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Posts Tagged ‘sound modules’

E-mu Morpheus & UltraProteus

Posted by brunorc on March 31, 2011

Some time after getting the Proteus 2000 I discovered the long history of E-mu sound modules. I started digging in the Internet, only to discover the Harmony Central database, full of user reviews. People more familiar with E-mu gear were referring to Morhpeus and UltraProteus, regarding their potential in the filter department.

I especially recall one quote:

Forget endless possibilities; lots of synthesizers have “endless possibilities”. The Morpheus has FRIGHTENING possibilities.

Whoa, I thought. That’s something for me. I was already quite excited with Proteus 2000 filters. But while this sound module had about 50 filters, Morpheus had 197 filters. That could sound far better – as if the number of filters, enclosed in the box could influence the overall sound quality… But I was starting to dig in the Proteus 2000, and GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) kicked in, because after discovering the power of envelopes and modulation matrix I found out, that Morpheus had something even more powerful – Function Generators, which appeared to be envelopes on steroids. That must have had an amazing sound!

A short digression – Proteus 2000 gives access to 50 filters after upgrading the OS – which is an amazing thing by itself, this was the first time in my life when I was installing an operating system through MIDI. This may sound strange, but Yamaha RM1x, released more or less in the same period had to have its EPROM replaced in order to get the new OS, while Proteus 2000 was able to receive its operating system through the MIDI IN, check its integrity and bail out in case the transfer or file got corrupted.

OK, let’s go back to Morpheus. At some point I just had some extra cash and found an announcement about the Morpheus for sale. I closed the deal and few days later I received a small, lovely package, including my own incarnation of the god of dreams. Unfortunately, few weeks later I had to focus on completely different things, and then… Long story short, it took me quite some years to actually lay my hands on it and to start discovering its capabilities.

First of all, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. I think I expected something more from the Virus department, with deep acid filters, squeaking with resonance and all this stuff. The brutal truth is: if you dream about Moog sounds, Morpheus is not the god of your dreams. It’s useless for any kind of analog emulation, but in return it will produce the sounds that no analog can emulate.

Brothers in arms

The filters in Morpheus are the story on its own. Let’s start with the simple statement: those are not filters, but rather filter cubes or surfaces. Imagine a square, with a different filter characteristics in every corner; now imagine, that – using two parameters – you can move in this square, morphing from one filter shape to another. And then you have cubes… truly frightening possibilities. Moreover, most of the filters are not the simple lowpass/hipass stuff. You have flanging filters, overdriving filters, chorusing filters. You have a lot of comb-like filters, which allow you to model the sonic characteristics after an existing instruments (like bell, clarinet or cello) or to shape the sound to mimic the sound of a vowel – all kinds of strange ee-yaah and oo-yeh effects.

Scarce set of controls, but at least the data dial is rock solid

The problem is, that at the beginning all those descriptions sound better than the box. Filters are rather digital and can be very harsh sounding; Morpheus is a wild beast to tame, at least that was my first impression. The interface of the module is even more ascetic than the one of Proteus 2000 – in the latter you have at least four knobs that you can use for so-called “quick editing”. With Morpheus you only have four buttons and the Data dial. That’s all, folks. Building Function Generator patterns can become very tedious. Morpheus was designed by very clever engineers, and it’s definitely an engineer’s synth – having a sheet of paper and a pencil while programming sounds always helps. There’s a lot of tools for shaping the sound. Every sound can use up to two instruments (samples), with the possibility of crossfading or layering them. Every sample has its own set of parameters to control the AHDSR volume envelope, but there’s possibility of creating a custom one (called “alternate envelope”). Sample can be delayed, reversed and even have it starting point adjusted. User is also given the control over the looping of the sound (on/off, as well as so called “loop offset”, which allows to sweep the sample memory). A lot of parameters are related to “solo mode” and portamento, which gives some hope of creating convincing replicas of wind or brass instruments (or maybe even bowed strings). And then the famous filters: 197 different types in Morpheus, 288 in UltraProteus. Unfortunately, only one filter parameter – Morph – can be adjusted in realtime. Filter Tracking and Filter Transform 2 (used in cubes only) retain their NoteOn value. What is quite interesting, every filter can be reversed – this operation actually changes the direction of all filter related controls (incuding the “auxiliary envelope”). There’s plenty of modulation possibilities: two LFOs per instrument, as well as two Function Generators. Those are the finest modulating tools, capable of yielding arpeggio-like effects and – in theory – anything you can imagine and describe in a logical way. Every FG has eight steps, and every step you take, can be assigned not only time and level, but also the shape (starting from rather simple linears, exponentials and circles, up to zig-zags, chaotic and random ones). But that’s not all. Steps can have conditions, so they can jump back (or forth), depending on velocity, LFO value or NoteOn/Off status – to name a few. Frightening possibilities…

However, it’s very unique and powerful. Your patience will definitely get rewarded. It also has very clean and selective sound. Getting a typical Korg/Roland pads, which fill the whole mix only by themselves can be a bit challenging, but getting few sounds, one next to each other, operating in different frequency ranges can yield a nice and clean mix – of course, as long as your filter doesn’t peak and breaks all the glasses in the radius of 50 meters.

Logotypes are probably more readable than displays...

Speaking of thick pads – Morpheus is able to deliver really massive sounds, thanks to its Hyperpresets. Proteus 2000 can contain up to four layers in a single patch, and can link two more patches – it gives up to twelve layers. Morpheus’ patches only have two layers, but Hyperpresets can contain up to eight patches, which gives sixteen layers. They are not like Korg Multis – you can use multiple hyperpresets, one next to another, just remember about the 32 voices of polyphony. But even building a hyperpreset out of a single patch can be interesting, since it can benefit from The Free-Run Function Generator. This thing is interesting on its own: this Function Generator starts when the preset gets selected and runs continously (if programmed in the appropriate way), modulating all presets it contains. However, parameter(s) modulated with Free-Run Function Generator are specified on the preset level, for instance one preset can get the Morph (main filter parameter) modulated, while the other will change its pitch and panning.

Connected to a good master keyboard with a decent set of physical controllers, it can be very expressive – it even accepts polyphonic aftertouch! Luckily E-mu uses MIDI Controllers mapping, so while editing patches one has to define the influence of controllers A, B, C and D. At any given moment those controllers can be assigned to a given MIDI CC number, so it can be easily connected even to a synth with hardwired controls (like Yamaha CS1x). It has its downsides, though. It’s noisier than Proteus 2000, and has smaller dynamics range. It has only 8 MB of samples, mostly filled with synthetic sounds. Also, it was the harbinger of “stuck resonance”, present in Proteus 2000. Of two (or three in case of “cubes”) filter parameters only one can be controlled in realtime. It also features very promising settings, which allow to change the physical beginning and end of a raw sample, as well as its loop points, thus providing the possibility of “sweeping” the sample memory. It’s not Wavestation, but can surely make the sound a bit more weird (yes, even more).

Getting a Morpheus can be a little bit tricky. The market stabilized already – those who got disappointed have already sold it. Most owners would definitely keep it. A solution may be to get UltraProteus – the same engine (only with 90 filters more), armed with 16 MB of samples taken from the legendary (at this time) Proteus 1/2/3. For some unkown reasons it is still present on the second hand market. This one is more “bread’n’butter”, but can be found much easier and for a modest pricetag of 150 EUR. I’ve got this one as well – just because 288 filters are better than 197, right? This also allows me to use them more like monotimbral synthesizers, taking advantage of strengths of each one, while ignoring their weaknesses and without worrying about the polyphony.

And the bottom line is: once you get it, you better have some time. After playing a bit with both of them I don’t think I’ve ever scratched the surface of Z-Plane. Presets don’t do the justice, since those boxes are capable of truly amazing effects – I experienced some of them, while not necessarily being able to harness them into the useful and controllable sounds. Of all virtues, patience will be the most wanted one.

Posted in MIDI, Music, Synths | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

E-mu Proteus 2000

Posted by brunorc on December 29, 2010

My previous synth – Yamaha CS1x – ended up being used as a sound module. This was the period of my life when I started to write some background/illustrative music. Hardware samplers were already there and it was getting difficult to write a decent music without convincing sounds. One can say a lot of nice things about CS1x – like praising the color, etc. – but saying that its sound are realistic, would be a bold flattery.

The biggest problem with samplers was that you needed samples to feed it. And most of the time good samples were so huge, that you ended up filling the memory with the bass guitar and drums, without even starting to think about guitars. Moreover, samples tended to be expensive, and homebrewing them leaves you with two problems: where to get the sources and how to achieve the proper quality. To paraphrase Jamie Zawinski: some people confronted with the problem of getting the right sound, think “I know, I will use a sampler”. Now they have two problems.

Remember, that was 1999. E-mu was producing entry level ESI samplers with 4MB of memory (not sure about Akai at that time). Professional models could have been beefed up to the astonishing 128MB of memory – usually for the price of a small car. Add to this the requirement for SCSI CD-ROMs and/or hard disks… well, that was an elite sport! Also, editing samples on the tiny screen (compared to 15″ CRT) was a disputable pleasure.

So I thought that sound module would be a better choice. You know, sound module is mostly a sampler – but with all the sampling being already done, so you cannot sample anything anymore. A box of sounds, that removes all the compromises out of your way. Some other wise guys already scratched their heads to baldness, only to stuff all the necessary samples in the best possible quality – to provide you with the set of sounds, that you can only take – or leave. The problem is, that with a sound module (or ROMpler) you are tied to the creator’s definition of “necessary” and “best possible”.

Proteus 2000 - front view

One rack unit wonder

But I was lucky enough to start my mission when E-mu was getting the wind in their sails (and sales). Actually, they mostly had two products they were selling for all those years: Emulator (a sampler) and Proteus (a sound module). Check it up on their page, they are still using the same names, it’s amazing. They never seemed to have (or care about) the marketing department, and while most of their stuff was really created by brilliant engineers (with Dave Rossum being the most prominent one, following the tradition started by Karel Capek), at some point lack of proper market presence brought dark clouds over the company. Anyway…

Display of P2K

That's your letterbox - now decorate the hall.

So, when I was hunting for a sound module, E-mu released their Proteus 2000. It was another generation from their famous ROMpler line: at some point they just gathered some bread-and-butter samples from their Emulator III, packed them into the one-rack-unit box, named “Proteus” and started to sell. Then came Proteus 2 with orchestral sounds, Proteus 3 with ethnic sounds, Proteus FX (with two FX processors added). In the meantime they branched into some more specialized stuff, releasing Vintage Keys – the first sound module armed with their H chip, which brought the power of digital filtering. After that came the Morpheus – the beast from the Z-Plane, offering 197 different types of digital filters up to 14 poles along with complex matrix modulation; and UltraProteus – a selection of the best sounds from the whole Proteus family, with even more Z-Plane filters. Both featured an extension slot on their motherboards, but it was never to be filled. Instead a rich palette of (again) specialized sound modules was spawned: urban Planet Phatt, dancey Orbit and latin Carnaval. Then E-mu released Audity 2000 – named after their analog monster from 70’s – with the intention of compressing the power of modular synths into the one rack unit. It paved the road for the whole “2K” platform, unfortunately suffering from all the child-age diseases.

Proteus 2000 was the first one from the long “2K” line (even although Audity had some features that later came back in OS 2.0, it was never compatible with the generic OSes, nor with any 2K ROMs). It came with 32 MB of sample memory, filled – as usually – with the broad selection of sounds – orchestral, pop, rock, electronica… you name it. But that was only the skeleton: while E-mu was famous of their pristine and selective samples, those were the legendary filters, which gave the muscles to this sound. And while I’m really impressed with their quality as well as diversity, I cannot understand the weirdest decision E-mu has ever made: no realtime control over the resonance of the filter. You read it well – you press the key, the sound starts; from now on you can adjust the filter frequency, but not the resonance. Argh.

Mode buttons

Beware the data dial - the most vulnerable part

But bones and muscles are not enough. To make the sound more vivid, you have to modulate it. Three 6-stage envelopes (two with looping), two LFOs plus 12 assignable MIDI controllers, along with so called “modulation processors” per layer allow you to create some realistic sound effects, as well as complex, evolving synth patches. Yes, synth. Proteus 2000 is a full fledged digital synthesizer, just without the keyboard. But it has its own four knobs, so it is a synth, right? It doesn’t have oscillators – but it has samples, and the way samples are played can be influenced as well: you can retrigger the sample (using footswitch, velocity switch or LFO), as well as change its starting point and delay it, so it won’t play immediately. You can have polyphonic glide (portamento effect). You can introduce variations to your LFOs, so they will sound less predictable – or the other way round: you can sync them to MIDI clock.

But then again, Proteus was only the first pawn to be moved by E-mu. But this time the amount of different sound modules was extraordinary. B3 for organs, Mo’phatt for hip-hop, Virtuoso for orchestral sounds, Xtreme Lead for electronica, Planet Earth for ethnic sounds, Orbit 3 for dance, and so on… E-mu was repackaging their samples like there was no tomorrow, but this time there was still the same platform, only the sound ROMs were different. Later sound modules came with beats and arpeggiators, but that was only the OS, which you could upload thru the MIDI and – presto! – you just have a new, more powerful instrument. And you didn’t have to worry that your rompler couldn’t have sampled anything, since you could just buy new ROMs to enrich the arsenal of your samples. Just in case you really needed some specific sound, which no ROM could provide, E-mu made it possible to create your own ROM (using one of their Ultra samplers) with any samples you liked.

Realtime controls

Realtime control knobs - also useful for editing

So, to summarize: 128 voices of polyphony, 50 different filter types, two FX processors, 23 different ROMs available with four slots on the mainboard. Two MIDI interfaces, three pairs of stereo outputs (that can be used for insert effects, as well as joining the audio signal from external sources) and SPDIF output. You can use up to 32 MIDI channels – and use different arpeggiators on every single one. Every patch can use up to four layers, where every layer has its own filter, three envelopes, two LFOs and modulation processors – and its own settings for all this mess. Just in case it was not enough, one patch can “link” two other patches – an easy way for building layered/splitted sounds out of the existing ones. Complex? Hard to manage on 2×24 chars display? Emigr8 made Proteum, a free P2K editor for Windows. Hating Windows? Use prodatum, another free and crossplatform editor. And you may need it badly, because danger, Will Robinson: data dial encoder is notorious for breaking. After some time your dial may become crazy, then you need a soldering gun iron (up to 25W) and Bourns PEC164215FN0024 encoder for replacement.

How does it sound? In my opinion it sounds great. If you are looking for some realistic replicas of acoustic instruments, guys from E-mu sampled them an awful lot of times, so they know them inside out. If you are into completely synthetic sound, built from scratch – guys from E-mu prepared a swiss-army chainsaw of synthesis (minus realtime resonance). You have to be delicate with your modulations though, otherwise one of those 12-pole filters may just cut your cat into slices. And of course don’t expect the legendary analog warmth: Proteus is purely digital, so you can have difficult times trying to recreate some Moogy sounds in every detail (and don’t try to use anything steeper than 6 poles in such case), but it should be quite easy to get some PPG-like sounds. Below you will find a fraction of 1024 presets that come onboard, and some of 512 user locations (as you may have guessed, there is still a lot of space in mine). Right now I’m coming back to my Proteus 2000 in every free moment (which losely translates to “once or twice a week”), so I hope to get some better sounds soon. If you find those user sounds crappy, it’s rather my fault, so please don’t judge this box on the basis of my sound-designing skills. That would be very unfair. All patches are played by “audition riffs” – another nice feature of 2K platform. In fact, they can be also used as so-called BEATS phrases, turning the sound module into a kind of pattern-based sequencer.

Would I buy it again? Hell yes! Right now you can get a P2K in good condition for about 200€, or even less. Some ROMs are cheaper, some are expensive. Few models of boxes (Proteus 1000, Planet Earth, Xtreme Lead) are thinned out – you will get “only” 64 voices of polyphony, one pair of stereo outputs (no SPDIF) and only two slots on the mobo. Most of the time you should be happy with presets, and even more happy while editing your own – it takes some time, though. Highly recommended gear, go and get it. The only excuse to not to do so is that you already have one. Or two.

Update: You can find more information about this nice box on Yahoo group about Proteus 2000.

Posted in MIDI, Music, Synths | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »