The most famous digital reverb in history is reborn in software
Review by Paul Vnuk Jr.
The Lexicon 480L is easily one of the top reverbs of all time. Released in 1986, it initially sold for $20,000—about $45,000 in today’s currency. There are still working units in use today, and used ones still sell for an average $4000.
Even when considering the overwhelming number of reverb plug-ins on today’s market, I can only think of four 480- inspired plug-ins, and a few of those only focus on select attributes of the original. Universal Audio’s new 480L emulation makes number five, but it’s the only one fully endorsed by Lexicon. As always, it runs exclusively on Universal Audio’s UAD-2 DSP platform and Apollo DSP-equipped interfaces.
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The 480L and the LARC
This is not UA’s first Lexicon-endorsed emulation. That distinction goes to 1978’s 224, which UA released and we reviewed back in August 2011. The 480L was a significant upgrade over the 224 and at a base level doubled its power and algorithms and offered better sound. It was housed in a nondescript 3U rack chassis with no features other than a power button, a slot for an expansion cartridge, trims, and I/O on the rear panel.
All program selection, editing, and enjoyment happened on an externally-wired remote control device called a LARC. The 480L LARC was an upgrade to the original 224-era remote; it appears in photorealistic detail as the GUI of the UA 480L plug-in.
In hardware form, the LARC has 10 numeric preset/patch buttons, 8 function buttons, and 2 selection buttons, as well as 6 faders and 6 more buttons for program- specific parameter editing, bank, program, and page selection. Two red alphanumeric LED windows show levels, program and patch names, and parameter names and values.
Many of the buttons on the plug-in have been adjusted and reassigned for use in a DAW environment, including UA’s common Wet Solo function that places the reverb in 100% wet mode for use as a send effect. You also get the option of an auxiliary set of outputs for sonic variation.
If you’ve cut your teeth on modern plug-in reverbs, you may find the 480L plug-in daunting with its hieroglyphic parameter abbreviations, button-based pages, and program layout. It gets easier once you realize that all of the usual parameters like reverb time and predelay are there under the hood—it’s just that they’re not laid out in one big GUI window, complete with visual graphs and curves, like we’re used to in our modern DAW world—and that and that full parameter names always appear in the main display.
10 at 10
The 480L plug-in contains 10 effect types: Halls, Rooms, Wild Spaces, Plates, Effects, Twin Delays, Random Halls, Random Spaces, Ambience and Post Ambience. Each algorithm also has a choice of up to 10 programs or banks. For example, if you select Halls, you get a choice of Large Hall, LG Hall + Stage, Medium Hall, Med Hall + Stage, Small Hall, SM Hall + Stage , Large Church, Small Church, Jazz Hall, and Auto Park.
From there, you can edit each effect’s dedicated parameters, which are different in each effect type but include things like reverb time, shape, spread, size, high-frequency cutoff, bass multiplier, reverb mix, detailed pre-echo controls, and more. On the Random Hall and Random Spaces, you can also control Lexicon’s famous Spin and Wander settings, which give these two algorithms their famous modulated, swimmy sound.
Along with reverbs, the 480L can also do doubling, delay and chorus under the Effects algorithm. The UA 480L plug-in does not do sampling, mastering, compression, or the pitch/doppler effects found on some hardware 480L versions, nor does it support dual-engine stacking or surround.
There are a few plug-in-only options accessible by a hidden panel. You can adjust the input and output gain, and you can also correct for a Random Hall ringing bug that was discovered and fixed by the UA team during development. By clicking on a small red LED, you can fix it or leave it authentically “broken.”
While my description only scratches the surface of how to make use of the 480L, note that the 480L section of UA’s own manual is 37 pages in length and an original hardware manual is 150 pages in length. Both are worth reading if you really want to master the 480L at a deep level.
Having said that, in plug-in form the 480L is surprisingly fast and intuitive to dial in a sound. It’s as simple as scrolling through the banks and programs along the bottom of the unit to find your perfect space or effect. From there, move through 3–4 pages, grab sliders, and tweak to taste. The plug-in also comes with a nice selection of presets to get you started.
Once again, UA has done a great job capturing the sound, spirit, and feel of this classic Lexicon box. Where the previous 224 was cloudier, more modulated and effecty—all reasons why I love the 224—in contrast the 480L adds more clarity, fidelity, and depth. It does this while still retaining the modulated, deep and spacious Lexicon sound that can engulf a source in a big reverb soup, or sit gently behind a source adding depth and dimension as only Lexicon boxes do.
The 480L plug-in is a great Yin to the Yang of modern convolution reverbs or hyperreal units like a Bricasti M7. It’s clearer and cleaner than other early algorithmic reverbs (like the AMS RMX 16 or Eventide SP2016, for example), but it still has a distinct sound signature compared to later offerings like the TC Electronic M3000 or many of Eventide’s H series reverbs. To my ears it all comes down to the famous Lexicon reverb tail and trail modulation, which is still distinct and magical even today.
In use, DSP load, and final thoughts
In my studio, I was able to coax fantastic vocal plates, acoustic instrument halls, and wide electric guitar doubles, as well as 20-second engulfing synthscapes out of the 480L in no time flat. They all sounded great, but be aware that to achieve this level of authenticity, there is a lot of computation going on under the hood. A stereo instance of the 480L takes 61% of one of a UAD-2’s SHARC chips. Compare that to 41.1% for the AMS Neve and a mere 17% for the 224!
The 480L is processor-hungry and sits near the upper end of UA’s price spectrum. Still, considering what an original sells for and how this is so close, if you own or are considering the purchase of a UAD-equipped device and want that amazing sound on your tracks and mixes, there’s no reason to not grab this plug-in.
More from: Universal Audio, www.uaudio.com
A Chat with Universal Audio Senior Product Designer Will Shanks on the 480L
The 480L’s product page mentions that this plug-in was “the result of an intense, multi-year engineering effort.” What took so long, and how did it come to life?
Will Shanks: We will serve no wine—or plug-in—before its time. [laughs] It’s really true! Some plug-ins like the 480L are such complex projects to tackle that it takes more time, especially when you consider that the 480L is a multieffects unit with five deeply tweakable algorithms that have to work seamlessly with the UAD platform, and need to be automatable, even with the original hardware’s complex and multi-layered parameter dependencies.
What can you tell me about the original Lexicon 480L?
Historically, it’s one of the most popular reverb units ever. It came out in 1986 and was designed by Dr. David Griesinger, who also designed the 224 and many other Lexicon units. To this day it’s still considered by many to contain the best algorithm designs that ever came from Lexicon—especially the Random Hall. All the algorithms are incredible, but there’s something special about the Random Hall. It’s a very lush ambience that is great when you have a lot of open space in your mix for the reverb to develop. The way it just hangs there is such a gorgeous sophisticated sound. I’m quite proud of how it turned out, as well as the Effects and Ambience.
UA obviously has a lot of reverbs to choose from.What stands out about the 480L in use?
It’s very accessible and inviting; you can cycle through the algorithms and parameters so quickly—to change the sound to whatever you want, whether it’s Random Hall or the Plates or Rooms. Then you can tweak them really quickly just from the first page, or maybe you’ll deep dive into the second page a little. It’s a very intuitive experience—especially now in a plug-in format, compared to the hardware and original LARC.
How was it modeling the hardware side of the 480L?
Compared to the input stage of the more primitive 224, it was somewhat trivial; the 480L is so clean to begin with, modeling its input stage was just not that relevant to the sound. The 480L does have a clip point if you hit it too hard, and it is there in the plug-in, but it was from a time when engineers designed gear to not have “a sound” in that part of the signal path. Modeling the input stage of the 224 was more difficult and complex, as the technology just wasn’t there yet—it had input audio transformers, early 12-bit gain-stepping converters, and other “unique” design limitations, so that does become a tangible part of the operational sound of the piece. On the upside, the 480L’s clean design left us more processing power to handle its complex algorithms.
What can you tell us about the original “Golden Unit” that was studied for the plug-in?
Just for clarity, nearly all of our plug-ins start life from a circuit diagram; once we have a circuit emulation, then we fit it to a particular unit. For us, a “Golden Unit” is the unit we decided was the candidate to fit the algorithm to. Then we measure and shape the linear filtering, fine-tune the harmonic behavior, clip points, and other fine details, to that unit.
The unit we choose also needs to represent the original design intent as close as possible. That means a unit fully serviced by an expert on that unit, or better still, units from the original manufacturer. For example, SSL gave us their personal vintage E series channel strips that they serviced as golden units. Our golden 480L came from one of Disney’s studios; it was a great unit in fantastic condition. But again, with an algorithmic effects unit like the 480L, it has more to do with the algorithmic math than the surrounding hardware, so it’s not as sexy or relevant as fitting to the golden units for our 1176s or LA-2As or Fairchild units.
What was the biggest challenge of the 480L design?
It took a lot of pre-production planning and research to find the best design approach to get a 1:1 response between the hardware and plug-in. We also had to make sure that it was computationally feasible and efficient, so you can get at least one stereo instance on a SHARC chip. On the 480L, it was the Random algorithm that took up the most resources.
I guess you could say there were a lot of quirky “buglike” features in the 480L. Sliding a fader up to a certain value might result in a different response than sliding the same fader down to the same value, and things like that—nearly all of these are faithfully captured in the plug-in and were quite a challenge at times. In the 224 we discovered one bug, but in the 480L we discovered many bugs, if you will… I can easily empathize with the pressure felt by the Lexicon team getting their hardware out [laughs].
Those were challenging, as we needed to decide: “Do we replicate it or fix it?” We have a warts-and-all approach to modeling vintage gear, and will nearly always keep the oddities. That’s how much we sweat the details!