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Emu Systems Emax II (Retrozone)

Emu Systems Emax II (Retrozone)

The high quality converters and resonant filter imbue the 16‑bit Emax II with a musicality and sonic character second to none.

The Emax II 16‑bit sampling keyboard from Emu Systems made its debut in 1989, and although it sold well in the USA it met with only modest success in the UK and Europe, partly because of the wider range of production and editing facilities offered by its main rival at the time, the then 'industry standard' Akai S1000. Although both instruments featured 16‑bit recording, the S1000 also provided 20Hz — 20kHz bandwidth thanks to its 44.1kHz sampling (Emax II tops out at 39kHz), XLR connectors, SMPTE triggering, and a large easy‑to‑read parameter display.

Nine years on, it is easier to forgive the shortcomings of the Emax II as a studio production tool and recognise its strengths as a classic musical instrument that sounds excellent, even when judged by current standards. The sweet musicality of the Emax II converters and its rich resonant filter are capable of producing not only vivid acoustic instrument emulations, but also exciting synth textures. Complemented by a powerful MIDI clockable arpeggiator; a 16‑track sequencer, which although not suitable for studio applications could be useful for live sets; additive synthesis functions; rock solid reliability together with a currently low street price, it becomes clear that the Emax II still has much to offer the bargain hunter.

Nice Pedigree, Chum

The Emax II has an illustrious pedigree: Emu Systems popularised keyboard sampling with the release of the Emulator in 1980 and the Emulator II in 1984 and, although both these instruments cost over £7000 at the time, they provided a viable 'budget' alternative to vastly more expensive sampling systems from Synclavier and Fairlight. Responding to the market need for an even less expensive sampler in 1987, Emu Systems introduced the original Emax keyboard and 3U rack modules, which featured 12‑bit mono sampling and optional hard drive. The 16‑bit Emax II appeared in 1989 — the first models were mono instruments with 1Mb RAM and were priced at £2850, and during mid‑1990 these were superceded by stereo models with a lower price of £2450 for the standard version. When Emu ceased production of the Emax II in 1995, the final shipment sold for around £1400 each, a far cry from the wacking £5290 that was the asking price for the original Emax II Turbo models!

My own introduction to sampling came in 1986, when I encountered the Emulator II whilst I was producing a track for Red Wedge at Paul Weller's Solid Bond Studios — I was stunned by its awesome string and wind voices, and I consequently bought one of the first stereo 2Mb Emax II keyboards. Over the years, this was upgraded to the maximum 8Mb of RAM and a 150Mb internal hard drive was added to house its sample library. After nearly seven years of constant use, it is still my first choice for acoustic instrument emulation and is — along with the Roland Jupiter 8 — the most musical‑sounding instrument in my studio. But there again I'm biased — I'm an Emax II fan!


The Emax II is attractively finished in textured black resin with a distinctive pink logo, grey legending and functions map, complemented by stylish, ergonomically raked parameter buttons and sliders. The 61‑note, non‑weighted, velocity‑sensitive keyboard has a pleasant positive feel and features a choice of 14 velocity curves, but sadly is not pressure‑sensitive (although the Emax II does respond to MIDI aftertouch control). Keyboard velocity can be set to control VCA level, VCA attack, VCF cutoff, VCF attack, and VCF Q — yes indeed, the Emax II filter has resonance! The two recessed performance wheels can be programmed for a variety of real‑time and MIDI performance options, including control of pitch, filter cutoff, envelope attack rate, level, panning and LFO modulation types. Additional performance controllers are available via the rear‑panel CV pedal insert and the two footswitches provide control of sustain, release, patch change, arpeggiator on/off, and sequencer start/stop. Also located on the rear panel are the MIDI In and combined Out/Thru connectors; Clock inserts; an RS422 computer interface; the stereo analogue sample input; a headphone socket; and the eight audio channel outputs, which are configured as stereo pairs each with assignable panning and a send and return loop for outboard processing.

The small blue backlit LCD is used to access the parameter pages — the limited amount of information contained on each page inevitably necessitates lots of button‑pushing, though fortunately the operating system (final revision 2.14) is easy to understand and has much in common with that used in the Proteus range.


The built‑in floppy drive reads both DD and HD disks, but because part of the operating system is written to disk during formatting, each floppy has a maximum sample data storage capacity of only 524,286 bytes (0.5Mb). Realistically, the only practical method of voice bank storage is to hard drive — an 8Mb Emax II bank spans 16 floppies and takes about eight minutes to load. Although the standard model does not ship with an internal SCSI hard drive, fitting one is a doddle as Emax II ships ready‑wired and second‑hand 150Mb drives can be bought for about £50 through computer magazines such as MicroMart. Additionally, the Emax II includes as standard a SCSI interface on the rear panel for simple connection to external devices such as hard drives, CD‑ROM and Iomega Zip drives.

Spec Check

Emax II is 16‑voice polyphonic, regardless of whether stereo or mono voices are played. Each Preset can be assigned its own MIDI channel and the Emax II can also be used multitimbrally in 'Supermode'. Internal processing is 32‑bit, and sampling is via 16‑bit linear DACs with 64x oversampling, with 18‑bit DACs used for playback.

Five sample rates are available: 20kHz, 22kHz, 28kHz, 31kHz, 39kHz, and Emax II will also play samples recorded at 44.1kHz. The 39kHz sample rate (which is the same as that found in the Proteus range) gives a frequency response of 20Hz to 18kHz and a standard 2Mb Emax II gives 13.4 seconds of stereo sampling (26.8 seconds mono); a fully expanded 8Mb instrument provides a respectable stereo sample time of 53.6 seconds (107.2 seconds mono). Signal‑to‑noise ratios are good, measuring greater than 90dB and 102dB for input and output respectively, while harmonic distortion and noise (THD+N) is rated at below 0.05%.

Voice Architecture

Banks consist of 100 Presets, which can only be saved or loaded as part of a Bank; and although Emax II does not recognise MIDI Bank Change messages, Banks can be loaded from hard disk via a simple consecutive program change routine.

The timbral characteristics of each Preset are determined by the parameter settings in the Preset Management and Preset Definition menus, and every Preset can contain multiple samples each with individual performance characteristics such as keyrange, level, pan position, tuning, output assignment, and modulation response settings.

Samples within Presets can be assigned velocity crossfade and velocity switching, and can be zoned or split with up to four samples triggered by a single keypress. The Emax II digital filters are utterly superb — listening to them, it is hard to believe they are not high quality analogue devices; they sound so rich, fat and warm — and of course, filter cutoff frequency and resonance (Q) can be modulated by velocity or assigned to respond to mod and pitch wheel movement. Each Preset has a lowpass filter (VCF) and VCA — both with 5‑stage AHDSR envelope generators, an LFO with adjustable rate, delay, and speed variation, and may also be routed without loss of polyphony through the Chorus module.

Sample editing at the Preset level is non‑destructive and as long as the original source data is unchanged, samples can be virtually copied between Presets without consuming extra memory, just as virtual copies are created on a computer hard disk recording system. Editing the sample data at source level is the domain of the Emax II Digital Processing module, where we find facilities for determining the length of the sample; its loop points; plus basic cut, paste and combine; sample rate conversion; pitch‑shift and also morphing (which creates an interpolated crossfade between two samples).


The onboard arpeggiator is powerful and has many excellent features — it will output MIDI and 24 ppqn Clock messages with an internal tempo rate of between 40 and 240bpm to a resolution of .01bpm, and can alternatively be controlled externally, via MIDI or from devices such as older drum machines that transmit 24, 48, or 96 ppqn clock pulses. Six arpeggio patterns are available including random, and notes in the arpeggiated sequence can retain their original input velocities. The arpeggio can be modified so that its sequence is extended beyond its original range; two harmony parts may be added and the arpeggiator keyboard range is used to define the range of keys that triggers the arpeggiator.

Simple Sequencing

The Emax II sequencer is a very basic 16‑track MIDI recorder. Although it does not possess editing features and cannot record program changes, it is nonetheless a very useful sequencer for live use, for triggering sounds from both the Emax II internal banks and from external MIDI devices. To achieve this you must first record your song on your main studio sequencer and then transfer it into the Emax II sequencer, assigning the external instrument channels to an empty Preset on the Emax II — the MIDI data will then be output to the external MIDI devices you wish to control. As Emax II supports up to 99 Presets and 99 Sequences, you can have your whole set (complete with Preset voices) assigned to a single Emax II bank with minimal load time between songs.

How's It Sound?

The factory Presets that shipped with the Emax II were of a uniformly high quality and were derived from the flagship Emulator III sound library. My special favourites are the grand piano, the arco strings, the woodwind, the solo cello, the soul and ooh choirs, the synth basses and the vintage keyboard sets. These voices are also found in the Proteus modules, but side‑by‑side comparison shows the quality of the Emax II voices to be superior to the data compressed Proteus equivalents. Several Emax II sample libraries are still available on CD‑ROM, and a few samples can be downloaded from the Internet (see boxes for details). A degree of MIDI voice editing at Preset level is readily available from Steinberg Cubase, which includes a Mixer Map template for the Emax/Emax II. Sadly there is no PC sample editing software available, although this is possible on the Macintosh using Digidesign's Sound Designer.

Synthesizer Functions

In addition to its sampling functions, Emax II provides two methods of sound creation:

  • Transform Multiplication starts with two samples which are merged, common frequencies are accentuated and the remainder are discarded; the process achieves its best results with harmonically rich sounds but is of limited appeal as results are unpredictable and the actual processing is very, very slow indeed — it takes around 40 minutes to process one second of material!
  • Spectrum Synthesis is an additive synthesis method that again is time‑consuming, but is capable of producing impressive results, as the Spectrum Synthesis factory voice set ably demonstrates.

There are also a couple of useful diagnostic utilities offered by Emax II — the MIDI Activity monitor works in real time and analyses MIDI data transmitted and received, and provides message type and channel information; the Emax II Diagnostics are hidden away in the Master/Special 9 menu and are a bundle of SCSI hard disk, floppy drive, RAM and GRAM test routines; to access them you must first enter the code number 3629 (ie. E‑M‑A‑X on a touch‑tone phone!).


Emax II is a neglected classic instrument — the audiophile quality of its converters and its warm, rich filters give the voices a presence and musicality that the JV1080 in my studio lacks. Despite its small 2x16 character display, the 39kHz top sample rate, and the absence of portamento, pressure‑sensitive keyboard and onboard effects, the Emax II still has a tremendous amount to offer the contemporary recording musician — those filters are really wicked and the tremendous scope for synth voice creation should especially endear the Emax II to the dance music producer on a low budget.

Emax II Configurations

The original Mono models (1989):

  • Model 2201 — 1Mb Keyboard
  • Model 2202 — 1Mb Rack
  • Model 2203 — 1Mb Keyboard (w/HD)
  • Model 2204 — 1Mb Rack (w/HD)

These Stereo models were introduced in mid‑1990:

  • Model 2212 — 2Mb Keyboard
  • Model 2213 — 2Mb Rack

Stereo 'Turbo' models:

  • Model 2205 — 4/8Mb Keyboard (w/HD)
  • Model 2206 — 4/8Mb Rack (w/HD)

Details were unavailable of when Emu switched from 4 to 8Mb RAM and from 40Mb to 105/127Mb Hard Drives.

Emax II Sounds

In addition to Emu's 15 factory Emax II Banks, there is also a good selection of high quality ready‑to‑load Emax II sounds available on CD‑ROM:

  • Invision Lightware (2 volumes, priced $99 each) — Volume 1 Pop Instruments; Volume 2 Classical Instruments.
  • Northstar Productions (3 volumes, priced $195 each). Max 1: pop, rock and rap Banks; Max 2: orchestral and ethnic; Max 3: synthesizers.
  • Universe of Sounds Library (4 volumes, price $79 each; $279 for all four): Vol.1 and 2 Sound Effects; Vol.3 Percussion, Rock and Ethnic; Vol.4 Orchestral.

Emax II On The Net

On the net: the Emax/Emax II user group is a good source of utilities and information.On the net: the Emax/Emax II user group is a good source of utilities and information.The best place to start is the Emax/Emax II User's Group, assembled by John Silveria II and last updated in April 1998.

The site contains links to information including frequently asked questions, technical information, CD‑ROM compatibility and free downloads of OS files, voices and EMX v1.1 — a DOS/Windows 95 utility program by Mike Prudence that enables your PC to read, write and format Emax and Emax II DS/DD floppy disks.

The sound banks are a mixed bag of user‑created banks in PC Zip format and include Bouzuki, Choirs, Mandolin, Mellotron, Piano, Proteus 3 voices, TR‑808 and Synths.

Buyers Guide

  • You should expect to pay between £450 and £600 for a standard 2Mb stereo Emax II keyboard or rack complete with manual, OS disk and sound library. Fully expanded 8Mb hard disk instruments (with 100Mb hard drive and library) go for between £700 — £900, with the best buy being an 8Mb Emax II Turbo with the internal 105Mb Quantum hard disk, complete with its original Emu sound library.
  • A good place to start looking for an Emax II is in the SOS Readers Ads [].
  • As memory upgrades are very expensive and mono to stereo upgrades are no longer available, the earliest mono 1Mb Emax II is best avoided — unless you are offered one for really silly money! Prices will vary according to hard disk size and RAM capacity, and the quality of the sound library.
  • Also well worth having is the Emax II manual, written by MIDI guru and SOS contributor Craig Anderton.