Me and My E-mu
What happens when you give a drum machine the sound-sampling capabilities of an Emulator keyboard? Little short of a miracle, according to reporters Paul Wiffen and Annabel Scott.
With the ground-breaking Emulator II coming under threat from cheap sampling keyboards, E-mu Systems turn their attention to putting user-sampling into the hands of the drum machine owner. The result? Another, even bigger ground-breaker.
The latest product from E-mu Systems has had a name change since we first reported its appearance at the Frankfurt Musikmesse in February. Then it was proudly sporting the name of Drumulator II, which seemed a fairly safe bet as there are few people who aren't aware of the original E-mu drum machine, whose appearance in the Spring of '83 broke the £1000 price barrier that had kept the digital drum machine in the professionals-only domain and left Linn with a virtual monopoly over the market. The Drumulator set a pattern that was followed by a good many competing machines, and even today, it can still boast the best set of alternative sounds available for any machine - courtesy of US company DigiDrums, whose Rock Drums set is a fitting posthumous tribute to John Bonham, from whom the sounds were sampled. All this was made possible thanks to a far-sighted policy on the part of E-mu, who didn't restrict the space available for each sound to one chip.
However, the new Drumulator - as many people will doubtless continue to call the SP12, despite the fact that the word has been removed from its front panel - has a new facility in common with the Santa Cruz boffins' other wonder machine, the Emulator. In other words, it samples.
The new name clearly shifts the emphasis to the sampling aspect (SP12 stands for Sampling Percussion). That isn't surprising, even when you consider that sampling on drum machines isn't that new. Linn announced it on their 9000 (reviewed E&MM April '85), but here we are in August and we've yet to see a production version of the hardware update which makes this possible. (We've also heard some horror stories about the cost of this update - a couple of grand according to some reports, and this on top of the £5175 RRP.) On the other hand, the SP12 is in the shops even as you read this. Thus, as far as we're concerned, the Emulator SP12 is a first, and at a price that could make the Linn look very silly.
Let's start again from the top and take the SP12 on its own terms (though we won't be able to resist comparisons to the Drumulator and Emulator II at times, because the SP12 really does combine the best features of both units). Thirty-two sounds are available in all, in four banks of eight, with the top bank referring to user-sampled sounds and the other three labelled with the factory sounds. There are eight velocity-sensitive programming pads below eight sliders (one for each set of four sounds), which can either mix volumes or set alternative pitches for any one sound. To the right we find a keypad and a thoroughly informative LCD, plus some tempo controls. A set of assorted programming buttons sits above the sliders and the rest of the panel is divided up into four areas, selected by overall function buttons labelled Setup, Cassette/Disk, Sync and Sample. Within each area, multiple Functions are selected by typing a number listed on the keypad panel. It might sound complicated, but this system will be more than familiar to anyone who's ever spent more than 15 seconds with the EII. If anything, it's more effective here, as the operating software is contained internally rather than being continually accessed from disk (a problem that's been eliminated on the EII by a soon-to-be-available hard disk update).
As with any machine that hopes to sample and replay for your delectation and delight, sound quality is the SP12's most crucial area of performance. E-mu's brochure claims that "by utilizing a 12-bit data format and increased sampling rate, the SP12 is able to produce sounds whose combination of clarity, brilliance and dynamic range easily sets a new standard of fidelity for digitally-sampled drum machines". Pretty strong stuff, but it's true. Set up next to a Linn 9000, the SP12 makes its competitor sound dull, muffled and uninspiring. And the factory sounds are refreshingly modern: deep, powerful toms, a sharp, clicky bass drum, a good selection of electronic kit sounds, plenty of realistic ethnic percussion, and so on. In fact, had the SP12 been released a couple of years back, the 24 internal sounds would have justified the three grand price tag on their own.
But the chief selling point in 1985 is that you can load alternative sounds from cassette or disk, or sample and save any sound that comes within spitting distance. In other words, you can keep your personal sounds in the machine as if they were factory samples. Together with the onboard operating software, this represents a significant step forward in the way sampling can be used: no problems with the operating system, or any of your favourite samples, getting erased or stolen on disk. And this, in turn, means the disk has now been consigned to its most useful function for the travelling musician, namely the storage of back-up and/or alternative data.
Programming the SP12 is pretty straightforward, though there are more options available before you start than on most other machines. For instance, you can specify tempo numerically to the nearest 0.1BPM, which is a lot better than the painstaking choice between 120 and 122 that so much of the competition forces you to put up with.
Sounds from any of the four banks of sounds can be entered simply by using the Select button to switch between banks as you program. The velocity-sensitivity of the pads is an option that can be switched in or out, and of course, time signature is fully programmable in terms of both number and value of beats.
As for the actual recording of rhythm patterns, we're happy to report that at long last, the Americans have come up with a drum machine that allows programming in step time. It must have been tough, breaking out of the 'jazz-rock' mentality and making a machine accessible to musicians with the humblest instrumental technique, but E-mu have gone ahead and done it all the same. Step Mode allows you to go through and place beats exactly where you require them, or correct patterns entered in real time with a precision that's just not possible even with the most intelligent quantising system. And the interaction with real-time programming means you can use whichever method suits you best for each pattern, or each instrument, if you prefer.
The Set-Up section gives you even greater programming flexibility, by giving the eight sliders and pads alternative functions in the Multi Pitch and Multi Level modes. So for instance, you can assign all eight pads to the same sound and use the sliders to set different volume levels, thereby writing in beats at levels that vary precisely as you want them to.
"Sampling - The move up to 12-bit sampling is long overdue in the percussion field, where sounds are more vulnerable to the limitations of eight-bit resolution."
You can do the same thing with tuning. Believe it or not, the SP12 is the first drum machine from outside the Sequential stable which actually addresses the possibility of variable tuning on each beat. Mind you, this should come as no surprise, since we heard last year that the young lady who wrote the Drumtraks software has made the journey over the mountains from San Jose (home of SCI) to Santa Cruz. In fact, the E-mu device takes the potential uses of tuning much further. Anyone who's ever substituted a pitched musical sound in a Drumtraks will have discovered that Western intervals are a little tricky to achieve. No such problems here. The SP12's sliders give various options here including chromatic tuning, pentatonic scales (the default setting), major or minor scales, or whatever exotic Oriental tuning scale you may care to enter in your more experimental moments.
The astute amongst you will have already realised that you don't have to limit yourself to drum sounds on the SP12. Any pitched sound you can sample can be stored and sequenced by the machine - and once you've entered your chromatically-tuned, user-sampled glockenspiel part, you can return to the standard mode quickly and simply.
One good thing about Multi Mode is that the LCD has a special little display for it, with a bar chart that shows pitch or volume level for each sound. This alters as you move the sliders, so now you can see at a glance how the buttons are set up for pitch and volume.
Multi Mode is selected by a left-hand switch which also offers two other options. One is for normal volume mixing on the sliders, while the other is Tune-decay, which offers a selection of sound variations whose nature depends on the character of the original sound. For instance, the toms' slider gives control over tuning, but the hi-hat's offers control over decay time. This is a wonderful facility that allows you to program a lot of expression into percussion parts either before or after recording, simply by varying the parameter manually with the appropriate slider. On the hi-hat especially, the results can prove extremely lifelike.
Turning to the back panel, the SP12 has eight instrument outputs with a fairly sensible assignment of sounds, so that the toms, for instance, go to different outputs and can thus be panned apart from each other. And if this assignment fails to satisfy, you can re-assign any sound to any output, the only limitation here being that the filtering on each channel differs according to the requirements of the sound normally played through that channel. This becomes less drastic as you step through the channels until you reach 7 and 8, which have only the anti-aliasing filters necessary to minimise sampling quantisation noise. There's even a possibility you'll be able to switch these filters in and out on production models.
The great thing about the SP12 is the range of options it gives you for the building-up of songs - particularly if you're using a lot of tuned sounds (be they slap bass, marimbas, glockenspiels or timpani). Creating a song will be a familiar process to any one who has ever used a Drumulator: it uses the same system to compile 100 songs from the 100 patterns or Segments available. Total capacity is around 5000 notes depending on the density of patterns, but an imaginatively-titled Turbo kit hardware update increases this capacity to 15,000 notes.
The Turbo kit also increases your user sampling time to 5 seconds. On the standard SP12 this is limited to 1.2 seconds which, of course, has to be divided between the eight user samples. This is OK for most percussion sounds (you'd be surprised just how many different bass drums and toms you can fit into 1.2 seconds), but for the more musical stuff (such as orchestral crashes), the Turbo kit would seem to be more a necessity than a luxury. It adds about £500 to the cost of the machine, but it's worth it.
"Upgrading - The standard sample time is OK for percussion sounds, but for more musical ones, the five-second Turbo update is a necessity."
The SMPTE option wasn't present on the model we reviewed, but this was due merely to lack of software, as the code is received through the rear panel Cassette sockets. For those who've yet to join the rather exclusive club which SMPTE currently represents, there are plenty of other sync options, specifically MIDI (for which the SP12 has In, Out and Thru sockets), and a 24ppqn code (which is fortunately becoming more standard these days for sync-to-tape and inter-machine applications). Also on the rear panel are sockets for footswitch control of Run/Stop, Step/End Repeat and Tap/Auto Repeat, as well as a Metronome output, Sample input, Mix and individual outputs, and the Disk interface socket.
But if there's one area where the SP12 really comes into its own, it's that of sampling.
In a manner very similar to that of the Emulator II, you can set input level and triggering threshold using the LCD window, which allows you to choose a reasonable input level. All the EII's sampling options are there: you can trigger the sample automatically or manually, you can check it back immediately, re-sample it, or save it as required. Just one pot is used to control input gain, but you can also adjust the internal preamp level to obtain the best balance between volume and low distortion.
The more complex compositional elements on the SP12 are similar to those of the Drumulator, so those of you who are familiar with the old stalwart will be glad to hear that the new model retains the Swing Factor, Program Tempo Change and Program Mix Change of the Drumulator, and also the splendid Call Subsong option. This allows you to halt progress through a song and remain cycling round a short sub-section until inspiration for that interminable lead guitar solo [occurs, and at any] point you can re-enter the main song using the End Rep footswitch.
As regards cassette/disk storage facilities, these are vastly increased over what was bestowed upon the Drumulator. Among other things, they allow you to Save All Segments and Songs, Save All User Sounds, Load All Segments and Songs, Load Single Segment, Load All User Sounds, Load Single Sound, Verify Segments and Songs, Verify User Sounds, Catalog Disk or Tape, and Format Disk. In the unlikely event that you'll need more than the standard 100 onboard, loading songs from disk will doubtless prove a great advantage on stage. As far as disk storage is concerned, the latest we've heard (from Kevin Monahan of E-mu) is that the system is designed to work directly with the JL Cooper MIDI Disk Drive (an American all-purpose unit for storing MIDI data), on a simple 'plug-in and go' basis. Being able to load and save new sounds with a disk drive won't just be more ergonomically efficient; it should also be a good bit more economical than having to keep blowing new sounds onto EPROMs all the time.
Summing-up a machine that's as consistently competent as the SP12 is difficult. There's no point going over the most important features again, since all that would achieve would be a doubling in the length of this review. The one useful thing you can do is place the new Emulator in the context of its immediate competition, if indeed it has any.
Upmarket, the Linn 9000 sounds nothing like as good as the SP12, and costs an awful lot more. It needs expensive updates to enable it to sample and interface to disk and SMPTE, though to be fair, it does cover areas the SP12 doesn't. The Linn is a 32-channel MIDI recorder as well as a drum machine, whereas the SP12 makes no attempt to cover MIDI sequencing. But then again, the two-grand price difference covers the cost of any standalone sequencer on the market. Come to think of it, it could buy you several.
"Programming - At long last, the Americans have come up with a drum machine that allows you to record completely in step time."
Downmarket, the Sequential Drumtraks with 0.5 software update now performs many of the SP12's more elaborate tricks, but without the tuning accuracy. Neither Roland nor Yamaha have anything to compare to the SP12, so the most we can usefully conclude is that the SP12 is streets ahead of the LinnDrum, which is one of the few machines in the same price bracket. The big difference here lies simply in the user-sampling - no small bonus for no extra money.
The move up to 12-bit sampling is long overdue in the percussion field, where sounds are more vulnerable to the limitations of eight-bit resolution. The SP12's factory sounds have the clarity that's prompted so many people to resort to sampling and sequencing percussion sounds on extremely expensive machines like the Synclavier, so viewed in those terms, its value for money is remarkable.
For the adventurous rhythm programmer or the session keyboardist player on a relatively limited budget, E-mu's latest represents an excellent - nay, the only - way of creating custom rhythm patterns using custom sounds. So start saving. You need this machine.
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