The April issue of SOS has come around again, so it must be E4 review time once more. Yes, when I looked back at my original EIV sampler review, it was in the April '95 issue, and my E4K keyboard piece was exactly one year later, in April '96. So what do we have to look at in the way of new E4s this year? Fortunately, Emu have recently introduced a best-ever model, the E4X Turbo, as well as an increased upgradeability across the E4/e64 sampler range, so there's plenty to talk about.
When I reviewed the Emulator e64 in July '95's SOS, I was absolutely delighted to find that it shared the EOS operating system and many of the hardware features of the EIV, which I'd looked at some three months previously. Indeed, as I said, it was more than half an EIV for about half the price. The only drawback was that if, on budget grounds, you made the decision to go for the e64, you couldn't decide later to expand it to the full EIV specification. If you'd thought, for example, that 64 voices or a maximum of 64Mb of RAM would be enough, when you inevitably discovered that it wasn't (Wiffen's first rule of sampling: "You never have enough voices or memory"), there was nothing you could do about it.
Now all that has changed. Realising that their customers often cannot afford the sampler they want all in one go, Emu have introduced a new modularity into their professional sampler range, which means that you can now buy the sampler that fits your budget and expand it later to the one that fits your needs. The base model of this range is the e6400 at two and a half grand, with the same price and specification (64 voices, 4Mb RAM) as the now discontinued e64. At the other end of the scale is the E4X Turbo, the unit supplied for this review. But anybody who buys an e6400 can upgrade it to the full spec described here, except that the digital interface on the e6400 will be S/PDIF rather than AES/EBU.
This is possible because of the shared Emulator Operating System, currently at version 2.50F (but shortly due to be upgraded to 3.0 -- see sidebar), which simply looks to see what hardware is present at boot-up. Hardware expansion is achieved using plug-in cards and a hard drive mounting kit, allowing another 64 voices, DSP effects, an internal drive and other options to be added individually at any time. So clear is the division between the different hardware configurations and the software common to the whole range that Emu supply two manuals: a small specific hardware manual describing the physical components of the particular model you have, plus a much thicker EOS manual with all the software's operational procedures covered.
So what does the E4X Turbo spec comprise? In short, the original EIV's 128 voices and potential 128Mb of RAM (although it comes with 16Mb as standard), plus an integrated 18-bit effects board and a 1Gb hard drive loaded with sounds. The standard E4X -- X presumably standing for eXpandable -- comes with 64 voices, so that the entry price point can be lower, but the board that will expand the e6400 to 128 voices will do the same job for the E4X. This board is fitted as standard in the E4X Turbo.
The motherboard of the E4X is updated from that of the original EIV to accommodate this 64-voice expansion board, plus the new sound ROM and Flash ROM expansion boards. As a result, the eight SIMM slots for RAM in the original EIV have been replaced by just two 72-pin SIMM slots on the E4X motherboard, placed directly behind the two 72-pin ROM slots for the forthcoming Sound and Flash ROM expansion options. These two RAM slots still allow for expansion up to 128Mb using two 64Mb SIMMs, but do make gradual expansion less easy, as you can't just add a 16Mb SIMM every time you have a few spare quid! Things are further complicated by the E4X's exclusive taste for 4Mb, 16Mb or 64Mb SIMMs (it can't recognise 8Mb or 32Mb SIMMs, something that I found out the hard way when attempting to expand the first E4X I had my hands on -- one of the first in Europe, belonging to Gavin Rossdale of Bush), and the fact that if two SIMMs of different size are used the machine can only see half the memory on the smaller one. As a result, the possible memory combinations and the resulting amounts of available memory are so convoluted that the E4X hardware manual has to use a diagram (reproduced here) to illustrate the possible combinations of SIMMs and the amount of memory they give.
The E4X family still features digital in and out on the XLR-based AES/EBU interface that's supposedly the domain of professionals (the ESI32 supports the 'consumer' S/PDIF interface, as does the e6400 with an optional board). Fortunately, for those of us who can't afford DAT players or other devices with this interface (no DAT player under a grand has AES/EBU), there's a software switch which allows you to set the output signal to S/PDIF or AES format. This means that you just need a couple of XLR-to-co-ax cables to make the physical connection with your S/PDIF device (so much better than my usual bodge of putting a resistor in the cable to bring the level down) and there's even a diagram in the manual showing how to wire this. However, I can't help feeling that connectors in both formats (co-ax or optical for S/PDIF, as well as the XLRs) would make life a bit easier, especially as the opticals prevent any electrical problems between the chassis of the machines.
One of the other expansion card possibilities hinted at by Emu two years ago was a solution for those who want to send the separate outputs that the EIV, and now the E4X, offer to a digital desk such as the Yamaha 02R or Korg 168RC, without passing through unnecessary digital/analogue/digital conversions. This was the implementation of the ADAT optical interface, which allows eight channels of digital audio to be transferred on one optical cable. It would have made the EIV the first sampler on the market to support multi-channel digital interfacing. Unfortunately, this expansion board has never been shipped, despite the fact that a similar option has been available for Emu's Darwin hard disk recorder for some time. In the meantime, both Korg and Kurzweil have joined Alesis in supporting their multi-channel digital I/O on optical upgrades. But it's samplers that are often in most need of treatment on separate mixer channels, and, sadly, there's still no true sampler on the market that offers a multi-channel digital I/O.
I asked about this on the Emu stand at NAMM this year, particularly in view of the fact that the ADAT interface is available for the Darwin, and was told that the some of the necessary hardware to support this was included in the Darwin, so it was a much smaller job to design and build this interface. The ADAT interface for the E4 family is still very much on the cards, but it would take more time and money to implement. In other words, like so many things in our industry, it's just a question of resources and what will sell best. So if you think a multi-channel digital interface is a good idea, you'd better let Emu know before they put that design engineer onto something else.
When I looked at the e64 back in July '95, the filter count in EOS had just gone up from three different types to 17. Well, in 2.50F there are now 21, four more Z-plane filters having been added, and these are even more complex and unusual than the six morphing-style filters that I looked at back then. They are Dual EQ Morph, 2EQ+Lowpass Morph, 2EQ Morph+Expression and Peak/Shelf Morph, and their names are fairly revealing of what they do, combining the precision of EQ curves with the movement and vocal quality of formant filtering. Words to describe the precise effects these filters generate would tend to make the author sound like a hippy, so I just recommend that, if you get near any Emulator from e64(00) all the way up to E4X Turbo, you check all the filter types, because they give you a breadth of tonal control that's not available on anything else.
The same is true of the overall sound quality of the machine. I have waxed lyrical about this before, but working through the 1Gb of sounds that the E4X Turbo is supplied with, I was struck once again by the amazing combination of crystal-clear transparency from the sampling and the warmth and character provided by the filtering.
I checked the list of effects against what was on the E4K in April 1996 and discovered that, while Preset Effects A haven't changed, there are five new distortion effects hiding down at the tail-end of bank B. These are all ideal for turning almost any sample into an Eddie Van Halen sound-alike and I had great fun reverting to my heavy metal roots with these. As well as two straight distortions, there are Distorted Flange, Distorted Chorus and Distorted Double, which really let you make some filthy rackets. Great!
The ability to load other manufacturers' libraries from SCSI has now been increased to include both Roland S700 and Akai S1000/S1100 formats. I tried a fair few banks of both Roland and Akai sounds, and in general they worked very well, with different icons in the display instantly alerting you to the format the sounds were saved in. The E4X's sound quality is a tad harsher than the original Akai's (although this is quite effective on some sounds, making them cut through better) and sometimes the unit doesn't cope very well with stereo sounds -- it doesn't pan them, so you get a phased mono result -- but overall this is such a wonderful facility that it would be churlish to gripe about its not producing an absolutely identical sound on every sound bank.
I was halfway through checking this stuff out when I realised that I wasn't suffering from the CD-ROM compatibility problems that I'd had with the EIV and ESI32. Previously I'd only managed to get Apple CD-ROM drives to work, but here I was loading Akai and Roland sounds from the MediaVision ReNo that had refused to work with any of the previous Emulator review units.
I was so struck by this degree of SCSI excellence that I decided to go for the big one and try the E4X connected directly to the Mac, mainly to see whether sound CD-ROMs could be read directly from the Mac's CD-ROM drive. Blow me if this didn't work faultlessly first time, as did my new 1.6 version of Recycle. The reason that the Emulators work so well with Macs is the 'Mac on SCSI Buss' parameter. With this switched on, the Emulator goes into a mode of Uriah Heep-like subservience, where it demurs to the Mac's desire to be the big boss. Using other samplers on the same SCSI buss as a Mac can lead to all sorts of problems, as the Mac hates to share the SCSI buss with another intelligent device, so Emu have achieved a minor miracle in getting the Mac's CD-ROM readable from the Emulator without putting the Mac's nose out of joint. Never again will I suggest that SCSI stands for Sometimes Can't Share Information!
Overall, reviewing the E4X Turbo was another stage in the ongoing voyage of discovery of the new delights Emu have added in the past year, and I really don't mind if this becomes an annual event. If this year it's hardware expandability, new filter types, better operation with Mac and CD-ROMs plus distortion effects, who knows what they'll come up with next year -- the ADAT optical interface, perhaps?
This imminent upgrade to the Emulator Operating System will be supplied free of charge to everyone who's purchased an Emulator E4 or e6400 this year. EIV or e64 owners can add the majority of this functionality (everything that their hardware will support) for just £175.
48-track, full-function workstation/sequencer.
Advanced MIDI controller functions.
Support for computer-based preset editing and librarian functions.
Sound ROM support (where necessary slots are available).
Sample Flash memory support (where necessary slots are available).
The first Sound ROM board to be released is the 16Mb E-Synth, loaded with more than 700 new samples, turning any of the current Emulator series into a ROM synthesizer. The Flash ROM boards, available in 8Mb or 16Mb versions, will allow the user's own choice of samples to be stored permanently in memory.
The replacement for the e64 offers the same basic spec as the machine I reviewed back in July 1995, but there's one invaluable new feature: complete expandability to almost the same spec as the E4X Turbo under review here. The new e6400 motherboard gives the same double pair of SIMM and ROM expansion slots, plus the ability to add the extra 64-voice board, the 18-bit effects board and the second MIDI input board. This will help keep the resale value of the e6400 higher than its predecessor, as new owners can always expand it to suit their needs. The E4X comes with a hard drive as standard (which is an option on the e6400), and also has AES/EBU digital interface and an ASCII connection for a keyboard. You can acquire the ASCII connection for the e6400 on an optional board which also features an S/PDIF digital interface.
1Gb of excellent sounds on board.
New sample ROM and Flash ROM expansion capability.
New 3.0 Emulator Operating System included in the price.
Even more exciting morphing filters.
Better CD-ROM compatibility than ever before.
Exceptional operation in conjunction with the Macintosh.
RAM expansion much more convoluted than on original EIV.
No optical-format digital interface (S/PDIF or ADAT).
With a huge collection of excellent sounds on board, options
for an additional MIDI interface, eight extra outputs, a second
effects board and slots for the E-synth ROM sound boards and
Flash ROM, the E4X Turbo leaves very few professional needs
not catered for (except, perhaps, a multi-channel digital interface).
Add to this the expandability of the entire current Emulator range,
and not only has the best just got better, but now you can upgrade
the lesser models to the status of the best as well!
£ £4409 inc VAT (the e6400 starts at £2519 inc VAT).
A Emu UK, Suite 6, Adam Ferguson House, Eskmills Park, Musselburgh, East Lothian EH21 7PQ, UK.
T 0131 653 6556.
F 0131 665 0473.