Emu EMAX S.E. (1988)

Emu Emax SE

 
UNDER THE HOOD
Inside Emu Emax

Inside Emu Emax

Inside Emu Emax

Inside Emu Emax

Inside Emu Emax

Inside Emu Emax

Inside Emu Emax

Inside Emu Emax

 
MAIN DSP, ELECTRONICS, CHIPS PDF DOCUMENTS

SSM2047

AM6012DC      
 
IMPRESSION

A venerable ancestor … Its specifications could make the young contemporary composers smile and even laugh at laughter, and one couldn’t blame them for that, but at a time this machine completely revolutionized the music industry.
In the early 1980s, the Australian builder Fairlight had proved, with its C.M.I. workstation, that the futur was going to emphasize even further the links between technology and the composer. Some wealthy bands and musicians had already bought this machine and were offering a much more complex and sophisticated sound than productions based solely on conventional synthesizers.

Indeed, far from proposing only sampling, Fairlight proposed a workstation capable of making some subtractive synthesis with the samples stored in memory, to sequence them via some utilities supplied with the machine (tha famous « Page-R »), all this thus allowing to create real music based on sampling technology.
Founded in 1972 by Scott Wedge and Dan Rossum, and after having long made circuits for Solid State Microtechnologies (SSM), EMU Inc. also took a chance in the field of samplers. After the Emulator I (a very primitive sampler but much more financially accessible than C.M.I.), the Emulator II model was born. This model will, forever, a 80s sound signature, as it was the most popular model, performing and accessible at a time.

The Depeche Mode band will soon acquire one and will create many albums thanks to the sounds generated by this machine. Front 242 will do the same, and will be followed by many other musicians. The Emulator II will be widely used in the studio to create numerous sound effects of American series (Mac Guyver, Rick Hunter, …). Less friendly than the Fairlight and less « Workstation » oriented, the Emulator II resolutely wants to be an instrument in its own right. The sampling has a pretty fairly average quality (12 bits / 42khz), but the synthesis section largely compensates the lack of sampling quality.

The « EMAX » series is the evolution of the « Emulator II » model, or rather a transition between Emulator II and Emulator III.
EMU Inc. realized that a real market was in place for people who didn’t have the capability to buy an Emulator II, and having made great progress with the integration of electronic components, it was now possible to manufacture a new range of samplers financially much more accessible than the « Emulator » series, without any sacrifice on the specificities and featurings of this machine. It is in this perspective the « EMAX » serie will be engineered …. Even with some nice facelifts added…

First of all, the central microprocessor is no longer the Zilog Z-80 that equips the Emulator II, but becomes the more powerful 32008 National. This is a 8/16bit processor running at 8Mhz. Digital processings (stretching, reverse sample, etc.) will be greatly accelerated. Then dozens and dozens of logic circuits have been integrated in a single circuit, a DSP responding to the name of the Emulator-on-a-chip and containing more than 50,000 transistors. This very large circuit is in charge of anti-aliasing, real time data decompression , audio channels management during the samples play-back. The memory, true heart of the sampler, has been revised upwards to 512KB (of which only 480KB are really usable for storing data, the remainder being taken by the Operating System).

That's done for the "logic" engine of the sampler. Now, about the "audio" engine, the famous Solid State Microtechnology SSM2047 circuits are used to manage the filter (VCF) and VCA of the EMAX. The quality of these analog self-oscillating circuits is immediately obvious and gives this sampler/synth a true character. AMD AM6012DC 12-bit D/A converters can also be found, acting like "generators" (which can be compared to the "oscillator" section on a conventional synth).

Indeed, at the time, and because the lack to reproduce a truly natural sound, the sampler is seen as a machine of pure sound creation, in the same way as a synthesizer. And that's where the strength of the EMAX lies there. It willn't be possible to sample long rhythmic loops or long guitar riffs, ok... but on the other hand we can sample short sounds from various sources and then create a real sound ...

I’ve used this machine abundantly, suffering from a few issues due to its age (the floppy drive becomes extremely touchy and the LCD backlight is very dim, so it’s difficult to read the lcd screen in the darkness) on the 1st album of Modern Cubism and Mono Electronic Density. Moreover this machine has an enormous sounds libraries available, and of very high quality! On the S.E. (Spectrum Enhanced) model, there are new digital processing features (mostly algorithms) which can sometimes give interesting results … Nevertheless it sometimes takes hours of calculation before been able to hear the result … The results are pretty empirical results, and most of the time, it will often be necessary to use the tries/fails method.
However, I regret mainly two things :

  1. First of all, the sampler doesn’t have a true « multi » mode in the sense that you can access only one keyboard containing all the sounds you want to put. For instance, it will be impossible to play a piano sound on 5 octaves (using midi channel 1) and at the same time play an organ sound on 5 octaves (using midi channel 2). It is only by using the integrated mini-sequencer (really extremely primitive) that we can carry out this operation, which is really a pity …
  2. The higher the sampling frequency, the smaller the sample assignment area on the keyboard … This Forces us to do multi-sampling, very greedy on the memory … This is a very special mechanism that I have never really understood, even nowaday.
Otherwise, this machine offers an integrated (analog) chorus effect and can mixes up to  two samples to make a single sound (but this reduces the polyphony from 8 to 4 notes). In short, it is an old vintage machine resolutely focused on pure sound research, with an immediately recognizable sound color (a sound kind of « low-fi ») but which has the typical late 80’s samplers limitations.  mostly use the emax S.E. for its very particular sound signature, low-fi and grainy only a machine of this kind may achieve.