Working with the Emu 1820M and Emulator X by TweakHeadz Lab
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Working with the
Emu 1820M

and Emulator X Studio
Sampler System

 

by Tweak

 

Ok, we all know Emu is out of the hardware sampler business. I know that perhaps better than anyone as I stare into my rack of two E-mu samplers, an ESi 32 and E-5000 Ultra, not to mention my rack of six emu synth modules and 3 foot stack of emu sample cd roms. Up till now I've resisted going for the new emu desktop systems, thinking "ah glorified SoundBlasters". But having heard they just updated the Emulator X soft sampler to v 1.5, the G.A.S. hit hard. That's Gear Acquisition Syndrome for those of you newbies come lately. But it took more than passing GAS to get me to flip the plastic. No one knows better than I the anguish of installing and learning a deep audio interface on a workhorse PC. I am writing on day two and I am happy to say, it's installed, thank god, and working acceptably on my older Athlon 1.4 gHz system.  However, an audio interface of this stature will run better on a faster, DAW-optimized machine.  And don't forget memory, lots of it, if you plan to get the most out of the Emulator X software sampler.
 

 

The 1820M

 

The interface itself is beautiful.  That's the breakout box, called "the Dock" you see in the pic.  It's connected by a special kind of Cat 5 cable (called an EDI connector) to a PCI card that you put in the computer.  The cable is 3 meters long--just long enough for me to keep the PC in the next room, thankfully, as the last thing i want is that machine in the studio.  You can technically, according to the manual, go up to 10 meters, but you'll have to get the cable from emu. 

Installation was not hard, in fact, almost flawless.  There is a critical instruction you must observe if you have (or had) a consumer creative labs card on your system previously, but the getting started guide clearly gets you through this.  Driver installation went smooth. Make sure you update the drivers and PatchMix software at emu's site right after installation. 
 

Drivers

 

I ran into several problems setting up Cubase and Sonar.  Many were due to me not understanding the role of the PatchMix DSP application, which must be setup properly for your sequencer to work.  Thankfully, the application comes with a lot of preset configurations for just about any possible use of the 1820.  Once I had the correct PatchMix setup, it worked like a dream,  well almost a dream. If you are an experienced user such as myself, you'll figure this out pretty quick.  If you are a newbie, beware, you will have to learn a lot about setting up a software mixer by studying the manual.  But you have to learn this stuff anyway, so just plunge in. 

While there are WDM drivers for the 1820 you really want to use ASIO, as there are more options available.  Cubase SX, which is known for compatibility with ASIO cards, is as smooth and fast as you would hope.  If you use Sonar, select the ASIO option and save a major headache.  Latency is really good (low!) at the 128 samples buffer setting.
 

Performance

 

My first attempt to use Emulator X was on an AMD 1.4 GHZ Thunderbird processor with a meager 512 MG of Ram.  I knew this was barely enough and I was correct.  Turning on streaming was an invitation to a crash, but with streaming off I was able to load a 128 meg converted EOS bank and it sounded great.  Latency was good.  There seemed to be an unaccountable graphic slowdown, much like one gets with Norton's stuff.  For a 4 year old processor and limited memory, it appears to me that all the driver issues are not sorted out.  I have applied all available updates and was still getting errors where the audio engine stops and the computer needs to be rebooted to get it back.  This was more than a minor annoyance when you get your sequencer all set up and the sound goes "poof".

I then said enough was enough.  I wanted emulator-X to work so I bit the bullet and upgraded my PC to an AMD64 Athlon 3400+ and 2 gigs of memory.  Now we are cruising.  Latency is incredibly low, streaming works perfectly (though I don't need it with 2GB!). Oddly the program still loads fairly slow and while overall navigation through the screens is much better, it still is not what I would call "fast". 

The moral of the story use a fast machine with decent hard drives and as much memory as you can muster.
 

Converters

 

The sound of the 1820M is really top notch, even at 16 bit.  I can hear some high frequency problems on many of my previous mixes I did not detect on my delta 1010 and 828mk2.  To my ears the sound is crisp and clear.  I am not surprised, given the hi grade converters and knowing emu, who has always strived for excellent sound quality in their samplers.  Emu claims these are the same converters used in high end Digidesign Pro Tools HD systems (not the Digi002 dudes, the REAL Pro Tools)

Interestingly, the converters used in the 1820 and 1820M are different.  The 1820M and the 1212M have the AKM AK5394 converters which offer a dynamic range of 120dBA (!)  This is nothing short of amazing in an interface at this price, right on par with the converters in digital audio systems costing many times this price.  The 1820 (non-M) specs out with a dynamic range of 112dBA.  Still respectable, but you should know that you get better converters in the "M" package and the lower cost 1212M package.

 

Inputs and Outputs

 

The Emu 1820 and 1820m are definitely powerful devices as far as audio interfaces go. The half-rack box and Pci card holds a whopping 18 inputs and 20 outputs. So lets count them up:

Inputs

  • 2 Mic pres
  • 6 balanced or unbalanced line inputs
  • 8 Adat inputs (switchable to optical s/pdif)
  • Stereo coaxial s/pdif
  • Stereo turntable inputs (RCA)

Outputs:

  • 8 balanced or unbalanced outputs (+4 or -10)
  • 8 Adat outs (switchable to optical s/pdif)
  • Stereo coaxial s/pdif
  • stereo headphones

In addition to the better converters, the "M" version of the 1820 adds Word Clock in and out and SMPTE (LTC) in and out on a daughterboard.  The daughterboard needs a space to attach near your other cards, but it does not have to be adjacent to the PCI card and it does not itself use a PCI slot.  If you plan to connect to digital mixers or other audio interfaces you need the word clock feature.

All of this i/o traffic is controlled an negotiated with the PatchMix DSP application (a rather large control panel) which can be configured in many ways. You can add inserts, sends, returns and plugin in emu's effects in PatchMix.  There is an amazing variety of effects, which you can use as VST Plugins inside your sequencer, or in PatchMix directly outside the sequencer.  (This is great if you want to dedicate your PC, as I intend, to running Emulator X as a standalone sampler without a sequencer.

 

The PatchMix DSP panel shown above is expandable and allows you to route your audio to various destinations with sends, returns, inserts to peak meters, trim controls, test tone signal generators and monitoring chains.  You can also insert as many effects as you want on these channel strips.  There are hundred of effects supplied. 

 

Flexibility

Going Mixerless?  The 1820M certainly allows you to.  You have all the i/o you need to get started with home recording and can add more preamps via the ADAT i/o if you need to record many mics at once.  The PatchMix software will allow you to do huge mixes and unusual routings most audio interfaces cannot touch. The onboard mix preamps/DI inputs make recording convenient. There is a headphone jack that can be routed independently for latency free monitoring.

If you have a mixer you will also be thrilled.  You can run the 8 analog outs to your mixer and run the alt/submix busses to the line inputs as you would expect from a large audio interface.  You can add ADAT converters to give you 16 analog outs.  With a digital mixer with ADAT you will have 8 digital channels piped into the board from the 1820M, plus your analog channels, making the 1820M a very complete solution.

Finally, if you have 2 computers, the 1820 M is a great solution for tying them together via ADAT.  My plan is to hook ADAT from the 1820M on the PC to the ADAT ins on my G5's 828mk2.  I'll let you know after I try it if it works.  This will allow me, I hope, to pipe the Emulator X sampler direct into Logic Pro on the Mac, making my PC a standalone sampling workstation.  This is a great way to go, i think, because the great sample editors like Sound Forge and Wavelab don't exist on the Mac. 

 

Emulator X

 

When you consider how expensive it would be to have a hardware sampler with 18 ins and 20 outs, you should be appreciating what emu has come up with in the Emulator X studio package (which comes with the 1820M system).  As a software sampler the Emulator X is no slouch, its as deep, no deeper, than EOS was in the hardware realm but much, much more flexible.  Those who have used EOS will feel at home right away and you'll recognize many EOS conventions (as unconventional as many of these are), such as cords, the rather unusual envelopes, and of course, the filters.  There's more filters in Emu-X than there were in EOS, and many of the functions that were troublesome to get working, like BPM based LFOs and triggers, now work with elegance. 

 

 

I played around a bit with the supplied sampler instruments and consider them average (though there is a new free "Proteus-X Composer" Bank on E-mu's site that is many shades better than the one supplied on CD Rom.)  Having lots of emu sounds already I knew what to expect.  The true test for me was to load in the Post Industrial Cyber Sound Depot as I knew my own programming would tell me tons about how well Emu-X fares.  Here I ran into several problems.  The software would not recognize EOS format CD Roms even though it claims to, so i had to use Chicken System's Translator to make a E4b bank which is an EOS-DOS format.  Emu-X loaded E4b format with no problems.  Then I could save to EXb format and the translation was done.

The keymaps and most of the programming came out well.  There were some major differences in volume levels.  Some kits I made in EOS and tweaked so they'd be very hot were way over the top, and some patches had serious phase issues that did not exist in EOS. The filter routings seem wrong too, probably because the EMU-X has more filters and has a global filter that defeats the others that EOS did not have.   EMU-X seems to have gotten all the layering right though, and overall, many of the inspired patches I made in Post Indie are close enough where I can fix them.  I was never able to get this close with translations to Kontakt, EXS, or Battery, so overall, i am pretty enthused.  Am i going to recast the 1000 presets Post Indie in EMU-X format?  Perhaps finally release the World Cafe bank that is half done? I just might!  You heard it here first.

For the new guys here that are not EOS magicians you might be wondering if the Emulator X sampler is for you.  This is going to depend on your typical sampler uses.  Emu-X is deep, mysterious and very powerful and offers exacting control for multisamples, where you may have 20-50 samples in a single keymap.  If you are just building virtual drum kits and doing one shot dubs off turntables, there are many easier soft samplers like Intakt and Battery.  However, if you are the type where you find the bigger soft samplers like Halion, Kontakt or the EXS too limiting, or you want to do huge detailed and heavily layered soundscapes you are a good candidate for EMU-X.
 

Working with Emu-X

 

First of all, don't even mess with version 1 of Emulator X.  Update it immediately to 1.5.  The earlier version was unstable here.  The sampler is kind of a CPU hog if you use a lot of filters and have do lots of layers.  Emu added a disk streaming option in the preferences.  This helps by only loading the first few parts of samples in use and streams the rest of them.  Streaming will allow you to achieve much better polyphony and will let you load really large samples. However, this is going to put some strain on your hard disks, especially if you are pumping audio in a sequencer at the same time.  So you can turn off streaming, then you will be limited to the memory you have available.  My old PC only has 512 megs of RAM so I hit the ceiling rather often with streaming off, but i tended to prefer it.  I definitely recommend getting as much RAM as you box will allow.

Emulator X2

 

Emu upgraded the Emulator X to the X2 and added many more features.  You can read about it here.

 

 

Programming structure of an EMU-X voice, the synth engine which modifies the raw samples

 

Summing Up

The Emulator X/1820M Studio package is more than a simple audio/Midi interface, but one that you can use as a platform for whatever you are doing with audio on a desktop PC.  I hope I have showed you how tremendously flexible this system is.  Its a serious tool; not a toy, and if you are serious about making music on your computer and willing to spend more than a day figuring things out you will be rewarded with recording power over and above the guys running m-box's and the simpler M-audio interfaces.  Given the low price of admission for all this power, I was going to bestow the Tweak's Pick award for "Power for the Buck" PC audio interface.  However, I think it still needs to be tweaked up.  If they are able to fix these problems E-mu will be credited with audio interface and dedicated soft sampler of the decade.

 

Links:

 

Technical Review of the 1820M systems

http://www.digit-life.com/articles2/creative-emu-1820

E-mu's Site

http://www.emu.com  Audio Driver's

 

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