TC Electronic FireworX

Stereo effects processor

TC Electronic FireworX Stereo effects processor

Review by George Shilling

I was intrigued.

A couple of die-hard analogue-loving colleagues were salivating over some new equipment. I presumed it was another valve compressor or somesuch.

But no, they were thirsting for this new tc box. Surely those Danish digital boffins hadn't gone all analogue?

Not a chance. Their interest was aroused because this latest offering brings to a digital world treatments that were previously thought exclusive to obscure crackly old boxes from the 1970s. Wonderful effects such as vocoding and ring modulation, which are great, but difficult to do properly with the current crop of multi-fx boxes, and hard to track down in original form. Not only that, but press releases mentioned fantastic unheard-of effects such as fractal noise generator and aliaser.

The FireworX looks similar to other recent tc units. It occupies a 1U case with the familiar large-ish green LCD screen on the front panel. Despite my one-man campaign for better legibility on studio equipment the multitudinous grey and black buttons are graced with tiny white lettering, the only colour provided by LEDs. Three continuous-type knobs grace the right-hand side, one intriguingly labelled Alpha Mod and accompanied by a row of LEDs.

Over on the left are a couple of small knobs for input and output level - I like this a lot: if you want to tweak the level, you don't want to do this via a menu. However they will not completely kill the signal, having only a 32dB range of tweakage. A dual row of LEDs are provided for input level metering, but, strangely, an Overflow light situated below them blinked occasionally when input level was around -12 to -6dB, and occasionally glitching was audible.

There are physical similarities with the Finalizer Plus model, such as a PC memory card slot on the front panel. The entire back panel looks identical. Stereo analogue inputs and outputs appear on XLR connectors. Digital inputs and outputs appear on optical connectors for ADAT or S/PDIF, XLRs for AES/EBU and phono sockets for S/PDIF. Internal resolution, A/D and D/A converters are all 24 bit. The digital In and Out levels can be trimmed here, (useful to stop the Overflow flashing). There is a Sync In phono socket for Word Clock, MIDI In/Out/Thru and a mono jack socket for external control.

An IEC mains socket is happy with voltages from 100-240V, and a rocker mains switch is provided in addition to the 'soft' standby switch on the front. System navigation is fairly intuitive. Left and Right arrow keys select different menus within each display section, and a Parameter wheel moves the cursor while the Value wheel adjusts the selected parameter. Two hundred Presets are included, all numbered and named, and are found by pressing Recall and scrolling through with the Value wheel. When you see what you want, you simply press Enter. Presets make use of one or more of the twelve effects 'Blocks'. One useful feature is the ability to apply a 'Filter' when searching for a particular type of effect.

The user chooses one of the twelve effect types, and only presets which include that particular Block will be available. This system is simple and more practical than some of the more complex 'keyword' search menus found on other units. The Alpha Mod wheel is much like the Lexicon PCM80/90's Adjust knob. Each preset can include one or more settings patched to the wheel and therefore instantly adjustable, a description of its function appearing with each Preset. The row of LEDs gives an indication of the current setting. Storing edited presets is simple: just press Store then Enter to utilise the next free User space. Two hundred spaces are available internally; a standard PCMCIA card will hold 999 User Presets.

The twelve basic effects 'Blocks' each have a corresponding key with LED on the front panel, much like the Lexicon MPX1. These effect Blocks comprise: Dynamics, which includes compression and gating; Filter, all sorts including one sub-algorithm which emulates a phaser with a sweeping notch filter; Formant, variations on the wah-wah theme, with other vowels and diphthongs achievable; Distortion, Drive resembles amplifier distortion, with unusual Body and Smasher parameters, whilst Crunch performs aliasing and quantizing simultaneously, making use of uniquely 'digital' types of distortion, Vocoder is impressive, this Block including Ring Modulator, both effects including useful filter parameters; Synth, which contains curve, chaos and noise generators - useful for example as carrier input to the Vocoder block controlled by MIDI; Pitch, which can generate two high quality harmonizers with a range of +/-2400 cents; Chorus/Flanger with all the parameters you would expect plus a few unusual ones such as LFO Phase and Golden Ratio; Delay, which has available up to six taps, plus a wacky Reverse algorithm; Reverbs are varied and of high quality; Pan/Tremolo includes a pseudo-surround effect using phase shifts; finally, the EQ Block includes a five-band parametric and a four band 'modulateable' parametric. Active Blocks' keys are lit, but may be defeated by a single press, or edited by a quick double-hit. This takes you to a list of parameters which are available by scrolling the Parameter wheel.

There are usually many more parameters than can be seen on the screen at one time, but the familiar tc vertical scrolling system is used. It is enhanced on this unit by the display of a little bar on the left, much like a PC's scrolling bar, to show you how far down the list you are. A Tempo key can be tapped to provide in-time delays, auto-wah-wah, etc., and this can be set globally or pertain to each individual preset. MIDI Clock can be used to set this.

The I/O Setup Menu comprises four main pages where, for example, you can switch between -10 and +4dB operation. You can select whether a Word Clock input controls the digital clock, and switch Dither options. Individual ADAT tracks can be selected for the Optical input and output. A comprehensive MIDI setup page is accessed from here, with multitudinous options available. A Utility menu contains odds and ends such as Viewing Angle and MIDI dump, although you would expect the latter to come under the MIDI menu. A Card page contains functions pertaining to the memory card capability. If you want to rearrange Blocks or create your own presets, the next port of call is the Routing page, accessed from the Effects key. Here you can choose your effects blocks. From each of the aforementioned Block types you can choose from up to six 'Sub-Algorithms'.

For example, under the Dynamics heading you can choose Compressor, Compressor/Limiter or Gate/Expander. On the Routing page you can insert Blocks and Route them in various ways, using an 8 rows by 8 columns matrix. You are not always limited to one Block of each type. For example you could have a Compressor and a Gate/Expander, although you can only have one type of Distortion in a setup. Parallel or Serial routing can be used, and one Feedback Send and one Feedback Return can be inserted as Blocks. Also available are external Insert Loop Send and Return which enable you to use redundant rear panel connections (selected from the I/O page) to hook up another device in the chain. Each Block can have its own In/Out settings to choose whether it takes its input from Left, Right or Both, and how the Output is mixed. This is a bit of a faff as you have Wet, Dry or Mix, where the Mix parameter is set up on yet another menu page. Each Block can also be assigned one of five Mute modes.

The Layout page is a list of options to change the grid size and move, insert or delete rows or columns. The possibilities of 'getting your knickers in a twist' are endless... Another page, the Tool page, shows you as a percentage how much DSP power the current setup is using. Some of the sub-algorithms can use 25% or more of the available DSP power, so there is a limit to the combinations you can have. The Edit menu displays your effects blocks in a much neater way than the Routing page, and you can see at a glance what is going where. The Tool menu gives you a list of choices as to what is displayed in the Edit menu on each Block such as little level meters or the percentage of DSP power used. Pressing the Mod key brings you to the Modifier display which initially consists of three main menus: Matrix, Modifier and Dials. There are further sub-menus, but hang in there... There are up to nine 'External' modifiers available: these are Ext. 1-8 plus the Alpha Mod wheel. External controls can be MIDI controllers or the external jack input using a pedal or the tc Digital Master Fader.

The Matrix page allows you to select one of these or an internal Modifier such as an LFO, ADSR, Envelope Follower, etc. Then you can scroll down a list of available parameters from the current preset and choose what to control. Not all parameters are available: it depends on the Sub-Algorithms used. When you have alighted on a parameter that takes your fancy, pressing Enter takes you to a Link page. Here, a number of parameters control the curve determining the relationship, and a setting controls Glide Time. Phew! This is stuff for dedicated boffins only. Undeniably, some interesting possibilities are available, but it would take some time before I felt confident enough of navigating my way around all these various menus and sub-menus to start fiddling with this at someone else's expense. The hours could easily turn into days...!

After a short lie-down, I felt my brain had recovered enough from Modifiers, Matrixes and Glide Slopes (isn't that something pilots use?) to actually try out some of the effects. A quick whizz-through gives the impression that this machine is heir to the wonderful Eventide H3000D/SE, with a measure of the infuriating complexity of the DSP4000 thrown in. Plenty of imaginative unusual wah-wah, flangey and over-the-top effects are contained within the presets. Remixers and ambient specialists will have a whale of a time with some of the outlandish effects contained within, several of which made me laugh out loud! There are also plenty of high-quality 'useable daily' effects. One marvellous rarely-found feature is the ability to generate 'true-stereo' reverbs and other effects. Your stereo positioning will be apparent on the reverb returns if you use a stereo send and pan it appropriately between the inputs. However, It becomes apparent as you select various Presets that there are varying degrees of 'dry' signal mixed in with some of them. Each effect Block has its own signal mix setting 0-100% wet, as well as a choice of Dry, Wet or Mix output mode. So if you have the unit conventionally attached to your mixer's sends and returns, you will always want 100% wet at the Outputs, but will not always get it with the supplied presets. You must then faff and fiddle with the menus and edit the necessary settings, which is not entirely straightforward, requiring several button pushes. It baffles me why manufacturers do this. Answers on a postcard please...

The review model came with a preliminary manual, but an insert promises a proper manual will be forwarded after the guarantee card is received. I think this is a bit naughty: they should have finished writing the manual before shipping units. Despite some niggles I really liked this unit. The major irritation is the mix settings contained in the presets. Apart from that, I loved it. There is inevitably something a bit 'shiny' about the sound which is inherent in a digital unit, and I missed some of the warmth of analogue processing. Inevitably, digital processing is subject to a delay, and this is increased if an external loop is inserted, so care with phase is needed when assembling effects. However, the sheer variety and quality of the effects make the FireworX very good value, and perhaps in the future a Plus version might improve operation.

Reproduced with kind permission from Copyright ©

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