EMU-Systems Emulator II
the supreme sampling keyboard?
We emulate, you emulate, they emulate. So what have the people who started listening to the world and playing it back done to update their original machine.
In two words — improved everything. The Emulator II is such an advance on its predecessor, you might be forgiven for thinking two other versions had been built in between so Emu-Systems could reach this point.
The philosophy is still relatively simple. Record a sound digitally (the sample), then reproduce it at different pitches by 'reading out' the recording at higher and lower speeds. While you're at it, side track the microprocessor to give you a polyphonic, real-time sequencer as well.
To put matters in perspective, the first Emulator had a maximum recording time of two seconds — for sustained sounds you looped the 'tape' (see OTT issue 5 for the views of three well known Emulists). The sequencer could cope with 900 notes.
The Emulator II offers — wait for it — 17 seconds of recording time or 17 different samples across the keyboard each with one second, or anything in between. It has new filters and envelope generators based on Moog designs in order to shape the samples. The keyboard is touch sensitive (assignable to six parameters from volume to filter resonance). Samples are at an improved 12k bandwidth. Digital noise has been dramatically reduced. Looping and sampling have been made easier and smoother by auto, threshold and cross fade facilities written into the software. The dreaded looping click has been almost entirely removed.
Anything else? Oh yes, almost forgot the MIDI sockets, the built in SMPTE generator, the RS232 port for direct computer control, the insert and delete functions for editing sequences and the proposed interface for Apple's Macintosh system.
The top version of the EII has two disc drives in a sloped extrusion built up from the left hand side of the control panel. (There is a one drive alternative but two are more useful to keep sequence and sound discs apart.) A single 5¼in floppy disc holds 1 megabyte of memory (a lot, about the same as a Fairlight's 8in disc) which equals 17 seconds of sampling time. No you can't use discs from your Emulator I, it's a new system.
Moving to the right we're onto the master control section with four sliders for incremental changes, a two tier LCD screen and a 10 button keypad. The rest of the panel is divided into 10 departments for the Sequencer, Filter, VCA/LFO, Voice Definition (looping, dynamic keyboard routing, backwards readout etc), Preset Definition (erasing, storing, copying sounds), Real Time Control (the two mod wheels), Disk (running it), Special (testing it), Sampling and the final Enter button for getting into action.
In each 'house' there may be a dozen or more rooms each with its own code number called up by the keypad. For example, select Filter by pressing the button below it, type '3' on the keypad and you'll have control over the envelope generators using the four sliders (A, B, C, D) to set attack, decay, sustain and release values, all displayed on the LCD screen.
The disc stores the sample, but the Emulator II has another programmable memory to recall filter and envelope settings. So one real grand piano might be made brighter, duller, shorter, given a slow attack, etc and every version is called up by the keypad as a preset. Ten sounds or more from one recording. Though the filter is being used as a treatment (sophisticated EQ) rather than an integral part of the voice electronics as on an analogue synth, the increase in the Emulator's versatility is stunning. The swift among you will have worked out that you could loop a sample for long notes but superimpose a lengthy release on it from the ADSR. Best of both worlds.
But hey, let's take that sample. Using your mike, or more likely the DI input to monitor the noise-to-be-digitalised, we switch the EII to sample mode. The bottom layer of the LCD now converts to a VU meter expressed in scores of vertical lines so you can judge the maximum safe signal to the machine. Next set the threshold — the level past which the EII will begin to listen to the outside world. Feed in how long you want the sample to last then one more action and the Emulator is 'armed'. That's it. The EII now waits until you make your noise, the level rises above the threshold, the 'recorder' is switched on for the time set, then the EII tells you 'sample is good'. Only one pair of hands required.
Looping is also made far easier. There's an auto loop facility that simply joins the beginning to the end, or, as with the original keyboard you can trim the start and finish of a sample and loop the more acoustically stable middle section. The LCD displays these start and stop points in six figure byte readouts, and the sliders act as coarse and fine trimmers.
But, sly software writers that Emu am, there is more to it than that. One of the great problems on the early keyboard was the looping click — a glitch when the 'splice' came round. On the EII this splice is no longer a butt join but a cross fade resulting in a far smoother transition as the end merges into the beginning. They've applied similar techniques to the keyboard where you may have perhaps cello, viola and violin samples on different sections of the ivories. Again the samples can be made to cross fade so there are no sudden lurches in tone on one particular note.
Sound quality has undoubtedly zipped up the scale with the 12k bandwidth a great boost on the E1's 8k. To some perfectionists this still isn't up to top studio quality performance. Any multi track desk that couldn't do better than 12k would be sent on holiday. But past complaints about Emulators have normally been about how the readout speed affects the quality.
In particular it's been hard to get bright bass sounds when playing in the lower octaves. The new filter, better frequency response and keyboard divisions all help that. (When sampling, the EII will default to C1 unless you press another key establishing that all sounds should be related to that point.)
If you attempt to play a sample too far from its home note, it still adopts that peculiar mouthy resonance that seems to add its own vowels to the recorded material. But comparing EII to E1 with its two second limit, you can get eight times as many samples across the EII keyboard so no sound has to go too far from home. More natural, more betterer.
It is, of course, quite possible to go mental with 17 seconds. It is also possible to be illegal. Where you might have got away with two second snatches of the "Sound of Music", almost a third of a minute is enough to breach copyright, incur royalty wrath, etc, etc. Emulists, you have been warned. Maybe then it is smarter to Emulate an orchestra tuning up instead of splitting Mars from the Planet Suite into its constituent riffs.
The velocity sensitive keyboard is unusual, not for what it does but how it feels. There's a gentle, springy resistance to the keys as soon as you begin to press them. This invites soft touches and subtle string parts leaping to walloping crescendos. There are 16 programmable dynamics levels which can be delivered to any or all of VCA level, VCA attack, VCF frequency, VCF attack and VCF resonance (Q if you're American).
But velocity sensitivity won't merely muck about with the analogue side. It can be used to swap samples or introduce extra ones. Say you've got a fruity muted Jazz bass burbling around at normal finger pressure... a sudden wack from an excited finger will cause the Emulator II to change to a funky, snapped bass sample for that note. Makes you think. The introduction of brass on strings, strings on piano, piano on tumbling Cortina, etc, etc, etc, all by accelerating the digits.
And yet more, the EII has the facility for splicing different samples together — a sound that begins piano and ends Prophet 5, trimmed, once more, by the loop type start and stop sliders.
As for the sequencer, the One Two notebook becomes wavery at this point. The first EII to be shipped to England for demo purposes was without a working sequencer. The air rang with time-honoured phrases like 'finishing the software', 'ready soon', 'would you like another million pounds Mr Colbert'. All we can be sure of so far is that it should be an eight track sequencer with a different sound on each track if required though staying within Emu-Systems eight note polyphonic limit.
You should be able to bounce sequences down and start/stop them from a tape once the built-in SMPTE code generator has done its work.
As for a conclusion, what can you say? The Original Emulator ruled the roost for two years yet the II is inestimably better, ten times more versatile, answers also almost every E1 criticism and costs about the same. Stevie Wonder has already ordered two. Bad jokes about how can he tell will not be entertained.
Emu-Systems Emulator II: £7,500 ex vat
Review by Paul Colbert
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