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Emu Vintage Keys

Synthesizer Module


Martin Russ shows his age and his roots as he looks at a thoroughly modern recreation of a bygone age — Emu's Proteus-based Vintage Keys module.


Here's your shopping list: Farfisa Organ; Solina String Machine; Yamaha CP70 Piano; Moog Modular System 55; Sequential Prophet 5; MiniMoog; Fender-Rhodes Mark 1 Piano; Rhodes Chroma; Hammond B3 Organ; Oberheim OB-Xa; Wurlitzer Electric Piano; ARP 2600; Hohner Clavinet; Moog Taurus Bass Pedals; Mellotron; Fairlight CMI; Yamaha DX7.

At today's equivalent prices, you might get some change from fifty thousand pounds — if you could still buy them. These are the instruments that shaped the sounds of popular music from the '70s through to the mid-80s. Many of the current Sample & Synthesis (S&S) instruments attempt to provide vague emulations of some of these, but no-one had really approached it in any serious way outside of the larger sample libraries. Until now.

The Emu Vintage Keys is not just another version of the Proteus. This 1U high rack module is dedicated to producing classic sounds from the early days of synthesizers, when programming was king and memories were unheard of. The H-series chips give the Vintage Keys several notable features which have been missing so far in the Proteus range: resonant filters, envelope retriggering and portamento, for example. Analogue synth extras, with samples of the original instruments, at an affordable price?

SO WHAT'S NEW?



The Vintage Keys breaks away from the established Proteus series of instruments in several ways. The front panel has been redesigned to make it easier to use, and the sculptured plastic casing has been replaced by a more utilitarian enamelled and folded steel cover. I always wondered why all that effort had gone into the Proteus box when all you did was hide it away in a rack, and so I was pleased to see that the Vintage Keys actually puts the gloss where it is visible — the front panel is black anodised brushed aluminium alloy. With the addition of some glossy black plastic surrounds for the knobs and mains switch, the overall appearance is significantly enhanced — it looks expensive.

Placing the backlit green LCD behind a larger recessed window helps the looks and improves the viewing angle; I could never read the Pan setting on the Proteus without moving round to look at it straight on. Looks aren't everything, although with a module which is designed to emulate some instantly recognisable instruments of old, it is good news that Emu have put considerable effort into making the Vintage Keys stylish.

So, nice design, but what about the sounds? Emu's are known for their skill and attention to detail in making the most of available memory space, and the Vintage Keys contains some instantly recognisable source samples as well as lots of single cycle waveforms. The quality is helped by the 18-bit DACs, where the two extra bits (the data is stored in 16-bit linear format) should help keep noise low and dynamic range high — especially important where there is lots of mathematically demanding processing, as required by the Vintage Keys' (digital) filters.

Ultimately, however, it is the variety and depth of timbral resources which matter, and although this is good there are a few minor weak spots which brings me to the trump card in Emu's hand — the expansion ROM. The basic Vintage Keys comes with 8MB of ROM, and there is a special SIMM socket for expanding this to 16MB. If you've installed extra RAM in your computer you will know how easy SIMM sockets are to use — which makes quite a change from the awkward (and rarely user-installable) connections used by most manufacturers.

One obvious benefit of the extra ROM option is that Emu have the flexibility to correct any unforeseen omissions in the expansion ROM. The major missing element in the initial 8MB is the DX7 Electric Piano sound, that tinkly sound which was well over-used in the mid-80s. I would also have preferred some more 'electronic' drum sounds to suit the analogue theme, but then the unit is called the Vintage Keys, after all.

PROGRAMMING



Excellent samples taken from a wide variety of classic keyboard instruments are not necessarily a guaranteed recipe for good sounds. Analogue synthesizers need dynamic filtering, portamento and envelope retriggering if they are to sound authentic, and sampling filter sweeps eats memory and fixes just one 'snapshot'. The Vintage Keys uses a digital emulation of the classic resonant low-pass filter, providing the gentle roll-off of the 2-pole 'Oberheim' style filters, and the steeper, more synthetic sounding 4-pole 'Moog/Prophet/ARP' filters. An auxiliary envelope generator can be used to provide the independent filter sweeping that characterises late-70s and early-80s VCF-dominated synth sounds.

Unlike some competitors' digital filters, Emu let you modulate the filter cut-off with lots of different sources all at once. So, if you want to use an LFO for timbral tremolo, whilst sweeping with a decaying envelope, and still have after-touch brightness control, you can have it all. (You can also by-pass the filter entirely, which produces a louder, brighter sound than with the filters apparently wide open. Actually, because of the way that the filter modulation works, you can't open it fully by using just the frequency control — you need to use the Aux envelope or some other controller to really open it, and then the difference is much less marked.)

Apart from the filter and other analogue extras, the Vintage Keys has the same synthesis structure as the Proteus. There are two 'oscillators' producing the basic raw timbres — although Emu complicate things by calling them 'Instruments', and the samples are often multi-sampled or looped so you get a much more finished sound than you might expect. You can modulate the pitch and level of these with a wide variety of sources to produce panning, velocity crossfades and time crossfades.

The synthesis power of the Vintage Keys is deceptive. There is a lot of flexibility built in, although this is not immediately obvious from the editing pages. Some aspects are less than obvious, even given the clear and somewhat 'laid-back' style of the user manual. For example, the Alternative envelopes took me a while to figure out — for each basic sample/wave, there is a default envelope, whilst the Alternative envelope allows you to define your own custom envelope. Although this sounds simple, it means that you can happily change the envelope without anything happening to the sound unless you have the Auxiliary envelope turned On — conversely, it is very useful for making quick A/B comparisons whilst programming.

MODULATION AND EFFECTS



The MidiPatch Modulation System provides comprehensive routing of the keyboard and velocity controls, as well as the real-time controllers like the such LFOs, Auxiliary envelope and MIDI Controllers. You do need to carefully plan out what you want to achieve with the modulation routings because unlike with analogue synthesizers, where there are often level controls at the input and output of modules, Emu provide adequate but more frugal numbers of level controls for the Vintage Keys. Old instruments rarely had effects units built into them, and so the Vintage Keys does not follow on from the lead set by the Emu Proteus Master Performance System (see Jan/Feb '92 SOS). The Vintage Keys returns to the Proteus style in another respect: the 'Detune + Double' of the MPS is back to being called 'Chorus'.



"If you want to use an LFO for timbral trentolo, whilst sweeping with a decaying envelope, and still have aftertouch brightness control, you can have it all."


INSIDE



The Vintage Keys box is small (just under 9" deep behind the front panel), which might make you suspicious about exactly how much is inside. Actually, you get a lot for your money. The inside contains a small universal 110/240 mains power supply and the main PCB, with some smaller PCBs on the front panel. The main PCB uses almost exclusively surface mount technology — which means that it uses components which are typically about half or even a quarter the size of normal 'thru-hole' components and 'glues' them to the surface of the PCB with the solder connections. The board may be small, but there is a lot on it. Build quality was very high — the PCB and interior were neat and tidy. A thoroughly professional product.

The main processor inside is a Motorola 68000, and the three large ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits: custom chips) were made by AMI. The six DACs (digital-to-analogue convertors) are Analog Devices AD1860s; the PCB is designed to take either the thru-hole or surface-mount versions. AD1860s are capable of running at up to 8x over-sampling rates, and this could explain the simple active filtering on the audio outputs — the combination of a high quality DAC and gentle filtering offers a good way to achieve excellent audio performance.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the interior are the two spare ASIC positions and the memory card provision. The original Proteus had those annoying slots that looked like card slots but weren't, whilst here the PCB is ready for a card connector, but the front panel isn't! I assume that the extra ASICs might be used to double the polyphony to 64 audio channels on a related product, and the card slot may be for a future product which uses the same PCB. Given the rapid pace of Emu releases (Proteus 3/World, Procussion, Proteus MPS and Emax IIIP in the last year or so) there may yet be more surprises, but at least you now know some of what to expect.

MIDI MATTERS



The Vintage Keys provides a Program Change Mapping Table to map the 384 patches to the 128 available MIDI program change messages. You can also access banks of patches using SysEx messages — but not by using a General MIDI type Bank Select Controller. MIDI Overflow can be used to pass notes beyond the basic 32 to another module — although why the manual calls note 'stealing', note 'ripoff' is beyond me... Multi mode allows the Vintage Keys to respond as a 16-part multitimbral synth, and the default display lets you access all 16 channels very easily — if only every expander module was this easy to use.

The SysEx implementation is comprehensive, with support for the MMA tuning standard, bulk dumps, and even conversions from Proteus patches. There are eight global velocity curves to match Master keyboards to the module. Perhaps the most novel MIDI extra is the use of note numbers to choose characters when naming the patches — you can 'play' the name instead of scrolling with the data entry knob.

A welcome addition to the specification sheet are the MIDI response times — 4ms for a single note is about the average for current instruments, whilst the 7ms for layered notes is somewhat better than the norm. As I mentioned in the March 93 issue of SOS, MIDI response times are an ongoing project of mine...

CONCLUSION



The presets didn't immediately grab me, although the front panel was much easier to use than the Proteus — what a difference a new layout, larger Data knob and an extra button makes — but when I started to do some editing and programming the Vintage Keys suddenly took on a different character. I was able to quickly reproduce my favourite Oberheim sounds, as well as some classic Prophet sync sounds, and my impression changed. With lots of scope for user programming, and extra MIDI Files of sounds from Emu, the supplied RAM presets are probably not fully representative of what you can do with the Vintage Keys. A disk of the sounds I programmed during the review period will soon be available from SOS, and Emu's Dave Bristow is also working on sounds.

My opinion of Vintage Keys changed from 'not sure' to 'rather impressed' just because I took the time to explore it — this is a timely reminder that you can't review something from the specs alone, or from only a brief audition in a shop. The Vintage Keys is a very powerful and capable addition to the Proteus range — the filtering and portamento that you couldn't do before is now available in a unit which complements the existing products very, very nicely. Rock/pop (Proteus 1), classical (Proteus 2), world (Proteus 3), percussion (Procussion), and now analogue (Vintage Keys) — what next from Emu?

Further information

Emu Vintage Keys £869 inc VAT.

Emu UK, (Contact Details).

EMU VINTAGE KEYS £869

FOR: High sound quality, resonant filters, size & reliability in comparison to the original instruments, easy to use multi-timbrally.

AGAINST: No on-board effects, DX7 E. Piano sample missing in basic version, more polyphony would be nice for multi-timbral use.

SUMMARY: Pure, instant nostalgia in a very small package. The demo tunes say it all: '70s & '80s Dynamite!

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

There's a whole generation of people for whom the Korg M1 is the synthesizer. To listen to some people, you'd think that pre-M1 there was only a sort of formless analogue void. Having being brought up with synthesizers, I beg to differ. I was born in the year that Robert Moog first began to talk about using Voltage Control for Sound Synthesizers, I was 10 years old when he published his first catalogue of modular synthesizers, and had just started grammar school when Walter Carlos's landmark classical chart-topping Switched On Bach album came out. The MiniMoog came out at about the same time as my first modular analogue synthesizer neared completion — I can still remember comparing design notes with the fledgling OMD at a school science fair in Liverpool.

I had just started working at the London Synthesizer Centre when the Sequential Prophet 5 stunned everyone with its price and polyphony. Blowing up Vic (Sad Cafe) Emerson's Yamaha CS80 taught me that adjusting the tuning with the power on was best left to experts like the legendary Dusty Miller. And I won't mention examining Tony Banks' ARP Quadra to see what setups he had left in its memory...

Just over 10 years later, MIDI came into existence, and analogue technology began to be usurped by digital — in particular by the Yamaha DX7. Everyone always goes on about how they got one of the first ones to arrive in the country. Well, I didn't — my DX7 was in the second shipment. 10 more years brings us to the present day, and the many variants of Sample & Synthesis (S&S) have all but replaced the traditional analogue programming skill with simple preset selections. More than 30 years of development has seen progress in new sounds and new synthesis techniques, leaving behind a string of 'popular in their time' classic instruments which you rarely ever see (or hear) nowadays — until the Emu Vintage Keys, that is.

POLYPHONY

The Vintage Keys uses a sophisticated dynamic assignment system to make the most of its 32 'audio channels'. For sounds using just the Primary Instrument, with no Chorus or Linking, the polyphony is 32 notes. As you add the Secondary Instrument, Chorus and Linking, the polyphony decreases progressively as the table below shows:

Primary Chorus Pri Secondary Chorus Sec Links Polyphony
None 32
None 16
None 16
None 12
None 8
1 4
2 2

There are lots of ways to make the most of the available polyphony. Using Chorus on just the Primary or Secondary Instrument sounds almost as good as a blanket Chorus on both, and it saves polyphony (eg. 12 notes instead of 8). Keeping Chorus out of patches used for Linking to other patches also helps a little — detuning can have much the same effect. Of course, for the ultimate 'analogue' sound, a restricted polyphony may be more authentic.


EMU VINTAGE KEYS SPECIFICATIONS

32 audio channels: up to 32 note polyphony
8 MegaBytes of sound memory, encoded in 16 bit linear format at a sample rate of 38.4 kHz. (Proteus Sound Set Number 6)
Frequency Response: 20 Hz - 18 kHz (+/- 6 dB)
18 bit DACs (6 x Analog Devices AD1860)
THD: < 0.05 %
SNR & Dynamic Range: > 90 dB
MOL: +4 dB into 600 Ohms from a 100 Ohms output impedance.
MIDI Response Time: 4ms single note, 7ms layered note
Up to 16 part Multi-Timbral
MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets
Six audio outputs (can be 3 stereo pairs) plus headphone monitor. (Four of the output jacks can be used as effects send/return points.)
384 Presets (256 RAM, 128 ROM)

(The E-mu Proteus and variants have been covered in several SOS reviews and articles: Procussion Jul 91; MPS Jan/Feb 92; Proteus 3 Aug 92; Hands On Nov 92; MPS+ Dec 92; Emax IIIP Feb 93)


SOME CLASSIC KEYBOARDS FROM THE 70S AND EARLY '80S

Minimoog (1971)
Hohner Clavinet (1971)
ARP Odyssey (1972)
Solina String Machine (1975)
Korg PS3300 (1978)
Sequential Prophet 5 (1978)
Yamaha CP70/80 (1978)
Yamaha CS80 (1978)
Roland Jupiter 8 (1981)
Sequential Pro-One (1981)
Oberheim OB8 (1983)

VINTAGE KEYS SAMPLES

There are 249 mono samples in all:

68 SAMPLES OF REAL INSTRUMENTS.
B3 Organs with Leslie speakers, including a distorted sample where you can't hear the loop at all. Mellotron choirs, violins and flutes. A Farfisa organ. Yamaha CP70, Wurlitzer, Dyno-myRhodes and Fender Rhodes pianos. Hohner Clavinet, Taurus Bass Pedals. Mini, Micro, Memory & Model 55 Moogs in various moods. Yamaha DX7 bass, with one sample via a Rockman amp. Oberheim Matrix 12 'Sync', 'Hollow Pad' and 'Strings'. ARP 2600. Fairlight Ahhs. Sequential Prophet 5 'Sync Lead', 'Guitar', 'Pipe' and 'Strings'. Solina (ARP) String Ensemble. (There are also a few of the ubiquitous Saxophone, Brass, Guitar and Bass sounds that no sound module can apparently be released without.)

32 DRUMS AND REVERB SPACES
The nine Reverb Spaces allow you to 'add' reverb to the otherwise dry drum sounds. More effective than you might imagine.

52 SINGLE CYCLE SAMPLES
Of Moog, ARP & Oberheim synths, and B3 organ. Lots of timbres to experiment with — most analogue synths only had square, rectangular, sawtooth, sine and triangle.

22 HARMONIC WAVEFORMS
An Emu speciality — as seen in all Proteus versions. More useful than you might think.

53 SINGLE CYCLE WAVEFORMS
Some very unusual and distinctive timbres.

6 MULTI-CYCLE WAVEFORMS
Attacks and extras.

15 LOOPS & PILES
Special Effects only.


SECOND OPINION: JULIAN COLBECK

Disconcertingly, my qualification for assessing Vintage Keys is the fact that I am one of the few people old enough to remember these instruments when they weren't classic or vintage bits of kit — they were all that was available.

My first synth, bought in the early 1970s, was an ARP Odyssey. In time I progressed to an Oberheim 4-voice. Along the way I also bought a Hammond, a Fender Rhodes, Hohner Clavinet, Prophet 5, I've toured dozens of times with a Yamaha CP70 electric grand piano and a MiniMoog, and many's the time in the '70s when all there was to rehearse on was a Wurlitzer electric piano.

Add Mellotron and Farfisa sounds to the list and it wraps up the range of 'classic' instruments found on Vintage Keys. The question is now, are they any good? There are two areas on which to pass comment: the Presets, and the basic samples (Instruments). Strangely enough I'm not nearly as impressed with the Presets, which are finished, mapped, and filtered sounds, as I am with the raw samples.

Vintage Keys may appear to offer instant access to the golden sounds of yesteryear, but to really achieve that goal requires more than a little programming. The important thing is that the potential is here.

Let's start with raw samples, of which there are 100 basic instrument types, plus a further 75 synthesizer and organ waveforms and harmonics. In order to listen to this raw material it's best to find a fairly neutral preset, like a piano, switch off any Secondary Instrument, and then just check that no chorus sounds or filtering have been slipped in there as well.

First the organs: Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. The Hammond B3 samples range from low drawbars, distorted, with slow Leslie, to high drawbars and fast Leslie with the 3rd percussion harmonic. Listening to these sounds is pure joy, and you can really start to feel that Leslie motor whirring around your ankles. As samples, these knock any others into next week and beyond.

The Mellotron violins and flutes are clearly samples from the real thing, but they all seem to have been prettied up. The flutes are far more playable now, I suppose. Thankfully, the violins remain quite strident, as befits the original.

The vocals seem to be re-tuned and looped as well as they can be. I never did like Mellotron's 'barked' voices anyway, so these re-workings are a bit pointless. They're not sufficiently life-like to be useful as 'real voices', nor are they weird enough to be used as a general purpose weird sound.

A range of saxes and trumpets follow, which I suspect come from the standard EIII/Proteus library. Fine.

Farfisa: you like that old Elvis Costello/surfing/'House of the Rising Sun' sound? Here it is folks. Good sample.

Emu's strong suit is definitely organ and synth sounds. I think they have more of a problem with pianos. It's not so much the piano sounds as the keyboard response — many of the piano-based tones just don't have any bite.

First up is the CP70, the electric grand piano made by Yamaha. Here it is, in all its clunky, out-of-tune bass glory. But the irony is that people didn't love the CP70 because of its sound — especially as the lower octave was virtually untunable. It appealed because it was/is a real hammer action keyboard that didn't need additional miking, and it was reasonably portable.

Frankly, we put up with the sound. However it was distinctive, and indeed here it is. The feel, though, is completely by the by. Funny old life.

As for the Wurlitzer electric piano, its rendition here is just about OK. Short on octaves, Wurlis were never the most responsive of keyboards anyway. It's still missing some cut, but in context you'd probably be hard pressed to tell this from the original — unless you're a member of Supertramp, that is.

I don't know what poor old Chuck Monte, a Californian fellow who made a decent living back in the '70s customising Fender Rhodes pianos, has done to Emu but the Dyno Rhodes sample here is distorted rubbish. Dyna-Rod more like. The second attempt is better but it still has no bite at all — which was the modification was all about. Strange.

The Hohner Clavinet was a far more expressive instrument than people think. You could bend notes, it was very responsive to how hard you played it, and it had an unbelievable number of sound possibilities. Emu have done okay here, through offering just two Clavi tones, capturing far more of the original's subtlety than you'll ever find on a synth preset. Sling in a nice bit of chorus (I suggest Chorus 5 here) and things start hotting up.

MiniMoog sounds are generally first class, from earthy basses to punchy, dippy tones, to rasping resonant tones, to tubalike farts and parps. Loads of warmth and depth. The MicroMoog sample employs lots of rubber band res. Splendid stuff.

On its own, the Taurus sample just doesn't cut it. I've played with these pedals many times and frankly the sound is a wonderful cure for constipation, or as a weapon for sonic warfare. If you double up — use Taurus and Primary and Secondary Instruments, perhaps delaying the start time of one — then you'll get more out of the Taurus sound and effect, so watch out!

Jaco bass — a mournful fretless DX7 sound — is magic. Play it all night.

Oberheim's Matrix 12 was an unsaleably large and expensive instrument whose richly froggy tone here rings no bell in my memory — nor does the ARP 2600's filter mod stuff. No doubt these are real samples, though.

Back on the Moog trail is a first rate Moog 55 rez sample, full of cut and buzz — this is an extremely useful sound. The OBX 'Jump' sawtooth patch, too, will be a clear favourite I'm sure.

Prophet 5 samples are a bit thin on the ground, which is odd considering Emu helped produce the instrument; you've got a guitar-like patch, a typical string patch, and an overblown pipe patch to play with.

The Fairlight is represented by the sole 'Aahs' patch. Or should that be the other way around? What a waste of money that instrument turned out to be, eh folks?

Bringing up the rear we have a selection of EIII/Proteus guitars (excellent), drum kits (pointless), reverbs (into which you can slot any of the instruments in a primary/secondary arrangement), and assorted percussion instruments.

Finally, there is a large number of synth waveforms (Moog Square 1, 2, 3 etc., OB Wave 1 etc.) plus organ harmonics, from which you can build up your own sounds from scratch.

There is no time to plough through the Presets. I like some — mainly organs. 'Tone Wheel Organ' offers speeded up Leslie on mod wheel and aftertouch, and the 'Rock Organ' actually switches sample from slow to fast Leslie with dynamics, both of which are creative solutions to this age old problem.

Some of the synth presets are superb — 'Rezimise', which the acid boys will love, the burbling 'Earth EMU', and 'Square Freak' among them.

Will Vintage Keys become a classic in itself? Quite possibly. Although in my view more work needs to be done on the playability front, the range of basic samples — plus of course the goodly sackful of sound programming parameters — is sufficiently wide and inventive for this instrument to handsomely repay many months, even years, of work.

Programmed, and handled with care, Emu's Vintage Keys is a ticket to freedom in a world dominated by sound-alikes.


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Wave Power

Next article in this issue

Hands On: Eventide H3000 Series


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Apr 1993

Donated by: Russ Deval

Previous article in this issue:

> Wave Power

Next article in this issue:

> Hands On: Eventide H3000 Ser...


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