Through the years, E-mu's E-series samplers have maintained their status as heavyweights in the sampler market. The company's newest line is the Ultra
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Through the years, E-mu's E-series samplers have maintained their status as heavyweights in the sampler market. The company's newest line is the Ultra

Through the years, E-mu's E-series samplers have maintained their status as heavyweights in the sampler market. The company's newest line is the Ultra series: the E4XT Ultra, E-Synth Ultra, and E6400 Ultra. Across the board, the Ultra models combine faster hardware with improved software features at significantly lower prices than their predecessors.

Aside from their labels, the three models in the Ultra series are cosmetically and architecturally identical. The differences are in each model's standard features. For this reason, I'll talk about the Ultra line as a platform and point out distinctions between models where applicable.

Before I move on to the Ultra series' new features, allow me to set the stage. The Emulator's voice architecture is powerful and well established, with matrix modulation providing a great deal of flexibility between a formidable complement of sources and destinations.

Z-Plane filtering, which E-mu has included in most of its instruments since the Morpheus, yields unique dynamic sounds by allowing various control sources to morph between two filter types. The Emulator's sampling and looping are intuitive and straightforward, and dozens of 24-bit onboard effects round out the package. Other than this whirlwind refresher, I'll bypass features that haven't changed.

CORE ISSUESAt first blush, the Ultras look identical to their immediate antecedents. All the Ultra models are 3U rack-mount devices. (E-mu has not announced any keyboard products in the Ultra line.) Indeed, the only front-panel change is a cold-cathode fluorescent display replacing the backlit electroluminescent display. The former is much brighter and has few of the viewing-angle issues associated with its forebears.

I was surprised not to see the complement of real-time control knobs that E-mu has been putting on units such as the Proteus 2000 and Audity 2000. However, you can assign most parameters to respond to MIDI controllers via matrix modulation.

The real hardware changes are under the hood. The Ultras' predecessors used a 32-bit processor clocked at 22 MHz. The Ultras use a 32-bit processor too, but this one is a reduced instruction set computing (RISC) chip running at 33 MHz. It executes 25 million instructions per second (MIPS), significantly greater than the mere 7 MIPS of the earlier machines. This translates to speed improvements in just about every area of the unit, including MIDI response time, signal processing, and sampling. The Ultras are lightning fast!

As with earlier models of the sampler, the operating system (EOS) resides in dedicated flash RAM, allowing for easy upgrades. The Ultras also have 8 MB of flash RAM, quite a jump from the 1 MB of RAM in the previous generation of instruments. Approximately half of this RAM is reserved for the operating system; the other half is split between presets and sequences.

The system can address up to 128 MB of sample RAM in the form of 72-pin SIMMs (4, 16, or 64 MB). Though 128 MB seems quite respectable, it's actually conservative in today's computer and sampler worlds. The chassis of the Ultra units also accommodates four additional 16 MB ROM or flash memory cards. (E-mu says that 32 MB ROM support is forthcoming.) Flash memory lets you store your favorite samples and presets for instant access-a real plus for performing musicians.

Current ROM choices include the E-Synth 16 MB sound ROM (a blend of traditional instrument samples and digital waveforms with 500 presets) and the Orbit/Phatt Sessions 16 MB sound ROM (which includes all the samples for E-mu's Orbit and Planet Phatt modules and 500 presets). The E4XT Ultra comes with 64 MB of RAM, the E6400 Ultra ships with 16 MB of RAM, and the E-Synth Ultra includes 16 MB of RAM as well as 16 MB of sound ROM. Unfortunately, the Ultras can address only 64 MB of sample RAM while accessing ROM, but a software control lets you temporarily disable the ROM in order to access all 128 MB of RAM.

Interestingly, the Ultras let you create a 16 MB bank of samples and presets in flash memory and then transfer these sounds to a Proteus 2000. Some Ultra preset parameters don't map exactly to the Proteus 2000, so you'll have to do some minor tweaking.

Previous models of the sampler were limited to 64-voice polyphony, but the Ultra platform supports 128 voices across the board. The E4XT Ultra comes loaded with all 128 voices. The E-Synth Ultra and E6400 Ultra can be upgraded to 128 voices from the stock 64 with the addition of an optional kit ($595).

SYSTEM I/OThe Ultras' I/O has been upgraded to 18-bit A/D converters and 20-bit D/A converters, adding enhanced sound quality, clarity, and headroom to already impressive specs. (Internal effects processing uses 24-bit resolution.) There are two analog inputs and eight analog outputs (a main stereo pair and three submix stereo pairs; see Fig. 1). Analog I/O uses 11/44-inch balanced connectors.

Three Option Ports let you expand the standard I/O. For example, the Analog Output Expander ($795) adds another eight 11/44-inch balanced outputs, allowing greater separation and flexibility in external mixing and processing. The ADAT Interface ($549) gives you 16 output channels and an additional eight input channels via an ADAT optical interface.

The D-WAM daughterboard adds more I/O features: AES/EBU for transferring digital audio between devices, word clock for synchronizing with other digital devices, a jack for an ASCII keyboard, and an additional MIDI In, Out, and Thru, which boosts the number of addressable MIDI channels to 32. The D-WAM board is stock on the E4XT Ultra and E-Synth Ultra, but it's optional on the E6400.

The Ultra units have a single 50-pin SCSI port for connecting to outboard storage devices. In a new twist, the Ultra now supports internal IDE drives, with a practical capacity limit of 18 GB. The E4XT Ultra ships with a 3.2 GB internal IDE drive. (You can use SCSI internally, but the IDE format currently offers the best performance for the money.) An optional mounting kit is available to add one internal drive to the other models. Unfortunately, EOS does not currently support sampling directly to disk, which would open up a new realm of possibilities.

As with the previous generation, a software switch allows the Ultra to negotiate with a computer with SCSI ID 7 (the standard for Macs) in the same SCSI chain so that both master devices can coexist peacefully. This not only allows the sharing of resources such as a CD-ROM drive, but also facilitates communication with computer-based software applications at a much faster rate than serial or MIDI connections.

The Ultra also has an internal floppy drive, used primarily for transferring EOS updates to flash RAM. There is no onboard CD-ROM drive, so you'll have to connect one externally via SCSI. E-mu reasons that this maintains the rack size of the Ultra models while not locking you into a specific drive-an important point, given the rate at which CD-ROM drive specifications improve.

SIDE EFFECTSThe architecture and algorithms of the dual 24-bit signal processors have not changed. A quick recap: Effects A has 44 varieties of reverb, and Effects B offers 37 additional effects, such as chorus, flanger, delay, and distortion. The effects' quality is respectable, although their parameters are not accessible via matrix modulation. The effects can be placed in parallel or serial. With most instruments, however, you get a maximum of one effect from each of the two categories for the entire instrument-even in multitimbral mode.

E-mu will soon offer an improved collection of effects, greater routing capabilities, and 24-bit I/O with its optional RFX-32 card ($795). The card mounts in a dedicated slot within the machine. This 32-bit, multibus, multichannel processor is said to offer 16 simultaneous, studio-quality stereo effects, complete with extensive routing and I/O features. The RFX-32 board should be available this spring.

EOSThe remaining new features of the Ultra line are all part of the EOS operating system, currently at version 4.02. A simple software upgrade allows users with older EOS-based samplers to access these features. (You should check with E-mu to make certain that your particular model will work as planned.)

In addition to reading Emulator file formats, EOS currently reads discs for the Akai S1000, S1100, and S3000, as well as the Roland S-700 series samplers. This combination of formats means that the Ultras can access the lion's share of important third-party offerings. EOS also imports and exports AIFF and WAV files.

The Ultras ship with EOS Link, a cross-platform application that emulates the front panel in software on your computer. EOS Link is certainly useful for remote Ultras, but it provides no additional functionality and can't be used with some of the SCSI-intensive functions such as Beat Munging (more on this in a moment).

More problematically, EOS Link is not MIDI aware; the only way to hear a sound is by using the Audition button on the emulated front panel. An onscreen keyboard would at least be a step in the right direction. In short, EOS Link does not effectively substitute for an editor/librarian like Emagic's SoundDiver.

EOS now includes a rather standard but serviceable arpeggiator, which arpeggiates notes up, down, up or down, or randomly, with up to a three-octave extension. You can set the tempo manually or tap it in using a front-panel button. Tempo divisions range from half notes to 32nd notes, including triplets. You can also specify whether the notes sound immediately or are triggered during the next clock cycle. There is no key-latch function as is found in some arpeggiators.

BEAT MUNGERAt the top of the list of EOS improvements is a new feature called Beat Munger (rhymes with plunger), a looper's dream that resides on its own screen. Beat Munger is intended for creating loops from rhythmic passages, especially grooves. To put Beat Munger to work, you tell the Ultra to analyze a rhythmic passage that doesn't deviate in tempo. The software identifies where the transients are, extrapolates the tempo, determines where the actual beats are, and automatically creates the perfect loop. In this way, Beat Munger fits into the same software application genre as Steinberg's ReCycle.

Easy looping is a nice feature, but the real power of Beat Munger is its ability to manipulate sampled grooves. For starters, you can adjust the tempo of the sampled passage to taste without changing pitch. Of course, you can accomplish similar results with a traditional time-scaling algorithm, but the fact that Beat Munger is aware of beats removes the guesswork and calculations, making the process much more intuitive. You can also change the time signature (for example, from 4/4 to 5/8), not to mention adding or removing swing from a groove.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Beat Munger is editing with the eighth-note grid. The display presents a grid representing eighth notes across two bars. When you turn off a note in the grid, the software skips over that rhythmic element and jumps right to the next one during playback. For better or worse, this process also affects the analogous beats in the subsequent measures of grooves longer than two bars. In addition, you can specify the grid elements that determine the beginning and end of the loop.

Fine-tuning controls allow you to finesse Beat Munger's results. The Grunge control determines the length of crossfades at the splice points in the new beat. The results range from smooth to coarse. Similarly, the Comb control adjusts the distance between splices. You can use this control to tighten up the groove, create comb-filter effects, or generate echo effects, depending on the sample. For example, the Comb control can help eliminate flutter side effects when reducing the tempo of a passage.

The success of Beat Munger depends on the source material you ask it to interpret. To increase the chances of success, E-mu's engineers have added controls that help the user identify the tempo and downbeat of a groove.

All in all, Beat Munger is a blast of creative fresh air. The big kick is that you can experiment with many of these parameters while auditioning the loop. (Note that Beat Munger is an EOS software feature, but it requires the processing power of the Ultra hardware to work.)

OTHER NEW DSP TOOLSThe Bit Converter lets you reduce a sample's resolution by automatically manipulating its level. The most conventional application of this feature is to scale the resolution down for specific sound-design applications. A more creative use would be to lower the fidelity of a sample by dialing in a lower bit rate. Bit Converter has a single control for setting the new resolution in 1-bit increments. Setting this control at 0 bits transforms an existing sample into a silent sample of the same length.

Transform Multiply is not a new effect, but the Ultras' processing power brings it into new light. This DSP effect merges two samples, accentuating common frequencies and discarding dissimilar ones. Although the final results are difficult to predict, source samples with rich harmonics yield the best sounds. On the E-mu EIV, it could easily take an hour or more to process samples of modest length. The Ultra reduces the wait to a few minutes or more, depending on the length of the source samples.

E-mu has also licensed the Aphex Aural Exciter for use in the Ultra machines. This effect adds sheen, presence, and clarity by adding new high-order harmonics to the sample. Controls include Amount, Tune, Fade-in, and Fade-out. The effect is subtle, but useful.

There is also a new Phase Linear Filter that exhibits much less distortion around the cutoff frequency compared with ordinary filters. Therefore, it is better suited to processing samples-especially when splicing. (More specifically, this is a non-real-time fixed filter that is not under envelope control.) Filter types include lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch, and allpass. The allpass mode lets you create new in-phase formants by combining a processed sample with the original.

SEQUENCERE-mu added a basic sequencer to EOS 2.0 around 1997. The rudimentary capabilities in that sequencer made it useful only as a scratch pad for ideas or for importing and playing Standard MIDI Files created elsewhere. The sequencer in EOS 4.02 is improved enough that I'll treat it as new.

As mentioned earlier, presets and sequences share approximately 4 MB of system RAM. Users can specify the ratio of memory allocated to presets versus sequences. (Presets require very little memory.) Each megabyte can hold approximately 100,000 notes of sequencing data. The sequencer imports and exports Standard MIDI Files using high-density MS-DOS floppy disks and uses the standard DOS "eight-dot-three" character-naming conventions.

The sequencer now boasts 48 tracks, which are primarily manipulated in a single screen bearing some resemblance to the Multimode page. (The F6 key toggles the functionality of the other five function keys between transport controls and menu selectors.) Each track is assigned a Preset as well as initial volume, pan, and audio outputs. Status options for each track include Play, Mute, Solo, Overdub, or Re-record (overwrite).

You have several options for channelizing incoming data. You can record on only one track at a time, but a track can record and contain data on multiple channels simultaneously. Another function splits individual channel data from a multichannel track onto separate tracks for greater flexibility.

The sequencer can quantize and apply swing to MIDI notes during recording. In addition to notes, the sequencer records controller information as well as SysEx data, useful for receiving bulk dumps from other instruments.

Most of the editing options can be applied to entire tracks or segments between user-defined start and end points. Note-editing functions include quantization, swing, transposition, and Velocity changes, either by percentage or offset. Tracks can also be copied for backup and other purposes.

The sequencer doesn't explicitly let you arrange segments in a song mode, but the Jukebox allows seven sequences to be played in turn. However, to make it useful for a song mode or performance set, you need to program silence at the end of songs and be quick with the Stop button.

Most likely, you'll do all your arranging with the Cut, Copy, and Paste functions. Fortunately, these operate rather intuitively. Cutting a segment slides subsequent data back in time to close the gap. Alternatively, you can erase notes, a single controller, all controllers, or all data between specified points. Pasting options include inserting (in which case subsequent existing data slides forward in time) with an optional number of repetitions, as well as replacing or merging a selection with existing data.

The sequencer has a metronome with a programmable count-off, but you must load and assign an appropriate preset and notes to make the associated sound-flexible, yes; instant gratification, no. Unfortunately, you can specify these notes only from the front panel, and selected notes are not auditioned. It would be more useful to be able to input the notes with MIDI. On the plus side, you can set the metronome for quarter-, eighth-, or 16th-note intervals.

You can set the initial tempo and meter of a sequence, but there's no provision for changing these parameters in midsequence. (The sequencer does perform tempo and meter changes in imported Standard MIDI File sequences.) You can also clock the sequencer from an external source or vice versa.

Speaking of clocks, you can record the output of the onboard arpeggiator into the sequencer because they use the same clock. The Ultra's sequencer is quite serviceable for basic tracking, although like most onboard sequencers, it pales in comparison to dedicated software.

ULTRA POWERFULThe E4XT Ultra, E6400 Ultra, and E-Synth Ultra are tenth-generation instruments with robust hardware and software, featuring the sound quality, programming power, ease of use, and voluminous sample library E-mu is known for. There's not much new in the way of hardware functionality with the Ultra series, but the MIPS spec alone tells you that the new hardware is significantly faster than the previous generation's.

Beat Munger might just be the killer application that inspires people's lust for an Ultra. Anything that provides the tools to create new grooves is a hot commodity, and Beat Munger fits the bill. I still want some more advanced Beat Munger features, but these can always be implemented in future software upgrades.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Ultra series is that the scalable architecture puts E-mu's top-of-the-line samplers in a price range that more musicians can afford. The Ultra's expandability yields anything but a dead end. (E-mu also offers an upgrade path to owners of its earlier models.) In particular, the RFX-32 card promises to turn any Ultra sampler into an even more powerful production machine. The E4XT Ultra, E6400 Ultra, and E-Synth Ultra each represent a great synthesis of power and price.

Jeff Burger is a digital media producer and consultant in Sedona, Arizona.

If an E6400 Ultra would still break the bank, you might be able to get most of the features you want for even less. E-mu's new E5000 Ultra ($1,695) offers exactly the same voice architecture, RISC processor, effects, and I/O resolution along with most of the same expansion slots and software features, such as Beat Munger. Even the front panel is the same, except that the display is a backlit LCD rather than the more expensive cold-cathode fluorescent display found in the other Ultra units.

So what's the catch? For starters, you can't expand the E5000 Ultra's 64-voice polyphony. Similarly, you can add only two 16 MB sound ROMs. The unit can accept up to 128 MB of sample RAM, but it ships with only 4 MB; you'll undoubtedly shell out for more RAM pronto. An internal hard drive is optional as well.

There are only four analog outs on the E5000 Ultra instead of eight. (You can expand to 12 outs by adding the 8-output expander.) In addition, the D-WAM board sporting AES/EBU, word clock, an ASCII keyboard port, and MIDI B is optional rather than stock; you get two library discs instead of the nine that ship with the other Ultras; and EOS Link is optional ($40). Although it's expandable, the E5000 Ultra offers fewer voices and outputs than its siblings, but it offers the same processing power at a lower price point.