E-Mu Proteus MPS
Sample Playback Keyboard
With the popular Proteus series of sample playback modules as its inspiration, E-mu's new synth sounds as good as it looks. Simon Trask explores the Master Performance System.
E-mu's popular Proteus/1 sample playback module gets a keyboard counterpart - but it's more than a few ivories which distinguish the MPS from its rackmount companion.
Over the years, it's become common practice for manufacturers to release "the expander version" of a MIDI instrument after the keyboard version. Yet it's a practice which can be frustrating for the many musicians who want to buy the latest synthesis system or the latest collection of sounds but who don't need another keyboard in their MIDI setup - not to mention having to pay for it.
So when E-mu Systems launched their Proteus series of sample players in 1989 with a module rather than a keyboard, they were going against the grain - but pleasing a lot of musicians, who were only too happy to slot a 1U-high, 19" rackmounting unit with a large and varied collection of samples and waveforms, 32-note polyphony and 16-part MIDI multitimbral operation into their setups.
The company subsequently followed up the Proteus/1 with a series of related modules under the Pro banner, but no keyboard. Not that it seemed to do them any harm. The descent of E-mu from the rarefied heights of their EIII and Emax samplers to the more populist territory of the Pro-series modules has been one of the success stories of recent years.
But now, more than two years after the launch of Proteus/1, E-mu have finally brought out a keyboard version of their best-selling module - although it was actually first unveiled in public at last year's International Music Show (for a review of Proteus/1, see MT November '89). The Proteus Master Performance System - as the keyboard is somewhat grandly known - isn't just a Proteus/1 with a keyboard slapped on the front. At the same time, it's apparent that the company opted to "build around" the Proteus/1 samples and programming architecture rather than make any fundamental changes to the structure - Proteus users will therefore find much on the new instrument that's familiar to them.
But why bring out a keyboard instrument now? More specifically: why bring out a keyboard version of Proteus/1 - even if it is souped-up - more than two years after the release of the original module? The answer lies in the name: Proteus Master Performance System. The various Proteus modules - Proteus/1 (pop/rock), Proteus/2 (orchestral) and the forthcoming Proteus/3 (world instruments) - together with Pro/cussion (drums and percussion) have been designed to provide a combination of versatility and familiarity: on one hand they complement each other sonically, on the other they offer, wherever possible, operational and functional consistency across the range. In short, we're talking System Concept - with the Proteus MPS as the centrepiece of the system, if not necessarily the final component. E-mu's American ads have been pushing this concept, and there's no doubt that if you were to piece together some or all of the components you'd have a pretty powerful and versatile setup.
Although it's not a workstation, the MPS has been designed to stand up well on its own, which is why E-mu have given it a broad-based collection of samples - and what better collection than the tried and tested Proteus/1 sounds? The company have also made provision for sonic expansion on the MPS, as they did on Proteus/1, by expanding its 4Mb of sample ROM to 8Mb, and are planning to offer a choice of two 4Mb upgrades, one containing Proteus/3's world instrument samples and the other a selection of Proteus/2's orchestral sounds.
E-mu have made one change to the Proteus/1 samples which the MPS comes fitted with, replacing the original grand piano with a mono version of the superior sampled grand from their Pro/formance stereo piano module. But it's the new instrument's inclusion of onboard digital effects processing (a first for the Pro-series) which makes the most significant impact on the Proteus sound world - as is apparent from the mixture of old and new factory Presets (Proteus patches) programmed into the MPS.
Another significant development is the instrument's front-panel user interface. Rather than transplant the Proteus module's necessarily constricted user interface to the MPS, E-mu have taken advantage of the keyboard instrument's greater front-panel area to redesign the user interface with the emphasis on straightforwardness and accessibility. And they've made a good job of it, too, minimising the hierarchical levels (there are just three edit levels: Master, Performance and Preset) and providing dedicated buttons for important features like Transpose, Quick Keys, Performance Select and MIDI Multi mode so that you can access them instantly. Red pinpoint LEDs associated with a number of buttons are also a great help, as they allow you to see at a glance whether certain features are enabled or not. The central 2 x 16-character, backlit LCD is bright and clear, the generous (but not overwhelming) number of buttons are coloured a distinctive light blue so you can make them out clearly against the depressingly familiar sober grey casing (a severe case of the Majors), and all the buttons are labelled with their specific function (there's virtually no dual functionality on the MPS). There is one feature I would have liked to see implemented: a second infinite rotary wheel, so that one could be dedicated to scrolling through the many software pages and the other to editing the parameters within each page - as it is, moving the cursor between page select and parameter fields all the time quickly becomes tedious.
A new feature known as Quick Keys allows you to call onto the keyboard with a single button-press a split/layer/overlap texture consisting of up to four Zones, each of which can trigger a Preset and/or an external MIDI sound.
When the Quick Keys function is enabled via its dedicated front-panel button, the ten (0-9) numeric buttons located below the LCD window can each select a different Key setup - a completely different configuration of internal and MIDI sounds is just one button-press away. These keyboard-based setups, which are intended for use in live playing, can be used in conjunction with sequenced parts playing on the MPS when it's set to MIDI Multi receive mode - always bearing in mind that polyphony can get squeezed even with 32 voices if you're using much internal layering.
"When the Quick Keys function is enabled, a different configuration of internal and MIDI sounds is just a button-press away."
Quick Keys programming can certainly be used as a means of building up wonderfully big, expansive sounds. Equally, you can use the Quick Keys to group individual frequently-used Presets together on the buttons for easy selection. All in all, then, a versatile and valuable feature.
It seems ironic, with all this thoughtful development of the software and the user interface, that E-mu seem to have put no thought into what keyboard they should fit to their first Pro-series keyboard instrument - especially when so much of the design effort has been directed towards making the Proteus MPS performer-friendly. It's not just that they've used a 61-note unweighted keyboard, sensitive to attack velocity and channel aftertouch - but that the MPS's keyboard has quite the most insubstantial feel I've come across. You hardly need to play it; just stroking the keys is enough to coax forth the notes.
The 125 instruments in the Proteus MPS's 4MB of sample ROM are divided into sampled sounds (16-bit linear, 39kHz sample rate, derived from E-mu's EIII sample library), harmonic waveforms (odd and/or even harmonics within various octaves), single-cycle waveforms (either synthesised or taken from samples) and multi-cycle waveforms (short sections of sampled sounds, such as voices, strings and mallets).
While the waveforms offer plenty of abstract material (including a lot of great metallic stuff), sampled sounds cover the usual range of real-world instruments - piano, strings, choir, flute, sax, trumpet, trombone, acoustic and electric guitars, electric and synth basses, synthpad, organ, marimba, vibraphone, and standard, Latin and FX drum and percussion sounds arranged in a number of kit configurations.
Two Instruments, known as Primary and Secondary, can be combined within a Preset (patch), where each can be routed through a DCA with a dedicated Attack-Hold-Decay-Sustain-Release envelope generator and on to a Pan module before being routed to the effects processors. You can, of course, set coarse and fine tunings for each Instrument, and a function called Double + Detune, which can be turned on/off for each Instrument, makes layering and detuning of an Instrument easy by assigning a second voice to the Instrument for you. Individual Instrument sounds can also be played backwards by enabling the Reverse Sound parameter.
On the subject of tuning, the MPS has four preset tuning tables (Just C, Vallotti, 19-tone and Javanese Gamelan) and four user-programmable tuning tables in addition to standard equal temperament. The user tables allow you to define the tuning of every key from C-2 to G8 - which should cater for all eventualities, I suppose! For each key you can select a MIDI note number (0-127) and a fine-tuning value from 0-63 (in steps of 1/64th of a semitone, or approximately 1.56 cents), so you can encompass anything from subtle pitch inflections on notes to the most bizarre scales you can think up. With the cursor in the LCD's Key field you can select the key you want by playing it on the keyboard, which speeds things up a bit; note and fine-tune parameters are set by stepping the cursor to the relevant fields and then using the infinite rotary wheel or the numeric buttons to select the required values. Unfortunately there's no extrapolate function to allow you to quickly duplicate an interval or series of intervals across the keyboard, so it's manual labour all the way. Nor is there any function for altering the root note of a scale so that the intervals are preserved if you play in different keys. One thing you can do, because the MPS allows you to assign tuning tables to individual Presets, is freely combine different scales - which can lead to some interesting results, to say the least.
Dynamic modulation of Preset parameters is well catered for. There are two LFOs, an Auxiliary D(elay)AHDSR envelope generator, pitchbend wheel and four user-selectable MIDI controllers. Mono pressure and poly pressure can act as mod sources for 24 possible mod destinations, while key number and attack velocity can act as mod sources for 33 destinations. Up to eight destinations are simultaneously modulatable in the former instance, up to six in the latter. One of the destination parameters for the key number and velocity sources is Tone, a very basic filtering facility, hardly worthy of the name (which is perhaps why E-mu have called it Tone); in fact, Tone can only be activated by one of these two modulation sources (which alter a cutoff point), and there are no parameters as such.
The number of Presets has been upped overall in relation to Proteus/1, with 100 ROM and 100 RAM Presets onboard and a further 100 Presets accessible on a ROM or RAM card which you plug into an inconspicuous card slot located near the left-hand edge of the MPS's front panel. Card Presets can be played without the need to load them into onboard memory, so in all, up to 300 Presets can be accessible at any one time. Preset selection in response to incoming MIDI can take one of two forms: either the MPS references one of four user-programmable patch-to-Preset maps or it responds to the MIDI Bank Select command. While we're on the subject of MIDI, the MPS implements the usual SysEx transfer of Preset and other data, with individual and bulk options, and also implements remote editing of Presets using SysEx commands.
"Clearly, E-mu have put a lot of thought into what they wanted a keyboard version of Proteus/1 to be - and it's paid off."
New to the Proteus MPS are Performance Maps. These basically govern the multitimbral side of the instrument. Five maps can be stored onboard, while another five can be stored on a RAM card - and, like the card Presets, read from card without having to load them in. To call up a Performance Map, you hold down the front-panel Performance Select button and press the relevant numbered button below the LCD window.
The Performance Map definition includes ten Quick Key setups, Multimode effects settings and routings, volume and pan settings and Preset selection for each MIDI channel (you can assign one Preset per channel), and selected MIDI commands to be transmitted automatically by the MPS each time the Map is selected. Like Presets, Performance Maps can be edited remotely using MIDI SysEx commands - presumably the relevant software companies will be updating their Proteus editor/librarians to take account of the new instrument's added capabilities.
Staying with MIDI, you can select up to four MIDI transmit commands with associated values per Performance Map; these commands can be selected from patch change, song select, song start, song stop, volume and pan. So, for instance, you could remotely select and Start a Song on your sequencer by selecting one Map, and Stop the Song at any time by selecting another Map, or select an effect on an external processor using a patch-change command so that the effect change is aligned with a new Preset being output from the Submix outs.
Another Map function, Record User Data, allows whatever MIDI data you want to be transmitted automatically when you select a Performance Map. You can record up to 320 bytes of MIDI data per Map, either by Starting the MPS' record function and then transmitting the relevant data into the instrument via MIDI or by manually entering the required data yourself via the instrument's LCD window (you can also edit recorded data in this latter way). Manual entry is only going to appeal to those people who know their MIDI codes and feel at home with hexadecimal numbering - which is probably not the majority of musicians. In fact, I wonder how many people will make any use of this function at all.
The Proteus MPS has two stereo effects processors, labelled A and B. These effects can be programmed per Preset and per Performance, while output routing can be programmed for each Instrument within a Preset (Effect A, Effect B, Dry or Submix) and for each MIDI channel within a Performance (as for Preset, but with the additional option of Preset - that is, whatever the Instrument routings of the selected Preset are).
Whenever you select Multi MIDI reception on the MPS, the effects settings and routings of the currently-selected Performance automatically replace those of whatever Preset you were playing. All 16 parts/channels in Multi mode are routed through the same two effects processors - no surprises here.
Effect A and Effect B can be treated as separate effects processors running in parallel. Alternatively, you can take a feed from the output of effect B and route all or some of it into effect A, should you want to route an Instrument or a Preset through two effects. If you select Dry, the Instrument or Preset is routed via the main stereo output pair but bypasses the effects processing.
"The Proteus MPS is a serious instrument with sonic depths just waiting to be explored by the more demanding musician."
Submix refers to a second, dry stereo output pair (the MPS drops Proteus/1's third stereo pair) which is useful for routing selected sounds out of the instrument to a mixer for separate processing. However, if you're routing the MPS straight into an amp or a pair of powered speakers, you can turn the Submix outputs into auxiliary effect send/return loops, insert an external effects unit into the loop and you've got a second source of effects processing. To work this, you need to plug stereo jacks into the Submix sockets, as the MPS sends the output signal at each socket via the tip and receives the effected signal back via the ring of the plug. This signal is then summed into the MPS's main stereo output at a point in the signal path after the internal effects processing.
Each of the built-in effects processors can generate one effect at a time, chosen from 23 effects in the case of processor A and nine in the case of processor B. Reverb processing is restricted to processor A, which means that, as A can't follow B, you can't do things like flange or chorus the reverbed signal, which is a pity.
Processor A provides you with a choice of 16 reverbs: Room, Warm Room, two Plates, two Chambers, three Halls, two Small Rooms, four Early Reflections and Rain (a sort of "pitter patter" reverb created using a dense group of short echoes followed by longer echoes). Reverb programmability is limited to decay time (and you can get some very long decays out of reverbs like Room - which becomes more like universal space when you turn the decay time up full). E-mu's reverbs have character and presence, and together they provide a nicely varied collection, suited to a variety of requirements.
Other effects selectable for processor A - and thankfully offering a few more programmable parameters than the reverbs - are Stereo Delay (up to 209ms), Cross Delay (up to 209ms), Stereo Phaser, Stereo Flange, Stereo Chorus, Stereo Echo (up to 400ms) and Stereo EQ (two-band parametric). Effects processor B's nine effects are: Stereo Flange, Stereo Chorus, Phaser, Fuzz1, Ring Modulator, Stereo Delay (up to 104ms), Stereo Cross Delay (up to 104ms), Stereo EQ and Fuzz Lite. Effects like the flange, delay and EQ provide variations on the equivalent effects in A - so B's stereo EQ is one-band rather than two-band parametric, but unlike A's stereo EQ its left and right channels are independently adjustable.
Ring modulation is an under-used and underrated effect, and certainly hasn't been implemented often in the digital domain (only Alesis' Quadraverb Plus springs to mind), so it's nice to see E-mu including it on the MPS. Choose the right sort of sounds to put into it and you can get some really wild spiky metallic stuff or eerily soothing metallic drones.
Fuzz1 and FuzzLite can both be pretty grungy and over-the-top, but they can also add a nice rich sustain to less complex sounds. In fact, the waveforms included in the Proteus MPS's sample ROM really come into their own with the addition of effects processing, especially with the wilder effects.
How to handle the transition from one programmed effect to another, when a new patch is selected while notes are held down, is something which different manufacturers have handled in different ways. Some simply mute everything for a moment while the new effect parameters are copied into the processor, others do their best to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. In my books, Korg's Wavestation has the smoothest transition of all. The Proteus MPS fares very well, too, but there can be a crackle - or Ping as E-mu call it - and a momentary dropout when you switch from one effect (pair) to another, so they've included a Master parameter called FX Transition which you can set to either Mute (everything is muted for a moment, to cover the changeover) or Ping (nothing is muted but there may be a crackle).
All effect parameters for the currently-selected effect in each processor can be edited remotely via MIDI using controller data; you can also use controllers to select the effect for each processor and to set the A amount, B amount and B-into-A amount. The controller numbers are preset by E-mu, as are the controller values for selecting effect type, but all are clearly indicated in the manual. It seems that this remote manipulation of effect parameters is intended more for editing purposes than for dynamic control during a piece of music, because the effects do tend to glitch in response to real-time parameter changes (as E-mu point out in the manual, to their credit).
Clearly E-MU put a lot of thought into what they wanted a keyboard version of Proteus/1 to be, and it's paid off for them in the resulting Proteus MIDI Performance System, which has emerged as a stylish instrument with real flair. I can see it appealing to a variety of musicians, because sonically it's hard to pin down to any one category. This is particularly so with the addition of the digital effects, which widen the scope for sound creation even more. The effects are very appealing; somehow they just seem to sit perfectly with the samples and waveforms - I suppose you could say they were made for one another. The MPS isn't a difficult instrument to get to grips with, and with its user-friendly front panel, well-varied collection of sounds, Quick Keys easy multi-Preset creation, 16-part multitimbrality and 32-voice polyphony, it could well be an ideal instrument for the hi-tech novice. This isn't meant to put more seasoned hi-tech musicians off giving it a try-out, however. Despite its apparent straightforwardness, the Proteus MPS is a serious instrument with sonic depths just waiting to be explored by the more demand-ingmusician.
Price £1289 including VAT.
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Review by SImon Trask
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