Hear You 'Lator
Sampling The Emulator
Share reality with Culture Club producer Steve Levine, the Attractions' Steve Nieve, and keyboard whizz Dave Stewart.
Gossip travels round the musical instrument business slightly faster than the final sliver of soap down a plug hole, but occasionally, along comes a gadget which captures the imagination of the general public — those who normally wouldn't know an F sharp from a hole in the curtains.
Such is the Emulator - that digital keyboard mimic which is able to remember a real sound and return it to you at any desired pitch. The world's friendliest tape recorder.
People were fascinated that Orchestral Manoeuvres had three, that you could form chords from sparrow farts and for once, it didn't require a VDU and a diploma in Basic. Much the same elements appealed to the musicians who coughed up close to £7,000 for one. (It's actually £5,950 plus VAT for an eight voice, £4,950 plus VAT for a four voice.) And it was surprising that the Emulator - which is at the very forefront of keyboard technology - should attract such a wide range of players.
We quizzed a trio of them on their Emu thoughts - synth man Dave Stewart, Elvis Costello pianist Steve Nieve and Culture Club producer Steve Levine.
Before we reveal their opinions, let's look at the object of their desire. It's a self contained, four octave keyboard with a simplicity of controls. The sounds are sampled via a microphone which plugs in the back and are then digitally encoded onto a 5 in sided floppy disc which drops into a slot on the left of the front panel.
Though it can play up to eight notes at once, the maximum duration of any sample is two seconds.
It alters the pitch to match the keyboard by 'replaying' the digital recording at a faster or slower speed.
The built-in, real time, polyphonic sequencer can store up to 900 notes, splitting them into two sequences, if desired.
Like all the best ideas it's gloriously simple and very well executed. The players we spoke to had certain reservations but were unanimous in their adoration of the Emulator as a 'musical' instrument. They said this...
SAMPLE: Dave Stewart
LOOP TIME: A solo artist for the synthesiser
END RUN: October 13, 1983. Spaceward Studios
"The greatest advantage is speed. If you want to find out what two octaves of saucepans sounds like, then it takes less than a minute." What the would-be culinary percussionist is talking about here is of course the Emulator's sampling system.
Dave Stewart was the first Emuperson we spoke to, but his views on this rapid turn-round was echoed by Steve Nieve and Steve Levine. That's what makes it so musical — they said — the fact that an idea can be translated into playable notes within moments as you set up a microphone, bash your oven ready casserole dish with a ladle, then play it back at the appropriate pitch.
But as we've said, there are limits to its sampling ability — a maximum capture time of two seconds for a start. And though it's possible to loop that sample so it will repeat itself for as long as you hold down the key, there are drawbacks.
"It's a whole science, loop making. Some sounds work very smoothly; with others it's impossible not to get a click."
In Dave Stewart's experience it's been the artificial noises that have been the most cussed to reproduce. "It seems that a sound very rich in harmonics like a human voice is okay, but pure sounds, such as a synthesiser develop a click.
"Also, sounds with a natural decay are inappropriate, and unlike, say, a Prophet, you can't have a sound with a percussive attack and then a long sustained part afterwards."
To oiks like you, me and the assistant editor, 'Quantisation Distortion' is the sort of calamity that occurs when someone squats on your digital watch. With Emulator owners it's a particularly troublesome example of electronic rheumatics which afflicts the lower frequencies.
"When making a sample, you get a certain amount of digital noise creeping in," explains Dave, and though the Emu designers include a filtering circuit to remove it, there's often rustling crackle underneath low notes. "The filters can take out so much that it's hard to get a bright bass sound.
"And there's one sinister problem which takes a few months for you to realise. If you sample something with a fast attack, that attack time will be shortened when you play in the upper registers." The principle of the 'lator is, after all, along the lines of a digital tape recorder. As you run the 'tape' faster, it rises in pitch. But of course, it's also finished in a shorter time. But THAT'S not the end where the trouble occurs.
"It will be double the length in the lower octaves, so the attack will be slower. To the ear it sounds as if it's being played out of time. That happened to me a lot. I'd be recording in the studio thinking 'I can't be playing THIS badly'."
For similarly afflicted Emulator owners, Dave has found one way round it. Press B3 which reverses the direction of the loop so the sound is playing backwards. Then cut off the end — which is really the beginning — go back to normal and there you are with a tightened up attack time. Ten points to the Stewart cranium. Pass go, collect 200 floppy discs.
Speaking of which... "floppy discs don't really fit in with a rock and roll environment," concludes Dave after a brief experiment at one gig which was possibly the first piece of Emulator audience participation ever attempted.
"We were.. .er.. .trying to get them involved by saying 'look at this wonderful machine, you feed it these strange black things'... not interested." Shouts of 'get on with it' were rife.
Thankfully, the Emulator has turned out to be reliable on stage. "Occasionally a few LEDs on the left hand side wink at me for no apparent reason, but it never does anything wrong."
The overall Stewart opinion is certainly of a versatile, elegant and above all easy to use machine. Because it samples and does just that, you don't have to take a YOP course in order to understand the finer points of programming — did we say Fairlight?
Dave is also impressed with the inbuilt 900 note polyphonic sequencer — an enthusiasm not shared by the two Steves. "You can put a sequence down on disc and come back to it later to see how it sounds. It's possible to add notes at the beginning and end, but you can't insert notes or chain sequences together." Once more it was the speed that appealed — of simply playing real time on the keyboard and having that stored safely on a floppy within moments.
Steve Levine's criticism was that there's little point having such a powerful recording system if you can't then get into the sequence, shift notes, patch up the bad parts or change the order.
If we all get our publication dates about right, it should soon be possible to hear further examples of the Stewart/Emulator interface on a new single "Leipzig", written by Tom Dolby. Along with the B side "Rich For a Day", it features a few Marimba-like bonks and Xylophone tings that are the sons and daughters of a digital chip.
SAMPLE: Steve Nieve
LOOP TIME: An Attraction for Elvis Costello
END RUN: October 17, 1983. Hammersmith Palais
Hesitating for the merest nanosecond, Steve Nieve pondered the request to reveal the finest sample he'd ever made, and then boldly came clean.
"Mary Poppins. Sorry. It was from the record of the theme tune to Mary Poppins. There's this bit in 'A Spoonful of Sugar' where the orchestra and Julie Andrews all hit a middle C together. Great sound."
There you have it. To think Costello's "Imperial Bedroom" arrived hanging from an umbrella.
Still, it introduces another vital if sneaky element contributing to the Emulator's popularity. It's not limited to sampling real happening-this-instant-in-the-studio noises. If you hanker after Budgie's bass drum, or Andy Taylor's guitar, then slap on the record, connect up the hi-fi and down it goes onto the floppy, full scale production and all.
S. Nieve joined D. Stewart in applauding the E. Mulator for its speed and ease of use, stage reliability and simple concept. But nothing defines an excellent instrument so well as the way different players perfect individual tricks on the same device.
For example, one of Steve's favourite uses is to build drum rhythms. If you load in a snatch of a bar at middle C, then when you come to play middle C on the keyboard the drum pattern will be recreated in time. But, just like Dave Stewart's example of wandering attack time, if you were to press another key further up the scale, the pitch of the recorded drums would be higher, and the speed of their replay would be faster.
That way you can set the scaffolding around complex, interlinking beats, just by playing a chord. Or you could keep it as simple as single and double time with two notes.
"For Elvis, we mainly used it to emulate real instruments, but there was one weird thing I did for our photographer for his exhibition. I just took the Emulator along and programmed up a load of strange noises. I dressed up in a skeleton outfit, jumped about, they loved it."
The Demands of Mr Costello were less eccentric. One of the most frequently used voice discs had an old and battered Farfisa organ steeped in its magnetic grooves. Strange that one of the earliest and (now) crudest forms of electronic keyboard should have become required loading on the newest.
But it wasn't all strings and soap. "On 'Watching The Detectives', there's this line about 'dragging the lake', and at that point a load of frogs fly out." Emulated ones of course.
Steve's involvement with Emu dates back some way. He visited their factory in the US of A's Santa Cruz in the early days, and left them three or four sampled sounds of his own to include in their steadily growing library of voices. One of them, a Vox organ, has become a much requested item.
"That's one of the things I like about it, the idea of people exchanging discs."
A major Nieve reservation about everyday analogue synths is that, perhaps, there are too many sounds. The public is constantly being bombarded with different interpretations of strings, brass, piano or formerly unimagined noises dreamed up during a cold sweat and an hour with a Jupiter 6. Could be that the extra lines of communication established through the Emu clearing house will set off a charter of decided and desired voices.
Everyone will recognise them, want to use them, and the poor beleaguered punter can take a rest from aural overexcitement and listen to the music. Could this be the orchestra of the next generation... electronic 80s equivalents of the violin, the trumpet, the double bass, the piano? After all, someone had to invent those gadgets in the first place and then convince the wide world to use them. Popularity, where is thy source?
"Do you know that when they were first building the Emulator, to check it out they recorded something off the radio and programmed it in. Frank Zappa had one of the early keyboards and that sound was still in it. So he used it on the next album." See. You never know where your next sound is coming from.
If Steve has one suggestion to pass on to the Santa Cruz samplers it's for an add on stage box which would somehow hold eight or ten extra floppy discs all ready to roll. That way you could change voices by tapping a switch instead of tugging out the floppy, posting it into the Emulator's computerised letter box and waiting until the message gets delivered to the circuitry inside.
SAMPLE: Steve Levine
LOOP TIME: A Culture craftsman for Boy George
END RUN: October 14. Red Bus Studios
For our final 'sample' we went for a different location and a varied point of view. Not the stage but the studio, and not a strict keyboard player but a producer. Steve Levine's most recent labours can be heard on the immaculate "Colour By Numbers" album from Culture Club.
As the proud operator of an Emulator AND a Fairlight AND an MC4 MicroComposer, he's perhaps the best judge of the keyboard's electronic capabilities. "I've had it for well over a year, and I've also got the interface system which has eight CV and gate inputs so it can be run from other sources." It's mostly clocked through its paces by the MC4, but, for example, channel one of the interface box is reserved for instruments with less standard gate and trigger systems such as the Lyricon wind synth.
There's a considerable difference in price between the Emulator and the Fairlight (a reasonable mortgage, in fact) so it's surprising but relieving to hear him say there are jobs the Emulator can do which the Fairlight can't manage so well... and vice versa.
Once more the old Emu wins on speed and the ability to hear your ideas almost as rapidly as you conceive them. But when emulating genuine musical instruments, there's a psychological break to make at the point-of-performance.
"No matter how good it is, a keyboard will sound like a keyboard if you play it that way." That's why Steve Levine prefers to run the set-up from the Roland MC4, removing the more predictable element of human, habit-formed fingers over the black and white plastic. Organising the MC4 instructions makes you think again, and consider how a violinist might set about the job.
Steve thinks he has found one way round the treble loss introduced by the distortion filters. "If you put your sample sound onto tape and play that at half speed into the Emulator, you'll have to play it an octave higher on the keyboard to reach the proper pitch, but it will sound a lot brighter."
After continual experimentation, he pronounces the Emulator's multi-sample system superior to the Fairlight's. This is the memory division technique where you can load a handful of sounds onto one floppy and split them across the keyboard. Though the sampling time is severely shortened, the Emulator does at least retain its bandwidth. Steve reckons the Fairlight loses out in both areas.
"The bandwidth is where they could make the most useful improvements. I'm sure they must be working on it. I reckon it's about 10kHz at the top — they say 12kHz, but I doubt it. The Fairlight's is supposed to be 16K.
"If there's one warning I'd make it's not to overuse the Emulator. Don't play everything on it, because although each of the sounds will be great while you're doing that one, when you come to mix down, the track will sound dull because everything will have a top limit of 10K."
Could be that there's another 'best sample' story waiting, along the lines of Steve Nieve's Poppins disclosure. We guess right. "There was an accordian I bought in a jumble sale for 50p and only one note worked, so we sampled that. It's the best accordian sound I've ever heard!"
Maybe six grand isn't so expensive after all. Think how many three string guitars, two hole saxophones and single key organs there are waiting in 10 pence junk shops across the land. This COULD be the start of something cheap...
Feature by Paul Colbert