Lexicon's 960L multichannel digital effects system is thelong-awaited successor to the flagship of Lexicon's line, thenow-venerable 480L. The 960L features extensive surroundcapabilities, up to 96kHz sample rate, a fancy new remote head,digital I/O, and more processing power and growth potential in itsthumbnail than an SUV crammed full of Lexicon's old 224s and EMT250s. The unit also incorporates new algorithms resulting from thelatest research of Lexicon chief scientist David Griesinger(inventor and longtime primary architect of Lexicon's reverbs) asimplemented and extended by senior software engineer MichaelCarnes.
The 960L ships with a single DSP card filling one of themainframe chassis' four slots. Since the release of Version 2software in January 2001, the 960L has been capable of hosting anoptional second card, which doubles the available processing andallows cascading of machines between the cards. Software upgradesfor the 960L are installed using the CD-ROM drive also found hidingbehind the front panel. Accessible on the chassis' front panel(even when closed) are a Standby button and indicator, and a3.5-inch floppy drive (remember them?) for offloading userpresets.
The rear panel is somewhat more populated, being dominated byfive module slots. Three slots are used for audio I/O (eightchannels per card) and one for synchronization and control. Thereare three audio modules: balanced analog input (eight channels onXLR connectors), balanced analog output (eight channels also onXLR) and AES/EBU (eight channels). Each DSP card provides up toeight channels of processing, so the stock 960L supports eightchannels of I/O at a time (any combination of analog and digital),and the optional second DSP card supports another eight. Version2.20 software, which was in my review unit, supports up to 16channels of I/O, but the only way to have 16 discrete channels isto install two AES cards. Fortunately, it is easy to split inputsand 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 beuseful in large film mixes, especially when there are two cards inthe mainframe and four or more machines running. The fifth slot iscurrently unused and could be employed for either an audio orcontrol card in the future. Finally, there is a mysterious, blankOption panel to the right of the slots, behind which lie even moreexpansion capabilities.
The rear panel also holds the IEC power connector and,unfortunately, the power switch — not my ideal choice, butthe front panel Standby mode helps. This is also Lexicon's firsthint that the mainframe is intended to reside in a machine room.The second hint would be the enclosed 50-foot cable that connectsthe mainframe to the LARC2. (The mainframe supports cables up to100 feet, but use of an external power supply plugged into the backof the LARC2 enables cables up to 1,000 feet to be driven.) Thefinal clue is the rather noisy fan situated on the rear panel.
Back in the control room, at the other end of the long cable, isthe LARC2 remote. The LARC2 houses eight touch-sensitive, motorizedfaders, 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”), twomutes (Mute Machine and Mute All), two enables (joystick and FineAdjust) and a big fat Compare button bearing the company'sname.
Above the row of soft buttons lies the 2.25×6-inch colorLCD and, above that, three LEDs per input to show signal present,-6dB below full-scale and overload. The LARC2's rear panel sports acontrast knob for the LCD, aux port for a PS2 keyboard (used fornaming and commenting presets), the host port for the control cablegoing to the mainframe, external power for those extended runs,Reset button (resets the LARC2 only) and strain relief for theexternal power cable.
Roughly half of the display's screen area serves dedicatedpurposes, while the center area changes according to the operationbeing performed. The bottom of the display always shows the currentfunctions of the soft buttons, with the parameter names and valuesfor the faders immediately above. The top of the screen shows, onthe left, the active mode or parameter and, on the right, theprogram running on the machine being edited. Color-coding is usedextensively to differentiate and highlight.
On the upper right, just below the program name, is a statusarea 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 thejoystick's positions; the joystick must be enabled to have anyeffect, so both the physical location and the last active positionof the joystick are shown. To the left of this are two fields withlabels and values for the two parameters assigned to the X and Yaxes.
Because my review unit contained one DSP card, all of mycomments will pertain to that configuration, except where notedotherwise.
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 samplerates takes twice the processing power, halving the availableresources.
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 reverb2, while reverbs 3 and 4 remain simple 2-in/2-out), Stereo Cascade2 (four stereo reverbs with 1 feeding 2, and 3 feeding 4), 5-inCascade (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 configurationfor diagnostic use.
When running at 88.2 or 96 kHz, there are six configurations(plus the diagnostic one) available, essentially one-half of eachof the other configs: two 2-in/2-out, one 5-in/5-out, one2-in/5-out, one 4-in/4-out, a Stereo Cascade (a 2-in/2-out feedinganother) and two 1-in/2-out reverbs.
Selecting a configuration is easy: Enter Control mode bypressing that mode button, then press the Configs button on theV-Page. The display shows a list of available configurations on theleft and a graphic illustration of the highlighted configuration toits right. A small comments area below the list gives a littleextra detail about the highlighted configuration.
With a configuration selected, you'll then want to choose whichmachine to edit. Naturally, you'll press the Machine button. Unlikethe 480L, which only had two machines to toggle between, the 960L'sability to run up to four machines (up to eight with a second DSPcard) requires that you step through a list by successive pressesof the Machine button, the up and down arrow keys, theincrement/decrement buttons or use the shortcut of pressing themachine number; nearly every function has an equivalent shortcut.Just as the top line of the display reflects each mode button youpush, the currently selected machine is shown in large letters asyou step through the list with the program it is running shown tothe right. The list shows complete detail for each machine,including the category and name of the program it is running, mixand I/O settings, mute status and reverb configuration.
Having chosen a machine, it is time to pick a preset. TheRegister button takes you to the 100 internal user preset banks(each bank holds 10 presets) stored on an internal hard disk or the10 user banks that can be stored on a floppy.
The Program button takes you to the factory presets. There are12 banks of Programs: two of Halls plus a Stage+Hall, one ofChambers plus a Stage+Chamber, one of Rooms, two of Plates, oneAmbience, one Wild Spaces and two of Programs designed forpost-production use (mostly small spaces). There are versions ofall the Programs for each configuration, and the versions you seeare always the appropriate ones for the configuration of themachine you are working with. If you are choosing a preset for a2-in/2-out machine, then surround versions will not bedisplayed.
In Register or Program mode, the banks are shown in a list onthe left and the contents of the highlighted bank are shown in alist to its right. The left and right arrow keys navigate betweenthe two lists, and each list has a comments field below it. Again,with a shortcut, programs can be loaded 480-style; that is, Bankbutton, #, Program button, #. For Registers, you can enter commentsin either of these fields, which is where the PS2 keyboard portcomes in. It is possible to edit names and comments using theLARC2'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 akeyboard.
At last, it is time to edit the parameters of the algorithm. Theeasiest editing is using the V-Page assignments. Moving a faderactivates it and changes the parameter value. When criticaladjustment is needed, pressing the Fine Adjust button increases thefader resolution, though it appears not to increase the parameterresolution; 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 scrolledthrough larger increments of the value, while slow movement kickedit into a high-resolution mode. That feature disappeared with the480, and I'm still not sure why.
Because you don't want the joystick position to override theprogram you just loaded, the Joystick button must be pressed tomake the joystick active. Aside from obvious panning applications,the joystick affords a host of fascinating algorithm parameterediting possibilities. For instance, many of the Programs assignLexicon's familiar Shape and Spread parameters to the joystick.
Any algorithm parameter, input level or output level can beassigned to a fader or joystick axis for V-Page access simply bypressing the Edit button and then the V-Page button, which bringsup the list of assignments. Touch a fader and its assignment isselected.
Pressing the Algorithm button while in the Edit mode brings upthe full parameter matrix. The Surround Hall, as an example, is asurround version of the 480's famous Random Hall and features eightpages of parameters, half of which deal with diffused delay pathsthat travel between every combination of L, R, LS and RS. As youstep from page to page, the faders are reassigned to the parametersof that page. Thus, every parameter can be edited with a fader.
Although the signal flow is edited via the choice of aconfiguration from the list on the Control/Config page, eachlogical input and output to or from each machine can be mapped toany physical input or output. Inputs that are split or outputs thatare summed are indicated with an “S” after the input oroutput number to indicate that it is “shared.”
Each input and output can also be individually panned, notthrough channels but on axes; that is, an output from a 4- or5-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 panningparameters are reached by pressing the Inputs or Outputs button inthe Edit mode. I would prefer if there were a way to reach thisfeature directly from the input/output assignments on the Configpage.
This panning capability essentially creates a very usefulseparation of physical I/O from logical I/O. In effect, the inputsare no longer L/C/R/LS/RS, but simply five inputs that can beplaced anywhere, and similarly with the outputs. Of course, any ofthese panning functions can be performed with the joystick.
The LED input indicators above the display are useful but couldhardly be called informative, so Lexicon has included a Meters pagein the Control mode, which provides high-resolution, plasma-stylemetering for the inputs. The meters can be set to one of threemodes: Peak, Peak Hold and Peak Decay. In addition to level, eachmeter shows the input source and features an overload indicatorthat actually displays the number of samples exceeding -0.5 dB.There is also a DSP overload indicator on the side. It would benice to be able to show output levels on the meters and have ashortcut that toggles from any screen to this one and back forquick level checks.
THE REVERB IN USE
For my evaluation of the 960L, I threw a number of sources atit: 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 everheard. Lexicon has always excelled with the naturalness of theirreverb, and the 960L is certainly a major step further in thatdirection. Although I turn to other brands of reverb for some of mymore “effect-y” and “pop” reverb needs, Iadmit to a long-standing partiality toward Lexicon's reverbs fornatural sounds.
The 960's literature talks extensively about the new algorithmscentering around 3DPM: 3-D perceptual modeling, which is builtaround the idea that digitally modeling acoustical spaces does notprovide the most pleasing aural results or accurately reflect theattributes that make genuine reverberation so immersive. Instead ofroom simulation, Griesinger concentrated on the perceptualattributes that make up good reverberation and has attempted tosimulate and manipulate those.
A key aspect of 3DPM is that the 960L's surround reverbalgorithms are highly uncorrelated; that is, there is virtually nomaterial that emanates identically from more than one speaker.Lexicon claims a variety of benefits from this, most especiallythat moving out of the “sweet spot” does not cause Haaseffect to take over, thus causing the whole surround field toessentially collapse into the nearest speaker. To check this, I gotup from my chair and moved around within the circle of the speakerswhile listening to the 960L. To my ears, there is a great deal ofvalidity in Lexicon's statements, and it seemed to me that thereverberant field maintained an even sense of envelopment until myposition became extreme, i.e., I got very close to an individualspeaker. The 3DPM did seem to give a more realistic feel andconveyed a greater sense of integrity.
Although it is true that there is still much for me to learnabout the use of true multichannel reverb (especially the panned,diffused delays), it is equally true that my first listen to the960's surround algorithms gave me the same thrill I got when Ifirst heard digital reverberation from the original 224. It's notjust the surround algorithms, either. Although the surround reverbsare richer and have a more immersive sense of spatialization, thestereo reverbs are also greatly improved over earlier units.
The drums produced no perceptible flutter until I reached themost extreme of contorted settings. Even Hall algorithms soundedgood on the drums (though obviously not as good as Chamber, Roomand Plate algorithms). Similarly, the vibes, a source with prettypure tone, did not excite any resonant ringing, as they do withmany 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 popmusic uses, especially rock, I frequently need to reducelow-frequency reverb decay a disproportionate amount relative tothe HF decay to get rid of muddiness — especially on drums,but also frequently on vocals. This seemed to be the case much lessoften with the 960's surround algorithms. This might have somethingto do with the low frequencies emanating from a wider area than thetwo speakers I'm used to, but, once I noticed it, I focused more onthe tricks I usually use to maintain clarity in a mix and felt theywere less necessary with the 960L. Whatever the explanation, itleft that much less tweaking for me to get the reverb sitting rightin a thick mix.
Though the difference between 48 kHz and 96 kHz is subtle, Iwould be most inclined to run the 960L at 96 kHz with sourcematerial at that rate being fed through the reverb digitally. Thereal benefit of 96 kHz might be more obvious with the delay effectsintroduced in Version 2.5, which is expected to ship in July.
As ecstatic as the sound left me, I do have some issues with theuse 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 powervs. ease of use. In terms of a display, this translates to whetherto show more information or keep it simple. Lexicon has chosen theformer approach.
When all else is equal, I tend to agree with this approach, butbecause displays are costly and space-consuming, all else is almostnever equal. In the LARC2, the result is that the only way to cramall of the information they wish to show onto the small LCD is toput much of it in a font so tiny that legibility falls off at morethan a couple feet. Granted, what Lexicon considers the mostimportant operational information is displayed in bigger fonts, butadjusting the 960L requires that full attention be given over tothe LARC2, which is less than optimal if you are making a simpletweak during a high-pressure film mix.
Compounding this is the LARC2's sensitivity to viewing angle. Nomatter how I adjusted the contrast on the display, if I leaned toofar in any direction, the display was illegible.
I also can't help feeling that the LARC2 is being hugelyunderused right now. A joystick and touch-sensitive motorizedfaders present wonderful capabilities for tactile control andautomation, yet there is no automation capability of any sort onthe 960L. I thought at first, that given the company's backgroundthey might accomplish this through MIDI, but the MIDIimplementation 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 channelsto do that. To be fair, I know Lexicon is aware of the marketdemand for SMPTE automation, and I would guess, with this unit'sbuilt-in “growth potential,” that it is now a highpriority.
Perhaps Lexicon thinks MIDI is not an in-demand feature forhigh-end users of the 960L, and that may be right when it comes topost-production houses. However, that may not be the case when itcomes to music recording. When a top-shelf, high-priced unit likethis includes MIDI connectors, it is reasonable to expect moreextensive implementation for those who do want to use it.
Now that I have gushed over the 960's sound and questionedLexicon for some aspects of control, I must make a few thingsclear: First of all, sound is more important, hands down. AlthoughI expect a lot in the way of usability from the priciest game intown, purchase decisions for a device like this hinge on sound.
Second, the user interface as it exists is generally quitelogical and, although it could use a few more shortcuts, is quickto get around after a pretty short period of acclimation.
Third, Lexicon touts the 960L as a growth platform, and that hasbeen demonstrated with the very significant improvements of theVersion 2 software. As you read this, Lexicon should be shippingV.2.5, which adds multichannel delay effects and completes thesuite of 96kHz reverbs. I'm sure I'm not the only one calling forautomation capabilities, and I am given to understand we are likelyto see that added sooner rather than later. With the company'sreputation for upgrades, I am confident that these improvementswill be forthcoming.
There are many exciting places Lexicon could take the 960L. Anumber of facilities are being built right now incorporating FibreChannel and SAN networks. One 960L with a FireWire or Fibre Channelinterface could feed a multiroom facility. Just a thought. And withthat much DSP power, I could even imagine multiband compressionsometime in the future.
Though there are several fine surround reverberators appearingon the market, I do not believe any sound better than the 960L. Thepossibilities for growth in the 960L are very exciting, and, forthe high-end production facility, the 960L is plainly a wiseinvestment that will audibly raise the quality of every projectthat comes through.
Lexicon, 3 Oak Park, Bedford, MA 01730-1441; 781/280-0300; fax781/280-0490; www.lexicon.com.
Larry the O is a producer, engineer and sound designer.