It's small, beautifully formed, shows a fondness for purple and claims to be an 'Artist'. John Walden finds out whether Digitech's new guitar preamp/effects processor sounds fit for a Prince.
The 2120 Artist is the latest rack‑based guitar preamp system from Digitech. It has much in common with the Johnson Millennium One Fifty combo reviewed by Dave Lockwood recently (SOS August 1998) and is a direct replacement for Digitech's earlier 2112 rack preamp/multi‑effects unit. Apart from a very obvious change in the colour of the front panel (you are not going to lose this unit in your rack!), there are a number of differences between the older 2112 and the new 2120 Artist. A significant software revision has improved the processing potential (for example, longer delays are available), a revised range of both valve and solid‑state distortion types are provided, and a selection of the 100 factory presets are designed by a fairly impressive list of distinguished guitarists including Joe Satriani and Frank Gambale. A further addition is the inclusion of Digitech's Control One footswitch board, which has considerable potential for the studio user as well as its obvious live applications.
The 2120 is housed in a solidly built 2U rackmount case. Inside, a combination of two 12AX7 tubes and two SDISC II processors (as used in other Digitech studio processors) combine to give the best of both valve and solid‑state technology. The manual claims a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz, and a signal‑to‑noise ratio of greater than 91dB, with internal digital data handling operating at 24‑bit resolution. Memory capacity allows 100 factory and 100 user programs.
On the left‑hand side, there is a small grille which provides air circulation to cool the tubes, an input jack for your guitar lead, a small input clip LED and knobs to set both input and output levels. The centre is dominated by the large, clear display, underneath which are five very guitar‑oriented knobs that change Gain (level of distortion), Bass, Mid, Treble and Mix (balance between wet and dry signals). These controls allow instant basic editing of a sound when more detailed work is not required, but change other parameters when delving further into the editing process. The large Program knob moves between programs (surprise!) and also doubles up for other editing duties. On the right‑hand side are the power switch, eight backlit buttons and a row of seven smaller black buttons. While all of this might send more 'traditional' guitarists scampering back to their amplifiers, the large number of individual controls means that each button has a single function, and editing is therefore less complex than might otherwise have been the case.
The rear panel includes a pair of quarter‑inch TRS balanced jacks for left/mono and right output (nominal level ‑10dBV, +4dBu switchable). A similar pair act as send and return for an external effects loop, with a switch to adjust the level at which the loop operates; a further input jack allows use of a passive volume pedal. A 5‑pin DIN socket connects to the Control One foot controller, and things are topped off with MIDI In and Out/Thru and a socket for the power cable to the internal power supply. The input socket is not replicated on the back panel, which might be a minor irritation if the unit is permanently installed in your studio rack and you like to keep all your cable work tidy via a central patchbay.
The Control One foot controller measures approximately 65 by 15cm. The 12 switches allow patch selection, and can also be configured to switch individual effects in and out, while a 20‑character fluorescent display shows the current patch number and name. Probably of more interest in a recording context is the expression pedal, which can be programmed to provide real‑time control of any parameters within a particular patch. While obvious applications are volume and analogue wah, its uses are much broader than this.
As with most guitar preamp/multi‑effects units, in the 2120 the input signal is first fed to the preamp and then passed to the digital effects section. The range of editing options available at both these stages can only be described as comprehensive. This said, Digitech have made considerable efforts to provide an editing process that operates at a number of different levels. Those who are used to have nothing more than a cable between their guitar and amp will like the five knobs underneath the display that provide instant access to tweak the gain (distortion) and EQ of a patch. Beyond this, things can get as detailed as you might wish, but anyone who has spent time with even a basic multi‑effects unit should find the editing process here fairly easy to get to grips with. If in doubt, the manual does a pretty good job of explaining the steps involved.
The basic construction of a sound is illustrated on page 194. The preamp stage consists of compressor‑wah‑tube/distortion‑EQ‑gate chain. As indicated in the diagram, both tube and solid‑state distortion modules are available and can be run either individually or in parallel. In addition, the relative levels of the two distortion modes can be set, as can their EQ. If one of the 'dual‑output configurations' (see below) is selected for the digital effects section, the positions of the two distortion types within the stereo field can also be adjusted (so, for instance, you could have the tube distortion panned extreme right with the solid‑state panned extreme left). Any of the blocks within the preamp section can be bypassed if required; bypassed blocks are indicated on the display by a line underneath the name of the particular block.
Editing the preamp demonstrates how sound construction operates at a number of levels. At its most basic, a complete set of preamp settings can be selected with a single push of a button, whereupon you can dial through a series of 30 factory presets. These cover a range of basic tones, and the names give a clear idea of the intended sound (see the box on the left). At a more detailed level, each block within the preamp can be changed individually if required. For example, the tube distortion block has 14 presets of its own, each providing a different type of sound (from Warm Clean 1 through to Sat Tube 3). Finally, if you want absolute control over your sound, individual parameters within a block can be edited (eg. the threshold, ratio, attack and output level of the compressor block). At each of these 'levels' of editing, a number of user presets can be stored, so favourite settings can be recalled for use in other patches.
As might be expected given the two SDISC II processors, the range and quality of digital effects is impressive (see the 'Digital Delights' box). A set of 24 possible configurations allow the total processing power to be allocated in various ways. Each configuration offers a different arrangement of blocks in the multi‑effects chain and allocates either a quarter, a half, three quarters or the whole of one of the SDISC II processors to a block. This means that a maximum of eight effects (each using a quarter block) can be used in a single patch. Blocks allocated more than a quarter of a processor's attention provide greater control over the nature of the effect (allocating more power to a delay, for instance, increases the maximum delay time available). A number of the 24 effects configurations are 'dual block configurations', which allow different effects to be used on the left and right channels — the block diagram shows such an example. If all this has you reaching for a stiff drink, don't worry. As with the preamp section, each digital effect type offers a number of very usable presets to select from and their names, which are shown on the display as you step through them, provide a good guide as to what to expect (anyone for an OakFloorRm reverb?).
To round off, amongst a range of other features such as a tuner, it is worth noting that the speaker emulation and EQ/effects mix can be adjusted globally for all patches. Both of these features would be useful if moving from live use to DI recording in the studio, as would the noise reduction, which can be placed at a number of points in the signal path.
So just how does the combination of all these tubes and chips translate into a guitar sound? As all guitarists know, one person's 'right sound' is another's 'right racket', but to my ears at least, the 2120 delivers some superb tones. Presets 56‑60 are based on the preamp section, without all the sparkle added by the digital effects, and give a good idea of some (but by no means all) of the basic tones available. All are very convincing and very usable. Tweaking the Gain and EQ controls beneath the display produce a dramatic effect on each of these basic sounds, exactly as it would with an amp.
Do the tube‑based patches allow you to get those warm, cranked‑up valve amp sounds? Although you don't get to feel your chest vibrate in quite the same way, the sound is very authentic. A little adjustment to the EQ of patch 45 (Sweet and Blue Solo) left me feeling that I really was playing a Les Paul through a Marshall in a Large Hall, and for something a little heavier, patches 10 (REEVZ' Largest Tone) and 54 (Bad Attitude) delivered some good 'metal' tones. If you need to clean up your act patches 21 (Head Dog Sample) and 78 (Crisp Clean) are good starting points, and with a little use of the EQ could move from warm and round through to something with a real bite.
In addition to these impressive, but more conventional sounds, the 2120 is also very capable of producing something a little more off‑the‑wall. Patch 29 (Promethius) has a subtle, but very effective use of pitch shift, and if you want a moody Portishead‑esque sound, try patch 47 (Gonna Be A Showdown). Patch 99 makes use of the Control One expression pedal to provide an excellent texture that lives up to its name Guitar Synth Pad. In addition to this sort of expressive use, some patches use the pedal to 'morph' between two different tones (such as patch 36, 'Country >> Rock Morph') that can provide some really dramatic real‑time changes in sound.
One aspect of the foot controller did disappoint me slightly — I found the analogue wah less convincing than a standard wah footpedal. As this function is only used in a very small number of the factory presets, one wonders whether Digitech's programmers might feel the same; it's a criticism I've seen levelled at other guitar multi‑effects units. Don't throw out the Cry Baby just yet.
With all the editing possibilities described above, the combination of dual distortion modes and some hefty processing power, the range of sounds on offer is only limited by your willingness to edit. As with many guitar preamp/effects units, individuals might feel that the presets need a little work to get the best out of them. With the 2120, however, that work is going to be very well rewarded. Clean and simple, loud and nasty or just downright weird, the sounds from this unit, whether through an amp or DI'd, are wholly professional.
This unit is probably not going to appeal to the guitarist who just needs one or two basic sounds, so if you know your amp and how to mike it up to get those, stick with it. If, on the other hand, your studio needs a really wide variety of guitar sounds then the 2120 is an excellent 'one‑stop shop'. While you could get many of the sounds available here by chaining a separate preamp and effects box together, the integrated solution presented here, where all the components are designed to work together, produces a sum that is greater than the parts. In my own view, this is one of the most impressive preamp/processor units I have ever tried.
The 30 factory presets for the preamp section provide easy access to a wide range of basic amp simulations. The titles give a clear indication of the style intended.
- Bluesy Rhythm
- Blues Lead
- Rock Man
- Twin Combo
- 1x12 Combo
- Country 1
- Country 2
- British Stack
- American Stack
- Dirty 1x12
- Fusion Lean
- Violin Lead
- Fuzzy Face
- Daddy's Tone
- Double Overdrive
- High Gain Solo
- Sweet Clean Tube
- Big Honk
- Power 1
- Power 2
- Blues Drive
- Power Clean
- Thick Blue
- Solo 1
- Solo 2
- Bright Comp Tube
- Klean Krunch
The digital effects available are:
- Rotary Speaker Simulator.
- Auto Panner.
- Pitch Shifter.
- Delay (with a Tap function available via the Tapit button on the front panel).
- Equaliser (both graphic and parametric).
- Multi‑effects modules (combined effects that use less of the available processing power).
- Whammy Effects.
- Auto Wah.
- Professional, convincing and versatile amp sounds without the volume.
- Excellent range of digital effects.
- Effective noise reduction.
- Wah effect will not cut it for some.
- Some presets might not be to everyone's taste.
- No input on rear panel.
If you want access to a variety of very professional guitar sounds with some great digital effects and are prepared to spend some time experimenting, the odds are that you will be able to get what you want with the 2120.