E-Mu Systems Emax II
One of the most popular keyboard samplers of recent years is E-mu's Emax, now its place is to be taken by the Emax II. But will it prove as popular? Dave Richardson gets the Max.
The latest in the long and successful line of E-mu samplers is the Emax II - taking over from the original Emax, it features 16-bit sampling, 16 stereo voices, and a host of other significant improvements.
IT'S HARD TO believe that three years have passed since the American company E-mu Systems introduced the Emax keyboard sampler. Many samplers have come and gone since, but the Emax has survived. Its large, readily available library is one good reason to consider owning one, and owners can thank E-mu for having kept the updates coming - first in the form of internal hard disk retrofits, and eventually with the arrival of Transform Multiplication in the Emax SE software upgrade.
But E-mu have now decided that the Emax' time is up, and in its place are offering us the Emax II. Same shape, same front panel, same rack-or-keyboard configurations. However, the Emax II is not simply an updated Emax. In fact, comparisons with the Emulator III are more in order. Here's why.
THE EMAX II is a 16-bit linear sampler. It employs an 18-bit DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) for playback, and includes a user-selectable "headroom" control which helps optimise signal-to-noise performance without the risk of digital clipping when too many notes are played simultaneously.
The Emax II samples at rates of 20kHz, 22kHz, 28kHz, 31kHz and 39kHz, and also features sample rate conversion utilities to achieve other sample rates (such as 44.1kHz for the AES/EBU-minded). Thanks to a new fixed sample rate playback scheme, the Emax II can transpose samples over a ten-octave range (up or down five octaves).
The Emax II doesn't short-change you in the voice department either; 16 stereo voices see to that. While 16 stereo voices might seem the equivalent of 32 mono voices, the Emax II's polyphony is limited to 16 voices even with monophonic samples. It seems that the Emax II's processor can't generate 32 envelopes, so it applies identical envelopes to the left and right channels of each stereo sample - a compromise that most of us can live with. However, you can still taper each channel's sample individually by editing the samples themselves.
The original Emax's analogue filters have been replaced by digital filters in the Emax II. The new filters sweep and resonate in exactly the same manner as their analogue counterparts. Four pairs of polyphonic quarter-inch jack audio outputs (Main, Sub A, Sub B, and Sub C) replace the Emax's eight monophonic outs. This is a particularly welcome improvement, especially when you're dealing with 16 voices - polyphonic outputs are pretty well essential. A monophonic mix and stereo headphone output join the polyphonic submixes on the back panel. To top it all off, the Emax II uses the same output system as the Proteus - that is, each Sub output employs a stereo jack that can act as an effects send and return by connecting the send to the tip and the return signal to the ring of the jack.
The Emax II library consists of sample banks from the Emulator III sample library. The MIDI Sample Dump standard is supported, allowing stereo samples to be copied into the Emax II over MIDI.
A Stereo Voice control selects stereo or monophonic operation. When Stereo Voice is off, the primary and secondary voices use their respective voice parameters. When the Stereo Voice facility is switched on, the Emax II plays stereo sample presets by assigning the left and right sample channels to primary and secondary samples (E-mu's standard layering method), and then applies the primary voice parameters to the primary and secondary samples. The catch in this scheme is that the primary and secondary samples must have the same original key and sample rate, and both must be assigned to the same keyboard range.
Supermode (E-mu's way of allowing polyphonic, multitimbral playback from the internal sequencer or over MIDI) and the multitrack sequencer have been preserved from the original Emax. As before, the sequencer's capacity is determined by the amount of remaining sample memory.
Two MIDI ports (In and switchable Thru/Out) are the Emax II's link to external controllers and sound modules. For interfacing with analogue controls, two footswitch inputs, a footpedal input (which accepts variable resistance or voltage), and a sequence clock input and output cover the common bases.
THE EMAX II looks exactly like an Emax, except for an attractive black chassis with hot pink lettering and subtle differences in the front panel silkscreen. All the controls are exactly where they were before, with only slight variations in control names and function lists (Analogue Processing is now called Dynamic Processing, for example). The liquid crystal display viewing angle is adjustable as well.
Speaking of the display, it would have been nice if E-mu had used a larger LCD, like those currently found on many other samplers.
In operation the Emax II is almost exactly the same as its predecessor, with one or two additions and enhancements - so if you already know your way around the Emax operating system, you'll have a very shallow learning curve ahead of you. While I don't want to leave anyone in the dark, time and space do not permit a full review of the Emax II's user interface - if you need more information, you'll find a full review of the Emax in MT, Jan '87.
The basic Emax II comes equipped with 1Meg of sample memory. The Emax II Turbo, on the other hand, comes standard with 4Meg of memory and an internal 40 megabyte hard disk. The Emax II can accommodate up to 8Meg of sample memory, but memory expansions only come in chunks of 2Meg. To expand the basic Emax II, you have to add a 1-to-3 megabyte expansion board before you can add any more 2Meg expansions. On the other hand, the Emax II Turbo requires no expansion board.
"Thanks to a new fixed sample rate playback scheme, the Emax II can transpose samples over a ten-octave range - up or down five octaves."
EMAX II INTERNAL hard disks use SCSI ID 1, leaving SCSI ID 0 and IDs 2 through to 7 available for other SCSI storage devices such as E-mu's RM45 removable media hard disk unit. Eventually, third-party software packages (sample editors, and the like) will communicate with the Emax II over SCSI. In the meantime, existing systems (such as Digidesign's Sound Designer on Atari ST and Mac) and Blank Software's Alchemy (on the Mac), or Optical Media's CD-ROM drives can communicate with the Emax II by way of the RS422 serial port.
Of course, you can store your work on 3.5" floppy disks, but given a four or eight megabyte sample memory, floppies are best reserved for backup purposes only.
The Emax II includes a utility for backing up hard disks to floppy or other hard disks. You can backup specific banks or only those banks which have been created or modified since the last backup. You can even establish a custom backup method to keep things simple.
THE EMAX II accepts audio input from a quarter-inch monophonic jack on the back panel. Although the sampler is designed for stereo sample playback, it does not sample in stereo. You can sample stereo sources one channel at a time (if, for instance, the source material is on tape), but it's not quite the same as the real thing. (Rumour has it that E-mu are waiting for a specific type of integrated circuit to come to market before adding stereo sampling capabilities to the Emax II.)
Sample editing features on the Emax II are impressive. Not only can you splice, mix, reverse, truncate and otherwise mutate samples, you can perform transform multiplication (TM) on any two samples. For the uninitiated, TM is the synthesis technique that Emu Systems introduced on the Emax SE. TM synthesis imposes the harmonic characteristics of one sample upon a second sample to create a new sample. At present, TM is pretty much unexplored territory.
TO THESE EARS the Emax II sounds impressive. As is always the case with samplers, what you get out of it depends on what you put in, but Emu have ported the Emulator III's sound library over to the Emax II, so a very large collection of high-quality samples is already available.
Original Emax banks also sound better when loaded into the Emax II. Banks of 1Meg or less can be saved in a compressed form which the original Emax recognizes. However, you'll probably want to get in there and tweak a few parameters. For instance, the new filters respond differently to the old analogue filters, so you may have to adjust the cutoff frequency. Due to the Emax II's ten-octave sample transposition capabilities, you can make your old presets do things you couldn't do before (such as covering the entire five-octave range of the keyboard).
Transform multiplication works much more satisfactorily on the Emax II than it did on the old Emax - it took ten minutes to turn a guitar pluck and human voice into a hybrid sample, but the result was well worth the wait. With all the Resampled pluck plus sustained breathy voices synthesis cluttering the airwaves these days, it's encouraging to see E-mu continue to support this relatively new type of synthesis.
OVERALL, THE EMAX II is a very impressive instrument. The sound quality is excellent, and sampling and programming are very easy. The four stereo output pairs make the Emax II convenient for a wide variety of applications - from on-stage use to use in an audio-visual studio. And, considering the 16 stereo voices and dynamic low-pass filters, these features are not likely to go wasted.
So is the Emax II at the top of the low end, the bottom of the high-end, or somewhere else? If your main interest is sound quality rather than price, there's little point in comparing it to the 12-bit sampler market.
Comparing a fully-expanded Emax II Turbo with a similarly equipped EIII, the Emax II system comes in at £6828 against the EMI's £11,898 retail. If the ability to sample in stereo is low on your list of priorities and if you already have an external sequencer that suits your work, the Emax II is certain to be the more attractive choice.
On the other hand, once you start sampling in stereo, it's hard to go back to sampling in mono. If you already have a stereo sampling system such as the EIII, the Emax II makes an ideal expander. Thanks to the Emax II's intelligent handling of MIDI sample dumps, porting banks from the EIII to the Emax II is simple - a factor which you'll appreciate after transferring several large 16-bit samples over MIDI. If you rely heavily on third-party sample libraries, then owning an Emax II places an incredible assortment of sounds at your disposal. If you already have an Emax sample library, then stepping up to an Emax II is a logical move.
Based on pricing and features of other 16-bit samplers on the market, the basic Emax II with 1Meg of memory represents good value, but the Emax II really comes alive when you reach Turbo status. With 4Meg of sample memory, multiple polyphonic outputs, 16 stereo voices, and E-mu's huge sample library, the Emax II makes stepping up to 16-bit sampling a sensible move. The bottom line is that E-mu really do deserve extra points for cramming so many good features into a single instrument.
Prices Emax II: £2850: Emax II Turbo: £5290: 1-to-3Meg Memory Expansion for Emax II: £899: 2Meg Memory Expansion for Turbo, or 3Meg Emax II: £769. All prices include VAT.