ART have been championing the cause of musicians on a budget for years with their great value multi‑effects units. We check out their latest effort, offering true 4‑in, 4‑out capabilities for under £300.
ART were one of the first effects manufacturers to begin answering the challenge of offering more features for less money. With the Multiverb series, they demonstrated that decent effects were well within the grasp of anyone wanting to play and record music. Now they're are wading in with the Quadra/FX, a 4‑channel, programmable, digital multi‑effects processor featuring DEA Technology and a twin 24‑bit engine. OK, now that I've read everything that's printed on the cardboard box it may be time to open it.
Out of the packaging it's easy to see exactly what the Quadra/FX is about. The back panel sports four ins, and four outs, which accounts for the 'Quadra' part, while if you have a look around at the front you get to the 'FX' part. The front panel is divided up into six main zones, each with a button underneath to access that zone's setting. On the left of the unit is a 3‑digit LED display with associated Store and Bypass switch, and then an alpha dial — or encoder, as ART prefer to call it — which takes care of all the parameter alterations.
Continuing from left to right, you first encounter the Routing section, where you have four options: Discrete 4, giving you four mono ins and outs; Twin Stereo, which is pretty self‑explanatory; Cascade, which places the two stereo engines in series; and Stereo, which combines the engines into a single, more powerful stereo processor. The second section on the front panel, Engine, allows you to select one of the four engines for editing: the Quadra/FX will only allow you the sort of access that's applicable to the type of routing you've selected — so, for instance, you may select any of the four engines for Discrete 4 mode, but all the engines are combined for Stereo mode.
Next up is the Effects zone, which offers you a choice of one of the 12 effects types. Further to the right is the Class section, which gives you a choice of six variations on the effect type you've selected. Next is the Parameter area, which allows you to fine‑tune your patch with as many as 12 different editing possibilities. Finally, there's the Smart Meter section, which ostensibly provides you with a generous 6‑segment LED input meter, but also allows you to access the MIDI control functions of the unit.
The black front panel with amber LEDs gives the Quadra/FX a retro feel, like those early giant digital wrist‑watches which made you look as though you were wandering around wearing a watch that didn't work — until you pressed a button. The LEDs are nice and bright, but because they're a little way behind the fascia you really have to look at the unit head‑on to avoid being deceived occasionally as to the true status of an LED.
The buttons click in and out nicely, but the power button is identical to the rest of its counterparts, which is great for symmetry but does make accidental powering down a strong possibility. A rocker switch, or even a button that required two seconds of being depressed to work, would have been a good idea. The alpha dial is a smooth turner rather than a 'click, click' one, and proves to work just fine. All '70s wrist‑watch jokes aside, I think that the user interface is well conceived and easy to drive. ART could easily have gone the well‑worn LCD route and probably have finished with a much cleaner‑looking unit in the process, but credit to them that they went for ease of use first. Plus the Quadra/FX looks cool when it's on and you turn off the lights in your studio — always a bonus!
When I first powered up the Quadra/FX I went straight to patch number 1, the unit's showcase Hall reverb. It uses Stereo routing, which harnesses the power of all four engines into one algorithm, in order to offer something truly souped‑up — that's the theory, anyway. Using this patch as a basis, let's run through some of the editing power that's on offer.
Looking at the front panel, I can quickly tell from the Effect zone that the reverb is based on a Hall algorithm. If I want to fine‑tune this patch I'll leave this section alone, while if I want to start from scratch I can change the Hall algorithm to a Delay, a Flanger, or whatever tickles my fancy. I've decided to tweak the existing preset, so I'll move onto the Class section on the front panel. Clicking the Class button allows the rotary encoder to move me up and down to select the type of reverb I'm after. I choose Concert, which is intended to give a realistic, neutral reverb simulation. I can move between Vocal, Instrument, Gated, Ambient and Dynamic, each offering varying degrees of density, low‑/high‑end roll‑off, and other characteristics. The Dynamic variation allows you to have the reverb triggered only when the input level exceeds a certain threshold. I'm feeding the Quadra/FX an analogue synth source, and I like the sound that the Instrument class gives it — the low end, in particular, maintains clarity, while the upper register is bright and lively. Once the Class is selected, there are up to 12 elements of the patch to edit in the Parameter section: Mix, Lo EQ, Hi EQ, Delay, Size, Regen, Decay, Shape, Pitch, Speed, Width, and Special. Most of the parameters are self‑explanatory, while others are more arcane, and their character may change depending on the effect algorithm that's been loaded in.
For the reverb patch I'm creating, Mix, Lo EQ and Hi EQ all function as you would expect, the EQ supplying low‑ and high‑pass filtering, with a maximum boost or cut of 15dB. The Delay parameter in a reverb context means pre‑delay; the Size parameter is a little more complex, simulating the size of the reverberant space, and consequently alters the tonal characteristics, echo density, and delay between reflections. In itself, it doesn't increase or decrease the decay time (except for gated reverbs). The Regen parameter obviously controls feedback for delay patches, but in a reverb context it controls diffusion (how much echo density there is initially, and how that density increases as the reverb decays). Decay, as you would expect, is the reverb time control. The Shape parameter performs more than one job: lower settings shape the attack time of the reverb's early reflections (ER), while higher settings control how those ERs diffuse in time, and at the highest extreme Shape simulates the slap‑back delay you hear in large halls.
The Pitch parameter is intended to make long decay times sound more natural and random if the decay tail begins to sound periodic (as though it's looping). Use the Speed parameter in conjunction with the Special parameter to set up a gating effect, such that the reverb is introduced after the input signal crosses a certain threshold — Speed sets how fast the gating occurs. The Width parameter in a reverb patch alters how far the listening position is from the sound source; this has implications for ER levels. As mentioned previously, the Special parameter alters a gating effect, changing the amount (in 1dB steps) by which the reverb is attenuated or gated. When Special is used on a Dynamic variation of a reverb, it sets the input level that will trigger the reverb.
What surprises me is that ART haven't capitalised on the unit's principal selling point, the four I/Os.
That might be the most tedious guided tour you've ever read, but it does demonstrate the level of editing that's available to you with the Quadra/FX. Some of the parameters radically alter the effect, while others change things almost imperceptibly, but the range of alternative combinations is practically infinite. All the parameters can and do perform different functions for a delay patch or an auto‑panning patch than they do for a reverb, for example, and often you really just have to wade in and use your ears to hear how the parameter is affecting your sound.
Sound quality is all‑important, and for starters the Quadra/FX sounds very clean. I didn't notice the kind of digital dirt that one sometimes encounters with cheaper effects units, and chorusing, phasing and flanging presets don't sing away in the background during quiet sections, which does inspire a certain confidence.
The reverb patches, of course, need the closest scrutiny in a review, given that they are the most complex and the most difficult treatments to accurately produce. At this end of the market you're never going to be absolutely blown away by the eerie authenticity of a reverb, but I think you have to consider how pleasing the sound is to the ears, and the Quad/FX is pleasing to mine. I set up an A/B Concert Hall reverb test with my now‑venerable Boss SE70, which is still a bit of a benchmark for budget reverb quality. Playing a Korg grand piano sound through both, I made a few value judgements. It was a close call, but I finally reached for the controls of the Quadra/FX to bring it more in line with the SE70. For my taste, the ART's early reflections are a little too dense and intrusive, while the decay of the reverb tail is a touch too thin. I was able to tweak the Quadra/FX parameters to achieve something I was more pleased with, and I don't want to overstate any dissatisfaction, because the Quadra/FX's Stereo‑routed reverb emulations are still high‑quality performers.
The Quadra/FX is fun, easy to use, and will always give you a good result.
On the other hand, the reverbs using less than the whole of the Quadra/FX's processing power are a tad scratchy. There's definitely some looping to hear, and the decay 'rings' too much to sound very natural. On the plus side, a white noise click can be triggered to sample the reverb's qualities, saving you the trouble of reaching for your master keyboard.
The other Quadra/FX patches are good fun and seriously useful. Choruses, phasers and flangers are dynamic, and all of the 'moving' effects have a wide range of choices of LFO shapes, depth, width and offset, so you can set the effect to flit about in the stereo field in just the manner you desire. Delays are suitably clean, and are outstanding for their editability. Conventional delays are joined by retro low‑bit variations, as well as delays that duck in or out depending on the input level, while a tap‑tempo function lets you quickly set your delay time without consulting a calculator or delay chart. Also well worth a mention is the Ambient Delay, simulating close and distant miking techniques, which really works. Using the Size parameter, the delay can shrink or spread the signal across the stereophonic field.
Pitch‑shifting works reliably, and incorporates a few nifty tricks as well. The pitch‑shifting algorithm gives delay options as standard to thicken and double your sound. If regular pitch‑shifting isn't enough, something called Whammit! might get your juices flowing. When activated, Whammit! glides up or down to a set note interval once the signal crosses a set threshold. The effect operates a bit like portamento, and although I couldn't find a practical use for it in the short period of this review, I'm sure some bright sparks out there will apply Whammit! to good effect.
To ART's credit, they have built in a level of editing sophistication I never would have expected at this price.
The Quadra/FX is fun, easy to use, and will always give you a good result. But why would I buy it over a competitor at around the £300 mark? Clearly, the four ins and four outs will be the major selling point of the Quadra/FX, and I think a few more words should be said about this feature. Those who buy the Quadra/FX intending to have all the I/Os plumbed in, as a one‑box solution to their small home studio effects needs, may be a bit surprised to find that startlingly few of the 100 presets utilise the four I/Os (I count only 28 in all). The remainder use Cascade and Stereo routing and, with due respect, those 72 patches are not in themselves 'gee whiz' enough to make the Quadra/FX a 'must have'. I'd like to have seen more use made of the Discrete 4 and Twin Stereo routings. Of course, I'm only talking about the presets, and writing your own effects patches is dead easy, but the 100 presets are all the memory locations you have — you can't tweak a preset and then save it to user RAM: you're forced to overwrite a preset.
To ART's credit, they have built in a level of editing sophistication I never would have expected at this price. Every algorithm is tweaking heaven, and the layout of the user interface means that nothing is buried beneath a hundred LCD pages. However, in this area of the market I suspect that some of the editing possibilities are unnecessary. Unless you're a post‑production engineer precisely attempting to simulate the original ambience of a dry recording in a specific acoustic, you may never touch the Shape parameter, for instance, and if you were such an engineer, you'd probably be tweaking a Lexicon or a TC Electronic unit anyway.
In summary, I like the Quadra/FX: on the whole I find the sound quality pleasant, and I like the layout and some of the tricks which set it apart from the crowd. What surprises me is that ART haven't capitalised on the unit's principal selling point, the four I/Os. If the Quadra/FX concentrated on offering more patches that supply useful Twin Stereo and Discrete 4 combinations of (albeit slightly under‑powered) reverbs plus delays, reverbs plus chorusing, and so on, I think it would be a much bigger hit. At the moment the Quadra/FX falls between the two stools of a cost‑effective alternative to a more expensive unit like Alesis' Quadraverb or the Ensoniq DP4, and a fairly priced 'set and forget' preset‑oriented unit, of the type that's proving so popular for those new to the recording game (Alesis Microverb, Digitech Studio Twin). The Quadra/FX is great for the price — I only feel a little frustrated because it's tantalisingly close to being brilliant.
The Quadra/FX has a very useful MIDI spec. Along with the MIDI In and Out sockets and the usual program‑change functions, the unit can have any of its 12 parameters mapped to four assignable controllers. The manual explains it like this: "Each engine (or engine group) can have up to four MIDI controllers assigned to change parameter values. Discrete 4 routing, which has four separate engines, can have up to 16 MIDI controllers mapping per preset. Controller mappings can, for example, make a synthesizer's modulation wheel change reverb time, a footswitch bypass an effect, or even allow keyboard notes to spin up the rotary effect." The assignable controllers can have your rotary speaker simulation spinning from low to high speed, or can decrease reverb decay in real time. Warm up your MIDI mixer maps and mod‑wheel fingers.
Thanks to the well laid‑out user interface, driving the Quadra/FX is incredibly easy, but the unit has hidden depths; some of the editing parameters and key combinations need some explanation. Fortunately the manual is excellent. It's easy to read, yet comprehensive enough to be a real asset to users.
- Easy to use.
- Good clean sound.
- Reasonably priced.
- Good MIDI spec.
- Useful manual.
- Not enough preset memory.
- Not enough presets using all the I/Os.
- Reverbs using just one or two engines 'ring'.
With an attractive price, good clean sound, quality effect algorithms, good editability, and four I/Os, the Quadra/FX is instantly likeable and easy to use. Unfortunately some aspects of the unit seem a little bit undercooked, and it isn't at its happiest acting as two or four separate processors, as might be hoped. That said, it's the cheapest dual stereo processor on the market today.
£299 including VAT.