Emu Audio Production Studio

PCI Soundcard System

Published in SOS January 1999
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Reviews : Computer Recording System

EMU AUDIO PRODUCTION STUDIO PCI SOUNDCARD SYSTEM

Emu's APS system takes the company into soundcard territory, but with a comprehensive spec that even includes studio-quality mic amps. Martin Walker tries out this all-in-one experience.

It seems that hardly a month goes by without another soundcard being launched, but there are so many permutations of interesting features that each new model seems to manage to find its own niche in the marketplace. The Emu Audio Production Studio comes from a company that is renowned for its sampling expertise, so, as you might expect, this is the system's main raison d'être. At the centre of its spec lies a 64-voice, 32-channel multitimbral synth/sampler that uses up to 32Mb of your PC system RAM to store samples in SoundFont format. In addition, there's a mini-mixer to deal with the four analogue input channels, four digital input channels, and 16 high-quality EQ and effect blocks which can be patched in any combination to the inputs, sampler, and to a single stereo Wave driver when replaying hard disk audio. There's a single stereo analogue output and two S/PDIF outputs.

The package comes in two main parts. The E-Card is a soundcard with a single pair of analogue inputs and outputs, plus an S/PDIF input and output and a single MIDI I/O connector. To supplement this, the E-Drive fits into a spare 5.25-inch drive bay (just like a CD-ROM drive), and provides a further pair of S/PDIF sockets, a headphone output with level control and an additional two analogue inputs. Unusually, these are designed for use with microphones; they provide phantom power, and each has a separate front-panel switch to add a 20dB pad for line-level use, and its own level control. All analogue inputs and outputs (both on the E-Card and E-Drive) are on balanced quarter-inch jack sockets, and Emu claim that the preamps are of studio quality.

EMU APS £449
pros
Excellent audio quality.
Sampler with 64-voice polyphony.
Wide range of quality effects.
Standard quarter-inch balanced jacks on all analogue inputs and outputs.
cons
Effects cannot be used on individual hard disk audio tracks at present.
Fixed 48kHz sampling rate on digital outputs.
Your PC may realistically need more than 64Mb of system RAM.
User interface graphics need a cosmetic overhaul with larger controls.
summary
The Emu APS is a high quality 64-voice sampler with effects that also allows stereo hard disk recording. It should appeal to people who mainly use samples, and who want an all-in-one solution.

Installation

The E-Card is a typical 7-inch-long PCI soundcard, but the MIDI I/O is provided on a separate backplate. The system thus takes up two card slot positions in total, but few people will grumble, since this does allow the card backplate to accommodate quarter-inch jack sockets, rather than the far less robust and reliable 3.5mm ones used by many other manufacturers. The E-Drive mic inputs can each be adjusted using jumpers to suit cheap SoundBlaster-compatible powered or unpowered mics (unbalanced), or more professional dynamic or condenser types. In this configuration, the mic inputs are balanced and 12V phantom power can also be selected. While this is much lower than the standard 48V, it will still be perfectly adequate for many mics.

There's a bit of internal pre-wiring to do: the MIDI I/O backplate connects to the soundcard via a ribbon cable, and another one connects the card and the E-Drive. Finally, a screened headphone cable connects the card and E-Drive. After the card has been inserted in a suitable expansion slot, the new hardware is detected during the reboot and the driver software installed in the normal way. The Emu hardware needs only a single IRQ and base address, and I was up and running in a couple of minutes. The current drivers are standard Windows MME-compatible, although ASIO drivers are already at Beta stage and should become available early next year -- as should Mac drivers.

Software

With the drivers in place and working, I installed the software. The APS comes complete with the E-Control Mixer, SoundFont Bank Manager, the Vienna font editor (already familiar to SoundBlaster owners everywhere), a special version of Cakewalk Express Gold, and a full version of Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge XP (the slimline version of Sound Forge 4). However, a new software bundle is being put together for the European market, including Cubasis AV and Wavelab 1.6.

The SoundFont Bank Manager is a more sophisticated version of the AWE Control utility, and allows you to load and audition multiple banks of sounds. Unlike the ISA-based SoundBlaster cards, which either used SIMM or proprietary onboard memory to store sounds, the Emu APS and the new SoundBlaster Live! (see 'The Creative Connection' box) use up to 32Mb of system RAM. Although this means that the user can avoid having to buy RAM devoted to the soundcard, more than 64Mb of computer RAM may be needed to use the APS to the full and run a modern MIDI + Audio sequencer as well; Emu recommend a minimum of a 200MHz processor and 64Mb of RAM. Apparently the APS will run with a 166MHz processor and 24Mb of RAM, but with a reduced number of audio tracks and maximum SoundFont memory. If you want to run many tracks of hard disk audio as well as the sampler, a Pentium II and 128Mb of RAM would be sensible.

The Emu user interfaces have a pleasing metallic sculpted appearance that even extends to the drop-down menus (the option of using a standard high-contrast Windows colour scheme for these would make them easier to read). Both the Bank Manager and E-Control Mixer are fairly easy to use, but could do with some tweaks in the graphics department. The rotary knobs are tiny, as are the various switches, and most could be twice as large without increasing the size of any of the panels. This would allow their current position, value or status to be seen far more easily -- on my 17-inch monitor I had to lean forward and squint to read many of them. In addition, the controls for Aux Buss Send on the mixer (see later) seem to be simply a single-pixel-high horizontal line, and mouse-pointing needs to be pretty accurate to hit the correct area to operate them.

Synth & Sampler Playback

Since the Creative Labs AWE64 Gold is widely used by musicians (despite its full duplex limitations), I loaded an identical SoundFont into both this and the Emu APS, and then compared their analogue outputs. As you might expect, there was no contest, despite them both having Emu chips on board: the APS sounded clean and deathly quiet by comparison, with background noise which I would say was around 15dB or so less than the AWE64 Gold. I then connected the S/PDIF output from the AWE64 Gold into an S/PDIF input of the APS, and listened to both cards again from the Emu APS analogue output. Even here the APS provided a cleaner sound, particularly at the end of fades, where the AWE64 Gold seemed to have fewer bits available, giving a buzzy end to piano notes, for instance. I could reliably tell them apart every time -- the APS had more crispness and separation, which proves that the synth audio quality has been significantly improved even at the digital level.

  Proteus SoundFonts  
  Although a wide variety of SoundFonts is supplied with the APS, many more are available from a variety of developers. However, Emu will certainly have boosted their sales figures by converting the entire contents of several of their Proteus-series ROM playback modules to SoundFont format. These sounds, despite their 4Mb ROM size (and some later 8Mb versions), were almost uniformly excellent, and these Proteus modules still have lots of devotees today. Many musicians will be interested in this Module Mania series, which currently includes sounds from the first three Proteus modules (Pop/Rock, Orchestral, and World), along with the Vintage Keys and Planet Phatt.

Emu sent me the three Proteus CD-ROMs to audition, and I can report that the sounds seem identical to the original modules, although I did notice one clicky loop that had slipped through the net. At £25 each, or £80 for the set of five, they are excellent value for money. However, it would be a great boost to the APS bundle to include a utility that reads and converts sample CD-ROMs in both Emu and Akai formats, similar to the one supplied with the Nemesys Gigasampler (reviewed last month).

 

Emu provide a total of 350Mb of SoundFonts on the CD-ROM, including a wide variety of individual instruments; Multi Banks (collections of instruments to suit different styles of music including Orchestral, Techno, and World); a selection of Grooves and Beats; a range of Sound Effects; and various demo fonts, complete with MIDI music files. The smallest sound effects start at 19K, and the largest demo SoundFont is 28Mb. Multiple banks can be loaded in (subject to the 32Mb RAM limit) and then accessed using MIDI Bank commands. Emu have also extended the SoundFont standard to version 2.1, which allows you to add up to four MIDI controllers to a preset sound.

Many musicians fill their samplers with a small selection of specially chosen samples, to use alongside MIDI modules that provide a wide variety of bread-and-butter sounds to go with them. Using a sampler alone can sometimes feel like working without a safety net. However, Emu have considerable expertise in creating quality General MIDI soundsets, and the new 2Mb and 8Mb GM SoundFonts provided give you the comfort of a familiar set of 'MIDI' sounds when required. If you have upgraded from a standard SoundBlaster card, and have used any of its basic 1Mb ROM sample set, Emu provide the same bank as a CD-ROM file.

Hard Disk Audio Recording

The four analogue inputs (along with the two stereo digital inputs) can be mixed together, and Emu obviously intend this facility to replace a small external mixer. However, although you can mix up to eight mono input signals in total (four analogue and four digital), only a single mixed mono or stereo output from the mixer can be recorded to hard disk. It's not possible to simultaneously record from several inputs onto several digital tracks, due to the single MME input and output drivers.

Having two of the analogue inputs on the E-Drive makes it easy to plug signals in without rooting about at the back of the PC. The system's manual shows sample routings with a guitar and mic connected, but this is perhaps a little optimistic. However good the 'studio-quality' preamps, most guitarists are plagued by interference when they move within several feet of a computer monitor, and the amount of acoustic noise emitted by most computer cooling fans and hard drives will make it almost impossible to record anything useful with a mic unless you are at least 10 feet away!

Having said this, the background noise of all of the inputs was commendably low. It varied somewhat depending on the position of the gain controls, but A-D background noise (measured using Sound Forge) was -93dB RMS. Strangely, however, noise levels varied depending on the sample rate chosen. Files recorded at 48kHz always had the lowest noise figures, but both digital and analogue inputs recorded at 44.1kHz had a small amount of DC offset. Once this had been removed, background noise with a 44.1kHz sampling frequency was -91dB RMS for digital, and -88dB RMS for analogue. I suspect that this is due to the internal sample-rate converters (see 'Tech Talk' box). However, these figures are all good, and would further improve by several dBs when A-weighted. Frankly, since using the 44.1kHz rate only yields 9% or so extra hard drive space, you might be better off sticking to a 48kHz sampling rate when recording (if your applications support this), for marginally better audio quality.

Mixing

The user-configurable mixer utility allows you to configure, balance and add effects to the various signals available. Input strips (on the left) come in various types, but each has a channel fader with position readout, rotary Pan control (again with a readout of current value), as well as Mute and Solo buttons. There are two tiny Aux Buss send controls and an Insert point (see later for details on these two). Multiple faders can also be ganged by clicking on the appropriate Link icons. Mouse-clicking on any rotary control produces a horizontal or vertical floating fader for more precise control, and you can also increment or decrement the current value directly if desired (although this can be painfully slow).

  The Creative Connection  
  Most people will already know that Emu Systems are now a subsidiary of Creative Labs, and that Emu-designed chips have been used on Creative's SoundBlaster range for some years. In fact, Creative Labs' new SB Live! PCI soundcard also features an identical EMU10K1 effects chip to that used in the Emu APS, but there is no truth in the rumour that the two cards are the same.

The SB Live! certainly improves on the AWE64 Gold, with proper full-duplex operation, a claimed 6dB drop in background noise, 64 hardware voices (the AWE64 only had 32, with the additional 32 being created using processor-draining software synthesis), and an S/PDIF input as well as an S/PDIF output. If you're only interested in the 64-voice sampler, the SoundBlaster Live! is a bargain at its street price of £120, although its audio spec is not quite in the same league as the Emu APS.

The SB Live! and Emu APS circuit boards look quite different, and the APS has better quality converters -- the A-D is a Crystal CS5335 20-bit type (the same as is used in the Event Gina), and the D-A is a Crystal CS4329. Wading through both sets of specs reveals that the APS seems to have 3 or 4dB of extra dynamic range, less distortion, and a slightly flatter frequency response. In addition, the E-Drive gives the APS system double the number of S/PDIF inputs, S/PDIF outputs, and analogue inputs, along with mic preamps, and a headphone amplifier. Creative Labs are initially handling the support for the Emu APS, but the Emu UK Sales office (01753 630808) will help any musician needing more technical information and advice.

 
The following input strips are available:

  • Wave: the single stereo output from the 'APS Wave Out' driver.
  • MIDI: the combined output from all 32 MIDI channels of the synth/sampler engine.
  • Mono Analogue input: four are available (A1, A2, A3, and A4 -- one from each of the input sockets).
  • Stereo Digital input: there are two of these -- one from each of the S/PDIF inputs.

In addition, there are five potential extra channels for MIDI submixes. Each of these carries the MIDI output from one of the 32 MIDI channels so that effects can be added individually. Of course, you can add a little blanket reverb and chorus on the normal MIDI input strip as well.

The Master Output strip has stereo master faders and level meters at the bottom, and a useful selection of mixer tool icons in the centre, which duplicate menu functions such as adding and removing input strips and showing the MIDI submixing window. For recording, the Disk Record rotary control sets the level for hard disk recording, and you can either record the combined mix (from every input strip), or select the combined output from any one of the four Aux busses. The Aux busses themselves can also be individually routed to either the E-Card analogue Out or one of the two S/PDIF digital Outs (to add external hardware effects, for instance).

Effects

The effect routings are a little confusing at first, but versatile. There are 16 fixed blocks in all. The first seven on the list (Reverb, Chorus, Flanger, Echo-delay, Auto-Wah, Pitch-Shifter, and Distortion) can be selected for any of the four global Aux Buss effects, or as individual channel Insert effects. The other nine effects comprise Compressor, four identical shelving EQ blocks (low-pass or high-pass, providing +/-15dB control at any frequency between 80Hz and 16kHz), and four identical Parametric EQ blocks (with similar frequency and gain to the shelving type, but with an additional Bandwidth control calibrated between one and 36 semitones).

Each input strip has two variable post-fader Aux Buss Send controls, and these can be routed to any of the four global effects chosen for the Master Output Strip, or to other hardware outputs, as previously described. In addition, each input strip has an insert point (a pop-up editing window appears when you click on this), and any combination of remaining effects from the 16 can be added in any order to the chain. Some of the effects in the insert pop-up strip also have tiny Wet/Dry Mix controls. Each block can only be used once, but this method of allocation is wonderful for creating off-the-wall insert chains.

  Tech Talk  
  Using your PC's system RAM is certainly cheaper than buying dedicated sampler RAM, but at the moment 32Mb of RAM only costs about £30, and shunting samples from RAM to soundcard in real time will have an impact on CPU overhead and the PCI buss when compared to an integrated design. Emu claim that running all 64 voices and 16 effects will take "less than 10 percent" of your CPU bandwidth (they don't state the speed of the processor), but your MIDI + Audio sequencer is likely to manage fewer tracks when running lots of samples as well.

Emu's new EMU10K1 Audio Processing Engine uses 32-bit internal processing which is fixed at a 48kHz sampling frequency. Apparently the reasons for this include the DVD standard, and that the AC97 Codec (Coding Decoding) standard is also 48kHz: to add 44.1kHz operation while maintaining low levels of jitter would apparently require an additional crystal and clock circuitry. You can still choose various sampling rates for hard disk recording, but incoming digital audio will be automatically converted from 44.1 to 48kHz using a real-time sample-rate converter. An advantage of this approach is that you can mix together signals of differing sampling rates. The only disadvantage seems to be that the digital outputs have a fixed frequency of 48kHz.

 

The effects themselves are excellent. The Reverb can be varied from huge, smooth halls to galloping granular delay clusters, through all the usual rooms and tiled chambers. A wide variety of sounds can be coaxed from the Chorus, and the Echo Delay provides left and right delays of up to two seconds, with Pan and Feedback. Distortion has an Edge control for overload, followed by a versatile EQ, and the Compressor also has a wide range of controls. Every effect has a set of presets, and you can load and save your own. Both the shelving and parametric EQs sound good, although you may need to chain a couple together for many EQ duties. There are no presets for EQ, but you can save a snapshot of the entire mixer at any time, for recall later.

  Brief Specification  
  SYSTEM:
Synth/Sampler: 64-voice polyphonic, 32-channel multitimbral, using up to 32Mb of PC system RAM.
MIDI: 16 channels APS Synth A, 16 channels APS Synth B, 16 channels APS MIDI External Out.
Hard Disk Audio Sampling Rates: 11, 22, 44.1 or 48kHz (16-bit or 8-bit).
THD: 0.002% (unweighted).
Dynamic Range: A-D + D-A typically 95dBA, D-A typically 98dBA.
Frequency response (A-D): 20Hz-20kHz, +0/-0.005dB.

ANALOGUE I/O:
A-D Converters: Crystal 20-bit 128x oversampling.
D-A Converters: Crystal 20-bit 128x oversampling.
E-Card Line Inputs: 2, balanced/unbalanced, nominal level –10dBV.
E-Drive Mic Inputs: 2, balanced/unbalanced; max gain 58dB; max level (with 20dB pad in) 22dBV; 12V phantom power (switched internally using jumpers).
E-Card Line Outputs: 2, balanced/unbalanced, nominal level –10dBV; headphone.

DIGITAL I/O:
Inputs: 2 (1 on E-Card, 1 on E-Drive) co-axial stereo digital S/PDIF, with asynchronous sample rate converter for signals between 28 and 53kHz.
Outputs: 2 (1 on E-Card, 1 on E-Drive) co-axial stereo digital S/PDIF, fixed at 48kHz, 20-bit.

EFFECTS:
Global or Insert Effects: Reverb, Chorus, Flanger, Echo-delay, Auto-Wah, Pitch-Shifter, Distortion
Insert Effects: Compressor, Shelving EQ, Parametric EQ.

 

Although these effects can be applied to individual inputs, and on up to five individual MIDI channels from the sampler, they can only be applied to the overall stereo audio signal from a MIDI + Audio sequencer. They do not appear as DirectShow plug-ins inside other applications (like those of the Lexicon Studio, for instance), and the E-Card driver doesn't provide multiple audio channels (like the Yamaha SW1000XG, for instance) so that you can route individual audio channels from a MIDI + Audio sequencer through the effects.

Currently, the only way to add the APS effects to an individual audio channel inside your sequencer is to record it with effects in the first place. Alternatively, you could mute all but that track during playback and then re-record the track through the APS mixer and effects, by re-routing the Aux buss returns to any of the hardware inputs.

Summary

Overall, Emu's APS is a product with a unique set of features, but the company makes it clear that this is primarily a high-quality stereo sampler card with built-in effects. Currently you cannot add these effects to individual tracks inside a sequencer in real time, although this should change in the future (when the ASIO drivers arrive). For this reason, it's not initially suitable for those running a MIDI + Audio sequencer who simply want to add Emu hardware effects to take the pressure off their PC processor. Also, although there are up to eight inputs available, only a single mixed mono or stereo signal can currently be recorded to hard disk at any time. This is great if you intend to record and mix simultaneously, but it prevents simultaneous multitrack recording.

The Emu Audio Production Studio is essentially a complete system based around a 64-voice sampler. It sounds excellent, especially when combined with the wide range of quality effects, and its digital mixing could replace a small external stereo desk. If your music is mainly sample-based, it may prove ideal.

 information
Emu Audio Production Studio £449; Module Mania CD-ROM series £25 each, or all five for £80. Prices include VAT.
UK Sales Office +44 (0)1753 630808.
+44 (0)1753 652040.
www.emu.com

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