Monday, 5 January 2015

Reverb Units part 1: Alesis MicroVerb

Despite a reputation for the stomach-churning low end bass sounds that the Minibrute and Microbrute can produce, both are capable monosynths in their own right for fluttery leads, clean arpeggios, sequenced runs and all sorts. In fact, I really enjoy using the MiniBrute to simulate CS80 leads for Vangelis-like synths. The only thing I find fault with is the flat, mono output; it doesn't really sit well in a mix or if you're just jamming. In fact, what the world needs is more reverb.

I did already have a unit that added reverb and delay effects - the Korg Mini KP2 effects unit, with its bold red and black colours, petite desk footprint and XY pad to control parameters. However, it needs a 3.5mm jack to 5.25mm jack input converter, which does at times get in the way of other cables and in general I didn't find the small number of reverb plugins as satisfying to use as I wanted. Add to this the fact that I didn't want to tie up a very capable little device solely for reverb or delay when I could use it for phasers and the like for my Volcas, I knew I had to get something else.

This is a story of discovery, a better understanding of power requirements and generally how I ended up with an answer to my lack of reverb.

So what did I do? I went to Gumtree of course, where I managed to pick up an old Alesis Microverb unit up for about £15 - missing a power supply, of course. This is a strange device as it is exactly 1/3 AU sized and is designed to be connected to two other Alesis units with the shaped fins of the case and added to a rack unit. I've seen noise gates, echo, limiters and some others in the same series and can be picked up fairly cheaply, but their size mean that they are perfect to have on the road too. As the photo shows, the Microverb is a pretty basic digital reverb unit, with 16 separate reverb profiles, input and output levels and a wet/dry mix level. If all I need is something that would give me dedicated stereo reverb without tying up my Mini KP2, this would fit the job perfectly.

As for the back of the unit, it's a straightforward affair - left and right inputs and outputs in quarter inch jack format, as well as a separate foot pedal input jack to bypass the unit entirely. I can see why this might have been useful for guitar players.

It's at this point that I started looking into power requirements for this unit. As smart as it looks, I was never going to get anything out of it without a supply. A look at the back of the unit gives me some of an idea of what I'm looking for - a 9V AC supply, but I had no idea what the plug itself was. None of my standard jacks for my Maplin switch mode power supplies would fit and as is typical for rarer or lesser-used items, an AC supply was going to cost me over £20 to source via Maplin.

With a bit more research, it turns out that this unit and several others from this period of manufacture actually use 3.5mm audio jacks as power supply tips. This does make sense as AC supplies are not polarised, but either way it does seem to be a strange format of jack to use for power. Some of my dad's older switch-mode supplies come with tips for this standard, but at a cost that they are huge-sized transformers and completely over the top for what I need. 

Luckily, I was able to find and buy a replacement power supply with a variety of tips (including the one I need and for a fraction of Maplin's costs at CPC online item code PW02815), I was able to verify that the unit actually turns on and works, with a smart tri-colour LED that indicates power and signal in volume. If you try to overload the input signal, the light turns yellow to indicate loud input and red to indicate clipping, which is helpful indeed. In adjusting the input knob, I did notice that it is a little scratching in operation (perhaps the only negative part of this machine's moving parts) but given that you only really need to set and adjust this once, it's a compromise I am sure I can live with.

So, now that the Microverb works, what does it sound like? For a budget effects unit, it really packs a punch and delivers some quick, no frills reverb that seriously beefs up the sound of a Microbrute lead or even Volca Bass pattern. The mix function in particular is useful for turning a lead sound into am ethereal quasi-pad sound with some of the longer reverb profiles. Even the shorter ones could be quite useful for adding some short, gated effect to a snare or tom for that classic 80s pop sound.

In general I couldn't be happier with this unit. Yes, it doesn't really have any kind of adjustable parameters to speak of and runs off a weird power supply, but damn it if this doesn't give you go-to, useful reverb in a small box that is easily portable and gives you what you need quickly - especially at the price I paid (about £30 once I sourced a replacement power supply).

Speaking of price; from what I can tell on Ebay, there are a few of these available but at some seriously over-inflated prices. The MicroVerb was always a machine to cater to the budget end of the market as a digital alternative to expensive analogue units and of course there are certainly better digital reverb units that can be had in Alesis' own product line (let alone other manufacturers) for the cost of some of these second-hand MicroVerbs. If you see one for cheap, do check if it comes with a working power supply first. Even if it doesn't, replacements can still be found, though if you are outside of the UK check your local electronics supplier for something similar.

Stay tuned for more adventures in reverb units, coming soon.