Emu's synths may have broken no new ground since the 1999 launch of the Proteus 2000, but the new 2500 plays to their strengths, offering the best of their sound library, plus excellent sequencing and real-time control capabilities, at a very attractive price.
I think we all go through periods where we start to feel we've seen it all. Sometimes even the latest all-singing, all-dancing box of hi-tech delights fails to excite, like a book with a flashy new cover concealing a story we know we've read before. So it was that when asked to review a new Emu module, I mentally dismissed it as 'just another Proteus with a few knobs added'. However, sometimes you need to step back before cynicism overwhelms you completely, because when the Proteus 2500 arrived chez Nagle, I warmed instantly to its control-rich user interface and serious blue-grey styling. Furthermore, my initial lack of enthusiasm underwent a complete reversal as I began to translate those on-paper specs into real music-making power.
Years of familiarity with Emu modules tends to dull the impact of just how well they have stood the test of time. Their design is utterly simple in principle, and has evolved slowly, gaining a feature here, some Z-plane filters there, and dipping a tentative toe into digital effects. The Proteus 2500 represents a significant stride forward, not least in its appearance. An impressive 4U high, it features the standard (ie. small) Proteus two-line display, plus a green LED numeric display, 16 multi-function knobs (complete with adjacent red LEDs), a sequencer, arpeggiator and many edit buttons that make operation a breeze. As you can see, it is essentially a workstation-based module with an interface designed for both synthesis and sequencing. And the onboard sound engine is well suited to sequencing work, with its impressive 128-note polyphony and 32-part multitimbrality (more on this in a moment).
If you think all this seems rather familiar, you're right. The Proteus 2500 is closer in spec to the recent Emu MP7 and XL7 Command Stations than previous Proteus models, though it shares many characteristics with the Proteus 2000 as well. So, rather than re-examine every knob and button, I suggest a quick study of the Command Station (SOS November 2001) and Proteus (SOS March 1999) reviews in combination with this one.
Due to the 2500's well-conceived interface, the display size is rarely an issue, except for those times when you need to tab around several fields with the cursor keys, when it does start to feel like a few presses too many. One of the most useful buttons, the Track/Channel selector, is directly adjacent to the display. This selects the current track or instrument or, in Preset Edit mode, the layers that make up an individual sound. At the highest level of operation, the Mode/View buttons (below) offer Song, Pattern, Preset or Mix options, changing both the mode and what is currently shown in the display. Beneath these, the green LED shows current values for either tempo, pattern number, bar/beat or track/channel (see below). If I have any complaint about the interface, it is a minor one: the blue-on-black text is a little hard to read in low-light conditions. Otherwise, I found it superb — and that's the first time I've thought that about any Proteus module!
The Proteus 2500 features new 24-bit analogue and digital outputs, and it is apparently controlled by a processor three times more powerful than its predecessor. As already mentioned, it offers a generous 128 notes of polyphony with up to 32 channels of MIDI addressable — although not, perhaps, in quite the way you would expect. A look at the rear panel reveals a single MIDI In, plus two outputs: Out A and Out B. Curiously, the large printed manual depicts the ports as standard In, Out and Thru, so it was only when I started to work with the synth that I realised either output (or both) could be configured as a Thru.
Having two separate MIDI Outs is not without its uses. For example you can set up the onboard programmable knobs so that they transmit data to either MIDI port, perhaps to control remote devices whilst leaving normal operation unaffected. There is a versatile internal routing system for MIDI with 32 addressable channels 01A-16A and 01B-16B. You can route the MIDI output of individual sequencer tracks to any of the 32 internal channels or to either of the external MIDI ports, or even to internal and external simultaneously! Thus, only in conjunction with the onboard sequencer can you consider the Proteus 2500 to be truly 32-part multitimbral.
Staying with the rear panel, a digital output (selectable between S/PDIF and AES pro) is present, plus a USB port for direct connection to a computer. To supplement the two main audio outputs, two pairs of outputs (Sub1 and Sub2) follow the usual approach for Emu modules, whereby each is a stereo jack suitable for using as send and returns for external effect processing, or to add extra signals at a pinch. They can, of course, function as normal auxiliary outputs with mono jacks connected, resulting in a total of six outputs.
The Proteus 2500 has a rear-mounted power switch and one on the front panel too; no prizes for guessing which one you'll be using the most once the unit is racked! Finally, two momentary footswitch inputs are present, their functions programmable for such useful tasks as pattern switching during playback, sequencer control, tap tempo, and so on.
I think I'll break with tradition and talk about the onboard 16-track sequencer first, as it made such an impression. Each track can record and play back single or multiple MIDI channels and, as I've already mentioned, there are 32 internal channels plus two external MIDI ports that can be addressed. With plenty of intuitive physical controls, and a storage capacity of 300,000 notes, here is a workstation sequencer you might actually use! Its resolution is 384 pulses per quarter note and there are 1024 pattern locations and 512 song locations, all stored internally following power-off. This is just as well, because there is no onboard storage facility such as a floppy drive or SmartMedia slot. So, even though you can import and export MIDI files, you are going to need a computer running Emu's E-Loader software as middle man (see the 'OS Upgrade Woes' box at the end of this article) to do it. I'm not convinced. Floppies may seem like old technology now, but they are still a very convenient way to pass song data between different sequencers...
Pattern mode offers the simplest way to start creating your own tracks. Patterns can be up to 32 bars in length and both real- and step-time recording are incorporated for quickly getting ideas down. There's even a Grid mode ideally suited to creating drum patterns (but not restricted to it) and, using one of many convenient shortcuts, you enter the note to be active on the grid via MIDI input. To select the mode you want, repeatedly push the Record button. At this point, the Play button's LED will flash. Hitting Play to start Real or Grid recording causes the Pattern to start looping, awaiting either real-time performance or note entry via the 16 808-style Trigger buttons (see the 'Knobs & Buttons' box elsewhere in this article). Hitting Play in step-time record simply advances to the next step, although you can set this to happen automatically when you play and then release notes on the keyboard. Step-time record is quantised based on the current time location and if you shift position to slightly past the beat, you can then enter complex off-beats incredibly easily. During playback, you can select the Pattern you want to hear next, hit enter and it will take over smoothly at the end of the current one. This Groovebox-style flexibility is very welcome: at any time you can simply hit Record and overdub onto an existing track or create a new one. Similarly, you don't have to stop the music to select (or edit) sounds, mute existing tracks or program a mix using the controller knobs. Other nice touches include hitting the dedicated Mix button to get a tiny overview of each track's volume level or (if you switch views with the data-entry dial, an overview of all pan settings).
Patterns can be quantised with user-selectable resolution, swing and amount. As with most other sequencers, a wide variety of edit, erase and transpose operations can also be performed — and on multiple tracks at once if you so desire. I particularly liked 'Extend Sequence Data', which lets you increase the length of a Pattern after recording; the Proteus simply deals with the task of pasting copies of the data to fill to the new end of Pattern. To produce your completed masterpiece, building up Songs is a simple matter of chaining Patterns together then adding any performance or controller overdubs afterwards if necessary.
A small screen such as this (see above) will never provide the visual feedback offered by, say, Cubase and a 17-inch monitor, especially if your arrangements are complex. Yet, aided by many dedicated controls and indicators, it never felt like obstacle to me. In fact, I found it refreshingly easy to concentrate on what is important — how the music actually sounds! To tweak an individual wrong note or controller, it did the job just fine, although if you regularly perform detailed edits of many individual events then it could become tedious. However, years of working with software sequencers have taught me that the best method ever of fixing a cocked-up performance is just to play it again! With that in mind, it would have been nice to have a simple Undo button...
This Proteus has a generous 4 x 4 matrix of knobs, each with an associated LED: turn a knob and the LED lights to show it has changed the patch. During playback, the 16 LEDs serve as MIDI status indicators.
A Knob Hold function disables the knobs so you can move them without making drastic, audible changes. This is especially useful if setting up a series of mix levels before fading in some tracks, but a new mode where no change happens until you pass through the stored value would have been far better. Knob functions are allocated into four groups: QuickEdit, Program, Volume and Pan. QuickEdit offers controls for cutoff, resonance, envelope, LFO and other functions for editing Presets. The Program mode is fun because it can either be used to send MIDI controllers (selectable from continuous controller numbers 1 to 95) to the internal synth engine, or it can transmit them to other modules via either MIDI Output port.
We've seen that, in sequencer mode, the 16 buttons (below) are used to mute/select tracks or to perform Grid Edit operations. However, their usefuless doesn't end there. In Preset Edit mode, they are used to jump to key points within the menu system, repeated presses taking you through each particular sub-menu. The buttons can also function as note triggers — you can assign a note, its velocity and whether it is latched (remains on until hit again) or not. Perhaps surprisingly, none of the multi-functionality feels cumbersome.
The Proteus' 1200 internal waveforms are stored in 32Mb of ROM and may be expanded via three slots by up to a further 96Mb using Emu's Sound ROMs. Titles such as World, Orchestral, Techno and Peter Siedlaczek Advanced Orchestra (amongst others) are available, and if you happen to have an Emu Ultra sampler at your disposal, you can even load SIMMs containing your own sounds via Emu's 16Mb or 32Mb Flash ROM kit.
In Proteus terms, patches are known as 'Presets' — even the user-programmable locations. The unexpanded sound set offers 512 factory sounds plus 512 user locations, each stored in four banks (the bank number is shown as a small character next to the patch number in the display). For multitimbral use, 64 Multi setups may be accessed (and stored) via the Global Menu or using MIDI Bank Select and Program changes. For more on some of the Presets, see the 'Favourite Sounds' box.
Each patch has its own name and category, and an improvement over most other synthesizers is the ability to create your own categories. Selection within a category is a simple matter of moving the cursor to the patch name and spinning the data-entry wheel. Or, to select new categories, tab to the category field and select the new one in the same manner.
According to Emu, the factory sounds are all new, but the basic waveform set is exactly the same as that of the Proteus 2000. Overall, I reckon the sounds won't grab you instantly as do, say, the factory patches on a Korg Triton or Roland Fantom. Part of the underwhelmed feeling you get may be due to the restrained way that effects are used, and the fact that the factory patches are pretty unadventurous. Within a short time, though, I had created some lovely evolving pads of my own, making plenty of use of the filters and modulation routings.
Here are just a selection from the many usable Presets on offer. MP3 examples of each of these are available in the righthand sidebar of this article. Please note that most of the demos were recorded using the 2500's own 'Audition' function, except for those specifically mentioned.
- 018: 'DownTheRhodz' — warm electric piano.
- 021: 'Piano Mio' — rather clunky but playable acoustic piano.
- 055: 'B-3 3rd' — one of many excellent organs.
- 003-018: 'Kit 01-16' — a selection of drum kits.
- 103: 'Both Vibes' — marvellous vibraphones.
- 033: 'Shimmerings' — a lush pad (my demo).
- 043: 'Tron Strings' — Mellotron strings.
- 051: 'Film Layers' — dreamy, atmospheric strings (my demo).
- 105: 'Nylon' — clear acoustic guitar.
- 007: 'EvenMoEPIC!' — huge, swirly filter whooshes.
- 084: 'Plucked 5ths' — chirpy arpeggiator.
Although simple, Emu's synthesis is very flexible due to its logical design, an impressive 'virtual patch-cord' modulation system and its Z-plane filters. As on previous models, each Proteus 2500 Preset consists of up to four layers, each of which behaves like a self-contained synthesizer and has its own route through the mixer/buss system. Most aspects of Emu programming, such as the modulation routings, have been covered in previous reviews, so I'll merely observe here that the number of options deserves respect, even if you cut your teeth programming arcane analogue modulars! If I have a slight misgiving with the synthesis implementation, it is one that also applies to the other recent Emu synths I have owned: namely that the envelopes seem to respond rather sluggishly and are lacking in snappiness and punch.
In terms of aural sculpting, Emu's filters open up vast tracts of unexplored sound and offer proof that good filters don't necessarily need to be analogue. The Proteus 2500 has a selection of 50 different types of filter, which is enough to keep you stimulated for ages, but not so many that you get bogged down choosing one mid-song (ring any bells, Morpheus owners?). The filters all have memorable names too, such as 'DJAlkaline', 'Razorblades', 'Ooh-to-Aah', and 'MegaSweepz', and they include phasing, flanging, vocal filters, strange, tearing resonant filters and deep, sweeping filters. If you want a synth that can go 'eeowwzweeee', the Proteus 2500 is happy to oblige.
The multi-channel arpeggiator possesses some unique and creative options (including operation on up to 32 channels) and I really wish I had space to describe them all. As well as the usual up/down/random range of patterns, there are user patterns of up to 32 notes plus modes such as Sync, Pre-delay, Duration, Post-Delay, Recycle, Extension Count and Interval. In a brief summary of just some of the available tools, Sync sets whether the arpeggio starts immediately on pressing a key or is quantised to wait until the next quarter note, Pre-Delay determines the wait period before the arpeggiator becomes active after the first note is played, and Duration sets how long the arpeggiator runs before stopping, Extension Interval is effectively a transpose amount for the arpeggio, and Extension Count is how many times the interval is performed. There's more too, but I'm in danger of using sentences that are impossible to read out without running out of breath, so I'll finish with the observation that the arpeggiator is as comprehensive an example of the genre as you're likely to find anywhere. Or, if concise is what you want, I thought it was awesome!
There are two 24-bit effects processors on board which are adequate but not amazing. If you've read the previous Proteus reviews, you'll recognise these: Processor A has 44 effect types and is primarily concerned with Reverb and Delay effects, and Processor B has 32 types concentrating on chorus, flange, delay and distortion. I don't think anyone ever bought an Emu module for its effects: the four-buss effects-routing system, in particular, feels primitive and restrictive compared to other synths that, for example, offer a separate send amount for each patch in a multitimbral setup. The implementation also results in some annoying compromises if you want to make extensive use of the internal effects. I obtained the most workable results by globally defining how each MIDI channel should be routed and then working with effects at Global rather than Patch level. If for some bizarre reason you wanted to use just a single channel of this 128-voice monster, you could set the effects according to the needs of a single patch and then make use of those Sub in/outputs for external effects processing.
Before drawing conclusions, it's worth commenting on Emu's curious pricing strategy for the Proteus 2500. The company's recommended retail price (the one that SOS always prints in reviews) is £899, but Emu seem to be heavily discounting it to retailers, with the result that it's available in many places for more like £799 (the actual price I've seen in at least two places). Now, we're all familiar with the idea that no-one ever seems to pay the full RRP, but this is a serious discount (the same thing seems to be happening with the Command Station modules, which were launched at £999 — the price at the time of November 2001's SOS review — have now had their RRP cut to £899, and are also available on the street for £799 and under).
In the face of this keen price, you'd have to say that this module offers impressive value, even if most of its basic features remain unchanged from the Proteus 2000. It's stocked full of useable 'everyday' sounds, and the raw samples are highly 'musical', requiring little additional work (and you can soon create patches much better than the factory ones by exploiting the 2500's mind-bending modulation routings and Z-plane filters). The polyphony of 128 notes is not to be sniffed at, and the three expansion slots should ensure the 2500 can grow with you.
What surprised me most, though, was how much I enjoyed using the built-in sequencer. It has an excellent user interface and happens to incorporate exactly the level of functionality and useability that, for me, makes working with it a pleasure. I particularly liked the pattern mode implementation, which offers sufficient hands-on interaction to make live performance a joy too. The arpeggiator is well-specified and the physical controls are a significant bonus, adding flexibility and playability to an already versatile instrument.
Keeping that price in mind, negatives are rather short on the ground, although I would have liked a second MIDI input so that the 32 available channels could be accessed externally. Perhaps the 2500 was conceived as a live-oriented rackmounted sequencer first and a multitimbral module second? In which case, the additional MIDI Out makes sense. I think a floppy drive would still have been valuable for the easy transportation of MIDI files between different sequencers — as it is, Emu appear to assume that all musicians have computers. While this might one day be true, it's highly irritating having to use a proprietary piece of software to perform OS upgrades. My final moanette concerns the buss system and effects processors that are limiting, uninspired and hardly worthy of this otherwise excellent synth. However, thanks to that competitive price, I can't see any of these shortcomings denting the popularity of this module too much.
Most bits of kit offer reviewers the chance to get some moans off their chest at some point, and the Proteus 2500 was no exception. This particular opportunity for catharsis came about at the outset, thanks to Emu's method of upgrading the 2500's Operating System.
As is usual with a new synth, my first act on receiving the 2500 was to surf to the company's web site and check I had the latest version of the operating system installed. Sure enough, my module had OS v1.17 and v1.18 was sitting waiting for me to download. Once that was done, I realised that Emu don't supply this OS upgrade as a Standard MIDI File. Instead, it appears in a proprietary file format, and, worse, you need to install a separate program to actually perform the upgrade.
I dutifully installed this program — E-Loader — on my studio Windows PC and ferried the OS file from my net-surfing PC to the studio one. E-Loader requires a bi-directional MIDI connection to the Proteus and my initial attempts to perform the upgrade were frustrating and time-consuming; the button that was supposed to initiate the transfer of the OS file from PC to Proteus was inexplicably greyed out. A helpful chap on Emu UK's support team offered some suggestions, including pointing out that there was a 'preload' file that I should send to the synth first. I pleaded for the OS as a Standard MIDI File but, alas, it seems it's E-Loader or nothing (heaven help users of the humble Atari, or those with hardware sequencers!). Apparently, you can use the 2500's rear-panel USB socket instead of the bi-directional MIDI connection if your studio computer is USB-capable, which is marginally more convenient, but this doesn't get you out of tangling with E-Loader — you just use it via USB instead (d'oh!).
Finally, having successfully performed the upgrade, I tried to uninstall E-Loader, but the uninstall process crashed, leaving my studio PC with just one more piece of junk — an unremoveable DLL file — on it! As upgrades go, this one was a big downer.
- A mighty synth module at a piddly price.
- The real-time knobs really open up the Proteus synth engine.
- 128-note polyphony.
- Expandable with the Proteus range of sound ROMs.
- Excellent built-in sequencer.
- Effects implementation is rudimentary.
- A floppy drive would've been handy.
- Up to 32 internal MIDI channels, but only one MIDI In port.
- OS upgrades require Emu's own software.
A stylish, clean-sounding module which has a tremendous sonic range, generous polyphony and is far more hands-on than we've come to expect from the Proteus range. The effects engine fails to impress, but otherwise the 2500 is hard to fault at its price, and offers a genuine, ballsy alternative to the more lush, polished Japanese sound we hear so much.
- Proteus 2500 OS version reviewed: v1.18.