Emu MPS Plus Orchestral
You want access to a wide range of sounds in a versatile performance-oriented keyboard? Emu's MPS Plus Orchestral adds 4MB of orchestral sounds to the rock/pop set of the original MPS. Derek Johnson shows a high rate of interest and gives credit where it's due.
As many of you will already know, the Proteus range of budget sample playback modules is basically Emu System's way of repackaging for the masses the expansive sound library of their expensive Emulator III sampling workstation series. Most hi-tech, one-product companies seldom seem concerned with the mass market, and carry on attempting to sell their mega-buck products to the wealthy until they inevitably go to the wall. Not so Emu: they saw the value of diversification, and of providing the exclusive Emu sound to the musician in the street. The potential of wads of cash being forthcoming from said musicians in return for a bite of the Emulator cherry must have been part of the equation as well. The first Proteus module arrived back in 1989, and since then the range has grown to three modules and a keyboard, as well as spinning off the Proformance piano and Procussion percussion modules, which proved popular with pro and aspiring musician alike.
The Proteus Master Performance System (MPS for short) was released about a year ago, and contained the guts of an enhanced Proteus 1 harnessed to a keyboard with comprehensive master controller facilities, and effects. You might expect the MPS Plus Orchestral to be a new instrument, offering the innards of Proteus 2 (Orchestral) with the same master keyboard facilities. Let me say right now that this is not the case. However, the new instrument is still more than a rehash of the established MPS. Of most interest is the addition of 4MB of extra sounds — the majority of which are orchestral — to the MPS's original complement; another serious addition comes in the form of an extra 200 ROM Presets, bringing the total number of sounds available at any one time to 500 (100 RAM, 100 card, and 300 ROM). Four new velocity curves have also been added (the total is now eight), since apparently there have been complaints regarding the original machine's velocity response.
Apart from these additions, all the great features of the MPS are present: the 32 effects algorithms, 32-voice polyphony, 16-part multi-timbrality, and one of the friendliest front ends in music technology coupled with great 16-bit samples. There are also the superb master facilities, courtesy of the on-board Performance and Quick Key options, which allow you to reconfigure your system with one key press — in this mode, the MPS Plus can control up to four external sound sources on four different channels, with key grouping and so on. Non-equal temperament tuning tables (four are user-definable) are also again present. One unfortunate hangover from the first MPS is the external power supply; this is especially disappointing since Emu managed to provide the Proteus modules with internal PSUs that automatically detected the current's voltage, for hands off, no worries international usage.
The styling retains the curves and design of the MPS, with an attractive, rather strokable control surface. Apart from a large alpha dial, there is a collection of blue buttons to assist with editing and sound selection. The alpha dial is used to select Presets or change parameter values; parameters themselves are selected by the cursor buttons. There is a 2-line by 16-character backlit LCD panel in the middle, with a control to alter the contrast for different viewing positions; I used the MPS Plus flat on a table and almost vertical in a keyboard rack, and could adjust the display for easy reading in both positions. Below the LCD are the 10 quick keys, for use in the various Performance modes (they are not 'soft keys' as often found on other instruments, although they can be used for directly selecting Preset numbers or parameter values, without the need to press Enter). The remaining buttons select different Preset banks, the various Edit modes (Master, Performance or Preset), and save/copy functions. The buttons appear a little cheap in context of an overall sophisticated design, but nevertheless do the job.
The rear panel has connections for a footswitch and an expression pedal, MIDI interfacing, and two pairs of audio output jacks, labelled Main and Submix. The Submix pair can be used as additional outputs or, in a similar fashion to the Proteus modules, they can function as insert points, allowing external effects to be directly patched into the MPS' output, to treat the main stereo signal. The returns could also be used as additional inputs, to sum external signals to the MPS's output. This is all part of the very flexible Proteus way of thinking.
As mentioned above, the on board sounds are sourced from the Emulator III library. The samples themselves are 16-bit, with a sampling rate of 39kHz, and a frequency response of 20Hz-18kHz. Don't let the lack of 'CD-quality' sampling rate put you off — the Proteus sound is still sparkly and bright, and in contrast to a lot of the competition, it is also pleasantly free of quantisation noise and hiss.
The ordinary MPS had 125 Proteus Instruments — Emu-speak for basic waveforms. The MPS Plus ups this to 204, with the additional sounds being split between an orchestral selection and a few more digital waveforms. Up to two of these Instruments, called Primary and Secondary, then make up a Preset. Each has a key range, volume, pan position, tuning, effect routing and various LFO and envelope parameters. Real-time MIDI control also gets a good look-in, with up to 10 sources controlling a fair number of the available parameters. Additionally, any Preset can be 'linked' to up to three others, for instant mega layering.
The effects on board are a simple but useful collection. There are two processors, called A Effects and B Effects, and these can be routed in a quite a number of ways, in parallel or series. A and B Effects are actually slightly different collections: both offer delay, cross delay, phaser, stereo flanging, stereo chorus and stereo EQ. Group A adds a variety of reverbs, early reflections and something called Rain — and that's what it sounds like — while group B adds two types of fuzz and a ring modulator.
The only problem with the effects is that, like many other multi-timbral keyboards, some Presets suffer (through losing their effects settings) when used multi-timbrally, since a global effect setup will be applied. This means that your screaming distorted solo electric guitar will most likely sound like Segovia when used multi-timbrally. You could always record the part to tape, of course, or set up the effects routing such that the other sounds aren't processed by the distortion.
With such a lot of sounds potentially available, far beyond the 128 programs allowed by MIDI, it's just as well that the MPS Plus comes equipped with four program change maps, whereby incoming MIDI program changes can be mapped to any Proteus Preset. Additionally, the MIDI Bank Select command can be used to select one of the five Preset banks followed by the Preset number within that bank.
If the Link facility mentioned in connection with Presets is not good enough for you, Preset interaction of a slightly more clever variety can be had in Performance mode. This mode turns the MPS Plus into a MIDI control centre capable of transmitting on up to four MIDI channels at once, each with its own keygroup, transposition, pan position and volume. There are five Performance maps on board (with a further five available on RAM card), and each map has 10 Quick Key assignments. The upshot is that when you select a Performance and one of its Quick Keys, up to four internal Presets with volume, pan, and keygroups are available on the keyboard; these Presets can be layered or split. The one thing to watch out for is running out of polyphony — 32 notes is a lot, but if you layer four Presets, each containing two Instruments (basic waveforms), you can imagine how polyphony gets run down.
Performance Maps become especially interesting when used in conjunction with external sound sources: You can define up to four Zones per Performance, each of which has its own MIDI channel, and each of which can transmit — with the press of a Quick Key — a program change number, MIDI Volume and Pan information, as well as up to five MIDI commands. These include Song Select, Song Start, Song Stop, and one user-definable 320 byte string (this could be a MIDI Bank Select command, for example). The MPS Plus can be used as a comprehensive controller for all your MIDI gear, simply and elegantly, allowing your system to be reconfigured with the press of a single button. In a live situation, this button press could be used to remotely select all the patches in your sound modules and start the current sequence in one go, with your sound modules and sequencer tucked out of sight.
Multi-timbrally, the MPS Plus, in common with the rest of the Proteus family, is an exceptionally straightforward instrument to use. When you first turn on the MPS Plus, the display shows not only the current Preset, but also its volume, pan position, and its MIDI Channel; if you move the cursor to the MIDI channel, and move the alpha dial, its value changes — all you have to do is select a Preset for that channel. To have the MPS Plus actually respond on multiple MIDI channels, you simply have to press the button labelled Multi. It couldn't be simpler — the keyboard will also transmit on that channel when it is selected.
As you might expect, the MPS Plus is as simple as the rest of the Proteus range to use. Programming, either from scratch or via editing Presets, is as straightforward as we have grown to expect from Emu, and a lot of thought has gone into the accessibility of the operating system. Some may find the tiny display a bit of a struggle at first, but the operating system is such that it is actually just about sufficient.
You might think that, when using what is basically a preset sample playback instrument, you might have a problem with creating original sounds that don't have 'Proteus' written all over them. This is actually not as much of a problem as it might at first seem, since although there is no on-board filter the envelope controls and flexible Instrument assignment parameters mean that the basic sound character can indeed be changed somewhat. Individual waveforms (Instruments, as Emu call them) can be reversed and assigned start times from within the waveform; for example, I didn't particularly like the Soft Flute waveform, due in large part to its attack. By altering the Sound Start parameter, I was able to play the waveform without its attack, which produced an acceptable result for me. Primary and secondary Instruments can also be delayed by up to 13 seconds, and crossfaded against each other. Any modulation source can be used to fade between the Primary and Secondary Instruments, and they can each be assigned a key or velocity threshold. Although each Instrument has a preset envelope assigned to it, this can be disabled and a comprehensive Attack, Hold, Decay, Sustain and Release envelope can be defined by the user. The best Instruments for synthesis are the various non-imitative waveforms, but they can equally be used in tandem with one of the sampled waveforms to create interesting hybrids.
Sonically, the MPS Plus has all the good points of the Proteus range, which for me are the drum kits and percussion instruments — the toms and kick drums have a lot of bottom end — and the strings. Individual solo strings initially do not sound particularly special at first, but when placed in context — ie. after programming half of the first movement of a Samartini symphony into my sequencer — they are as impressive as the ensemble strings. Winds are good, with oboe, bassoon and clarinet all proving highly usable. Note that many orchestral Presets have key ranges restricted equivalent to those of the real instruments — for example, the oboe's lowest note is B flat below middle C and the violin's lowest note is G below middle C. This is invaluable for the inexperienced arranger. Other high points are timpani, the electric organs, basses (as with the kick drums, plenty of bottom end) and acoustic guitars.
Sounds I didn't like include 'Verb Flute' and 'Piccolodeeyo', and I'm also still a little wary of Proteus acoustic pianos. I know they have a lot of fans, but they sound a little artificial and boxy to me.
Emu also supplied three RAM cards for this review, with 300 quality sounds between them, as well as additional Performance maps; two are for either version of the MPS, while one takes advantage of the additional ROM found on the Plus. This latter card makes yet more great use of the string waveforms, and provides a couple of excellent brass ensembles ('Knighthood', especially). The cost (£75) seems a little high, but each card can hold 100 Presets. Blank cards are also expensive at £75, so you could say that essentially you get the sounds for free if you buy a sound card.
My final opinion of the MPS Plus remains essentially the same as my opinion of the whole Proteus range: a fine, varied selection of sounds in an accessible package. The velocity and aftertouch sensitive keyboard has a firm feel — though it's perhaps a little shallow at times to fully exploit the latter facility — and the controller facilities mean that the MPS Plus would be an excellent choice as the heart of anybody's MIDI setup. If you need to control four different instruments, in different keygroups, on different channels, then you can do it here with ease — layered with the fabulous Emu sound.
I must admit to being a little disappointed that the MPS Plus wasn't a Proteus 2 with a keyboard — that would have been hard to resist — but for the paltry amount of money above the asking price for the original MPS (£150), the waveform ROM has been effectively doubled. Owners of the older MPS can upgrade for about £215.
One thing that is a little confusing is that Presets seem to be all over the place; in the manual, they're grouped according to type. Not so on the instrument. I think it would have been useful to have the ROM Presets arranged such that all the strings were together, all the effects, all the pads and so on. It may be boring, it may be conventional, but it would have been useful to the new user.
As you can see, my criticisms are fairly trivial; some of the sounds are not to my taste — pianos, for example, flute and some brass — but there are those who will disagree. It's down to taste; on the important points of actual sound quality, ease of use and value for money, the MPS Plus scores high, especially in view of recent price cuts on Emu products. The only way for you to decide whether the Proteus sound is your sound is to get down to your local hi tech music emporium and try one out — tell 'em SOS sent you!
Emu MPS Plus Orchestral £1,255 Inc VAT.
Orchestral upgrade for MPS £215 Inc VAT.
RAM cards for MPS/MPS Plus £75 Inc VAT.
Emu Systems, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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