Emu Systems Proteus
The prospect of a high-spec sample player bearing the Emu name, but costing 'under £1000', had musician's waiting with baited breath for its appearance. Now Proteus is here, and Paul Ireson breathes a sigh of relief as he finds that it was worth the wait.
Some comparisons are, I'm afraid, totally unavoidable: it's always impossible to mention Marillion without thinking of Genesis; it's impossible to read more than 20 words about Kenneth Branagh at the moment without one of them being 'Olivier'; and it is totally impossible to begin a review of the Emu Proteus without mentioning Batman. Just as Batman was the most hyped, written about and eagerly awaited movie of 1989, so Proteus is this year's most hyped and eagerly awaited hi-tech music product. Both have generated acres of press coverage without really having to try - much of it speculative - and as a result both have had almost impossibly high expectations raised of them. Fortunately, the movie analogy stretches as far as this: like Batman, Proteus is very good, and ultimately well worth waiting for.
Proteus has been a hot product since it was first announced for two reasons: it promised a high spec at a low price, and it is produced by a company who made their name on prestige products. Emu Systems' Emulator, Emulator II, Emulator III and Emax have always been instruments that, more than most other hi-tech gear, far more people aspired to own than actually could. Professional studios and wealthier individual musicians used them, but not the average home recordist. Proteus, on the other hand, promised Emu's renowned sound quality and library sounds for 'under £1000'. Imagine Ferrari announcing that their next gleaming red dream machine would cost 'under £20,000', and you'll understand why musicians everywhere - myself included - freaked when they heard about Proteus.
Even disregarding the kudos that Emu's name undoubtedly confers on Proteus, its spec looks excellent on paper: 16-part multitimbral, 32-voice polyphony, 16-bit, 39kHz sampling, three sets of stereo outputs, and 4Mb of waveform ROM. Anyway, the waiting is over; Proteus is here, for real, in my hands, and it's time I got down to the business of telling you whether it's any good or not.
Proteus is a ROM sample player. The playback-only sampler is no longer a novel idea, the ground having been well and truly broken by Roland's U series (although the 360 Systems MIDI Bass modules were perhaps the first to become available). If the idea of samplers that can't sample seems abhorrent to you, just think of them as synthesizers that use sampled sounds instead of oscillators as the basis of their sound. Proteus has 4Mb of samples stored in on-board ROM - this internal sound capacity can be enlarged to a total of 8Mb with the addition of an expansion board. (The boards are due for release early next year, and will offer extra orchestral sounds and cost around £450.) The samples are organised as 125 Instruments, many of which are multisampled for added realism throughout the keyboard range. The Instruments can be further combined into Presets, which is the level at which you actually play Proteus' sounds, either from a keyboard or sequencer.
There are 192 Presets in Proteus; 128 of these are immutable factory programs, and the remaining 64 are user Presets. The numbering of these is a little odd, in that the 64 user Presets are numbered 64-127, with 0-63 and 128-191 being the factory locations. I would have thought it was more logical to have the user Presets either in 0-63 or 128-191 - a minor quibble.
Speaking of program numbers, it is obviously not possible to directly address all of Proteus' 192 Presets with MIDI Program Change messages (which only run from 0-127). Consequently, Proteus allows you to map each of the MIDI Program Change numbers to any Preset number, to enable all sounds to be remotely selected.
Each Preset can use one or two Instruments, and original sound creation is possible by modifying Instruments as they are combined: each can be shaped by an amplitude envelope, enabling the start of one sound to be faded into the sustain of another, for example. Two LFOs, a third envelope and several other modulation sources are further available to modify the pitch, tone and other aspects of Proteus' sound. These modulation facilities contribute both to extending the range of sounds that can be produced, and making it a very expressive instrument.
Proteus is surprisingly small; I somehow expected it to be a little bigger, but then they said the same about Michael Keaton. Not all 19" rack units are created equal, and Proteus' 1U case is unusually shallow. With most expanders, that's about as much as one could say about the case, but not so with Proteus: although a metal inner case is provided, this is covered with an excitingly-grooved dark grey plastic outer shell. This might sound cheap, but it certainly doesn't look it to me - Proteus takes on the appearance of a particularly rugged, yet slightly sexy, piece of state-of-the-art military hardware. I know sci-fi comparisons abound in hi-tech music reviews, but thinking back, I swear I saw one of those marines in Aliens lugging an early Proteus prototype around.
This impression is enhanced by the matt black rubber knobs that Proteus uses on its front panel. The other features of the front panel are four buttons (Master, Edit, Enter and Cursor) and a two-line backlit LCD window, a MIDI activity LED to indicate that Proteus is receiving data, and LEDs above the Master, Edit, and Enter buttons to show what mode of operation the unit is in, or whether pressing the Enter button at that point will execute an important function.
The front panel also includes four horizontal slots, which I immediately assumed were for ROM or RAM cards of some kind. Since no mention of anything of the kind is made in the manual, I must assume that they exist purely for cosmetic reasons.
The rear panel sports MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, and six polyphonic output jacks configured as three stereo pairs - Main, Sub 1 and Sub 2 - and addressed as such by Proteus' voicing architecture. A standard Euro-connector socket provides power for Proteus, so there's no separate PSU to add more clutter to your studio. The internal power supply automatically switches itself between 110 and 220 volt operation (11 out of 10 for good thinking), and seems to contribute no hum at all to Proteus' output.
The most basic level at which the user can deal with Proteus' sounds is as Instruments. There are 125 of these, and although many use only a single sample, others (notably the piano and strings) may use up to nine multisamples to produce an authentic sound over a wide pitch range. 125 seems a generous number at first, but the figure is slightly misleading as some Instruments differ very little from one another. Each Instrument has a default amplitude envelope, which you can employ in place of a user shape, and some Instruments are distinguished only in having different default envelopes. For example, the four piano Instruments appear to use the same set of source samples but with different envelopes and degrees of brightness. The same is true of the four string instruments.
The first 50 Instruments are mainly acoustic instrument sounds, which broadly speaking cover most of the 'standard' sounds that people want from sample libraries or a ROM sample player: piano, strings, choir, flute, brass, drums, electric and acoustic guitar, electric bass guitar, a few synth sounds etc. On the whole the Instruments are superb - the sounds to be sampled have been well chosen, and Proteus reproduces them beautifully. The multisampling is hard to spot (though if you set the amplitude envelopes to play only the attack transient of the string sounds, they become obvious), and loops are very smooth. The only one I really noticed was on one of the vocal samples, which had captured a rather obvious bit of natural vibrato in the loop.
The result is a set of sounds that are either very authentic or (especially in the case of the synth sounds) clean, aggressive and atmospheric. The brass and sax sounds are all good, though they require close attention to playing technique and modulation to sound really lifelike. Several of the brass Instruments split different sounds (trombone and trumpet, for example) across the keyboard for a more authentic section sound. The guitar sounds were among my favourites - both acoustic and electric varieties are superb.
As it goes, 39kHz, 16-bit sampling does not necessarily guarantee great quality, but Proteus certainly delivers it. All of the sounds emerge with great clarity and without a hint of noise or distortion. I had no means of checking whether or not the unit's frequency response was up to the quoted 18kHz, but subjectively I would say that Proteus sounds smooth throughout the audio spectrum, without any pronounced highs or lows. Let's put it this way: the Instruments sound 'real' rather than 'bright' or 'dull'.
Moving on to the remaining Instruments, 51 to 68 are percussion setups. Many of these actually use the same drum or percussion samples, but mapped to different positions on the keyboard. The sounds are excellent, although with the generally high standard of drum sounds these days, don't really stand out as being all that remarkable. There are one or two unfortunate omissions - I could have really used a rimshot and handclaps, and I've heard better timbales - but otherwise the sounds are good, and some (eg. toms) are fabulous. All the Instruments appear to be mono, although the individual drums within some of the percussion setups do occupy different pan positions - the toms, for example.
Instrument 69 is a synth sound that really belongs with 1 to 68. Instruments 70 to 91 are each Harmonic waveforms, containing odd, even or all harmonics in octaves 1-7 from the root note. Instruments 92 to 112 are Single Cycle waveforms, with a more diverse harmonic content than 17 to 91; these are taken from synthesized or sampled sounds. The remaining Instruments, 113 to 125, are Multi-Cycle waveforms. These are short sections of sampled sounds, in some cases simple loops, in others more complete instruments with an attack portion preceding the loop (eg. Mallet 1 and 2).
Instruments are only the start of the sound story with Proteus; it is when they are combined in Presets that the possibilities of original sound creation arise, and the sounds reach the level at which the user actually plays them. Each Preset uses two Instruments - Primary and Secondary - and if you only need one then you can simply set the Secondary Instrument Select parameter to 'none'.
The Preset parameters for each Instrument are as follows: Key Range specifies the note range over which the Instrument will respond; Volume and Pan; Coarse and Fine Tuning (up to three octaves up or down); Chorus on/off (this is an effect generated by using two audio channels instead of one, rather than a digital effect); Delay (this simply delays the start of each Instrument's playback by up to 13 seconds); Solo on/off; Sound Start (this allows playback to start from any point during a sample's length, to remove its attack); Sound Reverse on/off. The pan position referred to above specifies a pan position in a stereo bus; a Mix Output parameter that affects both Instruments in a Preset selects which of the three sets of outputs the stereo signal is routed to.
Each Instrument can be modified by an amplitude envelope. Because all Instruments have a default envelope, the user-definable amplitude envelope is called the Alternate Envelope, and the Alternate Envelope on/off parameter sets whether the Alternate Envelope or the default envelope will be used for each Instrument in a Preset. The range of variation in the envelope times is very generous - up to a whole minute for envelope attacks.
A tuning parameter for each Preset selects which of several tunings will be used: Equal (temperament); Just C; Vallotti; 19 Tone; Gamelan; User. A single User tuning can be created as a global setting, in which each key from C2 to G8 can be given a unique tuning.
Proteus offers some pretty extensive modulation ('MIDIpatch') facilities. Up to six Keyboard and Velocity Modulation patches and eight Realtime Modulation patches can be created for each Preset; each patch consists of a single modulator routed to a single destination. The former type of modulation can only affect a note at its onset, and its value is fixed thereafter; the latter can be operated in real time. Briefly, all important aspects of a Preset-Pitch, Volume, Pan, Attack etc, for either or both Instruments - can be modulated by (almost) any of the sources. There are a few exceptions: for example, Pan and Tone (a simple brightness control) cannot be modulated in real time.
The possible modulation sources for the six Keyboard and Velocity patches are (not surprisingly) Key Number and Velocity. Both can be scaled in some way: Velocity by a choice of response curves, and Key Number by the selection of a point on the keyboard as a centre, 'zero' point where Key Number has no effect. The most useful parameters to modulate with Velocity and Key Number are Volume and Tone, to create standard 'velocity sensitive' response. Also a good candidate for Velocity modulation is Crossfade - this allows the mix between the Primary and Secondary Instruments to be varied. The Preset's Crossfade parameters allow you to select either a switch or fade effect between the two Instruments, the range of values over which a fade will take place, and an unmodulated balance between the two Instruments.
The Realtime Modulation sources include two LFOs, an auxiliary envelope (with an additional delay parameter), pitch bend, monophonic and polyphonic aftertouch, and up to four MIDI Controllers (A, B, C and D). The assignment of MIDI Controller numbers to these four internal control sources is a global specification, so all Presets must use the same set of Controllers. Three MIDI footswitches (not provided) can also be used as a third set of modulation sources.
So what do all of these Preset parameters actually allow us to do in terms of creating original sounds from Proteus' Instruments? With 125 basic Instruments to work with, the most obvious thing to do is simply combine Instruments in layers, or set up some keyboard splits. Setting different pan positions for the two Instruments creates some lovely spacious sounds, and use of the Chorus function adds an ethereal quality, especially to the 'washier' sounds. The modulation facilities make Proteus a much more expressive instrument, and contribute to its synthesis capabilities - some good 'ethnic' sounds can be produced by using the envelope to modulate the pitch of an otherwise very familiar Instrument.
Amplitude envelopes will, of course, allow you to blend the start of one Instrument into the sustain portion of the second, but there is no means of imposing timbral changes on an Instrument - there is no filter envelope. Consequently, if you want to create a timbral movement in a Preset, the only means you have to do so is to fade from one Instrument into another. With only two Instruments in a Preset, this doesn't give a lot of sonic elbow room. However, it is possible to link up to three further Presets to any other, so that playing that single Preset will in fact play all four at once - the four Presets are effectively mixed into one. You can therefore stack and fade between up to eight Instruments at once, though you have to programme the Presets separately.
The Proteus manual does suggest that the Harmonic waveforms can be used to carry out a kind of additive synthesis, by stacking the various waveforms one on top of another, though of course this really requires several Presets to be linked and is therefore quite demanding on polyphony. I also found it to be a very time-consuming process. The most useful application for the Link function was simply for stacking two Presets that I particularly liked, to create a layered or split combination. Besides the demands on polyphony, the other problem with using the Link facility too much is that you can actually start to run out of user Preset locations, as one sound maybe utilising three or four Presets.
"Proteus has been a hot product since it was first announced for two reasons: it promised a high spec at a low price, and it is produced by a company who made their name on prestige products"
Proteus is 16-part multitimbral, and the way in which this multitimbrality is handled is refreshingly clear and easy to work with. At the highest level of Proteus' operation, the main screen allows you to assign a Preset number to each MIDI channel, and set Volume and Pan levels which will override the Presets' internal settings, if you wish. It's also very quick to set an output routing that overrides the setting for the Preset on any channel - each channel's output selection is specified as 'P' (in which case the Preset selection is obeyed), Main, Sub 1 or Sub 2. The benefit of this is that if you are changing patches on one channel several times throughout the course of a song, but always want the channel's output to appear at the Sub 2 outputs, it is bound to be easier to set the channel output selection to Sub 2 than to go through all of the Presets you will use and change them all. It's as simple as that; no messing around with assembling Presets into a higher level of multitimbral patches. Voice allocation between parts is dynamic, and there's no way of reserving voices for any MIDI channel.
This could cause problems at times, but 32 voice polyphony is pretty generous, and if you start to notice any note-stealing it's a fair bet that you can alter one part or Preset to use fewer audio channels without noticeably affecting the music. I only encountered note-stealing on one or two occasions where, admittedly, I was going fairly over the top on parts. If you really are running out of voices, you can always buy a second Proteus, and use the MIDI Overflow function to pass extra notes through to the second unit.
Proteus' audio outputs are quite interesting. I found the arrangement of three stereo pairs (Main Left and Right, Sub 1 Left and Right, Sub 2 Left and Right) to be a very useful one: with the Presets producing stereo sound, and stereo outputs becoming more of a standard anyway, I felt that two extra stereo pairs was better than four individual polyphonic outputs. However, should you want to use the two Sub pairs as four separate outputs, you can easily alter the pan settings of the parts involved and route them fully left or right.
The really interesting feature of the Sub outputs is that they can serve double duty as effects returns - each of the four sockets is actually a stereo jack socket, and if a stereo plug is inserted, the ring connection can be used as an effect return (an extra input, in fact) to the stereo bus feeding the main outputs. The tip connection carries the regular output signal as before. This arrangement could prove very useful either for just setting up simple effects loops without having to go through a mixer, or even as a means of adding extra inputs to an over-stretched mixer.
Proteus proved to be very easy to operate. Although any unit with a small display and a lot of parameters is going to have a large number of screens to scroll through, I found it very easy to track down whichever of Proteus' parameters I wanted to change - though for serious editing I relied on Dr T's Proteus editor.
All parameters are found under either the Master or Edit menu; Edit contains Preset parameters, and Master deals with Global parameters that affect all Presets, or override Preset parameters (MIDI Mode, Master Tune, Global Velocity Curve, Channel Output Selection etc). The Cursor button is used to move the cursor onto different parameters on each screen, and the Data dial can then be used to scroll through values: if the cursor is located on the parameter name, then turning the dial scrolls through screens or parameters; if the cursor is located on the parameter value then the parameter value can be edited. The Enter button is required to execute certain 'dangerous' functions, such as Save Preset or Data Dump.
The reason that Proteus turns out to be so easy to use - relative to other units with a similarly minimal front panel - is partly due to the intelligent location of parameters that you most often want to alter (Preset Select for a MIDI channel, Volume, Pan, Output Selection) in easily-accessible locations, and partly due to the design of the Data dial. It is a continuously incrementing type - as first used by Roland on their Alpha Juno synths - but it has a very positive clicking action, with each click incrementing the current value by one step. As a result, it is just as easy to precisely and quickly increment a parameter by a small number of units, using the tactile feedback that the dial's clicks afford you, as it is to scroll through all 192 Presets in a couple of flicks of the wrist - and still find exactly the one you wanted. This data entry technique is infinitely easier than incremental buttons (though the hardware is a little more expensive, I suppose), and only direct numerical data entry could be quicker at locating particular values.
This is the part of reviews that I hate: having to sum up a piece of equipment in a few glib and witty sentences. It also means I have to give the unit back, and I certainly wouldn't have minded having Proteus sit in my studio for a little longer - like several years, maybe.
As I suggested earlier, the amount of hype that has surrounded Proteus means that some people may have some unrealistically high expectations of it, which it can't really live up to; but it is an excellent unit, and if waiting a little while for it to appear has meant that the product is already well supported, and the design (in terms of the user interface, for example) is as good as it could be, then I think it was worth it.
As a ROM sample player, Proteus has a fine selection of very useful instruments, and its audio quality is outstanding. As far as manipulating those sounds go, its synthesis capabilities are really on a par with those of, say, the Kawai K1, in that you can combine waveforms without filtering (Proteus doesn't allow ring modulation, of course). But Proteus' basic Instruments are well chosen and sound stunning, and as a result you can create some very exciting sounds - though it is sound quality that will distinguish them rather than originality.
Proteus' ease of use is significant because it means that, particularly if you don't invest in a software editor, you will find it much easier to get the most out of Proteus than out of comparable expanders (like the U110, M3R and M1R).
The on-board factory Presets provide a wide range of very useful sounds, amongst which any musician or studio would find something essential, and the prospect of 4Mb upgrades makes Proteus look like an even more valuable studio workhorse. All in all, the choice and quality of sounds, 16-part multitimbrality, 32-voice polyphony, and multiple stereo output configuration means that Proteus is a unit that any musician will find at least desirable, and in many cases invaluable - and the asking price of £899 looks more than reasonable. Right now, my music is sounding all the poorer for the lack of Proteus' contribution.
£899 Inc VAT.
Emu Systems, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson