Morphing FX box
Ever wished you could make your effects box 'morph' from one patch to the next? No? Well, you will once you've heard the Lexicon Vortex. Nigel Lord opens the envelope...
"More like a musical instrument than an effects box... The Vortex will change the way you make music". Such is Lexicon's introduction to their new 'audio morphing' signal processor. But it does seem small for such lofty claims: 1U high and only 102mm deep. If, like mine, your rack gear is piled up rather than properly mounted, Vortex is going to have to sit at the very top.
Perhaps that's the idea. It's certainly gratifying to see a front panel sporting rotary controls and screen-printed lettering of the available effects. Whatever Vortex has to offer, it isn't buried deep within some impenetrable interface.
Yet two 16-way rotaries can't possibly provide the kind of choice we've come to expect from digital effects units - morphing or no morphing. And what's this? A studio processor with no MIDI control, and functions that can only be carried out by hand or footswitch? Surely that gives Vortex more in common with those garishly coloured guitar effects boxes with names like Tube Screaming Metaloid Overkill. It's beginning to look like this new Lexicon device suffers from something of a split personality. Let's help it onto the psychiatrist's couch...
Lexicon describe Vortex's audio morphing system as a means of controlling the dynamic transformation between any two of the 32 available effects with a single button push.
The morphing concept is fascinating enough, and certainly extends beyond the gimmicky or merely novel. Anyone who regularly uses effects processors will at some time have wished they could make changes dynamically, with time, rather than being stuck with static parallel or serially-programmed effects.
Respect to Lexicon for identifying this, and producing a machine which makes it possible and, indeed, easy to achieve. Life can't be much fun for signal processor designers these days, who are operating in a virtually saturated marketplace.
But with the exception of the rotary preset and parameter controls, there's little about the Vortex's external hardware that makes it stand out from the crowd: input level control and LEDs, numeric display, rotary data control and push buttons for Store, Clear, A-B morphing, Register/Preset banks and Pedal/Tap complete the front-panel line-up.
Round t'back we have two pairs of quarter-inch input/output jacks, three footpedal sockets, a switched socket for control of external equipment (such as musical instrument amps), and a 9V AC socket for the external power supply.
Vortex's internal architecture defines two banks of 16 presets and two banks of 16 memory locations, referred to by Lexicon as 'registers', for user-programmed effects. The button associated with these two groups - Register/ Preset - is used to determine which will be selected by the rotary control. Both presets and registers are further divided into A and B pairs, matched to provide the route for the morphing effect. The speed at which morphing takes place between effect pairs is independently adjustable up to a maximum of ten seconds, and the process is initiated with a single press on the A/B button.
A degree of real-time control is also possible through use of the envelope parameter, which may be programmed to be dynamically sensitive to your playing. Alternatively, a standard foot volume pedal can be connected via the rear panel socket, and used to control any one of 14 effects parameters (the exceptions being Echo 1 and 2 delay) in real time. Parameter changes made using a footpedal are not automatically saved when an effect is stored, but can be if you so wish.
You can tap in timing information to synchronise the repeats of echo and delay effects, and for anyone more used to tapping a foot than their fingers, this could prove much easier. Either way, it's a facility I'd like to see included on a lot more effects processors: it quickly gets you into the right ball park with your repeats - fine-tuning can come later. The Vortex system is particularly effective, as delay time can be defined by consecutive button pushes or by sub-divisions of these.
The two-digit display provides little in the way of detailed information; LEDs indicate whether A or B effects or a control parameter are in the frame. Parameter values are displayed when the Value LED is lit, and an additional 'decimal point' indicator warns you of any editing that might have taken place. And that's about it, really. It's not enough, but given the inclusion of the rotary selectors for the parameters and presets, we'll let it pass.
With stereo input and as well as output sockets, Vortex provides true stereo processing with left and right inputs treated separately. This is the natural configuration for stereo instruments; mono sources need to be connected to the right input only, but will still benefit from the unit's stereo output.
Significantly, Lexicon's first connection diagram in the manual casts Vortex in the role of in-line processor. In fact, the mix settings (storable along with the patch), have been optimised with this in mind. The unit can of course be used within an effects loop on your desk, but this means having to set the mix parameter to 100% wet signal for each preset.
"Tapping in sync quickly gets you into the right ball-park with your repeats - fine-tuning can come later"
This seems to point to Vortex being designed more as a performance instrument than a studio device - a fact which won't be lost on those using MIDI sequencers and finding themselves unable to start morphing. The absence of those all-important five-pin DIN sockets is more difficult to explain here than on most conventional effects units. Would it really have added that much to the cost?
At the heart of the Vortex lies a straightforward effects processor capable of generating all the standard effects algorithms, to produce echo, delay, flanging, chorus and vibrato, and so on. Programmability extends to some 16 parameters if you include wet and dry mix and output levels. This strikes a reasonable balance between having the scope to customise effects to your own requirements, and burdening you with yet more variables that serve no useful purpose. On the whole, the effects are convincing enough, and certainly up to the standard of most sub-£1,000 processors.
As regards the morphing process itself, well, depending on your input sources, the results vary from arresting to scarcely discernible. Really, so much depends on the choice of effects, the morphing speed, and timing and program material, that it's almost impossible to predict whether Vortex will provide you with effects you can use.
Simply doodling around with Vortex and a couple of synth modules produced some truly memorable combinations which I immediately committed to DAT, fearing I might not be able to duplicate the results. You have to start thinking about programming your own morphs if you're going to use Vortex to its fullest extent, but again, trial and error seems to be the order of the day. I'm prepared to believe that it was my programming that was leading me away from the results I was trying to achieve, but I do feel Lexicon could have included some kind of tutorial section within the otherwise excellent manual.
Of the preset effects, my personal favourites are Mosaic, an involved combination of echo, panning and modulation: Fractal, which uses a stereo glide to modulate the panned echoes; and Shimmer A, which uses a cross-resonant modulator to control a stereo tremolo providing the input for the two echo effects. Several examples are included on this month's re:mix CD, to give you a more meaningful impression of what's possible.
Despite its intriguing 'audio morphing' tag and the hyperbole about changing the way you make music, Vortex is essentially an effects processor just like any other, so it's still a case of garbage in, garbage out. Given the program material to work with, the results can be very satisfying indeed. But simple, static tones will not generally be taken to a higher plane, and are not 'enveloped' in the sound in the way you might imagine.
That said, your playing technique could well profit from Vortex's effects, in the same way it would with pitch-bend or vibrato.
This is where the pushbutton and the footpedals come in, and again where it seems clear Vortex has been designed as a performance instrument rather than a studio tool. This would explain the noise it generates, which on quiet passages can be intrusive. Worst offenders are the modulated effects, where the LFOs can be heard cycling quite distinctly. Frankly, it's not what we've come to expect from Lexicon, and I'm amazed an integral gate hasn't been incorporated into the design.
Despite the shortcomings, I still view the Vortex in a positive light. It does things no other effects processor can, and given something to get its teeth into, is capable of seriously impressive results. It also produces most of the standard effects with a respectable level of programmability, and could be used as a conventional processor, particularly where MIDI control isn't required.
Priced at little more than a standard effects unit, Vortex offers much for the money and with a little programming time and effort should soon start to pay dividends. It wouldn't be the natural choice as a first processor, but anyone with itchy fingers looking for an auxiliary effects unit would be well-advised to check it out.
Price: £469 inc VAT
More from: Stirling Audio, (Contact Details)
On The Re:Mix CD:
4 Lexicon Vortex
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #1.
Review by Nigel Lord
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