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TC Electronic M3000

September 1, 1999
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TC Electronic has a history of creating serious effects processors, ranging from a studio-quality stompbox chorus all the way to the high-powered (and high-priced) M5000. Its M2000 Wizard has become a staple in many personal studios, where it handles a variety of processing chores with aplomb.In the new M3000, the Danish manufacturer has gone a step beyond the M2000; this high-quality reverb and multi-effects unit features 24-bit A/D and D/A converters and newly developed reverb algorithms that rival those of the best processors around. The unit has two separate processors, which can be routed in Serial, Parallel, Dual Input, Dual Mono, Linked, or Preset Glide modes.

PAUSE TO REFLECTThere's no lack of patch memory, with 250 single and 50 combined presets in ROM and the same number in user RAM. You can store the same number of patches on a standard PC Card.

The reverb presets run the gamut; there are halls, rooms, plates, and gated reverbs, as well as various specialized presets for post-production applications. The M3000 also offers delay, pitch, EQ, expander, chorus/flange, compressor, tremolo/pan, phase, and de-esser effects. Several preset combinations show off some of the more complex effects you can achieve using both processors.

According to TC Electronic, the new reverb algorithms are the result of the company's Virtual Space Simulation (VSS) research program. Because TC's research shows that no pitch modulation occurs in natural reverb, the goal of the VSS program was to design a reverb that wouldn't add modulation to its diffusion system. The result is a greatly enhanced stereo image. However, pitch modulation provides a lot of character for some classic reverb sounds, so the M3000 offers both "natural," modulation-free presets and "vintage" presets with pitch modulation.

The M3000 also benefits from the VSS team's improvements in reflection emulation. M3000 reverbs offer eight discrete reflections, combined across the L/R outputs. Each of these reflections has individual EQ, delay, level, and phase settings. The VSS research program is ongoing, and TC is currently developing the next set of algorithms, which will be targeted specifically at post-production applications. All of the VSS algorithms being developed for the M3000 will be ported over to the M5000.

STYLISH LOOKAlthough the M3000 sports a slightly different look than other TC Electronic boxes, the basic layout is consistent with previous designs. The M3000 is a 1U rack-mount device with a PC Card slot on the left- hand side of the front panel and an on/off switch above that. There is a display area to the right of the card slot, with a pair of input LEDs, several overload/sample rate LEDs, and an LCD parameter display screen. To the right of the display are 24 buttons, laid out in six columns of four, which provide access to the parameters. An infinitely rotating Adjust (data-entry) wheel graces the far right of the front panel.

On the back panel are an additional power switch and a power socket, a pair of balanced XLR inputs and outputs, S/PDIF I/O on both RCA and optical connectors (the optical ports also can handle ADAT Lightpipe signals), word clock I/O on an RCA connector (an RCA-to-BNC adapter is supplied), and XLR jacks for AES/EBU I/O. MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports are provided, as is a 11/44-inch jack for connecting a momentary footswitch. You can use the pedal for tap tempo or as a bypass switch for either (or both) of the processing engines. All the audio connectors are gold plated, and any or all of the digital outputs can be used simultaneously.

EASY NAVIGATIONThe first column of buttons provides access to the M3000's global utility pages. Here is where you configure the unit's inputs and outputs, set routings (more on this later), adjust the I/O levels, and control various utility and MIDI functions. Effects parameters are set using three columns of Recall, Store, Bypass, and Edit buttons. Because the M3000 contains two separate processors, you can configure the two processing engines independently, or you can do them in combination so that a single set of controls is employed.

The fifth column of buttons provides four snapshot locations for quickly storing and recalling the combined presets, and the final column is reserved for control functions: an OK button to confirm operations, a Shift button to let you access secondary functions, and a pair of cursor keys for moving between parameters when editing. If you press the Shift key first, hitting OK cancels you out of the current operation. Likewise, a combination of the Shift and Up cursor keys takes you to the top of the currently displayed parameter list, while pressing Shift and the Down cursor takes you to the bottom of the list.

To recall a program, simply hit the Recall key and scroll through the presets using the Adjust wheel. Because of the number of presets, you could be doing this for a very long time. But don't worry: TC Electronic has provided an index screen that can be accessed by holding the Recall key for a few seconds. This display reminds you which preset types are stored where; for instance, you can see at a glance that the Gated Reverbs presets are numbered from 205 to 211.

The M3000 offers a really neat feature called the Recall Wizard. The general concept is that you can pick an application type (such as music or post-production), choose the kind of audio source material you are working with (drums or guitars, for example), and then decide what size acoustic space you want. Once you have specified these criteria, the M3000 presents you with a list of presets (typically between 5 and 20) that should fit your needs. This saves you the trouble of auditioning hundreds of presets to find the ones that fit the bill.

Hitting an Edit button brings up a scrollable page that contains the main parameters of that engine: decay time, wet/dry balance (Mix), and output level. In the case of the combined presets, there are only two editable parameters: the first lets you balance the output of the two processing engines, and the second allows you to set up the Dynamic Morphing (more on this in a moment).

An Expert editing mode is available for the new VSS algorithms, and it provides many more parameters. These algorithms have separate parameters for the reverb (such as decay time and mix level), the early reflections (type, balance, and so forth), the reverb tail (high, mid, and low decay times, for example), modulation of the reverb tail, and Space Modulation, which controls the way the sound moves within the room. If you simply want to set the reverb decay time and tweak one or two other settings, the M3000 couldn't be easier to use. If you are seriously into sound design and want to create your own megareverb presets, Expert mode awaits you.

TWICE AS NICEThe beauty of having two processing engines in one unit is obvious, and after working with the M3000 for a while you begin to realize just how flexible this device is. Think of the box as being two separate stereo units that can be linked together in various ways.

With both processors operating in stereo, you can feed the output of one effect to the input of the other; TC Electronic refers to this as Serial mode. In contrast, Parallel mode lets you input a signal from either the left channel (for mono operation) or both channels (for stereo operation) and mix the outputs of both processing engines into one stereo signal. Keep in mind that there are only two physical channels for input and output; if you want to use the effects completely independently, you will have to use the Dual Mono mode, which uses the left-channel I/O for Engine 1 and the right-channel I/O for Engine 2.

Dual Input mode operates similarly, with the left input feeding Engine 1 and the right input feeding Engine 2. However, in this case the outputs of the two engines are combined in stereo at the output; you can mix them as you wish. This mode is good for situations in which you need to use a couple of effects units but have only one pair of effects returns available. Of course, you might simply want to use the M3000 as a single stereo effects unit, so there's also Linked mode, in which the two engines act as one with their edit pages locked together. In this mode, both sets of parameters contain the same settings, and the audio passing through both processors is phase-locked together.

One of the really cool things about the M3000 is the Preset Glide Mode, which allows seamless transitions between effects. By setting a crossfade from one preset to another and adjusting the fade time, you can switch programs without hearing any glitches or silence from the M3000. Creative possibilities abound: for instance, you could allow a delay to keep repeating while you're fading into a chorus.

Dynamic Morphing is similar to Preset Glide but works in Parallel mode and fades between parameters within a single preset. The morphing between parameters occurs based on a threshold you set for the input signal. For example, you could use this to increase the room size of a reverb for a song's chorus: if the vocalist sings softly in the verse and louder in the chorus, you can set the input's threshold so that when the chorus kicks in, it triggers the morph. You can also specify how long it takes to morph from one effect to another (slow, medium, or fast).

CONCLUSIONSThe M3000 would be a fine addition to most processing racks. Its user interface is extremely easy to learn and to use, and the unit is packed with features that will make your recording life easier. You can alter the level of the digital input to compensate for a DAT that was recorded too low, toggle the bit rate of the digital output between professional and consumer formats, or dither the digital output from 24 bits down to lower resolutions (as far down as 8 bits). Another neat touch is the MIDI Monitor window, which lets you display incoming Program Changes, Control Changes, SysEx data, and Note On/Off messages. The only thing I didn't like about the M3000 was the LCD screen, which I felt was too small and too difficult to read from an angle. Also, the unit's lack of 11/44-inch analog I/O would be inconvenient for many personal studios.

The M3000 has a wider range of effects than many of its competitors. Sure, the older reverb algorithms taken from the M2000 and M5000 are good to have, and the rest of the multi-effects are useful enough, but the new VSS algorithms are what make the M3000 stand apart from the competition. They provide a new level of realism and offer more control than any other product out there. Quite simply, this is the most natural-sounding digital reverb I have ever heard.

Music-technology consultant Mike Collins lives in London, England, where he plays guitar, writes and produces music, teaches music technology, and writes for magazines worldwide about all this stuff.

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