E-Mu Systems Proteus
E-mu's Proteus sample player has been one of the stars of recent trade shows, yet it's been in desperately short supply in the UK. Vic Lennard finds it's been worth the wait.
Everywhere it's been seen, Proteus has been in demand - so much so that it's hard to get hold of a review model. Just how good is E-mu's budget sample-reading baby?
THE USES OF a sampler are far too numerous to be listed, but suffice it to say that no musical environment is complete without one these days. However, the problems in trying to build a good library of sounds are manyfold and most of us rely on manufacturers or third-party programmers to do much of the dirty work for us.
E-mu Systems are renowned for their Emax and "Emulator" series of samplers - the Emulator III being their current flagship. Anyone who has heard one of these machines cannot fail to have been impressed by its performance. Sadly, its price tag has kept it the instrument of the professional. Imagine taking the best sounds from this and putting them into a £900 box this is precisely what good ole E-mu have done to bring us the Proteus.
THEY SAY THAT appearances can be deceptive and in this case it is certainly true, because Proteus comes in a 1U-high 19" rack-mountable case which appears to be either made of plastic or to have a layer of plastic around it. It definitely looks a bit cheap, if modernistic. The front panel has push buttons for Master menu, Edit menu and Data Entry along with a further two for cursor movement and data entry. Lights for each of the buttons, along with one indicating the presence of MIDI messages, and a rotary volume control complete this face of the unit. The rear panel has three sets of stereo audio outputs along with the usual MIDI In, Out and Thru complement of sockets.
The basis of Proteus is as follows: four Megabytes of internal ROM stores 125 Tones - some of which have been sampled in stereo - and each Tone has the necessary samples to provide a complete keyboard layer. Two Tones and any editing they have received reside in a Preset, of which there are 192: 64 being programmable and the remaining 128 being set in the factory. Up to four presets can be linked to play at the same time, and the unit boasts an impressive 32-note polyphony. An extra four Megabyte ROM is to be made available.
THE ORIGINAL SAMPLES in Proteus cannot be edited, but various parameters affecting the playback can. As mentioned above, each Preset can have two associated Tones assigned to layers named Primary and Secondary - although either of these can be given a "null" Tone if required. Many of the parameters are independent for each layer: the range of notes along the keyboard; volume, which acts as a balance between the two tones; pan across the selected pair of audio outputs for the Preset with 15 selectable positions; coarse/fine tuning; chorus, which duplicates the tone and then slightly detunes it, consequently halving the polyphony, and determining whether or not Solo mode is required to synthesise the feel of a monophonic instrument.
Other parameters tend to reflect the situation for which the Preset is catering. For instance, it is possible that you'd want a piano attack along with a string section decay. The attack portion of the strings has to be lost, for which the Sound Start edit is used. This dictates where the playback of the strings Tone commences. Then the string part has to be delayed. This is accomplished by using the Delay option which will allow a delay of up to 13 seconds to be introduced. Each of the Tones will have its own envelope which will have been set at the time they were sampled, but here we need to make the piano tone decay more quickly. In order to facilitate this, each layer can have an Alternative envelope imposed upon it. This gives control over attack, hold and decay times, sustain level and release time (AHDSR).
It is also possible that one Tone is to be crossfaded into another - either depending on the key velocity or cleanly switched. Again there are editing parameters for this which include the direction, balance and amount of crossfade and a velocity/note switch point.
There is also a third category of edit, which affects the Preset as a whole. The degree of channel/polyphonic aftertouch and pitchbend range can be set per Preset, even if presets are linked together. This means that you can use aftertouch on selected Tones amongst those being played at any time. Similarly a velocity curve can be selected (from four that are available) or a "global" setting can be used (more of which later). Finally, the intonation of the centre note can be set, for this a selection of five different keyboard tunings are on offer. Proteus also has two Low Frequency Oscillators (LFOs) each of which have a selection of five waveforms along with controls for rate, delay and variation.
E-mu Systems have attempted to make Proteus as flexible as possible and so have implemented a facility for allowing you to use the key number or velocity of a note to vary the characteristics of the LF0s and Tones. For instance, you could select the velocity of the note played to change the pitch of the secondary Tone up to a maximum amount - which you can set - so the harder you hit the keys, the greater the change in pitch. Or you could make the attack time dependent on the key number. In this way you can compensate for the slower playback of a sample. In all, up to six of the 33 possible programming parameters can be affected simultaneously in this way.
"Proteus' controllers open up an aspect of MIDI which few instruments allow - let alone an instrument as modest as a preset sample reader."
Some of Proteus' parameters can be set globally under the Master menu so that they hold for whichever Preset is chosen. Some of these are as would be expected - master tune, transpose, global pitchbend and velocity curve - while others can be used to override selections within Presets. These include the assignment of audio outputs and the ability to set up a user key tuning table by selecting the increments from one note to another in steps of 1/64th of a Tone. Finally there is a viewing angle adjuster so that you can read the screen no matter what height Proteus is perched at in your rack. Someone cares.
PROTEUS GLOBAL MIDI settings deal with the mundane aspects of the spec - like MIDI channels to be ignored, individual MIDI channel volumes and pans and the setting up of a patch change table so that MIDI program changes do not necessarily call up the Preset of the same number. This also allows you to assign four continuous MIDI controllers to Proteus controllers A, B, C and D, as well as three MIDI footswitches to Proteus switches 1, 2 and 3. So, for instance, you could assign MIDI volume (controller #7) to Proteus controller A and MIDI soft pedal (controller #67) to Proteus switch 1.
Within the Edit menu for each of the unit's Presets you can choose what each of these controllers will do. Proteus' switches can switch sustain or alternative envelope in and out as well as cross-switching between the primary and secondary Tones. The controllers open up an aspect of MIDI which few, if any, instruments ordinarily allow - let alone an instrument as modest as a preset sample reader. Using the Realtime Modulation Control function, the four selected controllers can be mapped to affect various of the parameters - such as the amount and frequency of the LFOs and pitch, level or envelope of either the primary or secondary Tones in much the same manner as the key value and velocity are used. This form of control is called "MIDI addressing" and is immensely powerful as it allows you to use MIDI facilities which you would not usually have a good use for - such as soft pedal and aftertouch. Along with these controllers you can use the LFOs or another envelope which exists especially for this purpose, the "auxiliary envelope", and has its own AHDSR properties. Up to eight functions can be real-time MIDI controlled simultaneously, and the amount by which the incoming value will be offset is controllable for each of them.
So each of Proteus' parameters can be controlled by MIDI and/or key note/velocity. This provides a powerful system in which the only limitation should be your imagination (to use an old but appropriate cliché). That is as long as the quality of Proteus' samples is good...
BEARING IN MIND that Proteus' sounds are 16-bit resolution sampled at 39kHz from the Emulator III, they certainly should sound the business. Running through a few of the Presets, the strings are about as good as anything existing anywhere, including those on the Fairlight III. 'Hall Strings' and 'Xprsive String' are stunning. They are rich and clear, and have plenty of bottom. So many string samples end up sounding like a mess of instruments without any real definition, but not so these.
Where brass sounds are concerned, 'F. Horn Section' is a gem which would fool most of the people most of the time in the mix. And in 'Tiki Threat', I'll swear you can clearly hear the beater hitting the steel drum. The harmonic content is impressive and emphasised because the output section of Proteus is so quiet. If E-mu haven't used a noise gate of some description, then they are certainly to be applauded. 'Phantazia' and 'NoiseFree LA!' are very D50-ish and without extraneous noise.
Listening to some of these samples brings to light the lack of bass we put up with when using most of the current crop of 12-bit samplers. 'Lo Oct Bones' delivers a great bottom-end punch, and 'Jet Boom' pans across the stereo image in just the way NS10 monitors would probably prefer they did not. 'Latin Drums' sound like real congas largely because of this accuracy of bass reproduction. 'Blue Ice' and 'Fat Boy Bass' (who thought of these names?) are just two more examples of this.
Many samplers fall down on the quality of their piano sounds, but 'Winston Grand' gives a good (though maybe not exceptional) account of Proteus. The movement from one keygroup to the next is not unduly apparent, and the tonal quality is consistent without the sustain falling away too quickly. This is achieved by using two piano layers, one soft and the other loud, and velocity crossfading between them.
"I didn't have time to experiment with overlaying Tones thoroughly, but I'd say there are some great overlays just waiting to be discovered."
There have to be compromises to fit this number of sounds into 4Meg of memory. This feat has been achieved by using short loops wherever possible. The rub is that this is most noticeable on solo instruments where you hear the attack clearly but then lose the quality as soon as the sustain loop is reached. Here the sound becomes characterless compared to the non-looped portion of the sample. 'Solo Trumpet', 'Solo Trombone' and 'Alto Sax' are three such examples of this and, while sections can be bolstered by overlays and the linking of Presets, this is difficult with a solo instrument.
Another area in which savings have been made is with the number of samples used in the setting up of a Tone. 'Choir' only has three samples spread across the keyboard, and the bottom end is rather muffled as a result. That said, it's not nearly as bad as it would be if you repeated such a setting on most normal samplers, and the Tone remains very usable. This saving will also be obvious on any Preset which has a precise envelope such as 'Section Falls' which sounds like fall-away trumpets. The length of the fall varies heavily with the key which is played, and makes chords a little less than convincing, even though the actual sound is accurate. This can also lead to audible steps from one keygroup to the next. Listen to the jump from the notes D3 to D#3 on 'String Orch'.
With a sampling frequency of 39kHz, the bandwidth will be around 18kHz, which should be beyond the monitoring systems of most studios. This doesn't help explain why some instruments sound muted, especially the drums. In fact, this is one area of sounds which is poorly covered. There's no open hi-hat or decent crash cymbal (too memory greedy) and, with the odd exception, there's a rather uninspiring selection of bass and snare drums.
There is, however, a fair selection of interesting sounds which show what can be achieved with Proteus. 'Radical Drums' has the original sound on the left-hand side of the stereo image followed by the sound in reverse on the right-hand side. 'Space Texture' pans from left to right and then warbles away on release.
The accuracy of looping is impeccable throughout Proteus' samples. There's not a glitch to be heard.
OF THE 125 Tones (complete layers) in memory from which the Presets can be built, 22 of them are made up from odd and even harmonics across six octaves. This takes us into the realms of additive synthesis. Sound is made up of layers of harmonics and by building them in the correct manner, most timbres can be achieved. This is a pretty tall order and I'm certainly not expounding the idea that Proteus can be used to create anything you want, but take the example of the solo trumpet with a weak sustain loop: by using the correct harmonic as the secondary Tone, delayed so that it coincides with the sustain part, it should be possible to enrich the harmonic content of the trumpet without making it sound too synthesised. I didn't have enough time to experiment with this thoroughly, but as there are 16 brass Tones, I'd say there are some great overlays just waiting to be discovered. Once you start to overlay harmonics and use chorus and intelligent delays, the sky's the limit.
Apart from these, there are 21 single-shot samples which can be used for the attack portions and 13 looped samples (such as plucked and malletted sounds, synth strings and stray voices) which can be overlayed with natural sounds to create timbres which sound just a little bit unusual.
The fact that Proteus has three sets of stereo audio outputs (Main, Sub 1 and Sub 2) is rather useful, as linked Presets can be sent to separate effects units. However, there's more to come: Sub 1 and 2 outputs utilise stereo sockets wired so that the signal can be sent to an external effect unit and returned to the unit. The effected signals are then summed for left and right and sent from the main outs. Effectively you have two sets of effect send/returns. If you route all Proteus's sounds to the main outs only, you could use the return side of the Sub outputs to introduce a couple of extra synths which could be merged with the internal preset from the main outputs.
MANY OF YOU may be left thinking that, because Proteus is a preset sample reader, everyone will end up using the same sounds - the basic Tones are what you get, full stop. But the degree by which changing parameters affects the sounds is immense and it is difficult to think of many instruments to which an approximation could not be made. The inclusion of harmonics as separate Tones is a master stroke, and goes a long way towards negating the side effects of short loops. Add to this one excellent manual and probably the best MIDI spec seen on any machine to date, and Proteus is guaranteed to be a winner - if only enough of them can be brought into the country.
Price £899 including VAT
Review by Vic Lennard
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