MXR 01 Digital Reverb
New signal processing devices come and go, often in very short-lived spurts of popularity - whatever happened to 'phasers', for example? This tendency for the recording fraternity to follow 'trends' in equipment, is all part and parcel of the music business' continual search for 'new sounds'. Unfortunately, this situation proves to be nothing but a big headache for individuals and smaller studios trying to keep up with the trends, especially when it comes to making a decision about which effect they should get next for their studio. By the time they've saved the necessary money to buy the latest 'toy' it could well be unfashionable - and in the fickle world of music, nobody, but nobody wants to record in an unfashionable studio... do they?
For people in the latter position, the answer to your prayers is 'digital reverberation'. Being a natural element, reverberation is omnipresent and thus unaffected by the ravages of fashion. Some form of reverberation unit is an essential part of any and every recording set-up, no matter how large or small. You can get by without compressors, flangers, noise gates or digital delays - but you'll always require a method of injecting life and space into your recordings which you'll generally only obtain through reverberation. If you have the necessary money, and you're looking for a good quality reverb unit then read on...
With the Zero 1 Digital Reverb, MXR continue their tradition for bringing advances in recording technology within the financial reach of a wider audience, just as they did in the past with their original digital delay (an industry standard?) and pitch transposer units.
At an all-inclusive retail price of £1944.25, the Zero 1 is by no means inexpensive to the man still struggling to raise cash for his new Fostex A8; but it does represent very good value for money to small studios who certainly could not afford the previously prohibitive cost of a Lexicon or Quantec. Make no mistake though, the MXR unit does not replace either of these two, it simply brings some of the facilities of its top class brethren within easier reach of the less well-off.
Housed in a conventional 19" wide, 1U high rack-mounting steel case, the Zero 1 offers programmable and preset features including 9 different room sizes, pre-delay (up to 90ms), damping (acoustic absorption) and a variable reverb decay time (up to 24 seconds); plus the novel inclusion of a 'dynamic reverb' mode.
All the above features can be quickly and easily accessed via the neatly laid out front panel, which sports individual up/down incrementor pushbuttons for each of the four reverb variables, and eight further pushbuttons for preset/memory selection and storage functions. Large, clearly visible LED readouts provide immediate indication of the 4 chosen parameter values and current memory status, whilst a 6 segment, peak-reading LED meter shows the amount of input signal feeding the device. As with all digital devices care must be taken to prevent input overload, for the resulting 'crunch' is offensive to the ears, to say the least!
Input to the unit is via a rear panel, mono (balanced) ¼" jack socket, whilst a stereo output is possible via the two 600ohm line level jack sockets. Alternatively, the Zero 1 can be hardwired for permanent connection within a system, and a nine terminal barrier strip is provided for connection of bare wire leads, which saves on the cost of connectors and should improve longterm reliability.
The best way to use the Zero 1 in a set-up, is with it linked to the echo send and return loop of a mixing desk. However, if you return the reverb outputs to the inputs of two spare channels of the mixer, you can make full use of the desk's equalisation as well as treating the reverb signals with another effect patched onto an auxiliary buss, to create some absolutely stunning stereo treatments.
The Zero 1 comes preprogrammed with 7 reverb treatments that have been created using a combination of the four variable reverb parameters: program, pre-delay, damping and decay time. Together these enable reverberant environments that vary from a 'plate' to a very large 'hall', to be created. The 7 presets serve merely as examples of what it is possible to achieve using the programming section. Due to the inordinate simplicity of operation, few people I suspect will rely wholly on the preset effects - it's too easy to create your own, so why bother?
The 'Program' parameter is effectively your 'room size', of which 9 variations are available. The apparent size of this reverberant room can be modified by adding degrees of 'Pre-Delay' to the reverb. This pre-delay tells the ear how big the room is. Remember: when a sound is made in a room, you hear the direct signal virtually immediately, followed by the various sound reflections that have bounced off the walls, floor and ceilings. These constitute the 'reverberation'. The delay that occurs between the original sound and the reflected sound being heard, is known as 'pre-delay'. The actual delay time is obviously going to be the same as the time the sound takes to reflect off the room surface and return to the ear, thus the larger the room, the longer the delay time, hence the importance of pre-delay in determining the apparent physical size of the room.
On the MXR unit, pre-delay is selectable from 0 to 90 milliseconds in 10ms increments. Although nowhere near as variable as the pre-delay on the Quantec Room Simulator, the range offered is very usable. If you really wanted extra pre-delay, you could always set the MXR unit to 0ms, take the reverb signal feed direct to an inexpensive external digital delay (such as the JHS Digitec for £275), then mix the delayed reverb signal with the original. For the low additional cost of the digital delay you have got yourself a very powerful and flexible setup.
The 'Damping' function on the Zero 1 simulates the characteristic high frequency absorption features of various surfaces found in rooms eg. bare walls, carpets, curtains etc. Ten damping variations are on offer (0-9), where setting '9' gives maximum absorption. It's very useful for cutting out the 'splash' and 'ringing' caused by cymbals, for example, and can prevent 'flutter echo' on vocals when a small room size has been programmed, such as Program 1.
The final reverb parameter over which you have control is the reverb 'Decay Time'. This is variable from 0.1 seconds to 24 seconds in the following increments:
0.1 - 2.0 sec (0.1s step)
2.0 - 5.0 sec (0.2s step)
5.0 - 10 sec (0.5s step)
10 - 24 sec (1 sec step)
Unfortunately, several of the programs limit the maximum decay time eg. Program 4 (chamber 2) max. decay = 10 sec. There is an obvious reason for this - it is unnatural to find a chamber with a much longer decay than this. However, as a user, I would have preferred to have been given the option of creating unusual and unnatural environments for myself, and not be restricted unnecessarily. After all, it's all part of the fun of recording!
I liked the facility to change both damping and decay settings in real time, whilst a signal was passing through the unit, which the Zero 1 very welcomely offered. You can play for hours with these controls alone and create some fascinating effects. Have you ever heard the sound of someone walking through various rooms beating a snare drum, for instance? It's easily achieved by continually increasing the amount of dampening.
Once a reverb effect has been decided upon, the front panel settings can be stored. If you are working on memory 7, say, you can store the finished result in that memory, or any other, by simply pressing and holding the front panel 'Store/Page 2' button and selecting the required memory location button. As the unit has a battery back-up memory, these settings will remain in memory for up to ten years (it's claimed), even with the power off. You can call up a memory and modify any or all parameters using the incrementor buttons, but always have the facility to recall your original memory for comparison by pressing the relevant number.
The beauty of technology is that it provides the possibility of continual expansion, especially so for software-based devices such as this Zero 1 Digital Reverb. It is a lot easier to re-programme the set of instructions contained within this unit's microprocessor, which tell it exactly what reverb effects to make, than it is to convert a reverb 'plate' so that it is capable of producing the effect of a non-reverberant room, for example. The former requires a change in software; the latter, a change of hardware which is very costly.
How this relates to the unit under review, is that MXR have indicated in their manual, a commitment to the development of future software packages for the Zero 1 which will be available as memory chip replacements and will enable you to vary the type of reverb programs available on your unit. This service is already being offered by other manufacturers of high quality reverb devices, such as AMS and Ursa Major. What it means, in practice, is that your Zero 1 will have the opportunity to grow with your personal needs and budget, as well as make purchase of this MXR device a better investment without too much fear of it becoming obsolete.
This novel feature of the MXR Zero 1 is only available on Programs 7, 8 and 9. It operates rather like a compressor: when the input signal is below -15dB, the reverb decay time set by the user is in operation, but signals above this level cause an increasing reduction in the programmed maximum decay time. Thus, when playing drums through the reverb, the reverb decay will only be audible during the silences between beats (if they are greater than 100 milliseconds in duration that is) and at the cessation of playing.
The audible effect of this is not as off-putting as it suggests. Programs 7, 8, and 9 all have long decay times which would ordinarily cause a 'muddy' sound, if explosive drums were subjected to their effects. However, the dynamic reverb overcomes this and helps produce an uncluttered, well-defined sound whilst the drums are playing, but adds the reverb decay 'tail' to kid the brain into believing the drums are in a large hall. Listened to alone, the dynamic effects are strange, but combined with other instruments in a multitrack mix the end results are very effective.
For further special effects, the MXR unit incorporates 'Infinite Hold' and 'Kill' functions, which can only be controlled remotely from the rear panel via two foot-switches (optional extras). 'Infinite Hold' acts like a sustain pedal on a piano, preventing the signal from decaying. It's best used on long reverb sounds, otherwise you get a build-up of signals and feedback, as each new sound is layered on top of the previous one. 'Kill', on the other hand, does just that - it cuts off the reverb decay, which proved a great feature for simulating the cut-off, gated reverb drum sounds much favoured by Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins.
With its 75dB dynamic range and 10kHz (reverb) bandwidth, the treatments obtained from this unit were of a commendably high quality. There was a degree of digital noise sizzling away merrily in the background, but this only became apparent on deep reverb settings, as the signals decayed slowly.
I put a Jupiter 6 synth through this device at one stage, and fed the outputs hard left and hard right to separate speakers, and listened... The total sense of space it gave to the instrument was astounding. With your eyes closed it was hard to believe that what you were hearing was coming from two wooden boxes! The reverb was magnificent!
If you're in the market for a digital reverb unit, I suggest you take a good, long listen to the MXR Zero 1 before buying anything else. You will be impressed.
Price £1690.66 (plus VAT).
Further details from Atlantex Music, (Contact Details).
Review by Ian Gilby
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