Viscount were there from the very beginning of the budget effects revolution, and with the EFX100 they hope to give the cash‑starved masses a further option. Christopher Holder finds out whether the EFX100 holds its own in a bustling budget marketplace.
Things are beginning to get ridiculous. Apparently in The States when you're pouring out the contents of a specially marked pack of Kelloggs Blueberry Pops, along with all the goodness of reconstituted corn starch (fortified with five vitamins and iron) you're likely to find a Zoom 1201 or Nanoverb multi‑effects unit splashing into your semi‑skimmed. But the days are gone when you could instantly condemn a budget effects unit for a shoddy sound. In fact, after you've dried off the unit with a tea towel, far from hearing a reverb that sounds like tin cans being dragged behind a Flymo, you'll probably enjoy quality spatial effects, as well as clean delays and dynamic chorusing.
Viscount were there at the beginning of the budget effects revolution, standard‑bearers for affordability, banging on the palace gates of Czar Lexicon, the Archduke Yamaha, et al (I know it's a difficult analogy to maintain, but the aristocratic name of Viscount makes me persist — bear with me). The EFX1 and EFX2, released in 1993, were strong performers for the money but never seriously looked like bringing down the more established big names. Last year, their EFX10 got it right in many more respects: price, features and flexibility were all there in spades. But by this stage Viscount couldn't lay claim to being the cheapest of the cheap, for as fast as Silicon Valley could spit chips, anyone with a soldering iron and a bit of technical know‑how was throwing together decent effects units. Zoom, ART, Yamaha, Alesis, Peavey, Digitech, and even the revered reverb institution, Lexicon, had weighed in with down‑market contributions. So in this rather altered (and cluttered) multi‑effects landscape, can Viscount compete against the more famous names?
Out of the box the EFX100 looks pretty classy; indeed, it bears more than a passing physical resemblance to the Alesis Microverb 4. I guess you would describe the appearance of the front panel as brushed aluminium, which is a nice change from the usual matt black, and also makes for good contrast when reading the information printed on the front panel. Looking left to right along the full 1U rack width, there are three rotary pots controlling input level, effect mix and output level respectively; a 3‑digit LED display that includes a four‑segment level meter for both left and right inputs; two yes/no buttons; an alpha wheel; an FX/EQ button; and two parameter pots to do your fine tuning. Overall, build quality looks good: the data wheel clicks over comfortably and positively, the pots have a pleasing amount of resistance in their movement, and the chassis feels solid (nothing rattles when you shake it).
The back of the unit sports two unbalanced jack inputs, the same number of outputs, MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, a footswitch input, and the input for the external PSU. Oh yeah, and it's got one of those neat cable doo‑dahs to maintain... erm, cable and power integrity (sorry) when you fall over the power cord.
So what exactly are we dealing with here? The EFX100 is a 2‑input/2‑output effects processor, with some 100 presets and 100 user patches. Each effects patch has two pre‑defined parameters you can tweak with the two designated pots. In addition to the effects, Viscount offer 2‑band EQ (low and high), accessed via the FX/EQ button and the two parameter pots — a neat and useful inclusion, although adjusting the pots will momentarily cut off any outgoing signal.
The EFX100 is well versed in the ways of MIDI too: it recognises program change messages and bank select messages to access all 200 patches. Various controller messages can be used to dictate the action of the footswitch, and four further controller numbers work on the parameter/EQ pots. The EFX100 does have a MIDI Out, and you might be forgiven for hoping that the parameter encoders will send out controller messages, but they don't. The unit will send and receive SysEx data, though, which Viscount recommend you utilise (bulk dumping) to insure against data loss.
Setting up the EFX100 is a doddle. Locating the patch you're after is easy enough, as there's a legend printed on the front panel, with a further indication of what parameters are assigned to the two editing pots.
What is first evident is how temperamental the input stage is. It's a pity to start on a sour note, but this will be the first thing you'll encounter when you plug in, and you need to take a few moments to set your levels optimally or you're going to run into some unpleasant results. When setting the input and output levels, set the input and output level pots to about 3 o'clock, and adjust the effect send on your desk accordingly. Don't just crank up the aux send level and hope to adjust the input level on the unit, as the level from the desk will invariably be too hot and cause the Viscount to violently spew digital detritus... undesirable. This is the sort of common‑sense approach to gain structures you should apply in any send and return situation, but it's perhaps even more crucial here. If your signal finds its way into the red on the EFX100's PPM, it's not a suggestion to back off a little — it's a fair indication that you'll be hearing distortion. In fact, certain signals, specifically at lower frequencies, can force the EFX100 into distortion despite the level meter showing something to the contrary. This is all by no means disastrous, and probably not such an uncommon characteristic in budget processors. I found that once I had the unit registering two bars on the meter and peaking into the third everything was tickety‑boo. This in no way seemed to reduce the efficiency of the machine; in fact one of the best points of the EFX is how clean its output signal is.
Once you've got your levels sorted, you'll be keen to hear what's on offer:
- Reverbs: First up is a medium‑sized bright hall with a shortish pre‑delay. The decays are pleasantly clean and transparent. Personally, I think that the pre‑delay component of the algorithm, combined with the level of early reflections, is given too much prominence and is a little too dense. This shows itself in the early part of the reverb, which carries a ghostly repeat of the signal, sounding a little like the distant rattle of a remotely vibrated snare drum. It gives the effect a cluttered feel which it needn't have. The hall patches pre‑programmed with longer pre‑delay benefit from that tweak, making for a more usable effect, in my view. The room reverbs also suffer a little from the aforementioned pre‑delay clutter. I compared the EFX rooms to the equivalent algorithms on my five‑year‑old Wavestation SR and my Boss SE70, and I'm afraid Viscount's effort sounded a little more ragged than I would have expected in comparison, even bearing in mind its modest price tag. The Plate algorithms, on the other hand, do the trick, and are by far my favourite EFX reverb patches — great for percussion and acoustic sounds, or pretty much anything else that I stuck through them. Thumbs up.
- Delays: These are clear and well executed. Adjusting delay parameters in real time on any effects unit is bound to produce some nasty digital crap, although the EFX is perhaps a little more unsociable in this department than most.
- Flange & Chorus: I thought more could be made of these, since there's not too much in the way of stereo movement, and you have to give all the presets a tweak to get something really interesting or peculiar going on.
- Resonator: It's not on every multi‑effects unit that you see a resonator, and this algorithm should be a selling point. The resonator is like a tuned DDL and comes in very handy for sound creation. If you're trying to emulate the favourite bits of a sound track from your Eastern European animation collection, the resonator is well worth investigating. You hit a snare and the results are like someone falling into a grand piano. There are enough resonator patches to be able to switch between them via MIDI, to keep the resonator in tune with your music.
- Rotary: The rotary effects are perfectly serviceable, and you can switch between two speeds using the footswitch or a controller message.
- Combination Effects: Patches 60‑83 are combination effects arranged either in series or parallel (hit the FX Type key to find out the status). Delay/Reverb, Chorus/Reverb and Chorus/Delay are the pairings on offer, and are a great way for effects‑starved studios to make the most of their resources.
I love effects units: I firmly believe that you can never have enough of them, so I approached the EFX100 with an upbeat attitude. I'd heard many good reports about Viscount's previous efforts — sure, they were budget, no‑frills machines, but they had been hailed as good value for the money. Times change, though, and I feel that the budget effects market is crowded enough for a sub‑£200 price tag not to be as much of a selling point in itself as it used to be (see 'Budget Boxes' panel). For me the clean signal path, parameter adjusters, the novelty of the resonator and the 100 user patches give the EFX allure, but I would hesitate to recommend it as a second effects unit to a studio owner accustomed to a higher level of editing and a more robust input stage, as the limitations of a budget unit such as this may be a little frustrating after a short period of time. However, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the EFX100 to a first‑time effects buyer, for its many useful patches, ease of use, and tidy MIDI spec.
The sub‑£200 market has a few more players in it than you might have thought. Recommended retail prices start from £90, with the market competitive enough for those prices to be a little flexible on the street, I should imagine. Worth a mention is Viscount's own EFX10 which, at £199.99, has got to be worth a second look.
- Alesis Nanoverb
(reviewed August 1996)
- ART FX1
(reviewed December 1996)
- DOD 512
(reviewed October 1996)
- Peavey Deltafex
(reviewed January 1997)
- Viscount EFX10
(reviewed September 1996)
- Viscount Gammaverb
(as yet unreviewed)
- Zoom 1201
(reviewed September 1997)
- Zoom 1204
(reviewed October 1996)
- Low noise in the output stage.
- Very easy to operate.
- Useful combination effects.
- Quite easy to drive input stage into distortion.
- Effects, even for the price, can lack class and imagination.
A worthwhile addition to a small setup needing its first multi‑effects unit. The actual algorithms are workmanlike rather than sparkling, but a creditable MIDI spec, a useful array of effects and combination effects, and a 'reach out and grab it' user interface make the EFX100 worth a look.