Avid Eleven Rack Review

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FIG. 1: The Avid Eleven Rack is a hardware-hosted version of the amp sim plug-in Eleven. It acts as a standalone guitar-based multi-effects processor and an interface for Pro Tools.

Digidesign (now Avid) is most famously the creator of Pro Tools, a household name when it comes to software-driven digital recording systems. Tucked inside Pro Tools in a scaled-down free version, as well as a full version that is available for sale, is a lesser-known but nevertheless impressive tool: the excellent-sounding guitar-processing plug-in called Eleven. It realistically models everything in the guitar''s signal chain: amps, cabs, mics, rack effects, and more. Avid has released a hardware unit that runs the Eleven amps and effects on internal DSP called Eleven Rack—a ruggedly built, two-rackspace box that functions as a standalone processor and an interface for Pro Tools, the LE version of which is bundled with the hardware. Let''s take a look behind the orange curtain.

Physically, the Eleven Rack is a handsome, ruggedly built, rack-style processor with a big, readable display and plenty of knobs and switches, many of which light up in different colors (red, green, or amber) depending on their function (see Fig. 1 ). Over on the right side of the front panel is the decidedly guitar-centric I/O: a single mono guitar input, a mono output to the amp, and an XLR jack for a mic, along with phantom power and pad switches, and a dedicated gain control. This is straightforward, and it is most of the I/O you''ll need if you''re a solitary recording guitarist. Additional I/O can be found around back (see Fig. 2), but there are no more mic inputs, which is unfortunate because it means you can''t use two mics either in stereo or to layer, say, a close mic and an ambient mic on a guitar cabinet.

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FIG. 2: The Eleven Rack''s rear panel features a stereo effects loop, XLR outputs, ¼-inch line outputs, MIDI and digital I/O, and more.

Because it''s such a versatile and multifunctional piece of gear, it''s helpful to tackle the Eleven Rack from different perspectives to appreciate fully its capabilities. I started out in the most basic way I could—plugging a guitar into it and listening to the output through an amp, a set of full-range monitors (disabling the amp and cab emulations), and headphones. I didn''t even bother to plug in the USB cable to my computer and consider the software.

Eleven Rack''s interface gets highest marks. There''s absolutely nothing you can''t get to quickly and logically, and display icons are well rendered and labeled. All the important stuff is represented both on the amber display and with knobs and switches, backed up with status lights. Navigating the menu levels for deeper functionality is also quite intuitive, thanks to intelligent interplay between the display and the knobs and switches. All the save, on/off, compare/A/B, editing, and system-level functions are well implemented. As a stage unit, it''s also a joy to use: You can eyeball the front panel, including the on/off status of individual effects, with speed and ease.

You can use Eleven Rack in what Avid calls Rig mode (complete setups), selectively turning on and off effects within a Rig using big, readable switches. A Rig is an entire signal chain, from the input impedance setting (called True-Z, discussed below) to the effects to the output routing. Eleven Rack offers 104 user-memory locations and 104 permanently stored Rigs, which you can use as a basis to edit for a new user Rig. I auditioned each of the 104 Rigs, experimenting with various settings, and this is where my first revelation came: Eleven Rack sounds authentic, complex, and gorgeous—much more so than I remembered when working with just the plug-in version of Eleven.

Two features exclusive to Eleven Rack make all of the difference. The first is True-Z, an adaptive input impedance control tied to the guitar input jack. This adjusts the actual input impedance before sending it to the chosen effects and amps, allowing for the guitar to behave as it normally would when plugged into an amp. This circuitry exists strictly in the analog domain, too, and explains why the touch is so realistic and the tonal response so dynamic.

The second aspect is that, being a hardware device, Eleven Rack has its DSP onboard rather than having to share CPU resources as the plug-in version must do. Taking the processing duties out of the computer and putting them under the control of a dedicated processor is often why outboard effects sound better than computer-hosted ones. There is virtually no latency, and the faster processing power of Eleven Rack''s brain just makes everything smoother and more realistic sounding. The fidelity of the sound overall is excellent.

Golden-ear types will appreciate that the mic pre and converters perform on par with those used in Avid''s 003 Rack Plus units.

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FIG. 3: The Control window allows you to edit the parameters of Eleven Rack from inside Pro Tools.

Using my PRS Custom 24 and Fender American Deluxe Stratocaster, I auditioned the various Eleven Rack Rigs, tweaking according to my tastes. Some standouts include J2 Alt Country (see Web Clip 1), which had a pleasingly raspy sound when pushed just past the clean point; D4 Black Hat (see Web Clip 2), perfect for hard-edged, low-note riffs bluesy bends; and F3 Lose the Pick (see Web Clip 3) for sustained, soaring leads in a metal vein that retain a degree of right-hand sensitivity. The amp and cab emulations are terrific; the response was realistic; and the tones authentic and convincing. I was less knocked out by the stomp effects simply because there aren''t that many of them and some are absent entirely, such as a ring modulator or octavia. But you can add your own outboard effects, courtesy of a configurable (mono/stereo, +4/-10, and movable) effects loop. Unlike most other amp sims, Eleven Rack doesn''t have parallel paths for a two-rig setup.

Editing the sounds couldn''t be easier. There are so many nice interface touches to facilitate the editing process, including different size views (for stage work vs. up-close tweaking), a full-screen view of just the signal chain (listing the effects'' statuses), and more. You can move effects around in the chain (though you can''t double any so you''re limited to, say, only one distortion pedal in the chain), including the effects loop (rear-panel stereo ¼-inch) and the Volume and Wah Pedal modules.

Eleven Rack acts as a Pro Tools LE interface, so guitar players looking to get into Pro Tools can join the Digidesign/Avid club this way. If you already own Pro Tools (HD, LE, or MP), you can''t add to your I/O count as Pro Tools doesn''t allow you to aggregate interfaces. But you can still use Eleven Rack with another Pro Tools interface as a control surface while sending, say, the digital outs of your Eleven Rack into the interface''s digital ins.

Once you bring Pro Tools in, things get exciting, and you can see some real integration benefits to using Eleven Rack and Pro Tools together. First, having Pro Tools open is the best way to edit Eleven Rack, as the Control window acts as an editor/librarian. As with most onscreen editors, you can see more parameters simultaneously, and mouse actions are quicker and easier than using the controls on Eleven Rack''s front panel (see Fig. 3).

In addition, Eleven Rack and Pro Tools work together in providing built-in re-amping. Re-amping is the studio trick of sending a direct-recorded guitar track (usually a clean electric played through a direct box) out to an amp (and effects) to get an authentic guitar-amped sound. Eleven Rack is set up to allow a dry track to be recorded along with the processed ones, and, with Pro Tools, it makes the re-amp routing easy. Take a recorded track, send it back through Eleven Rack, and return it to another open track—all via the USB cable. When the pre-recorded track is inside Eleven Rack, you can either apply internal processing or send the signal out (from any point in the chain) through a ¼-inch output to amp jack to a physical amp in your studio. If you choose the latter, you would then mike the amp using the XLR on the Eleven Rack, apply processing to taste, and route the signal back to an open track. Pro Tools makes this process even more straightforward by supplying templates with the routing preconfigured.

Integration occurs in another neat way: Pro Tools records Eleven Rack-sourced audio regions with the Rig data embedded, which allows you to recall that track''s complete Eleven Rack settings at a later time. This makes it much easier to revisit an audio track when overdubbing and collaborating.

Eleven Rack is fully MIDI-controllable, either from a MIDI track within Pro Tools or with an external MIDI pedal. You can trigger patch changes and send real-time controller messages to turn on and off effects, apply modulation, and control multiple parameters simultaneously. Eleven Rack has an external pedal jack for either continuous controller effects (modulation, wah, volume) or momentary functions (stepping up and down through Rig presets). If you don''t use a MIDI pedalboard, then you''re limited to just one external pedal jack for either a continuous or momentary controller.

Digidesign/Avid may have arrived late to the amp-sim party, but the company came dressed to kill. Eleven Rack is a first-rate, professional-level guitar processor in terms of build quality, functionality, and sound. Where Eleven Rack succeeds is that it is so independently strong on all fronts, such that you could use just one aspect and never miss the others. Performers who treat it as a multi-effects unit may never even need the re-amping features, and they will love True-Z, which proves the appropriate pickup-loading, power-tube sag, and other hallmarks of real amp performance. Engineers will recognize its powers as a hardware-based plug-in accelerator and control surface—yielding ultra-low-latency DSP effects with the bonus of providing a stealth path for re-amping. And not only does it include Pro Tools, but Eleven Rack features several tightly integrated features with its host software. The Eleven Rack''s peerless sound and tight integration of features with Pro Tools make it the top contender for a total hardware and software solution for recording guitarists.

Jon Chappell is the author of Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books, 2002) and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill, 2003).

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Avid Eleven Rack product page.