Today’s peek into the cabinet is a special one for me, and its lineage begins in 1974, even though it was released in 2002. 46 years ago, Keith Barr and Terry Sherwood incorporated MXR and released five pedals that would go on to define a legacy brand. Just ten short years later, MXR folded and Keith Barr founded Alesis in the same year, 1984.
Barr was something of a savant designer, and he leveraged his time at MXR to further his ability to develop customized chips. The idea behind Alesis was to anachronistically disrupt the realm of high-priced studio electronics, offering comparable units at extremely competitive pricing. In the early ‘80s, digital electronics were proliferating the modern studio, but still came at an exorbitant price point. Digital units were touted as analog killers—video was truly killing the radio star.
“Unreliable” analog synthesizers were being heaved into dumpsters while synths like the Yamaha DX7 dominated studios. It was the digital arms race, and Alesis got in on the proverbial ground floor. Almost every musician over 30 has owned either a Midiverb or an SR-16 drum machine, it was practically a rite of passage.
When the 2000s rolled around, Alesis found itself innovating more and more, to the point where some of the products were innovation for innovation’s sake. Things like the AirFX relied on the player moving their hand over a sensor like an expression pedal to manipulate the effect parameters. Another called the AirSynth did the same, but with oscillators. But my favorite Alesis product of this or any other era was undoubtedly the Bitrman.
In 2002, Alesis released a line of effects catered to tabletop musicians and DJs called the ModFX series. These units featured a small pushbutton for bypass, four knobs and assorted other faceplate controls. They all featured true stereo ins and outs, a trim control to attenuate extra-hot inputs, and serial COM ports on the left and right edges to chain as many as you would like without patch cables. Some of the offerings were good, some were great, and the Bitrman stood alone at the top.
Featuring three common effects and a whole host of wild ones, the Bitrman offers several patches that were the first of their kind, along with a couple that have not yet been replicated in any stompbox that I can think of.
Four knobs control digital compression, digital distortion, a “dual phasor” (?!) and a knob labeled “Bitrness.” This Bitrness control can represent one of six different effects—one at a time—that are user-selectable. The first is a comb filter, otherwise known as a static flanger. The second is called “Decimator,” which is a sample rate reducer. Many pedal companies came up with sample rate reduction but each manufacturer had its own name—Alesis’s was Decimator. The third—and the reason I sought out this effect—is the Bit Reduction program.
Side note: In the year 2007, the French electro band Justice released † and the single “Waters of Nazareth.” This recording featured gobs of bit reduction and I knew I had to have it.
Other effects include ring modulation, frequency modulation and “Freq Shift,” a selective multiplier that livens up any instrument. Even though these effects were awesome on their own, it is the other pushbutton switch that takes the Bitrman to another level. This switch lets you choose one of six “effect orders,” letting you mix and match the order of the effects after you select one of the Bitrness patches. Because each effect used just one knob, an effect with its knob rolled to zero took it out of the chain—if you wanted to use the Bitrman as a gross digital distortion, by golly you could do just that.
Alesis feigned interest at offering ModFX units as guitar processors, by including an afterthought footswitch out jack that players could use in lieu of the small pushbutton device. However, the bypass isn’t great, so guitarists hoping to get Bitr would be advised to use it in a true bypass looper. Despite its funky exterior, strange power adapter (9VAC) and lack of foot tactility, the Bitrman packs quite a formidable punch even 18 years later.