Classic Zoom Guitar and Studio Effects of the Early 1990s

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 8 December 2015 |



Despite the love/hate reaction that Zoom effects tended to provoke when they stormed the market from the start of the 1990s, I think they’re a fascinating example of music tech marketing at its boldest and most audacious. As writers get more experienced, they begin to think twice about cliches such as “stormed the market”… Like, did these products actually storm the market, or were they simply launched/released? Well, in the case of Zoom, no matter how many times one ponders the issue, “stormed” is always going to be the correct term...

This post augments existing articles I’ve added relating to the 9002 processor of 1989/1990, and the Zoom 9001 of 1992, but widens out the view to take in more of the context for these effects, as well as introducing classic products like the 9030, the 9000, and the 5000 Driver.

THE ZOOM DEBATE

There were four basic spokes to the Zoom debate…

  • On paper, extremely good tech spec for the price and hence great value.
  • Typically innovative design, but often an argument that the innovation was less than useful, or lay in areas which didn’t really matter to the consumer.
  • Very high levels of hype, which probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, but were a risk at the time, given expectations within the industry and the delight some reviewers would take in comprehensively dismantling exaggerated claims.
  • In practice (as opposed to ‘on paper’), a sound that was often regarded as over-processed and did not have universal appeal.

It was the perceived disparity between the on-paper spec and the actual results that caused most of the contradiction, and Zoom’s gushing self-praise probably added to the general sense of bewilderment. This is not to say that the units were poor – they definitely weren’t. And early Zoom units were no strangers to the top three placings in dealer feedback bestseller charts, so they were clearly an extremely popular buy. It’s just that when seasoned FX users went through each effect asking: “Is that my favourite distortion?”, “Is that my favourite chorus?”; the answer was usually quite a forthright: “No.

One of the key problems with Zoom in their initial phase was that the company seemed to be trying to out-’eighties the ’eighties. As I saw it, they continued to develop their effects as if tastes and trends were not changing – as if musicians wanted to do what they were doing in 1987, but more so, and with bells on. Zoom were not by any means alone in this respect. It took the whole industry years to catch up with the thinking of musical creatives, who were going back to basics by the start of the ‘90s, and really looking for retro simulations and ways to improve their foundation sound, rather than the obvious Hey! Here’s a chorus effect!” of the previous decade.

If you flip through magazines of the early ‘90s, you notice that in ’92 it’s mainly just ‘boutique’ gear that’s going “back to the future” (as Fender later put it). But by ’93 there’s been a marked epiphany, and suddenly manufacturers are saying...

“Whoa!… This sirens and rocket-boost quadruple-warp chorus stuff is all shit! No one wants it!!… Let’s cover everything in cream tolex and strip literally all the features out!”

Zoom themselves, indeed, would shift towards a back-to-basics approach for 1993, with their 5000 Driver stomp box. More on which later…

THE ZOOM 9030



So, we’re about to enter the wonderful world of 1992… What’s going on with Zoom? Well the picture at the start of the year is summed up nicely by the ad above. It’s an interesting ad (assembled in 1991), because it still features the strap-mount Zoom 9002 guitar processor, which was imminently to be superseded by the Zoom 9000. You’ll see that the 9002 is described in the ad as “the hottest guitar product in the world”. Remember what I was saying about hype?…

There’s also the ‘class-leading’ Zoom 9010, which was an expensive (£1199 plus VAT) studio FX unit in full rack-mount format. Virtually none of the consumer-focused (as opposed to pro-supplies) dealers advertised the Zoom 9010. I’m not sure exactly why, but I suspect it was simply that they didn’t envisage selling many of them, and thought they’d be better off dedicating the premium space to something else.

Headlining the Zoom ad, though, is the combination setup of 1991’s 9030 processor and companion 8050 foot controller. The two units were priced separately. Officially, in the UK, the 9030 retailed at £449 without VAT, and the 8050 retailed at £144.95 – again, without VAT. The highest tax-inclusive retail price I could find for the 9030 in a real sales situation was £527. I also found a £525 for the 9030 only, and a £695 for the 9030/8050 combo. The more competitive retailers would sell the 9030 alone at around £495, but if you wanted or needed the pedals, this was not a cheap setup.

Prices did fairly rapidly come down, and by summer 1992 the half-rack-sized 9030 was available new at £449 including VAT. There was a noticeable glut of 9030s hitting the secondhand columns by that time too, and it seems from the balance of S/H ads that a lot of musicians did buy the pedals. By 1993, Soho Soundhouse were doing a special deal of £299 on brand new 9030s. A vast drop on the original £525. Reading between the lines, it seems at least some consumers didn’t find this unit quite as impressive as its marketing led them to imagine.

The 9030 incorporated no fewer than 47 effects, arranged into 9 application-targeted virtual modules. Up to 7 separate effects could be used simultaneously. The effects themselves were typically Zoom in character – highly competent, but not necessarily highly seductive. The presets could often have a rather ‘science lab’ aura to them – or, as Eddie Allen put it in his detailed 1991 review for Guitarist magazine, they could be “about as much use as a snorkel with a cork in it”.

I thought that review was right on the nail. Eddie admitted that the distortion effects were technically good, but said that “on their own they generally tend to sound sterile”, and he also described them as “a trifle starchy and contrived”. I believe this complaint was in large part down to Zoom’s behind-the-curve vision of what musicians wanted. Five years earlier, the distortion sounds would probably have been better received, but in 1992, guitarists were after an altogether more earthy and natural feel.

Eddie did, however, go on to say that “the 9030 looks unbeatable as a home recordist’s multi-processor” – because of the way the effects seemed to have been engineered to replicate sounds as they appeared on record. This made for an instant compatibility between the unit’s output and a band mix. That was a good point. Normally a producer will have to craft the sound that comes out of a live amp, so it fits into its own space in the mix and doesn’t intrude on other instruments. The Zoom’s patches were kind of pre-crafted, and therefore easy to integrate. They might, however, sound thin or lacking in substance in a live band situation, because there, that sort of processing and sculpting is not required or expected.

THE ZOOM 9000



The 9000 Guitar Processor was Zoom’s fanfare introduction for early 1992, essentially replacing the strap-mount 9002, which had made its debut a couple of years earlier. The 9000 was a much less expensive option than the 9030, retail priced at £260, including VAT and the dedicated FC01 foot controller. You did, however, officially have to fork out extra if you wanted the mains adaptor. Otherwise you’d be running the 9000 on batteries, with VERY limited battery life.

Some of the claims in the unit’s original advert (shown above) were stretching reality to its very limits – and that’s an incredibly polite way of putting it. But this type of OTT marketing was evidently working for Zoom, and in fairness, you were getting a hell of a lot for the money.

Whilst Zoom seemed to want to cite a big difference between the 9000 processor and its predecessor the 9002, the only important changes as far as I could see were in the physical format and the price. The effects processing sounded very similar, and the idea of retaining analogue circuitry for the compression and overdrive/distortion elements (whilst the rest of the unit was digital) had persisted. Even though Zoom had dropped the strap-mount idea, I still thought the design of the 9000 was a bit pants, too toy-orientated, not very reassuring…


Above: With an even lower list price of £249, the Zoom 9001 was a home-studio-targeted variant on the 9000, released in the same format, but focusing its digital processing power on studio-style processing rather than specifically the guitar. There were in fact no electric guitar patches, but acoustic guitars and basses were catered for, along with pianos, keyboards/organs, vocals, drums, etc.

The 9000 did fare well in reviews, but I’m sure the price (at the time extremely low for a guitar multi-FX unit with 21 decent quality effects, from which 5 simultaneous options could be selected) helped smooth over a few potential gripes. There were little sweeteners too, like the built-in tuner and the amp simulator. Reviewers could not really get tough on a product that gave such a complete and competent solution for such a remarkable price.

The Zoom 9000 was one of those units that just got everywhere. You couldn’t walk into a guitar shop without being instantly reminded of its presence. Some stores had cited its predecessor the 9002 as their outright multi-FX bestseller for pretty much its entire tenure on the market, so it was inevitable that the considerably cheaper 9000 would be piled high and thrown into the consumer’s face at every turn. These were massively, massively popular in their day, and unlike with the 9030, retailers would rarely reduce their prices.



In fact, arguably, the 9000s increased in price in the year or so after introduction, although it was sometimes difficult to tell exactly which packages dealers were advertising. As I mentioned, the power supply was originally a separate item, but the 9000 was subsequently repackaged to include a mains adaptor (whilst also being visually modified) and billed as the 9000S. This had a higher list price than the original 9000, but some dealers still referred to it as the Zoom 9000. You can see the 9000S depicted above, in an ad from early 1993.

THE ZOOM 5000 DRIVER

The Zoom 5000 Driver (or Driver 5000) was Zoom’s epiphany. The realisation that multi-FX in their late 1980s format were out, and that guitarists were now looking for ways to produce a much clearer and less cluttered sound. One of the ways in which FX manufacturers could still muscle in on this scene was to offer variable simulations of amplifier types, and pay greater attention to the territory of direct-injection recording. Combine this with extensive overdrive and distortion control, and there was still much scope to create drooling among guitarists.



This was the area into which Zoom were moving with their very sturdy and reassuringly-built metal-cased 5000 pedal. The unit did have competition from products like the Tech 21 Sansamp, the Hughes and Kettner Tubeman and the Sessionmaster AW10, but it undeniably had its own attraction, and was a concept that I think has stood the test of time much better than Zoom's earlier guitar effects.

According to The Guitar Magazine during the review period in late winter 1993, the 5000’s retail price was £179, but according to Guitarist, the retail price was £199.

Regardless of which of those figures was accurate, boxes like this were a licence to print money, because amp simulation was highly desirable, yet cheap to implement. It wasn't like digital delay in the early '80s, or digital reverb in the mid '80s - where the processing chips were horrendously expensive and the manufacturers were having to cover massive supply overheads as well as their R&D. Amp sim is essentially EQ. So all you're really doing is hiring someone who knows how to filter or boost key frequencies in the right way to emulate amp setups, then hardwiring those cuts and boosts into selections within the device. The electronics aren't costly, and it really doesn't take a massive amount of research or development to approximate the sonic properties of a (notably non-specific) amp setup. This was merely a distortion pedal with RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) EQ options. A very well-made one, but approaching two hundred quid? There must have been a huge profit margin in that somewhere along the line.

CONCLUSION

I suspect that of all the effects units released between 1990 and 1993, the Zooms had one of the higher disappointment factors among consumers. That was in no way because they were the worst products. Some of the rubbish bestowed upon the market by rivals over that period was awful, and I can find no review of any Zoom effect that ever accused the product of being less than competent. I used them myself too, and I know very well that they did offer good value, and there was nothing actually wrong with them.

But these early Zoom effects were hyped in such a cavalier fashion, and many of Zoom's claims of world-beating status turned out to be self-fulfilling prophecies in sales terms - which kind of drove the rhetoric even harder. The collective of that phenomenal hype was almost impossible for even a good effects unit to live up to, so I think, ultimately, that the company's own over-enthusiastic hype ended up tainting the brand to an extent. Didn't stop me becoming a repeat customer though, so maybe Zoom's "Best thing in the world EVER!" approach to marketing was the right one all along.

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