Paul White finds that Zoom's entry‑level, sub‑£100 effects box has hidden depths.
I still remember my first digital reverberation unit — it arrived in the early '80s, it sported four mono‑only presets, and it sounded like a physical model of a Nissen hut, but it was still an object of wonder. In those days, 8‑track open‑reel was the height of home recording opulence, and a good machine plus a decent mixer would cost about the same as a small car. Now we have desktop audio with MIDI, automation, effects, and Beavis and Butthead screensavers, all for little more than the cost of a respectable mountain bike. Continuing in the 'more for less' tradition, Zoom have just come out with a digital effects unit for under £100, yet it's no toy — the 1201 is a rackmount stereo processor with 44.1kHz sampling, 18‑bit oversampling converters and an on‑board repertoire of 363 preset effects and effect combinations, each of which has one adjustable main parameter. There's no MIDI, no programming and virtually no manual. Everything you need to know comes in an 8‑page pamphlet plus a patch list, only four pages of which deal with the actual operation of the machine.
In addition to the usual reverb, modulation, pitch‑shift and delay effects, there are also more contemporary processes for grunging up vocals or samples, ring modulation for torturing over‑polite sounds, and even an 18‑band vocoder. In view of the very attractive price, I'll turn a blind eye (or should that be a deaf ear?) to the Karaoke setting, designed to allow you to transpose backing tracks and eliminate vocals from a record.
Presented as a fairly conventional 1U rack processor, the 1201 is powered by the inevitable external PSU — though at least it's included in the price. Cost has been kept down by not painting the rear panel, so the socket legending is engraved into the plated steel, which makes it quite impossible to see except under very favourable lighting conditions. At this price, however, I'm prepared to rub some wax pencil into the indentations and live with it! The unit has stereo ins and outs on quarter‑inch jacks, plus a further jack for an optional bypass footswitch — good news for live performers.
Given the sub‑£100 price, the effects quality is extraordinary.
The front‑panel control section follows the familiar format, whereby one rotary switch is used to select the 11 effects types and another is used to select 11 variations on those effects. A three‑position slide switch then provides three different banks of effects types — hence the rather weird number of presets. Conventional knobs are used for setting the input, mix and output levels, and the input metering is taken care of by a single dual‑colour LED that glows green in normal conditions and turns red when the input jack is seeing too much of a good thing. All the effect types for the first bank are printed around the control, while the remaining two banks are printed out below the Zoom logo for quick reference. A further knob allows either the reverb decay (in the case of straight reverb effects) or other key effect parameter to be controlled, and this varies depending on what preset is called up.
Bank A is comprised entirely of reverbs, though a few contain an element of panning to provide movement. The patches are roughly grouped into Halls, Rooms, Plates, Vocal, Ambience, Dimension (these are the panning reverbs, along with some mono‑to‑stereo simulation patches), Percussion, Ensemble, Power, Gate and Reverse. Each type has 11 variants selected by the Character/Variants knob, and the Adjust control regulates the reverb decay time.
Bank B is concerned mainly with delay and modulation treatments, and the effect pairs separated by a '/' sign on the front panel are true dual effects, where each input feeds a separate stereo effect. The effect stereo outs are, of course, summed at the outputs. Modulation effects are mainly chorus and flanging, often in combination with a series‑connected reverb.
Bank C is where the terrain gets a little less familiar, though it starts off reassuringly enough with pitch‑shifting in 11 steps, from mild detuning, through thirds, fourths and fifths, to a full octave above or below the source pitch. Next come phasers and tremolo/pan effects, but then things get more interesting, with a delay that has pitch‑shifting in the feedback loop for those spiralling arpeggios. Auto Filter is an envelope‑sensitive resonant filter idea for creating techno or analogue synth‑style effects, where the Variation switch selects different types of resonance and sweep direction. Ring modulation is next in line, and comes with a built‑in delay, plus feedback to help you really capitalise on the weirdness. The Adjust switch sets the modulation frequency, but as ring modulation produces sum and difference frequencies while suppressing the fundamental, don't expect the results to be particularly melodic.
Unusually for an effects box, let alone one of this price, there's a whole section devoted to making signals sound lo‑fi, presumably for use in dance and similar related music styles. Here we're treated to telephone impressions, AM radio, record surface noise, and noisy delays. I don't know about you, but I've still got some old effects boxes that manage all this without ever intending to! Vocal distortion is the thrust of the next section, and offers three different distortion types, either dry or combined with modulation and delay. Then, all of a sudden, we're back on safer ground with a Rotary speaker simulation, including variable overdrive, before the Vocoder rears its head. This can be used on its own or with chorus and/or distortion, and you can have 18‑ or 10‑band vocoding where the instrument or carrier signal goes into the left input and an amplified mic (the modulator) goes into the right. There are slow‑ and fast‑attack versions of this effect.
Finally comes Karaoke, which not only shifts the pitch of a record by up to +/‑ five semitones, but also attempts to remove the vocal track by a combination of phase cancellation and filtering. This is not to be encouraged!
Why is it that the people who build these things just can't seem to get it into their heads that knobs attached to rotary switches need a marker line down the side of the knob, not just across the top? That minor criticism aside, this unit is just about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. As you might expect, all the standard effects work well enough (getting a good delay or chorus sound shouldn't really challenge the designers), but the reverbs are also surprisingly good, with clearly defined types and characters. Considering that any budget unit is limited in the amount of processing power it can throw at a reverb algorithm, the 1201 manages to produce the full spectrum of reverb types, including some quite convincing short ambience treatments for that 'busking in an empty classroom' feel.
This unit is just about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
The presence of resonant filters is novel on such a cost‑effective unit, and though there isn't a lot of variety, they work well and produce a useable range of sweep and modulated filter effects. Similarly, the ring modulator is a great bonus, and unlike some units, which try to fake the effect by modulating filters or VCAs, this one sounds thoroughly convincing, from Dalek voices through to cosmic static. I also found the vocal distortion treatments more useful than I initially thought I would, especially as some also seem to include an element of filtering. Those old enough to remember King Crimson's first album can have great fun replicating the vocal sound for '21st Century Schizoid Man'!
The lo‑fi effects are a bit of a mixed bag, with some sounding really authentic, while others sound just like filtered noise added to the original sound. The record surface noise is reasonably good, as are some of the lo‑fi echoes, but as a self‑confessed member of the old school recording fraternity, I can't quite bring myself to use them! The vocoder is altogether better and has a few nice variations, though there's a fine line between giving it enough mic level and overloading it. Perhaps using this effect with a compressed mic signal might produce more controllable results.
Though preset‑based units are sometimes frustratingly intractable when you want to modify an effect slightly, they do offer the benefit of immediacy, and with 363 presets, there's plenty to chew on. Given the sub‑£100 price, the effects quality is extraordinary, and though the spec sheet pointedly omits any noise figures, I didn't find noise a problem. The reverbs are both good and varied, the 'vanilla' effects based on delay and modulation are flexible enough for most routine jobs, and the more off‑the‑wall effects are quite inspiring, with the vocoder section being particularly good. Indeed, it would be worth the asking price just for the vocoder. The lo‑fi and distorted treatments are going to appeal to the dance music maestros more than most other users, and out of respect for what really is a remarkable bargain, I'm not even going to attempt to describe the Karaoke function. This unit is so much fun to play with that it's worth buying one even if you don't think you need one!
- Incredibly cheap.
- Good selection of effects, both conventional and more adventurous.
- Vocoder is particularly good.
- No knob line markers.
- Virtually invisible rear‑panel legend.
- No — I can't complain about the external PSU at this price!
This is the most entry‑level of entry‑level units as far as price is concerned, but the effects are so useable, and to such a generally high standard, that I can envisage a lot of serious musicians buying one.