I’m an 80’s child. I was born in 1970, and I always maintain that I was born 10 years too late. As much as I’d have enjoyed being around when The Beatles ruled the earth, it’s the subsequent two decades that do it for me and I’d have revelled in being a teenager in the 70’s and then a wild, post teen indulger in the 80’s. But hey, I can’t change that and the 80’s were for me, the decade of my formative years in so many ways. It’s the decade I discovered fashion and how intrinsic that was to the music scene at the time. It’s when I started to physically discover girls and, more importantly, discover the intensity of emotions connected with the physical discovery of girls. But that’s for another blog post, or even another site altogether!
Musically, and in many other ways, this was the decade that saw sweeping changes in the way we did things. It saw the advent of polyphonic synths and digital sampling. The Fairlight ushered in a complete new paradigm, and even though sampling was just one of the ground-breaking things it did, it was the one the world picked up on. And mostly for all the wrong reasons. Peter Gabriel said that Paul Hardcastle’s Vietnam inspired piece, “19”, had set the art of sampling back at least 10 years. And he wasn’t wrong. The minute people realised you could sample almost anything, they jumped on the novelty factor and started sampling and stuttering their voices all over the shop. Gabriel had been using his CMI I & II to create completely new sonic textures and sounds, finding musicality in smashed TV sets, car windscreens and old bits of scaffolding. The rest of the pop industry, bar a few, set about creating highly annoying, heavily clichéd pieces of utter junk, littered with stammering voices, pitched all over the place. It was horrible and thankfully, didn’t last too long.
Instrument manufacturers had also jumped on the bandwagon, desperate to cash in on the craze and to offer a cheaper alternative to the mortgage shattering Fairlight & Synclavier. American synth manufacturer E-MU did just that. Previously best known for their modular synths, they released the Emulator I in 1981, followed by the Drumulator in 1983. But in 1984, the Emulator II saw them grab a sizeable share of the new sampler market. The reduced size and cost of their machine saw many musicians opt for one over a Fairlight, including bands like Depeche Mode. Like the Fairlight, the primitive technology used to perform the sampling added a sonic colouring and whilst they gave great renditions of the original sound, it sounded somewhat different and therein lay the appeal.
Skip forward three decades and you’d think that recreating the sounds of these legendary machines would be something long taken care of. The Emulator, more so than the Fairlight, is without doubt the sampler whose sounds are far more easily available. That’s down mainly to E-MU still being alive, albeit now as a subsidiary of Creative Labs, the computer sound card giant. The E-MU brand is now just that. A name attached to Creative’s high end range of products. Before being swallowed up by Creative, E-MU released a huge range of modules & keyboards, like the Proteus, stuffed to the gills with old and new Emulator library. Companies like Digital Sound Factory do an excellent job of converting these sounds into present day formats and are an excellent way of getting your hands on these once highly sought after sonic delights. E-MU also released a software version of the Emulator, EmulatorX, but sadly, in an already saturated market, it didn’t survive beyond its third iteration. I own EmulatorX2 and whilst it’s fairly unique in that it is a software sampler that actually samples, and has some awesome library, it suffered from being too complex for many. Emulator was Betamax to Kontakt’s VHS.
So when Peter Vogel finally responded to the call for a Fairlight emulation in the 21st century, Peter being Peter, didn’t want to do things by halves. The Fairlight was a complex beast and a lot of what it was loved for was the result of happy accidents and “prehistoric” technology. To recreate the electronic environment would take more than just a plug in instrument, and so the CMI30A was born. Sure, there are plenty of libraries out there that contain Fairlight sounds. Some are just a smattering, some are far more complete, like Bitley’s Fairlight Platinum ReFill, but all lack that certain “je ne sais quoi” that can only be achieved by the hardware itself.
E-MU, or more to the point, Creative, have not seen fit to do the same with the Emulator. There is no doubt that the Curtis chips used in the original Emulators performed similar, accidental and unintentional colourisation to what we saw in the Fairlight, but the Emulator library evolved with the times and the demand, in my opinion, has always been less. It’s not as elusive as the Fairlight. It certainly was more prevalent. And those sounds were found everywhere.
In January of this year, UVI released Emulation II and Drumulation. Available for their UVI Workstation format, these two instruments strive to give us not only the sounds, but also a good degree of control over the library. It’s worth pointing out here that the UVI Workstation is a free application from UVI that functions as a standalone application for Mac & PC, or as a VST/AU/RTAS/MAS plugin. So any library released for it can be used as such. Unlike some sample library hosts, it affords the user a unique user interface as well as a set of tweaks and FX such as Delays, Reverbs, Modulations, Filters, EQ and a lot, lot more. Load up your instrument, click on the FX section and select from a massive range of sound shaping tools, filling up your FX rack and giving you plenty of tweaking options. It’s a very powerful thing. It also allows you to layer patches and you can add FX to either the overall patch or just the individual layers, each of which can be assigned to any one of the 16 standard MIDI channels, as well as up to four MIDI controller devices. It’s perfectly conceivable to have four keyboard players playing the one instance of the UVI Workstation. And it’s not long before you start to get deep behind its simple interface. There’s also a very powerful arpeggiator included that has a myriad possibilities and levels of interaction and control.
But that’s enough about the shell. What about Emulation II itself? Well, first up, let’s look at the lovely UI. It’s clearly modelled on an Emulator II’s front panel with matching fonts, colours and even textures. But that’s where it ends. The only thing on Emulation’s panel that is on an Emulator II’s panel is the word “Filter”. Emulation gives us an Amplitude Envelope (ADSR) along with a couple of switches to switch off velocity sensitivity and enable a Velocity > Attack mode which shortens the attack of the Amp Envelope the harder you hit the key. The Filter section has it’s own ADSR sliders as well as it’s own Vel > Atk switch plus Cutoff, Q & Envelope Depth rotary controls. To the right of the UI, there is a Stereo section.
This is quite a nice little feature as it has a cross-fader that goes from Off to Unison, with Alternating in the middle. This allows you to play some nice stereo spacial tricks and the Colour, Spread and Tune rotaries allow you to affect the quality of the resulting output. The Modwheel section allows you to assign Vibrato, Tremolo and Filter settings to the Mod Wheel. You can have any combination of these switched on, each with their own rate or depth controls. Below this is the Effects section, not to be confused with the UVI Workstation’s own native FX. This section gives you a Phaser, Delay and Reverb, all with their own mix level rotaries. Again, like the Modwheel section, you can have any combination of these turned on or off. Finally, the Bit Crusher section does just that. Turn it on and the Bit rotary goes from very low bit to very high with additional controls for frequency and drive. Always useful for those looking for squeezing a dirty, gritty sound out of the instrument.
So, that then leaves us with the samples themselves. UVI Workstation libraries come in their own, proprietary monolithic format .ufs files. It is only from within the UVI Workstation that you can see what you have. And you have a lot. Navigating the patch browser shows you the main categories which feature everything from Bass, Drums, Synths and Strings to Fretted Instruments, Mallets, World and FX’s. Each of these sections contain a good deal of patches but be warned, if you’re looking for a library that is catalogued and laid out like an Emulator II, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, there aren’t too many EII patch names to be seen here. But fear not. Flicking through the library is like navigating through a deconstructed Pet Shop Boys album! So many familiar sounds and so many memories contained therein.
I think the first thing worth mentioning here is the quality of the overall sound. Quite often, sample libraries that contain Fairlight or Emulator sounds lack the fullness, the depth or body of the real thing. Not so here. These samples are very much full range and there is a lot of substance to them. There is definite power in there. The one surprising thing is how well UVI have taken these sounds and crafted them into contemporary sounding patches, some 250+ of them. Sure, many of them are firmly rooted in the 80’s, but it doesn’t take much tweaking before you have something all of your own. Start layering these sounds and it’s not long before you have some hugely impressive and chest rattling noises coming from your monitors. What is also interesting is that there are sounds in here that clearly weren’t part of the EII library but were from the same era but now you have them in an environment with lots of manipulation abilities. There is a lot here to keep you occupied and plenty here to construct full blown pieces with just this instrument alone.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Emulation II now comes with Drumulation at no extra cost. This is, as you’d expect, a nod to the E-MU Drumulator and works as a great complement to the Emulation II. Once loaded, you’re presented with another similarly effective UI that gives you two 16 step sequencers, each with their own Mute, Pan, Volume, Tune, High/Low Pass filters and a choice of two levels of accent. Each of these sequencers has a voice allocated to it and underneath them, there are 4 buttons that allow you to have four unique pairs of sequencers, giving you 8 individual sequences to play with. Once again, behind an apparently simple interface, a nice level of power and complexity is revealed. Each of the eight voice slots is also mapped to your keyboard along with a non-latching start/stop loop trigger at C3. If you want to latch the start stop, you just press the Run/Stop button at the top of the UI. It’s missing things like groove or swing functions, but clever use of the UVI Workstation’s arpeggiator can get around this. You have 21 preset kits to play with, or you can create your own from over 500 drum samples provided. This is a very neat addition, and incredibly welcome as it is free!
So, is this one of the best Emulator emulations out there? I’d have to say yes. Why? Well, the content has been sampled and programmed incredibly well but coupling it with the great user interfaces makes it even more compelling. It is simple, unfussy, yet every button, slider or rotary does something noticeably useful. And it’s all so easy on the eye too. UVI have retained the simplicity of the interface from the machines they are aping here but at the same time, have delivered a contemporary instrument whose sounds and looks fit in to this very day. The purists might question the lack of an original EII library structure, but trust me, the second you start playing through some of these patches, you see straight past that and get lost in the heady air of nostalgia. Are there any downsides? Well, it’s not that cheap. Certainly, for the money, you can get bigger libraries, but not with the attractive and functional UI. I think the ease of use alone justifies some of that price tag. Speaking of the UI regarding the library, one thing I have been spoilt with in Reason is the preview function when it comes to selecting sounds. I appreciate that it takes time to open up each patch, but I prefer to be able to preview patches before finally loading them up. By no means a deal breaker though. Emulation II & Drumulation are iLok protected, so if you don’t have one of those, that’ll be another £35-£40 to factor in to the cost. And at a whopping 4.7GB, it’s not a lightweight and you’ll need a good, solid internet connection to download it all. Worth noting that it is also available on DVD.
One thing I am quite curious of, and I have posed this question directly to UVI, is the potential for the UVI Workstation, and therefore its libraries, to be adapted to fit the new Propellerhead Rack Extension plug in format. The size and layout of the UI seems perfectly proportioned to fit into Reason’s rack. Can you imagine an Emulator-esque instrument with CV patching capabilities? That’s a bit mouthwatering 😉 If I hear anything back, I’ll be sure to update you 🙂
I’m an Emulator fan. I’m an 80’s fan. I’m also a big lover of simple yet powerful interfaces that support the creative process, not hinder it. If you plonk me in front of an over elaborate, beautifully scripted interface, I’ll marvel at it’s beauty but will be stumped by the complexity. I’m here to make music with sounds. I want power and control but I don’t want to read a 6 inch think manual or require a degree to operate it. I want clear, attractive controls, simple intuitive navigation and above all else, superb sonics and patches that inspire. On all these counts, Emulation II, and it’s free drum based partner, is a hands down winner.
Now, for the first time, take a look at what I’ve been playing with as I present the first of hopefully many accompanying videos to the reviews and articles I post here. Hope you enjoy it 🙂
Given that my keyboard playing skills are limited (which is why I use computers to help me make music), here are some audio demos that UVI put together which show off the impressive selection of sounds.
This instrument is highly recommended and gets a big 5/5 thumbs up from Failed Muso!