Once I upgraded to a professional synthesizer from my Casios, I was desperate to find a machine to help me realize complete songs. Sure, the old Juno sounded great, but I could only play one sound on it at a time. I also wasn’t able to control it using a computer, since it had the old-style Roland DCB buss instead of MIDI. Again, I was in high school at the time, and let’s just say my job slinging pizza to the suburban Houston masses did not yield the kind of budget I would need to build a real studio. Plus, I was driving by then and had to pay for non-musical things like car insurance and gasoline.
Through my voracious reading of trade literature for electronic musical instruments, I began to formulate my plan. I knew that sampling technology was getting cheaper and cheaper, and like microprocessors, state-of-the-art samplers would blow away yesterday’s machines in terms of cost effectiveness and power. I think the Ensoniq EPS was around at the time – a real sampler with a sequencer and a disk drive. They sounded good, too. The only problem was there was basically no way to find a cheap, used one. Plus, my sampling appetite had already been aroused by my $100 Casio SK-1.
Ensoniq pretty much built its business in those days around doing what the other manufacturers did — only they were much, much cheaper. For example, Ensoniq’s first sampler, the Mirage, did everything costlier samplers did at the time at a fraction of the cost: $1700. Ensoniq’s first synthesizer, the ESQ-1 had the same appeal. It had 8 voices of digital controlled oscillators with analog filters, a velocity-sensitive keyboard, and a simple sequencer for less than $1000.
Whereas synthesizers seemed not to depreciate steeply, samplers were another story altogether. They are basically computers inside, limited by the same parameters that limit a computer: memory, bit depth, secondary storage, processing speed, and throughput (polyphony). This meant that the advances in computing power in the 1980s and 1990s pushed the depreciation curves of hardware samplers even steeper(1). And, as you might guess, this was good for me. A used sampler with a sequencer would be cheap and exactly what I needed.
I wound up on the mailing list of Rogue Music, a musical instrument trading nexus in New York. Rogue mailed its newsletter of used gear inventory every month or so, and I loved analyzing what instruments were in demand and where I could find values that fit my budget. I found my first drum machine, a cheap Roland TR-707, this way a few months prior to becoming serious about a sampler. One day the newsletter came, I found what I was looking for: an E-mu Systems Emulator II for about $800.
Eight hundred dollars was a huge amount of money for me at the time. I didn’t even have all of it then. But I had an intense desire for the machine. After all, that one machine would solve all my recording problems for the foreseeable future! I knew about the Emulator from the music magazines, but I read a lot more about it after recognizing it in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
The Emulator cost about $8000 when it was released. It has a basic sequencer and a fancy sampling scheme that squeezes more depth and clarity out of 8 bits than a typical 8-bit sampler (they claim it sounded more like 14-bit resolution). It also had a floppy disk drive (or two, depending on the model) to store sounds. The voice architecture was a lot like an analog synthesizer, except instead of using oscillators to generate basic tones, the Emulator played back sampled sounds. In fact, it used analog filters with resonance, which meant it could sound warm and fat. It also had 8 individual outputs for its voices which could be programmed flexibly.
My grandfather again came to my rescue by chipping in $200 to help me buy the Emulator, and I still remember the day it arrived. My brother and I plugged it in to the stereo in our living room and began loading disks of samples. Piano? Check. Orchestra hits? Check. Weird animal noises? You bet. I grew to know that sampler inside out and backwards, and I squeezed all I could out of it. I built a library of hundreds of disks, sampling from movies and television to my own other keyboards … anything I could think of, really.
I don’t have the Emulator anymore, but it definitely still has a spot in my musical upbringing. The limits of the machine and my budget made me think really hard about how to maximize those 8 voices and the limited sampling memory in my songs. Now, my studio has a few hardware samplers (yes, I still use them!), and they completely blow the Emulator out of the water in terms of power and flexibility. But none of them quite sound like that fat, chunky Emu.
(1) This trend continued in such a dramatic way that the demand for hardware samplers essentially evaporated. The manufacturers raced to 16-bit machines, and then to cheap machines with 96kHz sampling rates, only to find that software sampling and virtual instruments were coming of age. There is still demand for sampling drum machines, like Akai’s MPC series, but one might argue that these are more about workflow than they are about sampling per se.
Posted: May 14th, 2010 | No Comments »