Eight-voice Polyphonic Sampling Keyboard
Paul Wiffen goes gaga over E-mu Systems' latest attempt at giving the average keyboard player complete control over the sound sampling process.
Much improved in fidelity and facilities, the first of the new Emulators has now arrived in the UK. With 17 seconds of sample storage and enormous treatment and assignment flexibility, it gives the keyboard player almost complete control over samples.
Right from the word go, this is obviously a product from the E-mu Systems stable. It sports the now familiar blue colour Scheme and the simple, understated lines that have typified the company's previous instruments, but at the same time, technological advances have meant goodbye to the sparsely-arranged and crudely-constructed controls of the original Emulator. EII has a five-octave keyboard instead of a four-octave one, and programming is now achieved by use of a slider parameter control and a numeric keypad complete with back-lit LCD to keep the user informed of operation status.
Oh powering up, the EII's operating software is loaded from disk, as there is no battery-backed memory for either system control or sound programs. In fact, the instrument uses two different types of disk - Library Disks, which contain some basic samples as well as the operating software, and Performance disks, which group modified samples together with their keyboard and wheel assignments. As their name suggests, the Performance disks ready the instrument for playing in exactly the same way as presets and memories do in a normal programmable synthesiser.
Other musicians might not agree, but it's my view that the provision of this facility on the EII is as great an advance for the performance of sample-based music as the introduction of programmable voice memories was for the analogue synth. However, it's precisely this comparison between sampling systems and conventional sound synthesis that shows up the weaknesses in the former, particularly when it comes to live performance. In addition to the precariousness of disk-based operating software (as opposed to that held onboard in ROM), the most obvious disadvantage of disk storage is load time. It takes around 25 seconds for a Performance or Library disk to load, and that's going to be more than a little inconvenient for the average keyboard player on the road, having to persuade the singer to tell jokes between songs or suffer the torture of half-a-minute's worth of improvised drum solo, just to get a new instrument set-up for each new song...
Mind you, it's not without reason that EII - and instruments like it - make use of disk storage. To begin with, samples are an extremely memory-intensive way of generating sound, and since solid state RAM is not exactly cheap, employing magnetic disks on which the user can build up a library of sounds and assignments is much more cost-effective than putting all the requisite memory onboard. As it happens, the EII does contain rather a lot in the way of RAM in its own right, but this is fully occupied with the task of storing samples for readiness during performance. When you consider that these samples can be of up to 17 seconds in length, you begin to realise just how much of a necessity those disk systems really are.
For those unfamiliar with the principles of sound sampling, here's a brief resume.
Essentially, the quality of a sample depends on three factors - sample rate, (how often the original sound is analysed by the sampler), sample resolution (how precisely the sound is analysed) and the way in which the sampling data is stored and retrieved. Sampling rates are measured in kHz, and the audio bandwidth (ie. the range of frequencies that can be reproduced faithfully) is directly related to this measurement. A sample rate of 10kHz would probably result in a 3-4kHz of sound spectrum (nothing special), whilst a rate of 60kHz gives an audio bandwidth of 20kHz, or about as much as the human ear can cope with.
Moving on to resolution, the EII - like most other sampling systems currently available - relies on an eight-bit system. This compares with the Synclavier (16-bit, but at present only monophonic) and the Fairlight and PPG (eight-bit, but with 12- and 16-bit systems under development). But if its paper sampling spec is nothing out of the ordinary, where EII really scores is in the way the sampled data is treated within the machine. Whilst the sampling rate is only 30kHz (giving a bandwidth of about 12kHz) and its resolution still only eight-bit, some rather clever companding means that the EII can use software techniques to compress the stored information for retention in memory and then expands it again just before it is converted back into sound.
Listening to the EII for the first time, you'd be hard pushed to guess that the machine had such run-of-the-mill sampling specs: the sound is that good. Quite simply, EII is audibly superior to any other eight-bit sampling system this reviewer has heard. And if all this can be achieved using the current system, why bother going up to 12- or 16-bit?
As already mentioned, the EII has enough working RAM to hold over 17 seconds' worth of sample(s) at any one time. But that's only the start of what the second-generation Emulator has to offer.
"Looping - always a headache on the original Emulator - can now be achieved quickly and easily, and with not a trace of glitching or unevenness."
Think back, if you will, to the original model, which even in its top-of-the-line eight-voice polyphonic form - only provided the user with the bare minimum in the way of sound manipulation options once a sound had been sampled. That operational rigidity has now given way to an altogether more elaborate - and more useful - system of sound control, those 17 seconds, for example, can be allocated to as many different samples as you wish, so you could have twenty 0.85-second samples, ten 1.7-second ones, or just one 17-second monster, stored onboard in the new Emulator's RAM. And whereas the original instrument only provided for some very basic sample truncation, EII lets you pick elements of a sample out for later use, discarding the rest in the interests of saving memory space, and you can do this at what amounts to a byte-by-byte level. Meanwhile, looping - always a headache on the original Emulator - can now be achieved quickly and easily, and with not a trace of glitching or unevenness.
We still haven't finished: once your sound has been sampled, trimmed, and looped to your satisfaction, the real fun can begin. In a fascinating blend of old and new technologies, E-mu Systems have given their new baby a complete analogue sound shaping section (yes, that's right, filters, LFOs, envelope controllers) which opens up entirely new programming avenues. And this increase in control has been extended to the performance section by the implementation of dynamic keyboard control, itself fully user-adjustable.
Now, these glorious new functions are accessed on two levels. First, you select the general section in which you wish to work (eg. Filter, Real Time Control, Preset Definition, Disk Functions, and so on) by calling it up from disk. One disk must be kept in the machine at all times during this procedure, since the information contained therein is essential for changes in parameter section to be carried out. There's a delay of a second or two before each section is loaded, but this is never sufficiently long to constitute an irritation.
The second stage of programming takes place once the section due for attention has been called up. Each section contains a list of adjustable parameters, and dialling up a number on the EII's keypad (unlike so many other parameter-select instruments, EII lists all the relevant numbers on the front panel) puts up to four different parameters under the control of four sliders, A, B, C and D, whose function and current value are indicated on the built-in LCD. This is a useful variation (similar to that provided by the Oberheim Xpander - Ed) on the digital parameter selection theme, since it allows closely-related parameters to be quickly modified in conjunction with each other, as opposed to one at a time.
Let's begin our whistle-stop tour of EII's range of parameters with the sampling section itself.
I should say from the outset that the Emulator in its latest incarnation takes the hard work out of sampling like no other device I know of. The machine's LCD can function as an accurate peak programme meter which holds the most recent level peak, and this is invaluable in obtaining a sample that suffers neither from distortion caused by too high a signal level or from a poor signal-to-noise ratio due to undersampling. During the review period, several samples that the machine pronounced unsatisfactory (via a number of LCD messages) sounded perfectly respectable to me, which says something either for the state of my hearing (Too many Asia records - Ed) or for the standards E-mu Systems expect EII users to apply to their sampling.
Selecting '2' on the keypad takes you into a function known as Define Voice, which readies the keyboard to accept information relating to which note will play the pitch of the original sample and the upper and lower limits of the range over which the sample is to be operated. This means that several registers of the same instrument can be sampled and spread up the keyboard accordingly, thereby alleviating the all-too-obvious sonic problems suffered by lesser systems when a sample is played more than an octave or more away from its original pitch.
Further functions within the sampling section allow the user to centre the variable input gain around 0, 20, or 40dB, set the threshold at which the sample is triggered (again, using the LCD in its PPM mode), and to select the length of sample to be stored in 0.2-second intervals.
"Voices can be assigned to separate, overlapping, or identical keyboard ranges, giving a split/layer capability unequalled by any other electronic keyboard currently available."
Once the basic sample has been made, the EII's Voice Definition section is brought into play, and this allows the user to tailor the sampled sound and decide how it should be controlled dynamically. Dialling up '11' on the keypad sets up all four sliders for the purpose of sample truncation: Sliders A and B act as coarse and fine controls respectively, and with the LCD showing the current byte number, enable the truncation's start-point to be selected. Sliders C and D (again, coarse and fine) perform the same function for the truncation's finish point. Pressing 'Enter' then stores the sample in its new, truncated form, the rest being erased automatically.
Both display and sliders take on similar roles in the looping process ('12' on the keypad), but to assist in what by anybody's standards is a fairly tricky operation, E-mu have included an AutoLoop function which fine-tunes the user's idea of the best loop point. And don't worry - the function is easily overriden if you decide you don't like what the machine wants to do to your sample.
In addition to 'AutoLoop', there's also 'AutoSplice' which, as its name suggests, assists in effecting smooth fading out of one sample and the fading in of another. In other words, something similar to what can be achieved with reels of tape and a razor blade, only rather more flexible and a good deal easier to use. Mind you, it can be a bit disconcerting, hearing a sampled string ensemble being gradually transmogrified into a herd of angry wildebeest...
Codes '21' to '25' on the keypad activate a variety of functions connected with keyboard performance, such as how levels and filters react to harder and softer keystrokes, the attenuation and tuning of each voice, and the implementation of single triggering, a useful feature for the keen keyboard soloist and a further indication that EII is intended to be a performance instrument as well as a sound sampler.
Codes '27' and '28', on the other hand, make rather more dramatic sonic alterations. The former is used to play a sample backwards - loops and all - while the latter enables a voice to be combined digitally with another. This results in some totally unpredictable - but nonetheless quite fascinating - effects, simply by adding two sounds together byte-by-byte. And remember, the resultant sample can be processed just like any other sample on the EII.
Lastly in this section, real-time controls such as wheels, pedals and so on are enabled using code '29', while dialling up '30' on the keypad stores your freshly-modified sample to disk for permanent storage.
EII's filter is given a separate programming section of its own, and one of the first things that strikes you on approaching this area of the instrument's performance is just how wonderful it is to be able to apply something as instantaneous and as effective as a low-pass filter to a digital sound. Oh for a similar facility on the DX7!
Specific numeric codes are used to call up such parameters as filter frequency, LFO amount, keyboard tracking (especially noteworthy since it can be adjusted so that the sound gets brighter as you play up the keyboard), and ADSR: again, all these parameters are controlled by means of the four sliders A to D.
"Quite simply, EII is audibly superior to any other eight-bit sampling system this reviewer has heard."
The VCA is also dedicated a section of its own, with ADSR variable in the same way as the filter envelope and an exceptionally versatile LFO, for which Slider A controls rate, B the delay before the effect is introduced (useful for delayed vibrato effects, for instance), and Slider C introduces an innovation I'd very much like to see more of on analogue synths, namely the facility to vary LFO rates for each key played.
In most respects, E-mu Systems have avoided introducing unnecessary new jargon in order to make their product look more innovative than it really is. Thus, a Filter Envelope is called just that, not a Harmonic Content Envelope (thank you, NED). However, EII does have one term - 'Preset' - which is used in a way most keyboard players and programmers will be unaccustomed to, since in this case it refers to a total keyboard set-up as stored on a Performance disk, with modified samples being assigned to different parts of the keyboard.
Along with various Get, Copy, Erase and Catalogue commands that assist in the compiling of a full Preset, the Preset itself can actually be defined. Dialling up '21' on the keypad enables you to give your Preset a suitable name, and once you've done that, '22' puts the machine in Assignment mode. Any voice - complete with attendant modifications - can now be allocated to any part of the keyboard over two octaves, while voices can also be assigned to separate, overlapping or identical keyboard ranges, giving a split/layer capability unequalled by any other electronic keyboard currently available. You probably don't need me to tell you that the performance possibilities opened up by all this are simply staggering.
Two velocity control options are provided by codes '25' and '26', and these are referred to as Velocity Switch and Velocity Crossfade respectively. The former enables a hard keystroke to trigger an entirely different sound to a soft one, while the latter relates the speed of the keystroke to the balance between two sounds. A further feature - known as Positional Crossfade - uses the position of the key played within a definable keyboard range to balance the two voices. This is in many respects similar to the Keyboard Level Scaling feature on the DX7, since it allows one sound only to be heard at the bottom of the keyboard, two sounds in varying level proportions in the middle and finally only the second sound at the upper end. This is ideal for authentic transfer between samples of different original pitches as well as for creating more off-the-wall effects. It's also possible, incidentally, to disable keyboard pitch information for a particular sample so that pitch is constant throughout the keyboard's length: especially appropriate for rapid triggering of percussive samples, for instance.
Neither of the EII's pair of performance wheels - one is centre-sprung, the other free to suit all applications - is permanently assigned to any one function, but these are routed separately for each patch, as are the machine's pedal and footswitch sockets. Routings are programmed by entering two numbers on the keypad, the first representing the source, the second the destination of the modulation.
Lastly, a 'Special' section is provided to perform tasks generated in additional software, to be included as and when it becomes available. So far these include Channel Disable, Filter Trim, disk copying and service routines, with more in the E-mu Systems pipeline.
In fact, a major section of the EII - namely the machine's built-in sequencer - wasn't present on the review model, since the software to operate it is not yet available. Similarly, although the necessary connections for MIDI and SMPTE compatibility are already fitted, their operation is software-based and is still to be completed, though I'm reliably informed that the first batch of EIIs to be sold in this country will feature full MIDI compatibility. What's more, all additional disks will be supplied to existing EII owners free of charge, which is good to know.
In addition to the MIDI and SMPTE connections mentioned above, EII contains eight separate channel outputs, a mix output, and the sample input (whatever you do, don't forget to use a decent mic when you're sampling, otherwise no amount of modification will get you the results you're after).
After the glowing terms in which I've described the new Emulator's sound quality, programmability, and flexibility, you might be forgiven for thinking that the instrument approaches perfection itself. However, in addition to the long loading times mentioned at the start, there is a major grouse - the quality of EII's keyboard. Now, although I wasn't expecting a T8 or MKB1000 keyboard (both of which, incidentally, you should be able to play the EII from, assigning pressure parameters to one of the MIDI controls), I think E-mu could have come up with something a bit better given the £7500 asking price. Clearly, the company have put a lot more emphasis (and therefore more money) on developing the new instrument's software flexibility rather than making its keyboard mofe playable, as it's actually only a slight improvement over that on the original Emulator: nasty, over-sprung and incapable of adding anything to your playing technique.
There can be no doubt that the EII represents an enormous breakthrough in putting the full creative potential of sound sampling techniques at the fingers of the performing musician. Despite the long load times and the disappointing keyboard, its unimpeachable sound quality, sample manipulation options, dynamic keyboard and assignable performance controls point to a rosy future spent not only in the dark depths of the country's most prestigious recording studios but also in the heady glare of stage lights.
The disks supplied with the review sample (no pun intended) sounded superb, and only a few hours' fiddling with EII's extensive control facilities has convinced me that the possibilities are not only endless but also eminently accessible and usable. Here - at last - is a software-derived instrument designed just as much for the performer and experimenter as for the recording engineer and computer buff. I want one.
RRPs: single-drive version £7250, dual-drive £7500, both excluding VAT. Further information from Syco Systems, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Wiffen
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