E-MU SYSTEMS PROFORMANCE/1+
E-mu Systems' latest expanders are dedicated to the sounds of the piano - drawing on samples from the popular Proteus, how can they fail? Simon Trask tinkles the ivories.
It's not easy fitting an $18000 grand piano into a 1U-high half-rack box, but E-mu haven't let that deter them. Has their dedication paid off?
OVER THE YEARS, E-mu Systems have carved out a niche for themselves in the sampler market with their Emulator series and Emax samplers - and in the process they've built up a fair amount of sampling expertise and a sizeable and well-respected sample library. Bearing in mind that many musicians want sampled sounds without the hassle of having to sample them, it was a logical step for the company to make some of their samples available in a preset sample playback unit - which is precisely what they did last year with the Proteus.
The success of that unit has clearly prompted them to think about other variations on the sample playback theme, and what they've come up with are two 1U-high, half-rack, 16-bit true stereo piano modules, the Proformance/1 and the Proformance/1+. The former is given over entirely to sampled acoustic pianos, while the latter augments the acoustic pianos with electric piano, organ, electric and acoustic basses and vibes. These are purely preset sounds - there's nothing you can do to change them. Don't expect multitimbral MIDI operation, either, as the Proformance modules are designed to sit on one MIDI channel for one specific purpose: to provide keyboard players with performance-orientated sounds which can be used on an everyday basis.
OPERATIONAL SIMPLICITY IS the hallmark of the Proformance modules. Fiddly multi-function buttons and parameters which can only be reached after ten button-presses give way to the immediacy of Transpose, MIDI Channel and Preset selector knobs. Two further front-panel knobs govern volume and fine-tuning, while the green Power LED doubles as a MIDI reception indicator. Meanwhile, the rear panel provides MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, Left/Stereo and Right/Mono audio outs (the left output can also be used as a stereo headphone output) and a power input for the external adaptor. The module has no on/off switch, and the adaptor which came with the review model was one of those irritating two-prong types.
The Preset knob allows you to switch between up to 15 preset sounds, which just happens to be the number of presets offered by the Proformance/1. The further 17 presets on the Proformance/1+ can only be selected via MIDI. On both modules, switching the Preset knob to "MIDI" allows you to select all presets via MIDI.
The Transpose knob allows the Proformance to be transposed up or down an octave in semitone steps or transposed ± one or two octaves, while the MIDI channel knob allows you to select any one of channels 1-13, Omni, Split or Demo. A couple or so seconds after you select Demo, the Proformance starts cycling through a sequence of mainly jazzy keyboard performances, including a short rendition of 'Autumn Leaves' on vibes, which are designed to show off some of its sounds.
Split only applies to the Proformance/1+ (its position on the Proformance/1's MIDI channel knob is replaced by channel 14), and allows you to define a split-point anywhere on the keyboard for use with some of the presets, which offer two sounds in a split keyboard layout. All you need to do is turn the knob to Split, play the relevant note on the keyboard, then turn the knob to another setting. Sending the module MIDI controller 70 (from a programmable footswitch on your keyboard, for instance) has the same effect as selecting Split from the front panel, and can be a useful hands-free alternative. The split-point isn't preserved through power-down. Incidentally, controller 70 is at present unassigned in the official MIDI scheme of things, so its Split function is purely E-mu's idea.
As well as controller 70, the Proformance can respond to pitch and mod wheel, volume pedal, sustain pedal, sostenuto pedal and soft pedal data via MIDI. If you connect a second Proformance module to the first's MIDI Out, the latter automatically switches to MIDI Overflow mode, which means that as soon as its 16-note polyphony is exceeded it sends subsequent notes to the second Proformance (in fact, this is the MIDI Out's only function). Consequently, two modules will give you up to 32-note polyphony.
THE PROF0RMANCE/1+ SENSIBLY provides a mixture of instrumental sounds in its first 15 presets, so that you're not confined to selecting only acoustic pianos from the front panel. However, although the Proformance/1+ has 32 presets in all, this doesn't mean that you're getting 32 different sounds. For one thing, seven of the presets are split combinations of sounds used in the other presets - acoustic and electric basses variously combined with piano, organ, electric piano and vibes - while presets 25-28 are presets 1-4 with more touch sensitivity and presets 29-32 are presets 1-4 with less touch sensitivity. A similar situation regarding touch sensitivity exists on the Proformance/1. However, anyone with a keyboard that offers a choice of MIDI velocity curves might feel that having presets with varying velocity responses is rather unnecessary.
The Proformance's acoustic piano presets are based on stereo recordings of a concert grand piano. The basis of the module is provided by the first four presets: 'Dark Grand', 'Classic Grand', 'Mellow Ivory' and 'Rock Piano'. These have been tailored to different musical requirements, so that 'Dark Grand' is intended for solo performance, the brighter overall tone of 'Classic Grand' makes it better suited to ensemble work, the dark, rounded tones of 'Mellow Ivory' make it suitable for, to quote the Proformance manual, "soft moods and textures", and 'Rock Piano' has a bright, penetrating quality which allows it to cut through a mix without having to be EQ'd. Other variations are the bright and slightly-detuned 'Modern Rock', the bright and heavily-detuned 'HonkyTonk', the rich, warm 'Mellow Chorus' (a detuned version of 'Mellow Ivory') and 'Exceptionally Bright Piano' (instant Wild West saloon bar).
Proformance's acoustic piano presets are clean, dynamic and well-detailed, with no glaring changes in tone between multisamples, no looping glitches, and minimal thinning-out within loops. And while many multisampled acoustic pianos have stronger and weaker ranges, Proformance's piano presets are uniformly strong throughout their entire range. The bottom end is the best I've heard on a sampled piano; where many start to get mushy, Proformance's presets remain clear and detailed. The sounds decay smoothly to zero volume, with no noise on the tail end of the decay. If I were to make one criticism, it's that the decay isn't long enough; according to the manual, Proformance/1 includes versions of presets 1-4 with longer decay, but these aren't available on Proformance/1+.
The other sounds on the Proformance/1+ are a mixed bag. 'Warm Electric Piano' and 'Studio Electric Piano' are both very pretty sounds with not a lot of bite to them; the former has a dark, subdued character, the latter is brighter and buzzier. 'Electric Organ' and 'Rock Organ' are both gutsy sounds (the former is a Hammond B3 sample), and work well in combination with the gruff 'Electric Bass' - though a bit more dirt and distortion wouldn't have gone amiss. The 'Acoustic Bass' (which, like the 'Electric Bass', is only used in split presets) is a bit of a disappointment, its taut, clipped and distinctly woody quality being very inflexible in performance.
'Straight Vibes' and 'Bright Vibes' are both rather anaemic, to my ear - I've heard plenty better elsewhere. 'Bright Vibes' has an added glinting metallic quality courtesy of a mixed-in digital waveform. In fact, it would appear that the additive synthesis techniques employed in Proteus have been used to create such Proformance sounds as 'Synth Tines', 'Piano Bell' and 'Ice Keys': bright, sharp, glistening sounds with a subtle metallic edge and a distinctly synthetic quality to them.
COMPACT, LIGHTWEIGHT, AND deliberately designed to be as non-technical and easy to use as possible, the Proformance modules represent technology at its most convenient. Fortunately they also represent technology at its most impressive, something which it doesn't take you long to realise when you sit down and play the acoustic piano presets. To my mind, however, none of the extra sounds provided by the Proformance/1+ are essential in the way that the acoustic pianos are. If the module is going to be sitting in a studio surrounded by racks of MIDI gear which can handle all the other sounds, a Proformance/1 is probably the best option. However, if you're looking for a module to take out as your only sound source on solo keyboard gigs then the Proformance/1+ could be worth investing in for the added flexibility.
If you're dissatisfied with the acoustic piano samples on your all-singing, all-dancing workstation synth and don't relish the prospect of investing in a dedicated electronic piano of invariably tank-like proportions, look no further than the Proformance modules: sheer quality without the weight.
Thanks to The Synthesiser Company for loan of the review model.
Prices Proformance/1, £449; Proformance/1+, £529. Both prices include VAT.
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