Emu's Sound Engine is the first dedicated General MIDI module from the USA. Derek Johnson explores GM the American way.
Hands up those of you who were intrigued, a couple of years ago, to hear that Emu were launching a General MIDI sound module? You're not alone. Yet their Sound Engine appears to have had a rather low profile since its release. The reason for this is obscure, although Emu's Dave Bristow noted a broad anti‑GM feeling amongst American keyboard players when he spoke to SOS in October. Nevertheless, the Sound Engine exists, and its spec is promising: 32‑voice polyphony, 16‑part multitimbrality, 384 programmable presets, two digital effects processors, and a Mac computer interface.
You won't be doing any editing from the front panel of this stylish box, but this is par for the course where desktop music sound modules are concerned. Also par for the course is the GM sound set with which the Sound Engine powers up, and the bundled Mac software: Opcode's Edit One editor/librarian, with a free set of extra sounds, and the excellent EZ Vision entry‑level sequencer. However, the lunch isn't entirely free, since the supplied Edit One is a cut‑down version. If you want full patch editing, you'll need to pay for an upgrade.
There's not much to the module's controls: a button that determines whether the module is controlled over MIDI or via a Mac; a volume control; a headphone socket; and a collection of data‑activity LEDs. At the rear, there's a set of MIDI sockets, stereo input and output phono sockets and PSU socket. Er... that's it.
On power up, the Sound Engine loads both its preset banks with the same set of factory GM sounds — 128 instruments and 64 drum sets. Though General MIDI doesn't actually specify this many drum sets, Emu's extra kits are all voiced in the GM fashion. Though two banks of sounds are available, only one bank at a time can be accessed, using System Exclusive — and SysEx also lets you switch the Sound Engine into its hidden Proteus mode. Indeed, one of the sound banks supplied with Edit One is identical to the original Proteus's main patch bank.
Presets use one or two basic waveforms, each with its own key range, envelope, effects settings, LFO, and so on. There are also alternate tuning tables and sophisticated MIDI controller routing, as well as Preset linking, for quick layers, crossfades or keyboard splits. Accessing these features requires a Mac (to run Edit One), or a profile for a generic editor for whatever computer you use. Software sequencers with MIDI mixer pages (Steinberg's Cubase or Emagic's Logic, for example) can also be tweaked to access the hidden depths, but you'll have to come to terms with SysEx to go this far. Luckily, the manual is a mine of SysEx information. Without using SysEx in some way, the Sound Engine has no operating system to speak of: at a basic MIDI Song File playback level, all program changes, volume levels, pan positions, etc, are taken care of remotely from within a sequence.
In GM mode, the factory sounds are a mixed bag. The majority are absolutely fine, certainly in the upper rank of GM modules. There are also a few gems where you'd least expect them. When was the last time you were impressed by the sitar, bagpipes or tuba on a GM module? Also noteworthy are the string sections, oboe (which has a nice Proteus 2‑like playability), synth pads and harpsichord. The GM drum kits are a low point, although they may suit some. Most strange is a pitched noise in the background of one or two cymbal samples.
Prospects are even better when you explore the non‑GM side of the Sound Engine: the Proteus clone preset banks provided by Edit One bode very well for the module's sonic potential, and Edit One's randomise feature produces some useful new patches. In this mode, the Sound Engine is almost a Proteus, bar one or two shortcomings in the sample ROM, and that has to be good news.
In a perfect world, the punchline would be that we've found a Proteus hidden inside a humble GM playback module, and available for tuppence. Well, the world's not perfect, and the Sound Engine costs rather more than 2p, but Mac owners may find that the (relatively high) asking price is acceptable bearing in mind the bundled software, and others may relish the chance of a virtual Proteus for a lower retail price than the (now discontinued) real thing. Add to this the fact that there are some nice street prices going and you may well find it's worth hunting down a Sound Engine.
- Room for 384 user patches.
- Proteus mode.
- Good GM sounds.
- Plenty of editing potential.
- Clear manual.
- Bundled software for Mac only.
- Edit One not full version.
- User edits lost on power down.
- A bit pricey.
A GM module with hidden depths, which can be used as a straightforward preset sound source or switched into Proteus emulation mode for the more demanding user.