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.