The Zoom Studio 1201 and Predecessors

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 24 December 2011
Zoom Studio 1201 FX processor
The Zoom Studio 1201 Multi-FX

Looking back through the vast array of musical tools bestowed upon the market through the years, there have been some pretty off-the-wall and wacky offerings. Who could forget, for example, Q-Logic’s MIDI Metro ‘visual metronome’ of 1990 – essentially a flashing light (well, a flashing series of lights) which cost £239? I remember being unshakeably baffled when reading the review in October ’90, and not quite knowing if the reviewer was being sarcastic when he said other manufacturers would be kicking themselves for not thinking of the idea first.

Early introductions from Zoom struck me similarly, A guitar processor designed to clip onto a guitar strap (Zoom’s debut 9002 processor from the cusp of the ‘80s/’90s)? Why would I want a guitar processor on my guitar strap?…

The answer, in case you’re wondering, was that I wouldn’t, and I proceeded to take very little notice of Zoom until September 1992, when I saw a review for the 9001 studio FX in Home & Studio Recording magazine. Priced at £249 (£100 less than the 9002 upon launch), the 9001 looked like a toy, so when I started reading, the last thing I envisaged was that I’d end up actually buying one. But at the time, I was struggling to get an easily recordable sound from my Vox Continental II organ, so when I read that the 9001 had a dedicated organ mode, with what was described as a convincing Leslie effect, I started to look very carefully at what else the box did.

Stupid as it looked, the more I investigated the 9001, the more interested I became. I really liked the idea of its pre-programmed modes designed for plug and play use with specific instruments. For example, acoustic piano was something I’d record a lot in ’92, so the promise of an easy algorithm for exactly that purpose greatly appealed to me. There was nothing else on the market for less than £250 that promised what the 9001 promised, so, despite hating the look, and hating the brand name, I took the excellent review at face value and made my way to the shops.

The 9001 wasn’t bad, but I felt the quality of the effects fell well short of those in my Boss ME-5, and the Zoom was definitely pretty boisterous in terms of hiss. It did all the right things, but there always seemed an underlying air of, I don’t know… ‘plastickiness’ about the way it did them. That said, I did use the Leslie effect a lot, and sometimes even used it in preference to the built-in digital Leslie on my Hammond XB-2.

The Zoom’s rotary wasn’t that convincing in today’s terms, but it was certainly no less so than the one on the original XB-2, and it was impressive for the early ‘90s. You could even speed it up and slow it down, with the bass and treble elements rising and falling at different rates. But like most effects in the 9001, it seemed to me to detract from the fidelity of the original sounds. The character of the effects was generally great. The fidelity of them was more questionable. That was the impression I got with the Zoom 9001 – aside from the reverb, which did seem more 'professional' than the other effects. I made one album’s worth of recordings with the 9001, and then got rid.

I didn’t see myself buying a Zoom product in the future, but five years later, in 1997, I ran into the 1201 rack-mount studio processor. “Yeah, yeah”, I thought to myself, as I read the familiar comments about amazing quality in the reviews. By that time I was far more sceptical about what reviewers said, having learned more about how dependent some magazines were upon ad revenue, and why it was in their interests to be as positive as possible when assessing a product. Nevertheless, when I saw the price, once again I found it impossible to resist the lure of Zoom.

This was a much more professional looking device than the 9002 or 9001, coming in a standard rack format, but it cost less than £100. It majored on reverb (the whole of the first effects bank was made up of reverb variants), and whilst any decent reverb is always useful, it was the reverse reverb that interested me most. The chorus, flanger and delay effects in the second bank didn’t really get my attention, but I was particularly interested in the last of the 1201’s three banks. This was where some of the more typically Zoom wackiness was to be found, with a pitch-shifter, a phaser, a dynamic filter, ring modulation, a vocoder, and importantly for me, a rotary speaker effect. I’d missed the rotary in the 9001, and I concluded that if the 1201’s rotary was as good, it would almost be worth paying the £99 for that alone.

So, Zoom had done it again. I’d woken up one morning with absolutely no intention of buying a rack-mount processor, been introduced to the 1201, and gone back to bed that night with the notion that it was a priority purchase.

The Zoom 1201 was only a multi-effects unit in the sense that it could chop and change from one effect to another. It couldn’t produce multiple effects at the same time – unless you counted the integrated chorus+reverb or chorus+delay type patches. But it was useful, and different, and above all the high quality of the effects genuinely did belie the sub-£100 price. It was made in Japan too, which was something you wouldn't expect given the price.

The greatest tragedy is that the rotary speaker effect didn’t have any convenient way of properly switching between slow and fast rates (as could be done on the earlier 9001). And the reason it’s such a tragedy is that the effect itself was very good. You could adjust the level of overdrive, and even today it sounds great with the drive up high and my old Korg CX3 providing the raw signal. You could adjust the spin rate too – you just couldn’t preset a slow and a fast speed, then switch between the two with a natural transition.

However, the rotary was just one of many, many effects, most of which were exceptionally hard to fault given the original RRP. I particularly like the phaser on the 1201 and still use it – you can set a good depth without the circuitry stripping all the body out of the tone. And the dynamic filter is another great way to inject ‘movement’ into a static sound. Almost all the effects have huge leeway for adjustment (too much in some cases), so the 1201 certainly couldn’t be accused of being a one-trick pony.

The 1201 was far enough removed from the traditional Zoom ‘toy’ aura, not to mention sufficiently inexpensive, to make me U-turn on my previous intentions. I didn’t like the aesthetics of the early Zoom designs, and my experience with the 9001 made me feel they might have been a tad over-hyped. In a sentence, I didn’t particularly like Zoom. But as stated in the time-honoured paradigms of retail psychology, offer the consumer enough, and take the price down sufficiently low, and it don’t matter who you are, or what everyone thinks of you – you’re gonna sell gear.