A Grand Performance
Emu Proformance Sampled 16-Bit Piano Module
The sound of a grand piano is, after the human voice, perhaps the most versatile, familiar and evocative sound in music — and it's certainly the most imitated, most recently by the Emu Proformance. Tony Hastings continues the search for the perfect piano module.
There is nothing new in the idea of a MIDI expander filled with real piano sounds. Ever since the release of the first sampler, companies have been trying to squeeze the perfect piano into a set of ROM chips, with varying degrees of success and economy. I think it's fair to say that within this field, both the Kurzweil and the Emulator III piano samples have consistently been head and shoulders above much of the competition for their realism and depth. Mind you, at those prices, and given the amount of memory they eat up, they should be!
A year or two back Kurzweil released a series of rack modules that put many of their most famous samples, including the piano, into a 2U box. However they were still quite expensive (over £1000), and perhaps weren't marketed as aggressively as some of the Japanese competition. And what of that competition? The surprise success story was the Yamaha EMT10, which was only 12-bit and 8-note polyphonic, but sold well because it was so cheap. Apart from this, the three main competitors — Korg P3, Roland P330 and Yamaha TX1P — have all but faded away. Well, now that the sea of change has settled down a bit, Emu have released the Proformance, a sampled piano module that promises top-notch sounds at a much lower price than you might expect.
The Proformance is a half-rack unit, housed in a matt black plastic box. At a mere 1lb 9oz, the featherweight unit actually feels as if it's empty, but at least it will sit on top of a keyboard without scratching anything, and if you slide it into your road rack it won't add anything to the hernia-inducing weight of your existing set-up. As well as the basic unit, a Proformance Plus is also available, which squeezes some non-piano sounds into its memory; otherwise the two machines are pretty much identical.
The front panel's layout is simple and efficient. Five rotary knobs control all the functions you will need to operate the Proformance, and on the far left is a small green LED which illuminates to indicate that the unit is powered up (the Proformance has an external PSU, and no power switch), and flashes to indicate the reception of MIDI data. Round the back you find MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, as well as stereo audio output jacks: besides operating as regular left and right outputs, the two sockets used on their own provide a mono output (left) and a stereo headphones output (right).
The Proformance has been designed to work so simply that any sort of manual is virtually unnecessary. Everything is accomplished by a simple twist of one of the five knobs. For example, if you want the Proformance to receive on MIDI channel 4, reach for the knob marked MIDI Channel (fourth from the left), and switch the 16-position switch so that the white mark on the knob lines up with the number 4. Couldn't be simpler. You can actually select only channels 1-14 (1-13 on the Proformance Plus), the last two positions being marked Omni and Demo. Omni sets the Proformance to MIDI Omni mode, and Demo plays the unit's internal demo tunes — which are pretty decent, by the way. Position 14 on the Plus version is given over to the Split facility (see below).
Going from left to right, the full complement of knobs is: Volume; Fine Tune; Transpose; MIDI Channel; Preset. The Volume and Fine Tune knobs are both continuously variable, and the others are 16-position switches. The basic Proformance has 15 different Presets, all acoustic pianos, and the Plus version has a total of 32, the extra sounds being a mixture of electric pianos, organs, vibes, and acoustic and electric basses. On both units, the Preset knob is marked 1 through 15 and MIDI, allowing you to select Presets 1-15 from the front panel, or specify that MIDI program change messages should be used to call up Presets. On the Plus version, the extra 17 Presets can only be accessed via MIDI — there's no way of selecting them from the front panel. The Transpose knob allows you to transpose the unit to play in any key, and also shift one or two whole octaves up or down.
"...the Proformance's piano samples are fabulous. It's just the sort of thing that I (and presumably many other pro musicians) have wanted for a long time — a classic Emu piano-in-a-box..."
The Proformance is a 16-bit, true stereo sample replay unit, as opposed to one that uses panned mono samples. This means that although you have a maximum polyphony of 16 notes, you are really getting 32 notes, playing two at a time as the two halves of stereo pairs. Proformance supports MIDI overflow, so connecting two together will double the available polyphony at a stroke. MIDI-wise the unit also responds to pitch bend, sustain, soft pedal, split pedal, sostenuto, velocity, program change and MIDI volume. The extra 17 Presets contain samples other than just acoustic piano including electric pianos, organs, vibes and acoustic and electric basses. I had a Plus for review, which of course includes all 15 of the basic Proformance's Presets.
So, what are those 15 piano Presets like? There actually seem to be four, maybe five, basic piano sounds, on which the remainder of the 15 are based. The rest are created by altering performance parameters — longer decay, different sensitivity, etc (see box). Without the benefit of any technical data to prove me right or wrong, I'd guess that there is in fact only one set of piano samples stored in ROM chip, and that the four or five different pianos are in fact filtered and EQ'd versions of that original set.
The first Preset is called Dark Grand, a big full sound with plenty of bottom end. This is meant to be an excellent solo piano, and after a few minutes I was soon drawing on my repertoire of half-remembered classical highlights. With closed eyes I could almost imagine an old Bechstein in front of me. Next comes Classic Grand, which I liked even better, because the top end is brighter and the lows aren't quite as thick as on the Dark Grand. This inspired me to quickly run through some cocktail bar favourites. Over the past year I've been playing piano at various clubs in London, and having tried a vast range of different 'real' pianos, I would be more than happy to put a Proformance in my bag and use it for the night.
Third up is Mellow Ivory. As the name suggests, this has a much more subtle tone, with a rounded top end and soft low frequencies, evoking a more 'smoky' jazz sort of feel. Number four is Rock Piano, very bright and just slightly metallic, able to cut through in any mix. The fifth Preset is Honky Tonk, a bright, detuned ragtime piano. By the time we get to number six, Mellow Chorus, we're on to variations — this is Mellow Ivory with the samples detuned slightly.
So far, the verdict is good — the sound is excellent. My favourites are the Classic and Rock pianos, but the others work perfectly in their areas. The true stereo sampling adds another dimension to the reproduction (especially on headphones), and the only hiss you'll hear will be from your amplifier. The sound of the Proformance seems to be much less compressed than that of its eastern rivals, and the realism even extends to giving you the natural reverb of the piano soundboard when you play the top notes on the keyboard.
Had I'd been reviewing the basic Proformance this could be more or less the end of the review, but the Plus model has another 17 presets to come. There are two electric pianos, one a little brighter and punchier in the upper mids than the other, but both are more like a Rhodes than a DX7. There are two vibes, the second rather brighter than the first. Following the pattern, there are two organs; the first is a slightly 'flutey' B3 sample, and the second has more rock harmonics in it. There are also seven split patches, which put either an excellent upright or a punchy electric bass in combination with acoustic piano, organ, vibes or electric piano. The split point is user definable, through the Split facility mentioned above — just dial up Split, and play a note to define your split point. In addition to all of these 'real' sounds, the remaining Presets use electric piano type harmonics to produce digital/synthy sort of sounds.
To sum up, the Proformance's piano samples are fabulous. It's just the sort of thing that I (and presumably many other pro musicians) have wanted for a long time — a classic Emu piano-in-a-box that can be hidden away and forgotten about because it's so straightforward, yet ready for use at all times. The sound quality is excellent, and the unit really has managed to capture the character of a real piano.
In comparison, the Plus version's extra sounds are just a little too ordinary for me (except perhaps the upright bass). I think that every serious high-tech musician will already have plenty of electric pianos and organs that sound better than these, and will probably only be interested in the basic model. Home organists, however, may well be more keen on the expanded version, as this will give them access to other sounds that they probably don't already have.
As far as operating the Proformance, anyone who can work the average hi-fi will have have no trouble in getting right on top of things. All in all, it seems that this is destined to be the most widely sought-after of all Emu products to date, a unit that will appeal and sell to everyone from professional to amateur.
Proformance £449 inc VAT.
Proformance Plus £539 inc VAT.
Emu Systems, (Contact Details).
Gear in this article:
Review by Tony Hastings
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!