Sound Environment Processor
And still they come... more FX units than you can shake a MIDI lead at. Nicholas Rowland zooms in on the latest and tries to spot the difference.
Still persevering with woolly reverbs, half-hearted delays and overstretched pitchshifts? It could be time to change your environment...
Multi-FX... we all know the score. Euro multi-FX mountain? A plot by ex-members of the KGB? Whatever your theory, there's now an awful lot of those do-it-all 19" black boxes out there, fighting for your attention, and the contents of your wallet. Well, here's another - the 9120 from Japanese multi-FX specialists Zoom, who in the past have at least stood out from their contemporaries because most of their gizmos generally come in anything but 19" black boxes.
Breaking with tradition, the 9120 is packed in a 19" wide box - though it's not black. Well, not entirely. And to break the mould a little bit more, the 9120 is not a multi-FX unit... at least not officially. Zoom choose to call it an Advanced Sound Environment Processor, although when you look down the 9120's feature list you quickly realise this is just a way of calling a rose a rosa floribunda. On offer are ten programmable effects types, including reverb, delay, pitchshift, chorus and flange. Apart from a couple of multi-FX algorithms (pitch plus reverb for example), only one effect type is available at once: a point to bear in mind when comparing the 9120 to others which offer strings of effects simultaneously.
Other attributes include 99 programmable memories, a comprehensive MIDI spec (including real-time MIDI control over a number of effect parameters) - oh, and it's stereo too. Price? Around the £450 mark and therefore a league above Zoom's popular budget offerings such as the 9001. Physically there's little about the 9120 to linger over, except to say it's nice to see so many knobs - especially since four of these are devoted to programming. The rest deal with the setting of input and output levels and the mix between dry and effected signals. Switches are also included to set the basic input and output level gains between +4 and -20dB - clearly the 9120 is designed to be at home in any environment.
Other switches and sockets of significance include MIDI In and Out, Bypass, and a front panel socket for an optional footswitch that can be used to control or trigger certain functions.
So much for the touchy-feely bits. What about the listeny-heary bits? The ten effects types already mentioned are based around 22 algorithms, specifically: reverb (two each of hall, room and plate, plus a gated reverb): early reflection/ambience; delay (five types); chorus (with and without reverb); four different pitchshift algorithms including a MIDI controlled version; flanger; surround sound processor; and finally a setting called karaoke. This is designed to remove vocals from a mix so you can add your two penn'orth on top. Thankfully, as we shall see, it doesn't work all that well.
As with most other FX units, a general impression of the 9120's sonic capabilities is best gained by auditioning the reverbs. And here the 9120 really does stand out from the crowd. In fact, it's probably the best reverb I've heard under £1,000. Smooth, warm, sparkling, shimmering, crisp, clear... the 9120 not only qualifies for all the usual cliches, it deserves to inspire a few more. The plates were particularly impressive, with none of that harsh, brittle quality which often distinguishes (or rather undistinguishes) cheaper units. Check out presets like High Snap, Clean Plate and Rich Plate and you'll see what I mean.
All the reverbs have programmable decay times of between 0.3 and ten seconds and predelays of 0-100ms. Not the widest ranging parameters I've encountered, but unless you're into simulating Byzantine cathedrals, it's not a cause for concern. The gated reverb is particularly versatile, due to the various ways you can control the gate. One option is to gate the left input, but control it from the input signal on the right channel. This allows you to tidy up sloppy bass or rhythm guitar playing with a gate triggered by a drum machine. The gate can also be triggered manually from a button on the front panel, or via the optional footswitch. Alternatively, you can opt for the MIDI route, opening the gate via control change or Note On messages.
For reverse reverb effects, you'll have to turn to the Early Reflection algorithm - a cousin of the reverbs rather than one of the immediate family. This algorithm gives you plenty of early reflections, but very little of the normal reverberant decay. It's designed primarily for simulating different acoustic environments. A Size control adjusts the length of the early reflection to create the impression of different spaces, and there's a Shape parameter which when set to a negative value produces a reverse reverb effect. Among the presets is a useful all-purpose early reflection program which odds a gentle overall presence to a mix, without robbing it of any of its clarity. It also makes a good choice when using the 9120 live to treat a keyboard rig.
Keyboard players will probably go a bundle on the sweep flange and chorus presets. Sweep flange comes in mono and stereo varieties and sweeps up or down or in both directions at once - the choice is yours. Of the choruses, I particularly liked the doomy Basement (which uses the darker end of the chorus' Colour control to great effect) and Laslie Split (sic) which as it (almost) sounds, is good for thickening organs, stringy keyboard pads and analogue bass.
Both the examples mentioned above use the eight-voice stereo chorus algorithm. Also on offer is a chorus combined with reverb and a mono delay. Of delays pure and simple, there are four. The first is a straightforward mono echo while the second provides a ping-pong delay effect which repeats alternately left and right. Three and four are stereo delays, the second of these featuring cross feedback delay.
Feedback (ie. the number of repeats) can be programmed with a positive or negative value, the latter reversing the phase of the echo. Maximum delay time on the first two is 2 seconds, and on the second two it's 1 second. In all cases delay times can be adjusted via the programming controls or they can be input in real time (a bit like the tap tempo feature on drum machines). In cases where delay times have to be locked to track tempo, the 9120 has a rather neat beat calculator which is easily called up via the Utility key. All you do is enter the required BPM, then select from a menu of five note values (eighths, quarter, and half notes, plus eight- and quarter-note triplets). Hey presto, the 9120 works out the delay time and will even insert this value into the current delay preset. Incidentally, BPMs can also be picked up from an incoming MIDI clock.
The delay family also includes Hold Delay, which enables you to record and store audio of up to two seconds. On many other units, this functions as a kind of poor man's sampler. On the 9120, it wouldn't even satisfy a derelict beggar. You can only replay the audio as a continuous loop, and you can't trim your 'sample' once it's in there - although you can set up the required record time via a similar tap tempo method to the one mentioned above. Richer musical fare is provided by the 9120's pitchshifting algorithms: a stereo version with two shifts and a simpler version which has just one shift, but is combined with reverb. On the first, both left and right channels can be independently programmed to give up to an octave's worth of leap either up or down. Adjustment is either in whole semitones or microtonal steps so you can create whole chords, or fat cat choruses.
In general, the pitchshifter is fairly quick on its feet, though as is often the case, there's some noticeable glitching when you ask it to jump too many notes in too many directions at once. Things start to get interesting when you turn to the Pedal Shift - which enables you to bend the pitchshifted note, using either an optional footswitch or, via MIDI, from the pitch wheel on your keyboard. Use it on rhythm tracks and you can create pseudo scratching sounds. Switching to 'Minus Infinity' (now there's a concept) results in the pitch dropping so low, it fades out altogether - great for tape-stop type effects.
For one-fingered keyboard players, the 9120 has MIDI Harmonised Pitch Shift - the high tech answer to one finger chords. Programming this first requires you to select a base musical key (ie. C, C#, B, etc.), then to input the desired musical interval (eg. major 7th, minor 3rd, major 4th) separately for the left and right channels. Working to these criteria, the 9120 will then come up trumps with the appropriate chord. It's great fun - and there's more. Under the Utility menu you'll find a facility to create two user scales. Here a different set of intervals can be programmed separately for each note in the scale. In other words, press C and you'll get the third and seventh above, press D and you'll get the second and fourth below.
This brings us to the last two algorithms in the 9120's repertoire. Next to last (and probably least as far as most musicians are concerned) is a surround sound processor, which is useful if you ever want to turn your front room into a Dolby cinema, but not much else. And finally there's Karaoke, which in theory offers you the chance to remove Old Blue Eyes from 'My Way' and sing it your way; there's even a pitchshift facility so you can crank it up to your key. However, 'remove' is an optimistic word here. Diminish might be more appropriate. And since it works by removing the frequencies normally inhabited by the average human voice, it stands to reason that other things will also disappear from the mix too. Of course, this can also be used as a tonal effect in its own right, such as on the Turning Japanese preset which helps to pump up the bass for a Hi-NRG effect.
Thinking about it, even if the 9120 sounded mediocre I'd recommend it on ease of programmability alone. But of course, it doesn't sound mediocre, it sounds bloody brilliant - especially the reverbs - so there are plenty of opportunities to make good patches sound great. Indeed, by the time I got to the end of the list of factory programmed presets, I'd overwritten at least half of them with my own custom-tweaked versions. Also in its favour are facilities like the MIDI pitchshifter and the delay beat calculator - which make it a creative musical tool as much as it is a simple FX unit. Against? At this price you can buy multi-FX units equipped with more bells and whistles - ones that play them all at once, too. But if you want a set of high quality effects that are easy to live with, then the 9120 could be your man.
Price: £449.95 inc. VAT
More From: MCMXCIX (Contact Details)
Review by Nicholas Rowland
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!