The latest in Emu's range of style‑specific sound modules is bright purple, stuffed with 32Mb of 'street' sounds, and bristling with urban attitude. Paul Farrer takes a closer look.
We all know that if it ain't broke you shouldn't fix it, and this seems to be a maxim that Emu Systems not only incline towards but swallow whole. The original Proteus module of 1989 turned around the fortunes of an entire company, and having found a successful approach Emu stuck with it. The result was a number of hugely successful and innovative spin‑offs, including orchestral, ethnic, ambient and dance modules, all packaged in pretty much the same 1U, 19‑inch rack casing. The turn of the millennium saw Emu rethinking the basic Proteus design. After making various improvements — a bigger screen, loads of control knobs, more memory, and so on — they released the Proteus 2000, and another generation of siblings was born. I reviewed the Xtreme Lead synth a few months ago (see SOS August 2000) and since then we've also seen the arrival of the Virtuoso, in every sense an orchestral synth module with knobs on (see SOS December 2000). Now we've got hold of the latest in the series, the sequel to Emu's original streetwise and funky Planet Phatt module (reviewed June 1997), aptly named Mo'Phatt.
Given that most of the sound modules in Emu's new generation are based around the same physical and synthesis specifications, this briefer‑than‑usual review will focus largely on the new sound set and the operational aspects of Mo'Phatt, rather than repeating an in‑depth look at the editing architecture. If you want to know more about that, check out the Proteus 2000 review in Sound On Sound March 1999.
Our brief guided tour begins on the front panel, which replaces the sassy satsuma orange of the Xtreme Lead with a garish purple finish. When the unit is powered up, the bright green of the large 2‑line backlit LCD completes a clashing colour combination that puts one in mind of a chemistry teacher's tasteless tie. There's a familiar data‑entry wheel on the extreme right‑hand side of the panel, and to the left of the display are a volume knob and four additional control knobs. A handy selector button just to the left of the knobs toggles each one between three levels of control parameters. This enables them to be used for up to 12 real‑time edit and performance control functions — usually altering parameters such as filter frequency cut‑off, resonance, attack and decay, LFO rate, and so on. It's a bit of nicely user‑friendly design that allows the most commonly tweaked edit parameters of the synth to be adjusted in real time without ever requiring the user to hit the 'Edit' button.
If you do want to make more in‑depth adjustments (and there are many users who will never feel the need to, such is the power of the 12‑knob quick editing system), the knobs can also act as four independent data‑entry wheels when you're moving through the various edit and setup pages. This is particularly useful given that presets are usually made up of four 'layers', and many screens allow you to tweak all four at once using the four knobs.
The back panel on the basic Mo'Phatt is a pretty parsimonious affair, having just a standard mains socket, MIDI In, Out and Thru, and a single pair of quarter‑inch jack outputs. There is, however, space for a further four analogue audio outputs, as well as an S/PDIF digital out and an extra MIDI In and Out. Emu are obviously hoping that Mo'Phatt buyers will also invest in the Turbo Board option that fills those spaces!
The basic model comes with 32Mb of ROM, 512 presets and two user‑upgradable SIMM sockets. The last are for installing new sound sets supplied by Emu, or even custom ROM sound sets (16 and 32Mb) that you can create yourself using Emu's E4 Ultra range of samplers. The Turbo Board option, as well as bringing the extra I/O mentioned above, doubles Mo'Phatt's polyphony from its standard 64 to 128 voices and adds a further two ROM slots.
All the above also goes for the Xtreme Lead, and the comments I made when I reviewed that still stand — specifically, that while Emu have always been good at offering users decent upgrade options, it seems a shame they've felt the need to butcher the basic Proteus module design (which has always had six audio outs as standard) in order to get users to consider an upgrade. This is, after all, a 16‑part multitimbral synth, and to put buyers under the pressure of pretty much needing the upgrade from the start is a bit like selling a family saloon car but only offering back seats as an optional extra.
The other niggle that still hasn't been resolved from the Xtreme Lead is that the knob controlling filter resonance doesn't work across held notes — which is to say that each new resonance setting only applies to notes played after you've turned the knob. And, once again, the manual is on a PDF CD‑ROM, which doesn't particularly bother me but could prove a bummer for some.
As a synth that's purely aimed at the R&B, hip‑hop and dance market, you might imagine that Mo'Phatt has been 'dumbed down' for the kids — the day‑glo colour scheme, the vinyl‑derivative sound set consisting largely of ready‑made loops, licks and riffs... However, a closer inspection reveals that you couldn't be more wrong. The Mo'Phatt, like all the Proteus 2000 incarnations, is as smart as a whip. Beneath its fun exterior is a synthesis engine of staggering complexity which still manages to offer immense clarity and ease of use. As for the sounds themselves, anyone who has dabbled with the Planet Phatt will know what to expect — namely, a vast and credible slice of ultra‑cool, laid‑back R&B, hip‑hop, funk and rap material, expertly presented for maximum effect.
Considerable emphasis has been placed on the drum kits, which include gargantuan big‑beat bass drums, realistic live snares, processed analogue beatboxes, and what has to be the largest and finest collection of vinyl scratching ever assembled in a synthesizer. The basses are equally impressive, comprising a wealth of live slapped and picked electrics, acoustic double basses, and the more familiar warm and sizzling synth basses. Emu's almost legendary filter prowess (the Mo'Phatt offers 50 different 12th‑order resonant and modelling filters) is particularly noticeable on the pad and string sounds. Like most of Mo'Phatt's sounds, these are unlikely to win any sonic realism awards but should be right in line for the Oscar for 'Authentic Sounds With Soul & Attitude'.
Guitars play a surprisingly important role in the emphasis of the Mo'Phatt sound set, breaking all box‑office records for realism, variety and usability. Forget the cheesy twang of your GM synth and revel in the delights of acoustic strums, complete jazz licks, heavy and believable rock chugs and grainy feedback samples. Given that just 32Mb of ROM is on board, you have to wonder where the hell they store all this stuff! Vocals are thinner on the ground — and rightly so, given their short shelf life and the chip space they inevitably take up — but what you do get is a jaw‑dropping and impeccably funky set of vocoder samples that sound as though they could have come straight from a strange genetic fusion of Peter Frampton and Herbie Hancock.
Just like the Xtreme Lead, Mo'Phatt majors on performance: along with the nifty control knobs, you also get Emu's outstanding set of 16 arpeggiators, plus Super Beats Mode. The latter provides tons of pre‑programmed loops and construction kits for use with the onboard sounds (or to send via MIDI to control other studio devices). You can access Super Beats Mode, essentially a read‑only sequencer, from an external MIDI sync source or from the keys of your keyboard. It enables certain presets to act like a sample‑CD construction kit, allowing mix elements (drum parts, bass lines, vocals, and so on) to be triggered and latched in time using combinations of keys. Such is the power of this system that there will be many users (particularly DJs) who could put together an entire live performance using only Mo'Phatt's sounds, triggering drum loops, riffs, licks and bass lines without the need for anything other than a standard MIDI keyboard. And if that isn't MIDI empowering the non‑musician, I don't know what is.
I read recently that in a poll of 13‑year‑old British schoolkids, Ali G was more recognisable than Tony Blair. That comes as proof, perhaps, that it is the likes of Eminem and not Mo Mowlem that permeate the national conscience in the 21st Century. Emu's Mo'Phatt is a stunningly impressive piece of studio gear that not only plays on this cultural phenomenon but practically shows the way of the future.
After only a few moments of flicking through the presets you find yourself saying "but sound modules shouldn't sound this good". Emu also score maximum points for giving the Mo'Phatt such a contemporary sound set and getting it onto the streets while it's still red hot — I've even heard sample CDs in the past six months that aren't this current!
Of course, part of Emu's aim is clearly to appeal to the quick‑fix, instant‑gratification crowd. You could argue that Mo'Phatt accordingly gives the user less encouragement to edit sounds in depth and really get to know the instrument when, sonically speaking, so much of the groundwork has already been done. Also, some might contend that it can only be a matter of time before R&B and hip‑hop become passé and Mo'Phatt users are left with a box of noises that sound very 'last year'. I would disagree, because while preset bashers everywhere will view Mo'Phatt as a near‑perfect injection of hyper‑cool, street‑smart urban attitude, it's also a powerful synth that Emu have imbued with impressive and easy‑to‑use editing features — not forgetting the ROM upgrade slots that will also help extend its useful life.
I still feel short‑changed by only having a single pair of audio outputs on the basic model, and Emu really should see to the business of the Filter Resonance controller not working as it should. But I can safely say that as far as small, smart, funky and purple things go I haven't been this impressed since Prince released his Greatest Hits collection.
Mo'Phatt comes with two excellent 24‑bit effects processors that can be individually assigned to presets. Editing and the assigning of effects busses is done within each preset's edit page, and you can specify whether you want both effects to be assigned to a single preset or designate two 'master' effects settings (such as Reverb and Chorus).
The filter section (also mentioned in the main body of this review) is a big Emu selling point, offering 50 different filter types for each of the four layers in every preset. Filter types include wonders such as 'TB‑OrNot‑TB', 'Mega Sweepz', 'Boland Bass', 'AcidRavage' and 'Ear Bender'. There's a good mixture of resonant and modelling filters, and excellent levels of control and tweakability come with each. Obviously, when you're tweaking at this kind of depth the smallish screen could be seen as a slight hindrance, but its clear layout and the Mo'Phatt's large control knob/cursor system helps you navigate around the internal edit structure with as much ease as possible on a unit of this size.
- 006‑0 'Chords&Hits': A wealth of stunning and authentic Rhodes electric piano licks, hits, phrases and chords.
- 015‑0 'Cherubs': A glorious wash of ambient chorus pads and harp glissandos. Expect to hear on a Radiohead album soon.
- 047‑0 'YeaYeaz': Cheeky but inspired R'n'B construction kit, complete with vinyl scratching, juicy bass line, kick‑ass drums and a vocalist!
- 065‑0 'Oh Yeah': One of the finest drum kits ever assembled in a synth. Grainy, sloppy and dripping with vocoder‑esque attitude.
- 012‑0 'Plucky': A bright and effective analogue synth with a sharp attack, helped greatly by some stereo delay. Scritti Politti–tastic!
- 009‑0 'Hot n Steamy': So you wanna be Jennifer Lopez? Select preset nine, hit the audition key on Mo'Phatt's front panel, then shave your legs.
- 060‑1 'SubTwo': A throaty and aggressive analogue lead/bass sound that will excite chemical brothers and sisters everywhere. Don't forget to twiddle the frequency cutoff and resonance controls.
- 013‑2 'Slo Strum': Proof that Mo'Phatt has a softer side as well. An ambient guitar chord/pad‑type thing so relaxing that it makes Brian Eno sound like a speed‑garage enthusiast.
- 030‑3 'TIME SquarRe': You and your homeys are cruisin' thru South Central with the top down. A drum kit as authentically American as apple pie, chronic obesity and teenagers with machine guns.
- Fantastically hip sound set.
- Great user control features.
- Impeccable MIDI implementation.
- Powerful synthesis engine.
- Lousy standard single outputs (again).
- Filter Resonance control doesn't work through held notes (again).
- PDF manual may not be to everyone's taste (again).
If Ali G were a synth he would be a Mo'Phatt module. It has a sound set so streetwise and current that it makes you feel as though all other MIDI synths should come with a pipe and a pair of slippers. While it's physically the same as the Xtreme Lead (and therefore shares all of its advantages and shortcomings), this precocious purple beast will make even the dullest of programmers feel like the baddest Mutha on Planet Pop.