Workstation boxes that claim to be all-in-one groove machines crowd music shops and catalogs, and it's difficult for a new entry to stand out from the pack. But E-mu has designed the XL-7 Command Station with enough sophisticated distinctions to merit a close examination. Far from a toy, the XL-7 is a powerful synthesizer and a 16-track sequencer workstation with two built-in multi-effects processors. An octave of velocity-sensitive pads makes beat programming a breeze, and a bank of 16 knobs does double duty as a programming tool for the sounds and as an onboard mixer for the sequencer tracks. With the added ability to control entire external MIDI setups and a USB port for direct, high-speed connection to a computer, the XL-7 is tricked out for prime positioning in both live rigs and studios.
A COMMANDING PRESENCE
Every run-of-the-mill dance box boasts ample hands-on control. However, the XL-7's generous and clever control layout is one of the most logical and intuitive I've seen. For starters, 13 velocity-sensitive pads with Aftertouch are arranged across the bottom like an octave of a keyboard. These are naturally more suited toward real-time beat programming than keyboard keys or buttons. You can easily hook up a MIDI keyboard to play instrument parts, but in a pinch, the pads are perfectly fine for playing simple keyboard lines and chords. To the left of the pads are the octave plus/minus Transposition buttons and a programmable Touchstrip with a default setting of pitch bend.
On the control surface's left side are four rows of four knobs that serve several purposes. First and foremost, they control sound parameters for the onboard synth presets. The knobs manipulate filter cutoff, resonance, attack and decay; amp ADSR envelope; filter and amp velocity; LFO2 amount and rate; two modulation settings; and arpeggiator velocity and gate. However, for each preset, any knob can be reassigned to a different parameter. A function key above the knobs selects the knob mode. When switched to Volume, the knobs control the volume of the corresponding 16 tracks of the selected pattern; likewise, they control track panning when switched to Pan. Finally, you can control external MIDI gear with the knobs when they're switched to Program mode. They can send MIDI Control Change messages on controller numbers 1 through 119 or control internal XL-7 parameters.
On the right, a bank of 16 buttons in two rows serves mainly as the Track Enable/Mute buttons during pattern play and as Trigger buttons for the arpeggiators. You can run a finger across the buttons to quickly mute or engage a string of tracks. The Edit buttons sit at the top right, with a large data wheel and Cursor Left and Right buttons. Editing and programming for the synth and the sequencer, as well as for MIDI, run deep in the XL-7, which is a big plus for demanding users. It's a little disappointing, though, that the LCD menu is only two lines. Large displays can relieve a lot of the tedium in navigating pages upon pages of menus, and there appears to be enough room for it. As it stands, the XL-7's menus are broken into enough segments (Pattern Edit, Preset Edit, Global, MIDI and so on) so that a person shouldn't get too lost in the mix. Also, when in the Preset Edit menu, you can use the 16 Trigger buttons to jump to certain pages, such as Filter, FX or Tuning.
A headphone jack, master volume knob, soft on/off switch, socket for a standard 12V lamp (not included) and a tempo LED with Tap button round out the front panel. On the back panel, six ¼-inch outputs accompany a MIDI In and two MIDI Outs. There's also an RCA S/PDIF digital out, two footswitch jacks, the USB port and the hard on/off switch.
NOBODY LISTENS TO TECHNO
The synthesizer is where the XL-7 really establishes its identity. The 32MB sound set, consisting of 512 factory ROM presets using more than 1,200 waveforms, is aimed squarely at producers banging out techno, trance, Euro house, epic house, hardcore and the like. The presets comprise dozens of drum kits, synth leads, pads, basses, creative noises, instrument hits and stabs, as well as arpeggiated and bpm-oriented synths and special effects sounds. There is also a smaller selection of guitar, keyboard and bell patches. The programmers have taken great care in coming up with a treasure chest of usable sounds, both standard and off the wall. Every synth has its throwaway presets, but the XL-7's are consistently impressive. The drums cover everything including clear acoustic tones, gritty and distorted electronic drums, and enough congas and percussion to satisfy your tribal needs. Hundreds of synthesizer sounds make full use of the hidden power of the XL-7's synth engine. The sounds oscillate, evolve, sweep and modulate wildly, making use of the XL-7's PatchCords, a modulation matrix where 64 modulation sources can be routed to an even greater number of destinations.
Although the sounds are generally excellent, you won't find a large selection of acoustic instrument patches such as orchestras, pianos and guitars. The lack of acoustic basses was particularly distressing. The XL-7 is a niche synthesizer, but, fortunately, you can expand it by adding a max of three E-mu 32MB expansion sound cards; 12 are available, specializing in areas such as orchestral, world music and Hammond B-3 organ sounds. There is also the E-mu MP-7 Command Station, which is virtually identical to the XL-7 aside from its purple color and bent toward hip-hop, R&B and soul music.
Each synth patch has as many as four layers with three envelopes and two LFOs per layer. All of these can be synched at different rates, as well; for example, in one preset, a total of 12 envelopes and eight LFOs could be synched. You also have 50 filter types to choose from. A powerful Arpeggiator section offers 200 preset and 100 user-arpeggiator patterns. The XL-7 can run a maximum of 32 arpeggiators at a time. I tested 16 simultaneously, and through the cacophony, I could hear that the timing was dead on and didn't choke once. If you need more arpeggiators, you may want to seek professional help.
Editing the sounds is easy. To view the selected preset, hit the Preset View button. Select any preset you want using the data wheel. You can play the pads, change the presets, tweak the knobs and save the preset while a pattern is playing so that you don't have to interrupt the creative flow. To save your changes, just hit the Save/Copy button, select the user location to save to and press Enter. To go deeper than what the knobs offer, hit the Preset Edit button. There, you'll find a long series of menu pages in which you can reroute the PatchCords and make any minute changes to the filters, envelopes, LFOs and the like.
FUN WITH PATTERNS
You can use the XL-7 as a 32-part multitimbral synthesizer if you want to sequence it from a computer, but that would be ignoring half the fun. The 16-track onboard sequencer lets you construct complex patterns simply and intuitively and then build these into songs. Some may find the preset patterns to be a good starting point; there are 128 ranging in styles from techno, trance, tech house, electro and drum 'n' bass to downtempo space funk, post-rock and abstract. You can begin remixing those with the Mute buttons and move on to tweaking the presets or changing the presets entirely. You can overwrite the patterns with your changes or combine individual tracks from separate patterns by copying and pasting them into new sequences.
When you're ready to record your own patterns, you may use real-time, grid or step recording. To aid real-time recording, there are 15 note values of quantization with swing from 1 to 99 percent. The processor was always sharp with quantizing, and the swing sounded tight. To record in real time, select the track you want and press Record. Now select the pattern length (from one to 32 bars) and the sound you want, and press Play to begin recording. Play your performance, and the sequencer will loop and continue to record until you press Stop. If you need to erase certain notes, begin recording again, hit the Erase button and hold down the pad of the note you want to erase at the time you want to erase it. To erase an entire track, go to the Pattern Edit menu, scroll to the Erase Track screen, choose the track and hit Enter.
Also in the Pattern Edit menu, you can copy and paste entire tracks or just one bar at a time. If you were recording a 16-bar pattern and only bar 5 had a mistake, you could erase bar 5, copy bar 1 and paste it back to bar 5. You can also do a slew of MIDI-note and -event editing from the menu, though that gets a little heavy-handed. Fortunately, you can also record knob movements into a track. Do it in real time for some improvisational flare, or use step recording for precision. For example, if you want to record a track with hard left-to-right panning every four beats, step recording will give you exact results.
You may also want to handle detailed MIDI edits from a computer. E-mu makes that easier by including the E-Loader program for PCs and Macs; it will help you dump batches of MIDI files and pattern and sound information into a computer for backup and storage. Loading is lightning-fast with the USB port. The XL-7 sequencer has a 300,000-note memory, but if you're constructing live sets, this may disappear faster than you expect. The preset patterns alone use more than half of the memory.
After years of using hardware sequencers, I made the switch to computers for good a couple years ago. That said, the XL-7 is one of the easiest and most fun hardware sequencers I've come across. It won't usurp my G4, but it's an excellent change of pace for launching ideas or even as a full-fledged compositional tool. The fact that it can also sequence and control external gear is another advantage.
THEY WANT EFFECTS
Effects aren't exactly the marquee feature of the XL-7, but they still sound mighty good. There are two 24-bit stereo processors with more than 60 algorithms. When using one preset at a time, you can assign two effects to a preset. However, Multi mode is more common and where the Master Effects setting is used. With that, you can choose the effect for processor A and B, and each preset will be routed to one of four buses (each with a separate wet/dry setting) for each processor. That means that you'll want one bus to be set to 0 to keep sounds dry. The A effects are mostly reverbs and some delay-reverb combinations. B effects include distortions, flanges, delays, choruses and more. I could not ask for much higher-quality effects in an instrument that does so much at its price. I was particularly fond of some of the big reverbs, such as Canyon, and some of the delay-reverb combos. It's too bad that at least two knobs aren't dedicated to the Effects section to alter the effect variations and select the buses. As it stands, everything is performed through the menu.
Another extremely cool feature of the XL-7 relates to the outputs. The sub 1 and sub 2 stereo output pairs can work as standard outputs, or each jack can be used as a mono effects send/return. In this manner, XL-7 instruments routed to effects sends will then bypass the XL-7's master effects and be routed back to its main outputs with the external effect added. Alternately, you could use the effects returns as inputs for external sound sources and send them through the XL-7's main outputs; therefore, the XL-7 becomes a makeshift mixer, as well.
MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS
The simple genius of the XL-7 is that a few extra features make the crucial difference between it and just another rave toy beatbox. First, its ability to sequence and control external MIDI gear cannot be overlooked. E-mu has given gigging electronic musicians a stable hardware alternative to laptops and older hardware sequencers. The sub outputs that double as effects send/returns are further proof that this is an instrument simple and powerful enough to be the single tool of a beginner or the centerpiece of a professional rig.
I'm also very fond of the 13 velocity-sensitive pads. Many competing machines include pads that are great for beats but impossible for playing melodies or buttons for playing melodies that suck for rocking beats. By combining both philosophies, E-mu subtly trumps them all. Expandability is the final piece. No doubt, the XL-7 is a great-sounding, full-fledged synth — but the sounds are very focused and won't serve everyone's needs. With the option to add a total of 96 MB of additional sounds, the XL-7 won't go stale with this year's dance-music trends.
Pros: Easy to use. Thirteen velocity-sensitive pads with Aftertouch. Many usable sounds. Controls external gear. Deep programming capabilities.
Cons: Small two-line LCD. Genre-focused sound set. No effects knobs.
Overall Rating: 4