Into The Heart Of Emu's New Keyboard
Emu Proteus Master Performance System
Martin Russ continues his in-depth look at Emu's new keyboard.
The Proteus Master Performance System changes your idea of what you expect from a synthesizer. Not too long ago, the ability to play one analogue synth sound with 8-note polyphony was wonderful, and later the DX7's digital sound and 16-note polyphony seemed pure luxury. Now we have advanced, complex Instruments generally with 8 or 16-part multi-timbrality; but most instruments seem to have delegated the responsibility for driving their multi-timbrality to an external synthesizer, and only provide a very limited capability for MIDI master control. The Proteus Master Performance System ties everything together by providing the missing overall MIDI control to produce an instrument that is truly 'complete'.
Last month's preview of the Proteus Master Performance System dealt with my initial impressions of a prototype instrument, and is essential reading as background for what follows. The finished Proteus Master Performance System has slightly different front panel legending but is otherwise identical, whilst the software, now the full release version, includes the final factory ROM and RAM Presets and effects programs. The few minor problems which I noticed in the prototype seemed to have been caught by the beta testing and corrected: for example, the Compare button now recalls the original parameter values when you press it.
Last month's preview described the exterior of the Proteus Master Performance System in detail. After playing an instrument for a couple of weeks, you get to know more than just the surface gloss, and what follows is based on a good deal of use.
The keyboard is very light and responsive, quite a lot lighter in fact than my normal master keyboard (a Yamaha SY99). Whilst this is fine for high velocity values and pressure control, it is initially a little harder to control low velocities repeatably, so some practice and familiarisation may be required. The five global velocity curves allow you to tailor the response of the instrument to velocity, both from the keyboard and from incoming MIDI messages.
The pitch bend and modulation wheels are considerably larger in diameter than the 30 or 40mm that seems to be the norm. The pitch bend wheel has a light feel but is tightly sprung, and the mod wheel is slightly weighted. The finger notch is quite shallow and the wheels do not project from the casing as much as the MiniMoog standard, which makes them feel quite a lot different, and again can mean a slight change in technique. Tastes in performance controllers vary: many people like the Korg joystick, others the Oberheim levers or the Roland sideways bender/push mod controller. For master keyboard usage, you will need to feel very comfortable with the performance controls, which depending on what you're used to may take some time to develop, but then this applies equally to any instrument.
The top surface design gets better the more you use it. Your fingers really do start to know where to go almost before you have thought about it. The soft blue rubber buttons are easily visible in poor lighting conditions, unlike the more familiar black buttons on a black panel of most other synthesizers. The associated red LEDs give a clear and unambiguous indication of the preset bank and edit status.
After lugging the prototype down a set of stairs, putting it in a flight case and then unpacking the new one, the only additional comment on the construction of the Proteus Master Performance System worth mentioning is: it feels solid and sturdy, and is slightly deeper (from the keyboard down to the table top) than most other synthesizers.
Even for a master keyboard, the Proteus Master Performance System is well-equipped in the MIDI department. The five Performance Maps can serve as memories for entirely different setups of the whole instrument. In addition to the Zone Controls (Preset, Keyboard Range, MIDI Channel, Volume, Pan, Transpose, Controller Enable, MIDI Send, Program Change and Effects Assignment), there are Program Change Maps (four of them) and the Multi-mode Effect Assignment, Preset, Volume, Pan and Poly/Mono selection. And by recording or editing up to 320 bytes of user MIDI data, you can use Sysex messages to set up external devices as well. The possibilities offered by this wealth of facilities are probably limited only by the availability of your time to explore them.
A MIDI Monitor allows you to display incoming MIDI messages, although continuous MIDI Clock and Active Sensing messages do tend to obscure more important messages, and they cannot be filtered out in the current version of the software.
There is provision for four assignable MIDI controllers (the Mod wheel is number 1) and these can be internal to the Proteus Master Performance System (foot pedal, footswitch, channel pressure), or external via incoming MIDI messages from a sequencer. One use for the controllers could be real-time modulation of many of the sound parameters of the Presets — the 162-page A4 manual takes six pages just to outline the possibilities. There is also a 'hidden' controller, but it is permanently connected as the master volume control for all the audio outputs — try changing the volume slider position quickly and notice how the volume only changes after a short time delay.
The excellent owner's manual devotes another 16 pages to further information on MIDI, including information on how to use an external sequencer to control the parameters of the Effects section (unfortunately the real-time controllers are not de-zippered, so you may get some audio glitches), the mapping of the parameter values to real-world values (times for envelopes etc.), and lots about compatibility with other products in the Proteus range. The assignment of two effects to 16 sounds in Multi-mode, or two effects to eight sounds in a Performance Map is well explained, especially given the added complexity of the Quick Key zones (basically, Zone 1 determines the type of effect, whilst the remaining Zones set the routing).
The piano sound is a mono version of one of the Proformance Piano presets, and it's a very nicely multi-sampled and looped grand piano sound — personal preference enters into assessments of piano sounds to such a degree that the best advice I can offer is for you to go and listen to a Proteus Master Performance System for yourself.
Amongst the individual Presets which I particularly liked were:
ROM 047 'Exhibition': Reverbed Brass and delayed fifth.
ROM 056 'Modern Harp': Like being inside one!
ROM 066 'Fat Bass': Dark and moody analogue bass.
ROM 077 'Rock 5ths': Fuzzed guitar.
ROM 095 'Waterways': Soft metallic chimes.
ROM 097 'Waves...2': Vector-like LFO mod.
RAM 118 'SynBassHorns': Flanged reverse sound.
RAM 124 'Drama at Sea': Powerful Voices and Strings.
RAM 126 'ButterflyFlu': Velocity sensitive metallic chiff with swell.
RAM 150 'Blue Ice': Mark Isham Pad.
RAM 172 'DauntedHouse': Stretching the synthesis!
Combining Presets via linking is to some extent less important than on the Proteus rack modules, since the same kind of layering can be achieved more flexibly by using the zones in the Performance Maps. Of these Maps, my favourites were:
Map #1 'The Popster': Quick Key 2 has a delicious metallic piano split with a synthy bass.
Map #2 'Texture Age': Quick Key 1 features a synthetic vocal sound.
Map #3 'Jazz Moods': Quick Key 0 gives the classic piano and bass combination.
Map #4 'Zound Effex': Quick Key 9 provides all sorts of weird percussion.
Overall, the sounds were of the usual high quality which is synonymous with Emu. Many of the sounds are strongly evocative and invite playing. The mix of pianos, strings, brass, basses, guitars, drums and solo sounds is rather random, with no obvious ordering or grouping of sounds. The effects section does not disguise the lack of a strong electric piano sound, and perhaps there are too many special effects, but this is still a wide selection which would form the basis of a good composition system.
Many of the sounds are showcased in the built-in demo song, which ambles along from a showy start, via some very effective percussion and orchestral stabs, to a piano and brass break with a new age guitar strum. Reggae organ and latin percussion leads to a chorussed guitar which introduces a feedback guitar solo and brass stabs to end.
The manual devotes a complete section to describing how to program sounds in the Proteus Master Performance System. As with the rest of the manual, there are lots of clear diagrams and notes in the page margins. The 'chorus' parameter on the Proteus has been renamed for the Proteus Master Performance System — it is now called 'Double & Detune', which describes what it does much more accurately. Maximising polyphony is made much easier by the quick reference table which shows which Presets use only one instrument/one voice and have no doubling or linking. The reference section of the manual describes the contents of all the samples, and even provides keymaps for all the percussion note assignments.
The Proteus Master Performance System sounds good, the effects are excellent, and the master control facilities are comprehensive, but it is the way that everything is tied together that makes this instrument special. Selecting a Performance Map not only gives a new set of ten Quick Key setups (which provide layered or split sounds) as well as changing the Controller Assignments, Program Change Maps and Program Change reception, but it can also configure external MIDI instruments with Program Changes, Song Select and other Drum Machine controls, Sysex Messages and user programmed MIDI messages — all this from one button press! The five internal Maps can change so many of the parameters that it is like having five completely different pieces of equipment.
The time it will take to learn about the Proteus Master Performance System will be well rewarded. Emu are usually one step ahead of you in providing exactly what you need to do all the tasks that a master keyboard might be needed for — and the manual guides you through all the features in a clear, readable style, with a thorough index. This is a system orchestrator, in much the same way as Dr.T's X-Or is a system orchestrator, but with the advantage of being stand-alone and computer-independent. You could well find that the focus of your music-making shifts from your computer or sequencer to the Proteus Master Performance System. Money well spent!
£1,295 inc VAT.
Emu Systems, (Contact Details).
Review by Martin Russ
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