Zoom 9120 Advanced Sound Environment Processor
From the company that brought you effects units you could wear, comes a very serious reverb processor — that you can't wear!
A reverb sound that compares with the best Pro units? Lower noise than the competition in the same price range? And Zoom's lowest price tag yet for a rackmounting studio processor? Paul White can't wait to get acquainted with the new 9120.
Zoom's 9120 Sound Environment Processor represents a departure from their more usual multi-effect and guitar processors, in that it is primarily a reverb unit that just happens to produce a few other useful effects along the way. The majority of the effects fall into the reverb, pitch shift or modulated delay category, but there are one or two interesting variations, such as a surround sound simulator, and even a Karaoke patch. There are 99 effects patches based on 22 different reverb algorithms, and the patches may be be modified or completely overwritten by the user. As supplied, the memory locations are filled with a good selection of factory patches.
The machine has an incredibly friendly user interface and boasts a comprehensive MIDI section which includes real-time performance control.
The 1U-high, rackmounting Zoom 9120 has a dynamic range of 90dB courtesy of 16-bit linear sampling with 64 times oversampling. The effect bandwidth is 20Hz to 14.5kHz and the audio connections are by means of unbalanced jacks, with the choice of mono or stereo operation at either +4dBm or -20dB operating levels. In addition to the audio jacks, the rear panel houses MIDI In and Out sockets plus the LCD contrast control.
The input level control is a dual-concentric device to allow independent control over the right and left inputs, with two tri-coloured LEDs to handle the input level metering. A manual control sets the level of the direct and effected signal (this setting isn't stored as part of a program), while a further rotary control sets the overall output level.
There are two display windows on the front panel, the first indicating the current program number by means of two LED digits, programs being selected either via the Up/Down program select buttons or over MIDI, using program changes. The key to the friendly operating system is a rotary selector knob, the current choice being indicated by one of 10 LEDs positioned around the knob, relating to the basic effects: Chorus; Delay; Pitch; SFX1; SFX2; E/R (Early Reflections); Gate; Plate; Room and Hall. The main LCD display window is used mainly to display parameters during editing or effect titles during performance; up to three parameters and their values are displayed at one time. Three rotary controls are used to change the displayed parameter values, while further parameters are accessed simply by stepping through to a new screen using the Page button. There are no more than three pages per effect, and the current page is shown by means of a self-explanatory icon at the lower left-hand corner of the display.
There's a Compare key, which switches between the original and edited patches, and new settings may be stored to any program location. The bypass key cancels only the effect part of the signal; if the Output Balance control is set fully clockwise, there will be no output in bypass mode. A Utility button provides access to the MIDI parameters as well as allowing individual factory patches to be reinstated. There's also a global machine reset in here, which replaces all data with the factory defaults.
A front-panel jack socket accepts a volume pedal or footswitch to allow real-time dynamic control and effect triggering where appropriate, though external MIDI control is also possible. There's also a trigger button, which is useful for checking results while editing.
The trade-off with such a simple operating system is that the user can only get at a limited number of parameters for each effect. In the reverb department, the 9120 offers Hall, Room and Plate reverb types, each with two variations, plus Gate and Early Reflections programs. The variable parameters depend on which type of reverb is selected, the Halls having a choice of reverb time, with a maximum of 10 seconds, up to 100ms of pre-delay, and variable high-frequency damping. There's also control over how closely spaced the individual reflections are — the reverb density — and independent level control over the left and right early reflections level. The two Rooms have similar facilities to the Halls, except that an Attack parameter, which appears to modify the reverb envelope, replaces Density.
When it comes to plates, the usual parameters are supplemented by Attack, Density and Tone, the latter being a top-cut filter to provide high end shaping that doesn't vary over the reverb decay period.
Tested with drums, electric guitar and vocals, the reverbs proved to be excellent and stood up well to my Klark Teknik DN780. There was no apparent ringing or fluttering, while the background noise was between 10 and 15dB better than from my budget effects units.
The gated reverb setting is actually a reverb followed by gate parameters rather than the more common timed burst of early reflections, and this may also be controlled from the front panel trigger button or switch jack, or via MIDI Note On messages. Predelay, reverb density and overall tone can also be varied. On drums, the gated effect is quite convincing, and Early Reflections is a great program to use when you need to give a sound a sense of context without drowning it in a wash of reverb. What you get is a pattern of early reflections with no following reverb; the algorithm allows the user to change the dimensions of the synthesised reverberant space, which in turn will affect the early reflections spacing. An additional Shape parameter changes the overall decay envelope from a reversed effect at one extreme to a conventional decay at the other. If you're looking for a reversed reverb effect, this is the place to create it.
There are three different chorus effects, all of which feature eight modulated delay taps. There's straight chorus, chorus/reverb and delay/chorus/reverb. Rate, depth and tone parameters may be varied amongst other parameters which vary depending which chorus mode is selected.
The delay section can generate mono delays of up to two seconds or stereo delays of up to one second with feedback to create repeat echoes; the high-frequency response of the delays may be modified to produce a softer character. The ability to set the delay time directly by tapping the front panel trigger button or a footswitch at the desired rate takes the pain out of matching delay times to tempos.
While the delays are wonderfully clean and quiet, the pitch shifter tends to sound lumpy — as is invariably the case with all but the most esoteric pro units, though for small shifts or subtle detuning, it works fine. Two shifts can be created simultaneously, with a range of plus or minus 12 semitones and a combined pitch and reverb treatment is available — which allows you, for example, to treat a drum sound with reverb which sounds as though it came from a differently-pitched drum. Fine shifts may be set for detuning; this is good for fattening vocals or synth pad sounds.
The first effect, in the SFX1 section, is menacingly entitled 'Karaoke!' The idea is to reduce the level of vocals on records so you can sing over the top, but all it does is make the track sound like a loud party next door — all bass and no detail. It is also possible to pitch shift the signal by up to four semitones in either direction, presumably so you can find a key that suits you — very nasty and very bad for the cred!
Faring somewhat better is 'Surround', which seems to generate a subtle early reflections pattern treated with phase shifts to widen the apparent soundstage. This could be very valuable for treating individual sub groups to give a mix more space, though I think the original intention was to make the unit appeal to home entertainment system owners who wanted surround sound. Great idea — Not! The Sweep Flanger has five different modes offering combinations of mono or stereo operation and up/down sweep, all driven by a three-phase modulation LFO which produces a pleasantly rich sound.
SFX2 accesses Pedal Pitch Shift, MIDI Harmonized Pitch Shift and Hold Delay. In the pedal mode, pitch glides can be set up and triggered from the trigger button (or a footswitch), or via MIDI to create dive-bombing effects and tasteful stuff like that. MIDI Harmonized Shifting allows the user to program various musical intervals to correspond to various MIDI notes, allowing harmonies to be created automatically. Independent shifts are possible for the left and right channels and a User Scale utility is used to create and store note maps. I'm sure some people will love it, but for me, life is too short for all that kind of stuff!
Hold Delay is much more like instant fun and it may be set manually by tapping in the tempo on the trigger button, footswitch or via the MIDI input. The sampled sound will then be recirculated until you get bored and either hit the button again or pull the plug out.
Even friendly processors like this have hidden recesses, revealed, in the case of the 9021, by pressing the Utility button. This is where you go when you want to change the MIDI channel or the MIDI control change number that the unit responds to. MIDI Bulk Dumps can also be sent and received, while factory programs may be reinstalled either individually or en masse. Most effects units allow you to assign effects patches to incoming MIDI program numbers, but on this machine, half the work is done for you. You pick the program you want to assign, press the Learn key and then send the unit a MIDI patch change number — a doddle.
I must confess to rather liking this unit, and though there are other processors that offer more effects or more user-accessible parameters, I feel that the quality-before-quantity approach is valid. Indeed, the reverbs are amongst the best I've heard outside Lexicon territory and compare favourably with other professional units costing several times the price. Every mix requires at least one high-quality dedicated reverb, usually for the lead vocals, and seen in this context, I feel the 9120 would be worth the asking price for the reverbs alone. The other effects can be seen as a bonus, and the fact that some work rather less well than others is really of little consequence in the light of the excellent reverb performance.
Aside from being subjectively superb, the overall sound quality is technically very impressive, with significantly lower background noise than was produced by any of the other budget units I had available for comparison. I feel this is important, as we are entering the era of digital multitrack, and many of the existing effects units, while subjectively pleasing, just don't cut it from the sound quality standpoint.
Aside from the reverbs, the chorus and other modulation effects stand up very well and possess that elusive quality that somehow combines drama with subtlety. They all have a lovely sense of stereo movement and a clean sparkle to them that makes you want to keep using them. The delays are also very clean.
"The unit switches patches quickly with no glitching, which is gratifying, and the ease of use aspect simply can't be praised too highly."
Another positive attribute worthy of mention is that the patch switching is very smooth, reasonably fast and free from any unpleasant glitching. This is very important if you're one of those people who likes switching effects patches mid-mix.
The machine has very few negative aspects, and these are mainly to do with the additional effects, though as mentioned earlier, the unit would be a bargain even without these. The pitch shifter is lumpy — as budget pitch shifters inevitably are — and although it is better than some, its operation is still too obvious to allow it to be used on musically sensitive sounds, other than at a very low level in the mix or for subtle amounts of detuning.
Moving onto the other effects, even the concept of the Karaoke patch is too horrendous to contemplate, but it can be useful in recreating the illusion of a rave heard through a warehouse wall! Though the Surround patch is an odd inclusion, and is no substitute for Dolby surround sound, it can be useful in creating a sense of space around submixes or individual stereo instruments.
Judged in the context of its price and the available competition, this Zoom product comes out pretty well. Not only is it easy to use and more than adequately versatile, it produces the quality and character of reverb usually associated with far more costly units. For this reason, I wouldn't be surprised to find the Zoom 9120 turning up in a good many pro studios as well as in the toy boxes of recording musicians everywhere.
Zoom 9021 £449.95 including VAT.
MCM, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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