If I may be frank from the top, it's been far too long since anyone has seen any new and exciting sampler products from E-mu. With a brand name as revered in the sampling world as Moog is in analog synths, E-mu has been kickin' out bits for well over 30 years. Following the success of the prohibitively expensive Fairlight CMI sampling workstation of the late 1970s, E-mu produced the first affordable compact sampler with the launch of the original Emulator in 1980. As the series grew, the Emulator paved the road for the EII, EIII and EIV as well as offspring products such as the Emax and ESI series of samplers.
FIRE IT UP > The E-mu Emulator X sampling software series brings hardware-accelerated DSP effects and nearly limitless polyphony to Windows 2000/XP–compatible machines.
For an organization that essentially built and revolutionized the modern sampling era, it was more than a little surprising to witness the once-pioneering hardware company take a hit from the new-breed soft sampler. Products such as Tascam GigaStudio, Steinberg HALion, Native Instruments Kontakt, MOTU MachFive, Apple Logic's EXS24 and Propellerhead Reason's NN-XT have not only proliferated in nearly every commercial and home studio in recent years but also made the hardware-sampler industry start showing its age. What sampling hardware did have going for it at its peak, though, was dedicated processing power and DSP effects, integrated I/O and MIDI/synchronization ports, a purpose-built speed of work flow and an innate sense of reliability. Clearly, bridging these two ideals is what E-mu is banking on with Emulator X Studio.
Based upon the EIV, where E-mu left off in the acclaimed series, Emulator X and Emulator X Studio seek to take the company's legacy lineage to the PC in the form of a 24-bit, 192kHz software-streaming sampler with hardware-accelerated DSP effects processing. From a software perspective, Emulator X offers unprecedented ease of operation with automated sampling, pitch detection, preset creation, in-depth synthesis capabilities, waveform editing and hard-disk streaming. Boasting polyphony limited only by your CPU's capabilities, the Emulator X software can run stand-alone or as a VST instrument within your favorite sequencer application on Windows 2000 and XP machines (sorry, no Mac support). By combining a dedicated outboard high-definition audio interface and a comprehensive set of professional sync features, the flagship Emulator X Studio bundle, reviewed here, further extends the integrated nature of software sampling to outside of the computer.
E-mu provides a real gift bag full of goodies when you open the box. Sorting everything out, you will quickly come across the three main components that make up the hardware side of Emulator X Studio's business, collectively referred to as the 1820M kit. The reasoning behind having its own name is that the hardware is also marketed and sold separately as the E-mu 1820M Digital Audio System (DAS), which comprises the E-mu 1010 PCI card, the AudioDock M breakout box and the Sync Daughter card. Providing the dedicated processing brains and DSP hardware-accelerated effects behind Emulator X, the 1010 card is the connective core to the hardware system. Featuring an Ethernet-style RJ-45 port for connecting to the AudioDock M, the card also provides coaxial S/PDIF digital I/O, ADAT optical I/O and an IEEE 1394 port. Although the FireWire 400 port does not support audio at this time, it certainly comes as a welcome bonus for adding external storage devices.
The 1U half-rack-width AudioDock M provides the majority of connections to the system. On the front panel, you'll find two balanced ¼-inch/XLR Neutrik mic/line combo jacks featuring independent hi-Z preamps with 40dB input-gain controls, -12dB green mini-LED activity indicators, red mini-LED clipping indicators and a common 48V phantom-power switch across both. Also provided are MIDI Input and Output jacks; an additional S/PDIF output; a ¼-inch headphone jack with volume control; and several LED backlit status indicators for displaying MIDI port, clock source, sample rate and SMPTE settings. Around back of the AudioDock are six balanced ¼-inch line-level inputs and eight outputs configured as three stereo pairs and one monitor pair. All of the ¼-inch jacks are gold-contact and software-switchable from -10 dBV or +4 dBu. Showing E-mu's hip-minded roots, the AudioDock thoughtfully sports a pair of RCA phono plugs with ground lugs for sampling from turntable inputs. An additional MIDI Input and Output pair, four ministereo alternate outputs (mirroring the main ¼-inch jacks and intended for use with powered computer surround speakers configurable to 7.1) and an E-mu Digital Interface (EDI) port for tethering the AudioDock to the 1010 card round out the box's connections. The AudioDock also provides true zero-latency hardware-monitoring facilities.
Incidentally, the M suffix that you keep reading about stands for the systems' mastering-grade high-definition converters. E-mu comes right out in its literature and boasts that the converters found in the 1820M are the same as those in Digidesign's wallet-wilting Pro Tools|HD 192 I/O interface hardware, featuring extremely flat response and a huge 120dBA dynamic range.
Finally, the Sync Daughter card provides comprehensive sync support with word clock I/O using BNC connectors to allow the host PC to lock up to peripheral hardware by providing master clock or synching in slave mode. A special adapter cable is provided that connects the sync card's mini MIDI Time Code jack to standard 5-pin MIDI DIN sockets. Standard ¼-inch SMPTE I/O jacks complete these facilities. Also included in E-mu's little gift bag of parts are miscellaneous ribbon cables and installation connectors, a headphone splitter, six installation CDs (drivers, applications, four discs of sound libraries) and a “Quick Start” guide.
For all the components and parts at hand, installation is surprisingly simple and straightforward — if slightly time-consuming. In accordance with the 1820M “Getting Started” guide, I removed the computer cover, and the 1010 card was the first to find its way into an open PCI slot; then, in went the Sync Daughter card. Even though the sync card doesn't actually use or plug into a PCI connector, its installation eats up a PCI card space, nonetheless. The manual suggests using a PCI slot adjacent to the 1010, but this is not entirely necessary. As long as you have an open card-access panel on the back of your computer, you can mount the sync card there, as the ribbon cable that connects it to the 1010 card is plenty long enough to reach. The cables are keyed so they can't be incorrectly inserted. Nothing to fear here.
The next step is connecting the 1010 card to an available hard-drive power cable from the computer's power-supply unit. Because the AudioDock M uses no dedicated power cable of its own, it receives its juice from the 1010 card itself via the supplied RF-protected RJ-45 umbilical. Should all your power connectors already be in use, the supplied power-converter cable can be used to daisy-chain the 1010 with a disk drive or other device. Pop on the computer cover, connect the AudioDock, and the hardware's ready to rock 'n' roll.
The first time you restart the PC after installing the audio card, Windows asks you to install device drivers for the newly detected hardware. E-mu advises you to cancel this option and, instead, insert the DAS driver and software-installation CD-ROM. For this review, I received the latest 1.60 version of both the DAS driver and the PatchMix DSP utility. Drivers are ASIO 2 for ultra-low-latency monitoring. You also have the choice to install various bundled software titles at this time; these include Steinberg Cubase VST (primarily included to get new Emulator X customers without a VSTi host up and running), Steinberg Wavelab Lite, SFX Machine Lite and Adobe Acrobat Reader. Likely, you'll already have comparable applications on your system, so trimming these from the install list can save you quite a bit of disk space.
Finally, you're ready to install the sampling application. Once again, you have the option to install components, which include the Emulator X Ultra Sampler stand-alone application, the Emulator X VSTi plug-in, the X Converter sample-conversion utility and the factory sound banks. I got the chance to try out the brand-new version 1.5 of the Emulator X software for this review. Freely downloadable to current Emulator X owners, this version adds integrated software effects at the preset and multisetup level, the ability to audition sounds straight from disk and a new Single View Screen that allows you to quickly search and dial up sounds in seconds.
A complete installation is pretty big (all application software totals 2.74 GB, with the sample libraries adding another 3 GB to that) and can take as long as half an hour to complete with all of the restarting, disc-swapping and so forth. My primary test system was a Pentium 4/2.8GHz with 1 GB of RAM and Windows 2000 Pro SP4. I also tested it on a Pentium 4/3.2GHz with 2 GB of RAM, Windows XP SP1 and running Nuendo 2.0 for VSTi compatibility. Interestingly, the PCI card acts as a dongle to the Emulator X software. (Laptop compatibility will be part of the new 1616 series of audio interfaces.)
BOOT ME, BABY
When you launch Emulator X, PatchMix DSP is simultaneously launched in the background. As it turns out, PatchMix DSP is an integral part of the close-knit relationship that Emulator X has with the DSP card, the sync card and the breakout box. Given that it acts as a central signal router and control panel for all of Emulator X's audio, effects and synchronization duties, to say that PatchMix DSP is a simple affair would be inaccurate. At first glance, things look fairly comfortable and familiar. Graphically akin to a typical analog-style console, the tool presents you with several channel strips, each containing fader, pan, mute and solo settings; six insert slots; and two aux-send controls. To the right of the channel strips resides the master section, where you'll find main mix faders, six main inserts and a rectangular TV screen displaying various bits of information ranging from parameter settings for insert and master effects to input and output assignments.
With well over 500 effects presets, based on 28 core effects types, PatchMix DSP effects utilize the powerful DSP chips on the 1010 card, in turn imposing zero strain on the host CPU. Clicking on the FX button in the upper right above the TV screen launches the effects-palette pop-up window. Core effects include the following: 1-band parametric EQ, 1-band shelf EQ, 3- and 4-band EQ, auto-wah, chorus, compressor, distortion, flanger, frequency shifter, leveling amp, several mono and stereo delay lines, phase shifter, rotary effect, speaker simulator, high-quality reverb and vocal morpher. Applying an effect to a channel or master output is as simple as dragging and dropping it into one of the open insert slots. In fact, you can expand beyond the six visible to an unlimited number of insert slots per channel. Likewise, you can string together as many core effects as you wish and save them as a Multi-Effects chain.
But scratching beneath the surface, PatchMix DSP is a complex and highly customizable tool with which you control the way your sessions work and flow. For instance, the default mix setup may not be appropriate to the gear setup in your studio, or from project to project, you may need more or fewer channel strips or different routing than what's shown. Right-clicking at the top of any channel strip provides you the ability to delete a strip, append a new strip, specify input and output hardware channels, apply single or multi-effects to any one of the insert boxes on a channel strip and save the entire setup as a custom Session template. E-mu has thoughtfully included dozens of helpful Session templates for various methods of working and gear setups, including All Digital, Basic Recording, ADAT Setup and Vinyl Sampling, in all supported sampling rates (44.1, 48, 96, 192 kHz).
Delving into the sampler itself, you will discover that Emulator X comprises four main windows. The first is called the Multi-Setup (or Multiset) window; there, you can arrange as many as 32 multimbral channels of presets (16 in VSTi mode). You can set basic channel settings such as volume, pan and output assignment — not to mention toss a funky filter module and as many as 16 assignable MIDI controllers — on every MIDI channel. Emulator X's file architecture is based on the familiar file-tree model and located in a permanent pane down the left side of the Emulator X window. The top level of the library hierarchy is a bank; within a bank are presets, samples and multisets. A preset can contain several voice keymaps or multivoice keymaps.
Locating, loading and organizing your samples and patches is a breeze thanks to version 1.5's new Single View Screen, which allows the user to search resources by instrument category (drums, bass, keys and so on) or keyword. Single-clicking on a preset within a bank loads that sound directly into the sampler, ready for playing. Alternatively, you can quickly build your own bank of favorites by dragging and dropping resources from the resource tree onto the Emulator X bank icon at the top of the tree pane. Loading an entire bank can take some time (longer than half a minute for really large banks), but the benefit is instantly accessible presets that you can scroll through. Also new in version 1.5 is a simple yet useful Audition tool. With it, you can quickly hear what a preset or sample sounds like without having to load it into the sampler first.
The second main view of Emulator X is the Voice Processing window, where a comprehensive assortment of standard synthesis functions and routing options exist. With a structure heavily borrowed from E-mu's synthesizer line, the obvious stars of this edit window are 54 of the company's patented Z-Plane morphing filters specifically taken from the Morpheus synth. Beefy and flexible filters have always been a big part of E-mu's approach to sampling, dating back to the days of the EII, which sounded like an analog synth because it had analog filters. The Emulator X filters probably won't trick an old synth dog into thinking he or she is listening to vintage analog, but there's plenty of razzle-dazzle there, nonetheless.
Finally, the Voices & Zones window is the place to dig deep and assign voices and multisamples across the keyboard, which can be switched or crossfaded by key position, velocity or controller setting. Using the Links function, you can layer, switch or crossfade multiple presets across the keyboard.
What really sets Emulator X apart from the rest of the soft-sampling pack is its knack for dead-easy sample recording, automated preset creation and simplified editing. I decided to try out the much-talked-about automated multisampling feature first. Choosing Acquire Sample from the file menu takes you to the common Acquire/Chop window, where you can either load audio files from disk or record audio at the hardware inputs. Pressing the Record button, I picked up my Stratocaster and plucked each string one at a time, being careful to leave short bits of silence between each note. When I was done, the waveform of all six notes appeared back in the Acquire/Chop window. Although Emulator X only records in stereo, for mono sources such as guitar, you have the option of going through the extra step of converting a stereo audio file into mono (to reduce the size of a sample file and thus save disk space) using the Mono/Stereo sample-edit tool.
Next, I unleashed the nifty and intelligent auto-gating/chop tool on my recorded passage. Selecting appropriate gate-threshold levels, pre/post and hold times, I pressed Apply; instantly, the tool cut up my plucks into six incrementally named tidy and tight little regions with correct pitch detection and root-key assignments. Of course, you can fine-tune sample regions, set or correct keys, rename samples and save them to disk as individual audio files. But I wanted instant gratification, so I pressed the To Sampler (save) button instead. As part of the automated multisample generating process, you're given an option screen to normalize (absolute, relative), auto-loop or stretch samples (pitch up or down). Within a second or two, I was presented with a fully keymapped and playable preset that sounded, honestly, damn excellent! Furthermore, loop-point setting is particularly a snap thanks to Auto-Correlate Loop, which suggests the best loop points for you. Together with assisted loop crossfading, loop point results in Emulator X are impressively transparent and extremely ear-pleasing.
Of course, whether DIY sampling is your thing or not, the X Convert utility will surely bring a smile to your face. Capable of importing Giga; Akai S-series; HALion 1 and 2; EXS24; SoundFont 2.1; and E-mu EOS, ESI and EIII — as well as AIFF and WAV file formats — there isn't likely a sample library in existence that Emulator X can't handle. And the rumor mill has it that the Akai MPC2000 and 3000 are on the list for future conversion support. Let me tell you, when that one drops, it will make Emulator X worth the price of admission for anyone seeking access to those highly coveted MPC libraries.
More than 3 GB of highly impressive samples and preset programs, spread across four CD-ROMs, come with Emulator X and Emulator X Studio. The X Producer disc is all over the place, with libraries covering everything from workhorse-variety keyboard, bass, guitar, piano, drums/percussion, synth-lead and pad-type sounds — mostly derived from the company's vast Proteus line — to more genre-specific, concentrated banks such as Hip-Hop Producer and Saint Thomas Strings; the latter bank is surprisingly complete and usable for a bundled orchestral library. The second disc, Beat Shop One, contains several banks of stylized drum kits, construction loops and percussive groove ensembles ranging from stadium rock to hip-hop, jazz, pop, Latin and fusion. The two-disc Grand Piano library features a wide variety of wonderful-sounding acoustic pianos. I'm a real stickler for piano samples, so I have to commend E-mu on the rich tonal character, clarity, presence and resulting playability of these pianos.
IT'S A DEAL
I would definitely take Emulator X to handle my sampling chores any day. But the point of the matter is that E-mu has created an absolutely undeniable steal of a deal in Emulator X Studio. I have never, in all my years in this business, seen such a well-appointed and truly professional hardware and software bundle capable of doing so much for so little money. The hardware alone would typically sell from other manufacturers for much more than Studio's sticker price. That Emulator X, the software, is actually the star of the show can sometimes be overshadowed by the fact that the hardware is so damn fine and sounds like a bazillion bucks.
The AudioDock M can be thought of as a well-endowed replica backside of a traditional hardware sampler should you already have a favorite audio card installed in your machine. Having all of those ports and sync options so closely integrated to the Emulator X software makes it extremely powerful and straightforward to use in an outboard mixer setup. Alternatively, if you wish to think of it as your primary HD-quality audio interface for your self-contained DAW, I can't think of a better-equipped or more affordable solution on the market today. All in all, Emulator X Studio gracefully picks up where the EIV left off. I highly recommend it.
EMULATOR X STUDIO > $599
(EMULATOR X, $299)
Pros: Superb audio quality. 24-bit, 192kHz sampling. Excellent integration of high-quality hardware and software. Stand-alone or VSTi operation. RAM and streaming playback. Comprehensive sample-format support. Un-limited polyphony. Integrated waveform editor.
Cons: No level-threshold recording. Takes two PCI slots. Not available for Macs or laptops.
Pentium 3 or AMD/1.5GHz (Pentium 4/2.4GHz or better recommended); 512 MB RAM (1 GB or better recommended); Windows 2000/XP; 7,200 rpm hard disk or faster; PCI 2.1 — compliant slot for 1010 card and adjacent PCI slot for Sync Daughter card