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Emu Systems ESI2000

Emu Systems ESI2000

With rival sampler manufacturers currently battling it out at the lower end of the market, Emu's latest bid for budget supremacy is the successor to their popular ESI32 and ESI4000 — the ESI2000. Paul Farrer takes it easy...

With the likes of Fairlight concentrating solely on hard disk recording, Emu Systems can rightfully claim to be the oldest surviving manufacturer of mass‑market samplers. Since the original Emulator came out some 20 (!) years ago, their powerful hardware and impressive sound libraries have earned them a solid user base. Emu's fortunes dipped a little towards the end of the '80s but they turned things around again by expanding into areas of the marketplace that their mega machines like the EIII couldn't reach. The release of the seminal sample‑playback module the Proteus and its various successors paved the way for Emu's first true budget sampler in January 1995. The ESI32 was a 32‑voice sampler aimed at those looking for power, flexibility and most importantly affordability. Three years later Emu took this concept a stage further with the release of the ESI4000 (reviewed in SOS January 1998) which offered 64‑voice polyphony and was expandable up to 128Mb.

Time and tide wait for no man, however, and Yamaha and Akai have recently upped the stakes somewhat with their mid‑range machines. Emu have replied with the ESI2000, their most affordable sampler to date. Retaining the same 64‑voice/128Mb RAM spec as the ESI4000, the package comes complete with a 10‑CD‑ROM sound library set and a host of additional DSP tools — and, perhaps most attractively, Emu have kept the price down to an almost irresistible £749. It's clear that after all these years Emu still mean business.

The New Strip

Emu Systems ESI2000The ESI2000 comes with SCSI, MIDI and two analogue output pairs and one analogue input pair as standard. The blanking panel allows the addition of the Turbo Board (see box above).The ESI2000 comes with SCSI, MIDI and two analogue output pairs and one analogue input pair as standard. The blanking panel allows the addition of the Turbo Board (see box above).

The most striking thing about the ESI2000 is its colour scheme: gone is the monochrome black facia of the ESI4000, and in comes a cool grey and burgundy look. As Emu proved with the Orbit and Planet Phatt modules, studio devices don't necessarily have to be uniformly black and grey in order to be taken seriously, and the new colour scheme gives the whole unit a distinct advantage in the clarity of layout stakes. A closer inspection reveals that the new colour scheme was a wise move if only to differentiate it from its older siblings, as in almost every other respect the three modules (ESIs 32, 4000 and 2000) are physically almost identical!

As before, the familiar 2U casing is surprisingly compact (less than 24cm deep) and has the same centrally positioned backlit LCD made up of four lines of 20 characters. The data‑entry wheel and cursor keys are in the same place as on the previous units, as are the numerical keys, sample and preset control keys and the floppy disk drive. The ESI4000 came with the option to replace the floppy drive with a Zip drive and this has been carried over to the ESI2000; the only other significant difference storage‑wise is that unlike the 4000, there simply isn't enough space to fit an internal hard drive. The rear of the unit houses the familiar MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets as well as six unbalanced quarter‑inch jack sockets — two for the main left and right outputs, two for the submix outputs and two for the stereo inputs. There is also a small removable panel which houses the optional Turbo Board (see box on page 194 for more details) which adds effects, expands the number of analogue outputs to 10, and provides S/PDIF digital in and out. SCSI comes as standard in the form of a 50‑pin connector and the well‑written manual (supplied on a CD‑ROM as a series of PDF files as well as a small 'quick start' addendum) has a comprehensive chart listing all the hard drives, MO drives and CD‑ROM units that are compatible with the ESI2000.

The ability to upgrade to 128Mb of RAM marks a huge leap forward in terms of sampling power at such a low price. It is perhaps unfortunate, then, that the ESI2000 ships with only 4Mb as standard. The impressive CD‑ROM sound library you get with the bundle is obviously a welcome inclusion, but since many of the banks in the library require considerably more than 4Mb, buyers who don't go for a SIMM upgrade when they make the initial purchase are liable to find the ESI's instant usefulness somewhat limited.

In Use

Emu Systems ESI2000Emu Systems ESI2000

Anyone familiar with the ESI32 or 4000 will feel right at home with the 2000's operating system. Those new to sampling, once a few simple ground rules have been established, will also get along easily. However, any Akai users looking to jump platform and set up camp with the Emu family will need to spend a bit of time getting used to the operating system and more importantly the terminology. For instance, what Akai call programs, volumes and key groups Emu refer to as presets, banks and zones, and only after you come to terms with these (essentially nominal) differences will you find the operating system surprisingly straightforward and logical. Its three main operational modes are Master/Global, Sample and Preset.

Sample mode is split into two 'modules', as Emu call them: Sample Management, which deals with basic sample functions such as recording, erasing and copying, and Digital Processing, which includes sample looping, cut‑and‑paste editing, and the 'digital tools' sections featuring reverse, sample‑rate conversion, parametric EQ, and sample transform/multiply functions. Preset mode is split into three modules: Preset Management, where you load, rename, and erase presets, Preset Definition, where zone organisation, pitch‑bend range settings and effects editing are carried out, and Dynamic Processing, where you set VCA, VCF and LFO controls for the zones as well as output assignment and controller settings.

The ESI refers to each page of these menus as a submodule: you can either scroll through the pages using the data wheel or, if you know the number of the page you want, simply type it in on the keypad. After a while you become very familiar with these page shortcuts. For instance, if you want call up the parametric EQ feature which is found on page three of the Digital Tools II submodule (which is itself page eight of the main Digital Processing submodule) you simply hit Digital Processing and punch 83 on the keypad. Once selected, you push Enter to reveal that function's parameters on screen, and arrows indicate if you need to scroll left or right to view additional pages. Within these pages, changes can be made to the on‑screen data using a combination of the data wheel and the navigational cursors. As soon as a change is made the Enter button LED flashes, letting you know that you can confirm these edits; if you don't want to proceed, the Escape button takes you back a stage to the main 'select a submodule' menu and undoes your last set of changes.

On power‑up the ESI2000 defaults to Single performance mode but the creation of a multitimbral set (a real chore on some machines) is made easy by a single keystroke. The Multi Mode button instantly sets up the ESI for 16‑channel reception, and the screen changes to reveal a Proteus‑style display showing MIDI channel, part volume, pan, and which preset is loaded into a particular channel of the set.

It's also worth mentioning the Trigger Mode, which converts the 10 alpha‑numeric buttons on the front panel into a sort of basic MIDI keyboard (the note and velocity triggered by each can be set in the Master Menu), allowing you to trigger up to 10 notes of the currently selected preset. This idea was first seen on the ESI32 and is still a fantastically helpful tool for serious samplists who don't want the bother of constantly having to keep one hand on a MIDI keyboard when working with the unit. DJs in particular will love this feature, as it offers the chance to spin in as many as 10 loops and effects live without the need for a 'proper' keyboard. The only disadvantage is that these triggers only work internally, and their note information is not transmitted via MIDI.

Another big selling point of the ESI2000 is the amount of control you have over the presets in a multitimbral set, as exemplified by the excellent filter section. There are 64 filters in total, which are specific to each zone assignment. There are 19 different filters including vocal‑morphing, parametric, low‑pass, high‑pass and band‑pass types. With each filter you get a good deal of control over the various parameters, and the clear nature of the operating system means that you don't need to be an expert in filter‑speak or even understand what is going on to quickly apply a filter to a sound and get a great result in seemingly no time at all. Also worthy of note are the VCA and Auxiliary Envelope controls which, despite having no graphic display associated with them, manage to be both controllable and highly effective.

ESI Sampling

Emu Systems ESI2000Emu Systems ESI2000

Getting sounds into the ESI2000 is a fairly straightforward task. In Sample Management you select submodule (or page) five and, after the nasty surprise of a fairly loud click (tut tut, Emu!), you see a stereo bar‑graph meter indicating input levels. Either the left or right half of the meter can be turned off for mono sampling, and there are also input gain and threshold parameters. The latter allows you to trigger sample recording automatically when the signal exceeds the threshold level. Other pages in this submodule display sample rate (22 or 44.1kHz), sample time available (the unexpanded 4Mb machine offers a total of 23.7 seconds stereo sampling at 44.1kHz) and other features such as Auto Truncate (which automatically and neatly trims the top and tail of each recording), Auto Normalise and Auto Placement, which selects the transpositional range of each sample.

Once a sound is recorded the ESI2000's very impressive range of sample‑editing features comes into play. This, as you might expect, includes the obvious truncating, looping, cut‑and‑paste editing and sample‑reverse functions, but the real fun is to be found in the Digital Tools I and II submodules. These include such useful features as sample‑rate converters, digital compressors, parametric EQ, doppler/pan, time compression/expansion, and a sample transform/multiply feature which allows you to merge two samples together to create what Emu call 'strange and beautiful sonic textures'.

The features in this section are the kind of things you would expect to find on a machine of double the price, and Emu should be congratulated for including so many usable and creative editing functions within such an affordable package. The only negative point of note here is that in all these instances the nature of the display never permits any form of graphic representation — something that can be particularly infuriating when trimming a sample. Denied the luxury of even the most basic waveform display, users are stuck with having start and end points shown only as numbers (in samples and seconds). One small mercy, though, is that whenever you are working in the Digital Processing menu your keyboard's pitch‑bend acts as a scrub wheel allowing you to move at any speed backwards and forwards throughout the length of the sample as easily as if it were a reel of quarter‑inch tape, with the position shown on screen at all times. This is an innovative and very useful tool that doesn't quite make up for the lack of a waveform display, but certainly speeds up the sample‑editing process.


Emu Systems ESI2000

This review has contained a lot of references to both the ESI32 and the ESI4000, and it would be fair to say that the ESI2000 is the latest incarnation of an instrument steadily evolving to keep up with the competition, rather than a revolution in the world of sampling. Emu's biggest rival Akai took a major leap forward with their S5000 and S6000 machines, and have suffered somewhat as users tried to get to grips with radically new operating systems. The ESI2000 will cause no such problems; the company have clearly decided to expand and develop an already solid platform and present it in a cost‑effective package, rather than try to reinvent the wheel at the expense of user familiarity.

As someone who works a lot with CD‑ROMs, my two main requirements of a sampler (after sound quality) are polyphony count and RAM expandability, and on both of those fronts the ESI2000 delivers at a previously unheard‑of low price. With this much raw sampling power on offer, it's not difficult to forgive the unit's main restriction, which is the non‑graphic and thus rather tedious system for truncating samples. Indeed there are many sampler users for whom the ESI2000 will be an affordable sample‑playback machine apparently sent direct from heaven.

Emu samplers are noted for their sound quality, and thankfully the ESI2000 does justice to the reputation. The quality of their A‑D/D‑A converters shines through, giving a rich bottom end and clearly defined upper‑middle frequencies. The CD‑ROM library that comes as part of the bundle is a pretty mixed bag of sounds old and new — some dating back to the earliest Emulator libraries, others bang up‑to‑date and designed specifically for the ESI range (see box below). Owners of Proteus synths will find some of the discs redundant, and being an American library, some of its dance samples sound a little tame compared to what many European users will be used to. Nevertheless, I doubt you'll hear many complaints as buyers leave showrooms with ESIs tucked under their arms and one of the largest and most comprehensive free sound libraries ever supplied with a sampler thrown in. Given the fact that it's accessible, flexible and offers the kind of sampling power usually reserved only for high‑end machines, the ESI2000 is a highly desirable piece of studio equipment.

Turbo Board Option

Emu Systems ESI2000

As with the ESI4000, rather than sell a number of different upgrade options for various functions, Emu have put them all into one package called the Turbo Board. This provides you with three additional stereo outputs (taking the total up to 10 analogue outputs in all) and adds S/PDIF digital in and out. The S/PDIF feature gives you the choice of 32, 44.1 or 48kHz sampling rate and consumer or pro (AES‑EBU) output formats.

The Turbo Board also provides two 24‑bit stereo effects processors. Processor A deals with time‑based effects such as reverbs and multitap delays, while Processor B takes care of modulation effects such as flanging, distortion, chorus, vibrato and symphonic ensemble effects. One of the three extra analogue outputs is marked 'FX': this carries a copy of the signal sent to the unit's main L/R output, but routed through the Turbo Board's effects processing. The other two (labelled Sub 2 and Sub 3) carry additional dry stereo submixes. As upgrade options go it seems to make sense to have all your eggs in one basket, particularly when the asking price for the Turbo Card is only £259. A total price for the whole package including the sampler itself and sound library for £749, the Turbo Card and 128Mb of RAM would probably be in the region of between £1150 and £1250, depending where you buy your SIMMs.

Library Studies

Emu Systems ESI2000

When you buy an ESI2000 it comes with only two CD‑ROMs in the box — the 150Mb Production Set (actually a two‑CD set) and the Formula 4000 Protozoa disc. The other eight titles in the library are sent to you once you fill out your warranty card and return it to Emu. The choice of discs that you get covers a fairly wide spectrum of sounds (despite including a few repetitions) and if nothing else is a good introduction to the huge Emu sound library. The complete run‑down of the 10 free CD‑ROMs is as follows:

ESI32 150Mb Production Sound Set

A double‑disc set specifically made for the ESI series featuring a wide and highly usable selection of traditional multisamples (pianos, organs, guitars and so on) as well as some Groove Loops. These are small dance construction kits featuring breakbeats, shouts and hits. The standout in the set is bank 8, a stunningly realistic nylon‑strung guitar.

Formula 4000 Protozoa

This disc has the sounds from Emu's Proteuses 1, 2 and 3, as well as the Vintage Keys, Orbit and Planet Phatt modules. Not only do you get all the basic waveform sample data for each module, but you can load up exact copies of the first 128 presets of each instrument. Very useful indeed!

Emulator Standards

The granddaddy of Emu's sample library, containing some of the original sounds from the first Emulator. A cross‑section of instruments from orchestral to brass and percussive that is never hugely cutting‑edge but includes some very useful material nonetheless.

More Emulator Standards

More of the same but this time with perhaps a greater emphasis on orchestral sounds. The arco strings are of particular note as are the ethnic sounds, which include surdos, berimbaus and sitars.


Pretty much the same type of sounds you will find on the Proteus 2 Protozoa library, but featuring much bigger and better examples of each instrument. Typical banks require 4‑8Mb and there is a great range of all types of orchestral instrument from strings through to woodwind, brass and percussion as well as a couple of grand pianos and a wonderful harpsichord.

Sound FX

Unless a sound effects library is 30 discs long it generally has only token value, but the selection of ambiences, water sounds and domestic noises on this disc might find a use somewhere. A well recorded and welcome inclusion if only to make you want to think about the other SFX disks in the Emu library.

World Instruments

Like the Orchestral disc this one will be familiar to owners of one of the Proteus modules, this time the Proteus 3, but again it features larger and more comprehensive examples of each instrument. The selection includes kotos, whistles, bagpipes and flutes, and for the most part provides all the ethnic musicality you could ask for. The plucked instruments usually stand out as the best of the bunch.

World Percussion Ensemble (Not pictured)

Filling in all the gaps in the World Instruments disc, this one concentrates solely on ethnic drum and percussion sounds. Far more than just a bit of African drumming, this disc is as wide a study of global drum sounds as you could imagine, featuring sounds from Japan, Indonesia, Nepal, India, South America and many others.

Emu Classics

A curious inclusion, as half of the disc features pretty much the same as the Protozoa library, namely Proteus 1, 2 and 3 sound sets. In addition, however, there are some great vintage keyboard sounds in the form of DX7s, Rhodes, and Mellotron choirs.

  • Vintage

A few classic organs are included on this disc along with Prophet, ARP, Moog, Juno and Oberheim synths. There are also a few interesting guitar sounds and a couple of percussion sets. Not exactly a ground‑breaking disc, but the sounds are well recorded and presented.

Emu Systems ESI2000


  • Excellent value for money.
  • Impressive filters and DSP functions.
  • Expandable to 128Mb.
  • Great sound quality.


  • No graphic waveform editing.
  • Effects only available with the Turbo Board.
  • Audible click whenever you enter the Sample Setup page.


A well‑specified and cost‑effective variation on a theme rather than a sampling revolution. The large number of filters, the 64 voices, the 128Mb RAM capacity and the bundled sound library all go towards making the ESI2000 a powerful contender in the budget sampler stakes.