being refinements of the Stratocaster design.
Am I being overly fulsome in my comments for what is after all just another in a long line of signal processors from various manufacturers? Have I finally flipped as a result of a long period of exposure to a continual stream of developments in music technology? Has the Zoom Corporation offered me an all expenses paid trip to an exotic sun-drenched location in the company of a number of exceedingly beautiful women? The answer to all of these questions is "No", apart from the second on which I think I shall reserve judgement for the moment! What we are dealing with here is a device that can produce a vast range of extremely good sounds, and also one that has the vital quality of usability. Probably for the first time, someone has sat down and really thought about what it takes to transform a design with brilliant potential into a practical workable device which the average musician will actually use to the full.
I'm not saying that the Zoom 9030 is perfect in every way, but I feel that it marks the end of a trend towards packing in greater and greater power but denying the user easy access to that power. This unit sets a standard that other manufacturers must now meet, and try their hardest to better.
The Zoom 9030 is a half-rack sized unit which is evidently intended to have an obvious appeal to the technologically aware guitarist. The half rack format will be an inconvenience for studio work, although Zoom are making available a 19" rack adapter, but the range and quality of effects makes the unit ideal for the multitrack recording studio. I might say that the 9030 is ideal for the MIDI studio too, but be warned that one unit will not be enough — you'll want to put a little of this on to almost every output your synths and samplers have. Maybe Zoom will market a quadruple 9030 in a 2U rack, so big spenders can have the luxury of using four effects combinations at once (the 9030 can combine seven simultaneous effects from a choice of 47 effect types).
Before going on to the unit itself, let's just take a brief look at what the Zoom 9030 will not do. It's very easy to get carried away with the idea that with one multieffects unit you will be able to get all the sounds you ever wanted, but this will never be so. For instance, there are no presets on the 9030 titled "Jimi Hendrix" or "Ritchie Blackmore", which you may take as an indication that there is a lot more to the individual sounds of the classic guitarists than any amount of digital effects can supply.
Point number two is that there is always another sound to be found, and even if an effects unit has millions of different combinations, there are always millions more possibilities. (How about the one where you put a speaker under a piano, wedge the sustain pedal down and mic it from the top? Or how about singing through a Rototom? Not everyday stuff perhaps but, in music, creativity rules).
Point number three is that different effects units will always sound different. You can't sell your old Rev 7, for example, and replace it with a 9030. The 9030 sounds like itself and simply can't be expected to be a complete replacement for your old favourites.
I was going to say that I have always had a soft spot for knobs, but I decided to rephrase that slightly: there is something about a manual rotary controller that gives me a feeling of being thoroughly in control of a piece of equipment. Designers of digital equipment have had a lot of trouble inventing a replacement for the good old electrical potentiometer with a finger-friendly lump of plastic stuck on top. An old-style analogue knob offers such direct, precise control over whatever parameter it is hard wired, not assigned, to that a substitute has been hard to find. First we had up/down data buttons and data entry sliders.
We all know that up/down buttons take a lot of time to operate, and the data never changes at the rate you want it to. Data sliders and rotary encoders still don't react the way we would want them to. What we need is a digital knob that works like an analogue knob, and equipment should combine the virtues of knobs with the versatility of software-driven operation. Too much to ask for?
You will notice on the right hand side of the front panel of the Zoom 9030 that there are four knob-like objects. These are the controllers for the many parameters of the 9030, and the way the parameter control works is quite clever. Whatever you are doing, whether editing or simply using the effects, the parameters are presented in groups of up to four. This means that whatever display page is selected, each knob will control one parameter, and one alone. No cursor, no messing about, just grab the knob you want and give it a twist in the appropriate direction. The only potential problem is that the knob will not necessarily be in a position that relates to the existing value of the parameter — this happens when you change display pages. But the software that controls the knobs is quite clever, and the knob does appear to respond very naturally.
The effect of this one-knob-per-parameter presentation is that it isn't a battle of mind against machine to get the settings you want; you just do it. What could be simpler than that?
To the left of the four knobs is another bit of Zoom cleverness. The effects are grouped into nine types, as shown in a 3x3 LED matrix indicator panel: Compressor; External; Distortion; EQ; Amp simulator; Effect 1; Effect 2; SFX; Reverb.
When you select a program from any of the 99 memories, the effects sections used in that program are indicated by red LEDs in this indicator panel. Unused sections are shown in green. You can get a good idea of what's going on in the effects program very easily, and this helps you decide which parameter you may want to modify. This display also helps you get to the effect you want to edit quickly by guiding you through the sequence of the editing pages, rather than the normal situation where you have to look at each page in turn, check whether it's the one you want, and if it's not, move on to the next one and do the same. Here you just click the button until the LED for the effect you want to edit starts flashing. Easy.
Now that I have convinced you (I hope) that the Zoom 9030 is easy to operate and that the effects are easy to edit, you must still be wondering whether the effects are any good. After all, this is a fairly cheap unit compared with the mighty Zoom 9010 which sells for over a grand. Before I make any comments I have to stress that assessing any effects unit is a very subjective matter and you must try out the unit and make your own judgments.
There is no doubt that all the effects are of a very high quality, but whether they will suit your needs is something only you can decide.
The compressor section of any multieffects unit seems never to be as good as a dedicated compressor/limiter but, used in context with other effects this need not be a drawback. The compressor module here has four main parameters (as have most of the effects in the unit): Depth; Attack; Brightness; and Output Level. Depth appears to control threshold and ratio, and therefore the strength of the the compression effect. Attack is self explanatory, and Brightness is a simple on/off switch. As explained earlier, these four parameters are controlled directly by the group of four knobs.
There is also a second page of parameters, which are pretty much the same for all the effects in the 9030. The three new parameters (Output Level is repeated) relate to with the real time MIDI control facilities. Effects units which provide this function sometimes make it difficult to use, but here all you do is select the one parameter which you want to control via MIDI (from the four on the previous page), choose a MIDI controller number and set the range over which real time modulation will vary the parameter. It's simple and useful, although I could have wished that, maybe not for compression but for other effects, velocity, aftertouch, and key number had been included as controllers. (There is also a MIDI monitor function on the 9030, which monitors and displays incoming MIDI data.) Also in this module is the alternative Limiter effect.
A pair of send and return jacks have thoughtfully been included, to insert a separate effects unit into the 9030's effects chain. So if the compression section isn't quite up to your requirements you can always patch in your Fairchild or Pultec (which would be no more incongruous than using the 9030 with a 30 year old guitar). Once plugged in, you can control on/off switching and the level of the effect from the 9030.
This is the section that guitarists will like most - an analogue distortion module. The ideal companion for a 9030 would be a guitar amp with a transistor power stage and a proper guitar speaker. Add to this a slot for a 9030 to slip into and, with the addition of the Zoom 8050 pedal board (see box), you would have the perfect gigging system. There are three types of distortion, one of which is called simply Distortion, another is Overdrive, and the third is Crunch, which is a fairly gentle effect. Each effect has three adjustable parameters (not four this time), and a second page for MIDI control.
One problem with the distortion effect produced by units of this type is that guitarists often see it as a replacement for a valve guitar amp, which may have a great sound but isn't usually as controllable as the player would like. I think it's important to judge units like the 9030 on their own merits, and on this basis I would say that the range of distortion effects is very good and very pleasant (and unpleasant, if that's what you're after), but don't throw away your Vox AC30 because the 9030 isn't a digital replacement for that particular sound, or for any other of the valve classics — it's a new type of sound in its own right.
Three types of EQ are on offer. The first describes itself as Four-Band Guitar EQ, and it is very similar to that on many guitar amps where zero settings for all EQ controls produce very little output at all. This makes it easy just to wind on the amount you want at each frequency. The 3-band EQ is similar to the EQ you would find on a mixing console with bass, top, and a sweepable mid control. Don't forget that since you are making the adjustments with the four knobs that this is usable digital EQ. The third EQ type is a high frequency enhancer.
One of the few things missing in a digital effects unit like this is a loudspeaker in a wooden box. The amp simulator attempts to rectify this by, I think, adding the resonances that the speaker cone would normally provide. It doesn't however attempt to simulate the rattling of the cabinet. The principal parameters are Colour and Box. Colour is an effect similar to EQ, while Box gives you the option of different cabinet types: compact, combo or stack. While I wouldn't say that this effect provided a totally realistic simulation of a real cabinet, it does come fairly close — especially useful when combined with a distortion effect.
Effect 1 and Effect 2: in other words, the effects for which they couldn't think of a more appropriate name. These modules are where you'll find the phasers, chorusers and flangers that are the stock in trade of the multieffects unit.
The one quality that all these effects have that singles them out from other effects units is that they are very quiet. The nature of chorusing can easily lead to a lot of noise in the output, but this unit somehow manages to avoid that. The phasing effect is particularly worthy of mention since it comes close to achieving the depth and richness of sound that the old analogue phasers used to manage. I could go on to mention the other effects included here, but I have to leave you something to try out in the shop, don't I? They are all very good.
This is where the designers of the 9030 have put some of their best work. The Harmonised Pitch Shifter is a lot of fun, since it works according to musical intervals rather than simple ratios. The first parameter is the key, so if you are playing in E (make sure your tuning's correct) then set this to correspond. The next parameter is the interval, which can be a 2nd, minor 3rd, major 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th or 7th. The actual note that comes out of the pitch shifter will take account both of the input note and the key.
The SFX module also has an Advanced Flanger with three pages of parameters rather than the usual two. This means that the effect is more difficult to control than the other flanger effects, but you can have a lot of fun with it. Along with the normal speed, depth and feedback parameters, there is an envelope generator which also controls the flange effect. The envelope generator is triggered by the input and you can control its attack time; the envelope thus created can be used to affect the speed and depth of the flange.
Effects units are often judged by the quality of the reverb. Reverberation is a simulation of something that our ears are well accustomed to, so any shortcomings will be readily apparent. When I looked at the larger Zoom 9010, I came to the conclusion that its reverb was of a very high quality indeed. I wouldn't expect Zoom to match it in a cheaper unit, but they have come very close. The quality and density of the reverb provides a very natural sound.
Each of the two reverb programs offers a choice of five 'colours' which amounts to a fairly wide range of sounds, although I couldn't promise that if this were your only effects unit, you wouldn't find yourself wishing for a few more choices. Nevertheless, with the Early Reflection programs and the Multi-tap and Ping Pong delays, there is a good enough selection to keep you amused for some time.
This is definitely Zoom's best product yet, better even, I would say, than the 9010 because it hits the mark more squarely and securely. Whether you want an effects unit to enhance your guitar work at live gigs, or improve the quality of your studio recordings, the Zoom 9030 has an incredible range to offer, and it's very simple to operate. If I were asked to comment on my one favourite feature of the 9030 I would put it like this: with other multieffects units, the quality of the sounds may have been high but I have always tended to scroll through the presets to find one that comes close to what I want, and then set about the arduous task of modifying it. With the 9030 I soon found that I could ignore the presets completely and just start from a blank sheet of paper every time. It is absolutely no effort to design your own effects combination from scratch and get something that is 100% right for the track. The Zoom 9030 marks a step forward in making hi-tech musical equipment easier to both use and exploit to the full. Other manufacturers should take a close look because Zoom are doing something right.
Zoom 9030 Effects Processor £527.58 inc VAT.
Zoom 8050 Foot Controller £170.32 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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