Sitting in Digitech's Studio range between the S100 and the Quad 4, the new S200 combines the functions of the former with the ergonomics of the latter. Hugh Robjohns checks it out.
The S200 multi‑effects unit is a re‑engineered version of the S100 (reviewed in the April 1998 issue of SOS) which retains the latter's dual DSP engine system as well as the attractive electric‑blue front panel. However, the new model features a large backlit LCD, which has produced some important operational improvements over the S100, and its integral power supply is a definite step up on the more basic unit's 'wall wart'.
Like the S100, the new machine provides stereo inputs and outputs, a 24‑bit signal path (with 48‑bit internal processing), 20‑bit A‑D and D‑A converters (with a 96dB signal‑to‑noise ratio), five effects processing configurations, and 99 factory programs including 'studio' reverbs, the usual modulation effects (flanging, phasing, chorus, tremelo, panners, and even rotary speaker simulation), compressor and de‑esser, plus some rather more weird and wonderful programs like vocoders and ring modulators. Standard MIDI control functions are provided, as is a footswitch socket for stepping through the presets or bypassing the machine altogether.
Signal processing is very flexible, with five different DSP configurations, all of which include a noise gate and three‑band EQ on the input. The two DSP engines can be combined in virtually every possible way, the first option being a simple stereo in/stereo out mode in which the engines are linked to form just one powerful processing module providing the longest delay times, the most processing power and the best‑sounding reverberation programs. All the other modes split the machine's capability across two DSP engines in various ways: stereo in/stereo out with the two modules connected either in series or parallel, dual mono processing with independent processing in each channel, or dual input with separate processes combined to a single stereo output.
The S200 retains the same hardware as the S100, with 128‑times oversampling converters and the same bizarre internal sampling rate of 46.875kHz. The audio bandwidth is a full 20Hz to 20kHz, and the noise floor is acceptably quiet, although not perhaps as good as might have been expected from 20‑bit converters.
One particular aspect of the S200 which is a vast improvement over its junior sibling is that it employs an internal mains power supply with a standard IEC mains socket instead of an external plug‑top unit. So plus 100 points for that... Unfortunately, though, I have to subtract 1000 points, because there is no externally accessible fuse, nor any kind of power switch on the front or rear panels. Once this machine is plugged in it is powered forever! Also, the IEC socket on the review model seemed rather poor and the slightest movement of the mains lead caused the machine to crackle, thump and re‑boot.
The rear panel is virtually identical to the S100's, with a 'set‑once‑and‑forget' input volume control which, although adequate when the unit is permanently connected to a mixing console's aux send, is frustrating if you need to adjust the input gain occasionally — and particularly annoying if you want to mount the unit in a rack! There are unbalanced quarter‑inch sockets on the rear panel for two inputs and two outputs (the left socket of each pair is used for mono connections) and another quarter‑inch socket provides the footswitch facility. A lone MIDI socket receives program change commands.
The backlit LCD always shows the selected program number on the left‑hand side, graphical configuration and parameter details in the centre, and a variety of legends in a column on the right‑hand side informing the user of the current operating mode (factory or user presets, standard or edited settings, utility mode and so on). To the right of the LCD is an aide‑memoir listing the program number groups for the various types of presets (delays, reverbs, multi‑effects, and so on) which helps to track down the desired effect quickly.
When a program is recalled the display initially shows the configuration of inputs, outputs, DSP engines, and feedback paths in a clear block diagram. Pressing the Engine A/B button selects each DSP module in turn allowing its algorithm to be changed from the preset via the data wheel. As a new selection is made, soft‑key labels above the four Parameter buttons change accordingly.
The parameters of a selected process can be modified by pressing one of the four Parameter buttons, causing the display to change. In most programs, the display redraws to show four virtual knobs with markers indicating the nominal position of each control (a numeric value is also included directly above the soft‑labels). In the reverberation algorithms, a level vs time graph is provided showing the relative pre‑delay and decay times, or HF damping. A small slider graphic shows output level. A similar display is used for the delay programs, but with discrete vertical lines representing individual output echoes in place of the solid block representing a dense reverberation tail. Dynamics programs are provided with a transfer plot of input level against output level clearly showing the threshold and ratio settings, together with a second display indicating attack or release times.
As a parameter is adjusted, not only does the graphical display alter, but the numerical readout doubles in size to make it clear just what is being altered. Some values are accurately scaled (delay times in mS for example), but most are arbitrary 1‑10 or 1‑100 values. A 'Preview' button replays a rather crude sample of a snare drum to assist in adjusting program parameters by ear. However, the sample is extraordinarily noisy, making it rather difficult to assess the early reflections in the reverb programs. A good idea, but badly implemented, I'm afraid.
The 20‑page user manual is sensibly brief and so stands a good chance of being read! However, anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of what multi‑effects machines are about will rarely need to refer to it other than for the occasional utility function. In fact, there are only three menu pages of utilities anyway, which are all pretty obvious. They include facilities for setting the MIDI channel, whether the dry signal should be mixed with the processed signal or not, adjusting the display contrast, allocating functions to the footswitch, and resetting the factory presets.
The remaining buttons are just as intuitive. The first (labelled Program) simply recalls the main configuration display, allowing the preset program to be changed. The adjacent button (Configuration) allows the DSP configuration to be altered for users who have a specific processing structure in mind. Alternatively, users can scroll through the presets to find a ready‑made program which is close to their needs, and then alter the algorithms and parameters from there.
A button labelled EQ/Gate toggles between the equaliser and noise gate function. The EQ is a three‑band affair with top and bottom shelf responses (+/‑ 12dB range) and a parametric mid‑band with the same boost/cut plus an adjustable centre frequency accurately scaled between 25Hz and 20kHz. The simple noise gate provides threshold and release parameters.
Next to the EQ/Gate button is the Utility facility, followed by the Preview button to fire off the drum sample as already mentioned. Finally, the last two buttons store a modified program setting and bypass the signal processing.
The S200 seems to have the same families of effects programs as the S100, which are perfectly usable although not the last word in studio quality. The reverbs are typically rather 'metallic' and 'boingy', but will suit hi‑tech music perfectly well. The time delays and related effects (phasing, flanging, chorus and so forth) fare rather better, with some very rich and usable sounds being easily achievable. The Vocoder and Ring Modulator programs are fun to play with and will doubtless find occasional applications somewhere, but the pitch‑shifting and detuning options are best avoided for anything which will remain audible in a mix (unless you like the sound of glitchy pitch‑shifters)!
The S200, while improving significantly on many operational aspects of its junior sibling, doesn't appear to offer anything new in the selection or quality of the effects, and is considerably more expensive. However, it is definitely far easier to use than the S100, and can be recommended on the basis that ergonomics are certainly a very important aspect of a complex machine like this. In terms of sound quality, the S200 is OK, but doesn't excel at anything — there are better affordable reverb units around, for example. Nevertheless, it remains a very flexible machine capable of a very wide range of usable effects, making it a good jack of all trades, even if it is master of none.
Though the S100's 1U‑high front panel features a curved and milled aluminium extrusion identical to the S100's, its user interface is considerably different. The control buttons and large LCD are neatly grouped in the centre of the panel and are much better those of the S100, proving far more intuitive to use. Twelve slimline push buttons in a row beneath the display look similar to the S100's, but there are several subtle changes — for example the four parameter buttons are now directly below the display, and operate as 'soft‑keys' according to labels shown on the LCD. The nicely weighted data input wheel is used to scroll through the various memories and adjust parameters in the usual way, but seems to operate at a fixed speed and resolution.
When I reviewed the S100 back in April, I was concerned that the legends on the push buttons would not survive prolonged use, but the S200's buttons appears to have a tougher paint job! Also, the S100's buttons were not all printed squarely, but I'm pleased to report no such problems with the S200. There were also problems in seeing the semi‑hidden secondary legends below the buttons of the S100, but the introduction of the LCD has allowed these to be dispensed with, making the S200 much quicker, simpler, and above all, more intuitive.
- Attractive design.
- Very flexible DSP configurations.
- Wide range of effects and reverberation programs.
- Excellent ergonomics and clear LCD graphics.
- Effects are competent, but nothing special.
- No mains power switch.
Essentially a re‑engineered version of the S100 multi‑effects processor with a useful range of programs. Offers nothing new in the way of effects, but is a good jack of all trades, and has a very good user interface allowing fast, intuitive operation.