by - John Kammerer
What is Empress Effects ZOIA? Is it an FX unit? A guitar pedal? A synth? All three? Yep, and likely even more, depending on how deep you’re willing to dive. So what is it, really? Not an easy question to answer–in a good way! I find it hard to even call ZOIA by Empress Effects a pedal. Sure it has foot switches [that are easily operated by hand, for those of you planning on this being a desktop unit], but this little powerhouse pedal invites a close look and hands-on operation. In short, ZOIA is a modular synth in a guitar pedal [as expressed by Empress Effects founder Steve Bragg], and more precisely, ZOIA is a modular matrix that is formed from individual module units selected from ZOIA’s massive collection of building blocks, which are synth/effects elements like LFOs, oscillators, VCAs, reverbs, delays, etc. These individual patch elements can be connected in any number of ways through virtual patch points on ZOIA’s colorful 40-button grid.
Bragg has long been a user of the modular coding environment Pure Data and Max/MSP, and he’s stated that “…the whole point of ZOIA…was to untangle music playing from the computer…[as] if you moved Pure Data or Max/MSP from the computer to a pedal.” Those readers familiar with either Max/MSP or Pure Data can certainly begin to grasp the wildly exciting implications of having similar functionality in pedal form, but for the uninitiated, an exercise: Think of a crazy effects unit to run your guitar/synth/voice/circuit bent cat keyboard through. The wildest thing. Audio input-modulated reverbs mangled with LFO’d delays blended with synth voices and mixed together through commingling banks of phasers and flangers…you get what I’m trying to say. Now imagine if you could open that unit up, rewire its insides any which way, close the lid and give the results a try. And then do it again. And again, until you get exactly what you’re looking for, or stumble across that sound you didn’t even KNOW you were looking for, but now can’t live without. That’s the sonic fever dream that is ZOIA. It’s all about customizability and creativity, and allows the user to create their own custom effects chains, synthesizers, or hybrid combinations of the two.
Think of ZOIA as you’d think of a modular synth. You have your oscillators, filters, envelope generators, all sorts of sound generators, effects, and control elements, housed in a case as individual elements that are inherently separate from each other. These individual modules pass audio and CV to each other via patch cables to generate and manipulate sound and voltage. ZOIA operates similarly, with the main difference being that the “patch cable” connections are virtual. More on how to create these connections in a bit.
Although its modular framework allows the user to build anything they can dream up from scratch, the ZOIA is not just for those brave [or foolish] enough to dive into the world of ultimate modular customizability; ZOIA comes with 64 preset patches to get you going immediately, and Empress Effects includes an ever-growing number of pre-made effects modules that give the user a more traditional effects pedal feel including reverb algorithms derived from the Empress Reverb. This means that if you’re a guitarist who has little interest in the madness of modular-esque patching, but would still like an effects pedal that has the ability to do anything from add subtle reverb shimmer to completely decimate and warp/re-pitch your instrument’s sound, ZOIA is a unit that is easily usable, even without a deeper understanding of its modular framework. Of course, if you want to get the full effect of ZOIA and start building from scratch, then at the very least a surface level understanding of synthesis and effects is necessary.
I’ll be the first to admit that, at first glance, ZOIA looks intimidatingly dense. It has a grid of buttons with no obviously pre-built workflow, a somewhat small screen, and an overall compact form...but fear not! Empress Effects provides a solid amount of documentation to get you started, and there’s also a very handy built-in help feature which gives you a little contextual info on the various modules and options, rendering ZOIA as being very intuitive, even with almost no experience. When I first plugged it in, I only had to spend a few minutes before I was able to create some really interesting patches from scratch.
So how does it work? As mentioned, modules are connected via virtual patch cables to create custom patches of any size. Let’s start with the simplest possible example to demo the patching method: sending an audio input to an output. The first thing you need to do is touch any of the unlit buttons and you’ll be taken to the Select Category screen. From there you can search the module library to find the audio input module. This module can be placed anywhere on the grid that you would like, as determined by which button you’re holding down at the moment. Now do the same for the audio output. To make a connection between these two modules, all you need to do is hold down one of the audio input buttons and press the audio output button, and voilà! Instant connection. It’s that easy. To break the connection, just repeat the process. I found this workflow to be so immediate, tactile, and inspiring that I was able to create large, deeply-modulated patches with very little practice.
ZOIA invites exploration, and makes it incredibly easy to create and tear down complex patches very quickly…perhaps even easier and faster than if I were to use physical patch cables!
One element of ZOIA that has not been mentioned yet is the ability for patches to span many, many pages of the button grid. My brain tends to work somewhat linearly, and if you’re anything like me, you might want to know this when first starting a patch so that you can plan ahead. For example, if you’re going to be making what you expect to be a massive patch spanning several pages, place your audio input [if you’re using ZOIA as an effects processor] on the first page and skip ahead a few pages to add your audio output module, so that there’s plenty of space to create in-between. If you’re not like me and you don’t need the general flow of your effects and synths to be linear, then start throwing down modules wherever you like!
ZOIA is housed in solid metal, making it feel extremely sturdy. The audio quality is fantastic at 48kHz sampling through its stereo in/out, 24-bit conversion, 32-bit internal processing, and a signal to noise difference of greater than 105dB. Users can save up to 64 of their own patches via the included SD card, and you can also swap your patches with other ZOIA users on patchstorage.com...a site that allows you to upload your own patches and download ones created by other users. ZOIA is also MIDI-equipped so it can communicate with your other MIDI-capable devices.
So what is ZOIA? It’s whatever you want.
Price - $499
Ed. - As we were going to print, Empress Effects released a Eurorack friendly version of the ZOIA, the ZOIA Euroburo. In lieu of footswitches, the Euroburo offers 4 CV In/Out, adds a headphone output, and is mountable in a Eurorack system or in a separately purchased custom enclosure.