E-Mu Systems Emax
The 'baby Emulator', announced only a month ago, gets put through its paces by Paul Wiffen at E-mu's Californian HQ. It's good.
An In Brief preview that's two pages long? Appalling, isn't it? When will Paul Wiffen learn to keep his mouth shut, his paper quantities down, and his wordprocessor in check? Probably never, and certainly not when there are instruments as interesting as E-mu Systems' new Emax sampler around to preview. One trip to E-mu's Californian headquarters and he's away, grabbing hold of one of just three prototype Emaxes currently in existence, and putting it through its paces.
Prototypes being what they are, though, Wiffen finds a fair bit of Emax's software still in the process of being written, so a fully-blown review will have to wait a month or two. In the meantime, here's a rundown of what the 'baby Emulator' can do to get your mouth watering, because what there is of Emax now is already pretty impressive.
Emax retains the same sampling format as its big brother, the Emulator II, but E-mu's engineers have succeeded in reducing the fundamental circuitry so much that it can now be fitted on a single silicon chip, known as the E-chip - hence the dramatic reduction in cost. What's more, memory chips have now come down sufficiently in price to allow the Emax to hold the same amount of sample memory as the original Emulator II.
This means that at the same sample rate as the Emulator II - around 28kHz - Emax samples for the same amount of time: over 17 seconds. But E-mu have added variable sampling rates from 15kHz to 40kHz, the range given in the preliminary specifications. However, on the prototype unit I tried, the display gave the maximum sample rate as 42kHz, which makes Emax at least the equal of the Prophet 2000 and Akai S900 in this respect.
And the quality shows, too. Recording direct from a CD player, sound fidelity was extremely fine, reaching well into those high frequencies above 13kHz which many samplers reproduce poorly or not at all. Of course, you pay for this extra facility by having less sample time available. Maximum sample length at this rate was just over eight seconds, but fortunately, the display told me exactly how much time was available in seconds, not K of memory or hexadecimal.
It's the display (similar to that of a DX7) which makes sampling with Emax so easy. On entering Sample mode, the bottom line of the display acts as a VU meter in much the same way as the EII's, and a threshold can be set visually using a slider. In fact, all the other instructions in Sample mode (Arm Sampling, Force Sampling and Stop Sampling) operate identically to those on the EII.
This user-friendliness isn't restricted to sampling, though. It also extends to the use of all the other modules, and to the provision of one all-important button (missing on most samplers): a dedicated 'load all' switch, which means you only need to perform one action to load a new disk. A Godsend in live performance.
The other modules of Emax (besides Sample) are Master Control, Digital Processing, Preset Management, Preset Definition, Analog Processing, and the Sequencer. Each of these has its menu printed on the front panel (no loose card to lose with Emax), so you can look up which options you want to use and key in the appropriate number on the keypad. Alternatively, you can use the data slider to scroll through the options and then press Enter to select the one being displayed.
Master Control governs essential functions like master tuning and disk formatting/copying. But it also holds a few more unusual features like Select Velocity Curve and Bird Run. The first is an excellent feature which allows you to personalise the touch response of the keyboard to suit your own playing style. The second is a little bit sillier, causing an Emu (yes, the bird) to trot across the display. I'm not sure exactly why it does this, nor am I sure why it's there at all. But I am sure E-mu could have made better use of the memory and processing power Bird Run takes up.
Digital Processing covers all the things you may want to do to a sample once you've made it. First there's the essential Truncate, which allows you to trim any unwanted material from the beginning or end of the sample. Being able to type in individual sample numbers is a great benefit here, as sliders can be a bit fiddly for fine adjustment.
Next come the two loops possible on Emax: the normal loop and the Release loop. Each can be specified by its start point and length. However, before you can begin to adjust these loops you need to go to the Mode parameter to turn the loops on, which is a bind. Once you've done this and set start points and lengths, Emax gives you the option of using Autoloop, which works by finding the nearest zero crossings. This goes a good way towards getting rid of awkward clicks or glitching in a loop.
If this is not enough, however, there's another feature - new on an E-mu keyboard - called Cross-Fade looping. This process actually smooths out the data around the loop point to create a 'seamless' join. It works wonders provided you've got as close as possible beforehand using the manual and Autoloop functions.
Other, more 'experimental' Digital Processing options include Tapering, Splicing, Combining and Digital Effects, but these were yet to be implemented on the Emax we tried.
Preset Management is a utilities module, allowing different presets to be Created, Copied, Saved, Named or Erased - essential if unexciting. More interesting things go on in the Preset Definition and Analog Processing sections. In the first of these, you can set up all the crossfades and switches you want. There are three options here: Positional (to smooth out the differences between multisamples as you go up the keyboard), Velocity (to allow different force keystrokes to trigger different samples recorded as 'hard' and 'soft' performances), or Realtime (which allows you to use the mod wheel to change between samples).
It's only when you set up one of these crossfades that you notice what is one of the strongest points of Emax. Normally, when you make such assignments on keyboards, the machine's polyphony is halved: if you're using two voice channels to play different sounds from the same note, then you can only sound half the number of notes. But not on Emax. Each voice is provided with the equivalent of two oscillators, so it can play back two samples simultaneously.
The usefulness of this isn't restricted to crossfade assignments. In Dual Voice mode (another area of Preset Definition), two different samples can be layered to provide, say, Brass and Strings or Piano and Nose-Flute together, again without losing polyphony. This feature is also responsible for the chorusing provided in the Analog Processing section.
Preset Definition also covers MIDI options, pitch-bend range, arpeggiator setting-up and real-time control assignments. The last-mentioned refers to the controllers: left wheel (sprung), right wheel, pressure (Emax features a pressure-sensing keyboard as well as velocity control), pedals, footswitches, and MIDI controllers, all of which can be assigned to a host of destinations: pitch, filter frequency, level, LFO, attack rate and sustain, to name but a few.
The two wheels, incidentally, are on the small side and can get fiddly to use, though their action is fine.
The Analog Processing section contains all the things keyboard players raised on MiniMoogs, Prophet 5s and Juno 60s can't live without: VCAs and VCFs (with their own independent five-stage envelopes), filter tracking and resonance, LFOs and velocity amounts to level, pitch, filter, attack and panning.
Panning? Well, Emax allows you to pan each voice to a stereo position, and then move it either through velocity or LFO control. It makes for great effects or realistic mixing, whichever you prefer.
On top of everything else, Emax has a sequencer. Not an exhaustive one, it's true, but then it's not designed to be. The idea is that you can dump sequences recorded on more powerful systems (either PC-based packages or stand-alone units) into the Emax, and then save them onto the same disk you're keeping your sounds on. This means that, during a live performance, you can have everything loaded from one disk. And despite its basic specification, the sequencer is capable of multitrack recording and is particularly strong on the synchronisation side, featuring not only MIDI clock but also MIDI song pointers, which allow you to record and playback from anywhere in the track. Emax can also receive 88 notes via MIDI, over all 16 MIDI channels, simultaneously if necessary.
On the back of Emax, in addition to the 11 audio outputs (Mix, Stereo, R and L, and eight individual outputs), the MIDI connections and the sample and footswitch inputs, sits an RS422 computer port. This will enable visual editing software on computers such as the Apple Mac to communicate with Emax much faster than MIDI can. And as it turns out, Digidesign have already told us that they hope to have their Sound Designer Mac package available for Emax at the time of the keyboard's release this autumn.
Prices US: Emax keyboard $2595; Emax rack-mount module $2395; UK prices to be announced
More From E-mu Systems, (Contact Details)
Trade members can see the Emax during an E-mu Systems product presentation at the Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington on July 30 and 31.
Review by Paul Wiffen
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