E-Mu Systems EMAX
Digital sampling keyboard
Much rumour and speculation has surrounded the launch of what Ian Gilby reckons to be the best mid-priced sampling keyboard on the market. So what makes Emax special? Read the UK's first in-depth review and find out.
Is it simply a 'baby' Emulator II with reduced features or is Emax truly in a class of its own? Review: Ian Gilby
Those of you who read this publication with any semblance of regularity may already have remarked on the fact that this is the first keyboard review I, personally, have undertaken for this magazine since its outset. So why choose this moment - and, in particular, an instrument like the new Emax from E-mu Systems - to vent my virgin passion in public? The answer is simple: my initial encounter of Emax at a private press/dealer demonstration, and my subsequent reading of the preliminary Emax specification sheet, coupled with E-mu System's sampling pedigree and reputation for creating 'industry standard' products (SP-12 and Emulator II), impressed me sufficiently to recognise that the forthcoming Emax was going to be something special and not just another digital sampling keyboard in the £2000-plus price range.
So, when said instrument was eventually made available for review I exercised the old 'editor's perogative', closed my ears to the deafening pleas of frustrated freelance reviewers all anxious to check it out first, and disappeared swiftly into the night dragging Emax behind me... (don't worry, it was flight cased at the time).
Two solid weeks later I emerged from my studio hideaway happy to report that my original feelings about Emax had been convincingly confirmed - this is the first of the affordable sampling keyboards that you could truly call a 'portable digital recording studio' without fear of infringing the Trades Description Act, as I hope you will agree after reading the following review.
The first thing that endears you to Emax are the 10 disks of preset sampled sounds included in the price of the machine. These contain around 15 different samples per disk and incorporate some of the best sampled sounds I have heard for a long while - not surprising when you remind yourself that Emax's big brother, the Emulator II, is supported by many users worldwide and has amassed a colossal sound library. Also, E-mu Systems have more experience than most in the sampling field; way back in 1981 they released the first low-cost commercial sampling keyboard - the original Emulator - and thankfully it shows, both in Emax's ease of operation and comprehensive range of sophisticated functions. Several of the Emax preset sounds display a welcome similarity to those of the Emulator II. In particular the Arco Strings disk which is almost as instantaneously recognisable as the Fairlight's orchestral stab preset, but infinitely more usable of course.
Unlike Sequential with their Prophet 2000/2002 samplers and, to a lesser degree, Akai with their S900, E-mu Systems have thankfully avoided the 'cart before the horse' syndrome and recognised the important fact that what attracts most buyers to any sampling device are the quality and range of the factory presets on offer, as it is they, theoretically, that should give more of an indication of the machine's potential than any brief shop-test or salesman's spiel - however honest it may be. The sounds on the Emax factory disks, I am glad to say, are a shop demonstrator's dream (leave customers alone with Emax and it'll sell itself!), but E-mu's demonstration trump card comes in the form of Emax's onboard sequencing facility.
Stored alongside the preset voices on every one of the 10 factory disks are some wonderfully arranged preset multitrack sequences which ably demonstrate what Emax can do. The 'Argent Live' sequence on the Rock Organ disk, for instance, features a looped version of Rod Argent's Hold Your Head Up complete with beefy Hammond organ licks-tremendous stuff!! A selective range of samples gathered from the Rock Kit disk ('Rockman' Strat, drums, twangy bass, chorused DI guitar, roto-toms etc) are combined well on this particular disk's sole preset sequence (called 'Crimsonite') to produce a pacy, King Crimson-like scale exercise that is Bob Fripp and Bill Bruford to a tee! One of the French Horn disk sequences contains an uninspiring medley of the Dallas and Dynasty soap opera themes (though it makes good use of some lifelike horn samples), and the topicality is maintained on the Big Brass/Cymbal Crash disk with the inclusion of the opening brass riff from Peter Gabriel's smash hit, Sledgehammer, amongst its programmed sequences (anyone informed the Performing Rights Society about this by the way?).
Overall, the 10 disks supplied with Emax cover a host of instantly playable sounds applicable to most styles of music. The majority are samples of conventional acoustic instruments but there are chunky filter-swept synths etc available on the Kyodal Synth Collage disk. The disk library is as follows:
Big Brass/Cymbal Crash
Mixed Chorus/Synth String
French Horn Section
Rock Guitar Lead/Rhythm
Kyodal Synth Collage
E-mu's programmers and marketing boys must be congratulated, for the combination of quality samples and well presented preset sequences are going to go one helluva way towards convincing potential owners that Emax is the right sampling machine for them.
Having grabbed your attention with that opening foray, a rundown of the main features should present a more complete picture of what Emax has to offer, beginning with its 61-note (five octaves C1 - C6) non-weighted keyboard which responds both to velocity information (the speed with which a key is pressed) and aftertouch (the degree of pressure applied to a key after it is pressed down). The Emax keyboard can sound up to eight notes simultaneously although in Dual Voice mode two separate samples can be assigned to each of the 61 notes if you so wish.
Built-in to Emax is a standard 3.5 inch disk drive for loading/saving of your own and/or factory samples as well as any sequences created with the onboard 16-track, polytimbral, MIDI sequencer and highly flexible arpeggiation facility. These can both either be internally clocked or driven from a range of external clock inputs, including MIDI.
Eight individual audio channel output jacks are available on the rear panel and Emax's programmable panning function allows stereo positioning of samples across the left/right outputs ('Left' usefully doubles as a stereo headphone socket as well).
On the technical side, Emax offers 12-bit sample resolution and a generous maximum sampling rate of 42kHz which results in a maximum sample length of 12.4 seconds - better than anything the competition can offer. Any one of six sample rates can be selected, the lowest of which (10kHz) produces a maximum sample length of 52 seconds. This means that amongst the current crop of similarly priced samplers, only the Akai S900 will give you a longer sample duration (63 seconds) - but a 7.5kHz sampling rate is the price you'll pay for those extra 11 seconds!
The rundown wouldn't be complete without adding that Emax, like Sequential's Prophet 2000/2002, provides onboard processing facilities for both the digital and analogue manipulation of samples held in its extensive memory.
Now on to the operational side of Emax which is divided sensibly into a series of eight 'modules'. Each module has a menu listing the functions (by name and number) that you can call up once a module has been activated. These are clearly printed on the right of the front panel for quick and easy reference. The modules are as follows:
Apart from the sequencer section, all modules are accessed from the far-right column of blue rubber pushbuttons which look rather cheap and nasty, but they work and help keep the overall cost down, so who cares? An adjacent red LED lights to confirm your selection once a module button has been pressed and the name of the chosen module appears in the main display.
Although back-lit, this LCD is rather difficult to read in bright lighting conditions, especially from certain viewing angles, where it is easily obscured by glare. Recessing it into the front panel hasn't helped, in fact it makes things worse when playing Emax from a seated position. Angling the LCD more towards the player and enclosing it in a hood arrangement would have proved better, though it would more than likely also add to the tooling costs.
Still, Emax does make very good use of its 32 character display to inform you of what's going on. General display readouts indicate the chosen function on the top line of 16 characters whilst stating the available options and which control to use to select them on the bottom line. For example:
You can use either the data slider to scroll through the options quickly, the increment/decrement buttons or cursor keys for more accuracy, or key in a value directly with the numeric keypad below the display, unless Emax limits you to only one of these controls, as in the above example.
But at every stage, Emax leads you gently by the hand through each step of an operation. The Enter LED flashes whenever Emax requires you to input a value or make a decision, and is very forgiving if you press the wrong button: before implementing any irreversible action, like selecting the Erase All command, Emax always queries your choice with a display prompt like the following:
Emax also requires you to press the Enter button to instigate a function once it has been selected, which adds a further safeguard. I know some programmers who consider this kind of double-checking process to be more of a hindrance than help once they've mastered a particular machine, but in the case of a sampling device I'd rather put up with it than regret doing something stupid in a hurry - like accidentally wiping the memory contents half-way through a session!! The system is undoubtedly a boon to the novice user and shouldn't slow down the professional player to any significant degree once past the familiarisation stage.
Emax's memory (referred to as the Bank) is empty on power-up and so sounds have to be either loaded from a formatted disk or sampled by the machine before you can make any noise.
Formatting is a quick and straightforward procedure implemented by selecting the Format Disk function in the Master module. Emax has the advantage that it stores its software operating system automatically on every 3.5 inch disk, along with all the Sample, Preset, Voice and Sequencer data. That means you can load the whole lot in one fell swoop, having first pressed the Load All and Enter buttons (well positioned in the centre of the front panel, incidentally). Emax takes around 25 seconds to load a full disk, which is quicker than Roland's S-50, but generally par for the 12-bit course.
By the way, all comments in this review refer to software revision 2.3. If a software revision occurs in the future, any existing Emax disks can be painlessly updated to the new operating system thanks to the Master module's special Copy Software function. No worries about obsolescence here!
Once loading is complete, Emax allows you to immediately play the Current Preset whose name and number are shown in the display, eg. P02 Male Choir. A 'Preset', in Emax terminology, refers to a group of Voices that have been assigned collectively to the keyboard, and Emax permits up to two Voices per key (the Primary and Secondary Voice) to be stored in any single Preset, and up to 100 Presets in the overall Bank. A 'Voice' is the descriptive name given to any sound that has been sampled by Emax and processed through its Analogue and/or Digital Processing modules. Once a sound has been sampled, you can assign it to a single note on the keyboard or transpose it polyphonically to cover a wider range of the keyboard. (We'll cover the sampling process in due course.)
If you wish to tweak or completely alter any parameter of a Voice (even those forming part of a factory Voice), you first have to activate the Change Current Voice function in either of the Digital or Analogue modules, then tell Emax which Voice(s) you wish to work on.
This is easily done. In its display, Emax identifies each Voice by a two-digit number and its original pitch (eg. F3 - the pitch at which the sample was taken). By playing up the keyboard and watching the displayed note names, you can quickly ascertain where one Voice sample stops and another starts. (This is made much easier, of course, when multiple samples of one instrument are not being used across the whole keyboard and the Voices all have different sounds - then you just listen out for the changes.) By pressing first the lowest key then the highest key in the range where the desired Voice lies (followed by Enter each time), you actually specify the Voice to be processed.
Sometimes you have to be careful though: Emax rather cleverly allows one Voice to overlap another on the keyboard (to create 'doubled' sounds) so if part of another Voice range that you don't want to alter happens to fall within the keyboard span of the selected Current Voice, then the whole range of the (unwanted) Voice will be affected by any parameter changes you make, as well!
Having specified the Voice to be worked on, Emax allows you to begin adapting and tailoring it to suit your own needs. Plenty of features allow you to do this, but the means of changing the fundamental characteristics of a Voice sample are available from Emax's Analogue and Digital Processing modules. So let's explore what is possible...
One of the hardest things when recording multiple samples of an acoustic instrument like a piano, for example, is to ensure consistency between the volume levels of each different sample and to match them across the keyboard. Feeding your sampled sound through a compressor/limiter then into the sampling machine is a good way of evening out level discrepancies, but not everybody has access to a compressor. With this in mind, Emax's Attenuation function provides you with a means of accurately reducing the level of each Voice (sample) in 1dB steps (up to 46dB) to produce a similar end result. And, if the piano you intend sampling is dodgy, you don't need to worry about any slightly out-of-tune samples since Emax lets you individually tune each Voice across a -48 to +45 cents range (one semitone equals 100 cents). A secondary benefit of this function is that it opens up the possibility of using alternate scales on Emax (like just-intonation) - you're not condemned solely to the even-tempered scale as with most synthesizers. Some composers should definitely find this appealing.
The Delay function in this module varies the time between a key being pressed and the onset of the note, but I can't honestly imagine any context where it might be useful! Maybe I'm just thick?
Those readers brought up on analogue synths, like myself, will be glad to learn that Emax utilises eight VCAs, eight VCFs and eight LFOs - one per note (Emax is 8-note polyphonic, remember), though you only need to set up the parameters for one VCA, one VCF and one LFO, of course. The VCA envelope generators don't offer the dynamic complexity found on Roland's S-50 sampler (being five-stage as opposed to its eight-stage type), but programmable control of the hold, as well as the attack, decay, sustain, and release characteristics of a Voice is more than you get from either the Prophet 2000 or Akai S900, and it's a sophisticated enough set-up to handle most people's envelope-shaping needs - especially when linked to keyboard velocity.
Timbral modification of a Voice comes courtesy of Emax's voltage-controlled filter which allows you the flexibility of changing envelope and filter characteristics in real-time - something that is not currently possible with Roland's S-50 filter, it being digital as opposed to analogue.
Emax's analogue filter has its own dedicated five-stage envelope generator, which is as easy as that of the VCA to programme and, in conjunction with a slow LFO setting, can produce those gorgeous, classic filter-sweep effects most people associate with traditional analogue synthesizers. There's plenty of scope for experimentation in this section as you can vary the filter cut-off frequency, alter the Q (filter resonance), determine how the filter cut-off frequency tracks the keyboard pitch, and adjust the amount of effect the filter envelope (both positive and negative types) has on the cut-off frequency. Is this a Roland System 100 in disguise or what? You may well think so when you read the range of modulation facilities Emax also provides...
Emax generates true polyphonic modulation, thanks to its eight LFOs (one per note). The LFO can be assigned to modulate four different parameters: pitch (vibrato), amplitude (tremolo), filter cut-off, and stereo placement (panning). As well as varying the amount of modulation, you can adjust the LFO rate (from very slow to overly fast), the amount of delay between striking a key and the onset of modulation, and also set the degree of LFO variation. The latter two parameters add that extra ounce of realism to ensemble sounds like Strings - particularly 'variation', which introduces an element of randomisation to the LFO so that each note held on the keyboard has a slightly different rate to the others. Nice one E-mu.
If you still can't get a rich ensemble sound out of Emax using the above facilities (you must be doing something wrong if you can't!), then you can always try the auto-chorus function, which doubles the Voice sample and slightly detunes it, with no loss of polyphony I hasten to add. Like any chorus though, this effect works better on some sounds than others. However, I do think that if Emax could fractionally delay the second sample as well as detune it, this would add the necessary 'body' to the chorus which I felt was somewhat lacking.
The ability to position samples in a stereo image is a feature not found on other comparably-priced sampling devices. Why? I don't know, for it is an extremely valuable one to my mind. Emax, for example, lets you individually pan every Voice sample to any of 15 possible stereo positions across the left/right output channels - 1-7 left, 1-7 right and centre - and store that position as part of the Preset on disk. Great for live performances! The default setting for this function (like all other Emax defaults) is sensibly arranged so that all Voices are automatically panned to a central position.
Voices need not remain in one static position however: by activating the LFO-to-pan function you can sweep sounds across the stereo image, the sweep speed being dependent upon the programmed setting. Alternatively, you can assign keyboard velocity to vary the stereo placement, whereby the Voice changes position according to the velocity range you set and how hard you strike a key.
As you can imagine, all this makes for some pretty stunning effects - and you don't need to touch a mixing desk! Hopefully you are now beginning to understand why I earlier described Emax as a sort of portable digital recording studio.
Let us now return to the use of keyboard velocity on Emax. Nearly all synthesizers these days have a velocity-sensitive keyboard; used well they can enhance your playing by adding extra dynamic expression to your sound. However, where a sampler with a velocity-sensitive keyboard has the advantage is that you can use it to sample sounds from an instrument with no inherent dynamics, and assign your own dynamics.
The most obvious parameters to have controlled by keyboard velocity are overall volume level and filter cutoff frequency, so that the harder you play the keyboard the louder and brighter a Voice sounds. Within the Master module you can even choose from 14 preset keyboard velocity curves (linear, S-shape, concaved exponential etc) and set how dynamics will respond to your individual playing style.
Nobody could feel cheated if that were all that could be controlled on Emax, but for good measure E-mu Systems have thrown in velocity control of panning (described earlier), filter Q, note pitch, filter attack time, VCA attack time, and crossfades between Primary and Secondary Voices. Most of these can also be controlled from keyboard pressure (aftertouch) if you prefer. These aren't worthless functions designed to bolster Emax's specification sheets either, they serve practical purposes and are enormously valuable in helping turn any static, lifeless sound samples back into dynamic, living instruments.
The Emax manual boldly proclaims that sampling (quote) "does not just involve sticking a microphone in front of something - sampling is an art." I totally agree; and sampling with Emax is surely equivalent to 'painting by numbers' - it really is ridiculously fast and easy to achieve a good end result with the minimum of skill.
The process is identical to sampling on the Emulator II, except that Emax isn't restricted to that machine's fixed 28kHz sampling rate: you have more flexibility to select the most appropriate rate for the job in hand. If you want to record a couple of verses of a tune and play them over and over while you dream up a knockout bass part to go with them, then you are not really concerned about the sound quality; the ability to take a lengthy sample is what counts here. At its lowest sampling rate of 10kHz Emax will provide you with a 52 second sample - more than enough to capture a few verses of anyone's three minute potential hit single!!
If quality sound is what you desire instead, Emax's highest sampling rate of 42kHz is a slight improvement over its direct competitors', and gives you an audio frequency response (bandwidth) of nigh on 20kHz with a very healthy maximum sample time of 12.4 seconds. The 8-bit Emulator II, even in its II+ with Hard Disk guise, begins to appear downright inflexible alongside the 12-bit Emax when you consider that it can only manage two banks of 17 second samples at a 28kHz fixed sampling rate. Isn't technological advancement wonderful?
For the record, the full range of sample rates/times available from Emax is as follows:
|Sample Rate||Sample Time|
|42 kHz||12.4 secs|
|31 kHz||6.6 secs|
|28 kHz||18.8 secs|
|20 kHz||26.0 secs|
|16 kHz||33.5 secs|
|10 kHz||52 secs|
With the absolute minimum of fuss, Emax lets you take five samples, map them across the whole keyboard, then play them back polyphonically - all within literally a few minutes! If you've never used a sampling keyboard before then you won't realise just how appealing this feature is. Emax is fast, believe me.
Such speed is possible because of the well-chosen default settings Emax has allocated to each of its sampling set-up functions. The best samples are obtained, however, when you take a bit of time to optimise each of the sample functions yourself. This is easily done...
With the Sample module activated, the bottom line of the front panel LCD acts as a 'peak hold' VU bargraph so that you can monitor and set the sample input gain to prevent any signal overload. You then specify the sample rate. In doing this, you have to bear in mind the length of sample you wish to take and the sound quality you require, then choose the most appropriate rate from the six options (see list above). The rate also determines the sample length (time), of course, which automatically defaults to maximum at this stage; it can be easily reduced if you require a shorter duration sample, just by calling up Sample Length and keying in a lower time value in seconds - not kilobytes or hexadecimal. Emax is very user-friendly you understand.
The next step is to set the threshold level and 'arm' Emax for sampling by keying in function number 6. Once armed, Emax automatically commences sampling as soon as the signal entering the rear panel Sample Input socket exceeds the chosen threshold level. Sampling continues for the length of time previously set by the Sample Length function, then stops. If you wish, you can manually halt sampling before the time is up by selecting the Stop Sampling command.
The alternative to this auto-sampling method is the manually-triggered force sampling. Here, sampling starts immediately after you select the Force Sampling function - hit number 7 on the keypad and away you go...
Both triggering methods have their particular applications dependant upon what sound you intend sampling, but in the main most people will utilise the threshold-sensitive option, I suspect, as this has the benefit of always preventing unwanted silence at the start of the sample. If there is silence (from using force sampling), it is easily removed, as you will soon see when we investigate the Digital Processing module.
When sampling, Emax defaults to placing the sampled sound on G1 of the lowest octave of its keyboard; it also immediately transposes the sample down to C1 and up to B1 for you. Pressing the G1 note plays back the whole of the sample at its original pitch. The beauty of this system is that if you mess things up while sampling, you don't have to reset all the parameters, you simply re-select the Arm Sampling function and try again. The new sample will automatically overwrite the previous one, unless you specify otherwise. If you are happy with the new sample, then to take extra samples all you need do is key in a value of 0, record another sample, and Emax will place it in the next free octave up the keyboard, and so on...
Obviously, this arrangement produces instantly usable results, but in recreating a good piano sound, for example, you will want to record more than five samples of the same instrument and dedicate each to a certain location on the keyboard. This technique is known as 'multi-sampling' and, generally speaking,the more individual samples you take of an instrument, the more authentic your recreation of it will be.
Although Emax allows you to place a different sample on to each of its 61 keys, if you were to select the overall maximum sample length of 52 seconds, then each of those 61 samples would only play back for just under one second - that's without the aid of Emax's sample looping facility, of course. You aren't limited to this set-up though, for Emax lets you divide up its memory Bank and share it between samples as you see fit.
So, returning to our piano example, you could allocate the longest sample time to the bass notes and progressively reduce the sample time for each higher note. The composite effect of that would be a more realistic reproduction of the original piano sound. Unfortunately, it would also need a considerably greater memory capacity than Emax currently offers in order to store the requisite amount of sample data. So, how does Emax manage to achieve as good a piano sound as that on its Grand Piano factory disk?
The answer is simple. It takes advantage of the fact that you really don't need a multi-sample of every note on the piano to produce a highly authentic sound. The more the better, granted, but you can save memory by transposing each multi-sample over a very limited note range - say, up two semitones and down two semitones. That way Emax need only store the data for the original sampled notes. The transposed notes either side are obtained by Emax playing back the original samples at different speeds - it's like varispeeding a tape recorder to produce different pitches. Now you only need 13 different samples instead of 61 to faithfully reproduce five octaves of piano.
Sampling with Emax is a matter of choosing how you want to do things, and that's how it should always be in my book: the player dictates, not the machine! Without doubt, Emax offers considerably more flexibility in this department than any other affordable sampler on the market - and that's good news for creatively-minded players!
This module is Emax's sound tailoring department where the basic raw material generated by Emax (a sample) is carefully fashioned into a fully-fledged Voice. This is also where the need for saving to disk and regularly making back-up copies of your work becomes a necessity if you don't wish to waste a lot of time and effort.
The major point to be aware of in this module is that if the sound sample you are processing is also saved in another Preset elsewhere on the disk, then all the parameter changes you make will automatically affect the other sample as well. Thankfully, you don't have to worry about keeping track of whether a sample is used elsewhere - Emax kindly tells you with a warning display:
Answering 'Yes' copies the sample into the current memory for you to work on and leaves the original sample untouched. But imagine what an instant mess this could make of all your finely polished brass Voices if you accidentally pressed 'No' and proceeded to chop the end off your brass sample!! Extra care and attention are therefore the order of the day when this module is active.
Emax offers plenty of varied ways to digitally manipulate a sample, some of which are analogous to the editing of magnetic tape with a razor blade. The Truncate function, for instance, enables you to very accurately trim amounts off the beginning and/or end of a sample by specifying new start and/or end points. Using the Taper function, you can then programme a suitable fade-in (0-99 milliseconds) and/or fade-out (0-999ms) for the newly-truncated sample which can often help prevent troublesome glitches occurring if the sample is later looped.
On that subject, the ever-versatile Emax enables you to create two different loops in each sample - the sustain loop and the release loop - and play them forwards or in reverse to simulate backward tape effects.
Without looping, a two second sample would simply start playing when a key is pressed and then stop two seconds later, regardless of whether the key was still being held. But looping works like the 'infinite repeat' setting on many digital delay units and provides a means of artificially extending a sample without using up valuable memory space.
To set up both types of loop, you must define the start point of the loop in relation to the start of the complete sample, and also define the loop length. The sustain loop then repeats for as long as you hold down a key; when you release it, the release loop then begins repeating for as long as the release phase of the VCA envelope lasts. I'll leave you to think of the musical applications of such a versatile dual-loop system - there are many.
Thankfully, as obtaining a seamless loop with no annoying glitches can prove the hardest task in the world on some sound sources (and on some samplers!), Emax comes to the rescue with several handy, built-in features that certainly do improve your end result.
The main one of these is E-mu's patented Autolooping function (also found on the Emulator II). Emax uses this to locate the best possible loop points once you have attempted to get as close as you can to them manually. It works fine on most material, especially if you also initiate the Crossfade Loop function.
Further sample manipulation can be achieved with Emax's Splice function, which does a very good job of electronically butting the chosen end point of one sample up to the chosen start of another. This can provide a rich source of innovative sounds and is great fun. To smooth away any clicks or glitches that the resultant splice joint may produce, Emax automatically fades out one sample as the joint nears and fades in the other, all within a very short allotted time span (0-990ms). This process is known as 'crossfading'.
The last major function in the Digital Processing module is Combine Voices, which is used to permanently merge together two different Voice samples. Although this saves valuable memory space, like bouncing two tracks down to one on a tape recorder, the current Emax software gives you no way of adjusting the level balance between one Voice and another when combining them. You have to rely on the original samples having been recorded at suitably equal levels. Pity - as this detracts from the appeal of this otherwise unique feature, in my view.
As mentioned at the start, Emax has a 16-track real-time sequencer accessed via the Sequencer Set-up and Sequencer Manage modules. Unfortunately, this lacks the sophisticated range of functions you would expect from a dedicated sequencer like an MC-500 or QX5 but, in its defence, it was conceived to be a handy storage area for trying out your musical ideas.
Whatever you play the sequencer records - warts and all - on the chosen one of its 16 tracks. Since there is no step editing, punch-in or auto-correction facility, if you make a mistake you obviously have to record the whole track again. And if your timekeeping isn't exactly 'hot', recording the first track can be made more difficult by the fact that Emax currently has no onboard metronome facility, so you have no tempo click-track to guide you. To overcome this, E-mu Systems have informed me that all future Emax factory disks will contain a click-track stored as a sequence which can be loaded before recording any sequencer parts. Good idea.
As you can continuously vary the sequence tempo (40-240 bpm) with the data slider in real-time, you can cheat and slow the first track(s) down for the difficult bits, whilst recording the next track. If 16 tracks is not enough for your needs, Emax enables you to bounce several tracks across to one track (similar to the Combine Voices function). In doing this, however, it automatically erases the source tracks, which is not the case when bouncing tracks on an analogue tape recorder, so you shouldn't think of it as a quick way to copy tracks!
The sequencer can be internally driven (as when recording tracks) or clocked externally from MIDI In or from a 24,48 or 96 pulses per quarter note signal connected to MIDI In or the rear panel Clock Input jack. Emax also recognises MIDI song pointers, so you can remotely control the sequences from a connected drum machine, say, and play them back in sync from any bar you like.
Mentioning MIDI brings us on to Super Mode. When this function is turned on in the Sequencer Set-up module, you can download the contents of an external MIDI sequencer like an MC-500 into Emax's sequence memory, via MIDI In. (This is possible because each of Emax's 16 sequencer tracks corresponds directly to a MIDI channel.) You can then assign Emax Voices to the sequences and permanently store all of this newly-acquired MIDI data as part of a Preset on disk.
This means you can sit at home programming sequences on your MC-500, Steinberg Pro-24 or whatever, download them one at a time into Emax and save them as part of a Preset on disk, then turn up at the gig or session without your MC-500, load the relevant disk and, hey presto!, you've got a complete, instant backing track!
Super Mode is undeniably a wonderful asset and just one more of Emax's powerful features. I could go on to talk about the incredibly sophisticated arpeggiator (you name it, it's got it!) which makes anything you'll find on a Casio keyboard look positively prehistoric!; or explain the versatile assignment options for the real-time controllers (left (sprung)/right wheels, pedal, two footswitches); or explore the full complement of MIDI parameters which allow you to programme different Presets to send or receive on different MIDI channels and which can all be stored on disk; the range of facilities goes on and on...
This review has only scratched the surface of what this highly advanced sampling keyboard called Emax can do.
To quote Craig Anderton from his well-written 132-page owner's manual: "to cover every possibility of how to use the instrument would drown you in words". I think I already have, so time to come to some conclusions...
Emax has exceeded my original expectations by a long shot! It is capable of producing very high quality sound samples which, in tandem with its versatile keyboard assignment and easy to use multi-sampling facility, results in probably the most authentic reproduction of instruments you will achieve this side of the Synclavier or Fairlight Series III.
But instrument emulation is not just what Emax is about. The Analogue and Digital Processing modules alone let you metamorphose sounds in such creative ways that it is hard to imagine what innovation will be possible when these are used in conjunction with Digidesign's forthcoming Emax Sound Designer visual editing software for the Apple Mac computer.
As the basis of a MIDI set-up, Emax makes one heck of a powerful master controller. It is also the easiest of the affordable samplers on the market to come to terms with, especially when trying to loop samples, yet it offers a more complex range of functions.
And, unlike many samplers which are confined to studios, Emax should soon be visible on many stages and in many clubs. The ability to quickly load disks full of sequences and Voices - all with their own individually programmed MIDI configurations, stereo panning, and real-time controller assignments - make Emax an ideal live performance instrument.
On the down side, perhaps more could have been made of Emax's onboard sequencer in terms of editing facilities, but maybe E-mu Systems are planning to bring out a dedicated sequencer of their own. Who knows?
What I do know is that working with Emax day and night for two weeks has imbued me with tremendous enthusiasm for the instrument at a time when I, like others I suppose, had just started to feel that the sampler market had begun to grow stale.
So where does Emax fit into that market, price-wise? Well, its high specifications and comprehensive range of features place it firmly at the top in my view, so you may well expect its selling price to reflect that lead - and it does. At £2595 inc VAT, Emax is more expensive than either the Prophet 2000, Roland S-50, Korg DSS-1 or Akai S900. But, judged objectively on a price/performance basis, it's definitely a bargain and worth saving up for if you are currently short of cash!
List price: £2595 inc VAT.
Review by Ian Gilby
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