Emu Proteus 3 World
Emu's new Proteus 3 is to hi-tech music what Phileas Fogg is to convenience foods. Nigel Humberstone tries a taste of authentic sounds from around the world.
Usually when manufacturers release a third version of an instrument you might be given to wondering what it is that they couldn't get right the first time around, or assume that by this stage they must be stretching a point pretty thin. But the case of Emu Systems' Proteus range is slightly different. These compact sound modules are stuffed with selections of sounds culled from the Emulator III sample library, stored in ROM for instant access.
With 16-part multi-timbral operation, 32-voice polyphony, extensive sound editing, layering, and MIDI facilities, the power and flexibility of the basic Proteus unit is beyond doubt, and the different models are distinguished by their distinct sound sets. The complete Proteus range includes the Proteus 1 (Pop & Rock), 2 (Orchestral) and 3 (World); all of these are available in XR versions with double the standard 4MB waveform memory. The Procussion drum module and Proformance piano module are also close relatives, as is the Proteus Master Performance System keyboard.
The Proteus 3 is the latest addition to the fold, containing samples of instruments from Africa, Australia, Indo-Asia, Indonesia, the Middle East, Europe, South America, the West Indies, and, though they are less well represented, from Japan, Ireland, and the USA. The fact that Emu call their sampled sounds 'Instruments' (see box) could cause a little confusion, so just to clear things up: when I refer to an 'instrument', I mean a real-life, physical object, whilst an 'Instrument' (note the capital letter) is a sampled Proteus sound. There are 192 sampled Instruments in all (384 in the XR version).
Physically, the Proteus 3 is almost identical to its earlier siblings, though Emu have now made minor modifications to the original styling by eliminating the misleading and redundant slits on the front panel. The data entry knob has also been made firmer and more positive in action, and the cursor buttons now have a more reassuring and solid feel to them. Reviewing the new Proteus' impressive demo sequence gives an insight into the unit's unrivalled depth of sound and sonic purity. Successive musical pieces transport you around the world, from a classical Indian ensemble to Scottish bagpipes, a German oompah band to duelling banjos, finishing off with a modern, Peter Gabriel style, ethnic workout.
'World music', by the very nature of its terms of reference, is a hopelessly broad generalisation taking in a multitude of musical styles and instrumentation. In compiling the ingredients for their latest sound module, Emu have attempted to represent sounds from a very wide range of cultures. This must have been a daunting task, for it is only when you begin researching the history of some of these sounds that you discover the huge number and immense variety of 'ethnic' instruments. Rather disappointing is the fact that the Proteus 3 operation manual (though excellent and intuitive in its own right) is no more than an addition to the same for modules 1 and 2. So whereas there are useful listings of the factory presets, brief descriptions of the samples and instrument location charts, there are no further instruction hints or information on the sounds. A guide to the different musical instruments, with some practical tips and techniques for their manipulation, would have been a most welcome addition. (In this review I'll attempt to remedy that drawback, for a handful of instruments at least.)
One of the minor complaints that I have about the Proteus range concerns the lack of any logical grouping of Instruments and Presets. You can, of course, copy and rearrange Presets, but it would be nice to have distinct categories for, say, keyboards and horns. Stringed instruments feature heavily in Proteus 3, but are largely of the plucked variety. From the Middle East there is the fragrant tar, an Iranian lute which sounds like a cross between a sitar and a banjo, and there's also an ancient stringed instrument called the psaltery, which has been sampled bowed.
The most immediate and instantly recognisable stringed instrument is the Indian sitar. As part of the classical Indian ensemble, the sitar plays complex improvisations based around a set of rhythmic and melodic patterns. The tambura (a lute with four strings and no frets) provides continuous drones whilst the tabla (bhaya and tabla conical drums) provide the accompaniment. To represent the extremely elaborate techniques and intricate rhythms displayed by this form of Indian drumming, the tabla and bhaya drums are sampled in differing styles and pitch. The resulting selection of mutes, slaps, hits and tones — which in this category are all played back at their original pitch — provide a delicate and expressive collection.
As a counterpoint to this level of authenticity, the Proteus 3 also provides a fair selection of preset 'synthetic blends' in which the natural instrument is mixed and layered with an unusual partner. Presets like 'Star of Siam' blend the sitar with a bagpipe drone to create a very usable Eastern-flavoured pad. The convincing recreation of a harmonium also utilises a bagpipe drone, with a looped accordion; an extremely rich and warm sample in itself. This ability to easily 'mix and match' Instruments with one another, and with various digital and harmonic waveforms, leads to countless permutations.
Traditional Australian instruments are well represented within Proteus 3, notably the didjeridu [this is Emu's spelling; 'didgeridoo' is more correct, according to my didg-playing sources — Ed]. This primitive wooden trumpet is represented by samples of both tones and patterns, some of which are looped. Accompanying the didjeridu is the bull roarer (or thunder stick), an Australian aerophone that simply consists of a thin wooden plate tied to a string and swung in the air. The plate also rotates around its axis and the combination of the two motions produces a humming/wailing noise. This device can also be found in Africa and Brazil. The spirit catcher is a variation of the bull roarer, consisting of a pair of crossed sticks around which are stretched a large rubber band. The resulting sound has a throaty rasp which, through the application of delays and reversed samples, is made to 'move' across the stereo spectrum.
Other sounds include that of the excellent waterphone. This weird device has a bulbous body, a small funnel through which water is poured, and a series of steel prongs of varying lengths welded around the outer edge. When the prongs are bowed or scraped, an eerie, ethereal sound is produced. The effect is quite stunningly portrayed in the 'Waterphone' Preset which utilises the 19-tone tuning scale. It can also be found used to great effect in various other presets, such as 'Dream III' and 'Requiem'.
Only two sampled Japanese instruments have been used in the 'World' collection, these being the koto (13-string zither) and shakuhachi, an end-blown bamboo flute which has an unusually wide, internally-lacquered bore. The instrument has five finger holes, producing a limited tone scale which would normally require the application of the mari-kari (that's 'mari', not 'hari') technique to achieve a greater number of tones. Fortunately, Proteus 3 affords you the luxury of a full note range, with velocity sensitive attack, and a looped vibrato tail end — a very distinctive flute sound. Also present is a 'Shamisen' preset, (the shamisen is a 3-string, guitar-like instrument) which has been cleverly constructed from samples of banjo and wood block. Hardly any Japanese percussion is provided, although it can be approximated using other drums that are included. Nevertheless it would have been nice to have seen something like the gagaku (a large court drum) or tsuzumi (a small waisted drum).
Overall there is a very good collection of hand drums, bells, gongs, and assorted percussion, including Cuban bata drums. With their distinctive hourglass shape, the bata family (there are three sizes — 'child', 'mother', and 'father') are similar in sound to congas, and they are fully represented with numerous arrangements of tones, slaps and mutes. From the West Indies comes the steel drum, a 'second pan' variety, with warm tones. As with many instruments, the real steel drum is restricted in its natural tonal range, although the lower notes which the Proteus can reach could pass for a bass steel drum.
The African udu clay pot drum provides some interesting tonal variations, with samples of finger, release, and slap phrasings. Also from Africa comes the sansa or 'thumb piano', a plucked instrument consisting of a number of metal or split cane tongues over a wooden board or box resonator. (The kalimba is a more modern version of this.) The sound is very basic, but useful when combined with others to give a woody 'thwack' in a Preset.
Another interesting array of sounds comes from the Middle East. The most important instrument is the ney (Arabic for wind) flute. Again the Proteus allows us to experience an instrument which is notoriously difficult to play, since the tube is open at both ends and the mouthpiece has no notch. The result is an organic and soft sounding flute.
Perhaps one of the most appealing horn presets is 'Desert Dawn', which utilises a sample of a shofar (a ceremonial Hebrew ram's horn instrument). Also present are a hi tar (Iranian lute), mizmars (double reed shawms), and various percussion instruments including a bendir (16-inch gut snare drum) and crotales (small Egyptian finger cymbals).
"It would be all too easy for sceptics to disregard 'world' sounds as mere novelty items, but many of these instruments have been influential in creating the mainstay of what we consider today as traditional 'Western instruments."
As part of its Indonesian quota, the Proteus 3 provides us with the components of a Javanese Gamelan orchestra. 'Gamelan' literally means an instrumental ensemble, in this instance of between 14 and 17 tuned percussion instruments which are divided into several distinct sections. There is the kenong, a deep-rimmed gong with a central boss which rests on crossed cords over a hollow box frame, which produces a clear, high-pitched note. The bonang, a gong chime, is made up of two rows of wide-rimmed bossed gongs, which again are rested on cords in a wood frame and tuned to the notes of a diatonic scale. The bonang is used to accompany the melody, normally provided by the saron (a form of Javanese xylophone, with metal rather than wooden bars, arranged above a cradle-shaped box resonator). Javanese tuning is generally of either the Pelog (5-tone) or Slendro (7-tone) variety, and the Proteus' flexible tuning (four types of preset scale and one user-definable tuning) is used to provide both — the white and black keys of a keyboard can be used to represent the Pelog and Slendro scales respectively.
Most traditional instruments have a limited pitch range. If you are aiming to recreate authentic ethnic music, correct playing techniques and a basic understanding of the instrument involved can be crucial in extracting its full potential. But at the same time Emu have prepared and presented the Proteus 3 in such a way that anyone should be able to experiment and 'dabble'. I'm sure it won't be long before someone is producing ethnic and world music MIDI song files.
The Proteus' MIDI capabilities open the way to some interesting performance techniques. In addition to keyboard and velocity modulation, the Proteus supports multiple real-time modulation sources which can control any mod destination in a Preset except Sample Start, Tone and Pah. You therefore have considerable control over individual elements within a sound — you could, for example, allocate the modulation wheel to control a secondary sound (tone, pitch or harmonics) in a drum Preset such as the 'Rosewood African' drum, thereby recreating a 'talking drum' where the player imitates the' tonal quality of the human voice. Or, quite simply, you could use the facility to adjust parameters like release, crossfade, attack and LFO.
A Proteus 'sound set' consists of 4MB of sample data, plus additional instrument data in ROM. Any Proteus can hold one or two complete sound sets. The Pop/Rock sound set (#0) is found in the basic Proteus 1, the Proteus 2 contains sets #1 and #2, an expanded Proteus 1 adds sets #3 to #0, and the Proteus 3 contains sound set #4. What this all means is that, whilst it is possible to transfer Presets (via MIDI) from one Proteus to another, they will only sound the same on the second (receiving) unit if it has the appropriate sound set(s). There are a handful of Presets that are common to both the Proteus 2 and 3, notably 'French Horn', 'Trumpet' and 'Harp', and both units also have a number of 'ersatz' presets which are recreated using the 'wrong' instruments, not sampled. Proteus 2 has Presets such as 'Koto', 'Cimbalon', 'Asian Reed' and 'Gamelan Percussion', whilst Proteus 3 offers 'Clarinet', 'Electric Piano' and 'Timpani'. The latter is a rather poor imitation of the real thing, when compared to the sample in the Orchestral sound set.
Once I had familiarised myself with the Proteus 3, I took a quick inventory of sounds to see if there were any instruments missing that I felt should have been included. Most obviously, there was no bell tree, but this does turn up on the list of the extra XR presets. Other tempting XR 'bonus' presets that I was unable to try were 'Madras Moods', 'Zulu Drums' and 'Rainforest'. One area that Proteus 3 does not attempt to cover is that of choral or voice samples — this is a shame, as some Gregorian chants or Bulgarian choirs would have been very interesting.
A number of additions have been made to the Proteus 3 MIDI specification, relative to earlier Protei, and I assume these will also apply to subsequent releases of earlier Proteus models. MIDI commands have now been added to identify sound sets, and enable the loading of the Instrument list and Preset names as an array of ASCII strings. Also, Proteus 3 can now receive MIDI Tuning Standard dumps in addition to its own SysEx tuning table dumps.
Existing Emax and Emulator owners already have access to many of the sounds found in Proteus 3 through the extensive Emu sound library. (In their original library form, incidentally, many of these sounds use up to 8MB of memory, so it is amazing that Emu have managed to cram so many into the Proteus 3's 4MB.) Of course, similar ethnic percussion and instrumentation can be found in other manufacturers' sound libraries and on sample CDs, but whilst the range of sounds open to the samplist may be wider, the flexibility and sheer quality of the Proteus, and its particular suitability as a no-fuss multi-timbral sound source alongside a sequencer, are unquestionable and remain among its key selling points. It would be all too easy for sceptics to disregard 'world' sounds as mere novelty items, but that would be to overlook the underlying fact that many of these instruments have been influential in creating the mainstay of what we consider today as traditional Western instruments. Instruments of the shawm family can trace their history back to ancient civilizations; examples that feature in the Proteus 3 are the mizmar and Indian shanai, both forerunners of the modern oboe. The idea of a drum set that uses pitched percussion is also believed to originate in medieval India.
The Proteus 3, like its orchestral predecessor, will be welcomed with open arms by those Involved in music for film, video, commercials and jingles. At the same time it should provide new inspiration for the adventurous everyday musician who is looking to break the mould and attempting to avoid those inevitable musical cliches.
As an interesting footnote to this review, a portion of proceeds from each Proteus 3 World sold is being donated to the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts & Dance) Foundation, which underlines the manufacturer's consideration for the importance of this musical source.
Proteus 1 renewed SOS November '89
Proteus 2 reviewed SOS November '90
Proteus 3 World £565 inc VAT.
Emu Systems, (Contact Details).
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Review by Nigel Humberstone
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