E-mu Proteus 3 World
The ethnically sound rack-mount
What's nineteen inches wide, 1U high and reproduces the sounds of the Andes, the Serengeti Plain and the Australian Bush...?
The Proteus 3 is the latest addition to an already distinguished range of sample players with which E-mu seem to have cornered the market. Their first machine, the Proteus 1, broke new ground when it was released in 1989 - not least because of its sub-£1000 price tag. And when the Proteus 2 arrived, the general consensus amongst composers of classical/orchestral music was that at last their needs had been met.
Now E-mu have another specialist module which they have called (and those with a mathematical bent might have been able to predict this) the Proteus 3. Actually, its full title is the Proteus 3 World, which perhaps gives some clue as to the type of sounds it produces. Ethnic instruments - and lots of them. Over two hundred, in fact.
In many ways the new machine represents another leap for E-mu and one has to admire their courage in avoiding the temptation to develop yet another general sample/synthesis unit that includes the routine selection of electric basses, pianos and choir sounds. But then, it is having the confidence to make and sell specialist units such as this that has characterised E-mu's approach over the last few years - in addition to the three machines in the Proteus range, there is, of course, also their excellent Proformance piano module.
Like its brethren, the Proteus 3 is housed in a rather sleek 1U rack-mount grey plastic cabinet. Okay, the overall shape may be predictable - it has to be - but at least someone has put a little effort into making it more interesting than the usual black steel casing. It sports a fairly basic complement of hardware. On the rear panel there's a mains socket, MIDI In, Out, Thru and three assignable pairs of stereo outputs (one of which will drive stereo headphones). On the front there are On/Off, Master, Edit, Enter & Cursor buttons and two rotary controls - Volume and Data Entry. This latter control is of the stepped, continuous rotation variety and really does help make this an easy machine to edit/program.
Roughly in the centre of the front panel is a two-row, 16-character display of the type prevalent on many instruments these days and in use, somewhat akin to looking at a vast landscape through a keyhole. All the essential information is available, but you can only view it a bit at a time.
Proteus' basic sound architecture comprises some 211 instrument/waveform samples from which are derived 192 presets - 128 in ROM (ie. factory programmed) and the remaining 64 in RAM (ie. user programmed). In the XR version of the machine, the sample complement remains the same - as does the number of factory programmed presets - but there is twice the amount of onboard RAM.
In addition to the exotic range of instrument samples (see sidebar), the Proteus 3 holds 22 harmonic waveforms, 21 single cycle waveforms and 24 digital waveforms - all sitting there waiting to be mixed with the instruments to produce the bizarre and often astonishing range of sounds this instrument is capable of generating.
The factory-programmed demo on the Proteus 3 is one of the most impressive I've ever heard. Though compositionally it's not likely to become one of the all-time classics, it does an excellent job of selling the unit (as all good demos should), and gives you a good overall impression of what can be achieved. But of course the only real test of what a machine can do is to connect it into a system and put it through its paces...
The samples themselves are uniformly clear, rich in harmonics and really quite exciting - even when played as single repeated notes. This is particularly true of instruments such as the Tambura - an Indian drone backing instrument on which four strings are tuned to the Raga being explored by the main player. Because the Proteus has no built-in effects (apart from chorus) I found myself mixing in just a touch of reverb here and there to add a little ambience; some of the samples have natural reverb, of course, but I found a Large Room program (about 20%) improved them enormously.
As we have come to expect from E-mu, the samples are beautifully recorded, nicely topped, trimmed, looped, equalized - whatever. The real point is that they are convincing. I have spent many a happy hour (...or two, or three) in a certain shop in Neal St, London that specialises in the kind of instruments which are the source of many of these samples, and was actually about to invest in a set of ringing bowls for a piece I am working on. This would have cost about £500 for a useable set of about eight. Guess what? They are included on the Proteus 3 - every semitone in clear crisp samples.
One thing very evident to me whilst playing the samples was the quality of the bass. I'd go so far as to say it is probably the richest and deepest bass I have heard on any sample player. Because a lot of it is rooted in the percussive samples, care is needed when editing - and also playing. Turn up the volume, hit a key with too high a velocity and you're likely to find your speaker cones shooting across the room. You have been warned!
The sound of a tabla is heard so often in music these days, I often wonder why it is not included as standard on most drum machines. Why, for example, it was left out on the Alesis D4 is a complete mystery to me. Anyway, here it is - every tap tap, turn turn, and whoop whoop - a competent set of voices that are very usable indeed. There are four basic sounds that can be played on the treble tabla and a combination of tone and pitchbends that comprise the bass or 'baya' sound.
As you'd expect, the slap and tone components have been sampled separately, so to use the instrument in the traditional way will involve learning a little basic tabla theory (or at least listening carefully to a good player to work out how these are used). Of course, like all the samples in this machine, there's nothing to stop you using them in whatever way you think fit - but you can't expect them to sound like the traditional instruments unless you know something of the way in which these are played. And to an extent, this is true of most instruments.
As good as the basic sounds are, however, I can't understand why, like a number of the other instruments on the Proteus 3, tabla samples at different tunings weren't included. Okay, it is possible to transpose them, but this is seldom satisfactory, particularly at extremes of the natural pitch range.
Another tuning problem occurred with the sitars. As I am sure you are aware, these instruments use a lot of pitch bend to bring out nuances in the microtonal scales, and, whilst I had no trouble playing a very convincing solo with the thing, all the sympathetic strings which should just shimmer beneath it, actually bend with the string you're playing! There may be ways round this (using external instruments), but it seems a great shame they didn't get it right on the Proteus 3 itself.
It must be said, however, that this is something of an exception; most of the samples work very well, and I'm sure instruments such as the didjeridoo are going to find their way into many mixes. Percussion instruments are particularly well-represented with rich udo clay pot drums, Cuban bata drums (to name but two) and enough gongs to start your own Buddhist temple. Some of the special combinations were particularly impressive - the Punch Ocarina, for example - a combination of the lovely ocarina sound (which can be played like an Elizabethan organ with a few tweaks!) and a kick drum sample. Well, you have to hear it to appreciate it...!
The trumpet and horns section offers a relatively small range of sounds including trombone, trumpet and french horn. These, I feel, were a little unnecessary as they were included on the Proteus 2 and a great many other machines as well. By contrast, instruments like the shofars are wholly original in a hi-tech setting and help make the Proteus 3 the unique machine it undoubtedly is.
The santur was interesting too, but like the oud, mbira and a number of other voices, it is not based on a sample of a real instrument but was programmed from a combination of other samples and as such doesn't produce the characteristic ringing tone.
"All things considered, the Proteus 3 is a pretty wonderful machine and should be of interest to anyone for whom the instruments of the world are simply colours on a broad palette"
The plucked string section also provides some interesting additions to the collection - an excellent Jew's harp, psaltery, Celtic harp and dulcimer for example. Apart from anything else, these reveal that inspiration for this machine wasn't derived solely from the exotic east. E-mu haven't called it the Proteus 3 World without good reason and helping to broaden its appeal you'll find Irish harps, banjos, bagpipes and a medieval voice called Camelot.
If it's flutes your after, you won't be disappointed either. There are flutes in abundance here including neys, ocarina and stereo siku. The closely-related pan pipes voice is probably the warmest sample of its type I have ever heard.
Apart from the aforementioned bagpipes, the Reeds and Keyboard section offers very convincing harmonium and shenai voices, and though I might quibble about the inclusion of yet more electric piano and clarinet sounds, there are undoubtedly some people out there for whom these would be welcome additions.
A number of fully-fledged synthesiser sounds have also been included. These have been created by blending samples and waveforms and then subjecting them to the gamut of Proteus synth and modulation treatments. Of these, 'On Land' deserves a special mention, as do Dream 1 and Dream 2 which make up in texture what they lack in imaginative titles. Film makers will almost certainly like them. In fact, many of these sounds could end up in film soundtracks with virtually no modification.
And speaking of soundtracks there's the usual quota of special effects included in the list of presets. Like all such sounds, these are jolly good fun to listen to but generally of limited use when it comes to recording that difficult second album. That said, sounds like Fried Eggs, Metal Cutter and Deep Sea Life do demonstrate the potential of the machine to manipulate sound in some quite amazing ways.
Programming the Proteus 3 is pretty straightforward - though no more so than the majority of current synths/expanders. Where it really scores is in duplicating the programming/editing system of the other models in the Proteus range so that everything you've learnt about operating one machine may be universally applied to all three. In these days of technological overkill and incomprehensible instruction manuals, the value of this is not to be underestimated.
The Proteus features 32-voice polyphony which allows you to take full advantage of its layering capabilities of up to eight sounds on each key. It is multi-timbral to the MIDI limit of sixteen channels - these being assignable to three stereo outputs for individual processing or configured as six separate polyphonic submixes.
All the Proteus sample players have a very elegant method of assigning voices to MIDI channels. In fact, it's so easy that going back to other equipment afterwards seems like hard work. Screens for each of the sixteen available channels show the MIDI channel you're working on, the preset's name and number, the volume setting and the pan position. Each of these parameters is variable using the Data Entry control or via MIDI from your sequencer.
In the light of my comments about achieving a convincing result when using the kind of voices included in the Proteus 3, I did feel that a guide to the instruments, their playing techniques and their natural sonic range etc, was something of an omission. Unlike the Proteus 2 which is set up to play only the normal range of instruments, the Proteus 3 is capable of extending this considerably. Some background information on the character of each of the instruments would have been invaluable and would, I feel, have helped the user get the most out of this machine.
There are two adjuncts to the main manual which cover the various application notes associated with Proteus - MIDI, sequencing, patch dumps etc - and a complete index and description of the samples and the factory presets. But again, further information could have been included. For example, although you can look up a preset name on the list or find a particular sample, it is very difficult to work out which samples have been used with which presets - unless you check the composition of each individual preset on the machine itself. A cross-referenced map would have been helpful.
But I suppose criticism of instruction manuals is usually a sign that you can find little else to quibble about in a product review. And this is indeed the case. As I said earlier, I would personally have been inclined to avoid the inclusion of the voices commonly found on other instruments in favour of a greater variation of those which are on offer. And I think perhaps there might have been a bit more research gone into the way a couple of the instruments were handled.
But all things considered, the Proteus 3 is a pretty wonderful machine and should be of interest to anyone for whom the instruments of the world are simply colours on a broad palette - in other words, anyone who feels unconstrained by tradition and free to draw on any instruments that convey the kind of emotion they are trying to express - whether it's for an orchestral work, a pop song or a TV commercial.
For anyone who has, up until now, found it difficult to get hold of these instruments, the Proteus 3 should prove a God-send. And who knows, it might perhaps awaken interest in the instruments themselves. I cannot help but feel great enthusiasm for this product and for the possibilities it opens up.
Gear in this article:
Review by John Mercer
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