The Shape Shifter
Digidesign MacProteus And InVision ProtoLogic
Kendall Wrightson looks at two new Proteus-related products — the ProtoLogic Sound Memory Expansion Unit from InVision, and Digidesign's MacProteus NuBus card for the Apple Macintosh II.
The Greek god Proteus was noted for his shape-changing abilities, and it therefore seems rather appropriate that Emu's unit of the same name is now appearing in several forms. There is Proteus 1, Proteus 2, and now a version of the original unit has been produced by Digidesign in the form of a NuBus card to fit inside a Mac II computer. With a little help from Apple's new MIDI Manager, the card can be controlled by any sequencer running on the computer.
The Macintosh was born in 1984, and despite it being the first major personal computer to boast a professional level MIDI sequencer, Apple ignored the world of music until 1988 when their sudden enthusiasm for multimedia engendered a genuine interest in all things audio. That interest culminated in the release of a new piece of System software called the Apple MIDI Manager, which allows multiple MIDI applications to run simultaneously in Multifinder, using a software MIDI PatchBay to connect the Ins and Outs of one application, NuBus card, or external MIDI device to another.
The importance of MIDI Manager cannot be overestimated; without it multiple applications such as sequencers, patch editors and digital audio editors would each require their own Macintosh. Now, with sufficient RAM, they can all be resident in the same Macintosh and communicate as if they were running on separate computers. In this way, the Macintosh can become a fully integrated digital audio workstation.
All Macintosh II computers have internal slots into which additional circuit boards can be installed. Apple devised a specification for these cards and slots which is known as NuBus, and since the standard was launched, hundreds of NuBus cards have been produced to support anything from a large screen to a digital video effects facility.
Digidesign's MacProteus is the first NuBus card to offer a MIDI controlled instrument, and the first to take full advantage of MIDI Manager. Digidesign's NuBus interpretation of Proteus 1 is identical in every respect to the original, except that Proteus 1's three stereo outputs have been reduced to one (plus a stereo headphone output). This is a very significant difference, since Proteus is 16-part multi-timbral, and with only one stereo output, separate processing of individual sounds is impossible. The missing outputs are clearly a cost cutting exercise, rather than a result of limited space, since Digidesign's forthcoming Mac sampler card provides eight outputs.
The installation of any NuBus card must always be approached with caution, as the card's IC's are easily damaged by static electricity. Being long and thin, NuBus cards are also fragile, so pushing the card home is always a tense moment. Connecting MacProteus to a mixer (via its two mono jacks) or plugging in a pair of stereo headphones should also be performed with due regard to the card's fragility — they shouldn't be wrenched out in a moment of anger or forgetfulness.
Having successfully fitted and connected the MacProteus card, the next stage is to install the supplied software — Apple's MIDI Manger and an application called Front Panel (designed by Opcode) which, as the name suggests, provides access to the main Proteus controls via a large Mac window called the Master Parameters window.
When Front Panel is run for the first time, it automatically scans each NuBus slot to determine how many MacProteus boards are resident. (A Mac can support a MacProteus card in every slot — up to six in the case of the Mac II, IIx or IIfx!)
Each NuBus slot is assigned an ID number, and access to multiple MacProteus boards is achieved by changing the ID number in the top right hand side of the Master Parameters window. You can also use Front Panel to edit the master parameters of any standard rack mounting Proteus, which may be connected to the Mac modem or printer ports and patched into Front Panel via the MIDI Manager PatchBay.
The Master Parameters window provides control over Master Volume, Global parameters, MIDI controllers, and the current Preset/MIDI channel setups, and volume, panning and program change number for each Preset. It also includes an impressive demo, which doubles as a handy way of ensuring that all is working as it should. You can of course play MacProteus Presets with a MIDI keyboard (via the PatchBay), but Front Panel also includes a 'soft keyboard' in a window called Mousekeys, so that sounds can be quickly auditioned without the inconvenience of having to leave the Mac hot seat. (For some reason, computer operators hate physical movement.)
You can select a Preset by clicking on its number or name in the Preset field (which will increment or decrement depending on whether mouse is dragged up or down). Alternatively, clicking on the black arrow (also in the Preset field) produces a pop-up menu of all the MacProteus Presets (in blocks of 64), where one may be highlighted for selection.
Front Panel also acts as a librarian, allowing you to load and save banks of Presets, master parameters, and program change settings. However, it is not an editor — parameters like envelope and LFO settings cannot be altered, and you'll need full-blown editor/librarian software to achieve this, such as that from Opcode.
In a typical studio application, the MIDI Manager PatchBay will control some quite complex routing, as a MIDI keyboard, a Mac sequencer, MacProteus, and Front Panel must all be connected together. Fortunately, the excellent MacProteus user manual offers examples of PatchBay settings, and PatchBay set-ups can be saved for instant re-configuration. In the set-up described above, at least 4 megabytes of RAM is required: 2 megabytes for a sequencer, and 1M each for Front Panel and PatchBay.
Even assuming that you already own a 4 megabyte Mac II (4 megabytes being the usual configuration), the MacProteus actually offers no cost advantage over its rack mounting partner, at least not in this country where the Proteus 1 and MacProteus are the same price. The only advantages the MacProteus can offer at its current UK price are space, and the convenience of operating it directly from the Mac. However, these advantages are in my opinion somewhat eroded by the lack of multiple outputs and the card's general fragility.
The space/convenience factors become more significant as more MacProteus boards are fitted into a single Mac, but those who can afford a multiple NuBus slot Macintosh are unlikely to be short of a few rack spaces, and in any case such users will almost certainly be using other NuBus cards such as Digidesign's Sound Accelerator, and SampleCell Mac sampler.
In summary then, the MacProteus is an excellent idea which is slightly marred by its solitary stereo output and relatively high UK pricing. Perhaps we will eventually see a MacD50, a MacVFX, or more likely a MacProtologic (see below). If so, let's hope they arrive with a full complement of outputs.
InVision are probably best known for their LightWare range of CD ROMs for the EMI and S1000, but their new ProtoLogic upgrade for the Emu Proteus provides sampled sounds in a different form, as a 4 Meg upgrade board, which offers Proteus 1 and Proteus 1XR owners 128 new Presets.
When the Kurzweil K250 was launched in 1984, it was generally regarded as something of an oddity. "Why", the pundits asked, "would anybody want to buy a machine full of preset ROM sounds instead of a sampler?"
"Because", answered the populace some years later "access to a wide range of high quality sampled instruments is more important to us than the ability to sample".
"So what?" opined the manufacturers as their shiny new samplers sank without trace for want of decent sound libraries. Emu Systems of Scotts Valley California were one of several pioneering sampler manufacturers to make the sound library error. Unlike some however, Emu survived to sample another day, and significantly revived their fortunes at the end of last year with the launch of the Proteus 1 Digital Sound Module, a 1U rack containing a varied selection of 16-bit samples stored in 4 megabytes of ROM.
The Proteus 1 was swiftly followed by the Proteus 1XR and XR upgrade, which increased the number of internal user Presets from 64 to 256. More recently. Emu announced the Proteus 2 and Proteus 2XR, which contain 8 megabytes of orchestral samples chosen from the EIII library.
Emu have had considerable success with the Proteus range, a fact further demonstrated by the third party support they are now beginning to attract. Editor/librarian software has been available for the Atari, Amiga, Mac and PC compatibles from day one, but the simultaneous launch of InVision's ProtoLogic and Digidesign's MacProteus may well create an avalanche effect — more support, more Proteus sales, more support, etc.
In addition to its 128 ROM presets, the Proteus 1 also contains 64 RAM memories (256 in the Proteus 1XR) in which user Presets can be stored. With no slot to accept RAM cards, user Presets can only be saved and loaded over MIDI. As for ROM expansion, Emu explained at the outset that the Proteus 1 was capable of accepting another 4 megabytes of sounds, with the addition of an internal expansion board which they said "would be available sometime in 1990".
True to their word, Emu announced an expansion card at the AES exhibition in Los Angeles last September, which will contain 4 megabytes of solo orchestral instruments culled from the Proteus 2. However, fellow Scotts Valley residents InVision may well pip Emu to the post with their ProtoLogic expansion card, which should be available by the time you read this.
Like the basic unit, the ProtoLogic offers 128 ROM Presets, though the prototype unit I inspected contained only 99. Proteus 1 owners get the added bonus of a free XR upgrade, since the ProtoLogic increases the number of user memories from 64 to 256. InVision will probably fill 72 of these (giving 200 ROM Presets in all) leaving 184 memories for the user. The ProtoLogic sounds are grouped into 10 categories: organs; synths; percussion; bass; ethnic; drums; brass; 'hit & misc'; voice; guitar. Listening to the sounds for the first time, I was impressed by the excellent sound quality and the total lack of noise or colouration.
Further experimentation revealed an attention to detail which is very much a feature of InVision's range of CD ROMs for the E3 and S1000. For example, the Hammond organ (which is the best sample of the instrument I've ever heard), is offered in two different multi-sampled Presets, one with a slow Leslie and another with a fast Leslie effect. The Leslie depth is controlled by keyboard pressure in both cases.
The pop brass and horn stab Presets are a little thin, but fun nonetheless. The same applies to the rock guitar, which is rather scratchy, and needs to be put through a fuzz box to overcome some rather obvious multi-sampling. The fretless bass manages to offer a deep bottom end, without being woolly, and InVision have assigned keyboard pressure to pitch bend (which requires a little practice to master, but can be highly effective). The electric piano is of the DX7 variety, which on its own can be rather lifeless since it doesn't have an FM synth's velocity bite. However, it can be brought to life by layering it with Emu's grand piano Preset.
The 'ooh' and 'ahh' voices have obviously been through some kind of aural exciter to make them cut through dense pop tracks, though the effect can be reduced by changing the brightness parameter. All the the vocal samples have unobtrusive loops, and are offered with many alternative envelopes. InVision's percussion samples (both Western and Eastern) are noise-free and mercifully dry. The selection includes some popular TR808 sounds and various percussion loops, including a tambourine riff which sounds massive when transposed down several octaves.
Many of the synth presets are reminiscent of the Roland D50 and Korg M1, but the ProtoLogic also contains several unusual Vector synth samples, which in combination with the wonderful shakuhachi, oriental sounding chiff flute and bright kalimba, make up the ProtoLogic's ethnic selection. The shakuhachi, though short, is authentic, and provides a wonderfully organic texture when layered with synth pads. In fact all the ProtoLogic sounds have a very natural quality to them — even the intentionally extreme Presets would be more suited to a natural history programme than a new series of Bleep & Booster.
At £45 each, Roland's ROM cards for their U series of ROM players are exactly one tenth the cost of the Emu and InVision expansion cards, yet contain less than one thousandth the memory capacity. Clearly, the Emu and InVision boards offer such good value for money as to totally outweigh the advantages of interchangeable ROM cards. In any case, the ProtoLogic sounds are well chosen and uniformly excellent, with not one throwaway Preset.
InVision clearly put a lot of effort into deciding what instruments would be most useful to the average musician, and which would best complement the resident Proteus 1 sounds. The result is a low cost, high performance instrument, which provides an incredibly diverse selection of real instruments and a rich pallet of natural sounding textures — with plenty more hiding under the edit button. In short, the ProtoLogic makes a great instrument brilliant.
Digidesign MacProteus £899 inc VAT.
Sound Technology plc, (Contact Details).
InVision ProtoLogic Expansion Card £449 inc VAT.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
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Review by Kendall Wrightson
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