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This article was originally published in issue #13
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Aphex's Aural Xciter has been around as an idea for many years. But does the magic still work? Michael Casswell finds out.
Back in the mid '80s, a lot of the top recording studios would pay mega bucks to hire by the hour something called an Aphex Aural Exciter for their final mixes and mastering. Nobody actually knew how or what it did what it did, but they knew it did do something magical when it was added to the sonic equation. I caught the tail end of the initial frenzy, when the Aphex Aural Xciter became affordable and people started putting a scaled down rack version in their guitar rigs.
I'm no scientist, or audio geek, but I do know a few chords and probably a little bit about guitar sounds, so I'm going to try and explain what the Aphex Xciter does as I understand it. Here goes! When our guitar speakers are dealing with all the notes and chords we throw at them, they are having to deal with all those frequencies in one big lump at the same time. A speaker will function a lot more efficiently if it gets fed an organised flow of lows, mids and highs. This has the perceived effect of more clarity, with replaced frequency harmonics and a general 'what have I been missing all these years?' type of reaction. So, if you are still with me, the Aphex Xciter processes your sound and feeds it to your speakers in a way that makes them happy, allowing them to work a lot more efficiently, delivering lots of lost harmonics and clarity that you didn't even know you had. It's almost as though somebody lifted off a big heavy sleeping bag from in front of your speaker cab.
From the lessons I learnt from the days of big racks and big hair, I knew this sort of thing is a bit of a secret weapon when it comes to guitar sounds, so I have had a BBE Sonic Stomp in my main pedal boards for quite a few years now, and I try not to tell too many people about it because its my secret. The Aphex Xciter (they seem to have dropped the Aural!) is reckoned to do a similar job but is much more programmable than the BBE, because you are able to be far more specific about what part of the frequency ranges you want to work on, and how loud you want the effect to be.
It's very intuitive. Basically the centre knob lets the pedal know what instrument you want it to do its magic on. You can select acoustic, bass and electric. There is a phantom powered D.I. out from the back of the pedal, ideal for acoustics and bass, but not so good for electric guitars because the sound is obviously not speaker emulated. Then you have two knobs for the low end which are frequency and effect level, and same for the high end. This gives you the ability to fine tune your sound depending on what amp and what guitars you use. Some amps are darker and fatter in tone, some guitars are more toppy and harsh, but the Aphex will always deliver a sweet spot that will work well and provide an improvement over your original sound.
Aphex claims that the Xciter delivers: "increased presence and clarity, greater perceived loudness, improved detail, deeper, more resonant bass, little or no increase in peak output, tighter bass articulation and extended low frequencies." No doubt it does all of those but it's the overall effect that impresses most so check out the video to see if the fairy dust it sprinkles appeals to you!
Having used this general type of sound enhancement on and off for a while, I know there are a couple of things to watch for, especially when it comes to using on your electronical guitar. Firstly, your core tone has to be good. The Aphex Xciter will not make a rubbish guitar sound better. It will just make it clearer, deeper and more three dimensional, but it will still be a rubbish guitar sound! Secondly, moderation and subtlety works much better than maxing out the knobs on this pedal. You've got to do it tastefully. I say the same thing when people ask me about using reverbs: you've got to feel it rather than hear it! Thirdly, I would suggest that this pedal works best in the effects loop of your amp rather than in front. Experiment all you like with using it in front, but you will end up sticking it in the loop. Lastly, it does make guitar sound more studio quality, which I personally love, but sometimes, you want lo-fidelity for some of those organic SRV, Hendrix, Trower, early Clapton moments, and that is the time you stamp on the true bypass button and turn it off.
The Aphex Xciter even comes with some Velcro and a clear space at the bottom of the pedal to use it, and it also comes with some little sticky feet to use if you are that way inclined. Most times you want the bottom of a pedal to be dead flat, so the Velcro can do its thing, but I'm sure little sticky feet can be stuck other places!
It's built strong enough that you could use it to hammer in nails and Aphex has been around more than long enough to have ironed-out any bugs. So - is it for you? It's a subtle thing in some ways - but I would advise you definitely to check one of these out - and that goes just as much for bass players and acoustic-electric guitarists, too, as the Xciter has settings for those instruments as well and can deliver its magic just as well with them.
I would rather you didn't though, because I want it to be my secret.