Test Drive: FireworX Studio Multi-Effects Processor from T.C. Electronic

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By Jerry Vigil

In this day of digital workstations with plug-ins and built-in effects, one might think that the external effects box is becoming a thing of the past. If the only effects you need are basic reverbs, delays, pitch shifting, and some dynamics processing, then perhaps a plug-in package is for you. But if you’re the type of producer who loves to experiment with effects and look for new sounds to add sparkle to your work, you need the kind of room to create that a good external effects box provides. Fortunately, effects box manufacturers are still building these tools. And, as technology marches on, the quality and diversity of the effects only improves. T.C. Electronic's new FireworX Studio Multi-effects Processor is a perfect example. It brings all the commonly used effects together with some new algorithms, offers the user 200 great effects right out of the box, and brings programming and editing functions to a user friendly interface that puts even a novice effects programmer comfortably behind the wheel.

Eee I Eee I/O

The FireworX lists for $2,195, a price some might find a little high for an effects box. But even a glance at the back panel lets you know that what’s inside and around the front is more than you’ll find on an economical garage band effects toy. Start with the A/C power connector that automatically detects and adjusts itself to 100-240V, 50/60Hz. Analog inputs and outputs on this true-stereo box are balanced XLR. There’s optical/TOS-link ADAT or S/PDIF digital I/O, AES/EBU digital I/O on XLR connectors, and S/PDIF I/O on RCA connectors. MIDI IN, OUT, and THRU connectors provide external control of effect parameters. And there’s even an optional BNC, 75 ohm Word Clock input. Finally, the External Control jack accepts an expression pedal or switch for modifying parameters externally.

The FireworX takes all this I/O capability a step further by making it possible to insert an external device into the signal flow of an effect. For example, if the analog I/O is being used as the main I/O, the digital I/O can be used as a send and return to an external device. This is more than the equivalent of taking the output of the FireworX and feeding it into another effects box. You are able to take the output of any algorithm in a program’s effect chain as the send and then return the signal from the external device to any point in the effect chain.

Front Panel Controls

The user interface is well laid out, and selecting and editing presets is easily accomplished after a glance at the manual’s Quick Reference page. Only serious editing functions require more reading time to fully understand. Apparently, accidentally hitting the power off button is a common occurrence among some effects box users. T.C. Electronic built a delay into the switch that requires holding the power on/off button down for a second or two before the unit actually shuts down. Next to the power on/off button at the far left are the input and output master level controls. Below these is the PCMCIA card slot used for storing and retrieving presets to and from external memory cards.

The 56 x 128 dot graphic LCD display is larger than those on most single rack-space units. Information and graphics screens are uncluttered and easy to read. To the left of the display are two LED input level meters with Overflow indicators. To the right of the display is an LED gain reduction meter and three LED indicators. The MIDI LED lights to show MIDI signal activity. The Digital LED lights when digital lock is achieved. The Edited LED lights to indicate that a preset has been edited and not yet stored.

To the right of the display are 25 keys in sets of black and gray. All but three of these have LEDs on them to indicate their function is active. There are three large knobs or wheels at the far right. The Parameter wheel scrolls through parameters in the display. The Value wheel adjusts the selected parameter’s value. The third is the Alpha Mod Wheel, which has user definable functions. An LED meter display directly above it shows the wheel’s current value—a nice touch.

The Recall key is used to load presets. Press Recall then use the Value wheel to scroll through the presets. Then press the Enter key to load a preset, which takes a second or two. Pressing the Store key lets you store a preset to any of the 200 user preset locations. A maximum 20-character name can be assigned to any user preset. The Bypass key bypasses all effects and sends the input signal to the outputs. The Tempo key is constantly flashing, indicating the current tempo setting. Pressing this key displays the Tempo page where the tempo can be set manually with the Value wheel or by tapping the key itself. Tempo related parameters such as delays, pans, and LFOs can be controlled by the tempo. There are plenty of applications for this in music production. In our work, if you’re not a musician, the Tempo key comes in handy for setting a delay or a pan on a voice track that matches the beat of the music bed, for instance. Left and right arrow keys are used to navigate the cursor in the display. The Exit key backs out of a menu or cancels an action.

The I/O Setup key accesses the unit’s I/O setup screens. There are four pages in this section. The Level page sets up the analog and digital I/O levels. The analog input level can be set to +4dBu or –10dBV. The analog I/O controls are actually the two knobs at the left of the front panel, but this screen also displays these knobs in graphical form and shows their numeric setting. Digital I/O levels are set from this page. The Signal page is where the input and output routings of the FireworX are set up. Set the input format on this page, either analog or any of the digital formats. This is also where the insert I/O mentioned earlier is selected. A Clock parameter sets the source of the unit’s digital clock. An internal rate of 44.1 or 48kHz can be set, or an external clock can be selected using the optional external sync port. The MIDI page sets up the global MIDI functions, MIDI mapping, etc.. The Control page is used for setting up functions of external MIDI controllers including the Alpha Mod wheel.

Pressing the Utility key accesses the Config page and the Card page. In the Config page, other global system parameters are set, such as the display’s contrast setting and how the Parameter wheel functions. One handy feature in this page is the user preset Protect functions. The FireworX lets you select a high and low limit value for protected presets. So, let’s say you have 20 presets you’ve created and saved in the user preset section, you can protect just those 20, leaving the other 180 user preset locations unprotected for storing future edits. Bulk MIDI data dumps are also done from this page. Select the Card page to access various functions related to the PCMCIA card slot. Display information about a card, format/erase cards, and copy presets to and from cards.

Press the Alpha Mod key to access setup functions for the Alpha Mod wheel. As mentioned, the Alpha Mod wheel has user definable functions. It can be used to modify several parameters at once. It can be controlled via MIDI from an external source, and it can act as an external MIDI controller sending MIDI signals at the MIDI OUT port. Its most common use is to have it assigned to the parameter or parameters of an effect that are the most likely to be adjusted when using the effect. For example, for a simple pitch shift program, assign the Alpha Mod wheel to the shift amount parameter. In a delay program, it might be assigned to the delay time. Once you get the hang of editing programs and writing your own on the FireworX, the Alpha Mod wheel becomes your best friend for fast and easy adjustments to your favorite effects. If you have a keyboard in your studio and use it to control effects boxes via MIDI, you already know the power of this added feature.


The Effects

Enough about the secondary stuff; let’s talk about the heart of FireworX. There are twelve main effect categories or blocks, each represented by one of twelve gray keys on the front panel. They are: Dynamics, Filters, Formant, Distortion, Vocoder, Synth, Pitch, Chorus, Delay, Reverb, Pan, and EQ. Most of these effect blocks have three or more sub-algorithms for a total of nearly 40 algorithms in all. As you select a preset, the LEDs on the various effects keys light to show which effects are being used in the currently loaded preset. Among other things, these keys act as mute keys for their specific effect. If you have an effect loaded with flange, reverb, and delay, and choose to kill the reverb, it’s a simple press of the Reverb key. The reverb mutes and the LED goes off.

Under the Dynamics block, there are three sub-algorithms. You get Expander/Gate, Soft Compressor, and Hard Compressor/Limiter. All three algorithms provide the following parameters: Threshold, Ratio, Release, In Level, Out Level, and LED Meter (which, if more than one Dynamics effect is in use, selects which one will use the Gain Reduction meter on the front panel). The Expander/Gate and Compressor/Limiter algorithms add Attack and Mix parameters. The Compressor adds Knee Mode and Gain parameters.

There are five Filters sub-algorithms. The Resonance filters create a “ringing” effect by utilizing a high and low-cut filter. Lo and Hi Resonance parameters adjust the amount of resonance on each filter. The Bandpass algorithm provides two bandpass filters with a filter on each for both left and right channels. This is a great algorithm for creating those commonly used EQ effects on the voice. The Phaser algorithm comes with Order and Feedback parameters that help create a variety of great sounding phaser effects. The Resonator algorithm offers a great playground for those with some creative time. This algorithm is a set of four very short delays that use lots of feedback to get a resonating, ringing effect somewhat like the Resonance filter. There are parameters for each delay for Feedback, Panning, Low Cut and High Cut filters and more. Finally, the Reso-chord algorithm is a lot like the Resonator, but it offers Master Frequency and Chord parameters that keep the resonators musically accurate.

The Formant block has just one algorithm, Formant Filters. This is another very interesting filter effect that’s still fairly new to effects boxes. It’s based on vowel sounds. To the ear, the result is not much different than what you could do with a multi-band parametric equalizer, but this algorithm gets you there much faster. It’s another good algorithm to play with, especially when used together with other effects.

The Distortion block offers two algorithms, Drive and Cruncher. These are effects once reserved for musical instruments only, particularly guitars. These days, the distortion effect is being used on voice-over in imaging production more and more.

The Vocoder block offers two algorithms, Vocoder and Ring Modulator. Again, these are effects with more musical applications, but they do some great things to a voice track. The Vocoder effect requires a second signal input to the rear panel which is used to control the sound of the primary input signal. Make your mike the primary signal and a musical instrument the secondary input for some real fun. There was a time when you couldn’t find a Vocoder. Now the effect is showing up in effects gear regularly. If you haven’t played with a Vocoder effect, try it sometime! The Ring Modulator algorithm is a lot like the Vocoder effect and, when used on the voice, creates some unearthly sounding characters.

The Synth block has three algorithms that are sound generators. You get Curve Generator, Chaos Generator, and Noise Generator. The Curve Generator is an oscillator that generates tones from 2Hz to 2kHz. The type of wave generated can be set to Square, Sine, Triangle, and Sawtooth. The Chaos Generator produces random noise. Parameters include Frequency and Chaos. Both the Curve and Chaos Generator can be used as the secondary or carrier input to the Vocoder effect for some interesting results. The Chaos Generator also does a nice job of creating strange backgrounds for today’s contemporary imaging production.

The Pitch block provides two pitch-shifting algorithms: a single-voice shifter, and a dual-voice version. The pitch range is +/- two octaves. Other parameters include Delay (up to 400ms), Pan Position, and Feedback.

The Chorus/Flanger block has four algorithms. Classic Chorus and Classic Flanger are two great sounding versions of these age-old effects. Advanced Chorus and Advanced Flanger add a few more parameters to the Classic versions.

The Delay block has six algorithms. Stereo Delay has up to 740ms of delay per channel. Dual Delay is like Stereo Delay except with independent delay Time parameters for each channel. Dual Three Tap takes the Dual Delay and adds three taps to each channel. Maximum delay per tap is 1480ms. Lowcut and Highcut filter parameters are included. One Tap Delay is a simple mono-in, mono-out delay with a maximum delay time of 1480ms and Feedback, Pan, Lowcut, and Highcut parameters. The Six Tap Delay has six taps on one delay line with independent Feedback, Level, Pan, Lowcut, and Highcut parameters for each tap. Maximum delay on each tap is 1480ms. The Reverse Delay is interesting. It takes the input and outputs playback in reverse. What’s interesting is the Grade parameter. When set to 100%, the output is completely reversed. The closer you set it to 0%, the less reversal takes place. At around 10-15%, spoken words are still understandable, but have an unusual effect added.

The Reverb block offers only two algorithms, Simple and Advanced. While these reverb algorithms sound very good, there aren’t more in the FireworX because the unit was designed to compliment T.C. Electronic other effects boxes such as the M2000 and M5000, which are devoted more to reverbs. FireworX was designed to be a box that delivers the more unusual effects available today. Still, you get two reverb algorithms that sound as good as those from a box devoted to reverb only. Simple Reverb uses the same algorithm as Advanced Reverb but removes some of the parameters to make the algorithm easier to set up. T.C. Electronic gets my vote for making parameters easier to understand. As complex as reverb design and reverb program editing can get, it’s nice to see parameter values that don’t require a degree in sound science to figure out. In the Advanced Reverb, the High Frequency Color parameter has values of: Wool, Warm, Real, Clear, Bright, Crisp, and Glass. Similar values are used for the Low Color parameter. You even get a Room Type parameter with values of Round, Curved, and Square; and, there’s even a graphic representation of a round, curved, and square room for those who prefer the visuals. Room Size parameter values are Large, Medium, Small, Tiny, and Box! Thank you, T.C.!

Nearing the end of the effects tour, we come to the Pan/Tremolo block. The five algorithms included are Simple Tremolo, Advanced Tremolo, Simple Panner, Surround Panner, and Stereo Enhance. The tremolos are straightforward, as is the Simple Panner. The Surround Panner adds phase shifting to provide the surround effect, but this is an effect you have to use wisely in broadcast production because of the effects of transmitter audio chains on audio that has unusual phase characteristics. The Stereo Enhancer is a safer way to enhance a stereo image for broadcast. It does so by adding slight amounts of delay.

Finally, we come to the EQ block. Two algorithms provide Fixed Parametric EQ and Modulateable Parametric EQ (also referred to as the Modifiable EQ). The Fixed Parametric EQ offers two shelving EQ filters and three fully sweepable filters. There are Frequency, Slope/Bandwidth, and Gain (+/-12dB) parameters for all five filters. The Modulateable Parametric EQ is cut to four fully sweepable EQ filters with the Frequency parameters limited to 20Hz to 15.8kHz. However, the Frequency, Slope/Bandwidth, and Gain parameters call all be modulated or modified using external controllers.


Presets and Editing

If you’re not the type that programs effects boxes, then you’re the type that uses the factory presets and perhaps makes a few adjustments to the factory settings and stores the edited version to a new location in the user bank. For you, the FireworX has a great selection of presets to play with. As you’d expect, many of the presets are designed for work with musical instruments or for singing, but there are several effects that sound like they were programmed just for us. Walkie-Talkie is a very realistic effect and the first time I’ve seen this one on an effects box. Devils Voice and Darth Vader are ready for your next Halloween or Star Wars promo. The Talking Machine uses the Vocoder and Synth blocks to produce a very mechanical voice effect great for any high tech type of production. Party Next Door will get you that low frequency, muffled music effect with the push of a button. And of course, many of the effects obviously designed for music application sound great as special effects on voice work or sound effects. A clever Filter function on the presets list display lets you see only presets that have, for example, a reverb effect in them. This is a quick way to scroll through 200+ presets when you know you want something with reverb and don’t need to see the rest.

Editing presets is simple. A glance at the twelve gray Effect keys tells you which effect blocks are being used. If you have a delay/reverb program loaded and want to alter the delay time, just press the Delay key twice (once mutes it), and the parameter page appears. Use the Parameter wheel to select a parameter and the Value wheel to adjust it. If you want to keep the change for later use, press Store to save in a user preset location.

Programming

The next step beyond just editing parameters involves editing the preset itself— adding and deleting effects algorithms, assigning modifiers to parameters, etc.. The manual is required reading here, but the reading is brief and easy to understand. And once you’ve read a few pages, you’ll be programming the FireworX like a pro. Press the Effects key to access the four Effects pages. You are given an 8x8 grid to work on. (The graphic displays are great!) Effect algorithms can be placed on this grid in series with each other or in parallel. For example, the input signal could feed a delay, which then feeds a flanger. Or, the input signal could be fed to the delay and the flanger simultaneously. The grid lets you see this layout which makes it easy to see what you’re doing. There are several options for wiring the effect blocks to each other, but the various graphic displays keep the process simple, as long as you understand the basics of signal flow. The oversized display on the FireworX has to be one of its best features.

The 8x8 grid can be sized to your needs in the Layout page. The Routing page is used to place effects onto the grid and set the I/O for each particular effect. How many effect algorithms can be used in one preset is dependent upon the total amount of DSP power used by all the algorithms in that preset. Rather than limiting presets to a finite number of simultaneous effects algorithms, the FireworX enables adding effects to a preset until all the processing power is used up. Say you wanted a pitched flange effect with reverb. The pitch algorithm will use about 20% of the DSP power. The flange will use about 11%. The reverb algorithms are power hungry and will use about 50% of the DSP power, leaving you with less than 20% DSP power available. You could add a panner, which uses 4% DSP power, but you couldn’t add a delay, which uses over 20%. You could add a dynamics processor, which only uses about 11% of DSP power, but you’re just out of enough power to add a filter or EQ algorithm. Warnings appear on the screen when you’ve exceeded your limit, and a selection in the Tool page lets you see where all your DSP power is going. The Tool page also offers several other functions that change the way things are displayed on the Edit page which help keep you informed of how the different effects blocks are connected to each other.

Some effects can only be present in a single preset once. Other effects can be there twice or three times, as is the case with Dynamics algorithms. You can have two Delay algorithms in a single preset but only one EQ, two pans but only one pitch shifter. The maximum delay time of a single delay algorithm is 1480ms. So, if you wanted a longer delay, you could program two delays in series with each other for nearly three seconds of delay.

The 8x8 grid is overkill but probably exists for the same reason bytes are made with multiples of 8 bits. Anyway, you’ll never use all 64 grid locations. The FireworX will run out of DSP power long before you get to effect algorithm #64. For most effects I needed, a simple chain of 2 to 4 effects in series was plenty, and it was fun to program this box.

For those wanting to get a bit more elaborate with their own presets, press the Modifier key. This accesses the Matrix page, the Modifiers page, and the Dials page. The Matrix page is where both internal and external controllers can be assigned to effect parameters. There are LFOs and ADSRs. A Pitch Detector analyzes the incoming signal and converts the pitch of that signal into control information. Envelope Detectors analyze the dynamic variations of the input signal and convert that to control data. Up to eight external MIDI controllers can be assigned. And there’s more. Of course, the Alpha Mod wheel is another very handy external controller (and it can be assigned a 20-character name that describes its function on the main display screen). The Modifiers page is where the modifiers themselves can be edited, and the Dials page enables using the Parameter and Value wheels to simulate any of the eight external controllers to test them without actually having them hooked up.

Summary

The FireworX appears to be a well designed, well built effects box for the professional studio. It’s a great unit for someone who wants to learn how to program effects for the first time, and it’s a very friendly box for the experienced programmer. The PCMCIA card slot makes this box valuable to today’s mega-station groups where FireworX units might be scattered around at various stations in the group. A quick transfer of presets to a card lets your favorite effects go “wherever the FireworX are.”

The FireworX can truly be called an effects box. Where others add a few extra effects around a ton of reverb programs, the FireworX does just the opposite. It strives to provide every other kind of effect available today and throws in two great reverb algorithms just in case.

As radio production races towards the new millennium, top notch producers will no doubt be looking for that new sound, that new effect, that new signature that will make their production stand out just a little more than the next guy’s. If you’re looking for that new sound, you just might find it in a box like the FireworX. It comes with a big enough variety of effects that can be combined in ways nobody has probably even thought of yet. And its long list of modifiers and modifiable parameters make this box a sound designer’s delight.

Specs on the FireworX include D/A and A/D conversion at 24-bit with 128x oversampling. At the analog outputs, the dynamic range is >100dB. THD is .005% @ 1kHz, frequency response is 20Hz-20kHz, and crosstalk is <60dB. The unit is 8.2” deep and weighs 5.2 pounds. Sample rates are 32kHz, 44.1kHz, and 48kHz.

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