Once upon a time an Emulator was all eights: 8‑bit, 8‑voice, 8‑outs, but that was a decade ago. Ten years on and the latest Emulator has more of the 128 about it: 128 voices, up to 128Mb of RAM. Paul Wiffen finds out if everything else about the EIV is 16 times as good.
It is almost 10 years to the day since I became acquainted with the Emulator II (EII) on a regular day‑to‑day basis. Sure I had seen and heard the prototype at the Frankfurt show in 1984, but it was only after recommending the machine to Geoff Downes of Asia, who then had the good grace to hire me to create a library for it, that I really came to know and love the machine. The EII was very good to me. My knowledge of it, acquired at Geoff's expense, opened all sorts of doors and enabled me to make the transition from analogue synth programmer (a career which was dying fast thanks to factory presets and RAM cards) to the rare status of 'sampling expert'.
The big problem in learning about sampling back then was cost. The EII was the cheapest machine on the market at over 10 grand, and that was cheap compared to the Fairlight and Synclavier (the only other options at the time). Two years later, the Ensoniq Mirage was to appear at less than two grand and revolutionise everything (except perhaps sound fidelity), but sampling was still the preserve of the rich and famous (or those who managed to get a job programming for them).
Today the sampling market has changed beyond recognition (something which Emu have played a massive part in) and machines which deliver far more than the dear old EII are available for under £1500; indeed Emu's own ESI‑32 is currently making all the running as the cheapest 32‑voice, 16‑bit stereo sampler.
You only need to look at the way some studio musicians and film composers have been stacking up machines like the Akai S1000/3000 range in serious numbers (Hans Zimmer, celebrated composer of Oscar‑winning film soundtracks, had more than 10 when I last saw his working setup five years ago) to know that a 16‑part multi‑timbral, 32‑voice sampler that can be expanded to 32Mb is just not enough for pro applications. As Hans was always saying, the first thing you run out of is polyphony and the second is memory. Modules like Proteus have established a previously undreamed of sound quality for the ordinary user, forcing the guys at the top of the profession to go one better. Everyone's ears are now accustomed to increased fidelity and it takes huge amounts of memory and polyphony to create something out of the ordinary.
Enter the EIV, delivering four times the current standard for sampler polyphony, four times the maximum memory capacity, and twice the standard maximum multi‑timbrality. A serious big gun to get the job done. But a sampler is more than just polyphony and memory! We need to look at speed and ease of use, sound quality and flexibility amongst other things, before we hand over the laurel wreath to the victor.
From the moment you power up the EIV with a system disk in the floppy drive, you notice a break from traditional samplers; they would normally ignore the system on the hard drive or in internal ROM and boot from the floppy. The first thing you see in the large LCD screen of the EIV is the option to load the system software into the Flash RAM. At last, the perfect compromise between the safer option of operating systems (which are after all the brain of the sampler, without which it is just a very expensive doorstop) burnt into ROM and the more flexible disk‑based systems, which make upgrading easy as long as your floppy disk never gets separated from your sampler and/or your hard drive never crashes. Personally, I always preferred the ROM‑based option.
Until now, Akai's method of having the operating system on ROM (but with higher levels of software operatable from floppy or hard drive) has always seemed the most sensible route, for you are never left with a brain‑dead sampler, but you can always use a higher level system as soon as it is released (rather than whenever you can get around to swapping EPROMs).
Now with Flash RAM (which retains its memory on power‑down; think of it as ROM that can be overwritten), you can keep your operating system safely inside the machine rather than on vulnerable floppy or hard drives, and upgrade it whenever something better comes along by overwriting the system held internally with one button push (much neater than opening the machine up and switching ROMs). Flash RAM is appearing more and more in musical instruments, mainly for waveform storage where there is not the option of reloading quickly on power‑up from floppy disk (eg. Yamaha TG500 and the new Roland MS1 and JS30), but this is the first time I have seen it used to hold the operating system of a musical instrument.
Once the EIV has checked for memory installed, connected QWERTY keyboard (see the 'E IV Ins & Outs' sidebar) and SCSI drives (more like a computer boot‑up than a traditional sampler), the changes within the operating system become clear. Selecting main areas of operation like Master, Disk, Preset Manage or Edit, Sample Manage or Edit, is still done with dedicated buttons (happily without the delay that used to result in the appropriate software being loaded from floppy or hard disk), but within these modules, parameters are now accessed with function keys (F1‑F6), just like on a computer, rather than you having to remember or look up corresponding parameter numbers and enter them on the 10‑key pad. I had become increasingly frustrated with this Emu way of working over the years and it is good to see them finally dropping it in favour of function keys. These are located directly below the display, allowing the current function to be shown immediately above each key (just like on the Akai S1000/3000 series).
Now you can quickly find your way from main operating screen, down through the various logical groupings of parameters, to the actual function you want. Three function key pushes is the most it ever takes, and no need to press Enter to confirm you've got the parameter number right! This approach is reminiscent of the hierarchical folders system used on a Mac or Atari. Once you are on the screen you want, you navigate around the individual parameters with the cursor keys.
Within the Disk module, the similarity to a computer desktop is even more striking, with icons representing the connected disk drives, their folders and files. Alternatively, you can View As Names or even Show Inf. on each item. This tells you the size and location of the file, the sample rate and duration, and even identifies the source sampler (EIII, S1000, etc) in the same way as a Mac might identify a file as a Quark Xpress or Word document (the source sampler is also shown as part of the icon, along with the filename).
Running out of voices, space for sample RAM, or MIDI channels (provided you purchase the MIDI expansion option) seems highly unlikely even for the most demanding user; exhausting the DSP possibilities alone could take a lifetime.
This hierarchical structure allows you to create folders to contain similar sounds (Strings in one, say, Bass sounds in another, etc) and you can keep folders within folders (within the Strings folder you might create sub‑folders for Violins, Violas, Celli, ContraBass, Ensembles, Synth, etc) This allows for a very flexible file system.
Of course, however organised you are, you will still find yourself losing track of where you put sounds. This being the case, it is very reassuring to see that Emu have borrowed another idea from computer desktops and provided a Find command that automatically locates a folder, bank, preset or sample for you (provided you can remember what you called it!). This includes search strings (to find all items with, say, 'Bass' in the file name) in case you never got around to filing similar sounds together. This is another great time‑saving facility for those high pressure studio sessions. And if money really is no object, the EIV will search for a file across all the drives you have connected, so you could search on six CD‑ROMs simultaneously for that elusive sound!
The best new feature for the busy studio, where time is money, is the dedicated Audition button. This allows you to hear a sample played directly from the hard disk without the entire file having to be loaded into memory (in a similar way to a hard disk recorder). Loading complete files into memory only to find that they are completely wrong for the application is the biggest single waste of time in using a sampler as part of your production, and the main reason why many people make do with the lower fidelity of a sound module. Now you can check a sound's suitability before you waste precious time loading it. As a result, with the EIV I found that I was able to locate the right sound from a CD‑ROM in a fraction of the usual time.
If there is no disk sample icon highlighted in the display, then the Audition button works as a standard trigger for the sounds currently loaded in memory. This means you can check any sounds loaded as well as any on connected drives.
The ability to listen to a sound on both floppy and SCSI drive before you load it is particularly useful. The EIV has a high density floppy drive (twice the capacity of the EIII's drive) and it takes over a minute and a half to load a typical sound, so it is very useful to know it's the one you want before you start.
It comes as no great surprise that the sound quality of the EIV is the equal of any other sampler on the market. Indeed, it is difficult to fault the sound quality of any current sampler. Gone are the days when the conscientious reviewer was able to find problems in the fidelity of the machines delivered for his perusal. The stereo recordings I made to check the quality of the EIV passed with flying colours, particularly in the solidity and warmth of the bottom end (perhaps the only area where you can distinguish between rival professional samplers these days). I would have no hesitation in recommending the EIV for sampling analogue waveforms that you wanted to process through its filters (something I still don't feel to be terribly satisfactory on Akai machines).
The speed and ease with which one can sample under time pressure is another story, as there are vast differences between competing machines in terms of how long it takes to get a good multi‑sample together. Perhaps the biggest hindrances are the need to check that all samples are recorded at a decent level, to top‑and‑tail them, and to map them across the keyboard into a coherent multi‑sample. Since the original Emax, Emu Systems have made something of a speciality of automating the process of recording and mapping samples as quickly as possible. As a result, the EIV lets you set up Auto Placement, Auto Truncate and Auto Normalize parameters to streamline the process of getting multi‑samples happening as quickly as possible (just in case there's any sampler user left out there still recording their own sound banks).
The Placement parameter lets you set how big each keygroup will be. '24 keys', for example, means that each new sample will be transposed up and down by an octave from its original pitch in the middle of the range and subsequent samples will be placed two octaves higher up. There is only one setting higher than this: 'all'. This places the sample in the middle of the MIDI keyboard span and lets you take advantage of Emu's unrivalled transposition range, playing samples back octaves higher or lower than the original pitch without the normally irritating and omni‑present aliasing. As a result, you can create great 'other‑wordly' sound effects by transposing everyday sounds down several octaves.
The minimum value for Placement is '1 keys' (sic), meaning that each new sample is placed on its own key. For those who can't handle those tricky black notes, there is the option of 'white keys'; a feature I assume is aimed at sound effects specialists who haven't studied the keyboard as an instrument.
The stereo recordings I made to check the sound quality of the EIV passed with flying colours, particularly in the solidity and warmth of the bottom end (perhaps the only area where you can distinguish between rival professional samplers these days).
So now you can just play in the notes to be sampled at the correct intervals across the keyboard and let the mapping take care of itself. But what about obtaining the right record level? Auto Normalize can be set to either 'Relative' or 'Absolute'. Relative is designed to ensure that stereo samples remain faithful by increasing left/right sides relatively until one is at the full dynamic level allowed for by 16 bits. Absolute simply boosts both samples by whatever it takes to achieve full level on both sides. For mono sampling there is no difference between the two!
The last of the automated features deals with chopping off unwanted material at the beginning or end of the sample (or both). This will remove any unwanted silence if the sample record is triggered early or you stopped playing early, saving another minute or two per sample.
You can choose to record from either the left or right input (or both, if working in stereo), there's no need to ensure all your mono material is coming in on the left channel like on early stereo samplers. The source can be the analogue inputs (at 22.05, 24, 44.1 or 48kHz), the digital inputs (at all three industry standards: 32, 44.1 or 48kHz) or main outputs of the EIV (known as resampling). This latter option allows you to make layered sounds with loads of polyphony playable on a single voice (good luck trying to loop them though!), and can be done in 16 or 18‑bit modes. The latter takes advantage of the full dynamic range of the EIV's digital‑to‑analogue converters (DACs) and gives you more headroom when playing multiple notes.
The standard 8Mb of memory gives you 94 seconds of mono sampling time (47.5 secs in stereo), but you can multiply this by 16 by inserting a full complement of 16Mb SIMMs. For those without a calculator handy, this equals a healthy 1506 seconds (over 25 minutes of mono). No doubt there will be someone out there claiming this is still not enough (there's always one!).
The input gain is fully variable between ‑10 and +50dB (from line level right down to the most insensitive microphone). The Threshold at which sampling triggers is variable between ‑3dB and ‑60dB. There is a fixed presampling time proportional to the sample rate (12ms at 44.1kHz), which ensures you catch the entire transient.
The EIV has more digital sample processing algorithms available than you can shake a stick at! Sadly, it would take something more like a book than the space available to cover all these in depth, so what follows is more like a 'greatest hits' compilation.
Utilities include Cut, Copy, Paste, a DC Filter (vital for removing the bias in a sample which may cause clicking or poor looping), and a Sample Calculator (lets you work out the exact length for a single cycle loop at any pitch). Loop Type turns Looping and Loop In Release on or off.
Tools 1 includes the Loop display (complete with Zoom In and Out, Auto Correlate — to match loop start and end points), Compression (to even out level changes in the loop) and Crossfade (equal power or linear) together with Truncation, Tapering, Gain Change, Stereo To Mono, and Swap Left and Right.
Tools 2 are the DSP lifesavers like Sample Rate Convert, Digital Tuning, Compression, EQ. And just when you thought it was safe to go back into sample edit, Tools 3 gives you hip capabilities like Time Compression, Pitch Change, Doppler Shift, Exciter and (my personal favourite) Transform Multiplication. With such powerful functions at your disposal you can make a sample shorter or longer, higher or lower, coming or going, duller or brighter, or create an entirely new sample from a combination of two others by boosting all the common frequencies and dropping all those not present in both. Using speech as one of the samples produces Vocoder‑like effects, or two musical sounds at different pitches. Transform Multiplication is unique to Emu, though it can take a while to process. The end results are usually well worth the wait.
If you ever finish trying all the possibilities of the Digital Processing module, then you have the Preset Edit module ready to further shape the sound as you play. Here, two LFOs and three 6‑stage envelopes, Wheels and Pressure (to name but a few) let you control the Filter Cutoff, Volume, Pitch, Pan and numerous other modulation destinations. The routing 'cords' (the software switches which let you hook modulation sources to destinations) are justifiably compared in the manual to the flexibility of analogue patch cords.
The sound of the EIV's filters is of particular note: Emu's digital emulation of analogue filtering is second to none. I fed some MiniMoog waveforms I had sampled through these filters and the results were very impressive indeed; plenty of bottom end, excellent resonance, and very smooth sweeping when used in conjunction with the envelopes. I particularly liked the ability to switch between 2, 4 and 6‑pole filtering, to obtain sharper or slower cutoff slopes.
The best recommendation I can make for the Emulator IV is that this lengthy review simply does not do it justice! Even as I write I remember additional neat features I found which I haven't got space to mention: error correction on MIDI Sample Dump; Scrubbing using the Pitch Wheel; Memory Defragmentation; a Digital Audio Overload indicator (having 128 voices means you need to allow extra headroom in your system or clipping distortion results); a display showing the volume level of all 128 voices... the list seems endless.
The overall impression I have is of a machine which has concentrated on filling all the needs of the most professional user, rather than being designed to hit a particular price point. With so many other machines on the market targeting the sub £2000 price point these days, the EIV will come as a pleasant surprise to those users for whom price is not such a critical issue as having the absolute best machine for the job! Features like the Flash RAM‑based hierarchical operating system, with its folders and Find routines, really make for a very speedy system when under pressure from an impatient producer or the ever‑ticking clock in an expensive studio. Accessing parameters is easy, as they are all where you would logically expect to find them, and a seasoned pro would probably never need to look at the owner's manual. A more inexperienced user would find the manual not just a good guide to the system but an excellent primer in digital sampling, and not too heavy going (flashes of humour and a spacious layout help a lot here!).
The EIV's sound quality is everything you would expect from the guys who started it all, the balanced outputs should keep the fussiest audiophile from whining, and the filters are good enough to let you use the EIV as a traditional analogue synth if you sample in the appropriate waveforms first. Running out of voices, space for sample RAM, or MIDI channels (provided you purchase the MIDI expansion option) seems highly unlikely even for the most demanding user; exhausting the DSP possibilities alone could take a lifetime. The only potential shortfall would appear to be in the output department, which could easily be circumvented by an optional card expander (let's face it, Emu must have put those other two slots there for some reason).
When you add the functionality and sheer sound quality of the EIV to its impressive hardware capabilities, it starts to look positively cheap, and not the expensive option some less experienced commentators have suggested. If it falls within your budget, the Emulator IV is your best option by far!
The two sample input jacks (not XLRs, I was relieved to see) accept any level input from the most insensitive mic up to line level, with an input impedance of 10kOhm. As the input gain is fully variable between these extremes and controlled in software, there are no clumsy little switches on the back panel to negotiate.
The main stereo output of the EIV is available on both XLR and 1/4" jack sockets at +4dB, in balanced form to allow the highest possible output sound quality. In the case of the 1/4" jacks, this is done by using a stereo socket, into which you plug a stereo jack if you want the balanced output, or a mono jack if you are a mere mortal like myself.
The six Submix outputs (Emu‑speak for separate outputs) are grouped as three stereo pairs on stereo jacks, again with the choice of balanced or unbalanced operation. However, this means that the stereo connectors aren't available for the normal Emu speciality of providing an effects send/return loop on the tip and ring of a stereo jack, for those who don't have enough aux sends on their mixer (I guess they assume that if you can afford an EIV, you already have a pretty good mixer). I was sorry to see this facility sacrificed, but then I assume the balanced output aficionados make up a greater proportion of the target market.
Digital I/O is via XLRs according to the full spec of the AES/EBU protocol. However, those of us with mainly SPDIF‑equipped devices need not fear as the two are more compatible than most people realise. AES/EBU and SPDIF send the same basic data format but there are more bells and whistles in the AES/EBU format in the form of sub‑codes, which SPDIF blithely ignores. To be on the safe side though, the EIV actually allows you to switch in software between the two protocols. At the electrical level, AES/EBU transmits a stronger signal, so to physically connect to an SPDIF device you not only need a cable which has XLR on one end and RCA phone on the other, but some way of lowering the signal level. Normally this is done by sticking a resistor in the cable, but the EIV allows you to switch this in software using a parameter called 'AES Boost On/Off'.
There are two 50‑pin Centronics type SCSI connectors on the EIV. In addition, MIDI In, Out and Thru can be supplemented with an optional MIDI board (see 'Expanding The EIV' sidebar) for those who need more than 16 control channels.
The final connector on the back panel allows for an IBM PC‑style ASCII keyboard to be connected (although this must be done before powering up, as the system needs to find it during the bootup process). All the front panel controls can be accessed from such a keyboard (making an excellent remote control if the front panel is out of reach in a rack), but a QWERTY keyboard really comes into its own when naming samples, presets etc.
For years Emu have taken a good deal of flak because of the high cost of their memory upgrades. Thankfully, they are now following the lead of Roland and Ensoniq in using SIMMs (Single In‑line Memory Modules). The cost of expanding the EIV (and ESI‑32) is now solely dependant on the price of plug‑in SIMMs in your local market. The EIV has slots for eight SIMMs, so if you buy 16Mb SIMMs you can install a massive 128Mb in the machine, enough for the most memory‑intensive applications.
Of course, it is no use having the memory to hold loads of different sounds and 128 voices to play them with, if you still have only 16 MIDI channels to control them. There are now several synth modules which boast two MIDI inputs, allowing a multi‑timbrality of 32 MIDI channels. So far this has not been available on a professional sampler... until now. Emu offers a MIDI Option card for the EIV which gives a second input for an additional set of 16 MIDI channels. This will really allow the voice and memory capabilities to be fully exploited.
With three expansion slots available, an additional MIDI In is surely not the only expansion that Emu are planning. High on the list of priorities must be additional audio outputs — 128 voices and 128Mb of memory being controlled by 32 MIDI channels tend to require more than the standard eight polyphonic outputs of the EIV.
No professional sampler can afford to be without SCSI these days, but the EIV's implementation of it goes further than any other I have seen. Not only does it have two 50‑pin SCSI connectors as standard, so that the machine can sit in the middle of a chain of SCSI devices (rather than at one end like any single SCSI connector sampler), but the termination (only required if the EIV is at one end or other of the chain) can be switched in and out in software instead of requiring an internal jumper or external plug‑in terminator (which I am forever losing!). This means that multiple EIVs can easily be connected together with multiple SCSI drives to form a coherent system.
But Emu have taken things one stage further by actually making allowances for the selfish, domineering attitude of the Macintosh computer when on a SCSI bus. In the Master module (next to the SCSI termination switch), there is a special parameter called 'Mac On SCSI Bus'. This makes the EIV subservient enough to allow the Mac the 'King‑of‑the‑Castle' status, without which it refuses to co‑operate. So Mac programs like Steinberg's ReCycle and any front panel emulation software (like Emu produced for the EIII) will work without any configuration nightmares!
Even so, not everything was a breeze as far as SCSI was concerned. When I first received the EIV I connected an Apple CD150 CD‑ROM drive and was instantly able to read EIII, Emax II and Akai S1000 CD‑ROMs. However, I was less successful in making it work with my Apple Power CD or the MediaVision ReNo portable CD‑ROM, both of which work fine with the Akai, Roland and Kurzweil samplers I use.
I tried switching termination on and off but this didn't seem to help. After the EIV had spent a long time trying to access the drive, during the bootup stage or when going into the Disk page, I eventually got an icon in the display identifying each drive, but the Info function kept telling me there was no data on the disks! The actual CD‑ROMs were in Akai format (that's all I had at home), so presumably the EIV prefers to see an Emu format when first accessing a CD‑ROM? However, I suspect it is more to do with differences between SCSI drives (if MIDI were like SCSI, it would have disappeared without trace because of its lack of standardisation!). I would therefore advise that you see your chosen CD‑ROM drive working with the EIV before buying it.
As far as readable sample library formats are concerned, Emu are doing well to be able to read the Akai format, but are lagging behind Kurzweil in terms of breadth of compatibility. I have never understood this craze to be able to read Akai format, for Emu's own library is excellent both in terms of comprehensiveness and sound quality, though third party support is not so widely available outside the US. For me, the Roland library is the best one for a rival manufacturer to support, because of the time and effort that has been invested to make it complete. My spies tell me that work is underway on decoding this format, but so far there is no date on a software release to support this. If you do not have a great deal of RAM available, then the Ensoniq sample library is perhaps the best, as their sounds are edited to occupy the minimum space available. They work really well on the Kurzweil K2000 because of this and I think Emu would do well to cover this format also (even if EIV owners are less likely to run out of RAM).
- More voices, more RAM space, more DSP tools than any other sampler on the market.
- Excellent Modulation Routing and great sounding Analogue‑style Filters.
- Option for second MIDI Input.
- System Software in Flash RAM.
- Hierarchical menus for fast operation and sound location.
- SCSI connection extremely flexible and Mac‑tolerant.
- Only 8 outputs (more to come on optional card?).
- No Send/Return Loops on Submix outputs.
- Roland SCSI format not yet supported.
A truly top class performer that sets a new standard in the sampler market.