These days a few hundred pounds will buy you technology that once cost thousands. Gordon Reid looks at an early sampler and discovers there's more to it and its manufacturer than you might have known.
WHILE THE HONOUR OF BEING THE FIRST KEYBOARD SAMPLER MUST GO TO THE TAPE-BASED MELLOTRON, THE IMPACT ON SAMPLING OF THE EMULATOR I AND E-MU THEMSELVES SHOULD NOT BE UNDERESTIMATED.
SAMPLING IS NOW one of the most important tools in our musical armoury. With multitimbral, 16-bit samplers available for under £1000, and secondhand 12-bit units changing hands for as little as £500, it's hardly surprising that, for some musical styles, sampling has replaced synthesis as the predominant form of electronic sound creation.
Yet the sampling technology we now take for granted was just a dream in early 1979 - a dream of an electronic Mellotron. The Mellotron was as important in its day as the Prophet 5 and DX7 were in theirs. Some people would say more so... The idea of a digital Mellotron had existed almost since the launch of the Minimoog and the almost simultaneous development of the world's first microprocessor family - the Intel 4000-series. Yet, when (in '79) Australian innovators Fairlight launched the CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) which combined sampling, sequencing, and production capabilities, it's unlikely that even they were aware exactly how significant a revolution they had unleashed. The launch of the Fairlight spurred E-mu and many others into action. Two years later E-mu's Emulator I emerged. Neatly packaged in a single keyboard case (unlike the Fairlight with its four separate units including processing module, "piano" and QWERTY keyboards, and monitor), and despite weighing in at 30kg, the Emulator was the first of its kind: the portable keyboard sampler.
The Emulator was the first genuinely portable keyboard that could sample a sound, store it in memory or on disk, and play it back from a conventional keyboard. Priced at £4750 for the eight-voice version, and £2450 or £3650 for the two- and four- voice versions respectively (compared to the Fairlight's entry level of £17,500) the E1 gained rapid acceptance and for almost the first time a sampler was taken out of the studio and into the live arena.
Today, E-mu Systems are recognised as one of the world's innovators, and a leader in the development of hi-tech musical equipment, yet few people realise just how long their pedigree actually is. For example, who produced the first polyphonic keyboard? What about the first of the so-called keyboard workstations? Sequential, Moog... The devices are, respectively, the E-mu Polyphonic Keyboard and the E-mu 4060.
As far back as '71, E-mu's co-founder and Senior Engineer, Dave Rossum, started developing modular synthesisers and their attendant controller keyboards as a hobby. The first R&D lab was in an apartment - a far cry from the 30,000sq foot buildings that they now occupy. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, a number of technical innovations were born, many of which remain unrecognised by those of us who have benefited from their expertise. The initial dabblings eventually became the E-mu Modular Synthesiser, and were supplied primarily to Universities and recording studios, although a few found their way into the hands of performers. These enormous synths were organised into functional modules and the sound was defined by the interconnection of the various devices available. This "building block" approach allowed systems to be tailored to specific needs and budgets, yet still be capable of an enormous range of sounds that were being discovered at the time.
In 1975 E-mu launched the Digital Polyphonic Keyboard and although the Prophet 5 stole the polyphonic limelight two years later, the importance of E-mu's contribution cannot be overstated. Indeed, Dave Rossum was instrumental in the design and construction of the SSL filter/oscillator chips that became the building blocks for the Prophets, as well as some Korg synths. And when E-mu licensed the polyphonic keyboard to both Oberheim and Sequencial Circuits, they were paid royalties on every Prophet 5 up to Rev3, after which time the design was changed. Not bad for a company founded in an apartment.
Within two years of offering polyphony to an uncomprehending world (and at about the time that Moog were launching the ill-fated Polymoog), E-mu raced ahead and incorporated a microprocessor within a commercial musical instrument. The 4060 Keyboard and Sequencer maintained the modular approach. Centred around a 16-channel keyboard controller, the 4060 also required a minimum of four units of rack-space in a separate system cabinet to house the mass of jack plugs that comprised the output panel. A QWERTY keyboard and screen were required for full operation, and sequencer memory and mass storage could then be added as required. The music power of the system would still be acceptable today - 16 polyphonic outputs (producing CV and gates; five years before MIDI) and a maximum of a little over 8000-note capacity.
The Audity was E-mu's last analogue adventure before moving into the world of digital sampling. The result was virtually a mainframe in its own right: computer controlled, with dual floppy disks, 16-channel polyphonic keyboard and sequencer (with its own disk for sequence storage) and 16 separate analogue voice generation cards. The Audity weighed in with a price tag of $69,200 and was never a serious commercial possibility. Only E-mu know how many (or how few) were ever built. Only one is known of for certain, and that was supplied (almost inevitably) to Tangerine Dream.
WHEN THE EMULATOR I appeared in 1981 it was clad in gunmetal grey steel and built like nothing quite so much as a pocket battleship. It was certainly built to last and, at nearly 50kg in its flightcase, it's pretty certain that an Emulator will survive longer than your back over the course of a gruelling tour. Yet the Emulator is extremely neat and well designed, and quite small by modern standards. A four-octave keyboard is flanked by a 6"-wide control panel (including sequencer controls, pitchbend and mod wheels, and the 5.25" disk drive), and the 3"-high control panel sitting behind the keyboard sports a meagre 19 buttons, knobs, and sliders. The back panel is equally sparse: Upper and Lower outputs are provided in both quarter-inch jack and XLR formats as is a Mix (Combination) output. Sample input is obtained from a single quarter-inch jack input (also duplicated on XLR), and three performance controls are provided; vibrato pedal, release switch, and Access switch. You may also find a 25-way, D-type RS232 connector on the back panel - but the chances are you'll never find a use for it. Finally, the mains cable, on/off switch, external fuse (thanks E-mu) and 240v/110v voltage selector also appear on the rear. Internal construction is robust with solidly-mounted Z80 processor and I/O cards, 128Kb of RAM (made up of 64 16-kilobit RAM chips), and two four-voice sound generation cards.
Sampling is limited to one frequency; 30kHz (this gives a theoretical bandwidth of just under 15kHz, but in practice E-mu decided to limit the bandwidth to 10kHz) and 120Kb of RAM is available for holding samples (8K is used by the operating system) giving four seconds of eight-bit storage. Although eight-bit sampling would imply a signal to noise ratio of only 42dB, E-mu have companded the signal, and quote a more respectable 72dB. An extra touch, unique in 1981, is a tracking filter which further reduces high-frequency noise at the Emulator's outputs by closing down a low-pass VCF as the pitch played on the keyboard descends.
The four-octave keyboard is split into two two-octave sections. This is a hardware split and cannot be modified by the user. In fact, E-mu might just as well have provided separate keyboards - like a dual-manual Mellotron. Sample time is split equally between the Upper and Lower sections giving two seconds of sampling per split, but voice allocation is not - curiously, Lower boasts five voices, while Upper has only three.
Sounds are stored on 5.25" floppy disks - ten of which were originally supplied with the instrument. By the time the E1 was discontinued there were about 120 disks in E-mu's official library, and untold thousands floating around from private and professional sources. Each disk stores two sounds - one for the Upper two octaves of the keyboard, and one for the Lower. Using the Swap button you can reverse the positions of the sounds, but to lay a single sound across the whole four octaves you have to sample it twice, one sample two octaves higher than the other.
The sample/playback control panel is divided into seven basic parts. Scanning, somewhat unconventionally, from right to left, these are as follows: The input panel contains three controls - an input gain selector with 0dB, 20dB and 40dB positions, an attenuation knob, and a button marked Sample, which both enables a sampling threshold to be set and the sample to be taken. Moving left we come to the master tune knobs, one each for Upper and Lower sections. Third in line is the Sustain/Filter section which contains three buttons, marked Lower Set, Upper Set, and Truncate/Filter, and two sliders - Start Point/Truncate and Loop Length/Filter Cutoff. The sliders have dual functions - you can set the start point and duration of a loop (no screen, guesswork only please), you can truncate a sample (and if you reverse the sample, chop the beginning off as well), and set the cut-off point of a simple low-pass filter. And that's all. Next comes the Vibrato panel - a rate knob and Upper and Lower Enable buttons. Then comes the Keyboard Dynamic Allocation panel (one button - see below), and the Output panel which controls the output level of the Mix output (but not the Upper and Lower outputs which are always set to maximum). Finally, the Sound Storage section offers four buttons - Get Upper, Get Lower (each of which takes about seven seconds using direct memory access - DMA), Save (20 seconds to store both Upper and Lower sounds), and Swap (which reverses the positions of the Upper and Lower samples on the keyboard). What could be easier?
Despite being simple to use, the Emulator was a £5000 keyboard with an excellent reputation, so to enable you to get some surprising results out of so few facilities the Emulator has a few jokers up its sleeves.
Since there are no envelopes on the instrument, two release modes are provided; short release stops the sound the moment that you take your finger off a key, while natural release completes the sample no matter when you stop playing. Admittedly this only gives you two release options, 0 and 2 seconds, but it's surprising what you can do with this. Used in conjunction with the Truncate function, you can tailor a sample to different release requirements and, in addition, the Release footpedal switches the Emulator between modes, allowing you to play with some expression.
"WHEN FAIRLIGHT LAUNCHED THE COMPUTER MUSICAL INSTRUMENT, IT'S UNLIKELY THEY WERE AWARE EXACTLY HOW SIGNIFICANT A REVOLUTION THEY HAD UNLEASHED."
A further helping of real-time control is provided by a doubling mode (tread on a pedal plugged into the Access socket on the back) which causes all notes played on the Lower octaves to be doubled on the Upper. This gives some stunning chorus effects, further enhanced by the individual tuning options - no digital access control to worry about here. There is also a Solo mode for more traditional synth playing techniques, although all this does is limit the Emulator to a single voice at a time - this is not a Unison mode. The reassuring Moog-style wheels provide pitchbend (two semitones) and modulation, the depth of which can also be played via a footpedal, freeing both hands for actually note-playing. Vibrato can be individually assigned to the Upper and Lower sections.
Next there's the Dynamic Allocation function, which, when used in conjunction with the Upper and Lower outputs, creates some excellent spatial sounds. With this mode on, the Emulator forgets its usual five-note Lower/three-note Upper split and grabs voices from wherever it pleases. Using related sounds in the Upper and Lower memories gives wide stereo effects as the voices are randomly placed either left or right in the mix. In addition, you're no longer limited to five or three voices per sound, and can now play all eight voices from either side of the keyboard, voices being allocated on a last-note basis. The PPG and OB8 synths have a similar facility, and it's one well worth investigating.
Multisampling is also possible, although this was originally only implemented as a software upgrade. The technique provided allows 2-12 samples to be recorded over the width of the four-octave keyboard, limiting pitch stretching to a very acceptable two or three semitones per sample. Each sample can be of a different length, and can have its own loop and filter settings. It can also be tuned to make virtually seamless transitions across the whole keyboard. Alternatively, up to 12 entirely different samples can be taken - as on a modern instrument. Used in conjunction with the onboard sequencer, this probably makes the Emulator the earliest known example of a sampling drum machine.
Someone say sequencer? Although not originally launched with this facility, most Emulators boast an eight-voice, 900-note, two-channel sequencer. In addition to realtime recording, this fledgling device allows notes to be added at the beginning and end of a sequence, permits sequence truncation, and even overdubbing. This was heady stuff in 1980, and even though sequences are limited to the eight-note polyphony of the instrument, some of the factory supplied examples are impressive in a primitive sort of way.
How does the E1 sound? Well, E-mu's original ideas regarding a digital Mellotron weren't far wide of the mark. On sustained sounds, such as strings and vocals, the Emulator has a haunting quality not at all unlike a Mellotron. Percussive samples lack the bite of more modern samplers but nevertheless, as on the much more advanced Emulator II, the Emulator I has a quality that makes you want to use the instrument. Don't knock eight-bit sampling; the resulting sound may not accurately duplicate the real world, but with the Emulators I and II you gain something in exchange. (Electric guitarists revel in distortion, and distortion is, after all, the outcome of limited sample resolution.) In addition, detuning and doubling yield some enormous sounds - the kind of thing you might expect for £5,000. And isn't that what it's all about? Technical facilities impress, but sound quality is the final arbiter of an instrument's value.
THE EMULATOR I was in production for nearly four years ('81-'84). During this time, a number of hardware upgrades were provided in addition to the software multisample and user-formatting options. An RS232 interface was introduced which, together with the E-mu Personal Computer Interface, enabled a computer to be connected to the E1. But E-mu's sales pitch ("it should be noted that this interface is intended primarily for those Emulator owners with some programming experience... Although the software implements a communications syntax the actual programs must be written by the user") was enough to put off all but the most ardent Emulator enthusiasts. Other esoterica included a Sequencer Sync Interface, which recorded a clock onto tape via the RS232 interface, allowing multiple sequences to be recorded, or multiple Emulators to be sync'd. An Analogue Interface existed in the form of software and an external computer, and also used the RS232 interface. This provided eight CV & Gate inputs and eight channel selectors, and allowed the Emulator to be controlled by an external CV & Gate device such as the Oberheim DSX or Roland MC4.
Needless to say, none of these devices were great successes. Even without the advent of MIDI it's hard to see how enough people would have spent the time, money, and effort learning about and using these enhancements to make it all worth E-mu's while.
Rapid advances in computer technology led to the development of the Emulator II, with more memory, greater analogue control of sound, a velocity-sensitive keyboard and better sound reproduction. The EII also boasted RS422, MIDI, and SMPTE. These facilities doomed the E1 to a sharply truncated life-span. Further developments, such as the Emulator II+ with its hard disk capability, and the state of the art Emulator III finally pushed the Emulator I into the role of "enthusiasts' curio".
Consequently, picking up an Emulator I is now less a matter of money, and more of luck. The chances of finding one on the open market is small, but those that appear change hands cheaply. Close your ears to pleas that it cost £5,000 new, today it's (next to) worthless. With the Akai S700 and Ensoniq Mirage often selling for less than £400, you should walk away with an Emulator I and change from £250. Make sure that you get the disks: no operating system... no sampler... no fun.
What should you look out for if you're tempted by an Emulator I? Firstly, make sure that you find one that comes with the Diskette Initialisation disk. The Emulator was originally supplied without formatting capabilities, so to save your own samples you had to buy pre-formatted E-mu disks. Needless to say, these are no longer available, and without the formatter you're sunk. Also missing from the original software spec was the multi-sampling option (later priced at £250). The need for a multi-sample disk (identified by an M suffix to the serial number) is less imperative than the formatter, but you won't get convincing voices without one. On the hardware side, check the reliability of the disk drive very thoroughly. These drives were only expected to last for about five years, so an early Emulator is well into its dotage. On the other hand, if the sampler's been lying in someone's bedroom for most of the last eight years you should be safe. Finally, check the voices themselves - if possible using a multi-sampled disk. Play every key on the keyboard and listen closely to the output for glitches or excess noise. Glitches often indicate RAM failure (a relatively simple fault to fix) but excess noise points to darker problems. As always, if in doubt, call in the experts. Companies such as the Synthesiser Service Centre in London, or Panic Music Services in Cambridge will often make the difference between a bargain and a dog.
IT'S EASY TO believe that the Emulator I was simply the first of a breed that would evolve naturally, but by bringing straightforward sampling to the attention of the masses, it showed us what could be achieved. Happily, the history of E-mu is one of the success stories in music technology, despite nearly going out of business in the mid-80's. It would have seemed impossible in 1980, but E-mu Systems are now a mainstream company with substantial public respect - whilst their erstwhile world beating contemporaries, Fairlight, long ago bit the commercial dust.
E-mu's equipment line today includes the extremely successful Proteus series of modules, the Emax series, and the top of the range EIII samplers, with the latest additions - the Proformance piano modules - looking destined for commercial success. This range of samplers and sample replay modules form what is probably the most coherent and successful range of sample-based instruments ever released, and have achieved acceptance at the highest levels. Look closely at videos of the big-name bands and you'll usually see the Emulator logo displayed in their keyboard rigs.
What of the future? E-mu clearly don't see their current success as an end in itself. In 1989 they entered into a licensing agreement with Japanese giant Matsushita, which gives the Japanese company access to E-mu's sample library and a number of their patents. What the fruits of this agreement may eventually be is anybody's guess, but it may well enable E-mu to make the leap to the Yamaha class of corporation without the associated growing pains that normally accompany such expansion.
As for the Emulator I, Music Technology went so far as to say that it was the keyboard of '82. But let's give the last word to Dave Rossum and Marco Alpert, the authors of the original 1981 operator's manual. They wrote: "Most of all, use your imagination and don't be afraid to experiment. The Emulator can be a very powerful tool for the creative artist. If enough people take advantage of its capabilities we are going to make one hell of a lot of money". They weren't wrong.
Gear in this article:
Retrospective (Gear) by Gordon Reid