Test Drive: Alesis Q20 Professional 20-bit Master Effects

Al Gore Ithms

The Q20 comes out of the box with 300 presets ready to go. The first hundred are in ROM and the other 200 reside in user RAM. Each of these programs is made from various combinations of the 51 effect algorithms. EQ effect algorithms include Lowpass Nonshelving, Bandpass Nonshelving, Highpass Nonshelving, Lowpass Shelving, Bandpass Shelving Low & High, Highpass Shelving, 2-Band Sweepable, 3-Band Parametric, 4-Band Parametric, 5-Band Graphic, 1-Band Resonator, Mono Tremelo, Stereo Tremelo, Stereo Expander, Soft/Hard Overdrive, Triggered Panning, and Phase Inverter.

The Pitch effects algorithms include Mono Chorus, Stereo Chorus, Quad Chorus, Mono Flanging, Stereo Flanging, Phasor, Mono Lezlie, Stereo Lezlie, Pitch Shift, Pitch Detune, Ring Modulator, and Mono/Stereo Triggered Flange.

In the Delays category you get Mono Delay, Stereo Delay, Ping Pong Delay, Multi Tap Delay, Tap Tempo Mono Delay, Tap Tempo Ping Pong Delay, and Sampling (up to five seconds of delay/sampling time).

In the Reverbs, choose from Mono Room, Room 1, Hall 1, Plate 1, Chamber 1, Room 2, Hall 2, Plate 2, Chamber 2, Large Plate, Large Room, Spring, Nonlinear, and Reverse.

The DSP chip at the heart of the Q20 kicks out six million instructions per second and operates at 24-bit resolution. The result is enough processing power to provide up to eight simultaneous effects. As with any digital effects processor, the number of simultaneous effects also depends upon what effects are being used. Reverbs generally take up the most DSP power, so you won’t get eight effects at once if one of them is a high quality stereo reverb. In fact, the reverb may be the only effect you’ll get. But there’s enough processing power to provide quite a selection of multi-effect programs.

Editing

There’s an interesting correlation between effects boxes and DAWs. With DAWs, there are those that anybody at the station can use with a quick lesson. Then there are those DAWs that nobody will come near, except the station’s creative guru or power user. I’ve found the same design approach with effects boxes. There are those with just a dozen or so effects and a couple of knobs, and then there are those that require frequent trips to a manual to figure them out. The Q20 falls nicely in the middle. There’s enough for the power user to play with, but it’s simple enough for the average producer to figure out quickly.

The simple editing interface is largely due to the graphic display. When a program is loaded, each of the effect algorithms or blocks used in that program is displayed with virtual patch cords indicating the signal flow from block to block. This type display has become standard in better effects boxes over the past couple of years and makes editing and creating multi-effect programs not only easy, but fun.

Let’s play with program number 9, “Tape Delay.” This is a simple two-effect program. When loaded, it displays a Delay block and an EQ block. To edit the Delay block, use the Block button to move the on-screen indicator to the Delay block. Now, press the Parameter key. The selected parameter is displayed at the top of the screen. If there is more than one parameter in the selected effect block, the number of parameter pages is indicated to the left of the display, and the Page button can be used to scroll through the various parameter pages. Use the Value/Enter key to adjust the parameter value. It’s that simple.

One thing I like about the Q20 is that it does not have so many parameters for an effect that it becomes overwhelming. You know the type; you want to adjust the reverb time, and when you get into the reverb parameters, you have to scroll through fifty parameters to find the one you want. For some of the Q20’s effect algorithms, there is only one parameter. For most, there are only a few parameters. And even the most complex effect algorithms, like the reverbs, have only eight or nine parameter pages. Even in a complex program with six or seven effects blocks, it’s easy to get to the parameters you want by selecting the desired block first, then scrolling through that block’s parameter pages. Once changes are made, press the Store button to save the program. Press the Name button to give it a new name.

If you want to get a bit more serious with your editing, you can add effect blocks to an existing program or change blocks from one type of effect to another. Let’s take our “Tape Delay” program for example. It has two blocks, a Delay block and and EQ block. Select the Delay block with the Block button and press the Type button. Now you can choose between Reverberation, Delay, Pitch, EQ, or Off. Selecting Off deletes the block from the program. Selecting any of the other choices replaces the existing effect block with a new effect. If Pitch is selected as the new effect type, the Q20 prompts the user for signal routing choices, then prompts for which one of the Pitch algorithms to choose.

If you’re creating a program from scratch, start with preset #99 which is blank. Use the Type button to select algorithms, use the Block button to move to the next block, and you’ve got a multi-effects program in no time. The Routing button is used to set the signal flow into and out of a block using the virtual patch cords on the display. The Mix button sets the output level of individual blocks as well as the direct signal level and the master effects level. Blocks can also be easily moved or copied throughout a program or swapped with other blocks in a program. The Q20 is very versatile and alerts the user if anything is attempted that is not possible. It also simplifies the signal routing process by handling much of it on its own. If you replace a stereo effect with a mono one, for example, the Q20 will automatically change the routing to accommodate the new effect. If further changes are needed, they can be done manually from the Routing page.

For the power users, the Q20 adds a Modulation button which lets you set up to eight modulators for up to eight parameters in any of the effect blocks. External MIDI signals are the primary controllers, but the Q20 has two Internal Generators which can also be used to adjust parameter values. For most radio production applications, the Modulation functions are most handy for things such as using the pitch wheel on a keyboard or a foot pedal to control, let’s say, the delay time or feedback on a program. But there’s plenty of creative room for the serious programmer to play with the internal generators that can use the Q20’s input signal, among other things, to modulate a parameter. It can get hairy!

Summary

The Alesis Q20 is an ideal effects box for radio production. It provides an ample variety of high quality effects that can handle just about any broadcast production need. Its 300 presets and simple user interface make it a great choice for users who don’t care to get into complex editing procedures, and it also provides plenty of creative room for the power tweaker. The S/PDIF digital I/O is a big plus in this digital age, and the ADAT optical I/O make this unit a perfect addition to any ADAT equipped studio.

There's little on the downside of the Q20. I did notice there was no Vocoder effect, an effect that seems to be pretty common these days, and it's a fun one to play with. And to really nit-pick, I’m not a big fan of data wheels like  the Value/Enter wheel for scrolling through programs. Maybe it’s my finger size or lack of proper technique, but my finger would slip out of the indentation on the wheel, or I would turn it with a little too much force and click past two or three programs instead of just one. It works fine if the unit is out of the rack and I can place my hand on top of the unit and scroll with the thumb. In a permanent installation, I’d definitely use MIDI program change or install a foot pedal to scroll through programs.

Specs on the Q20 include frequency response at 20Hz-20kHz, dynamic range >92dB, distortion <0.0005%, and crosstalk >88dB.

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