A set of tasty samples in a box no bigger than an FB01 comes under scrutiny. And it's not expensive.
Just occasionally, a product from the home keyboard market turns out to have great potential in the home studio.
Yamaha's EMT-10 is, at first glance, a very unassuming little box with few buttons, fewer LEDs and no trace of the familiar LCD readout. Its purpose in life is to provide a few extra voices for home keyboard players and organists though it can, obviously, be used with any MIDI compatible controller such as a synth or sequencer.
Unlike Roland's MT-32 expander, the EMT-10 is not multi-timbral, though it is possible to create a keyboard split with duophonic bass at one end and six-note polyphonic Strings, Brass or Choir at the other In normal operating mode, the unit offers eight-voice polyphony but if you need a thicker sound the Strings, Brass or Choir may be doubled up to give a richer sound with four-voice polyphony.
Essentially, the unit provides only preset sounds though there are subtle modifications that can be made to these sounds both in terms of tonality and attack characteristics. Each sound has its own select button and the sounds included are: Piano 1, Piano 2, Elec Piano 1, Elec Piano 2, H Chord, Guitar, Strings, Brass, Choir, Upright Bass, Elec Bass and Slap Bass. Once you've selected a sound, the matrix of triangular buttons on the right of the front panel allow the tone to be changed from Normal to Bright or Mellow and the attack time from Normal to Slow or Fast. Each of these buttons has a status LED and if both LEDs relating to an opposing pair of buttons are unlit, then the Normal mode is selected. A pair of fine tune buttons allow the tuning to be shifted by up to fifty cents in three-cent steps.
Being a MIDI unit, a MIDI button is a must. In the case of this machine, the MIDI button is the key to all none too obvious functions, so apart from being able to select the channel you're working on and turning Omni on or off, it can be used in conjunction with the voice and modifier buttons to access things like transposition, octave shifting and the keyboard split. For example, the octave range may be set over plus or minus two octaves by combination of MIDI button and Slow button.
Transpose can be effected in semitone steps using the MIDI and Bright/Mellow buttons. You can even select different velocity profiles to suit the keyboard you are using. These actions are well explained in the manual but there is no clue on the front panel as to what to do if you forget the combination of buttons to use, and no readout to confirm what is happening other than some very cryptic clues offered by the status LEDs. I can only assume that the manufacturers don't expect many people to want these extra functions very often, and for once I'm inclined to agree with them.
MIDI In, Out and Thru are present on the rear panel, the Out being used to dump setups to a MIDI recording device. MIDI In allows the 12 internal patches to be selected using MIDI patch change information.
The actual signal outputs are on phonos and there is also a pair of input phonos so that you can merge another audio signal with the voices from the EMT10 without recourse to a mixer.
Power is supplied from a Yamaha DC adaptor which is not included in the package. Considering that the unit isn't much use without one, this makes little sense, though you can run two from one power supply by using the link lead included. And using two doubles the polyphony, as you can get one unit to play even numbered MIDI notes and one odd numbered notes. This form of note allocation, however, isn't as sensible as the more conventional dynamic note allocation - you would be stuck if you wanted to play a 16-note chord that all happened to fall on odd numbered MIDI notes! Not a likely contingency but I'm sure you get the point.
If it wasn't for the actual sounds this unit produces, it probably wouldn't attract a second glance but the truth is that the voices are all PCM sample based sounds and the unit is quieter than many so-called professional synths. What really attracted me to the machine were the piano sounds. These are very convincing over the full range of the instrument which is from A1 to C7. Piano 1 is a bright acoustic piano with a rich, ringing bass end while Piano 2 is slightly warmer - more woody. The sounds are multisampled but you can't spot the joins unless you listen to each ascending note very carefully in isolation in which case there is a very subtle change in timbre as you move from one sample to the next. In any event, this is less evident than on many manufacturers' library piano samples for top end samplers.
The electric pianos are typical Rhodes and Wurlitzer type sounds and there's still plenty of call for them though I must confess that I never really liked the things in the first place - they sounded a bit too much like the Sooty piano I had when I was a kid. But I digress, if Sooty is your bag, these two electric pianos should do it.
Harpsichord is typically nasal and a little thin but nevertheless quite convincing when played appropriately. Better is the Guitar preset which is actually a nylon strung classical and played from my Shadow guitar to MIDI converter it definitely sounded real. The strings too are a very pleasant surprise; somewhat reminiscent of the old Mellotron but without the wow and flutter, especially with the slow attack setting. They are looped so they can sustain indefinitely and the quality of looping is excellent.
Also convincing is the brass section but you're in for a disappointment if you want to use it for brass stabs and Gino Washington riffs. It's more of an orchestral brass sound tending towards trumpets and horns and is more at home doing impressions of the Grimethorpe Colliery band than augmenting rock 'n' roll.
The Choir is a mixed bag. The quality of sound, particularly at the top end (choirboys and sopranos) is disturbingly real, even though they can only sing 'ahh', but the multisampling shows up quite obviously in places. Some of the voices tend towards Mickey Mouse-ishness before the next sample takes over and puts things right. The lower voices sound somewhat demonic and buzzy but the overall effect is still on a par with what you might expect from a mid-priced sampler and is certainly well usable.
Which just leaves us with the basses, all of which I like very much. Acoustic bass is warm and woody but with plenty of definition and is fine for upright bass impressions for rockabilly, jazz or whatever takes your fancy. The two electric basses sound very much like the Fender bass sound, one played normally and one pulled. These are both first rate and it's just a pity that you can't velocity switch from picked to pulled as you play - but then we are talking budget here.
Though targeted at the home keyboard market rather than the serious studio, I haven't heard better piano sounds at anything like this price and they certainly beat the ones that came with my Akai X7000. The unit must be worth considering just on the basis of the piano and strings but all the voices are usable - the basses very much so.
I initially thought that as the unit had two outputs, the sounds would be in stereo but checking the relative phase of the two outputs using The Box, it proved that both carried the same mono signal. Even so, a little stereo reverb and the sounds widen up nicely. The specifications don't tell you what the output level is, though I'd guess it's around —20dB and they don't even tell you the audio bandwidth or the number of bits the sampling uses. Again, purely guesswork, but I'd guess the audio bandwidth is limited to 10kHz or so and the lack of hiss or distortion leads me to think the sampling is either 16-bit linear or 12-bit companded. I could be wrong, but when you get to this stage, your ears are more important than the spec sheets and I'd have no hesitation using this unit to make some quite serious recordings. If you want a hint more top, you can always use an exciter.
The best news is the price which is under £250 - well within the reach of your credit card if Mrs Thatcher hasn't taken it off you yet.
The Yamaha EMT-10 costs £249 inc VAT.