With the analog craze that's hit the music scene of late, it's gotten pretty hard to find vintage equipment. This shortage of old analog gear has spurred manufacturers to create new analog/digital hybrids in hopes of capturing a share of the burgeoning market. The most recent entry into the fray is the new Electrix line of signal processors. (Electrix is a division of IVL Technologies, developers of DigiTech's vocal harmonizers.)
There are three units in the Electrix line: the FilterFactory, a resonant filter with LFO and distortion; the WarpFactory, a flexible, easily manipulated vocoder; and the Mo-FX, a multi-effects processor. This review covers the first two pieces.
The gear is ruggedly built of die-cast aluminum and seems quite roadworthy. The standard 19-inch-rack ears come attached but are easily removed with a set of hex keys. The power switch is located on the rear panel, and power is supplied via a removable IEC cable.
ERGONOMICS GALOREThe Electrix products are ergonomically designed for real-time tweaking, whether in the studio or on stage. Their distinctive wedge shape makes them convenient for tabletop operation. When the device is placed on a flat surface, the front panel tilts back at a 45-degree angle. This makes the knobs and buttons irresistibly easy to reach.
Electrix paid special attention to the design and implementation of the front-panel controls: each knob is big, fat, and wonderfully tactile, and many of the buttons illuminate with a circle of light when activated, making them easy to see and enhancing the machines' retro look. The large buttons are dimpled for nonslip punching and tapping.
CONNECTION INJECTIONThe units are equipped with RCA jacks and balanced 11/44-inch jacks for +4 dBu line-level signals. However, the different connectors are not meant to be mixed or used simultaneously (for instance, using RCA in and 11/44-inch out).
Both Electrix machines have a built-in phono preamp and grounding post, allowing you to plug a turntable directly into them. If you're a DJ, you can audition your platter with effects using your mixer's cue feature, relieving you from using the effects on an insert and thus losing the ability to cue with effects. A back-panel switch lets you choose either line-level or phono-level input. The phono preamp sounds clean and is a killer feature.
Each of the units has a 11/44-inch footswitch jack for controlling bypass; a MIDI channel switch; and MIDI In, Out, and Thru connectors. I'll discuss the units' MIDI implementation in greater detail later.
FILTER FROLICKINGThe FilterFactory's front panel is organized into three areas: Buzz (distortion), Stereo Filter/LFO, and Mix. The Buzz section has a knob for Buzz, which sets the amount of the distortion effect, and a Trim knob, which controls the output. The Trim knob, ranging from 0 to 12 dB, is essential because distorting a signal will affect its volume. The Engage button toggles the effect on and off. Below this is the Momentary button, which reverses the status of the Engage button only while you press it. The Momentary button is great for tapping out distorted rhythms in time with the music.
The Stereo Filter gives you a choice of four filter types: highpass, lowpass, bandpass, and notch. The two sweepable controls include Frequency, which ranges from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, and Resonance, which controls the peak level of the chosen frequency.
Normally, the FilterFactory operates in a stereo 2-pole filter mode (one 2-pole filter per channel). The 4 Pole Mono button sums the stereo signal, creating a 4-pole mono filter. The 4-pole filter has a more dramatic sound than the 2-pole filter, and a mono output is often adequate for down-and-dirty remixes. The Engage and Momentary switches in this section act just like their counterparts in the distortion section.
LFO speed can be adjusted using the Speed control, MIDI Clock, or Tap Tempo button. The dimpled Tap Tempo button lets you tap out the tempo for the LFO in real time. This feature is fabulous for synching the LFO speed to music without need of a MIDI Clock source. Using the Division setting, the tempo of the LFO can be divided into a ratio of 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, 6:1, 1:2, or 1:4. Use this feature to save your finger from too much tapping. (For example, for a 16th-note LFO, tap quarter notes with Division set to 4:1.)
Choose between four waveforms for your shape: sawtooth, inverse sawtooth, triangle, and square. Or select a random setting (waveforms are all over the place) or envelope follow (a more subtle, sine-wave kind of sound). LFO depth is adjustable from Off to 10. A button labeled Singleshot lets you freeze the waveform, effectively stopping the oscillation, like taking a snapshot of the filter sweep.
The FilterFactory is equipped with two 11/44-inch CV jacks, one for the left channel and one for the right. They respond to a 1-volt-per-octave signal. Any old synth with a CV output will drive these inputs. Unfortunately, I didn't have such a beast and was unable to try out this function.
The Mix section contains a wet/dry ratio knob, effects bypass button, and power and MIDI indicators. Input and output LEDs glow green for signal and red for peaks.
WARPED OUTThe WarpFactory's front panel is laid out in three sections: Formant Input, Formant Warp, and Mix. Formants can be brought in through the front-panel XLR mic jack in the Formant Input section or via a 11/44-inch jack (switchable between +4 dBu and -10 dBV) on the rear panel. (The rear panel provides a male XLR for running your mic through dry, when bypass is activated.)
The mic input is not phantom powered, so you'll want to keep a dynamic mic handy if you plan on plugging directly into the WarpFactory. Three LEDs-green, yellow, and red-indicate input level. There are four formant input source types to choose from: mic, line with emphasis on, line with emphasis off, and auto. The mic option is self-explanatory. Auto is the trouble-free setting. With Auto selected, the source input is routed to the formant input. In this setting, no formant input is needed because the input is the formant, so the source is vocoding (or "warping," as Electrix calls it) itself. The line setting with emphasis on helps bring out the sibilance in vocal signals. This works well on prerecorded vocals that have been deessed, reemphasizing the "ess" sound. Use the line-with-emphasis-off setting when no "ess" formant hyping is needed.
The Mix section has a wet/dry ratio knob; an effects bypass button; and indicators for source, output, power, and MIDI. A button titled Source Kill lets you choose how you want the source material to play through. With Source Kill on, the source signal is heard only when a formant signal is present at the mic input. When you stop generating formants (by singing or talking), the source material is muted. With Source Kill off, the source is always heard, vocoded when you sing and returning to dry when you're silent.
The Formant Warp section takes up the most real estate on the WarpFactory's face. You'll find a button for choosing the frequency band, high or low, that the formant will effect. A knob labeled Gender lets you sweep the harmonic content of the formant, making it deeper or thinner (not so much a sex change as a Munchkin-to-monster effect). Q lets you dial in the width of the filters. An associated knob, Order, lets you adjust the resolution of the filter algorithm. Used in tandem, these two controls determine how clean or dirty your final output will sound. Another knob lets you add noise to the mix to make things really gritty. The Robot Pitch knob is sort of a cheater's vocoder: it's an oscillator that mimics the classic vocoder sound without needing an external source. A dimpled button called Formant Freeze lets you freeze an incoming formant, looping its envelope. This is great for creating exciting sustained sounds and endless vowels.
MIDI MADNESSWhile these machines are great for live applications, they are downright perfect for studio work because of their comprehensive MIDI implementation. Each is fitted with MIDI In, Out, and Thru. A dial on the rear selects the transmit/receive channel.
Each unit responds to its own set of Control Changes-the FilterFactory sees CC 1 through 18, and the WarpFactory, CC 102 through 116. Distinct Control Change sets are very handy because they allow several Electrix models to be controlled on the same MIDI channel. All the knobs and buttons also transmit MIDI. This is, without a doubt, one of the best things about these processors. Hit Record on your sequencer, and every turn of a knob and push of a button is recorded. The creative possibilities are endless.
The FilterFactory responds to MIDI Note numbers. You can control the cutoff frequency by playing different notes on the keyboard. This makes for some unique effects. At one point, I had the unit feeding back on itself as I swept the cutoff frequency up and down the keyboard, creating some cool rhythmic noises. The FilterFactory responds to MIDI Clock, giving you the ability to sync its LFO speed with sequenced beats-perfect for rhythmic filter effects.
MORE BRAWN THAN BRAINSIt's difficult to assess the sound quality of processors that are supposed to mangle your audio. Well, these units click, hum, buzz, and sputter when that's your objective and don't when you don't want them to. The bypassed signal sounds identical to the original source, and the filters sound fine. The coloration of the effects is distinctively analog in flavor: round, but not so round as to lose definition. I have no complaints.
For those of you not used to analog parameters, getting a happening sound can sometimes take a while (especially since there are no onboard presets). Never fear-the manual is here. The FilterFactory guide tells you how to achieve three manual presets (the parameters for a sound that you dial up by hand), and the WarpFactory manual gives you four. These are great starting points for creating your own mutant effects. I particularly liked the Tap Tempo Filter Swoosh and the Classic Vocoder settings for starters.
Unfortunately, once you've done all your tweaking, there are no user memory slots to save your effect to. You have two options: record the parameters into your sequencer or grab paper and pencil. Pressing and holding down the Bypass button sends out all of the unit's current settings as Control Change numbers. If you do this at the beginning of your sequence, you sort of have a user preset.
TWIST AND PUSHElectrix takes us on a trip back to the analog gear of yore, with large friendly knobs, pressable buttons, and the only memory bank being the one in your head. And, like their analog antecedents, these units are built like tanks. Add to this a dash of modern MIDI wizardry (sending and receiving CC messages) and you have some nice machines, perfect for many of today's music styles, both live and in the studio.
They seem a bit expensive to me, though. But perhaps I'm too accustomed to the price of digital effects processors and AudioSuite plug-ins. Maybe a memory bank or two would get me more excited. However, if you flash back to the '60s and '70s, when a single analog effects unit cost an arm and a leg, the Electrix models will seem like a steal.
In the end, it's up to you to determine how reasonable the cost is, considering your needs and your budget. If money is tight and you're willing to sacrifice the unique ergonomics and real-time control features, less expensive software and hardware options are available (though they may not sound as sweet). But these are cool units; if a stand-alone, performance-oriented vocoder or filter is what you require, give Electrix a listen, a twist, and a push. During a live performance, in the studio or on stage, there is no substitute for real knobs and buttons.
Erik Hawkins is a musician/producer working in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. You can check out his fledgling indie label at www.muzicali.com.