I think we can safely assume that the space age is officially here. Sure, there are obvious clues like the fact that buildings and cars look a lot zippier, and once-unimaginable wireless gizmos seem as commonplace as running water. However, for musicians, the advent of the Alesis airFX, the now-famous grandson of the Theremin, drives this idea home.
MINIMALISM VS. VERSATILITY
The airFX is a 24-bit effects processor that enables the user to control effect parameters with a wave of his or her hand. This type of interface was first utilized on the Theremin, a monophonic instrument of old that uses proximity of the hands to determine pitch and volume. Instead of electromagnetic fields, the airFX uses an infrared field. A 3-D infrared beam detects motion within six inches of the sensor and translates the movement into parameter changes. Each of the 50 presets has up to three parameters assigned to various axes of the beam. For example, the Fazed Out program uses the x-axis to control phase delay, the y-axis for flange frequency changes, and the z-axis to vary the mix between the dry and wet signals.
The program number is indicated by an LED display, and the partially hemispherical beam emitter is known as the Axyz™ Controller. On the bottom of the unit, among a list of numbered programs, is a threaded socket for a standard microphone stand.
The controls are minimal, as is the I/O. A single knob on the top selects program number (00 to 49). Pressing the knob while your hand is held still in the beam will hold the selected effect in its current parameter selection. Bypass is achieved by pressing the knob with your hand clear of the beam. On the back panel are four RCA jacks — two for in, two for out.
The unit’s lack of knobs and buttons is offset by its minimalist, toy-like appearance. Picture, if you will, a club DJ hovering over turntables and the airFX, quick-reference card in hand, altering the sound with a movement that is visible to the crowd. This is the key of its desirability: It takes adjustments normally made below decks by an engineer and showcases them.
The range of effects includes many filters, phasing and flanging programs, control of panning and pitch, and a few patches that can add sounds, such as record scratching, percussion and synth tones.
The manual simply repeats the information on the quick-reference card, adding examples of how to hook it up in different situations. Invariably, it requests using the unit in series, such as directly between the synth and mixer, or between the mixer and amp, stating: “When the effect is off, the airFX still sends the ‘dry’ signal to its outputs. This may cause phase cancellation or other unwanted effects if the aux return is mixed back with the original.” Consequently, the manual recommends patching the airFX in by inserting the channel that needs processing, precluding its use on other elements in the mix.
I first played DATs through the processor; running through all the programs revealed more special effects than simple ones. I also tried it out in live broadcast situations for both live bands and avant-garde noise collages. I really enjoyed the Pitch Out program, which slows the music down and stops it as if you had used your thumb to stop a record. The filter programs are also a lot of fun, like the simple but effective Telephone patch. There are a few traditional-sounding programs, mostly in the flange/phase department. There are no programs for reverb, delay and chorusing.
After I used the airFX in a variety of situations, it became apparent that the reference card is an essential accessory, especially for checking which axis controls which parameter. It takes quite a bit of practice to use the unit for subtle effects, especially without the reference card.
ALL IN ALL
This is an excellent tool for live DJ/mixers, guaranteeing ear candy and a wowed audience. The sound quality is very good, and I found some versatility by streamlining the controls (I would have added a sensitivity knob, at least), but the simplicity of the unit will be attractive to first-time effect users. With an MSRP of $249, one can see it as a pricey toy or as an inexpensive 24-bit processor.
Alesis Studio Electronics Inc., 1633 26th Street Santa Monica, CA 90404; 800/5-ALESIS; www.alesis.com.
David Ogilvy started in radio in 1977. He later branched out to studio management, A&R, engineering and producing.