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Emu ESi32

32-Voice Digital Sampler
Published January 1995

News of the ESi32 has set the hearts of ambitious but fiscally challenged samplists beating faster. Mike Barnes brings you this exclusive review of the machine which packs EIII sampling power into a box costing under £1200, and wonders "Is it too good to be true?"

Emu have never been particularly interested in producing a 'budget' sampler, instead choosing to build innovative but expensive powerhouse samplers such as the Emulator 1, 2 and 3 from the early to mid '80s and the recently‑announced E4. Their cheaper Emax range was well‑liked and pretty successful, but the Emax II (like Akai's S900/S950) has started to age as sampling innovations and sampler features have moved on. With the S760, Roland set a new price/performance point in the sampling world, and effectively said "catch us if you can" to the rest of the manufacturers. Many thought that Emu would bow out of the cheaper end of the sampler market, or maybe try and repackage the Emax II design at a lower price. Instead, they decided to build yet another powerhouse sampler, only this time, somehow, cheaper.The ESi32, which I became acquainted with on my recent visit to San Francisco for the AES Convention, is the result, and turns out to be very much the brother of the EIIIXS (sharing the same display, voice architecture and the majority of software screens).


The ESi32's basic hardware specification is as good a starting point as any, so here it is.The 19‑inch, 2U Rack is 32‑voice polyphonic (16‑voice stereo) with 32 digital resonant 4‑pole filters, and 16‑part multitimbral, with 2Mb RAM as standard (expandable to 32Mb). There are two quarter‑inch unbalanced sample inputs for mono/stereo 16‑bit sampling (at 44.1 or 22.05kHz), and four quarter‑inch individual unbalanced polyphonic outputs (18‑bit), the usual complement of MIDI In/Out and Thru connectors, two expansion slots (for SCSI and Digital I/O boards) and a 3‑pin IEC power connector (yes, with a 100‑240V auto sensing supply for those that are internationally inclined). RAM is fitted internally in two 30‑pin SIMM slots, and the operating system is stored in flash EPROM for instant boot‑up.

For all those '90s men who find the inside as interesting as the outside, if you remove the lid from the ESi32, you can see just how busy Emu have been since the EIIIX. All the main components are isolated on a single, all‑new, incredibly neat and compact motherboard containing Emu's custom LSIs, with ribbon connectors to the front‑panel interface and the disk drive, with the auto‑sensing PSU set snugly on the left‑hand side. There's room aplenty for a 3.5‑inch internal hard‑drive to be mounted, and the HD floppy drive can be swapped out for a 3.5‑inch Syquest removable drive, since the firmware is all there waiting for it. The ESi32 could almost have been a 1U, half‑rack product if Emu had wanted to make it so. However, the 2U decision was, I think, the right one; the 31 ovoid buttons are comfortably spaced and allow dedicated functions (such as multi‑mode/trigger/load and save) rather than reams of menu pages and constant scrolling (try editing a Yamaha TG500 from the front panel sometime!).


On booting, the ESi32 reports the version of the operating system currently in flash EPROM and then gives a readout of the RAM and any boards installed, and proceeds to try and mount any connected hard‑drives if the SCSI board is present. Then the fun begins...

The ESi32 has three basic play modes:
• Single Preset Play
• Multi (timbral) Mode
• Trigger Mode.

Two of them are as you might expect — Preset Mode plays a single 'Preset' or patch, and Multi Mode allows you to put a Preset into any of the 16 available MIDI channel locations, complete with volume and Pan position, for multitimbral sequencing. There are no internal effects to bother with (though the ESi provides for routing its second pair of outputs as a mono send and return to an effects unit if you so wish), so all is pretty straightforward. Trigger Mode is new, a lot of fun, and doesn't even require MIDI, or a keyboard. What is it? Simply a way to map samples onto the 10 trigger keys (similar to the ones on the Akai S01) for triggering manually by button pressing. The interesting aspect of this is that samples can be set to latch or unlatch, so you can set a drum loop going on one key, and then play chords over it with other keys, or add additional loops over the top. It's a sort of polyphonic radio cart machine, where you can press a button, trigger a jingle and lay other parts over it. Simple, yes, but effective for sketching out a few ideas without the need for sequencer or keyboard! Having tried to force the triggers to fall over by some demi‑semi‑quaver jittering on the buttons, and thoroughly entertained myself in the process, I can endorse this feature 1000%. I can see some hip DJs taking an ESi32 along to clubs for some on‑the‑fly triggering. Shame you can only have one set per bank of presets and they can only be applied to Preset number 000 — I want more!!

Voice Architecture

For those unfamiliar with the voice architecture parameter naming of Emu samplers, it's worth comparing the ESi32 to, say, Akai's terminology before discussing how sound is organised on the ESi32.

Emu parlance for sample, by the way, is 'sample' — not wave, oscillator or any other progressively more obscure variation.

Most manufacturers have settled on 'sample' as the basic raw material in their system but, as you organise samples together, terminology changes, though in most cases, the principle is exactly the same. Akai Programs contain keygroups which have four slots for samples, making layering and velocity switching between samples very straightforward. In comparison, the ESi32 has only one slot per 'zone' (which is the nearest equivalent to a keygroup), but a Preset contains two parts — Primary and Secondary layers like Emu's Vintage Keys or Morpheus tone generators. This allows two‑way velocity switching between layers. Presets can also be joined together via 'Linking', which effectively gives you the same ability for four‑way switching or crossfading. The big difference between the Akai/Emu approach is that Akai's keygroup and its associated parameters are linked to a fixed keyboard range, whereas the ESi32, for example, can have a totally different filter/EG/LFO setting on every key of your keyboard, since Emu's Zones are freely assignable to different parameters independent of the actual sample ranges. This type of free zoning is extremely powerful. With Emu's Quick Zone function, you can simply play in the keyboard range you want to edit via MIDI from your keyboard, and then adjust the individual parameter you want to apply to that range, regardless of what other parameter ranges have been set and what sample ranges are covered!


Editing on the ESi involves two different buttons — Digital Processing or Dynamic Management. The first deals with looping, trimming, normalising and processing samples, and assembling them on the keyboard, and the second with making a finished 'patch' or Preset with envelope and filter/LFO parameters attached. Space doesn't permit a fully detailed account of every single available function in the sample‑editing area, since there are so many; however, I'll highlight a few of the neatest tricks and list the rest. If you have a SCSI hard drive connected to the ESi32, you can turn on 'UNDO', mode, which will always automatically save a backup of your sample to disk before you process it and allow you to immediately undo your actions and restore the original. The ESi32 can also audition samples live off hard disk/CD‑ROM (not floppy) without having to load them into RAM, which is incredibly useful for just checking out the odd few samples which you can't quite remember. Cut, copy and paste of sample regions is also supported (ie. mixing) as well as fade in/out. On the 'synthesis' side, Transform Multiplication (originally from the Emax) allows two samples to be 'multiplied', accentuating common frequencies and removing uncommon frequencies, to create a new sound. It can be fairly time‑consuming and pretty hit or miss, but is certainly a way of creating new sounds.

When a sample has been processed to your heart's content (see DSP features box), you can then 'Place' it into a Zone and start to apply envelopes/velocity sensing/filter control/LFO control under Dynamic Processing. The ESi32 has familiar VCA and VCF sections for both the Primary and Secondary layers of a Preset, with dedicated envelope generators for amplitude and filter control, plus a spare auxiliary envelope that can be routed to control, say, the LFO. The LFO consists of just four basic types, but is vastly enhanced by a delay and variation parameter and an individually controllable 'Send' amount to each of the possible destinations. Velocity can control just about everything you might want, including sample start point, cutoff and attack. It all adds up to comprehensive control over your samples.

For those who need real‑time MIDI control, the ESi again delivers the goods. Under the Preset Definition button, all the real‑time parameters are grouped (including real Portamento), and the Pitch Wheel, Mod Wheel, aftertouch and two other MIDI controllers can be assigned to one of nine destinations, including, perhaps most importantly, the Filter Cutoff and Attack.


The ESi32 is far more modular than any previous Emu sampler design, making possible a wide range of configurations at different price points. Rather than including features such as SCSI and digital I/O as standard (as on previous Emu samplers), these features are available as add‑on boards, which enables you to start small (and cheap) and build upwards. The basic version of the ESi comes with a high‑density 1.4Mb floppy drive, 2Mb RAM , no SCSI, no digital I/O. The RAM used is now the 30‑pin, 70ns, SIMM boards which will be familiar to Macintosh users, as opposed to the more expensive ZIP RAM used in the older EIIIX racks. However, there are only two internal SIMM slots, which have to contain the same size board, so the available options are 2Mb (2 x 1Mb SIMMs), 8Mb (2 x 4Mb SIMMs), 16Mb (2 x 8Mb SIMMs) or 32Mb (2 x 16Mb SIMMs). This does mean, unfortunately, that you have to decide how far you want to upgrade well in advance, or, for example, be prepared to get rid of both your 4Mbyte boards when you decide you want 8Mbyte ones. Recent Macs let you mix and match RAM board sizes and this would have been a better option.

The SCSI and digital I/O boards fit into the two empty slots on the rear of the ESi32. The review model had only the SCSI board fitted, which includes a single 50‑way connector like the Akai S1000 board. This was tested with an Apple CD300 CD‑ROM drive and worked perfectly, even allowing samples to be auditioned direct from disk. However, I had less joy with a 128Mb Magneto‑Optical drive which had worked perfectly with the EIIIX. Unfortunately, since we had access to a an ESi32 for such a short time, I had to leave this matter unresolved. As always with samplers, the lesson is: check with the manufacturer for a full drive compatibility list. The ESi32 is set up with SCSI arbitration firmware, which is supposed to allow two ESis to share the same drive and act as a single 64‑note‑polyphonic system using MIDI overflow mode (according to the spec). However, you'll have to take Emu's word on that for now, since we only had access to one unit. Transfer of samples via SCSI (using the SMDI protocol) to sound‑design software is mentioned, but is not, as yet, implemented.

The digital I/O board was not available for this review but is specified as having SPDIF In/Out on RCA (phono) connectors, and will support 48, 44.1, and 32kHz sample rates. Digital outputs vary in quality and some can be quite fizzy, so we'll have to wait before we can pass judgement on this one. Also, as far as I can tell, Emu has no plans to support the DAT streaming technique, which allows you to dump data digitally to a DAT machine via the digital I/O, like the Akai digital board. Both boards are expected to retail between £175 and £200, which is a little more than some companies, but may well come down if third‑party companies start taking an interest in the ESi, as they did with the S1000. A CRT board like Roland's and extra outputs seems impossible, though they said that about the prospect of making the DX7 multitimbral, and Grey Matter found a way!

ESI32 Versus The Rest

Despite a few early software niggles on the file management side (which Emu are aware of and set to improve), with this specification at this price point the ESi32 looks like being a world beater, coming in mid‑way between the Akai S01 at the sub‑£1000 mark and the Roland S760 at around £1600. Akai have got wind of this, and (understandably) are reducing prices across their range (particularly on the S2800) to try and even things out, which will delight musicians. Aside from all the pricing issues, perhaps the other key considerations are raw polyphony power, compatibility and editing/ease of use. The ESi32 compares favourably, with its 32‑voice polyphony, against Roland's 24‑voice, but if you are a fan of graphic/CRT displays, the ESi32 may not satisfy your visual desires in the same way as Roland's samplers. If and when it is implemented (Emu say it will be), the scrub‑editing facility on the ESi will reduce the need for a visual wave display, though some may hanker after waveforms in the looping page.

From a feature/sound point of view, there seems little compelling reason for buying, say, an S01, with the ESi32 hovering just above a grand, unless you absolutely must have Akai's key‑group way of working or Akai floppy‑disk compatibility, which the ESi lacks. But considering that the ESi is in its first software version, it was well behaved whilst in my company, and already has a feature set to be proud of.


An Emulator for not much more than a grand — it can't be, can it? Well, maybe the ESi32 is not an Emulator by name, but an Emulator by nature it certainly is. In fact, the ESi32 is essentially 75% of an Emulator EIIIXS for 25% of the original retail price, and ought to be forwarded to Des Lynam for the How Do They Do That? treatment! At £1199, the ESi really does stand apart from all else in terms of power for your pound, and really sets a new standard for samplers at this level. It looks slick, operates well (despite having no LCD graphics), has a positively obese feature list, the best resonant digital filters (outside the EIIIX and E4) and an absurdly high testosterone level in the sound department. The bundled sounds show off the machine well and yes, are genuinely usable, and that oft‑dismissed but essential item, the manual, has clear explanations, tutorials and real world troubleshooting. I can already hear the sounds for the next set of ESi disks: the pleading voices of musicians in loan establishments, the rattling of tills in the music retail world, and the satisfied sighs and chinking of glasses in Malones bar, Santa Cruz. The Emu has landed.

File Interchange

With the new atmosphere of sample exchange, library sharing, and so on, reading other people's samples has become an important feature to all manufacturers other than Akai, who have essentially set the industry standard. Whilst Akai have been able to sit back and rest on their own library and that of their user groups, Kurzweil, Emu, Gem, Roland and Yamaha have all been looking at ways of reading and translating Akai's data format, with lesser or greater success. The ESi32 will read and translate Akai S1000/S1100 data format (including samples, but only the first of Akai's eight loop points, envelopes and filters), but only via SCSI (sorry, no Akai floppies). This means that it has access to any Akai CD‑ROMs or hard‑drive/optical media, a vast amount of data. On top of this, you can load any EIII/EIIIX files and import Emax II files, again via SCSI. Emu are therefore claiming the crown for sheer quantity of instant available library support for the ESi32.AKAI ('standard' terms) EMU

Volume Bank (group of Presets)

Program Preset

Keygroup Zone

Rescaling Gain Change

Digital Fade Taper

Mapping Placing

Layering Linking

Full DSP Feature List

  • Taper
  • Gain Change
  • Reverse
  • Stereo<‑>Mono
  • Left<‑>Right
  • DC Filter
  • Sample Integrity
  • Sample Rate Convert
  • Digital Tuning
  • Compressor
  • Parametric EQ
  • Time Compression
  • Pitch Change
  • Transform Multiply
  • Doppler/Pan

Is It Really An EIIIX?

What may not be obvious from the specs, but is immediately seen when looking at the display and software functions, is that the ESi32 bears many similarities to its older, distinguished brother, the EIIIX, and in terms of raw power is very close. A great many EIIIX users will look on the arrival of the ESi32 with some trepidation, as if it will kill their baby, but the ESi32, though sharing many of its older brother's software features, is not quite an EIIIX in the hardware or software department, and it's worth noting the differences. The ESi32 has opted for four unbalanced outputs, compared to the 10 balanced ones on the EIIIX, one SCSI port compared to the two on the EIIIX, optional SPDIF digital support compared to XLR AES/EBU and SPDIF digital I/O on the EIIIX, and has waved goodbye to that strange little RS232 port on the back of the EIIIX. Gone is the much‑loved EIIIX arpeggiator, Volume Curves, and the DSP tools Exciter, and for now there is no SCSI transfer to sound‑design software on the ESi. The DSP functions seem to take a little longer to calculate on the ESi, and the military‑standard casing has been toned down. Depending on what type of work you're involved in, these may or may not be significant differences, but what is impressive is that, for the mass market, Emu have targeted the areas of compromise in such a way as to leave the essential power of the EIIIX intact in a smaller and cheaper box.

Bundled Sounds

Eleven sound sets (listed below) are bundled with the ESi32 on HD floppies. Each has been designed not only to sound good, but to show off features of the ESi32, such as the great‑sounding filters, the effect of some of the digital processing software tools, and the use of the trigger buttons. Many people consign bundled software to the box from whence it came, never to be seen again, but the ESi set is not one to be left in the box; there are plenty of interesting, usable presets which offer a lot of sounds for a little memory. The bundled disks are as follows:

  • Vintage Combo (2 disks) * Stereo Grand (2 disks)
  • Orchestral (2 disks) * Techno Shop (2 disks)
  • Trigger Funk (1 disk) * Rhythm Section (2 disks)

Loading from the floppy drive is not as fast as some systems, but floppies have never been particularly high on Emu's priority list. The EIIIX had to wait for several software upgrades before the floppy drive did anything other than load the system! The biggest omission in this first version of software on ESi32 is the lack of preset and sample loading from floppy (though this works via SCSI). Far from hiding this, the ESi insists on shouting 'Requires SCSI Drive!' when you try to access this feature. This all means that it is not currently possible to combine presets from different floppies into one bank, which is a major oversight. Since I was using the SCSI version, and stopped using floppies for samples long ago, this was not a great personal concern, but one which will be for many users. I have spoken to Emu, and it seems that this matter is being given utmost priority in the next software update, which is expected to drop in sometime before Santa.


  • Price!
  • Large feature set.
  • Sound quality, resonant filters and trigger Mode.
  • Expandability.
  • Akai S1000/EIIIX library compatibility via SCSI.
  • Digital tools/synthesizer‑like programming features.


  • Floppy file management system needs improving.
  • SCSI implementation does not appear to support all popular drive formats as yet, though Emu plan to put the EIV SCSI firmware unto the ESi in the future to remedy this.
  • No SMDI or SCSI file transfer as yet.
  • No graphic waveform editing/CRT if you like that way of working.
  • No internal effects or effects expansion option.
  • Scrub wheel edit not yet working.


Despite my moans about some facilities not yet implemented, it's hard to see how anyone could be anything other than positive about the ESi32, establishing, as it does, a new feature list standard at this price. An absolute bargain.