Emu's latest swingbeat sample player is home to a colony of wicked sounds for hip‑hop, trip‑hop and acid jazz fans. Dominic Hawken puts on his space suit to explore this strange new world...
Ever since the launch of the original Emulator, Emu have maintained a high profile within the pro sound industry. Their samplers dominate the American market, and their range of sound modules has also found a place in many studios and keyboard racks. The recent release of the Orbit dance module, an extensive collection of classic sounds and breaks, took the concept of the sample player one stage further, including MIDI‑clocked rhythms and built‑in sequencing options; now the Planet Phatt effectively re‑packages the Orbit, with a range of samples geared specifically to the hip‑hop, trip‑hop and swing‑beat market.
Utilising Emu's long‑standing programming experience, the Planet Phatt is a 16‑part multitimbral module which employs the same successful design standards first applied to the Proteus range of modules. The unit contains a wide selection of bass and synth sounds, from dreamy organ settings to cutting Moog‑style lead presets and sinister FX noises. On the drum front, the Phatt is equipped with Emu's 'Beats' system, featuring 100 user‑editable drum loops stored in memory. These can be synchronised to a MIDI clock, and edited with the built‑in 'X‑Factor' control to produce an almost unlimited array of new grooves and patterns. All the sounds can be adjusted with filters, modulation and MIDI‑sync'ed LFO parameters, and then stored for future use. The module also includes three stereo outputs for external processing, and the usual array of MIDI parameters for use with a sequencer.
In performance, the module can stand alone as well as being used for external MIDI sequencing: there's memory space for up to 28 songs, which control the various beat programs and loop or jump between different patterns. In addition, when it's used with Emu's Launch Pad Performance Controller, the Planet Phatt becomes a self‑contained 'groove machine', with an array of velocity‑sensitive drum pads and MIDI controllers all interfacing seamlessly with the module to allow easy programming and sequencing of song data. (See the separate 'Launch Pad' box for a detailed description.)
Sample players such as the Phatt are excellent tools for songwriting and arranging. When you have instant access to such a vast array of different patches, all geared towards a particular style of music, there's no need to fumble through your disk library before you can start work. Although a dedicated sampler may provide a greater degree of control over the individual sounds, plus extra programming facilities such as cross‑fading and time‑stretch, the processing power included within Emu's new modules extends their capabilities so far that they rival the power of sampling systems costing many times the price — and that power is coupled with a huge range of sounds.
As with other Emu multitimbral modules, up to 16 individual sounds can be programmed to play concurrently, and any sound can be changed and auditioned on the fly. It's when you start editing, however, that the Phatt really excels: Presets within the system each have a 'primary' and 'secondary' Layer, with each layer containing a complete set of parameters to make up a sound. Presets are organised into five different banks, each containing 128 Presets. Three of the banks contain modifiable factory‑set sounds, and the other two are available for you to store modified programs and patch data for later recall. Naturally, you can decide which waveforms, from the 480 on offer, you want to assign as primary and secondary Layers and, once assigned, the primary and secondary sounds can be stacked together, or cross‑faded and switched in various ways to produce changes in timbre. Lastly, as the icing on the cake, up to four presets can be linked together, so that more than one can be available across the keyboard simultaneously. These linked presets can overlap each other to produce layered sounds, or be set to operate between different keys to produce split settings.
The filtering section in particular offers radical control over the timbre of each sound.
Although most users will initially take advantage of the built‑in patches, and set them up to play across various MIDI channels, the Phatt offers a great deal of control over the make‑up of each sound, and it's worthwhile reading through the detailed manual and experimenting with each sound to produce alternative versions. The module contains complex filtering and modulation controls, as well as a number of adjustable sample parameters which can radically alter each preset and produce new and interesting sounds. All of the most common parameters have been included, and the filtering section in particular offers radical control over the timbre of each sound. Emu have employed their Z‑Plane filtering system (as used on their Morpheus synth), which can not only change its settings over time — as a sound progresses — but is also capable of 'morphing' between different states. This system includes settings to cover cutoff, resonance and full parametric control. Once you've programmed two filter types, their settings can be morphed over the course of the sound, and also controlled using an external system such as the Launch Pad, or from an LFO or external keyboard. Virtually all the settings can also be adjusted using MIDI System Exclusive commands, so that you can record edits into a sequencer and play them back to adjust sound settings in real time, for the ultimate in creativity.
In 'Beats' mode, the Phatt turns into a programmable drum machine, working with loops as well as individual drum sounds. These loops are not sampled, but are MIDI sequences stored in the Phatt, so that when you change loop tempo, the pitch of the loop is unchanged. Also important in Beats mode is the 'X‑Factor' — a type of transpose function that replaces the individual drum sounds with others, thus completely changing the feel of a loop. Subtle use of the X‑Factor produces mad combinations of fills and percussion‑based loops, all of which relate to the original break and flow seamlessly together. When the Phatt is used without a sequencer, an internal MIDI clock allows the various loops to be programmed into a song (complete with looping and jump points), and the synth section of the unit can then still be accessed to play parts over the top — excellent for live work. Adding a Launch Pad offers extra real‑time control over the beats and sounds, with a number of data sliders and wheels that can be assigned to alter various parameters. The Launch Pad also generates a MIDI clock to drive the beats section, and gives the user a tape‑transport‑style interface, with controls such as Play, Record and Rewind to handle the sequencer functions.
Once they've got over the vivid colour scheme, anyone used to operating the Proteus or Vintage Keys range of modules will find themselves at home operating the Planet Phatt. The standard volume control and headphone socket sit at the left‑hand end of the control panel, and editing is achieved via a single data wheel and five edit buttons, which move the cursor around the two‑line LCD that defines the internal parameters. Usefully, the display is backlit, and can be adjusted to be fully visible from almost any angle, so the Phatt can be mounted right at the bottom of a pile and still be easily monitored. The six main outputs are fitted to the rear of the unit, and accessed via standard unbalanced jack sockets. Designed as stereo outputs (although the main sockets defer to mono if a single lead is plugged in), the sub outputs have a further, if familiar, trick up their sleeve: if a stereo jack plug is used, the ring of the plug acts as a return to the main mix output, and in this way the sub outputs can be used as effects sends, returning the resulting signal back to the main stereo outputs. Mains power and MIDI In, Out and Thru are also available on the rear. Although in most studio environments you won't need to use the effects sends — you'll connect the outputs directly to a mixing console — their addition is a useful afterthought, and will no doubt prove invaluable to many live players.
As I mentioned above, the sound presets on board the Phatt are made from a combination of both primary and secondary instruments, and different presets can be linked to produce layers of up to four different patches. The simplest way to combine sounds is by utilising the keyboard split, where different sounds play across different key ranges. To do this, a single preset is assigned a range of keys over which to operate, and then linked to other presets which cover the empty keys. You could use this, for instance, to set up a bass sound over the bottom two octaves, and a piano and string mix over the higher ranges. Larger sounds can be created by assigning different presets over the complete keyboard, and mixing or crossfading between sounds to produce rich and vibrant new patches.
It's when you start editing that the Phatt really excels.
In addition to the basic mix of presets that's possible, the individual Layers can be modified by filtering and modulation. The filter parameters on board the Planet Phatt are far more comprehensive than those found on much of the competition, with an adjustable 'pole' setting which affects the steepness of the cutoff slope acting on the sound. In this way, the filter can emulate the basic 'buzzy' sounds of a cheap analogue unit, as well as the tight, digital alternatives available on today's modern modules. This is a great addition to programming facilities on the Phatt, as many of the sounds used for hip‑hop and swingbeat tend to sound fairly 'crusty' in the first place — no doubt as a result of their being sampled from old and scratchy records. The ability to apply a gritty filter across the sound enhances this quality further, and makes the Planet Phatt sound more like an analogue tool than a slice of modern technology. That said, the six‑pole filtering that's also on offer sounds sweet and clear, so if true definition and accuracy is required, the Planet Phatt is only too happy to oblige.
There's a whole host of favourites on board the Phatt, all available for instant recall and editing without any worries of memory constraints or disk space.
Parametric filtering is also possible: a range of frequencies can be defined, and cut or boosted at varying strengths and bandwidths. To adjust more than one range, the filters can also be 'cascaded', creating complex filtering curves and effects. The morphing facility allows different filter settings to crossfade into each other as a sound progresses, with each filter smoothly interpolating to the next — Lexicon's Vortex effects unit, released a couple of years ago, did something similar. Another way of altering the sounds is through the use of modulation, driven from an LFO, or from the keyboard and velocity settings (which key is pressed, and how hard the note is struck). These values can be assigned to any number of internal parameters, from the pitch of the sample to the bandwidth of the current filter. Other modulation sources can be accessed with the Launch Pad, or by setting up some real‑time MIDI controllers using your sequencer. These can be set to affect the cross‑fade times and filter frequencies, as well as most of the other major parameters within the module.
Lastly, some extra parameters are also available to the user, allowing low‑level control of the preset samples: 'Delay Time', which varies the time between a MIDI note being received, and a sound starting; 'Start Point', which denotes where in the sample the sound begins to play; pitch; portamento; and 'Reverse', which forces the current sound to play backwards. Added together, these offer a great degree of flexibility when you're tuning the sounds to a particular track or mood. With the addition of the SysEx implementation, it's possible to program dedicated mixer maps in a good sequencer to allow graphical editing, or use the Launch Pad to vary any of the parameters in real time.
In reality, it doesn't matter how many amazing editing features are available on any MIDI module if the basic source sounds don't live up to expectations. As the Phatt's name suggests (not to mention the 'Swing System' tag, promoted by Emu in its advertising literature), most of the sounds are geared towards the trip‑hop, swingbeat market that Acid Jazz and First Avenue, not to mention many others, have promoted to great effect in the UK charts. Phatt with a capital 'F' is the order of the day, with big ballsy bass sounds and summery Moog‑style leads that blend happily together, driven by the host of loops and hits also on offer. As far as I could tell, as well as producing their own recreations and samples of some of the classic instruments in use at the moment, Emu have mercilessly plundered their record collection — there's a whole host of favourites on board the Phatt, all available for instant recall and editing without any worries of memory constraints or disk space. Some of the most impressive are the multisampled sections, with a great selection of guitar licks and strums, plus loads of acidy noises and hits ideal for adding depth and ambience to any track. They've even included a selection of vinyl‑style 'needle noise' samples for that true '70s sound. There is also a fine selection of scratches and tape‑stops, all spread across individual notes and easily edited to blend with different styles: perfect for hip‑hop.
In the percussion department, the loops cover a wide range of styles, and the 'X‑Factor' control is great for introducing strange fills and breakdowns, especially when inspiration is lacking. Because the loops are programmed with the internal sounds, they tend to sound somewhat similar after a while, but the ability to alter the tempo and control the transposition means that there are thousands of combinations to work with, so the novelty's unlikely to wear off.
Phatt with a capital 'F' is the order of the day, with big ballsy bass sounds and summery Moog‑style leads that blend happily together, driven by the host of loops and hits also on offer.
The samples for keyboard are impressive too: they're all programmed well, with very few glitches across the keyboard spans. Lead sounds, pads and classic old‑school noises have all been attended to, and the result is a positive treasure‑trove of useful patches. Admittedly, a few of the sounds are a little on the thin sound, but all of the 'must haves' are on board, and for sheer quality and innovation the Planet Phatt is hard to beat. If I had one complaint about the unit, it would be that some of the sounds are a little on the dull side, tonally speaking — something that I've always thought about many of the sound modules on the market (with the exception of the now ancient Roland U220). On the Phatt, however, this isn't so much of a problem, as crusty, cutting sounds with loads of bass and high‑mid frequencies are the order of the day.
If you take it as a multitimbral or solo sound module, there's little bad to be said about the Planet Phatt. The patches are excellent — and certainly one step ahead of the competition, where 'safety first' is often the main consideration when the sound library is put together. Buying the unit is analogous to buying a great sample CD, except that all the samples are immediately available without the need for a sampler, and any sound can be filtered and edited with the excellent analogue‑style control section. The beats section offers a great selection of rhythms, ideal for songwriting and generating ideas even if they don't quite cut it on the final mix, and the individual sounds available as on‑board patches are excellent — they're sampled well and cover the entire frequency spectrum. Using the Phatt as your main instrument, you should be able to produce great tracks, without the presets sounding weak and inferior; use it in conjunction with an expanded keyboard rack, and you'll probably never be stuck for that elusive sound still missing from the chorus. An excellent addition to Emu's ever‑expanding range of modules — and other than that, the only recommendation I can make is that I'm buying one!
The Launch Pad is effectively a MIDI performance controller, designed to interface directly with the Orbit — Emu's dance‑based module — or the Planet Phatt, although its functionality can also be used to good effect with any number of the MIDI modules on the market. Rather than being a specific keyboard replacement, the unit offers a number of other MIDI controllers (data wheels and sliders, for example), which can be programmed to send specific MIDI data to alter some of the more obscure parameters available within today's modules. When you're using a master keyboard alone, it's often possible to adjust only the pitch‑bend and modulation settings; adding a Launch Pad enables you to edit sounds and settings in real time, recording them in the same way as specific note data. The unit also offers a built‑in MIDI‑clock generator, together with Play and Record controls, so that it can be used as a master controller for sequencers, or the Beats section contained within the Planet Phatt.
(See the October '96 issue of SOS for a full review of the Launch Pad.)
- Excellent sound quality.
- Wide range of well‑thought‑out presets.
- Comprehensive on‑board editing of samples and filtering.
- Beats section ideal for songwriting or live use.
- No expansion facilities.
- More individual outputs would be useful.
- 'Vibrant' colour scheme.
Would make an excellent addition to any keyboard rack. Perfect for finding that elusive keyboard sound missing from the final mix.