Mike Barnes rounds up a new wave of software and hardware support for the Emu EIIIX, which once again makes Emu samplers a serious alternative at the higher end of the sampler marketplace.
Emu Systems, the Californian sampling whizz‑kids of the early '80s, once virtually dominated the sampling scene with their Emulator, Drumulator and later Emax series. Led by chief designer Dave Rossum (who, incidentally, co‑worked on the Prophet 5 for Sequential), Emu were very much the sampling pioneers, and in fact were the first manufacturer to provide a mass‑market alternative to the Fairlight CMI. With the launch of the original 8‑bit Emulator in 1980 at around £8000, Emu undercut the Fairlight by some £20,000 and laid the foundations and features for everyone to follow. However, by the late '80s, Akai had come to prominence (aided by a British design team) and were joined by Roland in the premier‑league sampling world. At that time, the American pioneers, including Emu, Sequential and Ensoniq, struggled to compete either on pricing or reliability, though rarely on features or sound/musicality. Sequential eventually folded, having laid out their last dollars on the development of the Prophet 3000 sampler, and shortly afterwards, Emu released the first incarnation of their powerful EIII sampler. Survival meant diversification into commercial sound chips and sample players (via the Proteus range), and Emu has since been regarded by many in Europe as a sample‑player company rather than a sampler/synthesizer manufacturer ever since. However, with the recent Morpheus setting new directions in the synthesizer world, and a major operating system upgrade for the latest Emulator EIIIX rackmount sampler, Emu are looking to build on their popularity in the USA, and get back a large slice of the sampling pie they helped to bake.
The EIIIX, beloved of many hard‑core sound‑designers, has long been ahead of the game in terms of 'synthesis'‑type features and digital‑interfacing via SCSI with third‑party Macintosh sample‑editing software. Despite this, and some great past software updates (such as the scrub‑editing and live sample audition from disk in v.1.31), it has until recently missed out in two key areas — industry‑standard Akai S1000/S1100 compatibility, and Time Compression/Expansion. Now, with the release of the enhanced system version 2.1, and a new remote editor/librarian for the Macintosh, the EIIIX is back in the frame, and not only have the nice people at Emu resolved the two big issues mentioned, they have also added a hoard of powerful DSP features. Furthermore, they've made this upgrade free to the loyal following.
The list below outlines 20 new additions to the system, some of which were present in the interim 2.03 system. For the purpose of this article, I'll focus in detail only on the sample import and time compression aspects, since these are the crunch points for many potential users.
- Akai S1000/S1000 File Import — full translation via SCSI.
- EMAX II File Import.
- Time Compression — changes length without altering pitch.
- Pitch Change — changes pitch without altering length.
- Transform Multiplication — multiplies two samples to create a hybrid.
- Doppler/PAN — moves sample in 2D space with pitch correction.
- Exciter — adds brilliance or 'cut' to a sample.
Other new features from interim 2.03:
- Sample Calculator — calculates perfect single‑cycle loops.
- Change Gain — alters the level of all or part of a sample.
- Sample Rate Convert — any rate from 7‑50kHz.
- Digital Tuning — retunes samples by +/‑1 octave.
- Compressor — full‑function dynamic compressor.
- Parametric EQ — Digital EQ with 12dB boost and 48dB cut.
- Reverse Section — reverses all or part of a sample.
- Stereo‑Mono — converts Mono to Stereo and vice versa.
- Swap Sides — swaps the sides of a stereo sample.
- DC Filter — removes DC offset from sample.
- Flip‑Flop Keys — toggle Note On (press a key to start a sample, press again to turn it off — useful for long sound effect ambiences).
- Polyphonic Portamento — Glide with time up to 32 seconds/octave.
- EG Attack Slope — selectable Envelope Attack, Linear or Logarithmic.
Compatibility has perhaps been the biggest stumbling block in gaining wider recognition for the EIIIX. Despite having a huge library of its own, its lack of communication with Akai libraries has, for many, overshadowed its industry‑leading sound quality and pitch‑shifting. Although implemented in interim software version 2.03, Akai file import is now rock‑solid. Because the EIII uses a proprietary floppy disk system, Emu opted to provide Akai support via SCSI only, which, though irritating for those with a box of Akai floppies, is basically the only real professional option.
The EIIIX can now translate banks of Akai programs complete with all envelope/filter and looping information (though the EIII only translates the first loop of an Akai sample, since it does not support multiple loops within one sample). The import is implemented under a new special menu '0' under the Master/Globals section of the EIII rather than from the normal 'Load' button, and allows any Akai SCSI media to be mounted and loaded (including CD‑ROMs). One possible annoyance is that some HDs or Opticals using the less common 1024 byte/sector standard are not supported, though some specialist EIII dealers can offer this service to customers who are upgrading.
This new wave of support for the EIIIX is a real bonus for existing devotees.
Since the EIIIX and S1000/1100 implement looping and stereo sampling in a different way, there is an Akai import options page to cater for the fundamental differences. 'Adjust Loops' allows more precise loop matching in case of 'ticking' after a normal fast load. 'Full placement' recreates multiple Akai layers by linking EIII presets together, and 'Combine L/R' matches Akai stereo samples and combines them into a single EIIIX stereo sample. With all these options on, load times are around 15% longer than the fastest possible. In comparison tests between an S1000PB (running the latest System v.4.3), using 44Mb Syquests and 128Mb M/O cartridges, my EIIIXS consistently mounted and loaded Akai files faster than the Akai itself, which is a pretty remarkable achievement.
The EIIIX's Time Compression implementation operates on the same principle as other systems — time stretch, changing the sample length without altering pitch. However, the options are comprehensive, with 10 user‑selectable algorithms depending on the frequency content of the sample (see list below), and a range of 50% to 200% (half or double size) with time readout. Because of the EIII's smooth shifting, even radical alterations of length are rarely offensive, though, of course, they still suffer to an extent from the 'artifact' noise inherent with this technique. Soundwise, the EIIIX's time stretch is, at worst, on a par with other sampling systems, and at best an improvement over the software time stretching offered by programs such as Passport's Alchemy. The other big difference between this implementation and other hardware systems is that the EIIIX actually has an undo function for any editing action (including time‑stretch), so that ideas can be tried out and discarded quickly. The actual time required to process the time‑stretching varies considerably, and depends on three main factors: the algorithm chosen, the sampling rate, and the length of the sample. As an example, doubling the length of a four‑second stereo sample at 44.1KHz, using the mid‑1 algorithm (for 'average' material) takes one minute. The 'tight' algorithm maintains the best timing but is considerably more time‑consuming.
EIIIX TIME COMPRESSION OPTIONS:
- Deep: Predominant deep bass (to 14Hz).
- Bass: Predominant bass (to 20Hz).
- Mid‑1: Average Source Material.
- Mid‑2: Average source material (high mids).
- High: Source Material with high frequencies.
- Tight: Maintains time accuracy for drum loops.
- Broad: Low bass energy but critical highs.
- Broad‑smooth: Both high and low frequencies. Smooth output.
- Difficult: Inharmonic or broadband material.
- Noisy: Non‑pitched material, sound effects, etc.
The Remote‑Librarian allows setup of your SCSI network, and full control over all the EIIIX's functions via MIDI, and gives you a complete front‑panel and mock‑up of the EIIIX's LCD display on the Macintosh. This on‑screen display is pretty straightforward, since it gives you no more and no less than the actual unit, other than an enlarged display and fast access to the various sub‑menus of the EIIIX. A handy keyboard and pitch/mod wheels are provided on screen for testing, and you can also use the Mac keyboard (with Shift and Caps Lock) to send MIDI notes, so it does actually enable you to conveniently stash your EIIIX out of the way with your Mac CPU and drives, should you so desire. In fact, in combination with JLCooper's CS‑1 remote control surface for the Mac, it's possible to build a complete control system without having to touch either the mouse or the Mac's keyboard.
The neatest trick is reserved for the librarian side of the software, which allows you to perform an automated cataloguing of your entire library, and then dump the resulting catalogue via SCSI to a text file held on the Mac — you simply select a SCSI ID and have a cup of coffee whilst the software trawls through your CD‑ROM or hard‑drive and records details of all the bank, preset and sample names. This process takes around seven minutes for a complete CD‑ROM, but once it has been done, you can then use the integrated browser to search for keywords, view an entire list of presets and associated individual samples, and actually audition individual samples direct from disk without loading them into memory. This last function is something that professional sampler users have been crying out for. At last, an easy way to catalogue your library, see all your different Volumes and Banks, search through them and test out individual samples on the fly, without committing yourself to some mammoth 32Mb load whilst trawling for that terribly innovative snare mis‑hit. The software is worthwhile for this last feature alone.
On the complaints side, there is no direct port access mode via the MIDI Time Piece, though there is support for Apple's MIDI Manager. Furthermore, against something like a professional sequencer, the Librarian does look over‑priced. Then again, it offers an in‑demand facility to a relatively small group of professional users, so in a sense some price premium is inevitable. If you have a Macintosh, an EIII, a library of any significant size, and a wish that you weren't so hopelessly disorganised, this software is for you! Both EIIIX installation and distribution of the Librarian software is carried out by Zero Crossing, who can be contacted by phone on 0279 718444, or by fax on 0727 862917 (c/o Dave Bristow).
This new wave of support for the EIIIX is a real bonus for existing devotees, and the version 2.1 software sets the new standard for sampling power‑features. Emu has finally let the EIIIX off the leash, and given the sceptics something to think about. Anyone who is seriously hovering over a new Akai S3000/3200, thinking that there is no viable alternative, now really has a much tougher decision to make. With the revitalised EIIIX muscling in at the top end, and the Roland S760 at the lower end of the sampler spectrum, times are changing, and those big white boxes just might be squeezed out of pole position.
F 0727 862917.
This is the latest CD‑ROM offering for the EIII/EIIIX, and has been produced in Germany by Grammy award‑winning engineer Gregor Zielinsky for Käng‑Kong Productions (contactable on 010 49 2222 63280). This CD‑ROM is really a monumental collection of classic synthesizers/samplers (e.g. Moogs, Mellotrons, Fairlights, Prophets, and Synclaviers) and acoustic instruments (e.g. pianos, guitars, strings, and drums) which make real use of the excellent filtering on the EIIIX (there are 32 24dB/octave resonant filters). Economy has certainly not been the name of the game. There are 100 banks of sounds, averaging around 3Mb in size, which is ideal for the standard 8Mb EIIIX user. For those Turbo (i.e. 32Mb) model users, there is a beautifully recorded Steinway piano in 16Mb, and the Waldorf Microwave set comes in 20Mb banks, which require a 24 or 32Mb EIIIX! Samples are clean (unless the original product intended otherwise, as in the Mark 1 Fairlight) and loops are generally long, with obvious time and effort being put into the mapping and voicing. The overall impression is consistently high, with some sophisticated pianos (including 16Mb and 8Mb versions of a Studio Fazioli and the aforementioned Steinway concert grands) and synths (in particular the Microwave and Prophet/Matrix pads). The strings, guitars and drums are certainly many and varied, and though they may not be to everyone's taste, they are definitely a step up on the standard library fodder. One criticism with the set stems from the many untitled samples and scattering of sample locations, which can be annoying if you want to get under the bonnet and start tweaking, though these may be measures to discourage bootlegging and messing around with the low‑level mapping. On the other hand, there is little need to touch many of the presets, except for the over‑long release times on many voices, but this is a matter of playing taste. It certainly doesn't detract from the overall impression, which is that this is a collection of sounds genuinely worth having, and one which offers something different to the extensive libraries already available through EMC (phone 0727 862894 for more information) and Time & Space (phone 0442 870681). Also, according to Martin Griese at Newtronic, who are handling distribution, this CD‑ROM is also scheduled for release in Akai format, as a two‑disk set later this year (more information from Newtronic themselves, on 081 691 1087). All in all, it's well worth auditioning.