Erica Synths Zen Delay Virtual review: Beautiful-sounding delay, valve overdrive and analogue filter
The ultimate boutique delay box gets a virtual makeover, but can it capture the magic of the original or offer anything new?
⊕ Not an exact copy, but captures the essence of the hardware unit
⊕ New features make a big difference to flexibility
⊕ Great fun for sound design and adding crunch
⊖ No output volume control
⊖ GUI looks a little flat
⊖ Drive lacks top end
The original Zen Delay was released in 2020 and saw hardware experts Erica Synths team up with esteemed record label Ninja Tune to create a tactile, performance-based effects box. It has five delay algorithms, a quality valve overdrive circuit and glorious analogue filter, all housed in a solid box that begs to be played with. All this comes with a fairly hefty price tag, though (£538). In our review, we found that despite being an amazing performance tool, its lack of control and modulation options via MIDI or CV is limiting.
- READ MORE: FabFilter Twin 3 review: A virtual analogue synth with a fabulous filter and a slick new look
In a surprise move, Erica Synths, Ninja Tunes’ Matt Black (Coldcut), Liquid Sky Artist Collective (who also worked on the original hardware), and Hora Music have all teamed up to release a plugin version with additional bells and whistles. Whilst still not especially cheap for a delay plugin, it’s much cheaper than the hardware and the additional controls and modulation options open up the sound design potential significantly.
Zen Delay Virtual – or ZDV – comes in VST2, VST3, AU and standalone formats, and requires an iLok account for the licence. It features the same five stereo delay algorithms found on the hardware, which are Tape, Tape Ping-Pong, Digital, Digital Ping-Pong, and Vintage. Essentially, the tape modes introduce pitch-shifting when the delay time is changed, and the digital modes don’t. Vintage mode adds bit-crushing distortion to the delayed signal to create a lo-fi sound. Delay time is controlled with a large dial that ranges from 3ms up to a massive 5 seconds, which is great for crafting really long and dubby drones. Like the hardware, the dial has been well calibrated to give finer control of the shorter delay times, so you can create pitched lines, almost like playing an instrument. If you set the plugin to sync to the host tempo or MIDI clock, then the dial will select the delay BPM-sync divisions and multiplications, with options for triplets and dotted notes.
Underneath is the feedback dial, which has also been well calibrated to be very forgiving when teetering on the edge of self-feedback. The trick is in the name; you can enter an almost zen-like state making infinite loops with subtle adjustments that shimmer off into the repeats. It’s an effect that shines when you get hands-on and perform organic adjustments based on what you hear. Elsewhere there’s a tap tempo button, and a dry/wet dial that lets you blend the amount of delay you want to hear in the final output.
Next up we have the modelled valve overdrive which can be driven via the main drive dial, and also by the input level dial. The input also has a soft-clipper – modelled on the hardware’s pair of clipping diodes – which you can turn on and off in the plugin. It’s a very warm-sounding saturation that varies from a subtle effect through to more aggressive overdrive that rounds off peaks, adds mid and upper-mid harmonics and reduces the top end. As the delay signal runs parallel to the valve, you could potentially set it to 100% dry and just use the plugin as an analogue warming unit. There seems to be a tiny delay however, which can cause phase issues if you try to use it as a parallel thickener.
With extra harmonics in place, you can then carve into your signal using the creamy, multimode filter. It has low pass, high pass and band pass modes and can self resonate when pushed. In fact, you can have a lot of fun without an input signal present, simply driving the filter tones into the delay and toying with the time and feedback. One very useful addition allows you to change the feedback routing from the default state of placing the filter after the delay, to having the filter inserted directly into the delay feedback loop. This lets you create more traditional, dub delay-like effects as it allows more control over the timbre of the signal as it decays.
This function is accessed from the new Modulation and Options page, which gives you an LFO for modulating the delay time, and another for modulating the filter cutoff. Both LFOs can sync to the host and you can choose from sine, ramp, saw, tri, square, pulse, notch, noise and S&H shapes. Additional dials modulate the frequency and amplitude amount, which can lead to some interesting rhythmic patterns. There are also dials to control the bit-depth, noise and sample rate of the tails when the effect is set to one of the Digital modes. This opens-up plenty of possibilities to get some additional lo-fi crunch, and you can also modulate the sample rate using the same LFO as the filter. Straight off the bat, this adds a great deal to the sound design potential without having to resort to external automation; you can create shimmering choruses or wild, synced effects sweeps, all of which aren’t possible with the hardware.
The other obvious bonus over the hardware version is the ability to save presets. ZDV comes with 56 artist-designed presets, plus the ability to sort by name, category and author. Some of them go a little wild with the LFOs, but they give a good showcase of the extremes of effects on offer. One issue though, is that the volume varies a lot between these presets. This is due to the fact that the input and drive settings can greatly affect the sound and volume, but there’s no output volume to rebalance after the fact. An output level control would make compensating for these level differences much easier, so hopefully it’s something that can be added in a future update. It might also be useful to have a width control to reign in the ping-pong modes, but that’s not essential.
We found the GUI a touch flat and basic looking, but it’s resizable and does the job of replicating the hardware box layout. In terms of control and edit-ability, it’s not as flexible as something like SoundToys EchoBoy, but the results sound more alive and three-dimensional.
When comparing the hardware and software side-by-side, they do sound a little different. The hardware retains more top end when driven and is a little more spacious and delicate-sounding, whereas the plugin has a thicker, more aggressive sound. The developers have said that they are two different products though, and although a little different, the plugin retains the essence of the original. Ultimately, each has its uses. The hardware is a fantastic, hands-on performance tool, but has some sound-design limitations. On the other hand, the software is more flexible, has automation, modulation and presets and can be used multiple times in a track (and is cheaper), but you lack the tactile, instrument feeling of the hardware. You can, of course, MIDI-map each dial to your controller, which will go a long way to improving the experience, but the 128-step resolution of MIDI controller data won’t give quite the same fidelity.
Despite a couple of small misgivings, Zen Delay Virtual is a fantastic emulation of a beautiful and unique hardware delay. It’s not especially cheap, but it sounds superb and expands on the hardware in meaningful and useful ways that maximise its sound design credentials. With the valve overdrive, analogue filter, noise and bit-crusher elements, it’s also a surprisingly versatile multi-effects unit that’s a lot of fun for creating experimental dub effects and spicing-up any sound.
- Plugin version of Erica Synths and Ninja Tune’s boutique hardware delay box
- 5 delay modes: Tape, Tape Ping-Pong, Digital, Digital Ping-Pong and Vintage
- Delay times from 3ms to 5 seconds
- Modelled valve overdrive and multimode analogue LP/HP/BP filter
- New LFOs with FM and AM modulation for filter and delay time
- New controls for bit depth, sample rate and noise
- New ability to change filter placement in feedback loop
- New preset system with 56 artist-designed presets
- Requires iLok account
- Every licence bought plants a tree!
- Contact Erica Synths
- Buy: Plugin Boutique, Sweetwater
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