Emu's multi‑coloured assault on the sound module market continues with the Planet Earth, which houses a brand new set of ethnic and world sounds. Confirmed tree‑hugger and Emu preset basher Paul Farrer takes time out from boiling a mixed‑lentil casserole to check it out...
'Congratulations on your purchase of the Planet Earth' — no, it's not the heading of an email from the United Nations to Bill Gates, rather the opening line of Emu's instruction manual to their latest addition to the ever‑expanding Proteus family of sound modules. We've had bright orange for the XL1 Xtreme Lead, funky purple for Mo'Phatt, and now, in a slightly more grown‑up and understated way, a sophisticated turquoise for the Planet Earth. Those familiar with Emu products over the past few years will recognise the update strategy (Orbit replaced by XL1, Proteus 2 replaced by the Virtuoso, and so on). Here, we find the acclaimed Proteus 3 World module given a powerful boost in the memory and functionality department, thanks to Emu's ethos of keeping a consistently solid exterior casing and operating system (first seen on the Proteus 2000) then simply dropping in a new 32Mb sound chip and slapping on a different coloured facia each time.
In keeping with all the other Proteus 2000‑derived modules, the unit boasts the usual 16‑part multitimbrality, 64 voices and 512 presets as standard. The basic model comes with MIDI In, Out and Thru, and just a single pair of standard quarter‑inch left and right audio outputs. I've ranted about this in my previous reviews of the new Emu sound modules, and as time goes on I'm still not entirely happy. You can expand the number of outputs by paying more, although the exact mechanics of the upgrade depend on where you live (see the 'Expanding Earth' box on the last page of this article). Nevertheless, as I've pointed out before, the Proteus 3 had six audio outputs as standard (as did Proteus 1 and 2, the Orbit, Planet Phatt, and Carnaval modules) and I think it's a bit cynical of Emu to limit the spec of the basic module in this way, thus putting pressure on users to pay for an upgrade.
Having said that, one feature that will please Proteus 3 users (and which might stop them harping on about the lack of audio outputs) is the addition of two 24‑bit stereo effects units. Planet Earth also comes with two user‑upgradable internal SIMM sockets (16 and 32Mb) allowing you to drop in new sound sets or even create your own using Emu's Ultra range of samplers. One of the big features of all the recent Emu modules is Super Beats Mode, which is effectively a series of pre‑programmed ROM sequences that trigger rhythmical and musical phrases using certain preset groups. Different mix and control elements are assigned to MIDI keys enabling you to bring elements of the sequences in and out simply by pressing their associated MIDI notes. These are all easily controllable via MIDI and you can fire the sequences out of the MIDI Out socket should you need to sync up other instruments, or even dump them into an external sequencer for editing.
Although primarily designed to excite dance programmers by offering them the kind of quick‑fix musicality and breakbeats usually delivered by construction‑kit sample CDs, Planet Earth has a vast wealth of great material which should provide inspiration for track ideas (if not provide 90 percent of the ideas in the track which you end up using!). Hats off to Emu for keeping this feature on a module where you wouldn't normally expect to find such a helpful idea — place your bets now as to which travel programmes you'll be hearing these ready‑made MIDI masterpieces on soon.
Planet Earth's controllability is another big selling point, emphasised by the four real‑time control knobs on the front panel that can be toggled to access a series of 12 most commonly 'tweaked' parameters without you ever having to enter edit mode. The standard assignments include filter frequency cutoff, resonance, attack, decay, and so on. Furthermore, if you do roll up your sleeves and get to the nuts and bolts of Planet Earth's sound design and editing features (and given the larger screen and intelligent internal layout there really is nothing stopping you) the four knobs help cut down on scroll time, as they act as simultaneous data‑entry wheels in certain edit pages.
The thinking behind the sound set of the Planet Earth could perhaps be best summed up by saying it's all about things you pluck and hit. It seems the Emu team have been scouring the planet looking for all kinds of weird and wonderful instruments to sample, not all of which will necessarily be familiar to all users. Drums form a huge chunk of the sound data, and the collection here is as comprehensive, well recorded, authentic and usable as any I've yet heard in a synth or sample CD‑ROM. From African clay drums to Irish bodhrans, from Asian palm drums and finger cymbals to enormous Japanese taikos (and not that crappy dull thud you may have found on your GM synth — proper ones that make your fillings rattle). The drum sounds are generally arranged as percussion sets and drum kits, and there are a huge number on offer featuring, for instance, Brazilian sounds in one set then African tribal drums in another. Naturally, there is a heavy traditionally ethnic bias, but Planet Earth isn't without a few modern dancefloor hybrid sounds. There are even hints at electronic drum kits, but somehow Emu have managed to imbue them with an entirely appropriate, organic and strangely charming 'weather‑beaten' feel.
Likewise, I rated the plucked and mallet instruments very highly, from the beautiful Celtic harp to the wonderful bazouki tremolos, kalimbas and buzzy balalaika, and from the traditional Chinese su gzheng (it sounds a bit like a koto), to the jaw‑droppingly realistic Mandolin multi‑sample. The latter is one of the most realistic replicas of a plucked string instrument I have yet played (it actually sounds like you're really strumming it!).
So vast and comprehensive are the drum, percussion and plucked sections that you get the feeling that there wasn't much space left for anything else. There are some woodwind instruments in the form of a few interesting whistles, gentle flutes and the inevitable pan pipe (a rather flaccid and lifeless example of the species, if the truth be known), as well as a smattering of bass and effects noises which are usable enough but hardly likely to give any of your other sound modules much of a run for their money. Another disappointment is the total lack of any vocal noises. Although these are notoriously memory‑hungry, and often limited in application, it would have been nice to have had at least some ethnic shouts as a token gesture.
Without doubt, Planet Earth is a specialist product, and a worthy successor to the Proteus 3 World which, incidentally, still sees regular use in my rack despite being well over seven years old. However, for all the newer module's added value in terms of its controllability (excellent), and sound quality (impeccable), I can't help feeling that Planet Earth's sound set is a little too similar to that of Proteus 3. Obviously, those who were inspired to buy the original Proteus 3 (ie. pretty much anyone who ever switched one on) are the prime target audience for Planet Earth. There aren't any actual sample repetitions, but if you already own the Proteus 3 you could argue that the Planet Earth sound set is merely a highly polished, better‑sounding version of the one in the module you already have. Perhaps a completely different approach to the sample set, with sounds that Proteus 3 doesn't have — choirs, vocals, better sound effects — could have made Planet Earth a true companion module, instead of a superior, but ultimately competitive one.
Also, speaking as a UK‑based user, I think Emu really have shot themselves in the foot regarding the non‑availability of the Turbo Expansion as a separate product outside the Americas (see box above). While an upgrade path of sorts does still exist, I feel the type of users most likely to be interested in this module are the least likely to be prepared to part with their synth, having to box it all up, send it off and wait for a different module (which won't retain any of their own edited presets) to be returned to them — and all to get the same number of outputs you had on the standard Proteus 3. Emu, what are you thinking?
The expansion option aside, what you have in the basic unit is a credible and satisfying instrument that captures the spirit of its chosen instruments with style and professionalism. With only 32Mb of ROM available, Emu were never going to please all of the people all of the time (let's face it, Planet Earth is a pretty big place) but the sound designers have nevertheless come up with a highly usable, playable and eclectic set of samples.
Having written about them so often recently, its easy to forget about this series of modules' remarkable general specification which includes arpeggiators, real‑time control knobs, effects, filters and indepth editing but I'm sure anyone who makes the investment in a Planet Earth module won't overlook them for long.
The Proteus 3 was a milestone, proving that electronic instruments didn't all have to sound the same, and Planet Earth builds on this achievement. In short, if I had a tight budget, would I trade in my Proteus 3 in order to get one? Probably not. Do I still want one anyway? You betcha!
- 001 0 'Kalimba Ensemble': a wonderful set of thumb piano multi‑samples which will be appearing on a Discovery Channel documentary about the Serengeti any day now...
- 004 0 'Liquidity': a flangy set of clay drums and percussion that's just the sort of thing you might find on one of Eric Persing's Liquid Grooves CD‑ROMs.
- 014 0 'Steel Drum': the best steel drum multi‑sample ever presented in a sound module or sample CD. Period.
- 021 0 'Celtic Harp': a sumptuously authentic but versatile harp preset helped by a tight delay and sexy reverb.
- 033 0 'Kit:Salsa': one of the many excellent drum and percussion sets, this time with a spicy Latin flavour.
- 057 0 'Tenor Banjo': if this twangy banjo preset doesn't make you want to own a pickup truck, wear some dirty dungarees, and take your sister to a bluegrass hoe‑down then, frankly, nothing will.
- 123 0 'Bass Synthy2': Planet Earth has a modest but usable bass section and this warm analogue bass is one of the best. Don't forget those real‑time filter cutoff and resonance knobs!
- 062 3 'World Whistle': one of the better actual sound effects‑type presets, with a collection of unusual bird/instrumental whistles.
- 020 1 'WahWah Accordion': this seems as though it's just a basic accordion sound. However, playing with the modulation wheel triggers all manner of filter madness.
If you live in North or South America, you can expand your Planet Earth (or indeed your Mo'Phatt or XL1 Extreme Lead) by buying Emu's Turbo Board option. This doubles Planet Earth's polyphony to 128, and also gives you 32 MIDI channels, S/PDIF digital out and four extra analogue audio outputs. When I reviewed the Mo'Phatt and Extreme Lead, I mentioned this option, as it was also going to be available outside the Americas; however, the plans have now changed. In the rest of the world, the XL1 and Mo'Phatt can either be bought in a version that has the Turbo board pre‑fitted, or in the standard form, which doesn't. If you buy the basic version, and then decide you want to upgrade later, you have to actually swap your basic model for a pre‑fitted Turbo version, as Emu only fit the boards within the Americas.
Matters are slightly more complex for Planet Earth, which has no pre‑fitted Turbo version. If you want to expand your Planet Earth outside the Americas, Emu will swap you your machine for a Proteus Custom (which has the outputs, MIDI spec, and polyphony of a Turbo‑enhanced Planet Earth as standard) and fit it with a Planet Earth wave ROM. In the case of all these upgrades, the end result is the same as fitting the Turbo Board (except you lose the Planet Earth's tranquil turquoise front panel in the cross‑grade to a Proteus), and the cost is not really an issue, as Emu merely charge you the difference between your basic machine and the one you upgrade to. In the UK at least, the difference between the price of Planet Earth and a Proteus Custom with Earth ROM is actually less than the Turbo upgrade costs in the States — but check where you live, as this may not be the case everywhere. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking this is all unnecessarily complex — and, of course, it would have been nice to have the extra outputs as standard anyway. Not only that, but outside the Americas it makes rather a mockery of the concept of expandable models with interchangeable sound ROMs, which was supposed to be the point of these modules in the first place!
As with most software packages these days, the bulk of the instructions for Planet Earth come in electronic form; together with the module you get a CD‑ROM which includes all of its operational manuals stored as PDF Acrobat files. You could argue (as I have done in previous Emu reviews) that the company's assumption that everyone has a PC or Mac in their studio to read the instructions is a tad previous, but Atari and hardware sequencer users needn't fret, because you also get a Quick Start paper manual, and this, with its usual basic safety warnings ('Don't use Planet Earth whilst taking a bath or swimming', and so on) covers pretty much everything users should need in order to access the most frequently used features. It's worth pointing out that Emu have a good track record of late in providing easy‑to‑read, informative and well‑laid‑out instruction manuals that manage to have a chatty and non‑patronising tone, yet retain the knack of giving you the information you need without leaving you frustrated and fuming. Anyone lucky enough to be the proud owner of the three‑volume badly translated cross‑cultural catastrophe which masqueraded as the instruction manual for Roland's VS1680 digital studio will know exactly what I'm talking about.
There is also an old but accurate rule of thumb that says if a piece of equipment is well designed, the average user shouldn't need to look at the instructions, and to Emu's credit, I found this to be the case for most of the time I was using Planet Earth (and indeed Xtreme Lead and Mo'Phatt). Instruction manuals, eh? When synthesis is this self‑explanatory, who needs them anyway?
- Unique, well‑recorded sound set.
- Easy to use.
- Authentic reproductions of unusual instruments.
- Very strong percussion section.
- Great programmability.
- Single audio outputs on the basic model, and differing upgrade path depending on whether you live in America or the rest of the world!
- Woodwind sounds a bit weak.
- No vocal samples.
While not instantly as flashy or impressive as some other sound modules, Planet Earth offers access to a rich variety of interesting ethnic sounds. Emu's familiar 'ease of use' approach should also help widen its appeal beyond more specialist users. Wildlife documentary soundtrack writers and/or Peter Gabriel should order theirs immediately.