This classy piece of kit boasts the quality and flexibility of high-end algorithmic reverbs, but can also deliver convolution-like realism.
Bricasti Design's Model 7 digital reverb is the product of several years of research and development by a small team of ex-Lexicon engineers who set out to create a new standard in algorithmic reverb. In case you were wondering, Bricasti is an amalgam of the names Brian and Casey, with a random 'ti' added to the end just for luck! I've followed the evolution of this product on and off at various AES shows for what feels like a very long time, so when I heard it was finally available for review, I was rather excited at the prospect of putting it through its paces.
Bricasti's one and only current product is their Model 7 reverberation processor (from here on referred to as the M7). The M7 is pitched against the very best hardware reverbs available, and though it is fairly costly by project studio standards it is far less expensive than its high-end rivals. The design brief seems to have been to combine ease of use with a modern high-resolution (24-bit, up to 192kHz) digital design, based around a powerful DSP engine that uses six dual-core Analog Devices DSPs. Given the provenance of the engineering team, they clearly know the strengths and weaknesses of products from their previous employer, and nowadays competitor, Lexicon.
In many ways, the M7 is a no-frills processor. It offers stereo operation but not surround, and at the time of review the MIDI port was also 'reserved for future developments'. The reverb treatments it offers are, in the main, the ones most likely to get used in a studio context, with little or nothing in the way of special effects, while the operating system is so obvious that you're unlikely to spend much time reading the manual.
Clearly, though, a lot of thought and effort has been put into delivering the very best sound quality. The DC-coupled analogue I/O is fully differential, with its own power supply, using a linear transformer rather than switch-mode electronics (switch mode is used for the digital section) and all this is packaged in a self-contained 1U stainless-steel chassis, with a chunky, sculpted-aluminum front panel and clear controls. A low-speed, very quiet fan keeps the unit cool, but will speed up if it senses that the unit is overheating due to poor ventilation.
Bricasti tell us that a remote control unit will become available in the not-too-distant future — which is good news, as so many engineers are used to having something like a Lexicon LARC sitting on their desk. The forthcoming M10 remote will connect via one of a pair of small RS422 D-connectors on the rear panel (the other is for linking), and up to four M7s can be controlled from a single remote. Analogue I/O is stereo in, stereo out on balanced XLRs, while the digital I/O comes in AES/EBU format (also on XLRs). There's no separate word clock input. Settings for analogue or digital operation are found in the System menu, along with other global settings, and it should be noted that you can't mix digital in with analogue out or vice versa — operation is either all digital or all analogue.
The Model 7 provides a set of reverb algorithms that build upon the familiar studio favourites, as well as tossing some new ideas into the pot, though there are no reverse, gated or off-the-wall treatments. These algorithms are structured differently from the Lexicon way of doing things, but the range still encompasses the halls, plates, rooms, chambers and ambient treatments you'd expect to find, each with their own bank of presets. A Spaces bank provides large outdoor spaces such as canyons, forests and quarries.
While nobody would tell me how the algorithms used in the M7 work, they did say that they've tried to get closer to the way sound behaves in nature, rather than taking the more usual approach of using recirculating filters and delays.
Brian Zolner of Bricasti told me that the company's algorithms work on an entirely different principle to those used by Lexicon, and that they use three different reverb engines, each of which can be adjusted separately: one to handle the early reverberation, which most people term early reflections; one to cover the late decay tail; and a third that looks after the early reverberation below 80Hz (apparently this last addition was necessary to convey the depth and power of large spaces such as concert halls).
Whereas most competing reverbs generate very obvious early reflections, the early part of the Bricasti reverb — using the dedicated processor mentioned above — is actually very dense and complex, making it sound closer to what happens in real life. Of course, you can get closer to the sound of some of the vintage reverbs (which had far less processing power available) by reducing the density and diffusion parameter values.
Brian also went on to say that Bricasti use less modulation within their algorithms, because their approach doesn't suffer from the inherent coloration of reverb algorithms that are based on all-pass and comb recirculating filters: originally this type of modulation was introduced into algorithmic reverbs not to increase realism but to reduce coloration.
The M7 comes with 100 factory presets and a further 50 user 'register' memories. A Favourites function, available via the front panel, allows direct access to four different settings, which can be useful when comparing reverbs or for keeping your favourite settings to hand. This works much like a typical car radio, where you press the button briefly to select, or hold it down for a second or two to store.
There are 12 parameter adjustments per program, which means that you can tweak the effects to a useful degree without getting too confused by detail. As well as the usual decay, pre-delay, tonality (crossover point, high and low decay and so forth) and diffusion controls, you can also adjust the reverb density and add modulation, a trick often used to sweeten the reverb tail. All three reverb components can be balanced.
The analogue input control operates in 2dB steps, for ease of repeatability. External clocking is available from 44.1kHz to 192kHz, with ultra-low jitter, and the dynamic range is better than 116dB. THD plus Noise is quoted at lower than 0.001 percent, so a lot of care has evidently gone into the analogue side of this design, as well as the digital. The frequency response (at 10Hz to 20kHz, within ± 0.05 dB) would shame most power amplifiers, and the input can handle signal levels of up to +24dB before clipping occurs. The nominal operating level is +4dBu for 0dBFS, while the low output impedance of 40Ω means that very long cables can be driven without appreciable signal loss.
The control panel itself is pretty straightforward. It is dominated by a very clear two-line red display, where you can see the patches (which can be named using up to 14 characters). Up and down buttons steer through the available banks (the preset types have a bank each), and the rotary control selects patches within a bank. An asterisk lights up if the currently running patch is different from that shown in the display, and Enter loads the displayed patch. Normally the machine will be used in Prog mode, where programs can be selected, but there are also separate, dedicated buttons for getting into the Edit, System, or user-patch Register modes. Once in a mode, you can scroll through the options using the up/down keys and adjust values using the data-entry knob. It is all very conventional and thoroughly intuitive.
Via the System menu, you can select true stereo operation or designate the left or right input to accept a mono signal. You can adjust the wet and dry levels globally, or set the wet/dry mix separately within each patch (normally the dry signal would be set to 'off' when working in the aux send loop of a console or DAW). Here you can also select digital or analogue operation and adjust the analogue output level to suit the connected mixer or device. Additional features include the ability to lock specific user Register patch banks so that you can protect your favourite patches from being accidentally overwritten.
With the advances in software in recent years, you'd be forgiven for asking what place there is for a high-end hardware synthetic reverb unit these days — particularly when you consider that convolution reverbs can often be used to 'sample' hardware reverbs.
It is true that in some applications, where you need the sound of a specific space, a convolution reverb may indeed do a better job, but — despite significant inroads made in 'dynamic' convolution processing (exmplified by Focusrite's Liquid Mix and Acustica Audio's Nebula, the latter of which is reviewed elswhere in these pages), the algorithmic approach is still more flexible and far more editable. So, for example, if you call up a preset that seems a little too 'real', you can reduce the density and diffusion values, brighten up the top end and quickly get exactly what you need. You can also freely adjust the balance between the early reflections and the later reverb tail without compromising the reverb quality.
The ability to approach the subjective realism and density of convolution for room, hall and church simulations, while retaining the degree of editability enjoyed by 'traditional' reverb processors is one of the M7's key strengths.
From the moment I switched on and turned up the send control I could tell I was dealing with a very advanced reverb processor. The Bricasti Model 7 shares many of the sonic attributes of the Lexicon range, but at the same time it has its own character: it is extremely dense and detailed, adding air around a sound, giving it a sense of place without making it sound splashy or gritty. Cheaper reverb devices often tend to add a bunch of somewhat stark early reflections and a tail to the dry sound without the two ever integrating properly, but here the tonality of the initial dry sound is influenced by the very strong, dense first reflections in such a way that it seems to belong to the space created by the following reverb. Even when you add huge amounts of reverb, the original sound still doesn't get lost or swamped but rather seems to move further back into the room.
The other thing I noticed about this reverb unit is that the 'real' spaces seemed to have a lot more sonic character than many algorithmic reverbs I've heard. Some of the Bricasti concert halls come very close to the complexity of their convolution-based cousins, but without the inherent limitations on editability. Examining the reverb decay shape in more detail is instructive, particularly when it comes to smaller spaces as the decay shapes never follow the simple exponential curve shown in textbooks. In many cases the strong early reflections decay to only a few percent of their original level before the reverb tail starts to build up, and it is only in the later decay period that the decay curve starts to look exponential. I've asked reverb designers about this in the past and all agree that the actual shape of the decay is vitally important in creating a believable impression of a real space.
Many of the classic sounds, especially the rooms and plates, bear a resemblance to the Lexicon equivalent — which is understandable, given that the engineers have become familiar with these treatments, and now reach for them almost instinctively — and while the M7 has its own character and differs in the sonic detail, it is probably fair to say that most of the stock sounds could be substituted for their 'classic' original counterparts without the need for editing. It's almost as though the essential character of earlier digital reverbs has been captured, but with a density and smoothness only possible through the use of much more powerful DSPs.
This review has turned out to be a lot shorter than I'd anticipated, but for all the right reasons. The Bricasti M7 is a very uncomplicated piece of gear as far as the user is concerned, and it manages to deliver sumptuous reverb that sits correctly in a track with the minimum of effort. I'm sure that the term 'uncomplicated' in no way describes what all those DSPs are doing inside the box, but the beauty of the design is that none of this gets in the way of the user — and the audio quality is beyond reproach.
Furthermore, although the number of editable parameters may seem small, the algorithms are so well designed that for much of the time you may be able to find a preset that will do the required job with little or no editing. In fact, it is very hard to make this reverb sound bad, even when you lay it on with a trowel! Even the large architectural spaces sound unnervingly real, to the extent that it would be hard to say in a blind test whether or not the churches and halls were created using convolution: the days when early reflections sounded like tearing cloth are long gone! At the same time there's scope for the tweakers amongst us to sculpt to their hearts' content.
There are no real criticisms when comparing what this device claims to do with what it actually does, though some users may be surprised that Bricasti didn't come out with a surround-capable model at the start. Personally, I'm a little surprised at the lack of gated and reverse effects, though I can see the argument that you're always likely to be using your best reverb during a mix for vocal reverb or some other 'conventional' ambience, so you'd have to use a second unit for non-linear reverbs anyway. Certainly the M7 was worth the wait, and I can honestly say I've never used a better-sounding reverb device. It offers pristine, high-end performance at an attractive price point, and the system has been designed so that the software can be updated, so who knows what new capabilities may be added further down the line?
The Bricasti M7's main competition comes from the well-established high-end Lexicon and TC Electronic hardware reverb units. Good convolution reverbs — along with a good impulse response library — offer an alternative for some applications, but they lack the editability inherent in the algorithmic approach.