A new multi-band, multi-coloured, multi-effects unit from Electrix extends their range of bright and unusual hands-on processors. Could it all be too much of a good thing? Chris Carter investigates...
The new MoFX signal processor is the third in a steady stream of modules coming from Canadian manufacturer Electrix. So far we've seen the Filterfactory (a multi-mode filter) and the Warpfactory (a vocoder) see SOS October 1999 for both reviews. The latest is the MoFX (pronounced mow-fex), which is essentially a 16-bit digital stereo unit offering tempo-sync'able effects blocks that can independently process different frequency bands. As with all the Electrix products, it has been designed to appeal both to DJs and studio-based users. Instant visual feedback is obviously an important part of the design concept, becausethe MoFX lights up like a pinball machine when powered up there are 20 large illuminated buttons in red and green, along with 16 multi-coloured LEDs. Together, all these show at a glance exactly which features are currently active.
The MoFX is housed in a jauntily angled 2U rackmount case, only 3.5 inches deep, designed to also allow convenient desktop use. Like the other Electrix modules, it is crafted (in a vaguely retro style) from heavy-duty cast metal this is certainly no lightweight aluminium rush-job. The power supply is internal with an standard IEC socket and power switch on the left-hand side of the rear panel. Next to this are an auto-sensing foot-switch socket and MIDI In, Out and Thru connections, along with a small rotary switch for setting the MIDI channel.
ELECTRIX MOFX £399
Real-time effects tempo sync.
Intuitive layout, buttons and indicators.
Solidly constructed, professional unit.
Inflexible parallel signal path.
No internal patch memories.
Basic level metering.
A versatile DJ-oriented unit offering instant access to musically useful and tempo sync'able effects.
In The Cockpit
The front panel is divided into five areas, each of which contains the controls for a different effects block: Distortion/Insert, Flange, Tremolo, Delay and Global. Each effects block has an Engage and a Momentary button, which work in tandem. Engage latches the effect in or out of the signal path and, depending on the state of this, the (non-latching) Momentary button can either temporarily bypass or introduce the effect. This arrangement is useful for rhythmically tapping an effect in and out of a track.
First in the unit's signal path are the stereo insert points. However, following these, the MoFX places all its processing blocks in parallel, though the Distortion block does have a 'Dist To FX' button which feeds its output to the other blocks. Signals destined for the Flanger, Tremolo and Delay are first split at fixed (and unspecified) frequencies into individual bands. The blocks can then process anyof these bands, allowing you, for example, to simultaneously flange high frequencies, delay mid frequencies and tremolo low frequencies. There is one Band button per effect, and repeatedly pressing it cycles through all the possible combinations of the three bands: All Bands, High, Mid, Low, Low+High, Low+Mid and High+Mid. Holding down the Band button for longer than a half a second returns that block to the default All Bands setting.
The Distortion effect can range from muted overdrive to full-blown grunge depending on the setting of the Drive control; at zero Drive a clean signal is passed. A Level control adjusts the send from the output of the distortion block to the main stereo outputs.
The next three blocks all have an individual Mix control which sets the wet/dry signal ratio for the effect through the first 75 percent of its travel. The remaining 25 percent of the knob's travel usefully allows you to boost the wet-only signal by up to 9dB. In addition to the Mix control, the Flange block has a Depth knob, variable from 100 percent with negative phase, through zero at its centre detent, to 100 percent with positive phase. The flanger's LFO Speed is variable between 0.1Hz to 10Hz and feedback can be added with the Regen control (thankfully, the maximum setting doesn't quite run away with itself).
The Tremolo is essentially a digital VCA controlled by an LFO, with the Band, Mix and Speed controls reacting in much the same manner as those in the Flange block. Another rotary control, the Wave rotary switch, selects from one of seven modulation waveforms: Sine, Triangle, Ramp Up, Ramp Down, Square 50%, Square 25% and Square 12%. An Auto-Pan button inverts the effect of the LFO on one of the processor's two channels, which transforms the MoFX into an automatic panner.
The Delay is capable of some some pretty extreme sounds. This is partly due to its design, which is supposed to emulate a typical analogue delay line (though without the associated grunge), and also partly due to its long delay range (1mS to 3.3 seconds) and tempo-sync capabilities. While the Mix and Band controls retain the same functions here, the Speed control has nothing to do with an LFO it merely adjusts the length of the delay. Adjusting this while a signal is passing through the Delay block causes the sound to 'slurp about' for a few seconds in an electronic emulation of the transition to the new speed setting. This sounds quite similar to a tape delay, and varies depending on how fast or far you adjust the control an interesting effect. This block also has a Regen control for adjusting the number of repeats if this is turned fully clockwise to the 'Loop' setting, this is exactly what it does. This isn't really like a sampler or looping delay as such, as you always seem to get a few too many repeats in there with the loop, but with a bit of practice you can come up with some useful results, especially if you play about with the Speed control at the same time.
The Global section houses the overall bypass button, the input and output level indicators (still, sadly, only the same tricolour LEDs used in the other Electrix units), a MIDI activity LED, the Tap Tempo/Sync button and a Dry button. This last button selects the way in which the dry signal is passed through the audio chain. When set to Thru, the original signal is always present at the outputs along with the output of any effects that are active, while a setting of Kill allows no dry signal at all to pass. The Auto mode acts as the Thru mode when no effects are engaged, but switches to acting as in Kill mode when any block is activated.
The real strength of the MoFX lies in the ease with which all the effects can be time-synchronised either to a global tempo or to MIDI clock arriving at the MIDI In socket. The global tempo is set using the Tap Tempo button, and the accuracy of this method mostly depends on your own dexterity. Though the MoFX can deduce a tempo from only a couple of taps it is a lot happier if you tap at least three times. The button flashes in time with the current tempo and, though this provides valuable feedback, it can be a little confusing if you're trying to tap in a new beat while looking at it. The global tempo can be changed to that of incoming MIDI clock messages by holding down the Tap Tempo button for at least one second, though tempo control can also be wrested back from MIDI simply by just tapping in a new tempo.
Synchronising the Flange, Tremolo and Delay is simply a case of hitting the respective block's Sync button and adjusting the appropriate Speed control, which now sets which division of the global tempo or MIDI tempo the effect responds to ratios are labelled around the controls.
All the buttons and controls send out MIDI data, so any knob twiddling you perform while the MoFX is connected to a MIDI sequencer can be recorded, replayed and edited if necessary. A useful by-product of this feature is that the MoFX can also be used as a real-time MIDI controller for other MIDI instruments and software, though the MIDI controller numbers for each of the front-panel controls can't be changed from those listed in the instruction manual.
In common with other Electrix effects units, the MoFX doesn't have any program memories. Of course this won't be a problem in a studio situation, because you can dump all the front-panel settings over MIDI just by holding the Bypass button for a few seconds. However, it could be be a drag if you're a DJ and you've got a handful of killer effects settings which you have to recreate from scratch every time you gig. I can't see that many DJs hooking up the MoFX to a PC or MIDI data filer...
Test-Driving The MoFX
Basically, everything on the MoFX seems designed to reliably achieve what it is supposed to do. The Distortion, although sometimes a little rough around the edges, is generally pretty usable with the right material. The Flanger is very clean and digital-sounding with no weird artifacts and is great for tight, phasing-type 'airplane' and 'tube' effects. Using Flange for short modulated delays and lush chorus isn't as successful, however, as the (unspecified) delay range is a little too restricted. Moreover, it has a tendancy to sound a little bland and samey, as with many digital flangers.
The Tremolo block performed well, and created a host of interesting gated/panning effects on demand. The Delay had one feature which I found simultaneously gratifying and annoying. It seems that the Engage and Momentary buttons are in the send path to the delay rather than in its return path. This has the advantage that, when you the disengage the effect, the delay sounds decay naturally. However, the flipside of this is that, depending on the Speed control's setting, there can be a very disconcerting pause between re-engaging the effect and hearing anything emerging from it. This could cause all manner of false alarms in a live situation. However, this is where the MoFX's parallel processing can be valuable, as this anomaly isn't nearly as obvious if another effect is active and masking this gap.
The frequency-selective nature of the Flange, Tremolo and Delay effects is particularly handy, as the result of parallel effects processors might otherwise be rather overwhelming at times. The frequency division can also be an extremely creative feature in its own right, particularly in conjunction with the Tremolo block using its Square 25% and Square 12% waveforms. This feature also allows the MoFX to be used as a simple band isolator, simply by muting the Distortion block and any direct signal and setting all Mix controls to Dry.
The effects sounded good with just about any signal you might want to use: CDs, vinyl, keyboards, you name it. I even tried connecting a guitar and, although the Distortion block needed to be active (and boosted) to get a decent signal, I was still quite impressed with the overall result. However, one of the MoFX's biggest selling points will be that because all the controls are dedicated to single functions, setting up effects patches is a cinch. This is the first effects unit I've used for a while which allowed you to get some quick and very agreeable results without you necessarily having to read the instruction manual. The powerful sync capabilities, in particular, were very straightforward to set up, even when I was designing quite complex rhythmic effects. Of course, real-time sync is not necessarily fantastically new in the effects world, but its implementation in the MoFX is a joy to use.
MO For Your Money
In general day-to-day (or night-to-night) use the MoFX quickly becomes a familiar and trusted piece of gear. The solid construction and ergonomic layout inspire confidence and there's no faffing about with LCDs and multi-mode buttons you could quite easily use it in near-total darkness too. The amount of visual feedback verges almost on overkill, but that could well make it very attractive to DJs and live bands who'll put the MoFX right where people can see it.
The way the processing path is configured may not endear the MoFX to studio types, but this is more than compensated for by the versatility and quality of the effects themselves and though the lack of proper level metering and onboard effects memories hampers it a little, it's a doddle to set up and use. This is a professional unit both in terms of build quality and musically useful functionality.