Reverb In Wonderland
Digital reverb comes of age, in the shape of a new American unit that abandons user-programmability in favour of great-sounding presets, and does it at an incredibly low price. Paul White enthuses.
With the help of some clever new technology and the elimination of parameters you can alter yourself, the Alesis MIDIverb looks like becoming one of the most competent digital reverb systems available — and at a price that's staggeringly low.
Sheer inspiration, that's what it is. In the recording industry, the adage 'give the people what they want' is usually replaced by something like 'give a few people what the rest can't afford', but this is one machine that goes against all that. In fact, it goes against almost all the conventions of designing, producing and marketing a digital reverb system. The result of this disregard for tradition is the Alesis MIDIverb, a machine which is exactly what the people want, at exactly the sort of price most of them can afford.
Six months ago, nobody in the UK had even heard of Alesis, a small Stateside company engaged in producing outboard studio FX units. In six weeks' time, every self-respecting music shop in this fair isle will be trying to get its hands on Alesis goods, and specifically the MIDIverb.
First things first. The MIDIverb is a digital reverb, whose presets can be selected remotely via MIDI — hence its catchy title. In fact, presets are all the MIDIverb has, since it's equipped with no user-variable parameters. Instead, it offers 63 preset reverb effects with decay times of between 0.2 and 20 seconds, and including a selection of gated and reverse programs. All the preset effects are listed on the top panel for easy reference. The MIDI channel on which the MIDIverb receives its patch-change instructions can be set anywhere in the 1-16 range, but don't panic if you don't have any MIDI gear: you can still select programs from the MIDIverb's front panel.
The MIDIverb's physical design is as unconventional as the rest of it. Its circuitry is contained within a diminutive free-standing plastic box, simple yet stylish, which must have cost a small fortune to tool up for, and which makes the device the only non-rack mountable digital reverb on the market. The good thing about the Alesis' non-rack format is that you don't need a remote controller to use it on a flat surface alongside a mixing desk, say; power comes from a small external unit linked to the machine by a custom cable.
Like Alesis' costlier XT:c, the MIDIverb's output is in stereo, derived from a mono input. There are two inputs for use with a stereo signal, but although the dry signals emerge from these outputs in stereo, the reverb effect is derived from a mix of the two inputs. Using the MIDIverb with a mixer, you'd probably be best off working with just the one input, setting the Balance control (inconveniently located on the machine's back panel) to give only the reverbed part of the signal, so that this can be remixed with the original signal in the desk either by using the effects returns or spare input channels.
A word about the MIDIverb's specifications and what they mean. It has an excellent 80dB dynamic range (thanks largely to a 12-bit sampling resolution), so it comes as little surprise that the unit is blissfully quiet in operation, with the hiss and hum generated by the effects send circuit in my mixer swamping any noise the reverb may be generating. If you grossly underdrive the MIDIverb so as to bring up its own residual noise, close examination shows that this is nearly all quantisation noise, which reduces in level as the reverb dies away.
Frequency response isn't quite so vital a consideration (though some people keep rabbitting on about it nonetheless), since natural-sounding reverb contains very little in the way of extreme high or low frequencies. The MIDIverb uses a 10kHz bandwidth, something which would be barely acceptable on a digital delay, for example, but which produces very bright reverb effects when required to do so.
Input sensitivity has been set at -10dBm and input impedance at 50K, so the MIDIverb should be compatible with a wide range of recording gear, and at a pinch you could plug a guitar directly into the unit, though you'd be better off using it in a conventional effects send/return loop. The output impedance is low, so you shouldn't have any matching problems there, either.
MIDI In and Thru sockets are to be found on the rear panel, but there's no MIDI Out, as the MIDIverb is in effect taking orders, not giving them. There's no way you can set up which preset is selected by which patch-change number, so depending on whether your controlling MIDI instrument starts counting from one or zero, preset 10 will respond to either patch-change 9 or patch-change 10. This means that if you're using a synth to select reverb effects matched to specific sounds, you have to store the synth sounds at the patch numbers of the effects you wanton the MIDIverb.
With a MIDI sequencer things aren't so restricting, as you can call up any patch change on a separate channel to those on which your synths are operating.
This leaves at least one important question unanswered. How is all this possible in so small a box, and at so low a cost? Turns out it's all down to a thing called RISC, which is jargonese for Reduced Instruction Set Computer, which is jargonese for a stripped down, streamlined form of microprocessor. Now, digital reverb programs need to perform a lot of simple mathematical calculations very quickly, so there's no point using a large, sluggish processor capable of undertaking all kinds of tasks it'll never be called upon to perform. The necessary maths can be done quicker and cheaper using something less versatile but more refined, hence the adoption of RISC architecture on the MIDIverb. The outcome of this is a denser, more natural reverb than any other machine in this price range can manage.
On the preset front, what you're given are SO basic reverb settings, with several variations of reverb character for each decay time. Rather than call the effects rooms, halls, plates and so on, Alesis describe their sounds as being 'warm', 'bright' or 'dark'. If that sounds more like a weather forecast than a description of reverb effects, remember that West Coast Americans talk like this all the time. Also shown on the top-panel listing is the subjective size of the reverberant environment for each preset; not surprisingly, this gives you a choice of 'small', 'medium' or 'large'.
Thus, preset 24 offers a decay time of 1.6 seconds and is both 'medium' and 'bright' — this gives something akin to a very toppy plate reverb. If you want something a little more mellow, you can choose preset 22, which has the same decay time but is 'small' and 'dark': this results in something like an extremely live outside loo.
Pre-delay is designed into these presets according to the size and character of each simulated environment, so to some extent, you're getting the advantages of a room simulator in that all the parameters complement each other regardless of which preset you choose.
In addition to these more or less conventional reverb settings, there are also no fewer than nine gated effects and four reverse presets.
Now comes the crunch. Specifications are all very well, but reverb is a very subjective thing. Well, I've used most of the digital reverb systems currently available, from the humble Yamaha R1000 to the AMSs, Klark Tekniks and Yamaha REV1s of this world — and I can tell you that I was very impressed. Any worries that the Alesis' presets-only format might prevent me from creating a full range of different reverb effects evaporated almost as soon as I started to use the machine; there weren't really any common effects that I couldn't get hold of in some form or other.
Even my most stringent tests with digital drum voices failed to find any fault with the way the MIDIverb sounded. There was none of that clanginess associated with budget digital reverbs, and the stereo depth was pretty convincing. Even the gated effects had a built-in panning effect, and all were brash and exciting. As for the reverse effects, they were some of the best I've heard at any price — process a snare drum using a reverse setting, and you can even hear the impact of stick on drum at the end of the envelope, just as though it were a tape being played backwards.
Results were no less impressive using a synth. Seems the MIDIverb is capable of transforming an insipid polysynth sound into a swirling string section, or adding an indefinable ethereal quality to flutes and chimes. Vocal treatments are no problem, either: the Bright settings are particularly effective in giving a solo voice extra sparkle and depth.
As a writer and studio owner who comes up against dozens of new music machines in an average reviewing year, it's not often I find a piece of gear that really excites me. Yet here we are at the beginning of the year when all the other manufacturers are just talking about their new products, and this one turns up in the flesh, sneaks up behind me, and hits me over the head with a brilliant specification, a fine sound, and a record-breaking sub-£400 price tag.
Even ignoring that price, the MIDIverb is a damned good unit that does almost everything a digital reverb should do, so long as you don't want to get involved with programming your own effects settings. Anyone who reckons there aren't enough variations available on the MIDIverb is kidding themselves: even top engineers tend to have just half-a-dozen favourite AMS settings that get used to the exclusion of all else.
The MIDI is a great bonus to those who sync their mixdowns to a MIDI sequencer, and for that perversion known as playing live, its applications are mind-boggling: now keyboard players can have a studio reverb sound remotely selectable on stage.
And if you have a digital reverb already but suffer from the perennial problem of needing different effects settings for drums and vocals when it comes to studio mixing-down, you should be able to afford one of these to use as a second reverb.
Some might say the MIDIverb signifies the death of the programmable effects unit as we know it, but personally I doubt it. What it undeniably achieves, at a time when most professional-quality studio effects are still beyond the reach of most musicians, is the bringing of fine digital reverb patches to a completely new market, probably several. I've ordered mine already.
Price RRP £399
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Review by Paul White
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