Built in to the same box as Emu's flagship Proteus 2000 comes the Xtreme Lead 1, a dance‑based 64‑voice, 16‑part multitimbral sound module with 32Mb of onboard sampled ROM sounds. But is it as powerful as it is bright? Paul Farrer finds out.
When I bought my original Proteus 1 Module some 10 years ago there was a tiny suggestions box at the bottom of the warranty card which asked what other kinds of products I would like to see Emu release. At the time I was so taken with the idea of a small, single‑unit rackmounted multitimbral synth that I helpfully suggested they immediately set to work on dedicated Proteus Vocal, Guitar and Analogue Synth modules, all with real‑time control knobs on the front panel. Feeling sure they would take my advice (I was, after all, a spotty 17‑year‑old Trevor Horn in the making) I filled in the card, popped it in the post and waited.
Now, a decade later, it seems the Emu design team have located my original warranty card (presumably lost behind a sofa or something) and have finally got round to granting me at least one of my three wishes in the shape of the Xtreme Lead 1. Boasting 64‑voice polyphony, 32Mb of sample‑based onboard sounds, 50 different resonant and modelling filters, 60 effects algorithms and 16‑part multitimbrality, the XL1 has enough spec to live up to the Emu name, but how will it fare against the considerable number of excellent dance‑based 'analogue' synths already on the market? If only they had taken my advice sooner...
In keeping with the other descendants from the original Proteus, the XL1 maintains all the slimline and surprisingly compact 1U dimensions of its ancestor. The most striking differences are the funky Satsuma‑coloured facia, the elongated screen and the addition of four real‑time control knobs along with the familiar master volume knob, headphone jack, edit buttons, directional cursors and the large data‑entry wheel. This layout was first seen on last year's flagship Proteus 2000 module (see SOS March 1999), and has been continued on the latest series of Emu instruments such as the B3 tonewheel organ (reviewed in SOS two months ago) and the Virtuoso orchestral module.
The rear of the unit houses a standard IEC three‑pin mains socket, MIDI In, Out and Thru connectors and a single pair of audio outputs on quarter‑inch jacks. Ever a company to offer numerous expandability options, Emu have also provided space for a Turbo Board upgrade which gives you four more jack outputs (stereo submixes 1 and 2), an extra set of MIDI In and Out sockets and S/PDIF digital out. Internally, there is a single SIMM socket allowing for Proteus‑compatible sound‑set upgrades; the Turbo Board, as well as offering you the extra outputs, brings the total number of expansion ports to four. While this upgrade philosophy is in keeping with their sampler range and does offer owners a number of useful alternatives (including boosting the polyphony to 128 voices) I can't help feeling that providing just a single stereo output on the basic unit is a touch limiting, and given the price range that the XL1 sits in, could even be considered downright tight‑fisted.
The user manual comes as a short Jump Start mini‑guide, along with an even shorter addendum including the preset lists and a few last‑minute operational clarifications, leaving the bulk of the instructions to be found as a PDF file on CD‑ROM. I'm in two minds as to whether this is a realistic, practical way of storing instructional information (which, let's face it, none of us read anyway) or a terribly presumptuous way of saying 'Well, obviously everyone has a PC or a Mac available to them at all times — even on stage — to learn how to use this thing you've just spent all your money on'. The XL1 is after all marketed as very much a live performance instrument, and there may be some users for whom this could be more than a minor annoyance.
The main advantage of not having to reinvent the wheel design‑wise every time they release a new synth is that Emu can spend all their time on the most important thing about the XL1, the sounds — and what a collection they've assembled here! The first impression you get (particularly after listening to the demo songs) is that this is very much a retro instrument, delivering tons of authentic early '80s analogue punch, but on further inspection it reveals itself to be a synth of enormous subtlety. A brief flick through the 512 presets reveals an impressive range of synth sounds from the strictly retro (TB, CZ, Moog, ARP, DX and so on) to the stunningly futuristic.
Basses, pads, keyboards, drum and sound‑effect noises make up the bulk of the onboard ROM sounds, but what I never expected to find were so many fantastic brass stabs and effects, some wonderfully grainy Rhodes phrases and a collection of guitar riffs and licks that would even put some dedicated sample CDs to shame. How many of these sounds are completely new and exclusive to the XL1 is a little open to question, though, as there are more than a few samples taken directly from the Orbit module. As the proud owner of an Orbit myself I can testify how wonderful most of its onboard sampled sounds are, but in all fairness it is some three years old now and it's not unreasonable to assume that the Xtreme Lead will be considered by a number of existing Orbit owners. Perhaps then it's a shame that Emu didn't make a completely fresh start with their choice of samples. That aside, for the most part there is more than enough original material here to warrant 'must‑have', status and this is greatly enhanced by the effects section (see the box on page 34), the arpeggiators, Super Beats mode (about which more later) and the four real‑time control knobs.
The four knobs typically default to control Filter Frequency Cutoff, Filter Resonance, Shape (volume or filter envelope attack) and Image (pitch/glide/chorus amount). There is a selector button to the left of the knobs, which toggles them between three sets of possible parameters including envelope attack and release times as well as more in‑depth features pertaining to the control of the Super Beats mode and the arpeggiators. Essentially this gives you a total of 12 real‑time control knobs accessible in three sets of four, and certainly lends the XL1 a strong hands‑on feel. Within the Master menu you can also specify that these four knobs enter something called 'Deep Edit Mode' which enables them to change from real‑time filter controllers to act as multiple data‑entry wheels for editing parameters within the preset edit pages.
This is an intuitive way of working, and while the XL1 allows all sorts of clever operational tricks to be assigned to these knobs, the practical upshot is that you feel encouraged to twiddle away and experiment with your sounds. Of course, the movements of these knobs can be transmitted via MIDI and, in keeping with all the other edit parameters, once a change has been made the green 'Save' LED flashes (along with an LED under the relevant knob) warning that the preset should be saved to one of the 384 user memory locations if you wish to keep it. One slight operational quirk I did find was that control knob two, dealing with filter resonance, didn't change the preset's sound across held notes, whereas knob one (filter frequency cutoff) did. The resonance changes with each new note as you turned the knob, but if you hold a note or chord you can turn the resonance knob from minimum to maximum and back again without hearing any change through the sound whatsoever. Perhaps this is a software bug that will be ironed out in later models. I can only hope so.
As far as preset arrangement goes, the long LCD screen permits not only the preset's name but also its bank, number and category to be displayed. You can either scroll through the sounds with the data wheel as they appear numerically in the list or, if you prefer, move the cursor to the category field and select different sound categories such as Hit, Key, Bas and Pad. If you then move the cursor to below the preset name itself, turning the data‑entry wheel enables you to see all the sounds within that chosen category. This logical layout makes locating the sound you want as pain‑free a process as could be imagined, and earns Emu top marks.
The Orbit module was the first Emu synth to try to blur the lines between the features you'd expect to find in any normal sound module and the more readily available breakbeat approach of a sample CD. The Beats mode in the original Orbit was essentially a series of short, pre‑programmed drum loops which could be synchronised to an incoming MIDI clock signal and allowed you to assign an infinitely variable set of drum sounds to each loop. The XL1 takes this concept a stage further with the inclusion of Super Beats, and presents sound sets in the 'bts' (beats) category as a sort of construction kit that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has bought a dance‑based sample CD in the past couple of years.
Super Beats is a 16‑track play‑only sequencer specifically designed for those looking to create complete songs on the fly. When you select any presets in the 'bts' category, each of the tracks of the sequence is assigned to a key on the keyboard of the specified MIDI trigger channel. The tempo of the sequence can be specified in the Beats Menu pages, sync'ed to incoming MTC signals or even tapped in time using the Enter key. Each of the tracks can be 'latched', meaning that hitting the correct key starts the track, then hitting the same key again stops the track. The layout of the individual parts of the loop is very straightforward with keys triggering kick drums, snares, percussion and instrument sections as well as up to four different 'Groups' which play combinations of rhythm and instrument tracks as complete sections. Key G#2 is assigned as the sequence start/stop button, and there are other keys which handle the muting and clearing of parts from the loop (see the diagram, right, for details of the key layout).
Although it may sound like a slightly long‑winded way of doing things (particularly to users of computer based sequencer) you'd be amazed just how immediate this way of working can be. All you need is a MIDI keyboard, and already you have a huge number of drum loops, programmed rhythm loops, fills and phrases all sync'ed up and easily controllable from the bottom two octaves of your keyboard.
This feature makes the XL1 an almost irresistible draw, especially when you factor in the fine selection of drum sounds you get for your money (not just reheated TR909 clichés) and the quality of the loops themselves — which are obviously programmed by some hot dance producers. I genuinely look forward to seeing where Emu are going to be taking this system of beat control in the future.
The XL1 comes with 16 independent arpeggiators which can either be programmed into a preset itself or assigned to respond to a global arpeggiator as set up in the Master menu (allowing up to 16 channels to respond to the same arpeggiator if desired). Setting up an arpeggiator to work with a preset is a simple enough exercise. The display in the main preset page tells you if an arpeggiator is active for that particular preset and whether it is responding to note information from the Master Arpeggiator or programmed into the preset itself. Along with the familiar Up, Down, Up/Down, Forwards/Backwards and Random sequences there are 200 factory patterns and 100 user‑definable arpeggiator styles to choose from; in each case the edit pages reveal a wealth of features defining note resolution, velocity settings, pitch intervals and so on.
Just like the Super Beats mode, the arpeggiators work to the unit's global clock tempo setting; again, this can be tapped in using the enter key or sync'ed to incoming MTC clock signals. Arpeggiators can also be 'latched' so that hitting a key starts the arpeggiator and hitting the same key stops it again. If you like, some of the arpeggiator's edit parameters can be 'patched' into the four control knobs on the front panel, whereupon these become parameter editors for dealing with your arpeggiator performance in real time.
Fans of arpeggiators will love the XL1 and the sheer depth it allows you to go to in defining, modifying and creating arpeggiated patterns (which, incidentally, can be transmitted via MIDI to control other synths/samplers) will truly make the fur‑lined hoods of the techno anoraks quiver in anticipation. Moreover, for the average user looking for a readily accessible and easily controllable set of arpeggiators that can be quickly applied to a sound and, if necessary, tweaked to fit, the XL1 will also be a firm favourite.
With so many extra features thrown into the bargain it's easy to forget that at the heart of the XL1 beats a mighty 64‑voice, 16‑part sample‑based synthesizer. In keeping with other releases from the Emu stable, the XL1 is a thoroughbred of editing potential. Each preset consists of up to four independent 'layers' each with its own sampled instrument, Z‑plane filter (50 types are available), more than 64 modulation sources and destinations and 24 virtual patch cords to tie everything together. Each of these four layers can be switched or crossfaded by any key position, velocity or a real‑time modulation source. The edit screens make it obvious which of these four layers you are working with by displaying 'L1' to 'L4' in the top left‑hand corner of the screen; you can also switch this to LA (Layer All) which applies changes you make to all four layers equally.
Alongside all the usual parameters such as changing the level and pan settings of each layer within a preset, the XL1 permits an astonishingly wide range of editabilty across the board. The impressive filter section features more types of filter than you could shake a stick at (filter type names include 'Meaty Gizmo' and 'Angel Hairz'!) but it's the highly accessible patch‑cord system, allowing you to attach numerous modulation sources (such as Aftertouch, Pitch Wheel or Filter Envelope) to destinations such as Pitch, Pan or Amplitude volume, that makes editing on the XL1 a real treat.
Setting up zoning areas and velocity switches between the four layers is also remarkably simple thanks to the edit screen, which is larger than those of older Emu modules, and the previously mentioned 'Deep Edit Mode' which allows the four control knobs to act as data‑entry wheels in the same way that multiple soft‑key functions operate, providing you in effect with four (sorry about this) soft knobs. Suffice it to say, then, that the XL1 will please the dedicated programmer as much as the preset basher, and of course the real‑time controllers enabling quick tweaking of filter frequency and attack time mean you could probably spend a lifetime happily experimenting with the sounds without ever having to press 'Edit' at all.
The Xtreme Lead 1 is undoubtedly a quality product, but there are a few areas where I feel more attention could have been paid. The single set of outputs is, to put it mildly, unforgivable: this is, after all, a 16‑part multitimbral synthesizer with drum kits and a host of big, meaty onboard sounds. Admittedly the effects section is a considerable improvement on Emu modules of the past, but having to get the Turbo upgrade in order to make the most of this instrument could be a major turn‑off for some users. Also, having updated this instrument in almost every conceivable way from, say, the Orbit (although even that had six outputs!), I can't help feeling that including some of the same samples from that instrument on this was a bad decision.
Don't get me wrong, though: there is much to delight in. The real‑time control features, the SIMM expandability option, the large screen, the amazingly intuitive Super Beats mode, the arpggiators and most important of all the sounds themselves make the XL1 something really rather special. While it's undeniably a retro instrument (and if provoked can even make you sound like Yazoo or the Human League at their worst) it has the uncanny knack of being able to sound as futuristic and cutting‑edge as instruments like the Korg Wavestation did when it first came out. The team of designers behind the XL1 have really got their fingers on the pulse of creative synthesis in the 21st century and, while it's primarily aimed at the performance/DJ market (who incidentally will embrace the XL1 with both hands if they know what's good for them), studio‑only users are also liable to be scratching their heads looking long and hard for a reason not to buy one.
Don't expect any GM favours from the Xtreme Lead — there isn't a 'Piano' or 'Bird Tweet' anywhere in sight, thank God. Instead, marvel at the terrific sound quality, the sense of hands‑on controllability and the overriding sense of fun that this instrument offers.
The Audition key is a great help when flicking through the presets, as it plays a series of phrases and lines appropriate to the selected sound. This is a very handy inclusion, and is a great help in picking out a sound perfect for you. The 'riff' the preset plays can be changed in the edit pages: not only are there tons to choose from, but they can be transmitted via the MIDI Out socket and, if you wanted, could even be incorporated into an external sequencer to form part of a track (or at least used as a springboard for ideas). So catchy and well‑suited to the sounds is this collection of short riffs that I wonder how long it will be before we see a Top 20 record 'inspired by' the XL1's Audition key!
This goes for the arpeggiators and the Super Beats mode. There seems to be such a wealth of styles on offer from retro electro '80s pop through to Chemical Brothers‑style big beat rocking that if I was pushed for time or didn't have any real ideas of my own (another usual day at the office) the XL1 could be seen as the perfect dance‑music writing partner.
The Xtreme Lead has two stereo effects processors. When working with a single preset the two processors can be programmed as part of the preset, but when working in multitimbral mode the two effects assume the role of external studio effects units, with each of the 16 parts sending varying amounts of signal to each processor depending on the mix requirements.
There are four effects busses (two for each of the processors) and an impressive list of effect types for each. Effects Processor A contains 44 reverbs, while Effects Processor B has 32 flange, distortion, delay and chorus effects. As you would expect there is a healthy degree of control and editability over the characteristics of each effect, and quality‑wise they are well up to scratch.
Here are some of my favourites from the many impressive sounds in the XL1:
- '004‑0 arp:X‑light' — A resonant and buzzy analogue synth line wired into the arpeggiator. The panning chorus effect makes this perfect techno fodder.
- '118‑2 led:Wormsine' — An unusually soft but effective theremin‑esque lead sound with all the right amounts of funky panned delay effect.
- '004‑1 bts:Rocket' — Quite simply one of the hardest drum loops I've ever heard in a sound module. Due to be appearing on a Prodigy album near you soon. Probably.
- '009‑0 led:Wet' — A screaming monosynth lead that formed the central part of one of the biggest hits of the Summer of 1999.
- '012‑1 raw:303 mono' — An inevitable yet deeply satisfying TB303 soundalike created by layering four monosynth samples on top of each other. Don't forget those Cutoff and Resonance knobs when playing this one!
- '055‑2 arp:Phrophetics' — It's 1978 and the BBC Radiophonics Workshop has just started work on The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy...
- '012‑0 kit:Hide and Seek' — The basic rhythm set. It's unlikely to win any acoustic realism awards but if filling dancefloors is your job, consider this set your personal assistant.
- '000‑0 syn:OriON' — A huge washy, sparkly pad dripping with chorus and reverb. As Homer Simpson might say, 'Mmmmm, analogue'.
- Fantastic sound quality.
- Good real‑time control features.
- Vastly improved Super Beats Mode and Arpeggiators.
- Highly usable sound set.
- Single stereo out on basic model.
- Filter Resonance Controller doesn't work through held notes.
- PDF‑only manual: we don't all have constant access to a PC or Mac!
- Orbit owners will find some repetitions in the ROM waveforms.
A juicy slice of early '80s synth retro brought bang up‑to‑date with some ear‑blistering 21st‑century control and performance features. Perfect for the more discerning dancefloor freak looking for more than just another box pretending to be a TB303.