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E-MU EMULATOR X2 (software sampler)


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It’s hard to believe that over 20 years ago, I wrote the manual for E-Mu’s Emulator II. With the ability to expand the memory to a mind-boggling half megabyte, and dual 5” floppy drives, it was considered the first really affordable sampler – with a list price of almost $9,000. Well, compared to a Fairlight or Synclavier, it was affordable.

 

A lot has changed since then, but one thing that hasn’t changed is E-Mu still makes Emulators. Only this time, the software in front of me lists for well under 5% of the E-II, and what it can do compared to the original E-II is like comparing a 747 to a Cessna.

 

I reviewed the original Emulator X, and it was very impressive. However, the only way you could buy it was bundled with E-Mu's 1820m interface, and it required the 1820m to work (also note that the software is XP only). If you didn’t have an interface, the bundle was a great deal: The 1820m has earned a reputation for sound quality, especially its mic pres. But if you already had a good interface, it meant adding another card to your computer that you really didn't need. With lots of competition that didn’t require a particular interface (GigaStudio, EXS-24, HALion, Kontakt, etc.), the Emulator X was at a disadvantage.

 

But no more. The X2 requires only that you have some piece of E-Mu hardware in your system – card, USB interface, or keyboard. If you already have a suitable piece of hardware, you can buy the X2 with one sound CD (the TwistaLoop Xperience – more on this gem later) from the E-Mu web site for $249.99. If you already have the original Emulator X, $79.99 (again, from the web) will upgrade it to X2 status. As you’ll find reading through this review, that’s a helluva deal.

 

The full retail package is not available from the web but from retailers, and lists for $399.99. It includes the X2 software, a sample library with four CD-ROMs (about 3GB total), and the Xmidi 2x2 USB interface (think of it as a dongle that actually does something). Note that the X2 can work as a stand-alone instrument with 64 MIDI inputs, or as a VST plug-in with 16 MIDI inputs (although you can insert multiple instances of the X2, assuming your computer can handle it).

 

To get an overview of the X2 with specs and such, click here for the X2 landing page.

 

For info on available sound libraries, click here.

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This Pro Review is going to take a while. There’s a lot going on here, and I’m going to treat the X2 as a new product rather than just go over the new features, as I believe that separating the sampler from the 1820m is going to attract a lot of people who may not have really paid attention to it before.

 

Speaking of hardware, my qualifying piece of E-Mu hardware is an 1820m PCI card/dock that co-exists happily in the same computer along with my Creamware Scope card (if only ASIO was multi-client...). Although as mentioned you can run the X2 with just about any E-Mu hardware, the 1820m (and other E-Mu PCI and cardbus cards, of course) has the benefit of all those cool PatchMix DSP-powered VST effects that you can use with the X2, or with your DAW of choice. I won’t dwell on that here – after all, this is an X2 review – but will certainly answer any questions people might have about E-Mu’s digital audio system, which I’ve always felt has been very underrated.

 

Incidentally, there has been some grousing on various bulletin boards about E-Mu’s drivers for their digital audio system. However, I think those comments are from people who haven’t downloaded a recent set of drivers; my system has been rock solid for well over a year now. And even before then, it didn’t hiccup much more or less than anything else.

 

Anyway, unlike most Pro Reviews where I come in knowing almost nothing about a product and explore it, in this case I’m already familiar with the Emulator X. But the new features look fascinating, and I can hardly wait to dig into them. Still, I’ll resist the temptation for now as I cover the more “ordinary” features (that is, if you consider features like 50+ filter types ordinary).

 

Oh, one other warning: There are so many features that the review will likely jump around a bit. I’ll try to keep it coherent, though :)

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Normally this is where I get to mention the difficulties I had authorizing some dongle or whatever, but not this time. I downloaded the latest drivers from the web (I’ve learned never to use whatever drivers are provided on a CD), installed the various sound libraries, and was good to go.

 

Upon calling up Sonar’s VST-DX adapter, the X2 asked for authentication via the original distribution CD. Okay. I inserted the CD, and apparently the Protection Gods were satisfied because it hasn’t asked me since. I don’t think this is a “insert the CD every now and then” kind of thing, I’m assuming it’s an “authenticate until you make a big system change” form of protection. So basically, the protection is unobtrusive in terms of operation.

 

So I loaded the X2 into Sonar 5.2; click on the attachment to see what showed up. Okay, not too intimidating, although I sure wish E-Mu would implement Tooltips given the large number of buttons and icons.

 

I figured a good place to start would be loading the General MIDI bank, so I went to File > Open, navigated to the E-Mu Sound Central folder, and found a General MIDI bank in the X Producer folder (which I think contains presets from the Proteus 2000 hardware module). Simple enough. This is just one of many screens, though.

 

To give a “big picture,” the buttons on the top are not from the latest version of Microsoft Word – those are all for the X2. On the left are the presets from the General MIDI bank. The large section in the middle right shows the currently selected Preset, with volume/pan controls and associated effects toward the right. The bottom third toward the right is where you assign MIDI controllers, master settings, filtering, and other parameters.

 

You can change presets easily; just drag one from the preset list into the main preset window.

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Click on the 1-16 tab, and you get an overview on what presets are on what channels, along with volume and pan controls. As with the “Single” page, you can drag presets into the channel slots and change the makeup of instruments instantly. Click on the attachment to see the 16 channel view (the rest of the X2 screen is not shown for clarity).

 

Now, I admit that loading a GM set into the X2 and creating a nice collection of presets is sort of like taking a Lamborghini to the supermarket, but you gotta start somewhere! Anyway, before going any further, we need to understand the X2’s architecture. I’ll be working on that overview later, and posting it tomorrow so we can get into the more advanced concepts. For now, I just wanted to make sure it was installed, making noise, and happy. So far, so good.

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Hi Craig. I recently ordered the 1212 system with X2 upgrade from EMU. I've mostly been messing with the synthswipe feature and it's pretty cool so far.

 

On the general midi bank, I fed it some of my sequences and couldn't for the life of me make it call up program changes. I had the accept program changes box ticked. Did you try that?

 

(I was running sequences in Sonar 4 with X2 as a VST plug).

 

I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on this very cool new software!

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>

 

Agreed. This is one cool piece of software.

 

I'm serious, though, this one is going to have a long run. Don't know if it will match the Onyx 400F's record performance, but if anything does, this has a shot.

 

If there's a lot of interest in the X2, I may ask E-Mu for some loaner sound libraries and fold them into the review as well.

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Originally posted by Anderton



If there's a lot of interest in the X2, I may ask E-Mu for some loaner sound libraries and fold them into the review as well.

 

 

Please do!

 

I'm especially interested in the vintage synth/keyboards bundle (synthswiping my vintage synth rom in my P2K might be too time consuming) and on their website today they have a new one that's out of stock but all drums I think. It would be totally cool if they came up with something along the lines of Battery, BFD, DFH etc. in the X2 format. I don't really need all the bleed mic stuff, just good basic drum sounds.

 

 

I'm really looking forward to this review!

 

:thu:

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Of those numerous filters, did they happen to include a good, resonant, LPF at least as good as that of the Emax II (a filter WAAAAY ahead of it's time in my opinion)?

 

I haven't had any experience with anything E-mu beyond the EIIIx and my darling Emaxes are showing their age. I love their distinctive sound but, I know I will have to move on some time...

 

How come hardware manufacturers don't make an optional 12-bit output card? Dither doesn't quit have the same magic... I'm pretty sure I could R&D a company into oblivion ;-)

 

 

 

edit: I should have said truncation and not dither.

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The X2 architecture with respect to samples is as expected: You have individual samples, and they can be combined into multisamples with splits, layers, and crossfades. This collection is called a Preset, that lives in a Bank. You can also create a “Multisetup” that allows assigning presets to MIDI channels (64 in stand-alone mode, 16 as a plug-in).

 

As to effects, there are two series effects, FXa and FXb. These modify the sounds of individual presets. Their outputs go to the main output, but on the way, there are also taps for three aux bus effects that dump into the main output. These work like aux effects in any mixer, i.e., you can apply effects to various presets or not, like having reverb on some sounds but not on others.

 

Frankly, it's a relief that I don't have to learn some whole new weird architecture...

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Before continuing, there was a mention of not being able to make the program change function work witinh Sonar. Well, I couldn’t get it to work either, but I could do program changes easily with Cubase.

 

I suspect this may have something to do with the VST wrapper, but that's just a guess. Another possibility is that Sonar has multiple options to do Bank Select, so this may be a case of pilot error. But I tried all of them, and various permutations and combinations, to no avail.

 

Perhaps someone from E-Mu or Cakewalk could let me know if I’m doing something wrong, or whether there’s some kind of bug.

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At this point, the responsible part of me was saying “Now, let’s start with things like multisetups, and explain how to use the effects, and assign aux buses, and build up slowly.” But the other part of me said “Hey, screw that, have some fun!”

 

I couldn’t resist, and besides, it had been a while since I’d played with the original Emulator so it would would be a good way to re-acquaint myself.

 

First up: The filters. These are, to put it simply, outstanding. Click on the attachment to see the choice of filters. There really is more to life than the usual LP/BP/HP/notch collection, and the way some of the filters morph their response (with appropriate eye candy on the cool filter graph) is vivid and animated. And can it do a convincing lowpass? Yup. However, E-Mu puts its own stamp on that traditional sound; the sweep is very distinct and defined, which come to think of it, seems to be a general X2 characteristic. This is a very clean-sounding instrument.

 

I wanted to apply the filter to all notes over the full keyboard range, so I checked out the Group parameter toward the lower part of the screen, above a keyboard showing the various notes and zones. Bingo: Setting it to “All” affected everything. So far so good. I then got lost for about half an hour checking out the various responses.

 

So, are they musically useful? 55 responses may seem like overkill, but they do allow for a variety of sounds – particularly animated, atmospheric effects – you simply won’t find anywhere else. This is definitely one of the strongest points of the X2.

 

But wait – there’s more. A Global Control, Filter Override, allows applying a single filter type to all voices in a preset, regardless of how the voices are programmed individually. I don’t know how much I would use this; if I went to the trouble of programming a bunch of filter responses for a zillion voices, I don’t think I’d want to override them. On the other hard, perhaps it’s just another way to squeeze more sounds out of a single preset: Override the weird filters with something more normal.

 

If other Emulator fans have a cool use for this, let me know...and if I come up with a cool application, I’ll mention it later on.

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As I can attach only one picture per post, I wanted to also show an example of the type of curve that’s shown when you select a filter. Click on the attachment to see the “Deep Bouche” filter curve, which has a formant-type response. This illustration also shows the matrix modulation setup in the lower right corner. E-Mu gives you 36 “virtual patch cords” that connect a source to a destination.

 

I should mention that when I moved the Filter frequency control, I could hear stair-stepping. This was also the case when driving the filter frequency from an external controller (mod wheel). But when driven from the envelope, the response was smooth. Still, I was really bummed that I couldn’t get a smooth response from an external controller, which is important to me.

 

But then I thought wait – this is an Emulator, so it was designed by people who grew up on modular synthesis. Sure enough, I checked out the modulation destinations and one was named “Lag.” So I fed the mod wheel into Lag, then fed the Lag out to the Filter frequency, and added a slight lag time. Perfect! The response was smooth, but without feeling sluggish.

 

I then started messing around with other modulation options, like the Function Generator. But we’ll have to wait on that one, as it’s getting late and it is filled with more possibilities than I can mention here.

 

So far, I’m having a great time...it’s clear there’s a huge amount under the hood. But I must also say that the X2 is almost overwhelming in its options. It's not something that can be mastered in a day, that's for sure!

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Hmmm...seems the Tooltips DO work in standalone mode, and they work with Cubase. But they don't work when the X2 is used as a plug-in in Sonar, so I'm assuming there's some aspect of the VST-DX wrapper that gets in the way.

 

Ah, the vagaries of modern technology...

 

I'm going to be on the road until Thursday, so I've installed the X2 on my laptop and hopefully I'll be able to file some reports while I'm gone. I'm using it with E-Mu's 1616 interface, so it sounds REAL good compared to the usual laptop audio!

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I am curious about a couple of things regarding laptop performance. I do not own a modern PC since I am primarily a Mac user these days. However, given the Intel transition, my next computer purchase will likely be a MacBook Pro and X2 is a very tempting modern sampler.

 

I am a Reason and Logic Pro user, so, I do have access to software sample playback systems but, I don't particularly like these options (although, in all fairness, I haven't given EXS24 much of a chance).

 

I rely heavily on "found sound" sources and sample manipulation (i.e. filtering, modulation, etc...) but I also am in the market for well rounded Orchestral and Ethnic/World Instrument libraries. Is the X2 library competent and competitive with other libraries available? Do you feel X2 on a modern laptop would function well as a stand alone sampler to be integrated as an external hardware unit able to play back reasonably demanding orchestrations?

 

 

Sorry for the wordy post. I look forward to your observations.

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Originally posted by Anderton

Before continuing, there was a mention of not being able to make the program change function work witinh Sonar. Well, I couldn’t get it to work either, but I could do program changes easily with Cubase.

 

I just picked up my copy of Emulator X2 a couple days back, and am just working my way through it at the moment...an early issue here in addition to the ones you have mentioned, just in case you come across the same sorts of things (and better yet, their solutions?):

 

I was hoping to be able to use the MIDI learn functions in Live and Sonar to control the MIDI control nodes in the Emulator from my hardware controller (Axiom 49), rather than the Emulator's own built-in MIDI control functions, for the sake of simplicity and easy automation recording. It's no problem to get the MIDI learn function in Live (also in Sonar) to control (e.g.,) the "A" controller in Emulator, which was hooked up to the "tone" control...problem was, when I adjusted the level from my Axiom, the changes would not take affect until after I had released the note and triggered a new one? This is not the case if you adjust the controls straight within Emulator, only when going through the extra layer of the host software, running Emulator as a plugin. Pretty much ruins this method of using hardware controls...things like slow filter sweeps on a pad just won't happen.

 

Any thoughts on this? Anyone else tried this out?

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Thanks to this and another question regarding sound libraries, E-Mu is sending me a complete set of their sound libraries for evaluation...so I'll be working those into the review as well.

 

However, do bear in mind that the X2 imports several formats -- more on this later. The original Emulator X was pretty good at translating parameters (not perfect, but what is?);I'll be checking out this aspect when I get back home.

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I spent this evening checking out the X2 insert effects, and it was time well spent :)

 

The X2 has 23 different insert effects, and you can put two of them in series. Click on the attachment to see list of effects that appears. The effect parameters appear in the X2's "TV screen"; there's a picture of this in the next post, along with some conclusions about the effects in general.

 

Here's a list of the 23 available effects, along with some opinions on each one.

 

Reverb: Not a bad reverb at all. It's not a spiffy new convolution-based type, but gives a reasonably smooth reverb without begging your CPU for juice.

 

Early Reflections Reverb: Similar to the above, but a little hungrier for power, and with a more interesting character thanks to the inclusion of early reflection options. With lots of regeneration, this does very cool effects with pads and other sustained notes.

 

Chorus: Your standard chorus, with initial delay up to 50ms, and choice of triangle or sine waveform.

 

Chorus/Delay (mono): This gives initial delays up to 1 second, whereupon you add modulation. Modulation rate can tie to pan, which gives a more "spatial" effect. It reminds me a bit of the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man in that you could add chorus to delays, making for a more interesting sound than just delaying.

 

Compressor: This surprised me with its smooth, even compression action -- a definite plus as an insert effect.

 

Delay: Stereo delay with damping, with separate left and right delay times, plus four modes (discrete stereo, and three "ping-pong" options).

 

Delay (BPM): Also a stereo delay, but with rhythmic values for left and right delays. At first I thought it wouldn't sync, but then remembered to check "External Tempo Source" under the X2's Preferences.

 

Delay (Mono): Same as Delay, but mono.

 

Early Reflections: A bunch of echoes with several modes, a Room Size parameter, and left/right offset. This didn't really thrill me, but made the more reverb more interesting if you put the two in series.

 

EQ - 1 Band Parametric: You know what this is. But I didn't like the Frequency being a linear scale; 1/16th of the slider covers 40-1,000Hz. This really should be a logarithmic scale.

 

EQ - 4 Band: This is a 4-band parametric. Because each band is restricted to a specific frequency range (Hi 4k - 16kHz, HiMid 1 - 8kHz, LoMid 200Hz - 3kHz, Lo 40 - 800Hz), their linear response is not as problematic as the 1-stage EQ. Still, I would prefer a log frequency scale.

 

Flanger: After the EQ scale disappointment, I was thrilled to see a flanger that not only provides "through zero" flanging, but gives the option to make the through zero in or out of phase. Cool!

 

Flanger (BPM): Same as the Flanger, except that the LFO syncs to tempo via various note divisions,

 

Growl: This is sort of a cross between the "growl" that happens at the beginning of a brass note and a weird resonant effect, depending on how you set the controls (Initial, Depth, Color, and Pre-Filter). It's pretty unusual

 

Limiter: It's your basic limiter, but like the compressor, is extremely useful as an insert effect for things like taming resonnaces, or following a very resonant flanger.

 

Reverb Lite (Mono): About what you'd expect from an onboard reverb. It's rougher than the far smoother Reverb, and not as interesting as the Early Reflections Reverb, but doesn't do a major hit to your CPU.

 

Phaser: This is cool. Its choice of 3, 6, 9, or 12 stages lets it do the E-H Polyphase type of phaser sound, but doesn't do the famous 4-stage "univibe" phaser effect. Bonus feature: You can shift the LFO left/right phase among 0, 90, and 180 degrees.

 

Pitch Shifter (Mono): This sounds like the pitch shift stompboxes of yore; the quality isn't outstanding, but that's its charm. The feedback control allows upward and downward pitch sweeps -- sweet -- although I wish there was also a delay parameter, so you could vary the time between the occurrence of shifted pitches. Still, fun stuff, particularly with weird drum sounds.

 

Ring Modulator: Okay, I'm a sucker for ring modulators, so kudos to E-Mu for including this. Better yet, it has an Envelope Follower parameter so you can add more animation than usual.

 

SP12-ulator: A nifty decimator for lo-fi fans with resolution all the way down to 1 bit (yes, it sound wonderfully dreadful!), and the inclusion of the SP-12 drum machine's "sample skipping" sound, which was the heart of transposing SP-12 drum sounds. As far as I know, the sample skipping technology was unique to E-Mu, and it's a quite distinctive sound.

 

Tremulator BPM: This is an overachieving tremolo, as it does volume and/or filter changes, syncs to tempo, has adjustable L/R phase, and offers 8 waveforms.

 

Tube: Pretty decent distortion, especially if you follow it with the 4-band EQ. In addition to Gain and Level, it has parameters for Presence, Compresssion, and Bias.

 

Twin (mono): This simulates a dual-stage tube. In today's world of amp models, it doesn't sound like what most people would expect from an amp sim, but it produces groovy distortion in its own right.

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The effects parameters show up as sliders you can adjust. If there are more parameters than fit on the TV screen, then a scroll bar appears so you access them. Click on the attachment to see the reverb parameters that appear when you call up the reverb effect.

 

At first, I didn't think you could save presets, because there's no explicit "save as" menu. However, if you right click in the TV screen, you can save the effect settings as a template, as well as access other template settings. You'll see templates for all the effects, so if you call up, say, a reverb effect, it will call up the reverb if it isn't already.

 

This is a somewhat different way of doing things, but it makes sense. I don't save a zillion different presets; in most programs, I save the equivalent of templates -- points of departure -- that I tweak for the sound at hand. The X2's approach is very much in keeping with how I do things, so it's not surprising I like the way its handled. However, if you like to have folders with different, very specific effects for different processors, the list of templates could become unwieldy.

 

I'll also add that the effects parameters are automatable, but we'll get into the specifics when we cover automation and modulation.

 

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the X2 insert effects harken back to stompbox and vintage analog effect sounds, such as through-zero flanging and ring modulation. They're a somewhat "classic" collection, and while you might miss some of the modern goodies like multi-tap delays, I think E-Mu's design philosophy has two main points:

 

* You have the usual, bread-and-butter effects like delay, compression, and EQ that are essential for all kinds of musical applications.

* There are a lot of "minority" effects, like ring modulation, the SP12-ulator, and growl, that are seldom included in instruments, let alone available as stand-alone plug-ins.

 

So you don't get glamorous insert effects, like convolution reverb. But you get a mix of useful and innovative effects that add to the X2's value.

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Originally posted by Anderton
It’s hard to believe that over 20 years ago, I wrote the manual for E-Mu’s Emulator II.
[/url]
.

 

now i feel really, really old. i'm not a keyboard player, but back in the 80's when i was an assistant, i used to get sooo much work 'cause i was the only person who knew how to work the damn thing... new order, 3rd world, arthur baker... i must have read the manual. :)

 

curse you 5 1/4' floppies!

 

-d. gauss

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Originally posted by Anderton

>


Thanks to this and another question regarding sound libraries, E-Mu is sending me a complete set of their sound libraries for evaluation...so I'll be working those into the review as well.


However, do bear in mind that the X2 imports several formats -- more on this later. The original Emulator X was pretty good at translating parameters (not perfect, but what is?);I'll be checking out this aspect when I get back home.

 

I have a Proteus XLE and and number of the libraries: Mo' Phatt, Protean Drums, Beat Garden, Techno Synth Construction Yard, and VintageX 3 Keyboards.

 

The E-MU library is awesome! I'm not sure what else I want: Street Kits and maybe one of the World/Ethnic sets.

 

This library has made the Proteus the first instrument I use to start projects. Multitimbral operation (and multiple outs) is one of the things I ALWAYS looked for in my earlier hardware modules: CZ-101, D-110, Mirage, TX81Z, Korg N1R. I'm glad that E-MU made this happen.

 

Protean Drums is almost making me forget about my need for a dedicated drum machine app like DR-008, RMIV, Guru, or DK+ Drums. Craig, If you could check to see if the sample mapping allows for a random layer selection, then I really won't need a drum machine.

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Originally posted by d. gauss



now i feel really, really old. i'm not a keyboard player, but back in the 80's when i was an assistant, i used to get sooo much work 'cause i was the only person who knew how to work the damn thing... new order, 3rd world, arthur baker... i must have read the manual.
:)

curse you 5 1/4' floppies!


-d. gauss

 

It's funny because the only reference I can give the new commers is "the keyboard in Ferris Beuler's Day Off"

:thu:

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