Imagine a synth which is a cross between the best of Emu's Proteus and Proformance modules, and also includes the Z‑plane filters of the Morpheus. No further need to imagine; it's here, in the form of the new UltraProteus. Julian Colbeck checks out this impressive multitimbral module.
In the beginning there was Proteus. The Proteus begat Proteus 2, which begat Proteus 3, and so on, down a long line of more distantly related products including the Proformance, the Procussion, Vintage Keys, and the Morpheus. So does the world, after this lengthy, though highly popular relationship with the Proteus platform, really need something called UltraProteus?
Cards on the table: I am a Proteus user (yes, I know, there are clinics I could go to, or pads I could stick behind my ears, but there we are). I find the Proteus' directness and simplicity most welcome in a MIDI studio situation, when faffing around is all too often the disorder of the day. The sampled sounds are strong, reasonably complete in terms of range, and the polyphony is good. Setup time, except when it comes to fooling around with the subsidiary outputs, is almost instant.
But what the Proteus is not is particularly responsive to play. It is superb for the odd fruity guitar riff, chinks, plinks, drums, and perhaps even bass. But it's not much good, in my opinion, for piano parts you want to really play. Ditto expressive string lines, or anything, in fact, where keyboard dynamics are particularly important.
And this, of course, is where the UltraProteus comes in. This baby, in spite of boasting a good deal more of everything than the original Proteus, manages to retain much of its namesake's smooth and obvious operating system. But more importantly, what it goes on to do is offer Proteus‑style performance in a dynamic, musical, and highly expressive setting. I use my Proteus only for sequencing work: never live. The UltraProteus, however, seems to be equally good at both.
Physically, the UltraProteus sticks closely to the 'modern Proteus' format. In other words, this is a relatively 'plain Jane' 1U module, with a small, and frankly now rather old‑style display screen, a free‑wheelin' data entry knob, a volume control, four dedicated mode buttons plus cursor, copy, and home/enter buttons, a headphone socket, and a data card slot. "What ho," you observe, "sounds just like a Morpheus." Bang on. It is not 'like' a Morpheus so much as identical. At the rear, similarly, you'll find three pairs of audio outputs, the usual three MIDI sockets, and a standard Euro socket (the headphone socket is front‑mounted). The audio outs are configured as a main mono/stereo pair, plus two sub‑outputs. Emu do impose some restrictions on what can emerge from these sub‑outputs; sub 1 can carry only dry signals, and sub 2 only the effects output. By these means you can use the subs on the UltraProteus (as you can on all the Protei, in fact) as effects sends and returns for external processing, if you so desire.
For the uninitiated, all of the Proteus family are based upon mainly crisp, high‑quality ROM‑stored samples, which can be processed using a range of subtractive synthesis parameters. The basic concept is retained here, including many of the now five year‑old procedures, whereby you can select a primary and secondary sample from the sample ROM as the starting point for each sound. Each sample is capable of being delayed, played over a specific keyboard range, panned, tuned, reversed, triggered from various points within the sample, cross‑faded, cross‑switched, re‑enveloped, and modulated, using a pair of LFOs and/or keyboard dynamics, with a breathtaking number of modulation destinations. But for all this, as mentioned, Emu's original design is not the most expressive of instruments to play. And if you have noted that the above list does not contain the word 'filter', then you have spotted a large contributory factor to the said problem. Pity you weren't working for Emu around 1990.
But when Emu corrects a fault, boy, does it correct a fault. You want filters? The UltraProteus contains something approaching 300 filter types, in an arrangement far beyond the normal configuration of this parameter. It should be said, though, that the UltraProteus is not the first product Emu has put filters into; this is rather an extension and development of the sterling work done in this respect with the Morpheus, and, to a lesser extent, with the Vintage Keys.
The proof of the putting is in the playing. For example, take the majestic, deep piano‑ed Pianova (bank 1: 32), with its clichéd but extremely well‑executed vocal pad sliding in underneath. Thump an octave's worth of bass on this preset and it really sings. Or you can pretend you're Hank Marvin with the splendid TremGuitar preset (bank 1: 54) on which the addition of aftertouch replicates the four‑eyed plank spanker's whammy bar lurches to a T.
Going through the presets is a time‑consuming business, and on the UltraProteus it certainly consumed more time than I had allowed. There are two reasons for this. The presets are of an inordinately high standard, and range from some original Proteus faves to creations seemingly culled from Emu's entire range of these instruments — for example (to name just a few), nice rasping Wurlitzers and other organs, basketfuls of mournful oboes, horns and other assorted orchestral goodies, plenty of arpeggiating fun and games, drums, ethnic bumps and grinds... You can hopefully begin to see why it took me so long.
The other reason concerns Emu's system of presenting single or combination sounds, multitimbral or otherwise. Back in the days of the original Proteus (sorry to keep harping on about 'the original Proteus' but as this is a review of the 'Ultra'Proteus, I feel the continued comparison is rather called for), there was a single sound preset. A couple of presets could be linked for slightly bigger, combination sounds, but there was no such thing as a multitimbral memory. The instrument itself was automatically playable multitimbrally, provided you were set to Multi on the MIDI pages. Can't get simpler than that. However, Emu took a bit of flak for this lack of multi memories, and have accordingly taken steps here to improve the situation (don't you just hate it when anything you have previously liked is then 'improved?' You just know they're going to bugger it up, don't you?). But fear not — although there are now a couple of head‑scratching moments where previously there were none, the power and flexibility quotient has really gone into overdrive.
First (and forming part of the head‑scratching exercise) you now have to decide which sound is one of the now two forms of Proteus patch, namely a preset or a hyperpreset. A preset, thankfully, remains the standard Proteus format of a single finished sound (which can still comprise two samples, don't forget). A hyperpreset, on the other hand, is a whole string of presets, mapped out individually over the keyboard range if necessary, and/or layered, with individual tunings, transpositions, velocity offsets and ranges, and pans in place. Up to sixteen presets can be cobbled together in this way.
The UltraProteus, which effectively incorporates a Proteus, a Proformance stereo sampled piano module, and EIII sampled sounds, offers as sparkling and interesting a range of sounds as currently exists on the market.
Locations in banks 0 and 1 are presets, while bank 2 houses a further 128 hyperpresets. But aurally, and this is relevant when it comes to combining or using a sound with another for multitimbral use, it is in fact no easy matter to decide which is which. Multitimbrally, the UltraProteus, like the Morpheus before it, employs what it calls MIDI Maps — 16 locations that can be used to store complete set‑ups, i.e. a full complement of 16 MIDI channels and their respective presets/hyperpresets, plus volume and pan data, a certain amount of MIDI filtering, program mapping, and the complete internal effects section of the instrument.
The effects themselves come in two banks, A and B. Bank A covers reverbs, plus further time domain effects like delay, echo, and stereo chorus, while Bank B covers non‑reverbs only: fuzz (distortion), flange, chorus, delays, and ring modulator. The effects are of superb quality. I loved the plates, the chorus is smooth and creamy, and there are one or two splendid 'effects' with names like 'Rain' and 'Shimmer', both of which are pretty fair descriptions. However, there's not an enormous amount of control offered when it comes to tweaking. The reverbs basically offer decay time control, though effects like flanging fare better, with delay, LFO rate and depth, plus feedback parameters.
You can set up which preset goes through which effects bank, and which output a combination of all this will emerge from. But can you use both effects banks together? Sort of. Well, you can route the output of effect B through effect A at any rate, which means you can have a sound using fuzz, say, and copious reverb. The mix of the constituent parts in this sort of effect is, of course, fully controllable. I believe I'm right in saying that this is one feature of the UltraProteus that the Morpheus does not offer.
One problem thrown up by the undoubted power of the function generators, the morphing, the Z‑plane filtering and so on (see the separate box on Programming), is that the UltraProteus' screen remains the same 2 x 16 line display as found on the original Proteus. True, this is not always a bad thing — Emu has thus been forced into organising itself as tightly as possible. But while you may not get lost in quite the same way as you undoubtedly do on something like a Korg Wavestation SR, the physical restrictions placed on you hardly constitute encouragement, and for something as wide‑ranging as the UltraProteus, a roomier screen really should have been used.
As a result, what people are probably going to do is simply flip through the presets, make their selection, and play. Used in this form, the UltraProteus straddles immediacy and power with panache. Assembling a hyperpreset is very straightforward, and taking a snapshot of the entire instrument and storing it in a MIDI Map is hardly more arduous. There are many thoughtful touches to aid day‑to‑day use; for example, the back‑to‑basics 'home' cursor button, the screen automatically displaying the particular sound assigned to a keyboard zone as you play it, or the major bonus of the copy function, which allows you to swap settings across a wide range from location to location. There are also many expressive, performance‑orientated features, ranging from the offer of solo mode playing and portamento to the zillion and one parameters that can respond to velocity, after‑touch, or external controllers.
But at the end of the day, it all comes down to sound, doesn't it? In this respect, the UltraProteus, which effectively incorporates a Proteus, a Proformance stereo sampled piano module, and EIII sampled sounds, offers as sparkling and interesting a range of sounds as currently exists on the market.
For the moment, Emu continue to eschew two areas of keyboard life that most other manufacturers are currently obsessed by, namely sample input and General MIDI. With so much data already offered, you may not think that an extra slice of sample RAM is really that important — I don't. But General MIDI is another thing. Hopefully, the card slot will be gainfully employed in the not‑too‑distant future to offer a General MIDI set of presets. General MIDI is not responsible, in itself, for dull voice programming, or dreary sequencer music — it is a really good idea that everyone should at least accommodate. Let's hope Emu comes round to this way of thinking soon.
You need time to explore the UltraProteus in depth. You can get very good results immediately, but the physical design does not really do justice to the mammoth amount of programming power under the casing. This is an instrument you will not grow tired of. Buy it for the long haul and you will not be disappointed.
Despite my overall admiration for the UltraProteus, there is a problem to which I can still not find a speedy answer. Here's the situation: you call up a preset, which is probably using (say) a general floaty reverb. But suppose you want — like I did — to apply some of the other effects patches to this preset (a fuzz box, a cross delay, whatever...) to see how it sounds. You'd think that you could simply go to the MIDI Map select page, where all 16 MIDI Maps can be spun through, and immediately apply a new one. But when you do this, and press enter, your preset is then immediately changed to the preset 000 piano. Now you can use the copy function, and apply a preset to the effect (as opposed to the other way round) but this is not really the point. It would have been nice to just audition, without further ado, any effect on any preset.
Apart from physical appearance, one of the other main areas in which the designers of the UltraProteus have (fortituously) chosen to follow the Morpheus' lead is that of the sound assembly, and the high level of user control offered by that instrument over the sound generation has also been inherited by the UltraProteus — from its range of filters, and its high‑level function generators with conditional jumps, to its extensive modulation 'MIDI Patch' arrangement. Without conducting a parameter‑by‑parameter search here, the UltraProteus offers you very much the same level of in‑depth programming.
Starting at the beginning, there is a bank of some 470 sound snippets in 16Mb of 16‑bit sample ROM. While many have been culled from previous Protei, many are new. Some of these are single‑cycle waveforms, some are multi‑cycle; some are standard synth waveforms, some harmonic, and some are basic samples of tuned and non‑tuned instruments or sounds.
Each preset can take two such sound nuggets, assembling the final sound using easily‑understandable tuning and timing offsets, envelope generators and filtering. Or, you can dive headlong into the instrument, and get really specific about filter types, precisely how and why various cycles of the envelope generator move along from one segment to another, and so on.
While the UltraProteus presets are of course testament to the power of such internal workings, it is, I fear, optimistic in the extreme to expect many people to comprehend or be able to use this level of programming. If anyone wants to challenge this remark — from Emu, SOS, ICI, the IMF, BMF or wherever, can I please remind them that 90% of Korg M1s remain loyal to their factory presets, as did the Prophet 5s, DX7s, D50s and all those before them.
However, for the programmer or serious enthusiast, the UltraProteus is clearly a treasure chest of possibilities. The filtering in particular merits careful explanation and investigation, but you're not going to get it here, I'm afraid [you needn't worry — Martin Russ provided a detailed explanation of Z‑plane synthesis, as used on the Emu Morpheus, in the October 1993 edition of SOS — Ed].
Essentially, in place of your bog standard low‑pass, and possibly high‑ or band‑pass filters with resonance and dedicated envelope generator, what you are offered here are filter templates that can be applied to your sound — and there are literally hundreds of these templates. These are by no means fixed, either; not only can the effects be tracked over the keyboard range, and their basic power and shape manipulated, but one sort of filter can morph itself into another sort of filter over the duration of a single note. How, or why, can also be governed by certain playing characteristics or techniques, for example by the use of a footswitch, or by (say) a velocity threshold programmed to activate the filter morphing.
The manual is mouthwateringly complete with mini‑descriptions of and applications for these filters (occupying nearly 60 pages), and, clearly, much fun can be had just by dialling up a sound and flipping through the various filters one by one until you hear something that turns you on. This is far from complex. However, precision programming, from the re‑assembling of the sample loops stored in ROM, to morphing that has some actual forethought and planning, will probably remain in the land of dreams for most of us.
Bundling up internal effects in separate slices of memory, as on the UltraProteus, has clear‑cut advantages and disadvantages in my opinion. I have not used UltraProteus for long enough to slither down off the fence on this one, so I'll simply present the arguments for and against and let you make up your own mind. On the one hand, the 'for's. As everyone who uses synths multitimbrally is aware, one of the greatest inconveniences known to man is the fact that when you dial up two or three of your favourite single sounds in order to assemble and set up multitimbrally, phutt go the effects assigned to each sound, and much of the charm or power of the sounds goes too. Emu heads off this particular problem by removing internal effects from an individual sound's parameter list. Effects are then comparatively transitory affairs, not fundamental. You introduce a preset to effects as and when you like — if necessary, routing their combined performance through individual outputs, much as you would if you had simply taken the output of the instrument and plugged them into an external processor. Only here, all the transfer is done in the digital domain, so there's absolutely no loss of quality due to plugs and bits of wire.
Looking at the 'against's, there is the 'what is a sound, then?' view. Like it or not, many a 'sound' is now commonly regarded as the finished product — whatever that may be. It may be a chorused harpsichord with a repeat on it, or a ghostly piano, bathed in reverb. That's the sound. And that's the sound you want whenever you call up Ghostly Piano. Fine, if the effects are shackled to the Sample + Synthesis engine, but not quite so fine using this method. If you reprogram one of the MIDI Maps from the endless, smooth‑edged reverb you've been merrily using on Ghostly Piano to a harder‑edged, shorter variety one day (because that happens to be the effect you need on some other sound), you will then also, perhaps unwittingly, have altered the full effect you had on Ghostly Piano.
Emu's argument will no doubt be, firstly, that restrictions will inevitably apply multitimbrally, and secondly, that the construction of presets allows you to perform feats such as chorus and a modicum of repeat functions as part of the synthesis package. But as I said, the jury is still out on this one.
- Huge range of expressive, playable sounds.
- High level of programming (for those who need it).
- Good level of familiarity for those who have worked with previous Protei.
- Thorough manual.
- Filter heaven.
- Small display screen.
- No sample input.
- Potentially restrictive output arrangement if you are in a fully pro studio setting.
You could argue that this is a lot of money to pay for a re‑bundle of various Emu modules in the Proteus/Morpheus camp, and indeed, if all you want to do is pull up sounds and play them, then this might not be the instrument for you. But the UltraProteus comes into its own if you are interested in creating new sounds and stretching the boundaries of digitally‑controlled subtractive synthesis. If you are in this camp, then few other instruments offer this type and level of control.