Shopping for an Effects Box

by Jerry Vigil

The end of the year is near, and for many stations that means new budgets. If you play your cards right, you'll get some funds for new equipment, but what do you buy? If you want a new 8-track, there aren't too many units to check out, and the decision on which 8-track to buy is fairly easy. Studer and Otari seem to be the choice of most. Likewise, if you want a couple of 2-track reel-to-reels or a new cart machine, you won't spend much time deciding what kind to get. However, if you have some bucks for an effects box, the assortment of units to choose from is quite large, and making the choice isn't quite as easy. Here are some things to think about that may help you pick the box best for you and your budget.

The price tag on effects boxes will range from around three hundred dollars to over ten thousand dollars. Knowing how much you have to spend will help narrow down the choices considerably. If you have over ten thousand dollars, save yourself some time and take a look at Lexicon's 480L. At around ten grand, this three year old box is one of the most impressive multi-effects processors on the market. The 480L offers "true stereo" processing at a full 20-20kHz bandwidth and is filled with reverb programs, delay programs, pitch shifting programs, and parametric EQ, to mention a few of the goodies. Spend $12,500, and you get an optional full-bandwidth sampler card with twenty-three seconds of sampling time. There are stereo compression and expansion programs along with nearly one hundred factory presets which include many programs unique to the 480L. For five figures, you get much more, but we'll save the details for a closer look at the 480L in a future issue.

The next step down, when it comes to dollars spent for an effects box, is a big one. If you have two or three thousand to spend, you get into some of the more popular boxes. Two of them are Eventide's H3000B at $2,995, and Yamaha's SPX-1000 for $1,795. These two boxes offer true stereo processing along with excellent reverb, delay, and pitch shifting programs. Frequency response is a full 20-20kHz. There are many programs available on one unit that aren't on the other, and each unit deserves a close inspection before making a decision on one or the other. Another healthy box in this price range is Lexicon's PCM70, however, this box doesn't offer true stereo processing or full bandwidth frequency response. Instead you get some elaborate tap delay and reverb programs plus a "resonant chords" algorithm which offers some unique effects.

Still further down the ladder, we come to the effects boxes that appeal to the tight budget. These are the boxes for under one thousand dollars. In this category we find the many affordable boxes that fall into that semi-pro category but still perform well in the radio production room. Among the manufacturers of these boxes are A.R.T., Alesis, Lexicon, Digitech, and Yamaha. The Alesis MIDIverb III is an attractive unit for $349. Featuring reverbs and delays plus chorus and flanging with up to three simultaneous effects, it's hard to beat for the price, but the bandwidth is limited to 15kHz. The Alesis QuadraVerb at $499 features four simultaneous effects including reverbs, delays, flanging, and chorus, and the bandwidth is a full 20-20kHz. Neither the MIDIverb III nor the QuadraVerb offer multi-octave pitch shifting. The Yamaha SPX-90 and SPX-90II are two extremely popular units in radio pro-duction priced well under $1,000, however, they have both been discontinued. Even so, you may still find some new SPX-90II's in the marketplace. Replacing the SPX-90's is Yamaha's SPX-900. Much like the SPX-1000 in many ways, the unit mainly drops the true stereo processing to bring it in at a list price of $995. Still, you get quality reverbs, delays, and pitch shifting programs as well as a noise gate, a compressor, an exciter, a "freeze" program (sampler), and a distortion program, all at 20-20kHz bandwidth. Among A.R.T.'s power packed processors is their DR-X. At $599 you get ten effects at once including reverbs, delays, compression, pitch shifting, sampling and more, plus full 20-20kHz bandwidth. Lexicon's LXP-5 is a healthy effects box at $549. (See last month's Test Drive.) Digitech has done well with their DSP-128 for $399 which features four simultaneous effects including reverbs, delays, chorus, flanging, and EQ, also at full 20-20kHz bandwidth. All of the processors in this three-figure price range feature one effects chain; so you don't get true stereo processing, but you do get stereo effects.

Probably a good place to start your shopping is on a piece of paper. Write down a few things that will help you make your decision. For example, is full 20-20kHz bandwidth necessary at your studio? If you're producing solely for broadcast, AM and/or FM, you might not want to spend the extra bucks to get the full bandwidth response that won't even be noticed on the air. If this is the case, make a note on your list that anything with a high end response of 15kHz or better will suffice. On the other hand, if you're producing audio that will eventually get mastered to CD or aired on a digital radio station (yes, get ready for digital radio), then full bandwidth quality will be worth it.

What do you want from this effects box? Remember that most effects boxes really only have a few "primary" effects that are then combined or manipulated to give you the numerous effects we've come to know as flanging, stereo echo, chorus, reverse reverb, ping-pong delay, etc. The primary effects are delay, reverb, and pitch shifting. Many of the newer effects boxes now include sampling, and A.R.T. and Yamaha are two companies that have introduced "distortion" as yet another primary effect. Sampling, in many cases, is really an offshoot of the delay effect because any effects box with a maximum delay time of, let's say, one second, is in fact sampling the audio for a full second. It is storing it in one second of RAM then spitting it back out as the delayed signal. Only recently have effects boxes started to take advantage of the RAM being used in their delay programs by including factory programs that utilize the RAM as sampler memory with record and playback functions. Other primary effects might include a noise gate, a compressor, an expander, a panner, EQ, and an exciter.

Okay. With this in mind, consider that different effects boxes will offer some effects while sacrificing others. For example, you might find an effects box that has tremendous reverb and delay programs, but it lacks a pitch shifter. Another box might offer a pitch shifter along with delays and reverbs, but it won't have a sampler. If you already have a sampler, don't spend the extra bucks for a box that offers sampling, unless you want two samplers. Another box might have great reverb programs and a pitch shifter, but it won't have delay programs. Make a note of the effects you want from your box, then ferret out the boxes that meet those needs.

Decide whether or not you want to spend much time programming the unit. If you don't, shop for a box that offers a lot of factory presets. A box with a hundred or more is pretty healthy. If you don't want to program the box at all, consider a box like A.R.T.'s MultiVerb LT with nearly two hundred presets for $299.

A major consideration is whether or not you want "true stereo" processing. Most of the lower priced effects boxes offer "stereo effects" but not true stereo processing. The "stereo effects" themselves are produced from a summed stereo input. In other words, even though you have stereo inputs on the box and a stereo signal going in, the left and right channels are summed to create a mono signal which the effects circuits operate on. The only true stereo at the two outputs on the back of the box is the "direct" signal that is allowed to pass through the unit to the outputs. The amount of this "direct" stereo signal at the outputs is adjusted with a "mix" or "balance" parameter. Some boxes will offer stereo effects but will only have one input. These are more obviously not true stereo processors. To get true stereo processing, the box must have two effects chains, also referred to as split processing. Two effects chains, of course, means more dollars; but before you decide you need true stereo processing, take a second look at its uses. The only time stereo processing is necessary is obviously when the input is a stereo signal. If you plan to use your effects box mainly for adding effects to voice tracks, you'll be dealing with a mono input and may not need the added expense of true stereo processing. On the other hand, if you want to input a stereo signal, such as a piece of music, and be able to shift the pitch of the left channel in one direction while the other channel gets shifted in the opposite direction, and still maintain the stereo signal at the outputs, you'll need a box with two separate pitch shifters. This may not be practical with music, but it's a nice effect to add to a sweeper effect from one of your production libraries. What else can you do with stereo processing? You can shift the pitch of some music to keep it in key with another piece of music or some synth sweep effect you plan to mix with the music. How often would you use stereo processing? How would you use it? The price of true stereo processing is high, so give it some thought before you decide that's what you want.

What about the boxes that boast "a million effects at once"? Simultaneous effects do have a great advantage. Not long ago, if you wanted to add reverb to a delayed signal, you needed two boxes, one for the delay and one for the reverb. Today, however, you can get more effects at once that you can keep track of. To the best of our knowledge, A.R.T.'s SGE Mach II ($749) comes in the winner with TWELVE, yes, a full dozen effects all at the same time. (Just recognizing the input can become a challenge.) The technology to provide simultaneous effects has matured, and any station, particularly the tight budgeted station, should very seriously look at the many units that provide multiple simultaneous effects. While twelve effects at once is just a little on the overkill side, a box that gives up three or four effects at once will perform nicely.

Another consideration when buying an effects box is whether or not the inputs and outputs are balanced. You can rest assured, your engineering department is going to prefer a unit that has balanced ins and outs. Why? The output of the box is cleaner, and the box will get along better with all the other "balanced" gear in the room. Granted, balanced ins and outs will provide a cleaner signal, but unless you have a noisy room to begin with, you won't notice the difference. If you don't have the bucks, the unbalanced and less expensive, semi-pro boxes offer noise levels low enough to be easily drowned out by the other elements you'll eventually cram into that promo or spot, like the hot music you'll have under the voice track you hope will be getting more attention from your listeners than the noise coming from your effects box.

Let's say you have a thousand dollars for an effects box. Consider what particular effects box you can get for that amount, then consider what TWO smaller boxes you can get for the same amount. If you have three grand, consider a rack with four or five effects boxes instead of just one. Also, to quote some advice from this month's interview, shop for used equipment, particularly if you're looking for a semi-pro box. There are a lot of musicians out there who desperately need to dump their "toys" to pay the rent.

Believe it or not, there are stations, owners, managers, engineers, and producers who simply don't settle for less than the best. To these companies and people we say, more power to you. If you've spent some fifty to a hundred thousand dollars on the world's cleanest console and hooked it up to the latest digital recorders, by all means, get top of the line outboard gear. Get the optional gold plated knobs! But if you hear "it's not in the budget" about as often as you hear "it starts tomorrow," take a look at exactly what you really need, shop for the best price, and you'll surprise your boss when you show him the price tag that is considerably less than he or she expected.

Here are the numbers of the companies mentioned in this article. Call and ask them to send you literature on their processors. The information will tell you most everything you need to know about their boxes, and you can confidently make a good decision based on the literature. A.R.T. -- (716) 436-2720. Yamaha -- (714) 522-9011. Lexicon -- (617) 891-6790. Alesis -- (213) 467-8000. Eventide -- (201) 641-1200. DigiTech -- (801) 268-8400.

The absolute, bottom-of-the-line truth of the matter is: Quality effects today are so cheap to come by that even that "Mom and Pop" radio station in Nowhere, Idaho that plays church tapes all day long, yes, even this station can afford an effects box to add some sparkle to their production. If the kid next door who plays in a garage band after school can afford an effects box for his guitar with his paper route income, it shouldn't be too difficult to convince your boss that you deserve one, too. Maybe he'll buy you the same box that kid next door just placed in the classified ads of the paper he delivered to you yesterday.

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