Emu Systems EIIIXP
Digital Sound Production System
It's taken five years for Emu Systems to release a rackmount derivative of the Emulator III sampler, but there's nothing dated about the new EIIIxp — even the price has a contemporary competitive edge to it. Julian Colbeck falls in love.
Sampler? The Eee three is a digital sound production system, sonny, and don't you forget it. Assorted Californian fruits and nuts Emu are the kings of sampling. Although the Fairlight may have actually implemented the technique a tad earlier, it was Emu, in the shape of company founder and leading technological light Dave Rossum, who spotted its potential as the basis for an instrument.
The original Emulator spawned horrible singing sheep records and, by today's standards, was about as transparent as a stuffed hoover bag. But sampling as a concept nonetheless caught on. The dramatically improved EII became the industry standard sampler until a barrage of Akais knocked it off its perch. Undaunted, Emu fought back, taking a different approach with the initially much-ridiculed sample playback module.
The slimline Proteus module family, as the most immediate source of quality multi-timbral sounds on the market, has once more achieved industry standard status for an Emu product. Meanwhile (this potted history wantonly omits some other products but, hell, how much waffle do you want?), what of the EIII?
The EIII, a full keyboard instrument, muscled its bulky way onto the scene as long ago as 1988. Clearly this is a record — a five year gap between keyboard and module. An awful lot has happened in this time, and it is quite some testament to Emu's expertise that the two instruments are even vaguely compatible (which they are) without blunting any of the EIIIxp's cutting edge.
It has to be said that the EIII, the keyboard, was not an immediately obvious success. It was expensive, it was in some ways too sophisticated, and it had the misfortune to come out alongside the Akai S1000.
EIII samples, on the other hand, have been used to considerable effect (aurally and commercially) on the Proteus range, which has helped keep the EIII name alive and cloaked in the sort of qualitative mystique that marketing men can normally only dream of.
Although an EIII module has appeared from time to time at trade shows, I'm not sure if any hit the stores. Frankly, with the stunning success of the Proteus, I think Emu were stuck as to what to do with the 'EIII module', for a while probably filing the whole business under 'who gives a damn'.
And yet, and yet... since Akai proved that there is a lucrative market out there for high-end sampling, it must have been a constant thorn in the company's side that, in spite of sterling efforts from Emu's range of mid-level Emax samplers, they were somehow missing out.
And so, finally, to the EIIIxp. In many ways this is a dream machine. The polyphony is excellent (32 mono voices, 16 stereo), the internal memory is huge (8MB, expandable to 32MB), and a version with an internal 105MB hard disk is available. Multi-timbrally the EIII knocks all the competition clean out of the water (echoes here of the difference between the Proteus and just about any other multi-timbral module you care to mention), sonically the instrument is beyond criticism, and many of sampling's notoriously tricky operational procedures have been rendered beautifully simple and effective.
My choice of words may lead you to expect caveats. They're not chronic, but I think they'll mean that the EIIIxp will not suit every potential high-end samplist. Items that may offend include the lack of a waveform display of samples (and some people really like this style of editing), and the fact that analogue inputs are a £460 option (digital I/O are standard). Also, you can't save samples to floppy disk, and there are odd quirks like the fact that you can't monitor (ie. hear via the EIIIxp) a sample as it is being taken.
Granted there are answers to, or reasons behind, most of these. But it may not be enough to have to 'explain away' features. In Europe, in spite of pockets of Roland S750 resistance, Akai reign supreme in the studio stakes, and if Emu are going to take more than a nibble out of Akai's cake then it's no use coming out with an instrument that is even marginally better (as perhaps is the Roland S750). It's got to be immeasurably better.
Physically there are no major surprises. This is a 3U design, cased in black metal; the front panel consisting of a smallish central display, a pair of somewhat wobbly sliders for master volume and data entry, a row of dedicated 'module' buttons — ie. buttons that instantly take you into particular sections of the instrument — all the various standard management controls such as keypad, cursor keys, entry button, audition (good move), plus the odd splendid surprise such as the dedicated button marked 'multi-timbral' (as in: instantly rendering the instrument... yes!) plus a floppy disk drive which is not, as mentioned above, for storing and retrieving sound data.
With the latest software version safely implanted in said disk drive (aha, so that's what it's for) you switch on. Crikey! I was wondering whether or not I'd been sent the hard disk version, as nothing on the exterior gives anything away. But the noise. Yes, okay, hard drives do whirr, but why did Emu have to put it through an amplifier? Perhaps, as this is a pre-release model, some screening/soundproofing could be undertaken. I would (correction: did) find the noise quite tiresome after a while.
The review model came fitted with a 105MB hard disk, so loading up sounds simply involved calling up Banks from the drive. Those familiar with Emu products will feel instantly at home with the system of Banks, Presets and Samples. For those who aren't, raw samples (called, sensibly enough, Samples) are loaded into Presets that are effectively entire keyboard set-ups or maps of finished, processed Samples. Up to 256 such Presets can be stored in a single Bank.
One potentially confusing item, however, is the 'Zone', something that the instrument starts wittering on about fairly swiftly. Essentially it concerns the fact that more or less all post-sample editing functions — things like filter, VCA, LFO, keyboard dynamics, tuning, chorussing etc. are Zone-dependent, ie. you can set different values for all these parameters across the keyboard. It's important to note that Zones don't care where your samples are mapped — Zones work, sensibly it has to be said, independent of sample placement. I suspect people will also not care too much about Zones. Fine — you just hit the top and bottom keys of your keyboard if ever asked to specify a Zone.
It's a little hard to comment on the Banks and Presets contained in my review model because no-one is too sure which will make the final cut once the instrument hits the street for real. Some, like the Proteus set, plus a splendid series of animal noises, are bound to make it. Others, like a painstakingly-created Bosendorfer grand piano might, but I'm not sure they should; this particular multi-sample being almost completely devoid of any keyboard dynamic response (and proving quite resistant to my efforts to improve it as well), and is thus completely lifeless — though still curiously beautiful in the treble registers.
I have to dally for a moment on the animal Bank, where you'll find quite the most stunning menagerie of wild and domestic beasts lying in wait. These are superb samples, stars amongst which are a panting dog, stereo catering (sorry, that should read 'cantering') horse, lion, and various heinous gurgling, growling noises from a, well. I'm not too sure what it is, but if I ever come within a million miles of it...
Right at the beginning of the mainly excellent manual Emu state that their research has indicated that "most people do not sample their own sounds". My 'research' indicates very much the same — I therefore find it amusing to reflect on how much time we all (including Emu) spend discussing the finer points of sampling, and how little time we spend on things that people do indulge in, namely setting up a whole load of sounds to be triggered multi-timbrally from a sequencer. In fact the EIIIxp manual spends precisely three paragraphs on the latter subject. And that, as it happens, is absolutely right, because the EIIIxp is completely foolproof in this respect.
Pressing the Multimode button sends you instantly to Page 1, MIDI Channel 1, where you'll be able to see what Preset is currently assigned, its pan position, and its volume. You simply change the MIDI channel, and choose the sounds that you want.
Using the splendid 'Orchestra' Bank, whose sounds seem immeasurably more upfront and lively than those used in the Proteus 2, though they may well be the same samples, with Notator permanently in an 8-bar recording loop I orchestrated an entire piece of music on the fly — and I'm not talking about using generic 'string sections', I was using double basses, celli, some pizz violas, followed by crystalline tubular bells, wonderful orchestral percussion (the timps send shivers...), rounded off with some spectacular harp glissandos and the odd tinkle of a harpsichord.
The entire exercise took minutes, and I never left record; I just changed MIDI channels, assigned new sounds, selected new tracks, went back and tweaked volumes...
Now I mustn't get too carried away here, because much of this euphoria is due to the Bank of orchestral sounds — all 30MB of it! — and much to Notator's friendly, on-going style of recording. Even so, immediate access to this quantity and quality of samples is, as far as I'm aware, unique. Orchestrators and arrangers will kill for it, no question. I simply loaded up the orchestral bank at a stroke; I could, if I'd wanted, have loaded individual Presets off the hard disk, and stored them in my own customised Bank.
It's a shame, when you think of the work that has gone into the basic sampling and sample editing side of the instrument, that only four people and a dog are probably ever going to use it. However, sample you can on the EIIIxp, and relatively easy it is too. Why, perhaps a fifth or sixth person might be tempted to join in the fun.
First things first. Do you have a DAT recorder with digital I/O? Or do you only ever sample from a CD player with a digital output? No? Me neither. I own a pre-digital I/O Casio DAT, and no portable CD. So I, and perhaps you too, would have to stump up for the analogue sample input jacks at the back. Well, I guess I'll get over it.
Fortunately Emu UK correctly surmised the state of this impoverished keyboard player and reviewer's studio, and sent me down a unit with the analogue input option (stereo 64 times oversampling Delta-Sigma conversion) already fitted. If you do own a DAT recorder with digital I/O, then you can sample your non-digital sources via that; just route sound through the DAT in pause record.
The routines for internal sampling — setting threshold, choice of stereo/mono sampling, length and sample rate setting (analogue 29.4 or 44.1 kHz, digital 32, 44.1 or 48kHz), placement, are straightforward enough. The only thing I don't like is not being able to hear, via the instrument, the sample that I'm taking. Okay, so presumably you know what you want to sample and, yes, there is a VU meter for level setting. I suppose if my studio was more sophisticated I could route my sources so I could also monitor them prior to their entering the EIIIxp... but I don't, and it's a fair bet other potential customers won't either. As with the analogue inputs, I'll get over it. I don't like it, that's all.
The moment you've taken a sample you can play it back. What happens, automatically, is that the sample is placed into the next available Preset. If you immediately take another sample, the first sample will be overwritten. If you don't want that to happen, you must briefly leave, then re-enter the sampling module.
You can build up a multi-sample very quickly. The instrument defaults to placing new samples at successive octave intervals, so without too much head scratching you can construct usable Presets in no time at all. Getting a sample into proper shape, just how you want it, is bound to take more time, but even so Emu make the journey as painless as it can feasibly be.
Now what? Of course it depends what you use a sampler for. For many, a sampler is a loop (as in groove) or vocal(s) manipulator. In this application you may want to do little more than top and tail your samples, normalise the gain (render the volume at a better and more constant level), and perhaps 'taper' the end so that the end of the sample fades out smoothly, as opposed to getting lopped off bluntly. Not being able to hear the tapering process until you've set the parameters is a little disconcerting, but with the friendly 'undo' sub-module, at least mistakes can be rectified.
I was going to say quickly rectified, but the EIIIxp does take its time on this sort of digital processing. A little whirring clock helps to pass the time pleasantly enough while you're waiting for such a process to be completed. As a further, and very sensible, precaution, as soon as you start mucking around with your basic sample the EIIIxp automatically saves it.
The other prime job undertaken in the Digital Processing module is looping. As I said, people use samplers in different ways, and you may be perfectly happy using library samples for musical tones, undertaking your own sampling merely to grab loops or vocal lines. In this instance, unless you enjoy torture you'll probably use your sequencer to control the creation and triggering of loops. Looping, as in sound looping, is for the real men and women who want to create their own libraries.
Just to be mean, my sampling accomplice Dave Spiers and I dusted off my DAT of murderously uneven Mellotron samples just to see how smart the EIIIxp's much-vaunted automatic looping features really are. Oops! They're bloody miraculous. Setting up basic loop points is a bit fiddly and numeric, but once you call up the services of Auto Correlate, which automatically finds optimum loop points, and/or Loop Compression, which irons out wrinkles in volume, and/or Cross-fade Looping, you're really in business. Even the wobbliest of my old Mellotron strings was served back to me entirely seamlessly. Now I'll have to re-attack the rest of the pack! Once again, I think you'll really value the automatic saving of samples, plus the chance to 'undo' tasks you're not satisfied with.
I fooled around with the Cut, Copy and Paste functions. These are of course quite basic sample editing functions, though I have no use for them myself. Is time so plentiful that you can mess about re-positioning words in phrases and all that? Great fun if you're at University or something, but not in the JC household and studio. Personally I'd put this on a par with Kermit The Hedgehog or whatever its stupid name is, but maybe it'll turn you on.
Sorting out Presets in the Preset Management module (load, erase, rename etc.) is probably not the most riveting of occupations either, but you will have to get to grips with it because a Preset, if you cast your mind back to the beginning of all this, is the basic currency of the EIIIxp.
At first I found the sudden appearance of a sample at strange and seemingly unbidden areas of the keyboard a little disconcerting, but once you figure out the importance of your current Sample, Zones, and sample placement, things do fall into place fairly quickly. As with any instrument, there is a learning curve, but on the EIIIxp it's none too hard a climb.
The Preset Definition module is where you can assign cross-fading of what Emu call a primary and secondary Sample. If you know Proteus you'll know exactly what this means. In practice it allows you to set up a velocity, or indeed user-defined real-time controller dependent, sample sandwich, which is a relatively easy way of extracting expression from both your samples and your playing.
You also set a range of MIDI parameters here, such as basic channel setting, mode, overflow on/off, prog, change and so on, plus parameters relating to wheels, pedals, and footswitches. By assigning a continuous controller to a sound-shaping parameter, such as the filter, you can manipulate sounds in realtime. This exercise, though effective on things like maneouvering the cutoff point, or nudging the Q (resonance) up and down, is notoriously greedy on MIDI data, however.
The arpeggiator that's also included in the Preset Definition module is great fun. There again I'm a bit of a sucker for arpeggiators. Control here is far and wide, with plenty of creative options like being able to control how many times each note is played before moving onto the next (Echo Count), or whether arpeggiation is velocity-dependent... glissandos.
The Dynamic Processing module is where you can really climb inside a sample and alter it beyond all recognition. Why on earth Emu persist in calling this, essentially a bunch of analogue-style editing parameters, "dynamic processing" is anybody's guess, but there we are.
First off there is a tuning page, something that was put to constant good use with the dreaded Mellotron samples. Samples can be transposed through a massive 10 octave range, five octaves either way. Impressively, you can re-tune each note. In fact, each note can be processed individually throughout this section. You can, in other words, have different filter or VCA values for each note, and as you play up and down the keyboard while one of these pages is displayed you'll see the parameter values change accordingly. Splendid stuff, although it's hard to see when you'd use quite this level of scrutiny — except on re-tuning a set of Mellotron samples, of course.
Alongside the tuning parameter are delay and chorus. Well, file under Kermit The Hedgehog again, since chorus halves your polyphony and won't work on stereo samples, and delay is just a MIDI delay of up to 1.53 seconds. Pass the Quadraverb — or the Ensoniq DP4, my current love — if you want some genuine signal processing, Still, it's there if you want it.
Moving right along you have full 5-stage control over VCA envelope, resonant low-pass filtering with tracking and dedicated 5-stage envelope, multiwaveform LFO for pitch/tone/volume modulation, plus a final Proteus-style auxiliary envelope that can be inserted at pretty well any point in the signal path. Again, in the real world people just don't use all of this. Yes, I know there'll be angry letters from people saying "this is precisely what I do", but, I'm sorry, I just don't believe you. If, as is the case, 99% of synths that return to their manufacturers do so in their ex-factory state, programming is still a task that is undertaken more in people's imaginations than in practice — more so on a sample, for heaven's sake.
There is plenty more on the EIIIxp that I have not had the time, inclination, or equipment to cover. There is, for example, a Mac front end remote controller/librarian package. Sorry, but I ain't got a Mac, Mack. There are also CD-ROMs galore, containing the customary grillion megabytes of Sample and Preset data (see box).
This is an instrument I would like to spend time with. Clearly it will repay time spent getting to know its enormous range of possibilities, which is something that is impossible to do in normal review circumstances. Now, if Emu were to give me one for, say, a year or so...
I am a little concerned that the EIIIxp is very much, albeit understandably, tailored for the American market (the Mac front end, the digital I/O, the hard/optical drives), which has more money to throw around than we do and is generally 'tech-ed up' to a higher degree as well. I'm also a little concerned that an ex-factory Bank like the Bosendorfer is such an undynamic (even if you tweak it, which I personally couldn't) representation of the world's most expressive instrument, the grand piano.
On the positive side, the EIIIxp is clearly the machine to beat right now. The polyphony alone makes it comparable to, say, an S1100 plus a voice expander, and then you have the top-notch editing and Rolls Royce multi-timbral operation.
In a way, I think it is this last feature that would sell it for me. I don't know how you work, but I just hate messing around setting things up all the time. I want things to work, and to work quickly so I can attempt to be creative on the really important issues, namely: is this the best note/chord/groove. In other words, the music.
I've a strong feeling that once I'd sorted out just one or two slightly shakey areas surrounding the management of basic Samples and Presets I could drive the EIIIxp like my car — without really having to think about it.
Transparent sampling and transparent operation. That's what you want from a sampler? You got it!
Emu EIIIxp £2,995 inc VAT.
Emu EIIIxp Turbo (32MB RAM, 105MB hard disk) £4,600 inc VAT.
Analogue sampling option £462 inc VAT.
8MB RAM upgrnde £456 inc VAT.
105MB hard disk option £735 inc VAT.
Emu Systems, (Contact Details).
Review by Julian Colbeck
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