Test Drive: Orville and Me - A review of Eventide’s new multi-processor

Eventide-Orville

By Jay Rose

I used to be wary of the “Swiss Army Knife” approach to audio processing. Those multi-function boxes didn’t seem to do anything very well. I guess my attitude dates back to the SPX-90, which combined the best of a fairly mediocre reverb and equalizer with a virtually useless compressor. But hey, I figured nobody would use a real pocketknife to build a bookshelf or perform surgery, so why shouldn’t the production room equivalent have similar limitations.

A DISCLAIMER, OF SORTS

The first Eventide Ultra-Harmonizer—H3000—didn’t really change my opinion. I bought one because I loved its ability to simulate various room reverbs and felt its time compression was second to none. But its other functions were rudimentary at best. Then I saw their DSP-4000 at a trade show. It looked about the same, but had usable compressors, filters, and gates in a box with excellent reverb and even smoother pitch shifting. More importantly, it was possible to string these functions together. You could combine equalizers and pitch shift with an echo for giant voices, use the level on one channel to duck the volume of the other for automated mixing, or anything else you could think of.

All it took was a very simple programming language (or some awkward messing with the unit’s front-panel GUI), and knowledge of how you wanted the new preset to work. This was a piece of cake for a decent studio engineer. I bought one of the first DSP-4000s, in 1993, and shared some of my early presets via CompuServe. Eventide liked their style and hired me to create the suite of production tools that became the DSP-4000B (and were incorporated in the DSP-4500).

For example, in the “Long Distance Telephone” preset I combined a filter with mid-range peaky equalization for the basic sound, added compression and noise, then mixed in a delay for the subtle slap you’d hear in a bad long-distance connection. There was still some computing power left in the box, so I added crosstalk: the input voice, delayed a few seconds, pitch shifted up, and played backwards for a foreign-sounding jabbering in the background. And you could do all this without a degree in computer science or digital electronics: that phone preset took about 40 lines of human-readable code, written on a Macintosh by a recording engineer who’d never gone beyond BASIC. It’s something you couldn’t do on processors from Lexicon or TC.

So read this review with the understanding that I’ve had a long-term relationship with Eventide as a customer, and a more recent one as a programmer. I like the way their boxes think.

IT’S A LOT OF PROCESSOR

The DSP4000 series was a versatile, professional studio processor that still sounds great by today’s standards. It’s become a standard in high-end production rooms and music studios, and I assume any RAP reader has at least a passing familiarity with one version or another. But any DSP device (see sidebar) is at the heart a computer, and computers keep getting more powerful. Eventide found they could pack a lot more processing in the same box by using newer chips, and—without too much extra expense—bump it up to the multi-channel 24-bit, 96 kHz standards necessary for HDTV and DVD. That’s Orville.

The front panel resembles a DSP4000 (figure 1): the knobs and buttons are in about the same places, and—except for the color scheme—they’re obviously first cousins. But for about 25% more money, Orville gives you more than twice as much processor:

  • It has two separate processing engines, each with independent routing, controls, and preset selection. Each works like a standalone DSP4000, but is more powerful and has four simultaneous inputs and outputs.
  • Orville can run 24-bit, 96 kHz sampling when desired. While this is handy for DVD, it’s overkill in radio production. You can scale down to 16 bit 44.1 kHz—or even 32 kHz from an external clock—to free up DSP cycles for complex processing.
  • It has three minutes of internal sampling at 48 kHz. You can record a stereo spot into this memory, and immediately play a time-compressed, equalized, and level-compressed version back. Using the sampler doesn’t affect the minute’s worth of audio delay that’s available to the presets.
  • It also has lots of access to the outside world. In addition to the MIDI and foot-pedal connection found on the 4000, there are two relay outputs that can be used to trigger a silence (or too-loud) alarm, advance the ID number on a CD recorder, or anything else you care to program for them in a preset. And unlike the 4000, Orville’s 9-pin jack actually does something useful: you can connect it directly to the serial port of a PC to download presets or new operating software (more on both, later).
  • To complete the package, it comes with about every preset ever written for the DSP4000, any of its broadcast or musician variations, and the 4500.

Orville is clearly intended to be used in one, or at most two, signal chains at the same time. But with four ins and outs on each of two engines, it has the potential to handle eight different audio streams simultaneously. You might want to compress and gate eight different tracks before you mix them, or have eight differently equalized delays for an elaborate PA system. Eventide gives you a way to do this, with a little fudging. Like most processors, Orville has both analog and digital I/O: four channels of each (a total of 12 XLR connectors). But each one of them can be routed independently. Digital and analog don’t have to carry the same signal.

You can use one digital I/O path with each engine, the functional equivalent of two independent DSP4000s sharing a single control panel. Or do the same with analog. Or have one four-channel digital I/O processor for quadraphonic surround, while processing four analog signals in the other engine. Or feed any of the eight internal engine inputs with any of the eight internal outputs for in-line processing. Or split an external signal to multiple engine inputs, and combine their outputs for parallel processing. Or split two AES/EBU streams so the left channels go to one processor and the right ones go to another. Or anything else you can dream up. (To preserve your sanity, you can save a signal routing once it’s been programmed. But the procedure for doing this isn’t intuitive.)

There’s also a single S/PDIF I/O, with RCA connectors, for compatibility with consumer equipment. It seems lonely.

The analog converters are designed to be adequate for 24/96: Eventide claims 110 dB s/n, <.002% distortion at -3 dBfs, and .01 dB response to within 10% of Nyquist. So if you decide to use all eight ins and outs simultaneously, the sound won’t suffer.

It all seemed kind of overwhelming when I first started playing with Orville. And I still think of the unit primarily as two independent fully loaded DSP4000s, sometimes in series and sometimes handling two separate signal streams. This is clearly a processor I’ll be able to spend a few years growing in to.

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