The Alesis MIDIFEX - Sound of the '80s

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 4 October 2012 |

1986. New ground has been broken. Formerly the preserve of professional studios only, high quality digital reverb has entered the amateur market. Early in the year, the £395 Alesis MIDIVERB was introduced as the first FX unit to offer studio quality ‘verb effects at a price which project and home studio owners considered affordable. In the summer, the MIDIVERB was joined by the Alesis MIDIFEX, costing the same amount of money, and broadening the concept to combine digital reverb with digital delay.

The ‘MIDI’ in MIDIVERB and MIDIFEX referred to the fact that patch changes were MIDI-controllable. Both units were equipped with MIDI In and Thru sockets on the back panel, and could therefore accept remote preset switches from a MIDI sequencer. How modern a concept that still was in 1986.

By the time the MIDIFEX was released, in the UK, the MIDIVERB was a massive seller. In fact, it was listed as the fourth best selling piece of studio equipment, with all other products in the top five being portable multitrack recorders. Alesis would inevitably have had very high hopes for the MIDIFEX, but did it fulfil the dream?…


Back in the day. The original Alesis MIDIFEX advert - summer 1986.

Alesis achieved their exceptionally low (for the time) prices on these units, in part, courtesy of simplified user interfaces and, consequently, drastically reduced instruction variables. In other words, the MIDIVERB and MIDIFEX leaned heavily on RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) principles to save the manufacturer money and bring the consumer far better sounds than they could otherwise expect at the price.

The ‘conventional’ digital reverb and delay effects used by the pro’s in a mid ‘80s studio environment had widely variable ‘verb and delay times, effect levels, repeat values, etc. But these Alesis units had rigid, non-variable presets only. With 63 presets available on each product, potential buyers of the MIDIVERB or MIDIFEX might have envisaged huge flexibility. Afterall, 63 presets sounded like a lot. But actually, once you realised that no preset could be edited, the limitations became all too clear. No tweaking – everything was set in stone. If you didn’t agree with, say, the reverb or delay times the Alesis factory had set, there was nothing you could do about it. As a user, you could only employ whichever presets exactly fitted your brief. And if only three or four presets conformed to your needs, then essentially, the rest were useless.

The MIDIVERB had been designed purely as a digital reverb. The MIDIFEX also offered a handful of straight digital reverb presets, but it was primarily a digital delay/echo unit with a degree of multi-FX chaining for that archetypal ‘80s studio sound. In fact, the first 47 of 63 MIDIFEX presets were ‘tarted up’ delays.

But the problem with basing the MIDIFEX primarily around delay rather than reverb was that due to the rigid, uneditable nature of the presets, most of the patches were merely hit or miss snapshots. Select a patch… Does it have the right delay time and repeat feedback?… The most likely answer is no – move onto the next preset… After a few button presses you quickly realised that it was like a lottery – and that was before you even considered the effect level. If the delay/’verb swamped the playing (and this was the mid ‘80s so the wet signals were copious to say the least), then either you put up with an absolute deluge of effect, or set up a complex outboard mix arrangement to feed the dry signal back into the wet for a less intrusive balance.

BUT THIS WAS A LONG TIME AGO...

Those were the drawbacks, and certainly from the viewpoint of 2012 they were pretty oppressive. BUT, it’s important to remember how different things were in 1986. Almost everyone wanted this kind of heavily processed sound at the time. And there was no way anyone could get these effects (incorporating both digital delay and digital reverb, in spatial stereo, in the same patch), at this kind of price, anywhere else. So the MIDIFEX had a USP. If you could appreciate the value of fully ambient combination digital delay/’verb (as opposed to either/or), then short of saving up for something a lot more expensive, in summer 1986 this was your only option.

The delay presets offered a variety of repeat feedback levels, some variation in delay time (down to slapback rockabilly style and doubling), and options on effect EQ. Mega-popular competitor the Boss DD-2 Digital Delay didn’t offer any tone filtering on its effects, or any real spatial context, so whilst it was almost infinitely more flexible than the MIDIFEX as regards delay times, repeats and effect levels, it was no substitute. Plus of course the DD-2 offered no reverb patches, and that set the MIDIFEX even further into its own territory. Be in no doubt whatsoever, that both the MIDIVERB and MIDIFEX were highly innovative products, which I'm sure really did speed up the advance of development in the home studio environment. But in their 1986 form, neither unit could survive the decade...

FATE...

Whilst the MIDIVERB was updated numerous times through the years to the point where only the model name bore any real relation to the original unit, the MIDIFEX didn’t captivate the market in the same way. Consequently, it remains a distant memory, locked in the 1980s and inextricably linked with the days when music was awash with effects. By the end of 1987 the Midiverb II was already well established as a superior to the original 1986 model, and the MIDIFEX was dead and buried – finding itself replaced by the original Microverb in dealer ads. On the doorstep of 1988, there was no longer a need to endure the kind of limitation the MIDIFEX had presented. For well under £400, musicians could buy a fully variable digital delay, and a fully variable digital reverb, chain them together, and create their own tailored spatial effects precisely to order. The MIDIFEX had hit the market as a groundbreaking, hot proposition. By the following year, it had been rendered completely untenable as a purchase. Those were the risks technological innovators had to take in the 1980s, and even the very best of them suffered from shockingly short product lifespans. But given what the MIDIVERB achieved, I doubt Alesis were too downtrodden and depressed when the MIDIFEX's life came abruptly to a halt. I just hope nobody bought one on a two-year hire purchase agreement.

Planet Botch is contactable only via Twitter.