Boss VF-1

Amp modeling and effects processing in a little red box.An attractive bright-red unit, the half-rackspace Boss VF-1 multi-effects processor will draw

Amp modeling and effects processing in a little red box.

An attractive bright-red unit, the half-rackspace Boss VF-1 multi-effects processor will draw attention in even the most crowded rack. Besides its good looks, the VF-1 offers reverb, delay, chorus, intelligent pitch-shifting, ring modulation, guitar-amp modeling, keyboard effects, EQ, compression, a tuner, and more, all at a surprisingly affordable price.

The VF-1's architecture proved so intuitive that I easily navigated and edited patches without consulting the 142-page manual first - a good thing, because the manual is unclear (even comical) in some sections, with spelling and grammatical errors aplenty. Documentation problems aside, it's always a pleasure to plug in a new toy and begin making music right away.

ONCE AROUND THE BOXThe input-level knob on the front panel adjusts the right and left channels separately and doubles as a push-button power switch. Directly below it lies the Hi-Z high-impedance guitar input, which enables guitarists (or bassists) to easily plug in to the VF-1 even when the unit is mounted in a rack. This input overrides the rear-panel left and right line inputs.

Next to the input section is a bright-green LCD that displays program and editing parameters. It's easy to read if you're close enough to turn the knobs, but the level meters are too small to be seen from a distance. On the panel's right side are six buttons - Utility, Write, Exit, Parameter Left, Parameter Right, and Category - for navigating, tweaking, and saving patches. A medium-size data-value knob doubles as an effects-bypass switch.

On the rear panel (see Fig. 1) are an AC receptacle for the "lump in the line" transformer and a useful hook for securing the power cord. Beside them are MIDI In and Out connectors, a coaxial S/PDIF digital output, 11/44-inch left and right analog inputs and outputs, and a level switch (-20 and +4). A 11/44-inch TRS controller input lets you use an expression pedal or footswitch for real-time parameter control, and two footswitches can be connected simultaneously by using a Y-connector such as the Roland PCS-31.

INSIDE STORYThe VF-1 employs a very flexible and easy-to-understand architecture. It has four banks, each containing 100 patches. Two banks contain factory presets, and two store user-edited patches. The basis of each patch is a multi-effect algorithm. You have 36 algorithms to choose from, each with its own set of effects. For example, the algorithm Guitar Multi 1 includes compressor/limiter, wah, amp simulator, 4-band EQ, noise suppressor, modulator, delay, and reverb. Each effect's parameters can be individually disabled. The order of effects in the chain is also modifiable.

With the Control Assign feature, you select the parameters to be altered by a footswitch, pedal, or other external MIDI controller. Different value ranges on the same controller can affect different parameters. For example, values 0 through 126 on an expression pedal can alter wah, and 127 can switch wah off. The VF-1 offers additional MIDI functions, including Program Change, Bulk Dump patch storage, and synchronization of time-based parameters (delay time, flanger modulation speed, and so on) to MIDI Clock.

The Utility menu displays global, system, MIDI, and tuner settings (including output mute for the guitar tuner). Here you adjust global output levels, the display contrast, global bpm (for time-based effects), and so on, and select the key signature for the intelligent pitch-shifter. You can also reinitialize the unit to its factory settings in the Utility menu.

The VF-1 lets you assign each patch to a category: Guitar, Keyboard, Vocal, Groove, and so forth. When you're searching through the 400 patches, you can use the Category Search function to display only the patches from the currently selected category.

SOUNDS ABOUNDSpace does not permit me to cover each of the VF-1's 400 effects patches, so instead I'll touch on the more interesting and useful ones. I'll start with the guitar and bass models, which were created with Roland's Composite Object Sound Modeling (COSM) technology. You get quite a few vintage and modern amps to choose from. Boss didn't include any manufacturer names, but some of the display icons bear a distinct resemblance to amps by Vox, Fender, Marshall, and others. The manual also hints broadly at the type of amp each model emulates.

I am fortunate enough to have some great vintage amps. I compared the VF-1 with them, and in every case the real amp moving air across a microphone sounded better. But not everyone has a collection of great amps at their disposal (or a studio where they can record them at suitable volumes), and the ability to dial up sounds instantly and record direct is a great convenience.

Using the VF-1, I created a nice-sounding, clean Vox patch, but the model's range was limited. When I tried to push it hard, as I do my AC-30, it turned ugly, and not in a good way. Studio Lead and many other patches aimed at big crunch sounds exhibited what I call the mosquito effect: a lot of buzz with little sting. After a little tweaking I came up with some usable power-guitar patches, but overall I found that the models sounded most realistic on clean settings.

Most of the VF-1's guitar patches swim in delay, chorus, and reverb, which make their sound more appealing and provide immediate gratification to the first-time listener (especially the potential buyer checking out the device in a music store). There is no quick way to lose these effects while auditioning amp patches, because the amp models are effects. If you activate the front-panel bypass switch, you end up with only a direct guitar signal. The only way to turn off specific effects within a patch is to defeat each one individually, and that requires more button-pushing and LCD-reading than I care to do.

The effects, amp simulators, and pickup models were most effective when I plugged the VF-1 into a guitar amp (instead of going direct). I could set a neutral sound on my Vox, and then easily dial up a wide variety of sounds ranging from clean to mean. I had to adjust the factory patches to accommodate the guitar and amp being used, but there are plenty of parameters to fiddle with.

Although the acoustic-guitar models fell short of making any of my electric guitars sound like real flat-tops, I was able to make a single-coil pickup sound enough like an acoustic/electric to make it useful onstage. I also successfully used these models to add shine to actual acoustic-guitar tracks in the studio.

I then put on my bass-playing hat (and my four-string) and tried the bass patches. Some of the effects-laden patches were interesting (for example, Funkenstein and Dinosaur), but again, I had to tweak quite a bit to get usable bass sounds. Even after I'd fiddled and found sounds I liked, I preferred my regular bass-recording technique: through an amplifier with a Sennheiser D-112 mic on a 15-inch speaker cabinet. But bass guitar is often recorded direct, and if you think of the VF-1 as a direct box with built-in effects, then it will be useful to you. It won't replace or even compare favorably with a decent amplifier, but it is eminently practical in situations in which a loud bass amp is unwelcome.

Keyboard players will also like this box, especially the Ring Modulation, Step Phaser, and Rotary Speaker simulator patches. The Rotary Speaker effect makes a plain Hammond-organ sample really sing. The rotation speed and acceleration of both the rotor and horn are independently adjustable. I used a Boss EV-5 expression pedal to change the rotary speeds during a performance, and it worked great, but I wish there were a way to transmit the pedal values by MIDI to automate the moves with my sequencer. I also used Rotary Speaker on electric guitar and background vocals, and loved the results.

IN THE STUDIOAs an outboard multi-effects unit, the VF-1 packs a lot of wallop. Varied and very customizable, the reverbs generally sound smooth and natural. A number of reverbs are designed for specific uses (kick, acoustic guitar, vocal, piano, and so on) and acoustic environments, such as hall, club, arena, and Roland Surround. In a well-equipped studio the VF-1 would be useful as an auxiliary unit, and in a more modest setup it would be a perfectly acceptable main reverb.

A wide assortment of phaser, flanger, and chorus patches are available, and overall they are quite good. I got plenty of use out of the Dimension 1 Space Chorus patch; it's nice and rich and has that Roland sound. Available delay types include tap, tape (a la Roland Space Echo), and 3-D.

TRANSFORMED MAN?The Male > Female patch alters a signal's formants instead of its pitch. It can achieve some interesting effects, but it certainly didn't convincingly transform a male vocal into a female vocal. Just to see what would happen, I "transformed" a male vocal track to female, recorded it to tape, and transformed it back to male. The resulting track brimmed with weird artifacts and possessed a bizarre, otherworldly character.

Radio Voice filters out lows and highs and gives you a very cool megaphone effect. Vocoder operates pretty much as you'd expect: a voice is input on the right channel and the signal to be altered is input on the left. Robot Voice tunes all notes in the incoming signal (which is preferably from a monophonic source) to a user-selected pitch. The formants can be tuned as well, making for some unusual vocal and rhythmic effects.

The Mic Simulator algorithm is a great idea, but it needs a little more work to live up to its billing. The idea is that smaller studios with limited mic closets can record an instrument with an inexpensive mic, and then process the track to make it sound as if it were recorded with an expensive condenser. I doubt that this will tempt musicians to forsake their condenser mics for a Shure SM57, but the Mic Simulator remains a flexible sound-modifying tool.

I used the feature on an acoustic-guitar track (which was recorded with a Neumann TLM 103 mic) and easily shaped the sound by choosing different source and destination mics. But what really makes the Mic Simulator stand out is that it's stereo, with all left and right parameters independently variable. You can select different microphone models for each side and change the apparent distances between the mics and the source, thereby generating stereo from mono without having to chorus, delay, or double. You can also throw one side out of phase for a wider effect. This is very cool.

Other noteworthy effects include an intelligent pitch-shifter, hum eliminators (both 50 and 60 Hz), and vocal eliminators. Isolator splits a signal into three bands and then applies effects to each band. Lo-fi processors include bit filters that really grunge up a track and patches that simulate the sounds of an AM radio and a scratched vinyl record.

THE BOTTOM LINEI tested the VF-1 extensively in a wide variety of real-world applications, and in most cases I got good results. I did not expect it to replace a rack full of gear and a truckload of amps, and it didn't. However, it has some great sounds and is a very powerful tool, especially for musicians on a budget. I was a bit disappointed with some of the amp models, but I am very particular about guitar sounds, and I was comparing them with some of the best amps ever made. In most applications, particularly live performance, the models will do quite well, although you may have to tweak them.

The VF-1 packs a lot of power into a small box, and it will definitely find a niche in many personal studios. If all it provided were good-quality reverb, delay, and chorus effects, it would easily be worth the price. When you consider that it also offers amp modeling; pickup, microphone, and cabinet simulators; bass DI capabilities; and all of the other effects I've mentioned, you realize that it's quite a value indeed. Will large commercial recording studios buy lots of these units for their racks? I doubt it. For the rest of us, however, this is an extremely useful piece of gear and a valuable addition to any sound palette. I don't want to give it back, and that says it all!