The Emulator is the name given to the series of digital sampling synthesizers using floppy disk storage, manufactured by E-mu Systems from 1981 until the 1990s. Though not the first commercial sampler, the Emulator was among the first to find wide use among ordinary musicians, due to its relatively low price and fairly contained size, which allowed for its use in live performances. It was also innovative in its integration of computer technology. The samplers were discontinued in 2002.
E-mu Systems was founded in 1971 and began business as a manufacturer of microprocessor chips, digital scanning keyboards and components for electronic instruments. Licensing this technology gave E-mu ample funds to invest in research and development, and it began to develop boutique synthesizers for niche markets, including a series of modular synthesizers and the high-end Audity system. In 1979, founders Scott Wedge and Dave Rossum saw the Fairlight CMI and the Linn LM-1 at a convention, inspiring them to design and produce a less expensive keyboard that made use of digital sampling.
Originally, E-mu considered selling the design for the Emulator to Sequential Circuits, which at the time was using E-mu's keyboard design in its popular Prophet-5 synthesizer. However, soon afterward, Sequential Circuits stopped paying E-mu royalties on its keyboard design, which forced E-mu to release the Emulator itself.
Finally released in 1981, the Emulator was a floppy disk-based keyboard workstation which enabled the musician to sample sounds, recording them to non-volatile media and allowing the samples to be played back as musical notes on the keyboard. The 5" floppy disk drive enabled the owner to build a library of samples and share them with others, or buy pre-recorded libraries on disk.
The Emulator had a very basic 8-bit sampler – ; it only had a simple filter, and only allowed for a single loop. The initial model did not even include a VCA envelope generator. It came in three forms: A two-voice model (only one of these was ever sold), a four-voice model, and an eight-voice model. When the original Emulator was turned on the keyboard was split. It was designed to be played in split mode, so playing the same sound on the full keyboard required loading up the same sound floppy disk in each drive.
Stevie Wonder, who gave the sampler a glowing review at the 1981 NAMM convention, received the first unit (serial number "0001"). Originally 0001 was promised to Daryl Dragon of Captain & Tennille, because he had been a loyal E-mu modular system owner for a long time before that. However, Wonder was more famous. In 1982, the Emulator was updated to include a VCA envelope generator and a simple sequencer, and the price was lowered. Approximately 500 units were sold before the unit was discontinued in early 1984. Other prominent users of the original E-mu Emulator were New Order and Genesis, and it was among the many groundbreaking instruments used in the production of Michael Jackson's Thriller album. Composer and Writer David Frank of The System used the original Emulator on his productions from Sweat to Don't Disturb this Groove. The Residents, who had gotten the fifth Emulator to ever be produced, used the instrument extensively on their album The Tunes of Two Cities.
Released commercially in 1984 to huge acclaim, the Emulator II (or EII) was E-mu's second sampler. Like the original Emulator, it was an 8-bit sampler, however it had superior fidelity to the Emulator due to the use of digital companding and a 27.7 kHz sample rate. It also allowed more flexibility in editing and shaping sounds, as resonant analog filters were added. The EII also had vastly better real time control. It was priced similarly to the original Emulator, at US$7,995 for a regular model, and $9,995 for a 'plus' model featuring extra sample memory. Several upgrades, including a second floppy drive, a 20 MB hard drive, and a 512K memory upgrade were also available. Despite its price tag it was still considered very good value compared to the Fairlight CMI Series II, which, when first released, was priced at $30,000.
The Emulator II has a unique sound due to its DPCM mu-255 companding, divider-based variable sample-rate principle and analog output stages featuring SSM2045 24 dB/oct analogue four-pole low-pass resonant filters. Equivalent output stages in modern samplers perform similar functions purely in the digital domain, and aficionados of the sound of analogue electronics argue that some of this analogue 'magic' is lost.
Several highly respected OEM and third party sample libraries were developed for the Emulator II, including a multitude of high quality orchestral sounds. Many of the EII's original library sounds were sampled from the more expensive Fairlight and Synclavier workstations (the Fairlight's famous "Sarrar/Arr1" choir sample is called "DigiVcs" in the E-mu library). This can cause confusion when trying to determine which sampler hardware was actually used on a certain song. A demo of the library sounds can be found on YouTube. Famous samples include the Shakuhachi flute used by Peter Gabriel on "Sledgehammer" and by Enigma on their album MCMXC a.D., and the Marcato Strings heard on many popular '80s records, including the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls". According to the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant in "Synth Britannia" on BBC 4 in 2009, every single sound on the track, with the obvious exception of the singers' voices, was made using an Emulator II.
The Emulator II was popular with many musicians in the 1980s, such as early adopter Stevie Wonder, and was used extensively by Front 242, Depeche Mode, Constance Demby, 808 State (on their 1989 album Ninety) New Order, Talking Heads, ABC, A-ha, Tears for Fears, Genesis, Marillion, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Herbie Hancock, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre, Yes, Whitesnake, OMD, Dire Straits, Stevie Nicks, Mr. Mister, Ultravox, Visage, Modern Talking and many more. The list is far from complete however as it became the staple sampler of just about every recording studio that could afford one in the 1980s, and thus was used on a multitude of albums at the time.
It was used for a number of film scores as well, such as the Terminator 2: Judgment Day score by Brad Fiedel, many of Michael Kamen's film scores, such as Lethal Weapon and Highlander and almost all of John Carpenter's films in the 1980s. It even featured in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where Ferris uses the Emulator II to play sounds of coughing and sneezing in order to feign illness on the phone.
In recent years, the Emulator II has risen in popularity due to the resurgence in 1980s pop culture, with new artists wishing to revive the Emulator-based sound. Prices for functioning units have gone up, and websites dedicated to selling the original floppies have now emerged.
The Emulator III was introduced after the discontinuation of the Emulator II in 1987, and was manufactured until 1991. A rack-mountable version was introduced in 1988.
It featured 4 or 8 megabytes of memory, depending on the model, and it could store samples in 16-bit, 44 kHz stereo, which at the time, was equivalent to the most advanced, professional equipment available. The sound quality was also improved greatly over its predecessors, the Emulator I and II, with quieter outputs and more reliable filter chips. However, the Emulator III was considerably less popular than its predecessors, largely due to its price – at a time when manufacturers such as Akai, Ensoniq and Casio offered samplers at less than $2,000, the Emulator III's use of high-quality components drove the price up to $12,695 for the 4 MB model, and $15,195 for the 8 MB model. E-mu had previously been able to sell its Emulators at around the $10,000 range because the only alternatives were the $30,000-200,000 Fairlight CMI, and the $75,000-500,000 NED Synclavier system. However, times had changed, the technology had become more and more accessible and E-mu was not able to keep up.
Although the Emulator III may not have been a success with working musicians, it did find a place on the records and in the studios of many prominent artists, including Tony Banks of Genesis, Lynda Thomas, 808 state (on their 1991 album Ex:el) (live performance) and Depeche Mode, who used it on their successful 1990 album, Violator.
The Emulator IV series of samplers was introduced in 1994. They are compatible with the Emax 2 and E-III program libraries, and later versions can read Akai and Roland CD-ROMs. (Some reports state that only the Ultra versions can consistently load Roland 16-bit samples.). Also, from EOS v4.62 the E4 was able to load Ensoniq ASR libraries (both samples and patches: although a little tweaking was required to obtain the original Ensoniq patch).
The first to be released was the Emulator IV rack which could come with 128 voices and up to 128 megabytes of RAM. Later users could add a multi-effects processor, additional output sockets and 32 MIDI channels.
These early EIVs had a vastly superior user interface than the Emulator III (which itself reappeared, in all but name and some unnecessary functions, as the ESI32 - ESI4000 range) despite being only three rack units high. The screen worked on a series of windows that were far more informative than the previous system which dated back to the Emax range.
The new operating system became known as the Emulator Operating System or EOS, which was updated regularly, the 48 track sequencer being one of the first updates.
Emu appreciated that not everyone could afford a £5000 ($7,000) sampler or even needed 128 voices or a potential 128 megabyte memory, so a cut down Emulator IV was launched based upon the EOS. This was the e64 and as the name suggests, this unit had 64 voices and could only expand to 64 megabytes. It was quite a bit cheaper than an E-IV but was, for some, a false economy as the e64 was not upgradeable once it left the factory (memory excepted, which was limited to 64 megabytes).
To get around this Emu released the e6400 which could be upgraded to full E-IV status.
Later the e-Synth was introduced: a 128 voice fully expandable EOS sampler which could be expanded to 128 megabytes and had the effects board as standard. It also came with the e-Synth flash ROM, which unfortunately reduced the available sample memory to 64 megabytes. The user could disable the ROM if you needed the full 128. The ROM contained hundreds of pre-made sounds which could be edited like a synthesizer (the same editing features were on the E-IV, e64 and e6400 as well). A number of e-Synth ROMs were made available.
Around this time the e64 was dropped and the internals of the E-IV and e6400 were changed to accept e-Synth ROMs.
Two keyboard versions became available; the E4K and the e-Synth Keyboard. These have unique circuit boards and are not as expandable as the rack units. They can be upgraded to 128 voices, but cannot exactly match the capabilities of the Ultra series.
Creative (formerly Creative Labs) acquired E-MU in 1993, and its influence led to the introduction of the Ultra series of EOS samplers based on the previous rack models. Ultras benefit from increased processing speed due to the 32-bit RISC chip, 20-bit A/D converters and a new 32-bit effects card option, as well as many other minor tweaks and a new V4.0 EOS.
An end-user may upgrade to Ultra status with the exception of an original 1994 E-IV, an e64 or any of the keyboard versions.
Three newer releases of the E4 series overlap with the e6400 and e6400 Ultra. The E4X was an expandable E4, as was the e6400. The E4X had a 500MB hard disk as standard, 64 voices and 4 megabytes as standard, like the e6400. There was also a turbo version launched called the E4XT which was effectively the original EIV (128 voices and 16-128 megabytes of RAM, minus one SCSI port), with a 1 GB hard disk drive.
The E5000 Ultra was £1500 unlike the e6400 and had fewer outputs and connectors – though these could be addressed unlike the previous entry level machine, the e64 (though not the number of voices which remained at 64).
The final version was the Platinum E4 which had all upgrades pre-installed (i.e. a run out model to liquidate remaining parts). It retailed at just over £4200 (with RFX card) against £899 for the E5000. EOS samplers were discontinued in 2002.