Hands-on review: ZOIA ‘multi-thing’ modular effects pedal from Empress Effects
Image credit: Empress Effects
Exploring sound, inventing effects and blowing minds with Empress Effects' ZOIA modular 'synth in a box'.
Seeing as our interview with Empress Effects' founder Steve Bragg took several years to finally happen, a little over six months to finish this review seems positively instantaneous.
Not that the perception of ZOIA (all-caps, as politely requested by Bragg) has been at all harmed or dulled by the six months' or so of exposure since the first shipment of the uber-pedal was released to the world in April this year. Quite the opposite, in fact: the likes of YouTube and Instagram are now studded with myriad videos, featuring normally (relatively) sane individuals positively foaming at the mouth about either the creative A-bomb that their new ZOIA pedal has exploded in their heads or the impending detonation of same ahead of forthcoming purchase.
So popular has ZOIA proved, in fact, that at time of writing forthcoming purchases may prove tricky: it remains sold out, at least direct from Empress itself - your local dealer may hold stock. The first batch has long-since been scattered to the winds, the coveted audio precious now fiercely hoarded by audio scientists worldwide.
This popularity is good news for all concerned: Bragg himself commented in a Reddit discussion how his company was going to have to sell "A LOT of ZOIAs" [sic] to even begin to recoup the extensive R&D that went into its creation. Put it this way: designing a new twist on an overdrive, or a spacey reverb, or a delay, then packing it into a metal housing and getting a talented artist to throw down a cool paint job is a big enough task, but that's nothing compared to ZOIA. This is one pedal times a million (or at least a few thousand).
While you may have to wait a while, therefore, to actually buy a ZOIA - you can sign up on the Empress Effects website for availability notifications - aren't the best things in life worth waiting for?
For without doubt, ZOIA is one of the best things in life - at least, as far as effects units and music production tools go. It also doubles as a very cool lightshow in operation, but that's just the psychedelic eye-candy icing on the crazy sonic cake here.
While it may have taken us longer than anticipated to write this review, it doesn't really matter. We still can't claim to have 'fully tested' ZOIA. On the one hand, this could be a simple three-word review: ZOIA is incredible! On the other hand, it's doubtful that we could explore and exhaust all the possibilities of ZOIA even after years of use. If ZOIA is a porthole into another sonic dimension, once you go through you might never make it back to the normal world you knew. Are we bored of ZOIA after six months? Hell, no. We're just getting started.
By this point, you might reasonably be asking yourself: what is a ZOIA? Empress describes it as "basically a modular synthesiser in pedal form". It's worth elaborating here on the fact that a lot of people still default to thinking that ZOIA is "a guitar pedal", because that is what Empress is best known for. Sure, ZOIA can be used as a guitar effects pedal - but you can also build your own virtual pedal board with entire chains of effects, plus synthesisers, MIDI controllers (any MIDI device, including CV and clock in) and much more besides. You can create synths within ZOIA, then play them back via a MIDI keyboard (cables included) or even directly on the ZOIA itself, as the buttons can act as notes. Bottom line: ZOIA goes way beyond - like, way, way beyond, stratospherically way beyond - just being a guitar effects pedal.
Whatever you plug in, the audio quality is excellent: stereo in/out, 48kHz sampling, with 24-bit conversion and 32-bit internal processing, and an extremely low-noise signal path (>105dB).
ZOIA is running software similar in concept to the open-source PureData visual programming language that some musicians will already be familiar with, albeit on their laptop. Bragg has been a long-time avid user of PureData, but the aim with ZOIA was to take the essence of that creative environment out of the computer and put it into a physical, standalone box. Taking inspiration from PureData, Empress in fact wrote the whole of ZOIA's programming environment from the ground up. As Bragg said: "The whole point of the ZOIA for me personally was to untangle music playing from the computer. It’s what would happen if you moved Pure Data or Max/MSP from the computer to a pedal.”
At the most basic level - as the delightfully charming demo video demonstrates through the medium of plasticine animation - ZOIA comes with dozens of ready-made modules that you can freely select and arrange on the grid of rubberised buttons in any way you like. Want a phaser 'pedal', followed by tremolo and reverb for your guitar? Scroll through the list of modules using the chrome dial-wheel, find what you want, hit select. Boom, boom, boom, done.
If you never did anything else with ZOIA other than create dozens of variations on your dream pedalboard, you would be kept perfectly happy for a long time. The sound of each module is top-notch, as you might expect from Empress, and you can fine-tune the parameters of each module to sound and behave exactly how you want. You could fill the ZOIA's 64 preset slots with nothing other than wildly differing variations on, say, the Ghostverb or Tremolo modules alone.
The next level up, as you become more familiar with ZOIA and you realise that you can't break anything by fiddling around with all the knobs and buttons, is to deep dive into ZOIA's modular world and learn the fine art of connecting modules together - either with a fixed(ish) goal in mind or simply letting the random magic happen (there's even a button for that) - and then tweaking the parameters until something really cool gets your dendrites buzzing. Which it inevitably does, however you jam the bits together.
Beyond this, you're into the realms of fashioning the previously unimaginable. As our boxout (below) explains, ZOIA is supremely permissive, allowing you to connect anything to anything. Empress refers to it as "an infinite trick pony".
Of course, it's not quite as simple as that. You have to know what you're trying to achieve, then figure out how to achieve it. You have to be a little bit of "a nerd like us", as Bragg puts it, to be able to fully comprehend ZOIA, to envision the possibilities and then to action the necessary audio alchemy. It is instructive that Empress has set up a US toll-free phone hotline "for anyone having ZOIA issues" (cheekily, the number is 1-855-964-2767 aka 855-ZOIA-SOS).
Sitting in front of the small metallic-black box, the prospect of programming complex effects chains via the grid of buttons, with details selected and parameters tweaked via visual feedback displayed in the small window, on the threshold of untold possibilities, can seem daunting.
Before you dive in, Empress advises that you should grab two additional items: a stereo 1/4" to headphone adapter, so you can use ZOIA as a standalone tone box (there is no headphone jack), and a pair of reading glasses, because the font used on ZOIA's LCD screen - while bright and clear - is quite small. You will almost certainly not be able to read it at a glance whilst playing live on stage.
Once you learn the basic workflow, though, adding and connecting different elements is fairly intuitive. More complex patches can take up the whole grid of buttons, spreading over multiple 'pages' or sub-layers, so it can take a fair degree of mental agility to follow or recall your own thought processes. This is where supermodules come into play: combining an assortment of modules into a single space-saving combo module.
This programming business may be ZOIA's Achilles heel: not everybody can be bothered to create their own effects. A lot of people are perfectly happy letting somebody else have all the brilliant ideas, then buying them. Sometimes you want a pedal designer to do the thinking for you, to imagine sounds and possibilities that your own brain hasn't imagined. Those products still exist and will continue to do so. While ZOIA is not difficult to use, it definitely helps if you already have that creative inclination, in a latent sense at the very least.
ZOIA also doesn't automatically make all other pedals (including Empress's own) redundant. While ZOIA does use some algorithms derived from existing Empress effects, e.g. the Reverb, it doesn't have everything that Reverb has. ZOIA also doesn't have all the traditional, instant-gratification physical knobs that Reverb has - although, as Bragg says, you could always map the effect parameters to an external MIDI control box and tweak your face off that way. Anyway, ZOIA is happy to be a partner in your sonic crimes alongside your existing pedals, not merely acting as a lone gunman.
Still, from our months of use, we're confident in stating that even the laziest or most technologically inhibited musicians will surprise themselves. If you are at all inquisitive and creative, you'll likely find it deeply satisfying playing through a bespoke effect chain that you built from scratch, partly because it sounds exactly the way you want it to and partly because it's unique to you and your ZOIA.
With extended use, you also come to understand how other effects pedals work, at an holistic level. This insight might even save you money! We have found ourselves checking out new and tantalising pedals, before pausing our impulsive GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and wondering if we couldn't create something similar ourselves with ZOIA. The ZOIA probably won't replace every pedal on your board, but it will unquestionably make you ponder the necessity of some.
There is also a thriving community of ZOIA owners sharing their work (for free) over at patchstorage.com, where many talented patch builders are closely emulating the sonics of some of the best pedals around today. These patches are free to download and can be uploaded to your own ZOIA via the micro SD card slot. It can be hit-and-miss, as not everyone's taste is the same as yours, but there are some real freaky diamonds already available.
Some of the more complex patches can also be supremely instructive, as you are free to look at how the patch is created and further tweak it to your satisfaction, if necessary, once it's on your ZOIA.
Bummers about ZOIA? It takes a certain mindset - or an adjustment of your existing mindset - to get the best out of it. The screen text is quite small, as is the screen itself. It doesn't come with a power supply, so you have to source one yourself (300mA, 2.1mm barrel connector, 9V DC centre-negative tip). There is no iOS, Android or other direct computer integration for patch backups, other than the SD card. It requires various cable dongles to connect everything (mostly included in the box, to be fair). It's not cheap: pushing £500, any way you slice the currency conversion (it's listed as $499).
However, in a world where single boutique effects pedals doing one thing - albeit in a gorgeous-sounding way - can routinely cost over £200, perhaps £500 for a box that can do almost anything isn't such bad value after all.
Empress is also far from done with ZOIA. Regular free firmware updates have already been flying out this year, bringing new features and squashing old bugs. Updates are easily imported via SD card; the same process applies for moving sound patches to and from your computer. Being open-minded types, Empress also has a 'ZOIA New Features Voting Forum' which users can join if they want to lobby for specific new features.
ZOIA is a deceptively modest-looking box absolutely bursting with new ideas and creative potential. It does require you to engage more deeply with it than a 'regular' effects pedal to get the best out of it, but the rewards are rich. As The Beatles once sang, "The deeper you go, the higher you fly".
As Bragg said in a pre-launch note to beta testers, "The whole idea of ZOIA is to do stuff that people haven't thought of. If you have an idea, run with it!" That is ZOIA. Incredible.
Empress Effects ZOIA, $499
How to ZOIA
I want to sequence an oscillator with an LFO.
Create… customise… and link modules to create instruments, effects, utilities or all of the above at once.
I sequenced an oscillator with two LFOs.
I want infinite reverb with modulated mix.
Each module is a sequence of blocks, each block accesses a parameter.
I want an entire pedalboard in one little box.
ZOIA uses Empress’ proven effects algorithms.
Easily customize routings and re-order on the fly.
I want to modulate a filter with five different sources.
I want two loopers that record at the same time, but an octave apart and reverb.
ZOIA contains a categorised library of modules: functions, sound makers, filters, effects, etc.
Connect them however you please for whatever purpose you dream up.
I want to clock a sequencer with a tapped-in rhythm.
I want a footswitch to trigger a pattern.
ZOIA’s footswitches can be assigned to any (or several simultaneous) functions, by default they scroll through & recall your saved programs.
I want to envelope-control three different effects.
I want to activate 10 things at once with one momentary button.
Modules can send and receive to/from multiple sources at once.
I want a bit-crushed synth with sequencer and keyboard.
I want a bit-crushed synth with sequencer and keyboard and a momentary delay with tap tempo.
I want a bit-crushed synth with sequencer and keyboard and a momentary delay with tap tempo and a guitar loop.
Text taken from Empress' Zoia video
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