Does this preset-based dual-channel multi-effects processor produce a performance that belies its entry-level price?
The unashamedly entry-level Fostex DE10 delivers a slightly different take on the 'pick a patch, pick a variation' type of preset-based effects processor, in that it offers true dual-channel (mono-in, stereo-out) operation as well as a stereo-in, stereo-out single mode that may also be used mono-in. In dual mode, different effects can be selected for the two channels and the two sections behave more or less as two independent effects units. In addition, the first channel may be switched between line and guitar/mic input levels, and in single mode the unit includes both amplifier and mic modelling alongside the expected effects.
Unusually for a budget effects unit, this 1U unit is mains powered and is finished in a shade of purple more often associated with HHB than Fostex. Input conversion is 20-bit with the output conversion at 24-bit, yielding a dynamic range of around 92dB and a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz. There's no MIDI and no programmability, which keeps things simple from the operation standpoint, and level metering is restricted to a peak LED that comes on 6dB before clipping.
Each of the channels is controlled by just four knobs, with a centrally mounted slide switch to select between a Dual mode and two Single modes. The first knob chooses the basic effect algorithms, while the second provides 11 variations of each effect. A third knob adjusts one key parameter (which varies according to the type of effect) while the fourth control adjusts the wet/dry balance. An effects mute button is located to the right of the panel, close to the mains switch, and the spare panel space to the left of the unit is used to display a list of the effect algorithms. So far then, a very familiar entry-level format.
In the Single modes, instead of the spare knobs (the second channel's Parameter and Mix knobs) being disarmed, they are redeployed to extend the user controls to three parameters per patch, where the overall wet/dry balance is controlled by the Mix knob on the first channel. As all the processing power is available in Single mode, the algorithms also tend to be more complex than in Dual mode. When Dual mode or the first Single mode are selected, the available effects are the same (but with more parameter control and better reverb density in Single mode), but in the second Single mode, all but the first four reverb algorithms are new and include numerous guitar effects as well as mic modelling.
All signal jacks are unbalanced on the rear panel, and include two sets of stereo outputs, mic/guitar and line inputs for channel one and a line input for channel two. All three input sockets have gain trim controls on the rear panel. Channel one includes a slide switch to select between the line or mic/guitar input jacks, the latter being designed for use with high-impedance mics or electric guitars. A further jack socket provides a means to mute the effect part of the signal using an optional footswitch.
Operationally, the Fostex DE10 is very straightforward, though, in the case of some of the variations, you may have to look in the manual to see what you're getting. When switching presets or variations, the audio path mutes for a couple of seconds while the new values load, which can slow things down when you want to browse through a few variations to see which works best. The front panel legending is very small, which could make it difficult to see in typical studio lighting conditions, but, other than that, there's nothing at all complicated about the DE10.
As to the quality of the effects, I found the Dual mode reverbs a little fluttery, but quite usable in a demo context. They don't blend in with the dry sound as well as more up-market reverbs, but they work well enough if used with care. There are numerous variations, and the parameter knob adjusts the decay time in most instances so you can get anything from short room ambience to a cavern.
There were few surprises with the other mainstream effects either — delay includes no tape emulation so it's a bit unsubtle, but it works pretty much as predicted, with parameter control over delay time. Both the chorus and flange effects work as expected, again with a few nice options from which to choose. But, as ever, things start to come unglued when you get to the pitch-shifter. The designers have tried to minimise the familiar 'warbling' side effect by chopping the audio into longer loops, which certainly helps smooth out the sound, but the trade-off is a noticeable delay on the shifted sound. Miscellaneous includes a selection of early reflections, reverse reverb and gated reverb, but most of these sounded dreadfully metallic to me. That could work in your favour in more adventurous applications, but it wouldn't be my first choice for acoustic music. Most of the vocal treatments seem to combine reverb with delay, often in a fairly unsubtle way, which places undue emphasis on the delay repeats.
The reverbs have a slightly higher density in Single mode, so that's the mode to use if you need the best reverb possible. Similarly, the vocal treatments are denser and less metallic, but still hardly subtle. There's also a mixed selection of delay-plus-reverb settings where the delay element occasionally includes stereo panning. A nice touch is the inclusion of a couple of variations where the panning delay only affects low frequencies.
In the second Single mode, we find a selection of mic modelling presets which look quite grandiose when you look at the list of mics which are allegedly emulated, but in reality these are really just EQ curve settings that approximate the response of these mics given a nominally flat input. They are quite usable in a creative sense, but the Vintage Condenser 47 setting, for example, isn't going to make your beaten up old stage dynamic mic sound like a vintage Neumann. Sorry about that, but that's the way it is!
The amp simulation section provides four 'classic' amp sounds, one bass amp sound and four distortion settings designed for kick drums, snares, vocals and radio announcement simulations. The manual doesn't make it clear whether these attempt to include speaker simulation or not, and I'm none the wiser, as some patches sound as though they do, while some sound very raspy and buzzy, as if intended to be played directly into a guitar amp. The amp emulations would be usable played through an amp, but DI'd they are somewhat uninspiring and rather noisy, other than some of the cleaner settings which I felt worked quite well. Hopping to the next bank reveals a choice of different distortion effects and these sound as though they have no speaker simulation at all, so they need to be used with a guitar amplifier to sound any good.
That leaves a selection of guitar, voice and bass processes, all based around a five-block chain of compression, distortion, gate, chorus/flange and delay/reverb. In all cases the channel-two Mix control sets the gate threshold, with the other controls changing function according to the patch. In most cases, reverb/delay level, modulation level and overdrive amount are adjustable.
At one time, a unit like this would have made the perfect partner for a cassette multitracker, but in today's largely post-cassette era, the computer studio user invariably has access to plug-ins that tend to sound better than the DE10, while those opting for hardware recording workstations will probably find all the effects they need are built in already.
The real market for outboard effects lies with those musicians using separate hardware recorders and mixers and, as a rule, this is the most quality-conscious section of the market, which is more likely to be looking at TC Electronic and Lexicon effects boxes than Fostex ones. Certainly the DE10 is attractively priced in the UK, easy to use, and has the advantage of being able to double as two effects units or as a guitar processor, but, despite all this, it feels to me very much like the phrase 'jack of all trades, master of none' is uncomfortably applicable. With so many big-name effects companies bringing out very respectable entry-level boxes of their own, there seems less and less point in saving what amounts to just a few pounds by buying an entry-level unit that you'll probably grow out of before you've finished paying for it.
- Can be used as two different effects at the same time.
- Includes amp and mic modelling.
- The sound quality doesn't really manage to transcend the entry-level price.
While you shouldn't expect too much from an entry-level processor, I feel that saving money by buying a DE10 might be a false economy for anyone interested in making good-sounding demos. It's a brave attempt that covers a lot of bases, but maybe the era when this type of product had mass appeal has been left behind.
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