Photos: Mike Cameron
For years now we've become used to software plug-ins that look like hardware, but the Lexicon MX200 turns this idea on its head by being a hardware effects box that tries to look like a plug-in. What this means in practice is that the front-panel controls of the machine can be accessed via a plug-in window, and settings can be saved as part of your DAW song as with any other plug-in. This happens courtesy of a direct USB connection that functions as a MIDI port, though the audio still has to be connected to your audio interface in the usual way — it would have been neat if the audio could also have gone via USB, but no luck there.
The MX200 features the classic Lexicon reverb sound as well as providing additional effects (32 effect types in all), where two effects can run at the same time under one of four routing options. These may be accessed through very simple front-panel controls or using the MX-Edit editor/librarian software that works within VST or Audio Unit hosts. This way the MX200 is seen by the host software as a plug-in, even though it is really externally connected hardware. However, you can only open one instance of the plug-in at a time, of course, because there's only one MX200. In addition to being able to control the effect parameters in the same way you would with a plug-in, you can also automate the control settings and save or load patches. MX-Edit is included with the MX200 and runs on both Apple Mac or Windows XP systems.
The 1U rack processor is powered from an included AC power adaptor. It has stereo balanced inputs and outputs on TRS jacks and can also handle S/PDIF I/O. Alongside the USB link are conventional MIDI In and Out/Thru ports. When an external digital input is connected to the unit, the MX200 expects the external device to be the clock master.
To keep things simple, a front-panel LED matrix uses four columns of lights to show which two of the 32 available effects are active. There are separate control areas for the two effect processors with buttons for Effect Select, Tempo (for tapping in tempos directly), and Bypass. Three parameter control knobs adjust the three most important parameters for the currently selected effect, and further global controls adjust Input Level and Mix 1 and Mix 2 wet/dry adjustment, as well as allowing the storing or auditioning of patches. To help audition patches, there are five audio samples that can be fired off as source material.
The large dial on the left selects effects programs, and it is pushed to load them. Lexicon have created 99 presets to get users off to a flying start, but there's room on board to save a further 99 user patches. As this is a budget unit, the display offers two-digit numbers only, with no opportunity to name patches, but this isn't unreasonable on a processor at this UK price point.
The two effects engines can be used in four different routing configurations categorised as Dual Mono (two independent mono-in, mono-out processors), Cascade (stereo series), Dual Stereo (stereo parallel), or Mono Split (dual mono-in, stereo-out processors with mixed outputs). Two banks of factory patches have been set up, one Series and one Parallel, where the Parallel bank is designed to be used with mixer sends and returns, providing a 100-percent wet signal at the MX200's output. Conversely, the Series-bank effects are set up to be best suited for use in insert points, where the wet/dry balance is set as required using the Mix 1 and Mix 2 controls. The default bank is the Series bank, so to switch to the Parallel bank you need to go through a short routine initiated by pressing the Store and Audition buttons together, as described in the manual.
Clearly the Lexicon reverbs are stars of this particular show, with 16 variants on offer including some nice short plates, chambers, and room ambiences. Of the remaining 16 effects, there's a dynamics section designed by Dbx as well as all the common modulation/delay treatments and rotary speaker emulation. Pitch-shifting is also catered for, along with reverse delay and de-essing, making this a real processing toolbox rather than a simple one-trick pony. Given the low cost, you may be wondering what the catch is, but other than a maximum working sample rate of 48kHz and the simplistic display, I can't see it yet if there is one!
Further global settings enable the user to set the MIDI channel on which control data will be sent, or to disable MIDI completely. You can also set whether programs load as soon as they are selected or whether changes wait until the knob is pressed. Digital or analogue input selection is another global setting, though both analogue and digital outputs are always active. Another neat trick is that you can set the unit to send the dry signal out over coaxial S/PDIF while the processed signal comes via the analogue outs — a clever option for providing monitor reverb without actually recording it. And of course there's a factory reset that restores all of the original 'out of the box' settings. It is also possible to configure the MX200's outputs to run in mono or stereo.
Once installed, the MX-Edit software lets you access the factory and user patches. Communication can be via USB or MIDI, though USB is usually more convenient, and user patches from the MX200 can be retrieved by the software. New effects programs can be set up using the software via its graphical panel interface, and you can also create archives of all your user patches.
Separate VST and Audio Unit software allows the MX200 to function within a plug-in environment and this installs from CD along with MX-Edit. The audio routing through the MX200 needs to be set up via the DAW you happen to be using: Logic users can use the I/O plug-in, whereas Cakewalk users can add send and return effects to a buss. Steinberg's Cubase also has the option of connecting external effects. The Lexicon plug-in window is available within your plug-in list so you can open this in the channel that is set up to pass audio through the MX200. The session-recall and patch-saving routines then work as they would for any other plug-in, so you can guarantee repeatability provided that you make a note of the input gain setting on the MX200, as this isn't automated. The controls within the plug-in window operate in much the same way as in the MX-Edit software.
Lexicon's software installed in one simple operation, and MX-Edit opened like any other application, its plug-in counterpart appearing in the host DAW's plug-in list. For my main Logic test, I inserted the MX200 plug-in into a vocal track and then used Logic's I/O plug-in to send audio to and from the MX200 hardware via another insert in the same track. I had no problem getting Logic to automate the MX200's parameters in more or less the same way as with any other plug-in, although it didn't matter whether I chose Latch or Touch modes for the automation, it always behaved as though it was in Latch mode. Other plug-ins inserted here behaved normally.
Quite a lot of zipper noise was in evidence when changing some of the parameters (specifically pre-delay or anything else related to delay times) during playback, so clearly you need to do a few tests to see what you can easily automate and how quickly you can make changes before artefacts become audible. Reverb mix and decay time behave fine in this respect. That aside, the effects are all rather good, even though this is one of Lexicon's lower-cost processors. The reverbs may not have quite the same PCM91 or even MPX500 sparkle, but they still manage to sit well in a mix without clouding the sound, and they integrate well with the dry sound rather than sitting on top like a layer of fog. I particularly like the shorter plate and ambience treatments, though the algorithms on offer cover the full range of useful reverb types, from barely audible small-room acoustics to cathedrals. Even the spring emulation sounds really sweet on vocals.
The remaining effects don't disappoint either, with the reverse delay being one of my personal favourites. For the more conventionally minded, the delays, phasers, and chorus/flanger effects are right on the money. From my own viewpoint, I wouldn't use the dynamics processors for serious track processing, not because there's anything wrong with them but because an analogue unit (or a plug-in emulation of one) with good metering is so much easier to use. Having made that point, it can be extremely useful to place a compressor before a reverb (fed from a send) to pump up the reverb energy, and a de-esser can be very effective placed before a bright reverb to stop it over-emphasising sibilance in the original vocal sound.
Operation is a real no-brainer, especially if you're using the software, as you can choose the effect algorithms for each effects engine by name from a pull-down menu, rather than having to step through the front-panel matrix. The legends beneath the three controls also change to reflect their function, which is clearly not the case on the hardware. In most cases, the controls stick to a predictable convention, such as reverb pre-delay, decay time, and timbre, but it's still easier when you can see what the controls do.
The four routing options make this processor very flexible, and the mixed pair of mono-in, stereo-out processors is a very practical arrangement if you want to set up two send effects using only one stereo aux return. The parallel stereo mode is also good for creating spectacular spatial effects combining different reverbs on each engine, or using a reverse reverb or delay on one channel and a conventional treatment on the other.
MX200 Audio Specifications
Audio inputs: quarter-inch TRS balanced (impedance 20k(omega)) or unbalanced (impedance 10k(omega)).
Input level: +4dBu nominal, +20dBu maximum.
Frequency response: 20Hz-20kHz ±1dB (reference 1kHz).
Total harmonic distortion plus noise: less than 0.007% within the 20Hz-20kHz range.
Audio outputs: quarter-inch TRS balanced or unbalanced.
Output level: +20dBu maximum.
Dynamic range: more than 107dBA.
A-D conversion: 24-bit resolution, 48kHz sample rate.
Audio processing: 24-bit resolution.
Aside from the small operational quirks I discovered when using the plug-in control panel within Logic, the system performed flawlessly. Being able to save tweaked effects settings within the sequencer made it almost as immediate as a software plug-in, but without the DSP load that good reverb invariably entails. You do have to be careful which parameters you automate and also how fast you change them, as delay-time adjustments sound very glitchy during the change, but most of the things you'd realistically like to do are possible with care.
The main operational difference between the MX200 and a 'real' plug-in is that you can only use one instance of the MX200 at a time, but you can still set up two different reverbs in a parallel configuration and feed them from two sends in your virtual mixer.
The sound quality of the unit is comparable with Lexicon's other entry-level boxes of recent years, which is to say exceptionally good, but still short of what a high-end Lexicon box can deliver. You still get the characteristic density and shimmer when you need it, albeit without the same degree of finesse at the high-frequency end, and the additional effects cover most mixing eventualities.
I've made no secret of my opinion that hardware needs to be able to function smoothly within a plug-in environment if it is to appeal to computer studio owners who take for granted that all effects settings will be saved with their sequencer projects. Lexicon have gone a long way towards getting the 'hardware as plug-in' paradigm right, and only the ability to stream audio via the USB connector would have made it better. The future of studio audio hardware is almost certainly that it will all connect to the central system via a high-bandwidth data hub of some kind — Yamaha have been working towards this scenario for many years with mLan — but for the present day Lexicon seem to have got it about right given that they need to maintain compatibility with just about any type of recording or live-sound system.