It's hard to believe that Electrix began life nearly a decade ago, providing cutting-edge performance-based effects units for DJs and musicians, many of who fondly remember those colorful and inviting front panels of the now-classic Warp Factory, Filter Factory, Repeater and Mo-FX. However, three short years and several industry awards into its run, its then-parent company pulled the plug on Electrix. Fast-forward five more years, and a new owner is re-juicing Electrix with updated versions of best-selling products and new models, including three 1U rackmount units aimed at studio and live sound reinforcement markets. But with plug-ins finding their way into even modest live setups today, will these old-school hardware contenders stand a fighting chance?
Psychoacoustic processing can be good fun, or it can mean cheesy, QSound-like pseudo-surround and 3-D effects. Thankfully, the latter isn't the case with Enhance One, a simple yet flexible variation of the classic multiband fidelity enhancement and dynamic boost effect, along the lines of the Aphex Aural Exciter.
Conventional enhancers often worked well on pop music, using dynamic frequency correction to enrich the highs and adding musically related synthesized harmonics underneath. When applied to classical material or solo acoustic instruments, however, they tended to sound overly aggressive and unnatural. Based on program-dependent phase shifting, the goal of Electrix's new approach is to enhance the detail, clarity and imaging of a signal, regardless of what frequency dynamics are involved.
In a live setting, Enhance One sits between your mixer's main output and your system amps or active speakers. In the studio, you'll probably want to insert it on your master fader chain so you can both monitor and record its output as you mix down. Stereo XLR I/O is provided, and there's a dedicated XLR Mono Bass output to feed a subwoofer. Sadly, none of these units come with digital interfacing. Front-panel controls are duplicated for left and right channels, with a bypass button and In/Out indicator LED. I'm pleased to say that all three units use removable, grounded power cords, switchable 115/230V power and an easy-access fuse compartment on the back; but only Enhance One and King X feature an illuminated power switch on the front panel.
Leading the signal path are two Mix controls, which separately determine the amount of low- and high-frequency material that feeds into the actual enhancement circuitry. Their ranges are from zero to maximum, and they do not alter the original signal in any way. A special Shift switch determines the cut-off frequency, or “peak,” around which the Low Mix control is centered. If the switch is set low, frequency energy primarily concentrated around 50 Hz is sent; if it's set high, only fundamental energy down to 100 Hz is sent. It's important to understand that you're not actually boosting anything at this point.
Next is the Tune control, which is essentially an adjustable highpass filter with a range of 1 to 8 kHz. As its name implies, you use it to fine-tune the overall frequency spectrum of the High Mix path being routed to the processor. Lower tuning achieves more mid pickup and presence, while tuning higher produces an airier sound. By using the Shift and Tune controls in tandem, you can really get inside a sound and sculpt out exactly what the processor should focus on quite effectively.
The Processor control really lets Enhance One adapt to virtually any program material. Deceivingly simple, when turned fully clockwise to the Pop position, it's capable of punching up bass and treble dramatically and lending an aggressive edge to otherwise flat mixes. Turned completely counterclockwise to the Classic position, however, the result becomes increasingly softer with an unobtrusive transparency and increased richness that's perfectly suited for piano, acoustic guitars, vocals and small percussion.
Finally, two knobs control the crossover frequency (100 to 250 Hz) and level of the dedicated mono bass output, along with a phase invert switch and bass output clip status indicator.
Enhance One is amazingly clean and sounds impressive for its price. Depending on the program material, some parameter changes can be subtle, leading you to wonder if you're hearing any changes at all. As with most enhancers and exciters, though, a little goes a long way, and overcooking a mix is a recipe for disaster — not to mention a great way to toast your bass drivers.
While I enjoyed Enhance One as an insert on isolated instrument or vocal tracks, I got the most mileage using it across final mixes. With the ability to coax unbelievably tight sub-bass material out of rap and dance mixes I'd previously thought were slammin', it dramatically increased low frequency density and gently tucked it under without increasing peaks on my master meter or disrupting the mix balance. Enhance One can definitely make small speakers sound huge — not that I'm suggesting it should replace a good subwoofer. But it can certainly be used effectively as a perceptive tool on limited-frequency playback systems without fear of skewing a mix so it won't translate well on other systems. As for the top end, mixes opened up and vocals and instruments came out with more fidelity and clarity. However, I didn't notice the same degree of separation and widening as from another leading brand. Enhance One's strength is in restoring natural brightness and detail and increasing presence without the need for significant EQ, and it works equally well on solo or full program material. It had the effect of sweetening the “pocket” space around each element of the mix, increasing depth and dimension pleasantly and musically.
Comp One is your typical 2-channel compressor and expander/gate setup with peak limiting but with a few interesting differences. Capable of stereo or dual-mono operation via a Link switch, each channel features an eight-segment 30 dB gain reduction meter and bypass control but unfortunately no metering for makeup gain. The Threshold control has a range of 40 to +20 dBu and features three status indicators: a green LED lights when the signal reaches threshold, while a red LED shows when a signal is above threshold. Located in between, a yellow indicator lights when the signal is within auto-compression range. Pressing the nearby Soft switch turns on a soft-knee auto-compression characteristic.
Attack and Release controls show no numeric values on the front panel; only a range from “fast” to “slow.” That is due to the fact that the compressor design is based on a program-dependent timing algorithm that automatically scales based on dynamics detected. A very fast attack setting acts like a peak limiter, while a slower setting acts like an RMS or averaging detecting compressor/limiter. An Auto switch overrides both attack and release controls, aimed at achieving a more classic “leveling amplifier” sound.
In practice, the hard-comp dynamics detection was accurate, with attack and release times following very naturally from one extreme to another. The softer auto-compression sounded extremely smooth and natural, without many of the usual artifacts; instead of the onset of compression being sudden at the threshold point, the ratio increases over a gradual input level range until it reaches the ratio set on the front panel.
There are typically two schools of thought on expander/gate units: those who like lots of envelope and depth control and those who prefer single-knob quickness. Comp One strides down the middle with simple Threshold (+15 dBu to /off) and Ratio (1:1 to 4:1). They work well together in taming “chatter” and false triggering, though not quite as smoothly or effectively as I've seen on single-control units such as the Drawmer DL241, which features specialized circuitry that continually adapts expansion ratio, hold, attack and release times to the dynamics of the incoming signal.
Comp One's rear panel includes XLR and ¼-inch balanced/unbalanced inputs and outputs with 10 dBV/ +4 dBu operating-level switches. Each channel also supplies a ¼-inch TRS sidechain insert jack. In hindsight, some low-cut and de-ess sidechain filters would have been a nice touch.
King X is a stereo 2-way or mono 3-way active crossover. Using ultrahigh-quality state-variable 24 dB/ octave Linkwitz-Riley filter design for greater driver protection, it features zero phase error and absolutely flat summed amplitude response at all crossover frequencies. In stereo mode, the crossover frequency can be set between 80 to 900 Hz, but a x10 switch shifts that to 0.8 to 9 kHz in 3-way mode. A brilliant choice was made in using high-quality 41-detent potentiometers to handle crossover points. Such scrutiny ensures zero frequency drift and a precise and repeatable system setup. I love that latching mute switches are provided on each band to aid setting up and troubleshooting.
Input gain can be adjusted ±12 dB to match the crossover sensitivity to any console, and there's a clipping indicator for each crossover. Depressing the Mono bass switch sums the low frequency (LF) outputs from the left and right channels — useful for feeding studio subwoofers or bass bins of club PA systems. Each band has ±6 dB of gain control, and there's an LF Delay control for a maximum of 2 ms of phase/time alignment of bass program. Finally, the CD EQ switch applies a compensating Constant Directivity horn equalizer curve to the upper band in either mode.
Connections around back are XLR-only and provide dual input, low out and high out in 2-way mode. These same jacks internally reconfigure to provide only a single mono input plus low, mid and high outs in 3-way mode. Polarity switches are provided for each output, and automatic servo-function allows the unit to work with unbalanced source loads.
DSP TIMES THREE
Unfortunately, the booklet-style owner's manuals are pretty crappy, with poor English smacking of an abominable auto-translation program and frequent technical errors. The King X came out of the box with one of its tiny push buttons jammed inward; I gently pried it out with an X-Acto knife, but it never ended up sliding smoothly. The knobs a have highly variant feel. I removed a cap to discover that their insides are made from soft plastic that gives just enough to make them prone to over-twisting on the shaft, even under normal force. Finally, although I love seeing professional-grade locking-XLR jacks on live sound equipment, the lack of ¼-inch jacks is a patching pain for your average home studio equipped predominantly with TR and TRS patch cords.
Enhance One's performance in a rehearsal hall with club speakers suggests that it will extend both ends of the frequency spectrum nicely, filling dead spots due to speaker and/or room deficiencies without sounding hyped in the high end. The LF density and improved sustain truly brought out the best in club mixes without sounding oversaturated or changing any dynamics of the bass sound in the way that multiband compression would. On live instrument amplification, everything I threw at it came out sounding larger than life and punchy enough to cut through a noisy room. It brought out amazing detail and presence on a simple bi-miked upright piano and made acoustic guitar articulations sparkle with gorgeous-sounding highs and overtones. Bass guitar enjoyed extended lows without sounding boomy and perceived dynamic boost without imparting distortion at the cabinet.
Comp One and King X both sounded great feeding my Mackie HR-series 2.1 system. Dollar for dollar, with street prices hovering around $100 to $180 per unit, I can't think of a better hardware value than having all three of these units in your gig rack.
ENHANCE ONE, COMP ONE, KING X > $229; $349; $229
Pros: Clear, simple functionality. Good audio quality. Affordable for any budget.
Cons: No digital connectivity. Only XLR jacks on Enhance One and King X. Suspect knob and button quality. Terrible manuals.