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Digidesign Eleven Rack Review

Digidesign Eleven Rack Review

Digidesign''s Eleven Rack lives up to its hype as an ultra-useful performing and recording tool for pros

Download Example 1
Presets - VG Strat direct into Pro Tools
Download Example 2
With Amp - Charvel So-Cal w/DiMarzio Humbuckers, into Eleven Rack, PRS 30 & 1x12, mic'd with SM57, into Pro Tools
There’s been a lot of buzz about the Eleven Rack, the revolutionary new guitar recording and effects processing system from Digidesign. Along with that buzz come a lot of questions from producers, engineers and guitar players: Exactly how does it work, and how will it help me as a player or producer? How can this be used both in the studio and live? And of course, how does it sound? I quickly learned that it’s not just a multi-effects unit, it’s not just an amp modeler and it’s not just a Pro Tools interface. It’s actually all of the above and more. The Eleven Rack is an all-in-one solution for the modern guitar player, and it makes it easier than ever to record in the studio and perform live—while fully integrating the exact same sounds in both situations.

The Eleven Rack can be used as a stand-alone guitar processor—without the need for a computer—for live applications. It includes incredible emulations of classic guitar amps, cabinets and stompboxes, as well as a powerful collection of studio-quality rackmount effects processors and microphone emulations. You can also incorporate your favorite stompboxes and effects into the Eleven Rack with an integrated effects loop that can be assigned and moved almost anywhere within the signal chain.

In addition, the Eleven Rack performs double duty as a high-quality interface for Digidesign Pro Tools, and it comes with Pro Tools LE 8 recording, editing and mixing software. The interface itself is dual-DSP powered, which means you won’t have to worry about latency issues when recording—and it also frees up processing power in the computer. There are eight simultaneous recording channels at 24-bit/96 kHz, with a wide array of ins and outs, including S/PDIF, AES/EBU, XLR, and 1/4" outputs, a mic input, and two 1/4" line level inputs. The Pro Tools software includes over 70 plugins, including reverb, delay, chorus, distortion, flanger, phaser, reverse, EQ and compression. It also contains powerful virtual instruments to create backing tracks, including drum machines, piano, organ, synthesizer and a synth/sample workstation with tons of instruments. Basically, it’s got everything you need to create a high-quality recording all on your own.

A Long Time in the Making
I’ve been using Pro Tools since the mid ’90s. Back then, I used it mostly for editing and mixing digital audio. MIDI sequencing wasn’t fully integrated into the software yet, so I had to use separate sequencing software and import audio from my programmed tracks into Pro Tools for mixing. There also weren’t any decent amp-simulator plug-ins at the time, so anytime I wanted to record guitar I did it the old-fashioned way, by placing a mic in front of my amp and recording into Pro Tools. I had to be fully committed in terms of guitar sound, because there was no chance of changing my guitar tone later by re-amping since I never split my guitar signal to record a separate, uneffected guitar track. Pro Tools software has grown a lot over the years, and I’ve watched each improvement with satisfaction. Creativity flowed a lot more frequently and easily as more and more plug-ins and features were created. First, MIDI sequencing became more integrated, and eventually more amp simulators and effects for guitarists became available. I’ve tried them all and found something I liked in each one of them. When Digidesign released the Eleven amp-simulator plug-in, I thought it really captured the essence and sound of some classic amps. Still, I didn’t use it exclusively because it just didn’t have the wide array of effects and amps that I found in other guitar plug-ins.

I will admit that when I first heard about the Eleven Rack, I quickly (and incorrectly) assumed it was just a hardware version of the Eleven plug-in with the same amp sounds and parameters that could be easily adjusted using the real knobs on the interface instead. When I saw that it was also an interface for Pro Tools LE, I thought, “Why do I need that? I already have Pro Tools software with an interface and the Eleven plug-in?” Well, you know what happens when you assume! After reading and learning more about the Eleven Rack and all of its features, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I really wanted to hear how the amps and effects sounded, especially since so many of them weren’t previously available in the Eleven plug-in. Also, I was curious to see if the Eleven Rack interface would work in conjunction with my existing Digidesign 002 Rack interface, or if it would actually replace it.

Plugging In
When I finally got my hands on the Eleven Rack, I decided to test out its capabilities initially as a stand-alone guitar processor. The first thing I noticed when plugging in my guitar was the True-Z input jack. This unique guitar input was created to replicate the impedance of guitar amps and stompboxes, which results in amazingly realistic sounds. Since each guitar reacts differently with every amp or effect, the True-Z input basically changes the input impedance automatically to whatever amp or effect is first in the signal chain. And the Eleven Rack isn’t using a DSP algorithm to do that—it uses actual analog switching with real capacitors and resistors.

Before hooking the unit to an amp, I wanted to hear the pure clean output, so I plugged in my headphones and began scrolling through the presets. I was instantly welcomed with lush amp sounds and effects, and each preset sounded great. One thing I noticed right away was that the Eleven Rack not only sounds like a real amp, it feels like a real amp as well— more than any other modeling unit I’ve played through before. The dynamics were terrific, and Eleven Rack really responded like an amp should. It actually sounds like a speaker pushing air, which is something you can’t always hear in other amp simulators.

Each preset had very usable tones with different combinations of amps and effects. Many presets sounded great as is, and I would only tweak them slightly to my taste. I’m a firm believer in presets. They can save you a lot of time, and they can also serve as a great foundation for customizing and tweaking your own custom sounds. There are 104 presets in the Eleven Rack, with an additional 104 user presets that you can customize and then save. With every preset, the indicator light on the knob is amber (or green for effects) but once you change a parameter, the knob changes to red. You can also swap out any amp or effect for any other— and place it anywhere in the signal chain. So if you want to move the wah effect between distortion and the amp, you can easily do so.

I only had one minor issue with the presets: once you scroll to the very end of the user presets, it doesn’t circle back to the very first factory preset. You have to scroll back through all banks to get to the first one again.

This One Goes to Eleven
I then connected the unit to an amp. The Eleven Rack offers two 1/4" amplifier output jacks. Output 1 is on the front panel, which can easily be connected to the input of an amplifier. Output 2 is on the back, and it can be used to connect either to one amp or to an additional amp for stereo output. I connected it to an amp and set it to a clean, neutral sound. With this setup, I can choose any emulated amp head from within Eleven Rack and my external amp is transformed instantly. I had a nice variety of tones from the 16 amp heads I had to choose from—from a ’59 Fender Bassman to a ’92 Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier. All of them sounded great, and none felt like emulations. The True-Z input is a big part of that, because those analog components make it feel like a real amp. Also, the developers painstakingly inspected every component of many amps and incorporated nuances that other amp-modeling developers overlook, like power-amp sag, cabinet resonance, and ghost notes.

Another nice feature about Eleven Rack is that you can send whatever you want out to the amp, whether it’s the entire sound of the rig with effects and amp simulator, effects only, or any point in between. So for example, if you want to include all of the effects and the amp from Eleven Rack without the speaker simulator, you would choose “Rig Out – No Cab.”

I love the fact that I can have so many options for whatever part of Eleven Rack I want to use. An effects loop is built in as well, so you can still include your favorite stompboxes and effects. Also, if you have a favorite amp that you prefer to use live, you can choose to only use the Eleven Rack’s effects. But if you want to leave your amp at home, you can simply use the entire Eleven Rack rig live and connect it directly to the PA with the XLR outputs.

Backward Compatibility
I was able to use Eleven Rack with my existing Digidesign 002 Rack interface easily. After updating Pro Tools to version 8.0.1, I connected the digital ins and outs of the Eleven Rack to the 002 Rack and connected the Eleven Rack to my computer via USB. Pro Tools recognizes the unit immediately after launching the software, and an Eleven Rack control window comes up. I actually preferred to control the Eleven Rack with this window, because adjusting certain parameters was a lot easier. You can click and drag effects anywhere within the graphic representation of the signal chain. Also, the label for each effect has a pull-down menu so you can quickly choose and swap out different effects with one click. Selecting presets was also a breeze, because one window comes up with all presets listed, instead of requiring endless scrolling with the knob on the unit itself.

You can record the guitar signal into three different tracks of Pro Tools. The first is the clean, uneffected signal that you can use to reamp the guitar later. The second track is the output of Eleven Rig with any and all effects or amps. The third is what really makes the Eleven Rack unique: you can embed the audio file with any of the Eleven Rack settings that were used to record the track. So if you need to call up the session at a later time to replace one line of a guitar solo, you can instantly recall the settings with the exact same sound as when you recorded the original track. This is pretty much a lifesaver for me, since I hardly ever write down my settings or make detailed notes for every parameter I tweak.

The Final Mojo
There are so many features on the Eleven Rack that make life easier for the recording guitarist. Some may think that 16 amp models aren’t enough, but with so many combinations of the 16 amps, 7 cabinet emulations, and 8 microphone emulations within the unit—as well as all of the effects—I had more than enough tonal variety to work with. Also, some guitarists may not use Pro Tools out of fear that the software would be too intimidating to learn. You would definitely have to use Pro Tools to take advantage of all the Eleven Rack features, but the software is easy to learn and use. I love the fact that Eleven Rack enables you to be as simple or complex as you want, too. If you want to quickly call up a sound and jam, you can do that. If you’re an endless tweaker who is meticulous about every aspect of your signal chain, you have complete control over every amp, cabinet, effect and mic emulation. As a stand-alone unit without Pro Tools or a computer, guitarists will love using the Eleven Rack live and in the studio. As a complete recording and effects-processing system, the Digidesign Eleven Rack makes recording guitar easier and more efficient than ever before.
Buy if...
you’re looking for an all-in-one solution for performing and recording.
Skip if...
you don’t want to use or learn Pro Tools recording software.

Street $899 - Digidesign -