By Dominic Milano
EGADS, IT'S ANOTHER UPDATE FOR THE Emax.
First there was the hard disk option, which we reviewed in Nov.'87.
Then there was Optical Media's CD-ROM with over 3,000 Emax samples
on it, which we reviewed in March '88. And we reviewed the Emax
itself back in Jan. '87. So what's this new $300 update all
about? Aside from adding enough initials to its name to tie
even the most dexterous of tongues into knots (try saying Emax
SE HD ten times fast), the SE update adds a powerful additive
synthesis engine called spectrum synthesis, and several types
of digital signal processing.
Spectrum Synthesis. Wait a minute. Let's
call a spade a spade here. E-mu-speak calls it Spectrum Interpolation
Digital Synthesis, but it's time-variant additive synthesis
with a funky user interface. The concept is identical to Digidesign's
Softsynth (Keyboard Report, Dec. '86)-sine waves of different
frequencies and amplitudes are added together to build complex
waveforms. The SE gives you control over 24 partials (Softsynth
has 32), each of which can be retuned to a whole- or non-whole
number ratio of the fundamental. Each partial has its own 24-stage
amplitude envelope (Softsynth's have 40 stages), and its own
24-stage pitch envelope (plus or minus a half-step).
The waveforms you synthesize can be thought
of as hand-tooled samples. To determine the length of the waveform,
you select a sample location and record a null sample (nothing)
in that memory slot. Sample length can be any amount of time
up to the maximum amount of memory in your Emax.
The length of a spectrum-generated sample is
divided into 24 equally spaced time segments called time slices.
Each time slice holds a wavetable.The transition between time
slices can be either smooth or stepped. The latter gives you
a PPG-like effect. As you might imagine, drawing 24 spectra
takes time. Lots of time. Happily, there's an interpolation
function that will fill in the blanks between two time slices,
so you can draw time slices one and 24 and have the machine
draw all those in between. Very handy.
As for visual feedback, it's all supplied by
the Emax' LCD (ugh). The data entry slider is used to draw waveforms
(in overtone bargraph form) and amplitude and pitch contours-shades
of the Korg DSS-1 (Keyboard Report, Nov.'86). Contours show
up as tiny bars. While you draw the contours, the cursor advances
through the display at a fixed rate, which makes it next to
impossible to know exactly what partial you're affecting as
you move the slider up and down.
Once you've created a spectrum, an edit mode
provides exact control over the amplitudes of the overtones.
You get the choice of drawing a spectrum either horizontally
(across all 24 partials in one time slice) or vertically (one
partial across all 24 time slices).
So what good is having synth waveforms in a
sampler? For starters, you can layer them with samples (or paste
them onto the tail end of a sampled attack, for that matter)
and then process the layer with the Emax' VCF, VCA, and envelope
generators. Remind you a little the Roland D-50's architecture?
It should. The difference is that you can build your own synth
waveforms and sample your own attack transients too. And unless
you want to layer more than one sample and one waveform, the
Emax' dual mode lets you preserve eight-voice polyphony.
Now, before the thought of turning your Emax
into a super version of a D-50 for $300 leaves you thinking
you died and went to heaven, let us all recite Mother Product
Review's third law of reality: All cool things have a price.
For the Emax SE, it's dealing with the aforementioned user interface,
which requires that you have the patience of a saint. There
are two reasons why: First, it takes an ungodly number of keystrokes
to do just about anything with the digital synthesis module.
Second, you can't listen to the sound you're synthesizing while
you're tweaking it, since none of the additive synth functions
in the Emax are real-time functions. The length of the wait
depends on the number of spectra you've drawn using the data
entry slider, the length of the sound
Emax SE Update
Description: Additive synthesis and transform
multiplication update for the Emax. Update comes in
disk form, updates internal EEPROM one time only. Two
sound disks also included.
control of 24 detunable partials, 24 time slices, 24-stage
digital amplitude and pitch envelopes. Layer or combine
synth waveforms with samples. All synthesis processing
takes place outside of real time.
List Price: Emax
SE, $3,295.00. Update prior to July 1, '88, for Emax
owners who bought their instrument before Mar. 1,'88,
$95.00. Update after July 1, $300.00.
Contact: E-mu Systems,
Box 66303, Scotts Valley, CA 95066-9985.(408) 438-1921.
you're synthesizing, and the complexity of the
defined parameters (pitch-bends, retuned partial frequencies,
etc.). Unless you're working from a known concept such as odd-numbered
or even-numbered harmonics, there's no way to be certain what
the results of your drawing will sound like until you select
the synthesize option and wait. And wait. And wait. And... Well,
maybe it's not always that bad. We clocked computing times at
anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes. The latter was for
a 1.5-second long spectrum interpolation. We shudder to think
what the wait for a full 18-second interpolation might be -
can you imagine waiting a half hour to hear the result of your
synthesis and then deciding it isn't what you were after? Our
advice: Start your experimenting with short sounds. When you
find something you like, then go ahead and do a longer version
Transform Multiplication. The first demo
we heard of transform multiplication (a process that multiplies
two samples together) completely knocked us out. The timbres
produced by this process have an eerie and exotic quality. Very
experimental sounding. Very cool. Then we inquired about how
long the process takes. Depending on the length of the two samples
being multiplied, a transform multiplication can take up to
41 minutes! We're talking major number crunching here. There's
nothing to your end of the process: Just select two samples,
read the warning in the display that tells you this could take
as long as 41 minutes (talk about intimidating), and it's time
to take a long coffee break.
Since the results of a transform operation can
be very unpredictable but are almost guaranteed to be interesting,
we found ourselves wanting to experiment with this feature a
lot. But who's got 4,100 minutes to spare for a hundred experiments?
We wish E-mu had included an automation feature that would let
you set up five or six transforms, check to make sure there's
enough memory for you, and then process and save them to disk
automatically. That would let you turn the Emax loose on the
problem while you sleep.
Miscellany. Other new features in the
SE include sample rate and pitch conversion functions. Again,
this could take as long as 41 minutes, but the average time
is closer to two minutes. The pitch conversion function allows
you to resynthesize the original sample at a new pitch, which
could be handy if you want to splice together two sounds that
weren't sampled at the same pitch. Another hip possibility:
Create a microtonally detuned version of a sample and mix it
with the original to create digital chorusing without using
The SE has a couple of new MIDI func-
tions: Program change reception can be
disabled, and a special program change code can be set up to
allow remote hard disk loading: Also, a new preset stack mode
allows up to four voices, each playing a different preset, to
be triggered from a single key.For those
who don't want to spend hours and hours creating spectra, E-mu
includes 95 basic types on the update disks; already synthesized
versions of these are available on the disk, so you can hear
them without having to go through the synthesis routine yourself.
The factory sounds range from traditional waveforms, through
Rhodes-like and presampled attack transients, to finished sounds
created by combining samples with synth sounds.
Update policy. The SE lists for $300
more than the original Emax. If you bought your Emax before
March 1, 1988, the update will only cost you $95 if you get
it before July 1, 1988. If this means you, don't wait; $95 is
a steal for these features.