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E-mu Systems Proteus 2000

9/1/2000

Until E-mu introduced the first Proteus, in 1989, musicians had precious few choices if they wanted a rack- mount sample-playback synth module. Roland had released the U-110 and U-220, and that was pretty much the whole scene. The Proteus/1 changed everything. It offered six audio outputs and 32 voices in a single- rackspace module, and it was 16-part multitimbral. The original Proteus shipped with a whopping 4 MB of 16-bit samples culled from E-mu's Emulator III sound library. They were clean samples, if small and with short loops.

With its ease of use and outstanding capabilities, the Proteus/1 quickly established itself as an invaluable tool for MIDI-based musicians and set the standard for rack-mount, multitimbral sound modules. An entire series of Proteus models followed, mostly featuring new sounds rather than significant architectural enhancements (see the sidebar "EM Covers the Proteus").

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The Proteus 2000 represents radical rethinking of the Proteus concept, and if E-mu's plans to extend the unit succeed, this could be a revolutionary piece of equipment. I'll say more about those plans later; let's get right to an overview of the unit.

MAKING CONNECTIONS The Proteus 2000 ships in a basic configuration that users can expand to fit their needs and budget. It offers 128-note polyphony-four times that of the Proteus/1-and has two independent sets of MIDI ports, labeled A and B (see Fig. 1). Section A provides MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports, while section B has MIDI In and Thru jacks. This provides 32-part multitimbral operation, which is great for sequencing. Configuring the unit to receive input from a sequencer on MIDI A and from a keyboard on MIDI B is a breeze and is very handy for live applications.

In keeping with the long-established Proteus routing scheme, the 2000 has six analog outputs: main L/R outputs and L/R submix output pairs 1 and 2. The four sub outputs are actually insert jacks; the tip is the send and the ring is a return that is summed at the main outputs (see Fig. 2). This makes it easy to apply an external effects device to Proteus 2000 sounds and mix the processed signals with the unit's internal sounds. A stereo coax S/PDIF digital output duplicates the main outputs.

Fitting the Proteus 2000 into your studio or rig should take no more than a couple minutes. Configure your MIDI patch bay so that it accesses both sets of MIDI connections, hook up the audio ports, and you're on your way.

WHAT'S INSIDE The Proteus 2000 comes with 32 MB of samples (eight times the capacity of the original Proteus/1) and can be expanded to up to 128 MB. The stock 32 MB includes 1,172 raw Instruments, which are either multisamples or single samples. These Instruments are assigned to Presets, which include all the various programming parameters.

You get 12 banks of 128 Presets each, including 4 banks in RAM and 8 in ROM. User banks 0 through 3 are user RAM Presets and can be overwritten; "composer" banks 4 through 7 store in ROM the same Presets as the user banks; composer banks 0 through 3 contain additional ROM Presets.

Keeping track of more than 1,000 Presets can get confusing, but E-mu's organization scheme is logical and user- friendly. It organizes sounds by raw Instrument type and by Preset category. There are 26 factory Preset categories, and you can create your own, so you can group sounds any way you like.

The sounds in each bank are mostly organized by Preset category. For instance, user bank 1 (composer bank 5) contains five kinds of Presets: patches 0 through 38 are Hybrid/Mixed Keyboards, and programs 39 through 127 are four types of basses, organized in Acoustic Bass, Electric Bass, Sub Bass, and Dance Bass categories. The next bank contains nothing but bass Presets. Other banks contain groups of guitars, orchestra hits, brass, and so on.

Using E-mu's Sound Navigator feature, you can find a Preset quickly, without knowing what types of Presets are in each bank. You simply change the category field in the main display and move the cursor to the Preset Name field. Now you can scroll through all the Presets in that category. Because you can create your own Preset categories, you can even make custom sets for specific projects. You also can search according to Instrument category, but you cannot create your own Instrument categories.

If you're checking out this box for the first time, you might want to take advantage of the Riff feature. The unit's 387 Riffs are prerecorded phrases that help you preview sounds. Pressing the Audition button on the front panel while you tour the Presets yields a different Riff for each sound-a nice touch that lets you concentrate on the sounds and not your performance. You can assign a Riff to a Preset, but you cannot modify the Riffs.

SOUND JUDGMENT Generally speaking, I found the Presets to be extremely good. The Moog-style basses, for example, sound authentic on tracks that call for a Moog bass. This is due in part to the samples themselves and to the fact that E-mu has wisely given the user an extensive range of performance parameters to work with. You have substantial control over the way each sound responds to your performing style; you can also customize each sound to the requirements of a track.

Some sounds are less effective than others, particularly the grand pianos and some of the orchestral instruments. Many of these left me wanting more samples and less stretching, but of course, there is a trade-off at work: the more sounds you have at your fingertips, the less sampling time is available for each. Nevertheless, the Proteus 2000, with its extensive memory, gives plenty of raw sound and power to the user.

Many sound modules cry out for editing by way of a patch librarian, but all of the Proteus 2000's many parameters are available from the unit's LCD screen. That's no small achievement. The main window itself takes only a few minutes to understand. In the top left corner you'll see the letter C, which stands for the MIDI channel; a number from 1 to 16; and either the letter A or B. These indicators tell you what channel the sound is on, and in which of the two 16-channel MIDI banks it is. Moving across the top line, you'll see Volume, Pan, and Bank Location information.

Go down to the bottom line and you'll arrive at the Category column. This is where the Data Entry wheel comes in handy. If you place the cursor on the category, spinning the Data wheel scrolls through the categories. Move the cursor over one (using the clearly marked < and > buttons), and the Data wheel will scroll through all of the sounds within a given category. That's all there is to it!

Many composers use System Exclusive messages to configure their studios before working on a piece. The 2000's Multi-setup feature is well suited to this task. The unit can store up to 128 Multi-setups at one time, each of which saves Preset, Volume, and Pan information for all 32 MIDI channels. Most of the Master menu parameters and a name for each setup are saved, as well. As you would expect, the Master menu parameters include global options such as Bend Range, a Master Tune parameter (in half-step increments), and settings for the 2000's two internal effects processors.

HAVE IT YOUR WAY The Proteus 2000 offers powerful editing tools, with a structure modeled on the patch-cord paradigm and an extensive real-time MIDI-control interface. Although E-mu has laid things out clearly and does its best to walk the user through the unit's many functions, beginners will no doubt spend a lot of time mastering the intricacies of the 2000's synthesis operations. Thankfully, the manual has a fairly extensive section on synth programming.

Upon entering Edit mode, you use the Data Entry wheel to move to each successive screen of parameters. First is the Preset Name screen, which is followed by the Instrument page. Instruments include settings for altering the pitch and start time of the sample. Each of the 2000's Presets can contain up to four layers, with an Instrument assigned to every layer. Other basic parameters for each layer, including an amplifier gain stage that ranges from -96 dB to +10 dB, can also be set in this area.

Moving past the Instrument screen takes you to pages for setting Note and Velocity ranges for each layer in your sound. Then you'll find yourself at the Real-time Crossfade page. I initially flew past this editing page, which was a mistake because it offers extensive control over the way crossfades occur between all of the layers. For instance, I later took a classic synth layer and crossfaded it after several seconds to a percussive piano sample so that only longer notes would have the attack.

Next comes a screen for the Volume Envelope, which is one of three basic envelope generators in the unit. (The other two are Filter and an auxiliary envelope that can be configured to perform a variety of tasks.) The Volume envelope is divided into six stages: Attack 1, Attack 2, Decay 1, Decay 2, Release 1, and Release 2. Like other time-based values, the envelope's time increments use a scale from 1 to 127, rather than absolute time in milliseconds. I've always found this scheme to be rather unintuitive. Nonetheless, all of the envelopes do the jobs they were intended for in a straightforward fashion.

The unit offers 17 types of Z-plane filters. (Z-plane is an advanced filter technology that first appeared in the E-mu Morpheus synthesizer.) Each of the four layers in a Preset can have its own filter, and you can morph between two different filter types using any of the 2000's modulation sources. This adds a lot to the unit's sound-sculpting power.

Composers of electronic dance music, in particular, will appreciate that the 2000's envelopes can be locked to a tempo of your choice using an internal master clock. When this feature is used, the filters can open and close at specific divisions of the beat, in time with your track. You also can lock the tempo-based envelopes to external MIDI Clock.

MORE ON MIDI The heart of the Proteus 2000's power lies in its real-time MIDI controllers and sophisticated routing system. Using the four Control knobs (or an external sequencer) in conjunction with the Control button, you can access almost all of the box's parameters in real time. (A fifth knob adjusts volume.) By pressing the button repeatedly, you toggle through the three sets of functions that are assigned to each knob. Each of the sets includes four parameters (one per knob), so in total, you can alter up to 12 parameters of a Preset in real time using the 12 customizable controllers.

In effect, the 12 real-time controllers, labeled MIDI A to L, represent connections or "routes" from the knobs or external MIDI continuous control sources to parameters of a Preset. Though all 12 are set by default to control specific parameters, you can redirect them easily. For example, MIDI A (by default, CC 21) is labeled on the front panel as "Tone." Open up the Edit window and you'll see that MIDI A is routed to filter frequency, with an amount that can be set by the user; hence, it's a "tone" control. To change the routing, just pick another destination-say, Chorus Amount-and you're all set.

Several control routings are hard-wired: Pitch Wheel is always sent to Pitch, and Volume Envelope is always sent to Amplifier, for example. You can set all other connections by using the E-mu PatchCord system. A great deal of real-time control is accessible simply by using the 2000's four knobs and the Control button. If you like to twist and tweak sounds in real time, then you'll appreciate the power these controls give you.

VIRTUAL WIRES Once you have a handle on how the MIDI controller assignments work, you're ready to move on to the PatchCord part of the 2000's editing scheme (see Fig. 3). The 24 "cords" internally connect modulation sources, such as an LFO or white-noise generator, to destinations, which might be filter resonance or chorus amount. You can use up to 24 "patches" per layer.

Most of the Presets that I studied used between 16 and 18 PatchCords to make a sound. Rerouting these cords was very simple. I constructed an ocarina patch and routed Fine Pitch to the Mod Wheel in order to have control over the slight pitch fluctuations that are common to performances on this wind instrument. Used with the real-time MIDI controllers, the PatchCord section offers a vivid palette of colors to use in designing sounds.

GARDEN-VARIETY EFFECTS The 2000 has a pair of internal, garden-variety stereo effects processors, labeled A and B. Effects processor A produces 44 types of reverbs and delays, while effects processor B generates 32 delay and modulation effects, such as chorus, doubling, flange, pan, and vibrato. The effects are quite serviceable but won't make you want to ditch your external boxes. You can route the processors in parallel and sum their outputs, or you can route the effects in series, with processor B feeding processor A.

There are four internal effects-send buses; you can set a send amount (wet/dry mix) for each sound assigned to a bus. Sends 2 and 3 can also be routed directly to the submix outputs instead of the effects processor, letting you use the sub outputs as send/return inserts for external signal processors.

When you play a single Preset, it feeds the two internal effects processors, and the four sends address the left and right inputs of the two processors. In Multi mode, the effects are global, and you can assign each MIDI channel (that is, each of the synth voices in the multitimbral setup) to one of the four effects sends. This lets you apply a custom amount of either effect (A or B) to each synth voice in the Multi. In this mode, the effects are mono.

MORE IN STORE Even if these essential features were all the Proteus 2000 offered, the unit would still be an excellent value. However, E-mu has announced plans to integrate the 2000 with its new E4 Ultra line of samplers in an intriguing manner. Remember, the 2000 ships with 32 MB of sound memory, which is loaded into a single slot. The box also ships with three empty slots, which will incorporate sound libraries from E-mu and various third-party sources. (Some of these libraries should be available by the time you read this.) But the most interesting part is that E4 Ultra samplers will be able to burn flash memory that the Proteus 2000 can accept, allowing users to create original sounds and use them as Proteus Presets. That's impressive.

By the way, gaining access to the chip set is no big deal. You take off four Phillips-head screws, pop off the top panel, and you're in business.

A NEW GENERATION E-mu has brought something new to the market with the Proteus 2000, and that's not easy these days. The company has built upon the earlier Proteus sound modules but has added better samples and effects, and much more control over the sounds. I question whether many people will actually spend the time to unlock the power of these tools, given the quality of many of the synth-style sounds already in the unit. But it's good to know the tools are there for the adventurous.

Of course, the quality of the unreleased libraries cannot yet be judged, and as of press time, the plans for integrating this box with the E4 Ultra samplers are just news releases from the manufacturer. But what the Proteus 2000 already offers has to be given very high marks. The unit has eight times the memory of the Proteus/1, four times the polyphony, and twice as many MIDI channels. It's also easily expandable and includes onboard effects, yet it costs the same as the earlier unit. Now that's progress!

Gary Eskow is the New York editor of Mix magazine. He is currently producing an album of his solo piano music at Sony Music Studios with pianist Christopher Johnson.

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