Lexicon 960L

Jun 1, 2001 12:00 PM, BY LARRY THE O

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Lexicon's 960L multichannel digital effects system is the long-awaited successor to the flagship of Lexicon's line, the now-venerable 480L. The 960L features extensive surround capabilities, up to 96kHz sample rate, a fancy new remote head, digital I/O, and more processing power and growth potential in its thumbnail than an SUV crammed full of Lexicon's old 224s and EMT 250s. The unit also incorporates new algorithms resulting from the latest research of Lexicon chief scientist David Griesinger (inventor and longtime primary architect of Lexicon's reverbs) as implemented and extended by senior software engineer Michael Carnes.

THE LAYOUT

The 960L ships with a single DSP card filling one of the mainframe chassis' four slots. Since the release of Version 2 software in January 2001, the 960L has been capable of hosting an optional second card, which doubles the available processing and allows cascading of machines between the cards. Software upgrades for the 960L are installed using the CD-ROM drive also found hiding behind the front panel. Accessible on the chassis' front panel (even when closed) are a Standby button and indicator, and a 3.5-inch floppy drive (remember them?) for offloading user presets.

The rear panel is somewhat more populated, being dominated by five module slots. Three slots are used for audio I/O (eight channels per card) and one for synchronization and control. There are three audio modules: balanced analog input (eight channels on XLR connectors), balanced analog output (eight channels also on XLR) and AES/EBU (eight channels). Each DSP card provides up to eight channels of processing, so the stock 960L supports eight channels of I/O at a time (any combination of analog and digital), and the optional second DSP card supports another eight. Version 2.20 software, which was in my review unit, supports up to 16 channels of I/O, but the only way to have 16 discrete channels is to install two AES cards. Fortunately, it is easy to split inputs and combine outputs between machines.

The control module contains MIDI in, out and thru; wordclock in, out and thru; and two Remote connectors for LARC2 remote heads. Only one head is necessary to control the 960L, but two could be useful in large film mixes, especially when there are two cards in the mainframe and four or more machines running. The fifth slot is currently unused and could be employed for either an audio or control card in the future. Finally, there is a mysterious, blank Option panel to the right of the slots, behind which lie even more expansion capabilities.

The rear panel also holds the IEC power connector and, unfortunately, the power switch — not my ideal choice, but the front panel Standby mode helps. This is also Lexicon's first hint that the mainframe is intended to reside in a machine room. The second hint would be the enclosed 50-foot cable that connects the mainframe to the LARC2. (The mainframe supports cables up to 100 feet, but use of an external power supply plugged into the back of the LARC2 enables cables up to 1,000 feet to be driven.) The final clue is the rather noisy fan situated on the rear panel.

Back in the control room, at the other end of the long cable, is the LARC2 remote. The LARC2 houses eight touch-sensitive, motorized faders, a joystick, and buttons, buttons, buttons: 10-key pad, arrows, increment/decrement, seven mode buttons (Program, Register, Bank, Store, Edit, Control, Machine), Enter button, eight “soft” buttons (known as the “V-Page”), two mutes (Mute Machine and Mute All), two enables (joystick and Fine Adjust) and a big fat Compare button bearing the company's name.

Above the row of soft buttons lies the 2.25×6-inch color LCD and, above that, three LEDs per input to show signal present, -6dB below full-scale and overload. The LARC2's rear panel sports a contrast knob for the LCD, aux port for a PS2 keyboard (used for naming and commenting presets), the host port for the control cable going to the mainframe, external power for those extended runs, Reset button (resets the LARC2 only) and strain relief for the external power cable.

Roughly half of the display's screen area serves dedicated purposes, while the center area changes according to the operation being performed. The bottom of the display always shows the current functions of the soft buttons, with the parameter names and values for the faders immediately above. The top of the screen shows, on the left, the active mode or parameter and, on the right, the program running on the machine being edited. Color-coding is used extensively to differentiate and highlight.

On the upper right, just below the program name, is a status area with indicators for the system (sample rate, clock source, clock lock), machine (number of the currently selected machine, configuration in effect, global or program-determined mix, and I/O) and joystick. The joystick area features an X/Y field showing the joystick's positions; the joystick must be enabled to have any effect, so both the physical location and the last active position of the joystick are shown. To the left of this are two fields with labels and values for the two parameters assigned to the X and Y axes.

THE SOFTWARE

Because my review unit contained one DSP card, all of my comments will pertain to that configuration, except where noted otherwise.

The 960L can be run at sample rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2 or 96 kHz. As with other digital audio devices, running at the higher sample rates takes twice the processing power, halving the available resources.

As mentioned earlier, the unit operates as two or more machines, depending on which configuration is running. At 44.1 or 48 kHz, there are nine available configurations: four 2-in/2-out reverbs, one 5-in/5-out and one 2-in/5-out, two 2-in/5-out, two 4-in/4-out, Stereo Cascade 1 (four stereo reverbs with reverb 1 feeding reverb 2, while reverbs 3 and 4 remain simple 2-in/2-out), Stereo Cascade 2 (four stereo reverbs with 1 feeding 2, and 3 feeding 4), 5-in Cascade (a 5-in/5-out feeding another 5-in/5-out), a 4-in Cascade (like the 5-in Cascade but with four channel reverbs) and, finally, four 1-in/2-out reverbs. There is also an 8-in/8-out configuration for diagnostic use.

When running at 88.2 or 96 kHz, there are six configurations (plus the diagnostic one) available, essentially one-half of each of the other configs: two 2-in/2-out, one 5-in/5-out, one 2-in/5-out, one 4-in/4-out, a Stereo Cascade (a 2-in/2-out feeding another) and two 1-in/2-out reverbs.

Selecting a configuration is easy: Enter Control mode by pressing that mode button, then press the Configs button on the V-Page. The display shows a list of available configurations on the left and a graphic illustration of the highlighted configuration to its right. A small comments area below the list gives a little extra detail about the highlighted configuration.

With a configuration selected, you'll then want to choose which machine to edit. Naturally, you'll press the Machine button. Unlike the 480L, which only had two machines to toggle between, the 960L's ability to run up to four machines (up to eight with a second DSP card) requires that you step through a list by successive presses of the Machine button, the up and down arrow keys, the increment/decrement buttons or use the shortcut of pressing the machine number; nearly every function has an equivalent shortcut. Just as the top line of the display reflects each mode button you push, the currently selected machine is shown in large letters as you step through the list with the program it is running shown to the right. The list shows complete detail for each machine, including the category and name of the program it is running, mix and I/O settings, mute status and reverb configuration.

Having chosen a machine, it is time to pick a preset. The Register button takes you to the 100 internal user preset banks (each bank holds 10 presets) stored on an internal hard disk or the 10 user banks that can be stored on a floppy.

The Program button takes you to the factory presets. There are 12 banks of Programs: two of Halls plus a Stage+Hall, one of Chambers plus a Stage+Chamber, one of Rooms, two of Plates, one Ambience, one Wild Spaces and two of Programs designed for post-production use (mostly small spaces). There are versions of all the Programs for each configuration, and the versions you see are always the appropriate ones for the configuration of the machine you are working with. If you are choosing a preset for a 2-in/2-out machine, then surround versions will not be displayed.

In Register or Program mode, the banks are shown in a list on the left and the contents of the highlighted bank are shown in a list to its right. The left and right arrow keys navigate between the two lists, and each list has a comments field below it. Again, with a shortcut, programs can be loaded 480-style; that is, Bank button, #, Program button, #. For Registers, you can enter comments in either of these fields, which is where the PS2 keyboard port comes in. It is possible to edit names and comments using the LARC2's arrow and increment/decrement keys, but if you've spent $15k for this reverb, you'd be nuts not to spend another $15 for a keyboard.

At last, it is time to edit the parameters of the algorithm. The easiest editing is using the V-Page assignments. Moving a fader activates it and changes the parameter value. When critical adjustment is needed, pressing the Fine Adjust button increases the fader resolution, though it appears not to increase the parameter resolution; the steps between parameter settings remain the same, but it takes more fader motion to traverse them.

With the 224, I liked that the fast motion of the fader scrolled through larger increments of the value, while slow movement kicked it into a high-resolution mode. That feature disappeared with the 480, and I'm still not sure why.

Because you don't want the joystick position to override the program you just loaded, the Joystick button must be pressed to make the joystick active. Aside from obvious panning applications, the joystick affords a host of fascinating algorithm parameter editing possibilities. For instance, many of the Programs assign Lexicon's familiar Shape and Spread parameters to the joystick.

Any algorithm parameter, input level or output level can be assigned to a fader or joystick axis for V-Page access simply by pressing the Edit button and then the V-Page button, which brings up the list of assignments. Touch a fader and its assignment is selected.

Pressing the Algorithm button while in the Edit mode brings up the full parameter matrix. The Surround Hall, as an example, is a surround version of the 480's famous Random Hall and features eight pages of parameters, half of which deal with diffused delay paths that travel between every combination of L, R, LS and RS. As you step from page to page, the faders are reassigned to the parameters of that page. Thus, every parameter can be edited with a fader.

INPUTS/OUTPUTS

Although the signal flow is edited via the choice of a configuration from the list on the Control/Config page, each logical input and output to or from each machine can be mapped to any physical input or output. Inputs that are split or outputs that are summed are indicated with an “S” after the input or output number to indicate that it is “shared.”

Each input and output can also be individually panned, not through channels but on axes; that is, an output from a 4- or 5-channel surround reverb can be panned along L/R and F/B axes, while a stereo output is panned only along a L/R axis. The panning parameters are reached by pressing the Inputs or Outputs button in the Edit mode. I would prefer if there were a way to reach this feature directly from the input/output assignments on the Config page.

This panning capability essentially creates a very useful separation of physical I/O from logical I/O. In effect, the inputs are no longer L/C/R/LS/RS, but simply five inputs that can be placed anywhere, and similarly with the outputs. Of course, any of these panning functions can be performed with the joystick.

The LED input indicators above the display are useful but could hardly be called informative, so Lexicon has included a Meters page in the Control mode, which provides high-resolution, plasma-style metering for the inputs. The meters can be set to one of three modes: Peak, Peak Hold and Peak Decay. In addition to level, each meter shows the input source and features an overload indicator that actually displays the number of samples exceeding -0.5 dB. There is also a DSP overload indicator on the side. It would be nice to be able to show output levels on the meters and have a shortcut that toggles from any screen to this one and back for quick level checks.

THE REVERB IN USE

For my evaluation of the 960L, I threw a number of sources at it: drums, vocals, guitar and vibes, individually and in a mix.

To get straight to the point, the 960L is the densest, smoothest, most spacious and pleasing-sounding reverb I have ever heard. Lexicon has always excelled with the naturalness of their reverb, and the 960L is certainly a major step further in that direction. Although I turn to other brands of reverb for some of my more “effect-y” and “pop” reverb needs, I admit to a long-standing partiality toward Lexicon's reverbs for natural sounds.

The 960's literature talks extensively about the new algorithms centering around 3DPM: 3-D perceptual modeling, which is built around the idea that digitally modeling acoustical spaces does not provide the most pleasing aural results or accurately reflect the attributes that make genuine reverberation so immersive. Instead of room simulation, Griesinger concentrated on the perceptual attributes that make up good reverberation and has attempted to simulate and manipulate those.

A key aspect of 3DPM is that the 960L's surround reverb algorithms are highly uncorrelated; that is, there is virtually no material that emanates identically from more than one speaker. Lexicon claims a variety of benefits from this, most especially that moving out of the “sweet spot” does not cause Haas effect to take over, thus causing the whole surround field to essentially collapse into the nearest speaker. To check this, I got up from my chair and moved around within the circle of the speakers while listening to the 960L. To my ears, there is a great deal of validity in Lexicon's statements, and it seemed to me that the reverberant field maintained an even sense of envelopment until my position became extreme, i.e., I got very close to an individual speaker. The 3DPM did seem to give a more realistic feel and conveyed a greater sense of integrity.

Although it is true that there is still much for me to learn about the use of true multichannel reverb (especially the panned, diffused delays), it is equally true that my first listen to the 960's surround algorithms gave me the same thrill I got when I first heard digital reverberation from the original 224. It's not just the surround algorithms, either. Although the surround reverbs are richer and have a more immersive sense of spatialization, the stereo reverbs are also greatly improved over earlier units.

The drums produced no perceptible flutter until I reached the most extreme of contorted settings. Even Hall algorithms sounded good on the drums (though obviously not as good as Chamber, Room and Plate algorithms). Similarly, the vibes, a source with pretty pure tone, did not excite any resonant ringing, as they do with many digital reverberators, even in the tail of fairly long decays. The sound was airy and open.

There was one other intriguing discovery worth mention: In pop music uses, especially rock, I frequently need to reduce low-frequency reverb decay a disproportionate amount relative to the HF decay to get rid of muddiness — especially on drums, but also frequently on vocals. This seemed to be the case much less often with the 960's surround algorithms. This might have something to do with the low frequencies emanating from a wider area than the two speakers I'm used to, but, once I noticed it, I focused more on the tricks I usually use to maintain clarity in a mix and felt they were less necessary with the 960L. Whatever the explanation, it left that much less tweaking for me to get the reverb sitting right in a thick mix.

Though the difference between 48 kHz and 96 kHz is subtle, I would be most inclined to run the 960L at 96 kHz with source material at that rate being fed through the reverb digitally. The real benefit of 96 kHz might be more obvious with the delay effects introduced in Version 2.5, which is expected to ship in July.

CONTROL ISSUES

As ecstatic as the sound left me, I do have some issues with the use of the LARC2 and the ways control is achieved on the 960L. Let's start with the display.

Designers are inevitably confronted with the trade-off of power vs. ease of use. In terms of a display, this translates to whether to show more information or keep it simple. Lexicon has chosen the former approach.

When all else is equal, I tend to agree with this approach, but because displays are costly and space-consuming, all else is almost never equal. In the LARC2, the result is that the only way to cram all of the information they wish to show onto the small LCD is to put much of it in a font so tiny that legibility falls off at more than a couple feet. Granted, what Lexicon considers the most important operational information is displayed in bigger fonts, but adjusting the 960L requires that full attention be given over to the LARC2, which is less than optimal if you are making a simple tweak during a high-pressure film mix.

Compounding this is the LARC2's sensitivity to viewing angle. No matter how I adjusted the contrast on the display, if I leaned too far in any direction, the display was illegible.

I also can't help feeling that the LARC2 is being hugely underused right now. A joystick and touch-sensitive motorized faders present wonderful capabilities for tactile control and automation, yet there is no automation capability of any sort on the 960L. I thought at first, that given the company's background they might accomplish this through MIDI, but the MIDI implementation is quite minimal.

In fact, the 960's MIDI implementation does exactly one thing: respond to program changes. And it uses or reserves all 16 channels to do that. To be fair, I know Lexicon is aware of the market demand for SMPTE automation, and I would guess, with this unit's built-in “growth potential,” that it is now a high priority.

Perhaps Lexicon thinks MIDI is not an in-demand feature for high-end users of the 960L, and that may be right when it comes to post-production houses. However, that may not be the case when it comes to music recording. When a top-shelf, high-priced unit like this includes MIDI connectors, it is reasonable to expect more extensive implementation for those who do want to use it.

IN CONCLUSION

Now that I have gushed over the 960's sound and questioned Lexicon for some aspects of control, I must make a few things clear: First of all, sound is more important, hands down. Although I expect a lot in the way of usability from the priciest game in town, purchase decisions for a device like this hinge on sound.

Second, the user interface as it exists is generally quite logical and, although it could use a few more shortcuts, is quick to get around after a pretty short period of acclimation.

Third, Lexicon touts the 960L as a growth platform, and that has been demonstrated with the very significant improvements of the Version 2 software. As you read this, Lexicon should be shipping V.2.5, which adds multichannel delay effects and completes the suite of 96kHz reverbs. I'm sure I'm not the only one calling for automation capabilities, and I am given to understand we are likely to see that added sooner rather than later. With the company's reputation for upgrades, I am confident that these improvements will be forthcoming.

There are many exciting places Lexicon could take the 960L. A number of facilities are being built right now incorporating Fibre Channel and SAN networks. One 960L with a FireWire or Fibre Channel interface could feed a multiroom facility. Just a thought. And with that much DSP power, I could even imagine multiband compression sometime in the future.

Though there are several fine surround reverberators appearing on the market, I do not believe any sound better than the 960L. The possibilities for growth in the 960L are very exciting, and, for the high-end production facility, the 960L is plainly a wise investment that will audibly raise the quality of every project that comes through.

Lexicon, 3 Oak Park, Bedford, MA 01730-1441; 781/280-0300; fax 781/280-0490; www.lexicon.com.


Larry the O is a producer, engineer and sound designer.






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