E-Mu Systems Emulator III Version 1.21
Digital Sound Production Workstation
The latest version of E-mu's popular Emulator sampler incorporates stereo 16-bit sampling and a hard disk drive. Chris Meyer can't believe his ears.
The long awaited follow-up to E-mu's popular Emulator II ups the ante to 16-bit stereo sampling and places it in a price and features class of its own.
INTO TESTING THE new Emulator III, I have a few problems and complaints. I call two people at E-mu, and both ask, "What version software do you have? Aw, you should have the new stuff". One Federal Express package later, and I find almost all my problems solved and a dozen features added. Point - E-mu intend to keep this machine growing. Result: this review is going to be a snapshot of it circa late June, 1988.
But that shouldn't devalue this review. Why? Because reviewing the EIII isn't like reviewing just another synth or yet another 12-bit sampler. For one, thing it sits in a price category of its own - twice or more that of the 16-bit machines announced by Sequential, Akai, and Dynacord, half or less that of the AudioFrame, Fairlight, and Synclavier. For another, it's so comprehensive (we'll run down the specs in a bit) that spec wars are meaningless. It comes down to whether or not you need all (or a significant part) of what the EIII offers, and how painlessly it fits your way of working.
THE EMULATOR III is a 16-voice "stereo", 16-bit linear sampling instrument with sample rates of 33.3kHz and 44.1kHz, 4 Megabytes of RAM standard (expandable to twice that), and an internal 40 Megabyte hard disk. Of course, there's a 3.5" floppy drive, but you'll be ignoring it most of the time (internal hard disk, and a standard memory-full takes six floppies to back up).
Each voice has its own analogue filter and amplifier, and panning. There are 16 individual audio outputs along with stereo mix outs (the individuals take their related voice(s) out of the stereo mix). Other holes in the back panel include MIDI In, Out, and Thru, SMPTE/docking in and out, stereo sample inputs, an RS232 and SCSI disk ports (the latter allowing external hard disks to be added - E-mu give a list of nine that already work, and are making their own 300Meg rack-mountable one), a metronome output, and two footswitch and one footpedal inputs (hardware supplied). Also in evidence are a pair of trigger inputs that accept a wide range of signals (from pads to audio), with a nice set of software trims to prevent double triggering and the like. But why only two? That makes the EIII pretty expensive as a drum slave; you'd want more for either an electronic drum kit or replacing all your drum sounds on tape.
The keyboard version (there's a rack unit available too) also has a five-octave plastic keyboard with velocity, aftertouch, and mildly clunky feel along with a pair of assignable wheels. There's a fan built into both versions to keep things cool - between that and the hard disk, the EIII isn't exactly a silent piece of kit (not bad; just not silent). As a result I'm told E-mu are switching to a quieter hard disk.
The user interface consists of a 4X 20-character backlit LCD, a 10-key pad, four cursor controls (that occasionally double up for other functions), inc/dec buttons that double up for yes/no responses, a data entry slider (curiously placed away from the keypad, as opposed to next to it, where the master volume and sample input level faders are), a number of dedicated buttons for the sequencer transport control and things like common disk functions, and a button per editing module. Spartan, but it works. The buttons have a good, solid feel, but the Enter button on my machine was prone to double-clicking. LEDs prompt where appropriate.
E-MU'S SAMPLERS TEND to be designed on a modular basis with a number of submodules (and occasionally, subsubmodules) inside each module. Graphically, the EIII presents the module approach better than any previous E-mu unit. Having the operating system on the hard disk has all but eliminated delays in switching modules. Unfortunately, I still hate using it because the modules won't let me stay in any one place. You hit a module button, it asks you for a submodule. You scroll through the choices and hit Enter (or hit the number directly), and there you are. As soon as you're done with a subfunction, you get thrown out of the module - no chance to stick around and fiddle with it if you don't like what you've done. The worst example is during sampling - if your sample clips, the EIII sits there and tells you so, but won't let you resample until you leave the sampling module and go back in.
The EIII is not consistent from module to module (or submodule to submodule) as to how everything works. Sometimes the keypad can be used to enter numbers directly, sometimes not. It also likes to switch between Enter and Yes for acknowledgement of commands. You can't gracefully abort a function if you make a mistake, or the Enter button double-clicks - you have either to say No at the last step (harrowing), or go to another module and come back again. There's a wonderful Undo option every time you alter a sample, but it's in its own submodule - you can't stay within a submodule and try again.
Positively, the EIII has defaults (most of them even sensible), which can save you time and trouble (for example, it will automap samples upon sampling, if you wish). Undoing is invaluable - no more hesitation or remembering to make a backup before hitting Enter in the Mutilate module (it saves a copy of the original on the hard disk). A lot of functions are trimmable (such as zero crossing detector sensitivity). Working in stereo takes no additional thought on the part of the user. Numbers tend to be displayed in both time and number of individual samples (envelopes in time; LFOs in terms of frequency). Also, the EIII tells you what you're working on (which sample), even if it forces you to go to another module to change it.
Whereas most sampler manufacturers base things such as analogue treatments around individual samples, E-mu base them around "zones". Once you've spread a collection of samples across the keyboard (in one of two layers), you now change envelope shapes, filter cutoffs and so on, by ranges of keys with no attention to what portions of what samples you're taking in. Once you get used to this you can afford to forget exactly where samples are placed (the display tells you their names, anyway). Copying a keyboard zone into another preset (or even another bank) also automatically drags all the samples that make it up along with it - another of the many places the EIII manages to keep bookkeeping away from the user.
THERE'S NO WAY to detail every function of the EIII here - even the manual doesn't do a very good job of it, but here are some of the more interesting points I encountered.
"Modules: If your sample clips, the EIII sits there and tells you so, but won't let you resample until you leave the sampling module and go back in."
You can set up a template of parameters for new samples: mono or stereo, sample rate, number of keys to automap it over, whether or not to normalise the gain and automatically trim the ends. From there, you can sample away without trouble. The EIII is one of those samplers that actually grabs a little bit of sound before the sampling threshold is crossed; if you set the sensitivity on the zero crossing detector really high, it gets the perfect balance of not leaving any silence on the front of samples while not chopping off any of the attack. Autotrimming the end of a sample is less successful; even at full sensitivity, some sound gets lost (I was told the hardware in my machine may have been slightly out, thereby fooling the detector).
There are all sorts of interesting looping tools - single stepping, zero crossing detectors, autocorrelation, and crossfade looping. While autocorrelation is a great idea in theory, I've yet to see it working better than zero crossing detection. In the EIII, autocorrelation gave slightly improved results on its own zero crossing points. In all digital editing functions, the pitch-bend wheel an be used like a video shuttle control to move back and forth through the sound to locate a point. Loop points an be changed while a key is held down, which makes life easier. Crossfading may be linear or equal power, with adjustable length. The forwards equal power crossfade is as smooth as any I've heard; the backwards/forwards left glitches worse than the original (back to the Undo function...). Stereo samples crossfade just as well as mono samples; they just took longer (it's harder to get a straight loop out of them, because either side can glitch).
Truncation is as you would expect. There's a healthy collection of cut/copy/paste features, which saves sample fragments to an internal clipboard. Gain change an be performed over selected portions of the sound, and can be faded in or out with four different fade curves - unfortunately, it didn't sound quite smooth to my ears.
There's also a Taper function for just smoothing the starts and ends of sounds.
Once I got into the specialised digital processing routines, I almost never got out. The subfunction I first thought most superfluous - digital sample rate conversion - ended up being the most useful. One, you really can salvage memory by lowering the effective sample rate after the fact (warning: loop afterwards). I also found myself artificially converting sounds to a higher sample rate, which made them sound less lumpy when transposed downward.
Using the sample rate calculator built in, the sample rate can be optimised to make perfect loop boundaries fall on actual sample boundaries. A variation on sample rate conversion allows you to change the pitch of sounds, to make it easier to mix them with others that were originally sampled at a different pitch (unfortunately, this function doesn't keep the length of the sound the same, so you can't make one sample stretch all across the keyboard without munchkinisation). All of these functions take time (typically minutes) to perform, but made me realise I was really missing them before they existed.
There are submodules to superimpose DDL and autopanning effects onto samples that both work very cleanly. I had a ball taking a mono sample, copying it to make it stereo, tapering the two sides to silence at different rates, autopanning the two sides against each other (for a twirling pattern), and then running them through the DDL. Complaints? The DDL has restricted mix/feedback amounts (just numbers that were easy on the processor, instead of the "anything you want" philosophy of the rest of the machine), and I wondered where the Emax's DSP functions (convolution, additive synthesis) had gone.
Analogue processing includes three envelopes: one VCA, one VCF, and one wildcard that can go to pitch, panning, LFO rate, or LFO depth to pitch, volume, filter, or panning (more Brownie points). All envelopes are of the ADHSR (decade-old synth envelope plus a useful-for-samplers hold stage) - I've become used to multistage envelopes but these are adequate. The envelopes also have a one-shot mode (they skip decay and sustain) for percussive sounds and playing. The filter envelope an be inverted, and as you would expect, the filter has adjustable Q, cutoff, and keyboard tracking.
Not so good is the fact that there's only one LFO per voice, but it does have four shapes, a wide frequency range, a delay, separate depths for pitch, volume, filter, and panning, and "variation": it can vary in pitch per keystroke (a little humanisation). I couldn't find a way to sync the LFOs to keystrokes or each other. LFOs can be delayed, but don't fade in. Velocity an be routed ten different ways, all with their own amounts (nice for tweaking effects in), including such exotica as pitch, pan, filter Q, and sample start point.
As on the Emulator II and Emax, samples can be given a range of voices (and therefore individual outputs) to use. Since the EIII performs some of its processing in analogue form, it can't premix multiple voices to one output jack like all-digital units (Roland S550, Yamaha TX16W and so on).
"Sound: This is the first sampler I've ever used in which the sound that came out was almost exactly the same as the sound that went in. It scared me."
As mentioned earlier, two layers of samples can be defined. These can be stacked (with delay and detune), crossfaded by position, velocity, or real-time controller (pressure), or switched between by velocity (with adjustable threshold) or external switch. I was disappointed that samples on the same layer couldn't be positionally crossfaded - you have to chequerboard them and set up a number of small crossfades alternately between the primary and secondary layers. Up to eight presets an be stacked. In general, the preset module (and the MIDI that drives it) seems to be really well thought out.
THE EIII HAS a rudimentary algorithmic composition device built in that's particularly well suited for new age music (it has a comprehensive arpeggiator). That's not E-mu's sell-line, it's mine. It's obvious what E-mu have done is taken the arpeggiator in the Emax and slapped it into this beast too. Some people look down on arpeggiators these days; I've no complaints.
Next to why bother with an arpeggiator, one of the most common questions is why build a sequencer into an instrument any more. Everybody has their favourite outboard hardware or software sequencer, and they tend to have more features anyway... The reasons aren't much different from including sample editing features, despite the widespread availability of external sample editing packages - it's nice to be able to do something simple quickly on the machine. I like the concept of a scratchpad sequencer that I can later download the contents of to a more "serious" compositional sequencer; others prefer having a sequencer built in for live performance rather than hauling a computer around. And some just prefer having everything in one box. Neither the arpeggiator nor the sequencer added much to the cost (except for the SMPTE) so it's a matter of opinion whether the software development time could have been better spent.
By the way, the EIII's sequencer is no slouch. It's at least as competent as any hardware sequencer you can find, with SMPTE, MIDI Time Code, decent resolution (96ppqn), volume levels per track, cut, copy, and paste, step-time entry and editing, advanced autocorrection and the ability to view and edit events in terms of SMPTE timecode or bars, beats, and clocks. It does have some shortcomings - only 16 tracks, no time slipping or rotation functions, and to drive an external device it forces you to create an empty preset and assign that the outside MIDI channel. Overall, if you want to use a dedicated sequencer, you really won't be hurting here.
THIS IS THE first sampler I've ever used in which the sound that came out was almost exactly the same as the sound that went in. It scared me.
What can be said? It's clean 16-bit sound. There's a lot of dynamic range, and the signal's quiet. Sounds hold up under transposition at least as well as any other sampler I've used - it handles downward transposition well and I couldn't detect any sidebands with any transposition. There was a low-level buzz that appeared whenever I was in a digital editing module (it seems to come from the pitch/scrub wheel looping on one sample while waiting to move), but playback was pretty clean. And I like having real VCAs and VCFs around - I'm sure they distort more than their digital brethren but they make the instrument more musical to my ears.
I KEEP MAKING a comparison in my head between the EIII and a Fairlight Series IIX. This is because secondhand Series II's are starting to cost less than a new EIII (from a list price over twice that), and I'm remembering how many bands, studios, and producers bought one. The Fairlight was loved because it was so powerful, and so integrated - multitimbral, sampling, sample editing, a couple of sequencers (including the much-loved Page R), friendly user interface, SMPTE, and MIDI. I hit a mental block when I try to think of the EIII as such a star-maker, but in reality, it beats the Series II in almost every category: it sounds far better (and is stereo to boot), it has more advanced sample editing, more voices than the basic Series II, and is also multitimbral. The EIII only loses out in terms of its user interface - a four-line LCD and some cursor buttons is no match for a CRT and light-pen.
I could moan about a few small features I'd like to see on the EIII, but the fact of the matter is that this machine is about as full-featured and sonically dean as you're going to get for less than the price of a house. And the EIII is isolated from its competition in terms of its price and features (it doesn't out-feature any more expensive system; no cheaper system out-features it).
I personally found the EIII to be a lot more refined and thorough than I expected; I also found it to be a bit more cumbersome to use. But it sounds great. Perhaps it's best suited to the artist or studio who wants one instrument (and no interfacing hassles); who wants to, and an, devote the time to sampling and perfecting those samples; who would like (at the least) a sketchpad available to compose them into a song; and who requires CD quality. For that it's the best buy in town.
Prices Basic 4Meg EIII, £7850. 8Meg, £9450: 4Meg EIII Rack, £7650. 8Meg £9250. Upgrade to 8Meg, £1600. All prices are exclusive of VAT
Review by Chris Meyer