It's hard to flip through any magazine like Remix and not stumble across an artist or producer extolling the virtues of some classic synth, compressor or preamp that the rest of the reading public will never be able to afford — a $2,000 computer is usually enough of a stretch. Unfortunately, the sound quality of a classic Roland Juno, ARP or Sequential Circuits Prophet can't be denied. And yes, there are always plug-ins, but sometimes there's just something magical about actually plugging in a pair of cables and using some real hardware.
Released earlier this year, the E-mu Vintage Pro sound module and the slightly newer Vintage Keys keyboard pack hundreds of the most coveted classic-synth patches into two modestly priced packages. Both units are based on E-mu's proven Proteus synth engine, which allows for almost limitless expandability through expansion ROM packages and 128-voice polyphony (64 voices for the Vintage Keys). The Vintage Pro and Keys also sport a slick neoclassic design complete with an array of real-time controller knobs.
THE SPACE JOURNEY BEGINS
The Vintage Pro is a one-rackspace module that includes six ¼-inch analog outputs (main L/R, sub 1 L/R and sub 2 L/R), an S/PDIF output, two sets of MIDI connections (MIDI A In/Out/Thru and MIDI B In/Out) and a ¼-inch headphone output. The front panel includes: power switch, volume knob, backlit LCD, Master Edit key, Patch Edit key, Audition key, Arpeggiator/Tap Tempo key, Save/Copy key, Home/Enter key, four real-time controller knobs, data wheel and left/right cursor keys. An included CD-ROM contains a PDF manual and E-mu's E-Loader application, which is a universal utility across the E-mu product line for patch- and sequence-management chores.
The factory presets are arranged by sound type, and a short abbreviation identifies the category of each preset. Many of the abbreviations are obvious, whereas a few require a closer look. The complete list includes: Arp (arpeggiations), Bas, Bpm (sequences), Brs (brass), Bts (drum kit plus synth and bass splits), Cmb (multi-instruments), Epo, Gtr, Jam (multi-instrument patches with splits of keys, bass and percussion), Key (mostly clavinets), Kit (complete drum kits), Led (synth leads), Org (organs), Pad, Prc (separated percussion elements), Sfx (atmospheres and textures), Str (many strings), Syn (polysynths), Vox and Wnd.
The patch-editing facilities go fairly deep. With the Patch Edit key, users can adjust a dizzying array of parameters. These options include dozens of selectable filter types; time-based and tempo-synched envelopes (and aux envelopes) that can be set to attack, decay or release; dozens of LFOs ranging from random to pulse; LFO rate; tuning; transpose; output assignments; arpeggiator selections; and more. Also, each parameter of a multi-instrument patch can be adjusted almost in tandem, alleviating the need to step back through the entire menu. Although the myriad tuning and transpose functions fall outside of the scope of this review, it should be noted that E-mu has made a number of concessions to top-shelf players and producers that allow this unit to be tailored to almost any situation.
A number of the filter and LFO parameters detailed previously are also adjustable in real time via the four front-panel knobs. The four knobs actually correspond with three layers of controllers (A through L), which are accessed with the Layer button just to the left of the knobs. The various layer assignments are premapped to MIDI controller numbers, and they include Layer 1: A (Filter Cutoff, 21), B (Filter Resonance, 22), C (Shape, 23), D (Image, 24); Layer 2: E (Attack, 25), F (Decay/Release, 26), G (Movement, 27), H (Rate, 28); Layer 3: I, J, K, L (Modulation 1-4; 78, 79, 91, 93, respectively). The knobs can also be set to transmit controller information for use with sequencers, and the controller numbers themselves can also be customized.
Lastly, the Vintage Pro includes an interesting audition feature. The unit comes preloaded with a number of sequence patterns for each patch. When auditioning sounds, users can press the Audition key, and the unit will play a corresponding sequence for each patch as you scroll through — a nice touch that certainly beats holding down a key with one hand and spinning the data wheel with the other.
The sound set of the Vintage Pro is designed for a pretty diverse user base. Some of the leads and pads immediately conjure thoughts of late-'70s sci-fi flicks. For electronic and hip-hop production, the bass, lead, synth, percussion, pad and effects categories will provide almost limitless musical fodder. Some of the layered synth presets will also provide a great starting point, providing excellent depth to almost any track. The two collections of percussion elements are also quite usable; one contains premapped drum kits, and the other is made up of entire banks of single sounds, which takes some of the pain out of auditioning drum sounds and building custom kits — another nice touch. And of course, with any out-of-the-box synth, there are a few banks that you'll probably never touch.
For me, the bass and the effects sections were worth the asking price alone. Working from the Layered Bass preset, I was able to make some quick tweaks to the filter cutoff and resonance settings, which produced a deep, thick, throaty bass sound that had the presence of a sawtooth without a sharp attack. The effects sounds were just made to be tweaked: Many of the patches are rich mulitlayered selections that respond really well to the LFO rate knob. Also the Moog- and ARP-based patches are downright inspirational.
The real star of the Vintage Pro (aside from the meticulously sampled synth patches) is the filter section. The unit ships with dozens of options ranging from standard comb and bandpass selections to some bizarre bits of E-mu's own design. The sound of each filter is top-notch, and the ability to tweak the cutoff and resonance in real time adds a real level of musicality to the unit. Most synths in this price range hide many of the tastier parameters behind layers of esoteric menus; E-mu's decision to add some real knobs is a move in the right direction. And don't the forget the excellent LFO section, which, among other things, allows for free running or tempo-synched control of the rate — adding some rhythmic depth to an effects patch or pad couldn't be easier.
For live use, the included Tap Tempo key is a great addition. With the selectable time-synched effects, selecting a patch and adjusting the master tempo is almost an afterthought. The global bpm can also be entered manually, bringing the multiple arpeggiation patterns and the LFOs into play within a studio setting.
One thing that was really apparent was how easy the Vintage Pro was to navigate. The Master Edit and Patch Edit keys, along with the cursor keys and the data wheel, made moving through the various layers of parameters a snap. I never actually needed the manual to find anything The layout is extremely logical; even people with scant knowledge of synthesis architecture will have little trouble creating and saving their own sounds.
A review can't be all glowing, can it? A few points about the Vintage Pro need to be addressed. To begin with, this is a sample-based unit. That said, there were a few instances in which I found some odd drop-outs and extended overlaps of notes when playing the Vintage Pro from a keyboard controller, and this is one of the few problems that all sample-based units incur. Most of these kinds of problems can be avoided by keeping the attack, decay and release settings in check. Still, when you bring it home for the first time and start playing, your first session may not be absolutely perfect. Second, the included CD-ROM doesn't include a manual for the Vintage Pro; it includes a manual for almost every other E-mu product, but not Vintage Pro. I'm sure this was a shipping oversight that has been corrected, and luckily, the manual is available for download from the company's Website, and a hard copy is included with the unit. I also wish that the Vintage Pro included at least one audio input. The filter section is so deep, it's a shame that you can't use it to process some real guitars or other instruments.
The Vintage Pro is an excellent value, and I really enjoyed adding it to my studio. The sound set and the real-time control made it an absolute pleasure to use. For the truly budget-minded, one thing to keep in mind is that as much as the Vintage Pro looks like a specialty item, it's a Proteus offspring at heart; it has all of the same expansion possibilities as other E-mu modules. So for an almost nominal entrance fee, the Vintage Pro not only delivers some great sampled versions of classic synths but also has the potential to be a truly expandable part of your studio.
VINTAGE PRO > $795
Pros: Excellent versions of the Hammond B-3, Mellotron, Jupiter, Juno, Moogs, Prophets, ARPs and others. Excellent filters, LFO and real-time control.
Cons: Sample-based playback can be finicky. Requires some adjustment of parameters.