ART DR1 digital reverb
Mark Jenkins auditions the latest 16-bit stereo digital reverb with Performance MIDI.
Mark Jenkins auditions the latest 16-bit stereo digital reverb with 'Performance MIDI'.
Applied Research and Technology (ART) may be a new name to many, although the company's founders have good pedigrees dating back to the days of MXR, the people that brought budget-priced digital delay effects to the masses.
MXR, however, had a reputation for poor construction and quality control, particularly in the last days of their cheaper effects units before the company dissolved, and ART have done their best to get away from this notion by going slightly up-market. Not that their product prices are excessive - their excellent 1500ms DDL is £299, the DR2a Reverb is £350, the PD3 fixed installation short delay is £475, and the DR1 we're looking at here is just £875 (all plus VAT).
But with hot competition from Roland, Yamaha and Ibanez you'd expect a lot of reverb for £875, and that is precisely what the 16-bit DR1 delivers, along with a MIDI specification previously unheard-of in this price range. ART's trademarked Performance MIDI system allows you not only to change reverb patches with MIDI commands, but also to dynamically alter the various reverb parameters with MIDI performance information. So, for instance, if you connect the DR1 to a Yamaha DX7 synth via MIDI as well as via the audio sockets, you can create deeper reverb on notes you strike harder, or alter the reverb decay with the synth's modulation wheel.
Naturally, this sort of facility will be of more interest to existing MIDI-oriented users than to more traditional recording types, so let's look initially at the conventional reverb capabilities of the DR1.
The DR1 conforms to the 19" rackmounting format and comes complete with a tiny hand-held remote control unit which plugs into a rear panel socket. Also on the rear panel are sockets for MIDI In and Thru, Left and Right inputs (jacks at 47kOhm), a Dry Kill switch and a Kill/Infinite footswitch socket which gives remote control over Reverb Kill, Dry Kill, or Infinite Decay modes as selected on the front panel. Overall construction is very good, but the remote control is cased in plastic rather than metal and so may be a little vulnerable to damage.
In addition to a comprehensive handbook the DR1 is supplied with a plastic-coated Quick Reference card which gives a basic idea of the functions of the front panel controls. From left to right, these are:
Preset Lock Switch: this has to be pushed with a pen tip or other sharp object and locks the parameters of any preset program so that they cannot be overwritten unless the preset is first unlocked - very handy for safeguarding your most important effects, especially when doing gigs.
Preset Store: stores all the parameters currently in the Value display to a programmable memory.
Fast Up/Down buttons: select a new preset, scanning faster if you hold down the second button after you've started using the first.
Two-digit Preset LED display.
Parameter selectors: see below for functions.
Value Up/Down buttons: change value of selected parameter, again scanning faster if you hold the second button after you've started to use the first.
Kill/Inf button: kills the reverb or dry sound or goes to infinite decay mode depending on setting of Kill/Inf parameter for each preset. Duplicated by rear panel footswitch.
Input Level LED ladder: plus an Overflow indicator to show that the processor is being overloaded and distortion may be occurring.
Left/Right sliders: let you independently set the reverb level for left and right channels.
There's also a Bass Roll-off switch hidden inside the DR1 - this allows you to select filtering of the incoming signal before it reaches the reverb circuit at 50 or 150Hz, the factory default value being 50Hz.
Getting into using the DR1 takes a little time as the display notation used by ART to describe the presets appears somewhat cryptic at first (a problem shared by the Ibanez SDR1000). Each preset, from 00 to J9, uses a certain room setting, from EF1 to H30. Room settings in between include P's (Plates), R's (Rooms), H's (Halls), EF's (Effects), and ddl's (DDLs!), with the exact complement of different effects depending on the software revision you have installed. Anyway, all will become clear as we plough through the DR1's comprehensive specification.
The original DR1 had 30 factory presets, numbered F0-H9, and 100 user-programmable memories, numbered 00-99; the latest software revision adds ten more presets, J0-J9.
It's annoying to have to deal with a combination of letters and numbers in this way, but it does save one digit on the LED display and thus a good few pounds on the price of the unit. To select a new preset, you just use the Up/Down buttons to scan through the available numbers, and hit Recall when you want the preset to come into effect. The display scans at a reasonable rate if you keep the button held down (ten times faster if you then hold the opposite button down as well), but unfortunately doesn't wrap round from the final programmable memory to the first factory preset, which is a trifle tedious.
An illuminated red dot marked 'Current' in the Preset display extinguishes if you change any of the parameters of the active reverb program. Each of the five parameter buttons has two parameters associated with it, one which lights a green LED when you hit the button, and another which turns the LED to red if you hit the button again. The parameters are as follows:
As for its MIDI capabilities, the DR1 recognises external patch changes, and you can set it to operate on any of the 16 possible MIDI channels, or Omni mode, or set MIDI off. Any of the 128 MIDI patch numbers can be assigned to any DR1 preset or to the Kill mode, simply by adjusting the Value display and using Store (you can't lock this association between MIDI Pgm and Preset though).
The latest software revision sees the DR1's reverb parameters becoming fully controllable via Performance MIDI, so that the Decay time, for instance, can be changed by velocity or the modulation wheel, while it's also possible to slave DR1s together and transfer parameters between them. Software updates are inexpensive and ART already have a good reputation for keeping their 01a (the old MXR01 digital reverb) and DR2a units regularly updated.
Revision 1.2 units with Performance MIDI installed have 10 new factory presets, a new stereo chorus/flanger room, and a preset sequencing feature. Here, a new 'Global Mode' allows you to programme a series of presets and step through them in the order that they have been assigned to MIDI patch numbers, using the Kill/Inf footswitch or button. Several series of presets can be programmed, each series separated by a marker value which appears as a reversed letter 't', and you can selectively activate program change, Performance MIDI and system exclusive response. System Exclusive allows you to exchange patches between DR1s and, presumably, to store patches on a MIDI sequencer, which may be handy since there's no tape dump facility on the existing DR1. You can dump program-dependent values only, or also dump MIDI program table information.
Using Performance MIDI isn't too difficult. You can set two parameters to be controlled simultaneously by any two MIDI controllers - for instance, Decay by modulation wheel and Position by pitch bend. Other MIDI control options include all the usual types of information - poly and channel pressure, velocity and so on - plus less obvious ones such as Yamaha DX7 Data Entry slider position. There are a couple of very minor limitations, however - you can't affect the Kill/Infinite mode via MIDI, nor change the Min Decay setting of the reverbs.
The ten new factory presets in version 1.2 are stored in memory locations J0-J9, and mostly demonstrate specific Performance MIDI functions. For instance, J8 is set up to show the use of the modulation wheel to determine decay time, while J9 shows key number being used to affect decay time (so you have longer reverb on higher notes) and the modulation wheel determining position.
Obviously, these options are exceedingly flexible, and it may take you some time to decide how you can use them to their fullest advantage. I could imagine the actual 'performance' features - reverb control from pitch bend and modulation - being of slightly less use than parameters such as key position or key velocity, which change more naturally as you play. But if drastic effects are your ball-game, then obviously the ability to swamp only selected notes in reverb, via judicious use of the mod wheel, could be very handy.
The other interesting aspect of Performance MIDI is that you could control the DR1 reverb settings from a pre-recorded MIDI sequence which could be edited and modified up to the last minute. Just how far you'd care to take this level of automation would be very much up to the individual and the application.
What we haven't mentioned yet is the basic sound of the DR1, which on most settings was very impressive. Longish reverb sounds were smooth and deep, although fully programmable equalisation (as on the Roland DEP-5) would sometimes have been appreciated. The multi-tap echo features were brilliant, a little difficult to control until you get used to the settings, but capable of some very expressive effects.
The gated and reversed effects were more than adequate - of course, you're likely to use the former much more than the latter. On some mid-length settings, however, there was a small amount of gritty decay at the end of the sound, but this was only noticeable on one or two kinds of input, generally those with the greatest proportion of high harmonics.
Reducing the input level usually solved this problem, but the fact that the Overflow LED hardly ever lit up didn't help, and perhaps a more sensitive overload indication would be more useful.
But, overall, the DR1 is very exciting to use, particularly when you take full advantage of its flexible MIDI facilities. System noise is practically non-existent, its frequency response is quoted at 14kHz and sounds it, and the possibility of continued software updates is, of course, very tempting.
The remote control and neat styling - despite the slight complexity of the operating system and patch name labelling - help to create a very exciting effects unit which, with the addition of Performance MIDI, almost qualifies as a musical instrument in its own right.
MRP £875 plus VAT (£1006.25 inc).
More details from the UK distributor: (Contact Details)
Review by Mark Jenkins
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