December 1989 Keyboard
Magazine review of the Emax II.
Note: at the time of review the Emax
II still didn't sample in stereo.
E-mu EMAX II
By Jim Aikin
FOR THE TYPICAL MUSICIAN, THE BIG news about
the Emax II isn't really the digital filtering chip. The big
news is that at $3,495, this 16-bit sampler provides both
stunning sound and a very attractive alternative to higher-priced
rack units like the Akai S1000 and Dynacord ADS. Only the
technologically minded are likely to zoom in on the fact that
the Emax II represents a real breakthrough in
circuit design. While the box is black rather than gray, the
front panel is virtually identical to the the one on the original
Emax, as is the operating system. But the II is far more than
another update to an often-updated instrument. (Our original
Keyboard Report on the Emax appeared in January '87; the hard
disk update was reviewed in Nov. '87 and the SE synth functions option
in the May '88 issue.) The sound-generating section is completely
new, there are twice as many voices, and a number of subtle
but vital features have been added.
Digital Filtering. The digital filter
on the Emax II won't necessarily sound to the uninitiated
like a breakthrough. The reason: It sounds more or less exactly
the way analog lowpass filtering sounded 15 years ago, complete
with resonance and envelope sweeps. Ah, but this is digital
filtering. When the sound of an instrument starts out digital
(as is the case on almost all of today's instruments) and
is then converted to analog for filtering, noise is added.
Analog filtering also adds to the expense of the instrument,
since a separate filter is needed for each voice. So an all-digital
signal path is desirable. Up to now, though, digital filtering
has involved other compromises. Some digital filters are static-that
is, the filter cutoff can be controlled from velocity but
will remain at the same level throughout the note. Some digital
filters are dynamic but not real-time--that is, you can program
sweep from an envelope or LFO, but the sampler
has to calculate it and store the result in memory before
you can hear it. (This type of filtering can also be performed
by some sample-editing software.) The digital filters on some
instruments are real-time dynamic, but the processor isn't
fast enough to make a really smooth, clean sound. The digital
filters on the Yamaha TX 16W were the only ones we can think
of offhand that had resonance (also known as Q), and they
didn't sound anywhere near this good.
Before you can filter anything, you need an
oscillator, right? The Emax II starts out with the same oscillator
chip used in the E-mu Proteus
(see Keyboard Report, Aug. '89). This 16-bit gizmo not only
sounds great but also has the unprecedented ability to shift
samples either up or down through five octaves without
Description: Sixteen-bit sampler/synthesizer
with built-in sequencer.
Memory: 1 Mb or 4Mb (shared by
sound data and sequences), expandable to 7 or 8Mb in
blocks. Up to 100 presets.
Features: Dynamic digital filters
with Q, 16 two-oscillator stereo voices, dynamic voice
allocation, velocity and positional cross-fades and
cross-switches. Additive and wave interpolation synthesis
functions, arpeggiator, MIDI
data analyzer, reconfigurable modulation inputs, disk-handling
utilities. Can read Emax presets from disk.
Interfacing: 3.5" floppy
drive. Eight 1/4" audio outs plus mono mix out.
Stereo headphone out. Sample in, clock in and out, footpedal
and two footswitch ins (all 1/4"). SCSI and computer
ports. MIDI in and switchable out/thru.
Suggested Retail Price: $3,495.00
with 1Mb internal RAM; $6,495.00 with 4Mb internal RAM
and 40Mb internal hard disk; $1,195.00 for
memory expansion board (required for expansion from
1 Mb) plus 2Mb RAM; $995.00 each for 2Mb blocks.
Contact: E-mu Systems, 1600 Green
Hills Rd., Scotts Valley, CA 95066. (408) 438-1921.
the tone. At the output of this has been added a filter chip
that handles 32 channels of sound at once, allows for smooth
modulation (not granular stepped garbage), and has real, beefy,
analog-sounding resonance. When we heard it, our jaws dropped.
Not that you need swept resonant filtering every day of the
a pinch of resonance, even without enveloping, definitely
adds personality to many sounds, especially in combination
with the richness of the Emax II's two-voice chorusing (detuning).
Filter tracking of the keyboard can be from 0 to 1.87 (greater
Other New Features. Like the Proteus,
the Emax II has both main stereo outputs and stereo sub-outs
that can double as effects
send/returns if you use quarter-inch stereo plugs. (The Proteus
only has four sub outs, but the Emax has six, for a total
of eight outputs in all.) These returns allow you to use the
effects devices of your choice and still plug only a stereo
output from the Emax into the board, or, if you prefer, assign
up to eight sounds to individual outputs. The outputs are
The Emax II has 16 voices compared to the
eight on the original Emax. As on the original Emax, these
are two-oscillator voices-sort of. That is, if you assign
separate sounds to the primary and secondary layer, the polyphony
will be cut in half. (For those who insist on 100% technical
accuracy, this is true unless the sounds are given the same
keyboard range and the preset is put in stereo mode. In the
latter case, you get full polyphony.) Stereo chorusing on
the original unit also reduced the polyphony, but on the new
one the full 16 voices are retained. (Chorus depth is also
programmable, which it wasn't before.) Finally, the two oscillators
can be used on the Emax
II to produce a true phase-coherent stereo
Continued on page 150
E-mu EMAX II
Continued from page 148
image without reducing the polyphony. You'll
have to port stereo samples over from your favorite sample-editing
software, however, as
the Emax II still has only a mono sampling input. This is a
definite bummer, but we've heard rumors that stereo sampling
may be made available as an optional upgrade, so if
this feature is important to you, call E-mu and let them know.
Two models of the Emax II are being
shipped. The first has 1 megabyte of RAM, while the second has
4 Meg RAM and a 40 Meg hard disk, with a price tag to match
($6,495). Memory is expandable to 7 Meg for the basic unit and
to 8 Meg for the turbo. Frankly, we don't think 1 Meg is enough
for a 16-bit machine-and since most people will probably want
more memory, the $1,195 price tag for the upgrade from 1 Meg
to 3 Meg brings the real price of the unit up to $4,690, which
is not horse feathers.
For those with mondo storage needs, the II has
a SCSI port that will allow it to access up to seven (!) outboard
drives, including E-mu's own HD300 and RM45 hard drives. It's
even compatible with the new 600-Meg Sony and Ricoh read/write
optical drives. The disk-operating system provides a number
of new utilities for taking advantage of the storage
devices, including user-configurable backup routines.
While its sound data is in 16-bit linear
form, the Emax II has 18-bit DACs, which allow multiple voices
to play back without clipping. That's not unusual these days.
(The Dynacord ADS, for example, has 20-bit
DACs.) What's unusual is the user-adjustable headroom control
(0-15dB), which allows you to keep more headroom if you're going
Pros & Cons
Pros: 16-bit sound, dynamic digital
filtering, dynamic voice allocation to multiple outputs,
optional internal hard disk.
Cons: Very limited sequencer, no
pressure sensing on keyboard, limited memory on basic
stock unit, small LCD.
playing dense passages or reduce it for recording
solo lines with the best signal-to-noise.
The SE synthesis section, previously available
as an option, comes standard with the Emax II, and we're told
that the faster processor in the new instrument means that these
time-consuming number-crunching routines run twice as fast as
before. SE synthesis includes additive, interpolation, and waveform-processing
algorithms. If you're willing
to devote the time to it, this resource could give your music
some unique and beautiful sounds.
The sound banks shipped with the Emax II
are thoroughly impressive. The Pop Composer
bank contains a wide selection of usable sounds, including percussion,
basses, and organ, and the wonderful Bombay Band bank
includes sitar, a variety of tabla hits, and several other Indian
instruments. Ten 4-Meg banks are included on the hard disk in
the turbo model, and a selection from among this material is
included on a set of 12 floppies if you buy the basic model.
E-mu is making the entire Emulator Three sound library available
for the Emax II, so there's no shortage of high-quality sounds.
The Emax II will read original Emax
disks-not just the sound data, the way the S1000 reads S900
disks, but all of the data that makes up the presets. The sounds
are interpolated up to 16-bit form (though this won't clean up any existing
noise in the files) and can be stored in Emax II format. We
found that percussion presets sounded slightly punchier
but not as crisp on the original Emax, presumably because of
the analog filters. The cutoff frequencies also seemed to be
slightly lower on the II. When high-pitched sounds were being
transposed down by several octaves, the II sounded much, much,
much better than the older unit when playing an identical
Oh, yeah, and one more thing: LCD contrast can
now be adjusted. (Thank kew veddy much.)
Old Features. The Emax has the usual
selection of sample-editing utilities. It also has a very nice
little modulation routing scheme
that lets you reconfigure the wheels,
footpedals, and incoming MIDI controllers to perform the chores
of your choice (filter modulation from the pitch wheel, for
example). Separate configurations can be stored in each
preset. Cross-fading and cross-switching from velocity and key
position are supported. It has velocity curves, a MIDI data
analyzer, and an arpeggiator. And hard-disk loading can be automated over MIDI.
Old Non-Features. As with any other techno-miracle
since the invention of the wheel, the Emax II walks a careful
line between hot new selling points and cost-conscious corner-shaving.
The good news for those who are already familiar with the Emax
is that there's almost nothing new to learn in the Emax II,
except for the voice output assignments and the disk utilities.
(So the tips in our Feb. '89 Emax programming clinic are still
valid.) The bad news is that certain aspects of the Emax that
weren't exactly state-of-the-art two years ago haven't been
The sequencer should be thought of solely as
(a) a scratchpad and (b) a way to carry sequences, downloaded
from a real sequencer, to your gigs. It doesn't even have punch-in
or quantization. The LFO has only
one waveform (triangle). The keyboard isn't pressure-sensitive,
although channel pressure
can be received over MIDI. The instrument is
functional but certainly not inspiring as a MIDI master keyboard.
And the 32-character LCD
is not the largest we've ever seen. We're not going to belabor
E-mu about the head and shoulders with a whiffle-bat; but we
do think there's room for improvement here.
Conclusions. The crystal clarity of the
sounds on the Emax II gave us a nearly ungovernable case of
Hardware Lust. True, it's not a cheap instrument-especially
when loaded with RAM-but those multiple outputs make it so flexible
that you could easily justify the cost of the extra RAM as eliminating
the purchase of another synth. Or two. If you're willing to
tote around an external hard drive, you can probably save $700
to $1,000 by getting the basic unit and expanding it rather
than buying the turbo model.
While we would have liked to see some of the
old limitations of the Emax overcome on the new unit, our one
big complaint is that it really ought to be able to sample in
Balanced against this are the SE synthesis section and the wonderful
digital filtering, neither of which is offered by the competition.
the Emax, which up to now has been the Volkswagen of the E-mu
product line, has emerged from its chrysalis (don't you love
mixed metaphors?) as the Mercedes. If you're looking for a pro-level
sampler, take it out for a test drive.
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