We meet the reviewer's dream ‑ a powerful synth that's versatile, easy to use, easy to edit and even demonstrates its own patches for you!
Emu's original Proteus series of synthesizer modules was enormously well respected, and even today there are musicians who wouldn't want to be without them. But in recent years, the company seems to have turned its attention away from traditional synths to concentrate on samplers and dedicated dance instruments. Now the Proteus is back with a vengeance, in the guise of the Proteus 2000. And although still sample‑based, it is a vastly more powerful instrument than the original.
It's quite obvious that Emu looked at Roland's successful JV1080 and JV2080 synths, then decided to go down a similar route — while at the same time trying to offer more of just about everything! Like the Roland models, the Proteus 2000's patches can comprise up to four layers. It also has resonant filters and is expandable via internal ROM cards. However, it's a very different sounding instrument to the Roland JV2080 and would actually complement it very well if you were in a position to afford both.
Presented in a rackmount case that's styled along the same lines as the Audity 2000, the Proteus 2000 features 128‑voice polyphony with 32‑part multitimbrality via two separate MIDI In ports. The front‑panel controls comprise just six knobs and nine buttons, not including the mains switch, but behind this simple facade is a powerful editing system.
The Proteus 2000 departs from tradition in that there are no hard‑wired factory sounds. The 'Composer' sound set provided with all basic machines is on a SIMM card and plugs into one of the four 32Mb expansion slots. This leaves three slots free for expander cards of your choice.These cards will be either 16 or 32Mb each, and though none are currently available, it is expected that the range will include many of the sounds from the earlier Proteus, Planet Phatt and Orbit models, as well as new orchestral, contemporary and dance‑orientated sets. In theory, you could get the entire Proteus‑series back catalogue onto a single expansion card — something that would certainly interest me.
As well as the proposed expansion ROM cards, Emu have developed a compatible Flash RAM expander card that can be programmed within their new E‑series Ultra instruments (namely the E6400 Ultra, Esynth Ultra, and E4XT Ultra). Not only does this allow users to create their own waveform samples, it also opens up the market for third‑party companies to supply additional sound banks.
Patches are arranged in banks of 128 and, as supplied, the instrument has four banks of user memories, plus eight banks of 'factory' presets on the Composer card along with all the currently available waveforms. The user banks are filled with copies of factory patches. When expansion cards are added, more factory presets are also added, though the number of user memories remains fixed at 512. To help you to find your way around all these patches, there's a feature called Sound Navigator that allows sounds to be defined and searched for by type. An automatic audition function, that plays short sequenced phrases appropriate to the current patch, is included so that sounds can be checked out quickly, even when no keyboard is connected. This runs continuously when the Audition button is on, and when you change to a new patch, the audition phrase changes accordingly — a great way to get a feel for the sounds in a music store. There seems to be a large number of these audition phrases, and they can be sent out over MIDI if you're interested in seeing how they're put together.
Patches comprise up to four layers, with independent amplitude envelopes and filters for each of the layers, as well as comprehensive modulation facilities. Layers may be switched or crossfaded by velocity, keyboard position, real‑time MIDI control or from an internal modulation source. There are two 24‑bit multi‑effects units, though in multitimbral mode these have to be applied globally. However, the amount of effect applied to each part may be varied. Nevertheless, most of the sounds seem to stand up well with little more than a light dusting of reverb. I'm also pleased to see that reverb is used sparingly in the factory patches, rather than being laid on with a trowel as so often seems to be the case.
The modulation facilities of the Proteus 2000 rival those of a modular synth and include three envelope generators and two LFOs for each layer of a patch. There is MIDI control over most parameters and internal modulation sources are routed via a virtual patchcord system to any of 64 destinations via up to 24 'patch cords' per layer. A number of modulation sources can also be sync'ed to MIDI clock, as can certain rhythmic patches.
For programming in greater depth, the patching system also includes 'arithmetic modifiers', though there's no need to be intimidated by the prospect of editing. Four of the five knobs at the left of the front panel (the other is Master Volume), combined with one bank button, allow near‑instant access to 12 key parameters per patch without even going into edit mode. In effect, these knobs can serve three different functions: they can provide real time control, they can be used to Quick Edit patches by changing the initial controller settings, or they can be used in conjunction with the on‑screen parameters when in Deep Editing mode. Not only do these knobs allow patches to be fine‑tuned very quickly, they can also send real‑time MIDI data out of the MIDI Out socket so that dynamic sound changes can be recorded to a sequencer and automated.
Deep Editing is accessed via the Edit button, and in usual Proteus style, all the editable parameters are available within one long list, so there's no head scratching while you try to figure out how to get back to that page you just lost track of. When you're editing, parameters may be changed either by using the left/right cursor buttons and the data wheel, or it is possible to switch the four front‑panel knobs into Deep Edit mode so that they directly access four parameters per page. This makes complex editing reasonably easy, but you have to remember to switch back to the original Quick Editing mode if you want to use these knobs for general patch‑tweaking later on. And if you have no interest in programming, or just feel lucky, there's even a randomise facility that combines elements from the various factory presets to form new patches. Surprisingly, about one in 10 of these is actually pretty good! If you don't like the result, you just press the button again and have another go.
Emu have put an enormous amount of effort into filter design over the past few years, the pinnacle of their achievement in that area being their Morpheus synth. The Proteus 2000 isn't nearly so complex in the filter department as Morpheus, but even so there are 17 different Z‑plane filter types available, including a number of resonant and formant‑modelling configurations that can either emulate various classic synth filter sweeps or add a vocal character to sounds.
There are also numerous optional tunings to explore, including several 'just' intonations optimised for specific musical keys, a 19‑tone scale and one option that offers both main gamelan scales, with the Pelog on the white keys and the Slendro on the black keys.
Any synth with this amount of multitimbrality needs more than one pair of stereo outputs. The Proteus 2000 has six 18‑bit analogue outputs (Main Left/Right, Sub 1 Left/Right and Sub 2 Left/Right). In addition, there's a S/PDIF phono out that duplicates the main analogue outputs and which can be switched to AES/EBU if required.
Effects can only be applied to sounds routed to the main output, leaving the others free to be processed externally. Furthermore, the four Sub output jacks double as TRS insert points, enabling external effects or signal processors to be patched in. Any patches treated in this way are routed via the external effect to the main stereo output, which is a great idea if you're short on mixer channels.
Sounds may be routed to the various outputs by preset or by MIDI channel. You can't route to more than one output pair at a time and if nothing is plugged into the sub outputs, all presets are automatically routed to the main outputs. To handle the MIDI side of things, there are two MIDI Ins and two MIDI Thrus but only one MIDI Out, as that's all that's needed to perform Sysex dumps or to carry real‑time controller information.
Each patch can comprise up to four layers based on either single‑shot or looped samples. You can think of this as being like adding the outputs from four synths together, though as I said earlier, these layers may also used as part of a velocity crossfade, cross‑switch, keyboard split, and so on. The layer currently selected for editing is shown in the display window and may be changed using the data‑entry wheel. Individual layers can be switched on or off to make editing easier, and of course the fewer layers you use, the more polyphony you have.
Compared with some other synths, the Proteus 2000 display is fairly small at 24 characters wide and two lines deep, and there are no fancy virtual bargraph meters or envelope graphs, but the Quick Edit mode makes up for a lot. In‑depth editing via the front panel is not difficult, but it is time consuming, and it's my guess that anyone who's seriously into sound sculpting will probably want to use a computer editor.
Using the four front‑panel knobs in Quick Edit mode provides direct access to the most important parameters of the factory patches, though when it comes to creating user patches you can assign different parameters to these knobs if required. The kind of parameters you can normally change from here are the overall attack, decay and brightness of a patch, the balance of the layered sounds, the rate and depth of any LFO related functions, the effect A and B levels, and so on. In many instances, combining layers from different patches and then using the edit knobs to fine‑tune the end result is all that's needed.
Some synths have embedded effects that are every bit as complex as their hardware counterparts. However, my personal view is that life is too short to start messing around with that level of detail when you're trying to edit a synth patch. Evidently Emu think the same way, as they've provided a sensible range of effects types and then given the user just enough control over them to get the job done. For example, the A group of effects comprises 44 reverb/ambience type programs with control only over decay time and high‑frequency damping. The B group comprises 32 delay, modulation and distortion effects ranging from chorus and vibrato to tapped delay and flanging. Here there are controls for feedback plus LFO rate and delay. When you're not in Multisetup mode, a different combination of effects can be programmed into each preset, but when you're working multitimbrally, two effects have to be chosen as part of the Multiset and then used for all parts. The amount of effect used for each part is fully variable, so this isn't as restricting as it sounds, though it does limit the way in which distortion can be deployed.
Anyone who has heard a Proteus module before will know how clean and punchy the sounds are, but of course the Proteus 2000 has the advantage of being able to layer four sounds per patch rather than the two layers of the older Proteus models (if you don't count the patch‑linking feature of the original). And, of course, it has those wonderful filters, plus two lots of effects that the earlier Proteus models didn't have.
The eight banks of user sounds on the included Composer card provide a useful variety of patches, but I get the impression Emu have played a little safe, as most of the sounds are pretty traditional. For example, there are literally dozens of excellent acoustic pianos, electric pianos, organs, bass guitars, bass synths, and guitar sounds, as well as all the key orchestral sounds, but most of the analogue or overtly synthesized sounds seem to be aimed at the dance music composer. A few patches, such as the evocative Gothic Dream, offer tantalising insights into the type of textural, evolving sounds that this machine can so easily generate, but I get the impression that there's rather too much bread and butter and not enough jam. To be fair, the bread is freshly baked from hand‑ground organic flour and the butter comes from Jersey cows, but you know me — I'm a sucker for weirdness or ethnic flavours when it comes to synths.
Both the acoustic and electric pianos are exceptionally good and could put a number of dedicated piano modules to shame. The built‑in audition feature shows these off to good advantage with a different party piece for each type of piano. The bass guitar and fretless bass sounds are as good as I've heard outside of a sampler, and I found the flute patch to be nicely responsive to modulation and pitch‑bend. Because the filters offer a choice of slopes, the Proteus 2000 can also successfully emulate a number of popular analogue synths, and while purists probably wouldn't be fooled, the Oberheim, Prophet and Moog impressions are pretty convincing. The filters also allow traditional Proteus sounds to be made less up‑front, something that can help sounds in a mix sit together properly.
Despite my comments about the non‑standard drum mapping, the drum sets that are provided are instantly usable and very powerful, with numerous kits for both conventional pop/rock and dance composition. There's also plenty of choice of percussion within the factory patches, as well as a number of scratches, hits and even raw vinyl noise to keep most dance‑orientated musicians happy.
There are no real downsides to the Proteus 2000 other than the current lack of expansion boards and the non‑standard drum mapping. That's unless you desperately need a GM sound bank, in which case you'll have to wait for one to turn up on a card. I've enquired about the expander cards and apparently there will be a US set, plus an additional UK‑designed series of around 10 cards specifically tailored to the European market. The US cards will be ready earliest, with the first of the series due to be available within a matter of weeks.
For anyone who grew up with the original Proteus range and who wants the same type of clean, focused sounds, but with more polyphony, effects and powerful filters, the Proteus 2000 is a dream come true. With 32‑part multitimbrality and 128‑voice polyphony, this is one synth that really could manage the whole job on its own. What directions the expansion cards will take it in remains to be seen, but the existing Composer sound set already provides a huge range of patches tailored for pop, classical and dance work, albeit at the expense of off‑the‑wall stuff. Even so, it's very easy to combine layers from different patches, and with more than 1000 factory patches to choose from, it should be possible to come up with something new and useful fairly quickly. What's more, the real‑time front panel controls enable patches to be adjusted very intuitively — and there's always that Random function if you run out of inspiration. When the Flash ROMs are made available, Emu E‑series Ultra owners will also be able to make up custom voice cards to use in the Proteus 2000, so there should be no shortage of sonic ammunition in the long term.
Last of all comes the price. Originally, the Proteus 2000 was scheduled to be released at just under £1000. however, various arms have been twisted (or broken!) so you can now buy one for just £749! That's extraordinary value when you consider what the original Proteus series modules cost.
For use with a sequencer, the Proteus 2000 must be switched to a Multisetup, a kind of global snapshot of all the patch parameters, pan positions, effects settings and so on relating to the whole machine. Unused channels can be turned off, and if 16 or fewer parts are needed you only need to use one of the MIDI Ins.
Most synths have a similar multi mode, though the terminology differs from model to model. Up to 128 Multisetups can be created and stored, but if you're setting up patches, levels, pans on so on from within a sequencer, the main thing that changes between Multisetups is the effects. On the other hand, if you prefer to create sets of patches in the synth and leave program changes disabled on the sequencer (and there are many who do), having this many Multisetups is ideal.
Emu seem to be trying to hold out against General MIDI for as long as is humanly possible, and although extremely good examples of the more sensible GM sounds are to be found scattered amongst the factory patches, the designers obviously couldn't bring themselves to sacrifice any of their precious waveform ROM to accommodate helicopters, telephones, applause or bird tweets! It's been strongly hinted that a very serious 32Mb GM sound set will appear as a plug‑in ROM board, but as far as the basic Composer sound set is concerned, GM doesn't get a look in. This may not affect the majority of users, though Emu's insistence on non‑standard drum mapping can be irritating.
Whereas many synths dedicate MIDI channel 10 to drum parts, the 32 parts of the Proteus 2000 are all identical, with the various drum kits tucked away among the other presets. This doesn't in itself present any problem — indeed, it allows you to use two different drum kits on two different MIDI channels at the same time, and you generally get better MIDI timing by using lower numbered MIDI channels and lower numbered sequencer tracks for drums.
However, the way individual drum sounds are mapped to MIDI notes is less friendly and follows in the footsteps of earlier Emu modules rather than conforming to the widely supported GM map. What's worse is that the kits aren't entirely consistent in their layouts either. If you need to play back old recordings that are mapped according to GM, you really need to create a new drum map for each kit rather than one global drum map. A few users have already commented on this, and if enough people make a fuss, perhaps Emu will tidy things up in a future software revision.