10 years on from the Vintage Keys module, Emu are looking to repeat its success, this time with 128-note polyphony, 32 MIDI channels and 32MB of sample ROM. But is it a fine Vintage, or past its best?
The Vintage Pro is a 1U rack module from Emu that aims to offer you access to a range of sounds from various renowned vintage keyboards and synths. Based on the highly successful Proteus 2000 (as with all of Emu's recent rack modules), it features real-time control knobs, 32 MIDI-channel operation and 128-voice polyphony.
I'm always highly dubious of the term 'pro' when applied to any hi-tech item, be it hardware or software. My experiences have led me to the conclusion that anything termed 'pro' usually isn't! But I like exceptions, and I was hoping this would be one. I was somewhat dismayed to discover that the front panel is made of plastic. I don't know what type of plastic, so for all I'm aware it could be as tough as a riot shield, but from the way it feels, I have to say I doubt it. The styling is very much of the 'future retro' persuasion, with silver lettering behind the moulded facia reminiscent of '50s American diners and jukeboxes. Everyone that saw it during the time I had it under review liked it, so that can't be a bad thing.
The front panel closely resembles all of Emu's recent rack synth releases. From right to left across the front panel we first encounter the power button, followed by the large, clicky data-entry knob. Beyond these are the main editing buttons, which access more than one task depending on the current context. They include a pair of left/right cursor controls, plus keys marked Home/Enter, Save/Copy, Edit, Master, Audition and the Arpeggiator/Beats button. In the centre is the 2 x 24 character backlit LCD, and to the left of the screen are the real-time control knobs. The Control button to the upper left of the control knobs determines the function of the latter; each time the button is pressed it steps through three control groupings, whereupon the parameters controlled by the four knobs changes. An LED denotes which control group is currently active and the control assignments are printed above each knob in line with the LED. A further LED for each control knob signifies when a knob has been moved away from its default programmed value within the current Preset. These knobs will transmit MIDI data, allowing the movements to be recorded and played back from a MIDI sequencer, or for use with a software synth, for example. The knobs can be set to provide only real-time control, or can also act as editing knobs when paging through the Vintage Pro's editing screens. To the far left of the front panel are a headphone output and volume control.
If you work for another hi-tech manufacturer and you are simply skimming this review, then read the following sentence twice! When it comes to designing their synths' power requirements, Emu have got it right — no wall-warts, no line-lumps, no hard-to-find power connectors, no captive cable that needs replacing with a soldering iron — and, most importantly, compatibility with any voltage from 90 to 260 Volts AC at 50 or 60Hz. In other words, if you're gigging overseas, the likelihood is that this synth can be plugged in and will simply work, straight out of the box. If Emu can do it — and they have for many years — why can't other manufacturers?
The Vintage Pro offers a spread of ROM-based material covering classic synth and keyboard sounds from the '60s, '70s and '80s; synth waveforms from ARP, Moog, Roland, Sequential Circuits, Yamaha and Oberheim gear are all provided. Electric pianos are represented by samples of Rhodes, Wurlitzer and a wonderfully clunky Yamaha CP70, and there are organ samples from tone-wheel Hammond, Farfisa and Vox. Other revered machines include the wonderful Mellotron and the currently in-vogue Clavinet. There's a small number of FM sounds in there too, typically biased towards those famous electric piano and bass sounds.
The analogue synth sounds are very good indeed, due in part to the excellent Emu filter. The Oberheim synths are worthy of particular mention, capturing the spirit nicely. There are a couple of Roland TB303 waveforms, as well as some from the Roland SH101, and some of the Moog basses are very powerful. But I have to wonder if the guy who created the Moog Taurus preset actually had any real examples of the bass pedals to compare with, because it sounds nothing like the Taurus in my studio! The dreadful example Preset is raspy and lacking any bottom end depth, or filter movement. This, as with all of the Vintage Pro's preset failings, is mitigated to a great extent by the power of the synthesis engine, which is quite capable of turning many of the less appealing Presets into something much more to your liking with a few twists of a knob or two.
The Clavs are excellent, with all the grit and cut you'd want to expect. Variant presets offer filtered and phased versions that would keep a '70s US cop show in material for years. The Mellotron strings are very good indeed, and the brass isn't bad, but the choirs just didn't seem right to me — they suffer badly from having too few samples (a criticism often levelled at Emu's old Vintage Keys module) and seem fuzzy and unfocussed, despite all my attempts to edit some life into them. The electric pianos are also marred by the use of over-obvious hard and soft switched samples, and although the Hammond organs are excellent, they represent but a small selection of the many possible Hammond sounds, and the choice may not be to your taste. On the whole, I found the most satisfying sounds to be those which didn't attempt to recreate any specific vintage machine!
Much as with Emu's Vintage Keys of old, I'm somewhat bemused and disappointed that sample ROM has been given over to so much non-synth/keyboard material. A couple of electric bass and guitar samples may be acceptable, but I fail to see why a so-called classic synth/keys module needs 16 cymbals and 25 shakers! I counted over 200 percussion instruments (including TR909 and 808 samples), the space for which might have been put to better use improving (say) the Mellotron choirs or adding more velocity layers to the pianos. Maybe I'm overestimating the amount of ROM being used, but it does seem a shame nonetheless. I would imagine the reason for including the array of drum and percussion samples is that it makes the Vintage Pro more of a stand-alone machine, but I can't help feeling that this is misguided.
In its unexpanded form, the Vintage Pro contains 512 ROM Presets and 512 editable User Presets. As on Emu's other recent rack synths, sound expansion options may be added to the Vintage Pro in the form of SIMMs, and if you do this, extra factory ROM Presets will appear automatically — up to 1024 per SIMM. The Presets are arranged in banks of 128, and finding your way around them is made easier by the Vintage Pro's 'Sound Navigator' system. This is simply a method of categorising sounds by types, such as bass, string, pad or voice and then scrolling through the Presets that correspond to that category. Unfortunately, there is no ability to add Presets into more than one category, although you can also create your own categories. Instruments (of which more in the next paragraph) are also categorised, although as these are ROM objects, they may not have their category changed.
A Preset may 'link' to a second Preset with which it may be layered or split across a keyboard, and each Preset may consist in turn of up to four Layers. Layers are themselves each made up of an Instrument (Emu's term for a collection of keymapped samples) which passes through a Z-plane filter and an amplifier. Each active layer uses one of the Vintage Pro's voices, but may be switched or crossfaded by key position, velocity or a modulation source, such as an envelope, LFO, knob or control pedal. The transposition, tuning, volume and pan position of each layer is also definable. Three envelopes are available, two of which are designated to act as volume and filter cutoff envelopes (though they can also be used as modulation sources for other parameters), whilst the third is freely assignable. The envelopes are six-stage types. Each instrument comes with its own factory preset volume envelope, but this can be overridden. Envelopes may be time or tempo-based; this can be a useful time-saver, since, for example, envelope times don't need shortening when you want to use a Preset in a fast tempo song.
Emu's Z-plane filter is a well-known and highly respected feature of their synths and samplers (albeit one that is now a decade old in concept). 50 Z-plane filter types are available in the Vintage Pro, including the standard 2-/4-pole low-, high-, and band-pass types, and there are also plenty of considerably more esoteric variants, such as 12th-order formant morphing filters and special resonant types. Due to the processing complexity of the 12th-order filters, the number of voices of which the Vintage Pro is capable is reduced when they are in use. The voice/filter processing allocation is handled dynamically, but at the extreme, where you choose to use 12th-order filters in all currently active Presets, the available polyphony would be reduced to 64 voices. I'd suggest, however, that this is hardly likely to be a problem in practice! The filters are warm and smooth, with enough bite to make the best use of many of the analogue waveforms available. If anything, the filter is probably over-specified in the context of 'vintage synthesis', but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Two LFOs are provided. These are considerably more sophisticated than most, with a choice of 17 waveforms, ranging from simple sine, sawtooth and square waves to pulse, random and steps of musical intervals. The LFOs can be set to retrigger at a note-on command, or run freely. Speed may also be set to follow MIDI clock tempo, with a range of subdivisions down to a 32nd note. One very appealing feature here is a 'Variation' control that creates subtle, or not-so-subtle rate changes with each key-press. This can be used to make a very rich chorusing effect that goes a long way towards recreating the warmth of many vintage synth sounds where LFO speeds would often vary by small amounts from voice to voice — I liked this effect a lot.
The Vintage Pro offers up to 24 'PatchCords' per layer, and these make understanding the synthesis engine a little trickier, although they are also where the much of the power and flexibility is to be found. They can be thought of as virtual versions of the cords seen littering the front panels of modular synths. The cord simply connects a modulation source to a modulation destination. Each PatchCord has its own Amount control, which is capable of passing a positive or negative modulation signal to its destination. To add some spice to the mix, Emu have also added a number of Modulation Processors to use between a modulation source and its destination. These processors include a summing amp (which combines two modulation sources), a switch (which toggles between 0 and 1 when a modulation signal passes a threshold), a diode (which passes only positive modulation amounts) and a lag (which slows down the rate of change in modulation amounts). In addition to the Modulation Processors contained within each Layer, two 'common' processors are also available to all the layers from the 'Preset level'.
You can run up to 32 separate arpeggiators simultaneously, each on an individual MIDI channel. This offers a great deal of flexibility and is heaps of fun. A preset can store its own programmed arpeggiator settings, or make use of those defined in the global arpeggiator page — either way, the range of controls is identical. The arpeggiators will run to the Vintage Pro's internal clock, or from an external MIDI clock source, although each Preset can be assigned a tempo division to run at, for example triplets, or half speed. Simple arpeggiator modes are provided, such as up, up/down, random and notes in order (or reverse order) of keys pressed. In addition, Emu allow for pre-defined patterns of notes to be played — there are 300 factory patterns and 100 more which may be defined by the user. An interesting variation here is the idea of an extension count and extension interval, which simply transpose the arpeggio a number of times over a defined interval. When set to an interval of 12 semitones, the extension count can simply be thought of as an octave range parameter, but when you consider intervals other than an octave, you can begin to imagine the musical potential of this feature.
Further arpeggiator options include a pre-delay setting where the arpeggiator is disabled for a period of time before kicking in, allowing you to play normally before holding keys down to bring the arpeggiator in. There is also a post-delay function which, in conjunction with the Duration parameter, plays normal notes after the end of a fixed-duration arpeggio. All clever stuff. It's also possible to use physical MIDI controllers to change some arpeggiator parameters, such as note interval, note length, gate time and velocity.
Using the Vintage Pro multitimbrally is simply a case of sending patch, volume and panning MIDI commands on any channel. But Emu do provide a Multi mode, where settings for each of the 32 channels may be stored internally. A Multisetup can then be retrieved with a MIDI program change command; 64 of these multitimbral locations are available. The volume and panning of all 32 channels can be seen at any time on a special Mix page, which, although coarse, is a useful aid when you're trying to figure out what is happening.
There are two stereo effects processors. Together they provide a very powerful addition to a single Preset, though all-too-familiar compromises have to be applied across an entire multitimbral setup. Given that companies such as Novation and Korg have long since got around the 'effects in multitimbral mode' problem by providing effects on a per-channel basis, I am a bit disappointed with this aspect of the Vintage Pro's operation. I might also have expected each synth to be able to tap into the full range of effects, but, generally speaking, Effect A handles the reverbs, and Effect B takes care of modulation effects and delays. The quality of the effects seemed OK to my ears, too — certainly a match for those from some dedicated effects processors. The multitimbral problem is somewhat eased by the provision of four effects sends, shared between the two effects and the feeds to the Sub 1/2 audio outputs, each of which have an independent level control into Effect A/B. A variable amount of Effect B may be fed into Effect A. Effects can be chosen in one of three ways: from within a Preset (so that the effects are specific to that preset), from within the Master Effects section (in which case the same effects apply to any Preset, whether in single Preset or multitimbral mode) or from within a Preset chosen on a specific MIDI channel when in multitimbral mode.
This review could easily become a three-part series, as all of Emu's recent rack synths have had plenty in the way of synthesis capabilities, but as most of the features they all share have been covered in previous reviews, I'll draw things to a close here, pausing only to refer you back to the original SOS Proteus 2000 review, and that of its larger relative, the Proteus 2500 (see SOS March 1999 and March 2002, respectively).
The Vintage Pro seemed much more to me than a simple sound module, the sort that merely sits in a rack playing the odd bass line and Mellotron pad. I found it an inspiring, if complex, machine, with some ingenious creative twists. If Emu have a problem with the Vintage Pro it is going to be convincing people of that fact — especially at what seems to me a slightly high price point. On that subject, I've already seen a £50 discount advertised by some UK suppliers, so there's hope yet, but it needs further trimming in my opinion.
I'm always happy to try out vintage synth emulations, and with the Vintage Pro I thought I would be getting something similar to a Roland JV expansion board in a separate rack box. So it is ironic that I found the Vintage Pro to be capable of so much more than I thought it would, yet occasionally disappointing in the very area I was expecting it to excel. As a vintage synth/keyboard module, it does a fair job, but there are more targeted virtual synths doing the job more accurately, such as GMedia's M-Tron for the Mellotron, Emagic's EVP73 for electric pianos, and Native Instruments' B4 (for Hammonds) and Pro 53 (for Sequential's Prophet 5), to name a few. But if you only need some of the sounds of these old instruments, and you want them in your rack, then this may be the solution for you. And don't be misled by its name — the Vintage Pro is a seriously powerful synth and rhythm tool with a range of sounds far beyond that of a simple ROM replay module.