Space... The Final Frontier
Roland SRV330 Dimensional Space Reverb
Can Roland's latest gizmo really add another dimension to your recordings?
Paul White puts on his 3D glasses and takes a journey into space courtesy of Roland's new RSS-equipped digital reverb.
This is a reverb with a difference — it incorporates processing based on Roland's RSS (Roland Sound Space) 3D sound system, a system capable of creating the illusion that sounds originate from outside the confines of the loudspeakers, and occasionally from behind the listener. The RSS system was fabulously expensive when first launched, and even now that the price has fallen dramatically, professionals are still more likely to hire one than to buy one. However, most of us recognised from the outset that the R&D effort would eventually percolate down to less costly products and it didn't take a great mental leap to predict effects units, synths and samplers with some RSS capability built in. Indeed I quizzed Roland on this subject when RSS was first demonstrated, unaware that the R&D work for exactly such a range or products must have been already well advanced.
The RSS system is based on an analysis of what we actually hear when sound sources arrive from different directions. Because of the spacing of our ears and the audio masking or shadowing effect of our heads, the same sound will arrive at one ear before the other, unless it comes from directly in front, behind or above. Similarly, the tonal and amplitude characteristics of the sound will change according to direction because of the masking effect of the head and the shape of the outer ear.
By simulating these tonal and timing differences, sounds can be made to appear to move around the room, even though they originate from a standard stereo monitoring system. However, because both ears hear the sound from both left and right loudspeakers, further processing has to be carried out to cancel this 'inter-aural' crosstalk. This has been recognised in theory for many years, but Roland are one of the few companies to attempt to put these principles to commercial use.
The full RSS system provides horizontal and vertical panning over a full 360 degrees, though the effectiveness of the process when moving sounds behind the listener depends greatly on the type of sound being treated and on the acoustics of the listening room. As the sounds are moved towards the rear of the room, they take on a somewhat 'phasey' character, which has led some people to criticise the system. And, because of the tonal and timing changes applied to the left and right channel signals, the signal often suffers when replayed in mono. Again, this lack of mono compatibility has led to criticism of the system, though to be perfectly fair, real life isn't mono compatible either!
While the RSS system is capable of dynamic, 3D panning, its spin-offs as applied to the SRV330 are restricted to providing discrete, static 3D positioning for the various early reflections generated by the unit. This adds a subtle degree of depth and involvement to the reverb sound without making it sound in any way gimmicky, and because there is little correlation between the left and right channel reverberant signals, summing to mono poses no special problems. The spatial positions of the early reflections appear to be generated by an algorithm which offers little control to the user, though there is a parameter that sets the degree of spatial enhancement from 0 to 100%. Additionally, the 3D non-linear algorithm provides some control over both the horizontal and vertical effect positioning.
Physically, the SRV330 is quite conventional and fits neatly into a 1U rack space. The signal path follows the usual stereo in, stereo out format and it is possible to independently switch the inputs and outputs between +4dBu and -20dBv operation. There is no -10dBv setting, but in practice, the input and output level controls provide more than adequate adjustment to interface with a -10dBv desk. Unbalanced jacks are used to handle both the inputs and outputs — the lack of XLRs is the only sign that this isn't a fully pro unit. Jacks are also provided for Bypass and Control switches, as well as a pedal input, allowing real-time parameter control. Sharing the rear panel are the usual three MIDI sockets, and mains power comes in via a captive mains lead.
The unit's technical specification seems nothing out of the ordinary; these days 16-bit, 44.1kHz sampling is commonplace, but in reality, there is a surprising difference in performance between similarly specified systems, especially when it comes to background noise. I'm glad to say that the SRV330 is impressively quiet. The manual claims that the left and right channels are processed independently in order to avoid compromising the 3D spatial effects when the unit is also running a busy reverb algorithm.
The unit is provided with 400 program locations, the last 300 of which are presets and the first 100 of which come filled with factory sounds that can be overwritten or modified as required. Patches may be accessed by means of the rotary alpha dial, the increment/decrement buttons or via MIDI. Obviously, standard MIDI addressing can't access all 400 locations, but a patch mapping system is provided, allowing up to 128 effects to be mapped to the 128 possible MIDI program change numbers. MIDI may also be used for performance control — see the MIDI sidebar.
The backlit LCD display has a large numeric section which displays the patch number and a two-line alphanumeric area which displays the patch name during normal use or various parameter names and values during editing.
As with the majority of programmable digital effects units, the SRV330's programs are based on algorithms which behave as collections of 'virtual' building blocks. It has 22 such algorithms, all being stereo and five including 3D early reflections. All the algorithms start with a parametric equaliser block and end with a stereo gate which may be switched for gating and ducking, or may be bypassed. What goes in between depends on the algorithm selected and may be made up from from Early Reflections, Reverb, Delay, Chorus, 3D Ambience, 3D Early Reflections and 3D Non-linear Reverb. The available algorithms and parameter settings allow the user to set up the usual range of halls, plates, rooms, chambers, caverns, cathedrals and so on, as well as gated reverb, reverse reverb, chorused reverb and some slightly off-the-wall combination effects. Gated effects may be set up using the non-linear algorithm and its associated envelope parameters, by using the gate to truncate a standard reverb, or by a combination of both.
Most of the parameters are self-explanatory, but to fully appreciate others, a browse through the manual (at least once) is a good idea. For example, whereas most reverb units offer a choice of gated or reverse reverb, the SRV330 allows a four-section envelope to be generated, which can be used to create far more sophisticated envelopes.
Any of the 400 programs may be used as a starting point for editing, though the result can only be stored in locations 1 to 100. Exactly which parameters can be edited depends on which effect algorithm is being used, but as a rule the display window works on a page system, showing three parameters at any one time. The most commonly used parameters are on the first page and the more obscure ones are to be found further down the list, with the real-time control assignments coming right at the end. Some algorithms provide several pages of editable parameters, but if you simply need to make a quick edit, Reverb Time always comes up as the first parameter on the first page for all the reverb-based effects. Effect/dry balance on the SRV330 is set using a front panel knob and is not stored as part of a patch. However, the overall effects level for each patch can be programmed, so providing you don't want to set up patches with no dry signal at all, you can set up the required balance in this way.
The three Func(tion) buttons are used to select which of the three visible parameters is to be edited, and values changed using the data entry knob or the Up/Down buttons. When editing is complete, you can compare the new patch with the original before storing it. The whole procedure is very intuitive and anyone with previous experience of digital effects units should have no trouble getting around, even without referring to the manual.
Before moving onto the admittedly more interesting area of subjective sound, I'm pleased to say that the SRV330 is quiet, clean and has sufficient headroom to prevent inadvertent overloading as long as input level is set up sensibly — which means keeping an eye on the level meter bargraphs. Changing from one effects patch to another isn't exactly seamless but there are no nasty glitches; what seems to happen is that the unit 'thinks' about it for half a second or so after you instruct it to load a new patch, after which the old patch is rapidly faded out and the new one faded in. No patch change takes place while you are scrolling from one patch number to another — the unit waits until you stop scrolling so everything stays clean. Similarly, the real-time parameter control is free from unacceptable glitching and audible zipper noise, as long as you heed the advice in the manual and don't try to control one parameter from more than one source at a time.
When I first opened the SRV330's box, I was expecting to be more impressed by its 3D effects than by its reverb quality, but if anything, the opposite is the case. Even the non-3D algorithms produce a spacious, dense reverb that simply oozes character. The variety of possible reverb sounds is enormous, and I was impressed by the detail and clarity, which had me believing in the rooms I created, right from small tiled rooms to immense caverns and cathedrals. Using a high level of early reflections generates a rather stronger sense of detail than you'd expect from any normal acoustic space, but in the context of music production, this effect can greatly enhance strings, pad sounds or vocals. In any event, there's full control over all the necessary parameters, including separate control of HF and LF damping for both early reflections and main reverb. The inclusion of a true, three-band parametric equaliser also goes a long way to helping you create exactly the right reverb sound.
Selecting a 3D algorithm produces not only a subtle widening of the stereo image but also seems to increase front-to-back perspective and goes some way towards creating the illusion of height. This is particularly effective on concert hall and cathedral settings, where you can close your eyes and imagine the sound reverberating around those vaulted stone arches or rococo ceilings. Checking the output of the unit with a Box soundstage analyser reveals a very distinct left/right image, though there is little or nothing to see when switching from a 3D algorithm to a conventional one. The strong stereo image may simply be due to the low degree of correlation between the left and right reverb signals, though it's also possible that some of the left channel's signal has been fed, antiphase, to the right output and vice versa just to help things along. In any event, the reverb algorithms are successful in creating the illusion of a three-dimensional space, and the sound suffers no more badly from being switched into mono than does any reverb unit.
Some of the trick patches programmed into the unit are quite dramatic, but all are musically usable. There are slow-attack reverbs, grossly exaggerated early reflections patterns that rasp away like guiros or maddened insects, lush chorus reverbs and a selection of disturbing non-linear effects which sound like heavy breathing in reverse. With the exception of the Plate, none of the effects algorithms produces a specific type of reverb — it would seem that there's enough control to build what you want. However, there are excellent examples of all the popular room, hall, plate and ambience effects amongst the factory settings, which provide good starting points for editing.
The more I play with this unit, the more I like it and the more I find out about it. It seems to me that there are too many multi-effects units around that don't quite measure up when it comes to producing high quality reverb, so I think Roland have taken the right decision in making the SRV330 a dedicated reverb processor. According to Roland, much of the reverb technology and algorithm design used in the SRV330 can be traced back to their R880 flagship reverb, which, although it sounded great, was way too expensive for most non-pro users.
The addition of the RSS processing to this reverb unit should be considered as the icing on an already gourmet-class cake, not as a gimmick geared towards marketing old technology in a new box. It's hard to translate into words the sound of a reverb unit because every brand has its own characteristic sound and everybody's psychoacoustic perceptions are different. If anything, I'd say the SRV330 sounds more American than Japanese, but at the same time it has a unique Roland character — it's not an attempt at a Lexicon soundalike. Additionally, the RSS 3D processing, (though it's subtle), does provide a unique selling point, which must help Roland in this already crowded marketplace. Given that this unit is around half the price of the first 'affordable' digital reverb units to hit the market a decade ago, and taking into account is immense flexibility and very professional sound quality, the SRV330 should tug at the purse strings of both the serious private studio owner and the audio professional.
Roland SRV330 £699 inc VAT.
Roland UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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