It is a combination of factors that has led to the sampler becoming a largely rackmount format. Firstly, it is increasingly used for tasks which do not require triggering from a conventional keyboard (drum loops, flying in vocals or sound effects). Secondly, a sampler is rarely the first MIDI device musicians purchase, so the chances are that they already have a keyboard to play it from.
In pre-MIDI days, an integral keyboard was the only way for a sampler to trigger different pitches polyphonically. Indeed, the Emulator I, the first pure sampler, would probably not have enjoyed the success it did, had it been a rack module. The rackmounted AMS devices of the early '80s had a marked effect on the industry, but only as studio tools. The keyboard put sampling at the disposal of the musician rather than the engineer.
Now, in the second half of the '90s, the majority of samplers are being sold as production devices. With the advent of PCM-based synthesis, most keyboard players are going for the pre-fabricated, pre-shrunk, sample playback keyboard. The trend started with the Roland D50 and Korg M1, and has since been refined into the Roland XP50s and Korg Trinitys of today. The sounds can be changed instantly, there are hundreds of them, and they are all ready, set up for best response. The sampler has found it hard to compete with these huge, instantly-available sound palettes.
Samplers, although still a major segment of the market, are mainly used in music production, for playing back drum loops, lifting vocal segments and flying in anything, from sound effects and hits to entire choruses. Why is this? One of the reasons, of course, must be the advent of dance music production, whose raison d'etre is the quick 'steal' of a loop, lick or vocal snippet. But that's not all. The sampler has also begun to look a bit inefficient compared to a PCM-based synth. When authentic piano strings and brass sounds could only be had from a sampler, musicians would put up with vulnerable floppy disks, long load times, obtuse operating systems and so on. But now that these sounds issue from the cheapest, PCM-based portable keyboards, the sampler seems like a very clumsy device, especially for live use. Forty seconds to load a floppy may be nothing in the studio to get a really great sound into a machine, but on stage, it can seem like an eternity (and that's if you don't drop the floppy onto the darkened floor, or in your beer as you grope for the drive). Even if you have a hard drive in your sampler, finding the sound you want and selecting it to load can be a nightmare -- and all the time, on most samplers, your keyboard is probably 'dead'.
It is these problems which Emu have decided to address with the E4K. As their starting point, they have taken the EIV, probably the most powerful sampler ever made. Those of you who read my review of it just over a year ago will remember my waxing lyrical over its incredible sound replay and modification capabilities. With 128-note polyphony and up to 128Mb of sample RAM, it can certainly handle more sample playback than any other sampler, and also boasts more DSP algorithms and filtering capability than any of its rivals.
In the space available here, it isn't possible to cover those features of the E4K which it shares with its rack counterpart. At six pages long, the EIV piece was the longest review I have ever written, and yet I still had the impression of not having covered everything properly. We will have to confine ourselves here to those aspects where the E4K differs from the module from which it is derived. Those who wish to read about the DSP algorithms in depth, or assess the almost infinite modulation capabilities, will have to dig out SOS April 1995.
Let us briefly cover the areas where the spec of the E4K is reduced from that of the EIV module. The first of these is that the base model (which is the one I had for the review) has 64 voices instead of 128. This is fair enough, as the E4K is a fair bit cheaper, but it's also more appropriate for a 'live' keyboard, where even the most dextrous of players would have trouble triggering 64 notes at once, even if using three or four layers of sound. Those planning to make maximum use of the on-board sequencer need not fret however, as an additional 64 voices can be added on an optional card, taking it back up to the EIV's polyphony count. Talking of expansion, there is only one plate on the back panel for future expansion options. Emu apparently have some on the drawing board, but nothing is certain (let alone released) yet.
Instead of the XLR-based AES/EBU digital interface, the E4K goes for the much more sensible co-axial connectors of S/PDIF, the interface on the more sensibly-priced DAT machines and most other mid-price digital equipment. I have long opposed the neurotic over-engineering of connectors, which leads to costly monstrosities like the XLR connector and the AES/EBU digital protocol. Apart from some obscure sub-codes that nobody can even remember, let alone ever use, AES/EBU is so similar to S/PDIF that a co-axial to XLR cable with a bit of resistance in it allows one to be plugged into the other -- I've been doing it for years with no problems. While we are on the subject, the XLR connectors for the main analogue stereo ins and outs have also gone, leaving the perfectly adequate quarter-inch jacks. I, for one, will not miss the XLRs. It is worth noting that the stereo jack connectors for the inputs and outputs are still electrically balanced if you use stereo jack plugs, so that should shut up any whingeing engineers. Ordinary mortals can use mono jacks for perfectly acceptable sound quality.
I would also like to point out (as I do in every Emu review I write) the excellent arrangement on the stereo sub-mix sockets, as most Emu owners still seem blithely unaware of the unique possibilities they offer. Inserting a mono jack all the way into any of the six sub outputs (arranged as three stereo pairs) gives you the normal sub output. But push a jack halfway into these sockets (or use a stereo jack with the ring wired separately, if you're that fussy) and you have an effect return input which is summed passively to the main outputs (ie. it works even when the E4K is switched off). The number of times this unique Emu feature has saved my bacon when I am running out of mixer channels is beyond number!
Having covered the rather short list of EIV features missing from the E4K spec, we can now get onto the far more interesting side: the improvements it offers over the module. The most obvious addition, of course, is the appearance of a 76-note weighted keyboard. This is of the synth-weighted type rather than the full wooden-weighted, and feels very nice across a broad range of sounds. Unless you are a real purist, I think the halfway house of a weighted plastic keyboard is going to be best for the wide range of timbres you might well be playing from this machine. The red velvet strip along the back of the keys, and the gold Emulator legend above them (see picture elsewhere in this article) are an amusing touch, and might even bring some of the Steinway brigade back on board.
The other major addition is a dual real-time effects processor. The algorithms are clearly descendants of those in the Proteus MPS, but Emu assure me that they have been redesigned to take advantage of the new 18-bit signal path. I always felt the MPS to be an underrated machine, and the effects processor was one of the main reasons. The only effects I have ever heard which sound better to me are those from Lexicon. The number and range in the E4K has been increased to no fewer than 72 different algorithms across the two processors, but the quality has not been compromised at all. They sound clean and sparkling, with enough character to add a bit of class to the whole sound, but not so coloured as to render the source samples unrecognisable.
Another nice touch for the live performer is the curiously named 'Thumby' button. Adjacent to the Pitch and Mod wheels, it is described in the manual as 'a footswitch for your hand'. I can't find a better way of putting it myself: completely programmable (like all the E4K's controllers), it allows you to switch rotary speakers on and off, activate momentary effects and other useful things, without having to re-route the Mod Wheel, and thereby losing its main function.
The other main feature which would probably be used live is the sequencer. It's the sort of cut-down device that gets called 'a useful sketchpad', its main virtue being that it loads and plays MIDI files from PC-format disks. Now that you can save files to PC-formatted floppy disks on Macs as well as Ataris, everyone can take their sequences out on a gig without having to hump their computer around.
More than anything, a sampler aimed at live use needs a fast way to locate and load the sounds you want, and not leave you standing there like a lemon, with a dead keyboard, and the display flashing something helpful like 'This may take a while'. Until now, Ensoniq were really the only company to have tackled this problem, with their 'Play While Load' feature, separate sound location buttons and well-edited sounds, which loaded quickly and didn't take up too much room in RAM.
Well, now Emu have gone one better -- or should that be three better? Firstly, the 150Mb of sounds that come on the internal hard drive (thoughtfully duplicated on a CD-ROM, in case of accidents) all seem to load incredibly fast. This is due to a combination of a very fast hard drive and judiciously-edited sounds. The 2.6Mb 'Grand Piano 88' preset, for example, took just five seconds to load, and sounded very impressive (perhaps a little CP80-ish in the lower middle register, but the slightly larger Steinway and Bösendorfer presets fared much better). Even the 3.6Mb Orchestra only took eight seconds, complete with its demo sequence -- the first time I've heard a four-to-the-floor bass drum in an orchestra piece, but it seemed to work!
Secondly, you can now choose to load just a preset and its associated samples. If you know the preset that you want (and let's hope that by the time you get on stage you do), this saves loading samples that you're not going to need. Best of all, when you press load, you are offered the choice of replacing the sounds in memory, or merging the new sounds with the old. If you select the second option, you discover that you can continue to play whichever sound you had selected, while the new one loads. However, it's still fairly tricky getting from one sound to the next in this fashion. You still have to move the cursor to the preset number, and then scroll to switch sounds. Doing this between numbers, or live, would be tricky. But fear not, help is at hand...
In response to the above problem, Emu have come up with the SoundSprint concept. It removes the need for the Replace/Merge decision each time you want to load a new preset. Instead, it automatically keeps the current preset, and keeps it active while the new one loads (so the keyboard does not go dead during loading). In this way, you can initiate sample loading with a single button push, as opposed to the numerous pushes most samplers require. SoundSprint will continue to load any new presets selected until it runs out of memory, when it erases the older presets first, to make room for the new ones (on the grounds that you are more likely to need recent presets than old ones). Of course, if you keep loading large presets, you will not be able to keep playing an old preset while loading a new one, because there won't be enough room. Still, that's better than the infuriating feeling resulting from being told there is not enough room, and having to go through the whole preset selection process again, and hitting 'replace' this time!
Another nice feature of SoundSprint is that it will not overwrite any sounds which were loaded in the conventional manner. Also, it uses only presets 990 to 999. This means you can load the banks or presets you need all the time into the lower preset numbers, and then go into 'Sprint' mode to get around the less-regularly needed sounds. This removes the chore of having to decide, every time you load a new sound, whether to replace everything in memory, or nothing. Of course, if you load too much normally before you go into Sprint mode, then you will have little or no room left, and run into 'memory full' messages. You don't get something for nothing. There is still no escaping the adage, 'however much you spend on a sampler, be prepared to spend that much again on memory, to make the most of it'. Whilst you may not need to spend another three grand on memory for the E4K (although you easily could, if you plan to go up to 128Mb), SoundSprint works much better with larger amounts of memory than the 4Mb which comes as standard. If you never want to see a memory full message, plan to put at least another 16Mb in, and only half-fill that with 'permanent' presets before going into Sprint mode.
SoundSprint has one final feature, which is the best of the lot for musicians playing fixed sets, or working with a largish palette of sounds they need regularly. It allows you to mark 10 sets of 10 presets for quick loading. Referred to as Bookmarks, the 10 sounds can be loaded with a single button press, and the set of 10 sounds changed with two button presses. If you have to prepare a whole set of fixed songs, this facility would be worth its weight in gold, as you can simply bookmark the presets in the order that you need them, and then call them up sequentially. Alternatively, bookmark your favourite presets in groups of sound types (keys, strings, winds, etc) for quick recall in impromptu situations where you need fast access to staple sounds.
The E4K also has computer-style Search functions, with search strings and so on, as part of its Disk Utilities, but these will be more use in a studio setup where you are using CD-ROM libraries than on stage. I can't see keyboard players entering the name of the sound they need live, even if they have got the optional PC-AT keyboard attached. However, for a busy session player, faced with a producer shouting "How long is this going to take?", this facility would be invaluable. Let's face it, performance does not exclusively mean 'on stage'.
This review deliberately ignores hundreds of wonderful things about the E4K, simply because I have already covered them at great length in the original EIV review. If you haven't read that, then take it from me that the E4K is the most versatile sampler on the market today and one of the two best-sounding. The Roland S760 is the other, although it is much more limited in its DSP functionality. If you have enough in your sampling budget, you shouldn't think about buying anything other than an E4K.
Keyboard-based samplers have a chequered history: the Akai S1000K disappeared almost without trace, despite being the keyboard version of perhaps the most successful sampler of all time. Unlike the S1000K, however, the EIV builds intelligently on the strengths of its predecessor, and may therefore escape the same fate. Emu have actually given a lot of thought to what an ergonomic nightmare a sampler can be in a live situation, and addessed those problems logically and with imagination. They have taken the EIV, the most powerful sampler on the market, and adapted it fairly radically for the keyboard performer. As a result, for the first time in a long while, the term 'musical instrument' is more appropriate to a sampler than 'production device'. I just hope there are still some real keyboard players left out there to appreciate what Emu have done for them!
E4K REAL-TIME EFFECTS
Hall 1 & 2
3 Tap Pan
Bright Hall Pan
Concert 10 Pan
Large Concert Pan
DelayVerb 4-5 Pan
Dual Tap 1/3
Dual Tap 1/4
Best-ever live sample loading facilities.
Good keyboard action and live performance controls.
Based on the market's most powerful sampler.
MIDI File-compatible sequencer.
Expandable to 128 voices and 128Mb RAM.
Less expansion slots than EIV module.
Less voices as standard than EIV.
If you want a top-end sampler for live use, the E4K is it.
For a player, it's also better value than the EIV rack, especially
if you don't need all 128 voices.
£ Emu E4K 64-voice £3499; 128-voice £4250; 64-voice upgrade £830. Prices include VAT.
A Emu Systems, Suite 6, Adam Ferguson House, Eskmills Industrial Park, Musselburgh, EH21 7PG.
T 0131 653 6556.
F 0131 665 0473.