SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.15 No.9. July 2000
Review by Chris Carter
ELECTRIX MO-FX, Time Synchronised FX Unit.
MO BETTER BLUE
The new M0-FX signal processor on show here is the third in a steady stream of modules coming from Canadian manufacture Electrix. So far we’ve seen the FILTERFACTORY (a multi-mode filter) and the WARPFACTORY (a vocoder), see both reviews in SOS October 1999.
Will this new unit match up to the high standards already set by the first two? read on...
The MO-FX (pronounced MOFEX) is essentially a 16-bit digital, stereo multi-effects unit containing four tempo-synchronisable effects blocks, a 3-band EQ bank and offering features designed to appeal to both studios and DJs.
As with previous Electrix units the MO-FX is a jauntily angled 2U, 19 inch case (and only 3.5” deep) which allows for rack mounting or desktop use. It’s worth noting that, so far, all Electrix modules are crafted (in a vaguely retro style) from heavy duty and pretty heavy, cast-metal cases. This is certainly not a lightweight aluminium rush job we’ve occasionally come across in these pages.
The power supply is internal with an standard EC socket and power switch on the busy rear panel, which also contains all the connections to the outside world: MIDI in, out and thru, left and right audio input and outputs on both standard balanced jacks and phonos, plus left and right effect insert sockets. In addition there is an auto-sensing foot switch socket, a small rotary control for setting the MIDI channel and a push button for selecting either LINE or PHONO level inputs. The inputs are switchable between pro level +4 dBu and an RIAA pre-amp, to accommodate a turntable cartridge.
Instant visual feedback is obviously part of the design concept because once turned on the MO-FX is illuminated like a pinball machine, with 20 large illuminated green and red pushbuttons and 16 multi-coloured LEDs showing exactly which features are engaged or active.
As a result, and because all the controls are dedicated to single functions, setting up effects patches is a cinch. This is one of the first effects units I’ve used for some time when I really didn’t need to read the instruction manual to get some quick and very agreeable results.
The front panel is divided into five areas: DISTORTION/INSERT, FLANGE, TREMOLO, DELAY and GLOBAL. Each effects block has an ENGAGE and a MOMENTARY button, which work in tandem. ENGAGE latches the effect in or out of the signal path and, depending on the state of this, the (non-latching) MOMENTARY button can either temporarily kill or introduce the effect. This arrangement is useful for rhythmically tapping an effect in or out of a track. A nice feature is that if the Delay is set with any amount of regeneration the sound will still decay in its own time (without cutting off the echo tail) even if the Delay effect is switched off.
Before reaching the FLANGE, TREMOLO and DELAY blocks the output of the DISTORTION/INSERT block is first passed through a 3-band EQ crossover. These (unspecified) bands are divided into High, Mid, and Low and any of seven different combinations of frequency bands, or any single band can be selected at any time by repeatedly pressing the BAND button. At any time all the bands can be selected simultaneously (the default value) by pressing and holding the Band button. The Band feature is available on the FLANGE, TREMOLO and DELAY blocks and by turning the Mix controls to Dry on each block it is possible to use the MO-FX purely as a basic EQ unit for quickly isolating or muting individual frequency bands or combinations of bands.
Other uses would be to isolate and effect only certain frequencies, for example: High Band through the Flanger, Mid Band through the Delay and Low band through the Tremolo.
Before we get into details regarding the effects themselves I think the way the signal path is configured to pass through the effects blocks may need some explaining.
Many multi-effects units have a preset signal path configured to run their effects in series from one block to the next. Better specified (and usually more expensive) units sometimes allow the user to reconfigure the signal path to run in parallel and/or series, depending on how many effects blocks there are and the complexity of the unit.
The MO-FX bucks this convention by configuring the effects blocks (except Distortion, see below) to run independently, side by side in parallel and ONLY in parallel.
OK, so this may not seem such a big deal but for the more adventurous it means you can’t have, for instance, a gated, flange effect, feeding a synchronised ping-pong delay for a really polyrhythmic tempo fest. Also it occasionally results in a certain amount of effect cancellation when two or more effects are active and using the same EQ bands.
I’m not saying that this arrangement is wrong, for all I know that’s the way most DJ’s prefer to use effects but it would make this an even more versatile unit if an option was included to also run the effects in series. And being an all digital unit I’m sure it wouldn’t have been too difficult to implement.
First up is the DISTORTION/INSERT block. This is the only block with stereo inserts and the only block that can function in series (after a fashion) with the other effects. This is a similar processor to the Buzz effect found on the FILTERFACTORY.
Apart from the previously mentioned effect switches there is a LEVEL control for setting the level of the distortion effect and a DRIVE control for adjusting the amount of distortion . If the DRIVE control is set to “O” the block is effectively bypassed, although the LEVEL control is still active. This feature is handy if using the stereo inserts as it allows you to use the nifty ENGAGE/MOMENTARY effect buttons to activate any external stereo effects units you may have connected. This block also features a DIST>FX button, with this active the Distortion signal is directed to the FLANGE, TREMOLO and DELAY blocks and the stereo output, rather than running in pure parallel mode.
The distortion ranges from a muted overdrive to full blown grunge and although it can sound a little rough around the edges it can be a fairly usefull effect with the right material and in the right situation.
Next up for our perusal is FLANGE, this block has the most controls but all are pretty much self explanatory.
MIX controls the wet/dry mix, with a 9dB boost in the final 25% of the control range, all the effects have this useful booster feature. DEPTH can vary from a centre position of 0 to 100% negative or positive.
The (LFO) SPEED is said to be variable from 0.1kHz to 10kHz but it sounded more like a maximum 10Hz to me. The REGEN control spans from zero to almost runaway feedback (but not quite, thank goodness). A SYNC button synchronises the SPEED to the master Tap Tempo or MIDI sync clock (whichever mode is selected globally) and the BAND button selects the audio frequencies being effected.
The quality of the flanger is unquestionable, very clean and digital sounding with no weird artifacts. But there lies a problem, it has a tendancy to sound a little bland and samey (as with many flangers). It’s great for tight, phasing type “airplane” and “tube” effects but not good for short modulated delays or lush chorus effects as the (unspecified) delay range is a little too restricted.
The quaintly named Tremolo is essentially a digital VCA controlled by an LFO.
The SPEED, MIX and BAND specifications are the same as the Flanger. However, this block also has an AUTO-PAN button and a WAVE control for selecting from one of 7 modulation waveforms: SINE, TRIANGLE, RAMP UP, RAMP DOWN, SQUARE 50%, SQUARE 25%, SQUARE 12%. The AUTO-PAN button changes the output mode from regular rising/falling or in/out audio level changing effects to left/right panning and channel crossing effects and all the modulating waveforms work in either mode. Some interesting gated/panning effects can be achieved using the 25% or 12% square waves and isolated EQ bands when synced to the Tap Tempo clock.
The Delay is capable of some some pretty extreme sounds. This is partly due to its design, which is supposed to emulate a typical analogue delay line (but without all the associated noise and general lo-fi’ness) and also partly due to its long delay range (1ms to 3.3 seconds) and tempo synchronisable SPEED control. SPEED is a bit of a misnomer here as this has nothing to do with LFOs, it only adjusts the length of the delay. If a sound is passing through the DELAY block while you adjust the SPEED control the sound slurps about (slowing down and speeding up) for a few seconds while the electronics emulate adjusting to a new speed setting. This is a fair approximation of an analogue delay line but it actually sounds more like a cross between a tape delay and an analogue delay, depending on how fast or far you adjust the control, still an interesting effect though. This block also has a REGEN control for adjusting the number of repeats and if this is turned fully clockwise to the LOOP setting this is exactly what it does. This isn’t really like a sampler or looping delay as such, as you always seem to get a few too many repeats in there with the loop but with a bit of practice (and the Sync feature active) it can come up with some usefull results. Especially when you start playing about with the LOOP feature and SPEED control at the same time
One Delay ‘feature’ I found annoying was the way in which the ENGAGE and MOMENTARY buttons work. It appears they function not by switching the Delay effect on/off but by re-directing the audio signal path to the Delay line, or not. the result is that there’s a very noticeable delay before the Delay effect is heard, up to 3.3 seconds at the longest setting. This short wall of silence can be really disconcerting, even more so in a live situation I would think. However, this is where the benefit of parallel processing comes in as this temporal anomaly isn’t nearly as obvious if another effect is active, as it effectively masks any gap.
This section houses the main effect bypass button (for all the effects at once), the input and output level indicators (still only tri-coloured LEDs as used in previous Electrix units, shame), a MIDI activity LED, the TAP TEMPO/SYNC button (see below) and a DRY button. This last button selects the way in which the dry signal is passed through the audio chain. When set to Thru the original signal is sent to the outputs unaffected, regardless of the Engage or Momentary buttons. AUTO (the default state) mutes the dry signal when any of the effects are engaged and KILL mutes the original and just leaves the effected sound. I’m not sure if it’s me but I would expect KILL to mute ALL the audio, you know for those wonderfull panic situations.
TAP TEMPO AND MIDI SYNC
One of the undoubted strengths of the MO-FX is the ease at which the effects can be time-synchronised using the Tap Tempo feature or via a MIDI clock. The Tap Tempo is fast and relatively accurate, which mostly depends on your own dexterity. It will in fact try to sync with only a couple of taps but is a lot happier if you tap at least three times, basically the more you tap the more accurately it will sync. As with all the other buttons the large Tap Tempo buton has 4 built-in LEDs around the transparent rim. However, on this button the LEDs flash in time with the Tap or MIDI tempo. This can be a little confusing if you are tapping in a new beat while looking at the button as your brain tends to lock-on to the flashing beat of the existing tempo and you end up going around in circles.
As I’ve mention above the FLANGE, TREMOLO and DELAY blocks each have individual Sync controls. When these sync options are active the SPEED controls within each block take on a slightly different function, they now set sync divisions in relation to the global Tap or MIDI tempo: 8:1, 1:4, 1:2, 1:1, 2:1, 4:1, 8:1.
At any time the Tap Tempo sync can be overridden by an incoming MIDI clock, by holding down the Tap Tempo button for one second or more. Alternatively an incoming MIDI clock can be bypassed just by tapping in a new tempo. It couldn’t be much simpler really. I admit all this real-time tempo/sync business isn’t anything fantastically new in the effects world but it’s been nicely implemented in the MO-FX and it’s a joy to use.
All the MO-FX buttons and controls send out MIDI data so any knob twiddling you perform while it’s connected to a MIDI sequencer can be recorded, replayed and re-edited if necessary.
A useful by product of this feature is that the MO-FX can also be used as a real-time MIDI controller for other MIDI instruments and software. The front panel MIDI controller numbers can’t themselves be changed but controller remapping can often be defined on the target instrument. A complete list of transmitted controller numbers is printed in the instruction manual.
In common with other Electrix effects units the MO-FX doesn’t have any program memories. Of course this won’t be a problem in a studio situation because of the neat way you can dump all the front panel settings just by holding the Bypass button for a few seconds. But this could be be a drag if you’re a DJ and you’ve got a handful of killer effects settings and have to recreate each of them from scratch every time you gig. I can’t see many DJ’s hooking-up the MO-FX to a PC or MIDI data filer, although stranger things have happened.
In general day to day (or nightime) use the MO-FX quickly takes on the guise of a familiar and trusted piece of gear. The solid construction and ergonomic layout inspire confidence and there’s no faffing about with LCDs and mult-mode buttons, you could quite easily use it in near total darkness too. Basically everything does what it is supposed to do and it does it well and reliably. The effects work pretty much as they should and sound great with just about anything you might want to throw at it: CD players, record decks, mixing desks, keyboards, you name it. I even tried a connecting a guitar and although the Distortion block needed to be active (and boosted) to get a decent signal I was still quite impressed with the overall result. I’m a little concerned that because of the parallel processing arrangement some effects settings sound better when heard in isolation than when running together but hey !...I’m an easy going kinda guy and I can live with it.
Electrix are getting a name for themselves producing well built and musically useful effects units and the MO-FX undoubtedly continues this tradition. This is a professional unit both in terms of build quality and in creating musically useful time-synchronised effects manipulations. It’s a doddle to set-up and use but the lack of proper level metering and effects memories seems a little shortsighted, although the latter can be overcome by using MIDI SysEx to store settings. Also the way the processing path is configured may not endure it to studio types, although this is compensated for by the versatility and quality of the effects themselves, which are top notch. The almost overkill amount of visual feedback is both useful and could be a selling point for DJs or live bands and at gigs you’ll want to put the MO-FX where people can see it doing its stuff.
Another heavyweight winner from Electrix.
Exceptional sound quality.
Real-time effects tempo sync.
Intuitive layout, buttons and indicators.
Solidly constructed, professional unit.
Inflexible parallel signal path.
Only basic level metering.
No input level control.
Power switch on rear.
A great sounding and versatile DJ oriented unit with instant access to musically useful and tempo sync'able effects.
MO-FX TIME SYNCHRONISED FX
£399 incl. VAT
T +44 (0) 171 923 1892
F +44 (0) 171 241 3644
E mail@ scvlondon.co.uk
Copyright © 2000 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.