Alesis ModFX Hands-On Review
October 17, 2003
Ground-breaking new effects at affordable prices? Sounds like an oxymoron, but it's true!
When somebody tells you about some awesome new effect they've heard, you usually think about a piece of equipment that sounds incredible, but carries a hefty price tag, as well. This usually leads to a quick check of your last credit card statement, just to see how close you are to the absolute limit.
Well, I'm happy to report that the product designers at Alesis - the company that introduced the world's first affordable digital reverb, digital multitrack and 64-voice synth - have come up with some totally mind-blowing effects that also happen to have a mind-blowing low sticker price!
The rationale was so simple, you really have to wonder why nobody thought of it before: Why make a musician pay for effects they don't need? Introducing the ModFX modules, great-sounding digital effects with a list price of just $129. And no, that's no misprint. What's more, your Sweetwater price will be even lower.
All of the ModFX modules have link ports on either side which allow multiple units to be connected together as a chain with no patch cords. Audio is passed along as a lossless 24-bit digital signal. Okay, so that's pretty revolutionary to start with, but once you hear the sounds, you'll probably ask "How the heck did they pack all that signal processing in that little box at such a low price?"
Now I'm not complaining, but auditioning all seven of these little guys was no small task. There is an enormous amount of sound processing available from each of these cool-looking metal modules (each topped with a colorful plastic silkscreened control panel), and discovering all their sonic capabilities was no small task. In truth, each one of them deserves their own column, but at a week per effect, it would take almost two months of "Tech Notes Online" to fit them all in. So just as I did in my Sweet Notes column, I'm combining them all into one feature.
Aside from their cute names - a few of which are a bit corny (Phlngr and Philtre), while others are great (Bitrman, Smashup and Metavox) - most of the ModFX units have a full featured, synth style modulation section, typically with multiple LFO waveshapes, sample and hold, triggered envelopes, envelope followers and random pattern generators. Modulations can be matched to your music's tempo using the audio beat sync capability!
The pattern mod is especially cool, because it's a 16-step repeating sequence with slew per step. The step levels and the slew are generated randomly each time you turn the ModFX on or press the Mod Reset button. It's almost like getting an infinite supply of inspiration every time you hit that button. On second thought, forget the "almost" part - it actually is an infinite supply of inspiration!
Okay, here's where we take a quick look at each ModFX unit.
As the name suggests, these are amplitude effects. You might think tremolo and autopan, while quite useful, are not normally thought of as being terribly inspiring. But when you take each effect and combine them, you create amazingly intricate spatial patterns with your audio. Both effects can be synchronized to each other, as well as to an incoming signal. With a little tweaking, you can also get great vintage guitar amp tremolo sounds that vary from that cool Fender throb to the Vox wobble. Wow!
This little beast offers no less than five flange types, with two of them having non traditional stereo movement (contrary and asynchronous). What makes this box so very different from pretty much any other flangers is the modulation section: When was the last time you heard a flanger shape that had a 16-step randomly generated pattern synchronized to the beat of your audio input? Most flangers out there are a bit too tame for my taste, but this one offers up all the screaming harmonics and over-the-top "barfy" tone you could ever ask for. I can hear all the other manufacturers scrambling even now, trying to duplicate this sound. Whew!
Everything I just wrote about Phlngr applies here, though the sound of each unit is totally unique. We've all heard tons of phasers before, but typically the modulation is via a simple triangle wave LFO. Yawn. In contrast, here the extra modulation types are what make the effect so rich and dramatic. What's more, there is a "Center" control you can sweep to find the spot where your phasing is most complex, plus a Regeneration knob. Whoa!
This is a wonderful multimode, resonant filter that switches between 2-pole and 8-pole via the Steep button. The 8-pole filter is very unusual and near impossible to describe, while the 2-pole filter evokes that sweet old Oberheim multimode filter. I wrote a piece of music back in the 1970s using my Oberheim module to create a random filter pattern while I played my Strat, and it was so awesome, I almost landed a soundtrack gig off that sound alone (but that's a story for another day). After I sold the Oberheim, I was never able to recreate that effect - until now! Grab a knob and start twisting - it's great fun, and the Pattern Mod is especially cool. Whoo!
If someone told you that you could buy a 38-band hardware Vocorder for $129 list. You'd say, "No way." Yet here it is, and thanks to its 38 bands, it's very intelligible. You can also add in a bit of noise to help recreate a bit of sibilance. The input gain is robust enough that it can handle a dynamic mic and there's an internal synthesis source onboard or you can use your own carrier. But the internal oscillators are very tasty. You can sweep their frequencies down into LFO range or use them with the modulation section and beat sync. I usually find vocorders to be sort of boring after a while, but Metavox allows you to explore some pretty interesting sonic territory, and with a little experimentation, you'll find all sorts of amazing timbres. Shazam!
Each onboard compression type has its own ratio, knee and other characteristics, some of which were modeled after classic compressors. For example the Opto type reacts very much like an LA 2A. Okay, you don't get all that gorgeous Class A sound quality (or the astronomic price tag, either), but Smashup actually sounds light years better than its list price would indicate thanks to some analog modeling, which captures the harmonic distortion characteristics of real vacuum tubes. Okay, if you want to get technical, this one's not really a modulation effect, but still . . . uh, yippee??
While this one wasn't my personal favorite, it could be exactly what your music requires. It's a collection of nasty grungifying effects: Decimator, Bit Reducer, FM, Ring Mod and Frequency Shifter effects plus a Comb Filter, Dual Phaser, Distortion, and Compression thrown in to boot.
The user interface is a little different on this box, as it allows you to change the order of the effects in your chain. For example, configuration "1,2,3,B" has the Compressor, followed by Distortion, followed by the Phaser, followed by the Bitrness effect (which is a selection of any one of the other effects I mentioned). If you pay attention to the labeling on the top panel, it's pretty easy to get around. If your digital audio sounds just a bit too squeaky clean, Bitrman will definitely dirty it up for you. Again, not really a mod effect, but still a whole lot of sonic firepower for a tiny bit of cash.
Hack Attack. Here's the freaky hack that I mentioned in Sweet Notes. You'll need both the Faze and Smashup modules. Now Faze actually has enough resonance that it verges on self oscillation. If it's excited by a transient signal, it makes a faint tone after the pop. So, set up the Faze box with the Pattern modulation engaged (for transient generation) and run that through Smashup. The compressor will amplify the pops into sounding like an analog beat box kick drum. But get this: The compressor will also raise the noise floor so that it sounds like a hat / snare pattern! It's very cool and vintage sounding. Hit Reset Mod on Faze to change to a new drum pattern.
Here's a step-by-step guide:
» Freaky Hack 1 532 Kb
» Freaky Hack 2 413 Kb
- Connect the Faze output Modlink to the Smashup input Modlink.
- Connect the Smashup audio outputs to your line level mixer or amplifier
input. The input to the Faze unit does not need to be connected.
- Select Faze Type "Liquid Metal". Others will work too, but this one's
- Select "Pattern/Tempo Sync" for your Modulation. Although "Tempo Sync" is not required, it seems to make the groove more solid when it is
- Make sure the flashing tempo light is at a usable tempo. Use the "Tap
Tempo" button to adjust it if it is not.
- Set the "Center" knob to 12:00. Turning it counter clockwise biases the
pattern toward kicks, while turning it clockwise biases the pattern toward
snares and hats. Turn slowly to experiment.
- Set the "Regen" knob to 12:00. Adding positive or negative regeneration will change the timbre and add sustain to the drums. Turn slowly to experiment.
- Set the "Rate" knob to 12:00. This sets the Pattern to 16th notes
against the quarter note flashing tempo light.
- Turn the "Depth" all the way up. This give maximum amplitude to the
transients generated by the Pattern modulation.
- Select Smashup Type "Opto" or "Pump". These produce the beefiest kicks.
- Turn "Sizzle" on (on the Smashup module) - it helps make the drums sound more defined.
- Turn the "Output" knob up first to adjust the overall volume to taste.
- For a nice punchy drum sound, set the "Threshold" to 9:00, "Attack" to 12:00, and "Release" to 3:00, but you can experiment freely here.
I know: Promises, promises. They are in the works, folks, but we got so many requests for additional information on these seven heavenly effects modules that we wanted to post the text right away. Okay, I'll admit I also took a break and spent a week in Baja. There, I've come clean! I took a vacation! Hang in there and check back early next week and I will try to have the audio files finished and posted.
Before signing off . . . First off, a huge Sweetwater round of applause to Alesis for continuing to build affordable gear that sounds fantastic. On a personal note, I want to thank Taiho Yamada, the Alesis Director of Sound Development, for not only keeping me in the loop regarding upcoming new products, but also helping me figure out how to use them.
On the Sweetwater side, I want to thank Chuck Surack for giving me the opportunity to contribute to Sweet Notes for close to 12 years now, and Adam Cohen, our VP of Marketing for his support and for pulling things together to get my online column up and running. And finally, many thanks to Mike Clem, Sweetwater's Director of Internet Development, for knocking himself out on this project.
Questions, comments, rants, suggestions and any other form of correspondence can be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.