LA Audio Multi Gate
Zenon Schoepe gets to grips with this 16-channel MIDI controllable gate/mute processor.
For the majority of applications, an all-singing all-dancing noise gate is not always required and in many instances it even constitutes something of a waste of resources. Dual channel high end models from the established manufacturers have now been supplemented by optimised and stripped-down quad gate models. Add to this the success of onboard mute processing in what are extremely affordable mixing desks, and the trend can be clearly discerned.
LA Audio's Multi Gate (previously known as the MIDI Gate) is an attempt to satisfy the demand for more channels of basic gate processing, complemented by a comprehensive MIDI spec that extends the performance of the unit into pretty much unchartered territory. Each of the 16 channels can operate independently offering gating, muting, ducking, or more esoteric processing — and can be controlled by or generate MIDI information.
The task of cramming this amount of control into a 1U, 19" rack-mount case is not an easy one, and to LA Audio's credit it has been achieved effectively. Rear panel connectors are on stereo jacks, for send and receive to the individual channels, with the obligatory MIDI In, Out and Thru DIN sockets.
The front panel looks a little intimidating at first, but it is reassuring that the device lends itself to being operated via traditional pushbuttons or through the assignability afforded by four continuously rotatable 'soft' pots, which duplicate the action of the buttons. 16 pushbuttons correspond to the 16 channels of the unit and double as Menu, Parameter, Data and Yes/No switches, depending upon the mode selected by the group of six buttons to the right of the 16-character x 2-line LCD. These select system or individual channel edit mode. In addition, a MIDI button with associated MIDI activity LED is used to switch the MIDI status per channel; a Play button with associated LED is used for memory scan or memory recall of the 128 onboard memories, and the function of the Bypass/Undo switch is self-explanatory. Finally, a Soft Key can be programmed for each patch to perform a number of useful duties, including 'all mutes off and 'all gates open'.
Each of the 16 channel buttons have LEDs which glow red when muting and green when open and gating. On the whole everything seems fairly clear for basic gating or muting routines — until you read the manual that is. 16 factory presets are supplied in the first section of the memory, which cover most of the permutations of mute, gate, duck, clock/pan, and tremolo effects that the unit is capable of. The principle is to recall one of these and edit the parameters, or create a patch from scratch, and save it in a different memory location.
Gating and muting works on the tried and tested method of assigning MIDI note numbers to each audio channel. To simplify things, a base note number is allocated to channel 1's processor, with subsequent channels incrementing on from this root. The gating section can generate MIDI note numbers either from audio signal triggers or from the gate - a Note On command is generated when the gate opens and a Note Off when the gate closes. This allows MIDI note numbers to be written into a sequencer to correspond to, for example, an on-tape snare track which can then be replaced via the sequencer with a different sample.
Once this note data is in the sequencer's memory, it is obviously open to all the manipulation that this affords — most notably the sliding of tracks. This can impart a completely different feel to a track, by replacing a dull and regular snare with an aggressive and advanced sample. The gates can also be opened and closed by the same Note On/Off data. While there are other MIDI-equipped gates that attempt to incorporate a representation of dynamics from a similarly sourced trigger, no velocity information is included in the Multi Gate's data stream — notes are given a velocity value of 64.
Setting up a gate is a simple process. Select the channel by pressing one of the 16 channel buttons and adjust the four soft pots to taste. These act as Threshold, Attack, Decay, and Range controls, the last of which also performs adjustment to the Hold time by flicking an associated switch. As soon as a pot is turned, its current value flashes up on the LCD together with an asterisk, which is placed beneath the 16 numbers printed above the LCD to remind you of which channel you're adjusting. From this point we can either save a configuration of gates into a memory and move onto another one, or just treat the current patch as a bank of gates in an outboard rack that are adjusted when needed but otherwise forgotten about.
I originally had reservations about how easy this would be as a way of working, but for all intents and purposes it proved to be extremely satisfactory. As in the real world, rarely is it necessary to adjust more than one value at once, and the fact that you're turning pots and not pressing buttons to increment/decrement values makes the system very appealing. It's easy to forget that you're dealing with software and not the real thing.
While individual channel selection is only a button-push away, one problem that will no doubt arise is remembering which channel is doing what — especially as there is little room for sticking masking tape on the front panel as a reminder. This is perhaps only to be expected, because the Multi Gate is achieving in a 1U space what you'd at best expect in 4U. Putting it in perspective, 16 traditional gates would also require some mental agility.
The Multi Gate can be configured to act exclusively as a 128 snapshot, 16 channel mute processor, although the beauty of the system is that you can mix and match the processing. Sending snapshots via patches is a more efficient way of transmitting MIDI than sending channels individually, and patches containing mutes can be previewed prior to selection — the LEDs flash orange on channels that have mutes on them in the previewed program.
However, there will be instances when it is more convenient to generate the Note On/Off information from a MIDI keyboard or from something like C-Lab Creator's P-User page, and this works perfectly well. Alternatively, pressing the front panel channel buttons to switch mutes on and off can be used to write mute information to a sequencer, and for those keen on the hardware interface approach, this has got to be the method of choice.
Using the internal or an external MIDI clock, it is possible to generate auto-panning across two channels with one gate closing as the other opens, or produce tremolo effects which are synchronisable. It is also possible to pick out a particular section of a bar with the gate, when being run in MIDI sync, which would enable a snare beat to be isolated and sent somewhere else.
While all these functions work very well, I was hard-pushed to think of an instance where I would want or need to use them, especially as the device affords different methods of achieving the same ends elsewhere in its capabilities. Still I am sure that someone somewhere has been waiting for just this.
Gate channels can be linked in pairs or groups, with the facility to alter parameter values universally across the group or relative to each other with an offset. This feature could be used to overcome the device's lack of frequency-conscious gating, by splitting a signal and tweaking one half to improve the gating response and using this to slave the response of the gate on the untreated half of the signal. Having said that, the comprehensive inclusion of MIDI makes traditional gate headaches history, because even the most difficult task becomes straightforward with the enlistment of the 5-pin DIN.
Sonically the Multi Gate is a good performer. It is clean, with no audible clicking. Of course, it can be made to chatter with a bit of work, but the overall performance is comfortable and functional. Its response is easily fast enough to deal with drum tracks and percussive sources, and is also quick to set up, because you're dealing with pots.
Setting a gate correctly relies heavily on the user's ear, and the Multi Gate doesn't interfere with this process; it shouldn't therefore be a culture shock to anyone. Editing of patches can either be performed in a very laborious way, by using buttons from the 16 channel selectors on the front panel, or by the infinitely preferable process of using the four pots which duplicate the button functions. Thus it's possible to scroll through screens quickly and apply accurate adjustment. One day, all outboard devices will be designed like this.
Patches can be recalled by external MIDI commands, and the Multi Gate also supports patch mapping. Straightforward Save and Copy routines speed use, and individual patches can be named, which is essential. Equally essential is the device's ability to power-up in the same condition and status as when powered down.
On the down side, some of the screen displays do default back to a master screen a little too quickly for my liking, and the LCD channel asterisks denoting the current selected channel can be confusing. The main screen, showing the status of all 16 channels, is also rather cluttered.
Bypassing a channel involves holding the Bypass button and pressing the relevant channel button. (Repeating this process reinstates the channel.) I would not call this convenient, especially as it is necessary to keep checking a gated signal against its original to hear if it is being corrupted. Other functions also require holding down keys while pressing others — trigger selection per channel, for example — and this again is clumsy.
The manual succeeds in making the Multi Gate seem significantly more complex than it actually is, and has a repetitive and evolutionary style that insists you read it from front to back every time you want to check something. Peculiarly, the unit operates in a Basic and an Advanced level, which while distinct in the manual didn't hinder my progress with the hardware or software, as I managed to explore the device despite the printed word. An unnecessary complication.
Given that you will have 16 more channels of processing at your disposal than before you invested in the Multi Gate, finding something for all of them to do is made easier by the ability to mix and match gates, mutes, ducks, and clock effects. Weird and wonderful effects can be created by programming a rhythmic pattern into a sequencer to open and close a gate on a guitar track, for instance, yielding a sound reminiscent of Seal's Crazy. In this domain the gate control is significantly superior to that obtained by standard keying, because it doesn't rely on a clean trigger source and it can be slipped in time on a sequencer.
The ability to leave two channels free to provide automated fade ins and outs of your main stereo mix is also not to be sneered at, with 11 seconds available either way, and the progression is clean and absolute.
The easiest way to justify the £998.75 for a Multi Gate is to consider what it will allow you to do. With 16 channels, you'll have considerably more freedom to clean up your multitrack or live feeds, releasing your existing gates to perform other functions. The Multi Gate will also act as a mute controller, adding automation to effects returns and even sends, alongside the main studio computer. Replacing drum tracks off tape has never been easier, especially with the added manipulation afforded by MIDI.
The unit is perhaps most effective as a straightforward gate/mute processor, where it has got to be the most compact and well-featured unit of its type. Its performance will not disappoint and there are a number of other facilities available which could come in handy, and thankfully these do not interfere with the more routine functions. Bearing in mind the demands of the task of integrating this many channels into so little space, the design deserves special commendation; it could so easily have been a real dog's dinner. For the money, LA Audio's Multi Gate is hard to ignore.
£998.75 inc VAT.
LA Distribution, (Contact Details).
Review by Zenon Schoepe
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