Given the size of the Spanish‑speaking world, it makes good commercial sense to produce a Latin‑style sound module — but only if it's sufficiently authentic to sell to those in the know and sufficiently versatile to be attractive to other musicians simply looking for a bit of spice in their rack. CHRIS CARTER and JOE ORTIZ play with fire...
I was quite excited about getting my hands on the Carnaval, partly because I had a very enjoyable (though brief) encounter with an Emu Orbit last year. Coincidentally, the Carnaval arrived with the new Orbit V2 in tow, so I was able to make some interesting comparisons between the two. But I'm afraid, dear reader, that you'll have to wait for one of my esteemed colleagues to review the V2 in full next month. Meanwhile, back in Rio...
The Carnaval follows a slightly predictable Emu path, repainting and relaunching sound modules with new samples and 'Beat' patterns for specific musical styles. In the case of the Carnaval, it's Latin music. What next? The Hoe Down country and western module?
In common with the new Orbit V2 and the Planet Phatt [reviewed SOS June 1997] the Carnaval is a 32‑voice polyphonic, 16‑part multitimbral MIDI synth‑cum‑sample player. There are 640 performance presets (384 ROM and 256 RAM), 100 Beat loops, 28 user‑programmable Beat songs and 400 or so raw samples. In addition to this arsenal of sounds, there are all the usual Emu bells and whistles — 32 resonant filters, Z‑Plane filtering, X‑Factor Beat control, MIDI sync‑able LFOs and six assignable audio outputs — but, unfortunately, still no effects to speak of.
Navigating your way around the Carnaval is straightforward enough, though a little long‑winded. There are two cursor buttons that move the blinking cursor across the screen, and a stepped data knob to alter parameter values. As with other Emu modules, the Carnaval can operate in one of four modes. The default mode is Play, but pushing the Master button brings up a global control menu; the Edit button allows you to enter the deeper sound Edit mode; and pressing both Master and Edit buttons together switches the machine into Beats mode. Personally, I'd like to have seen a couple of +/‑ incremental buttons for editing and a dedicated Bank button for easier navigating through patches — it's too easy to zoom past the patch you want using the data wheel, which then means dialling your way back to relocate it. Using a MIDI keyboard to select patches would be another solution to this problem.
Turn Up The Heat
Emu have given the Carnaval a pretty wide remit, considering the different types of Latin styles there are. They've done a pretty good job of it — and then some — by expanding the range well beyond traditional Latin percussion. Styles covered by the Carnaval include Latin, Salsa, Songo, Merengue, Cumbia, Banda, Brazilian, Tejano, Afro and Jazz. Quite a list — and I haven't listed the more obscure hybrid styles, either. But that's not all: in Beats mode there are patterns and styles for Techno, Euro, Funk, Bhangra, Brazilian Pop, Latin‑Techno, Latin Dance, Latin‑Jazz, Mexican Pop and Afro‑Cuban! As you can see, there's a pretty impressive selection of styles to choose from.
Grrr, Yeeow, Chachucha
Many of the sounds and presets are grouped into categories similar to those above, but there isn't room to list all 640 here. However, I'll cover a few of them to give you an idea of how the Carnaval differs from the Orbit V2 and the Planet Phatt.
For a start, there are 40 or so very non‑Latin synth presets, including cheesy Depeche Mode types, warped sweeps, grungy types, raw square wave, sawtooth and sine wave, smooth tones and beefy Minimoog types. There are also 20 to 30 bass samples, ranging from some very convincing acoustic and upright types, through lots of good synth basses, to digital DX types and even a few gut‑wrenching sub‑bass tones. There are countless pads, washes and strings, flutes and various pianos. Guitars are everywhere — acoustic, electric, 12‑string, nylon, steel and so on. As you might expect, there's an overwhelming number of brass sounds, including samples of individual instruments, and some powerful stabs and takes from big bands and brass ensembles. The 20 or so 'sync'ed LFO' presets offer some impressive effects, ranging from quirky, rhythmically filtered synths to slowly evolving ambient pads. The SFX section is also splendid, and includes random bleeps, eerie portamento'd sweeps, weird reversed sample snippets, strange ethereal loops, and ambient washes with embedded sequences. The vox category features lots of multiple shouts, chants and phrases along the lines of "ChaChuCha", "Eh!", "Rrrrr", and "Salsa". [See 'Carnaval — an American Puerto‑Rican's Perspective' box for more on this.] There's also a slightly creepy, looping manic laugh that sounds like something from a horror film when played lower down the keyboard, or like a mad scientist at the other end of the scale — great stuff!
Crash, Bang, Wallop
But the vast majority of raw samples in the Carnaval concentrate on percussion, with only about a third covering musical sounds, which is to be expected on a Latin module. About 75% of the performance presets have been programmed for melodic instruments, however, with the majority of the remaining presets programmed as Beat kits. About 30 drum kits have been specifically programmed for the Emu/Kat range of MIDI percussion controllers, and there's even a couple of GM drum kits.
...if your inclination is toward Latin styles, the Carnaval is an obvious choice.
The easiest way to start playing around with percussion sounds is to dial up one of the three Master Kits — Salsa, Brazil or the AllTraps kit — which together contain every percussion sound available on the Carnaval. Emu say that they've tried to include multisamples of all the important percussion instruments so that they can be played as authentically as possible. They've also included a few instruments, such as the Tambora, which are often heard in Latin music but rarely included in drum machines or modules. I found the best way to experiment with the percussion kits was by hooking up my Roland Octapad — not quite a Kat, but still more expressive than a keyboard.
I couldn't even begin to review the percussion sounds in depth — there are just too many — and my best advice is to pop along to an Emu dealer, dial up the Master Kits: I062/P000/0 (Salsa), I063/P001/1 (Brazil) and I061/P003/0 (AllTraps) and have some fun trying out the sounds. Overall, the samples and kits sound pretty good — punchy and bright, with quite a few variations and types. Emu haven't skimped on memory, either: some of the sounds are quite long and don't suddenly cut off, although a few do begin looping a little too soon.
In a way, Emu have done the Carnaval a disservice in calling it a Latin sound module, because it encompasses a much wider range of sounds and styles than this tag implies. However, if your inclination is toward Latin styles, the Carnaval is an obvious choice because this is what it does best, and there's very little else available quite like it. On sound and MIDI facilities alone I have no problem with it — great filters, plenty of polyphony. Emu have, as usual, produced a quality piece of gear, but here's the rub: I have some misgivings, not just about the Carnaval but also about the Orbit and the Planet Phatt. For a start, why no effects? Even dinky little GM modules have delays and reverbs, and a few integrated effects would add such a lot to the overall sound and make these machines awesome. Another gripe I have is the basic 2‑line, 32‑character display. This is a real inconvenience — as the saying goes, it's like trying to decorate a room through a letter box. Alesis, Roland and Yamaha all use much better and more informative displays on their current 1U rackmount modules. Another problem I have is the overall concept of these units, which harks back to the original Proteus — repackaging of essentially the same machine with a new badge and new samples. This isn't too bad really, but when they keep producing such great‑sounding modules, how on earth is a struggling musician supposed to keep up? I think a much better and more cost‑effective approach is the one Quasimidi and Roland have adopted, using optional plug‑in voice boards. But my biggest problem with the Carnaval is the price of £900 (less a quid), which I think is too much considering the the facilities on offer. If it were £150‑£175 cheaper I'd consider buying one myself. Because of these points, I feel I can't wholeheartedly recommend the Carnaval, but try and get a demo of the machine, and if you like it and think it justifies the price, I have no doubt that you'll have a lot of fun with it.
Feel The Karaoke Beat
I have always had mixed feelings about the Emu 'Beats' mode. I appreciate that it can yield some instantly useable rhythms, and I think the X‑Factor control for stepping through different Beat kits is a great idea, but I find things start to sound a little 'samey' after prolonged use. This is probably due to the Beat patterns not being editable. I'm always hankering to tweak them a little — which, of course, you can do by recording them into a MIDI sequencer, but not within the Carnaval itself. I worry that all the other Emu Orbit/Planet Phatt/Carnaval users out there might decide to use one of the Beats I've decided to use on a commercial release, and we'll all end up sounding the same. This said, the Beats offered by the Carnaval are, subjectively, at least as good as the Orbit and the Planet Phatt and are a lot of fun to mess about with, for inspiration. Some good ones to try, if you get the chance, are:
- B:02, B:32 & B:34 You could be standing right there at the Rio Carnival.
- B:06 A techno groove plus a gut‑wrenching sub bass.
- B:07 & B:31 Gloria Estefan without the vocals.
- B:40 Slow and sexy Latin lurve vibe.
- B:43 Imagine if Yello were a club band in Blackpool.
- B:43 At Blackpool without Yello.
- B:50 & B:54 Good impressions of alpine folk music.
- B:51 Simply Red without Mick Hucknall.
- B:71 The Barry Manilow band without Bazza.
- B:72 Euro‑disco on heat.
- B:86 A Bhangra/Techno groove.
- B:73 An uncannily accurate version of 'Hey Macarena', without the Los Del Rio vocals. Try and stop yourself singing along.
With the ability to chain some of these very convincing and often instantly recognisable Beats together into songs (28 user‑definable), the Carnaval becomes the first 1U rackmount MIDI module I have come across, from Emu or anyone else, that could pass itself off as a self‑contained Karaoke machine. Is this a good or bad thing? That's not for me to say, but it could be a very useful facility for some cabaret bands or solo singers.
Carnaval — An American Puerto‑Rican's Perspective
Hola! Me llamo José Ramon Ortiz and I've been asked by Sound On Sound to give my two centabos on Emu's new Latin groove module, Carnaval.
When I first began playing around with the Carnaval (skipping the manual, naturally, and blindly pushing buttons), I thought it was a pretty clever but gimmicky box of tricks. A more thorough peek behind the few front‑panel buttons proved to be rewarding: the Carnaval sports some excellent and well recorded percussion voices. Latin percussion is not easy to record or sample, because it's necessary to capture not just the sound of the instrument, but the player and the space the player and instrument occupy in a soundfield — even when it's a mono recording.
The Carnaval's congas and bongos, in particular, have certainly benefited from a combination of close and distant microphone technique to give them clear transients, while ambient miking adds the roominess needed to make the sound come alive. The claves, woodblocks, cowbells, shakers and cabasa would complement virtually any style of music. The surdo and other large drum samples are toppy enough to cut through the busiest of tracks, while retaining body in the low end. I felt as though I was playing the instrument, not the keyboard. Some of the timbale samples really sparkle and, when using some of the performance patches, I was in salsa heaven, playing rolls and flams for over an hour!
Quica is always a funny instrument to capture, as it always sounds too 'vocal', with not enough of the 'finger element'. If you know what this instrument looks like and how it is played, you'll know what I mean. The acoustic bass sounds are good but, having played a 'baby' bass in my days, I wasn't totally convinced by the sound of this one. Is it supposed to be a wooden acoustic upright or an Ampeg fibreglass‑bodied five‑string baby bass?
The vocal samples are authentic enough, with that virtually‑impossible‑to‑imitate hispanic tone. Care must be taken to ensure that these samples are not over‑used. They're phrases that I grew up with, and still use myself on personal projects, though. For the uninitiated, a brief explanation of what these vocal phrases mean might be in order. Although Latin music has a reputation for dealing with real‑life, everyday issues — love, sex, money, jealousy, envy, hard and good times — there are the odd bits of verbal nonsense that have become a trademark of the more upbeat Latin styles. These phrases would be comparable to, say, James Brown, when he says HUH, OW, HIT ME and so on. Think of it as Spanish Jive talk.
- "Carnaval": usually means what it says.
- "Cumbia": would sound totally out of context if you stuck it in a cha cha.
- "A gozar": fits almost anywhere, as it means you're going to have a jolly good time, but don't use it on a ballad.
- The laugh: is usually placed in a bass and guiro section of a Latin track before a buildup.
- "Cha ku cha": a vocal percussive riff.
- "Que Rrrrico:" how rich — a more hip translation would be "way cool".
- "Arrrrrr": the percussionists in our bands in New York would do this when they spotted their prey for the night!
- "Salsa": Sauce — not the kind of phrase that comes to mind when performing a ballad.
- "Merengue": best used when actually doing a merengue, which no self‑respecting Latin band would omit from their repetoire.
- "Baya": Cool, easy, enjoy, get into this...
- "A bailar": get dancin'.
- "Como": Say what?
I suppose it would be silly to question the inclusion of instruments such as the Chapman Stick or TB303 in what is supposed to be a Latin percussion groove module. It's the 1990s, however, and almost anything goes nowadays. From an educational viewpoint, Carnaval will introduce many people to both the delicate and the bolder elements of Latin and salsa music. Jazz features heavily in the scheme of things too, so the benefit could be two‑fold, and this can only be a good thing.
Once I found my way into the preset grooves section, I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the grooves are highly authentic, and while I'm not a dancer by any means, they more than got my toes tapping.
- Tres Dos: excellent, displaying the loose, laid‑back nature of this groove faithfully.
- Plena: very good use of the guiro and congas on this one.
- Guaracha: simply oozes feel. Unmistakeable.
- Motuno: similar to cha cha. Used more as a link or solo section in a typical Latin piece.
- Mambo: you'd die and come back a few times jamming over this one. The improvisational possibilities are staggering.
- Batucada & Carnaval: tweak up the tempo on this one, fill your tank and point your car towards Rio.
- Coolio: no business being anywhere near this box.
The only thing that can let a groove down a little are the maracas samples, which aren't 'loose' enough. But it's a minor gripe, considering the high quality of most of the other sounds.
José Ramon Ortiz — aka Joe Ortiz of Heavenly Music — has been a Latin musician for well over 25 years and has worked as guitarist, pianist, upright bassist and percussionist with such salsa luminaries as Ruben Blades, Ricardo Marrero and David Valentin.
The Emu Orbit and Planet Phatt are functionally identical to the Carnaval. For a comprehensive appraisal of their deeper workings, and those of a couple of related instruments, check out these issues of SOS.
- Planet Phatt: June '97.
- Orbit: June '96.
- trapKAT drum controller: July '95.
- KAT dk10 drum controller: June '93.
- Launch Pad: Oct '96.
- 16‑part multitimbrality
- 32‑voice polyphony
- 32 6‑pole VCFs
- 640 presets (384 ROM, 256 RAM)
- 100 preset Beat Patterns
- 28 user‑programmable Beat songs
- 3 stereo outputs (6 polyphonic submixes)
- MIDI In/Out/Thru
- Hundreds of great‑sounding presets and samples.
- Expressive, versatile filters.
- Beats mode a nice bonus, particularly with the ability to send patterns to an external MIDI sequencer.
- Six configurable audio outputs.
- Looks good.
- Specialised Latin tag may limit appeal.
- No effects.
- Basic, sometimes cryptic display.
A great‑sounding module for a specialised market but capable of successfully crossing over into many other styles of music. If you can justify the high price, get one to add a bit of spice to your rack .