Lexicon 224XL by LDStudios
What a beast. It seems contrary in 2015 to still desire and enjoy using a Lexicon 224XL given the abundance of plugin options out there. The 224 was first announced in 1978. From there it has another two renditions - Released in 1983, the 224x improved on the 224 by adding the NVS (non-volatile storage) card as standard and in 1984 the 224XL was released which replaced the 224 remote with the Lexicon Alpha-Numeric Remote Control or "LARC" for short. It is the same LARC used with the 300L & 480L. Somewhere during the creation of the 224x and 224xl the converter chips were also upgraded from Burr Brown ADC80 & DAC80's to the better spec'ed ADC800 and DAC800 chips.
Lets start with the build quality. This thing is made like something from the 1980's, when music budgets existed... long before the race to the bottom began. It consists of a 4u rack that houses 8 multi-bus II cards. The frame is incredibly strong with thought-out airflow and cooling fan. Each function of the 224XL is divided up onto separate cards (EG: analogue input, analogue output, non-volatile storage, times and clocking, etc). The modular nature and easy front panel access makes maintenance quite easy to approach. In addition to this 4u rack is the LARC remote. Being made of plastic, it isn't quite as tough as the original 224 metal remote... but it is still trucking along almost 30 years after its production, so it can't be all bad. It is powered by the single 9-pin cable that connectors it to the rack which is a nice touch as it keeps clutter to a minimum on the desk.
Feature-wise, the 224 set a precedent when it was released. Priced at under $8,000 (in 1978 dollars) and being just 4 units in size with a remote control put it in an astounding place compared to its competition - the monstrously sized and priced ($20,000!) EMT 250. Even in this day and age, the 224XL has most modern digital conveniences. Clear input metering, user preset storage, non-volatile memory (the unit will remember your settings when you power it down!) and possibly one of the greatest ideas ever in digital outboard processing. The remote! Which places all of the parameters of the reverb as your very finger tips... Regardless of whether you think plugins sound better or not, the remote adds a degree of transparency and involvement to the unit that just doesn't exist in-the-box. Its a real pleasure to use! It can play with the diffusion and chorus controls all day long! The only thing this unit is really missing compared to other modern units is digital I/O... perhaps that makes it a little less convenient, but probably makes up a lot of the units sound.
Down to the sound... incredible! The unit features 12 bit converters and transformer balanced inputs and outputs which no doubt effect the sound of the unit in a positive way. The programs all sound great and its so easy to get it to work with the dry sounds in a mix. The 224XL is very much a character reverb in that sense. The concert hall algorithm is possibly what it is best known for, but I really, really love the room sounds. When you first patch it in for something like a drum room sound the kit suddenly gains added dimension and life... yet it sits so neatly and effortlessly with the dry sounds that you start to not notice it. When you remove it though, the drums are bland and dull in comparison. I have tried to get this sound with plugins but I just can't manage it. Does the 224XL sound better than plugins? I don't know... but it sure as heck floats my boat!
Being a 30 year old unit, there are some concerns about it remaining in functional condition. Despite reports on gearslutz to the contrary, the 224XL is quite repairable. I don't think the unit contains any proprietary parts like later Lexicon units. There are a number of potentially volatile components though - the ni-cd batteries on the NVS card need to be replaced every few years to avoid leakage and corrosion. There are also eproms in the unit that contain the software for the unit to function. The chips themselves are easily found thanks to a thriving vintage Arcade machine industry... but you really do want to backup the data on them with an eprom reader (or find a copy of the software somewhere).
One of the genius aspects of the 224XL is that it consists of essentially two computers. One that controls the parameters (the LARC essentially), and one that does the digital signal processing. Embedded in the LARC is a diagnostics program that runs on start up. Its an incredibly handy thing for fault finding - errors often point direct to the malfunctioning chip or card with help from the manual. So anyone thinking of purchasing one of these, some technical know-how will really be a benefit!
Other than that, if you can get your hands on one and have a play... you will probably end up smiling from ear to ear! Here is a bit of a video showing the bank of Room & Chamber presets on drums.