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The Emulator is the name given to a series of digital sampling keyboards using floppy disk storage, manufactured by E-mu Systems from 1981 until 2000s. 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 its size, which allowed for its use in live performance. It was also innovative in its integration of computer technology with electronic keyboards.
E-mu Systems was founded in 1971 and began business as a manufacturer of microchips, digital scanning keyboards, and components for electronic instruments. Licensing this technology gave E-mu ample funds to invest in research and development, and they 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, who, at the time, was using E-mu’s keyboard design in their popular Prophet-5 synthesizer. However, soon afterward, Sequential Circuits stopped paying E-mu royalties on their keyboard design, which forced E-mu to release the Emulator themselves.
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 51⁄4" floppy disk drive enabled the owner to build a library of samples and share them with others, or buy pre-recorded libraries on disk.
It was 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 it 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 "001"). Originally 001 was promised to Daryl Dragon of Captain & Tennille, because Daryl had been a loyal E-mu modular system owner for a long time before that. On the other hand, Stevie at the time had a slightly larger name-recognition value. 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 E-mu Emulator I were New Order and Genesis, and it was among the many groundbreaking instruments used in the production of Michael Jackson's Thriller album.
The Emulator II
Released commercially in 1984 to huge acclaim, the Emulator II (or EII) was E-mu's second sampler. Like the Emulator I, it was an 8-bit sampler, however it had superior fidelity to the Emulator I 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 and it had vastly better real time control. It was priced similarly to the Emulator I, 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 available as well. Despite its price tag it was still considered very good value compared to the Fairlight CMI Series II.
The Emulator II has a unique sound due to its DPCM mu-255 companding, the divider-based variable sample-rate principle and analog output stages featuring SSM2045 24 dB/oct analog 4-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 analog electronics argue that some of this analog "magic" is lost. It is due to this special analog sound that the EII is becoming increasingly sought after by vintage music gear enthusiasts.
Several highly respected OEM and 3rd party sample libraries were developed for the Emulator II including a multitude of superb orchestral sounds. Many of the EIIs 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 Emu library). This can cause confusion when trying to determine wich sampler hardware was actually used on a certain song. An excellent demo of the library sounds can be found on YouTube (link). Famous samples include the Shakuhachi flute used by Peter Gabriel in "Sledgehammer", and on Enigma MCMXC a.D. Also, the Marcato Strings heard on so many 80's records including Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls". Rumour has it, every single sound on that track, with the obvious exception of the singers' voices, was made with an Emulator II (ref: Pet Shop Boys interview on "Synth Britannia" BBC4, 16 Oct 2009.) This is not undisputed as in the BBC Interview only the word "Emulator" (this might refer to the EIIs predecessor, the original Emulator) is mentioned unrelated to the song and the Emulator II became available only after the Single "West End Girls" was first released. The EII might have been used on the later rerelease of the single.
The Emulator II was very popular with many other famous artists in the 80's such as early adopter Stevie Wonder, it was used extensively by Depeche Mode, Constance Demby, New Order, Talking Heads, ABC, 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, Modern Talking and many more. The list is far from complete as it became the staple sampler of just about every recording studio who could afford one in the 80's and thus was used on a multitude of albums at the time.
It was used for a number of film scores too such as the Terminator 2: Judgment Day score by Brad Fiedel, also used by Michael Kamen on a lot of his film scores such as Lethal Weapon and Highlander and John Carpenter used it for his films too in the 1980s. It even featured in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, we see Ferris using the Emulator II to play sounds of coughing, then vomiting, in order to feign illness on the phone.
In the 2000s the Emulator II has risen in popularity due to the 80's pop culture resurgence and new artists wishing to revive the 80's Emulator-based sound. Prices for rare functioning units have gone up, and websites selling the original floppies have emerged.
The Emulator III
The Emulator III was introduced after the discontinuation of the Emulator II in 1987, and was manufactured until 1990. 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 their Emulators at around the $10,000 range because the only alternatives were the $30,000 - $200,000 (depending on which package you went for) 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, New Order on 1989's album Technique and the members of Depeche Mode, who used it on their successful 1990 release, Violator.
The Emulator IV & EOS
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 you could add a multi-effects processor, additional output sockets and 32 MIDI channels.
These early EIV's 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 3 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 ($7000) 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 their 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.
- Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode/Recoil
- Bobby Orlando
- Brad Fiedel (Used an Emulator I on The Terminator and an EII on Terminator 2: Judgement Day)
- Brent Mydland (Used an Emulator II live with the Grateful Dead in 1985 and 1986)
- China Crisis (on Working with Fire and Steel)
- Constance Demby (composed and played Emulator II on Novus Magnificat, 1986)
- Covenant use Emulator II+, ESI32 and e6400 in their studio.
- Damon Edge
- Dave Stewart (keyboardist) made extensive use of the Emulator on the 1983 single 'Busy Doing Nothing'
- David Bowie
- Vincent Gallo
- Paul Davis Used an Emulator II in his home studio
- Deep Purple (Live 1985)
- Depeche Mode - used Emulators I, II, and III in studio recordings and in live performances
- Dire Straits - played an Emulator II (live)
- Exotic Birds
- Ferris Bueller uses an Emulator to play samples of coughing in Ferris Bueller's Day Off
- Front 242
- Genesis used Emulators I, II, and III in studio recordings and in live performances; used Emulator IV in live performances in 1997-98 
- Giorgio Moroder - Used an Emulator I for the sitar sound in Paul Engemann's "Push It to the Limit" and Limahl's "The Neverending Story"
- Herbie Hancock
- The Human League
- Jean Michel Jarre - Used an Emulator in "Zoolook" and "Revolutions", and an Emulator II in "Rendez-vous"
- Kraftwerk - Used an Emulator II on the album Electric Café and a pre-production model on the single "Tour De France"
- John Foxx - used an Emulator on his 1981 album The Garden
- Marillion - used Emulator II for recorded organ sounds in Script For A Jester's Tear live performance
- Michael Cretu - used an Emulator II in "Samurai" (1985)
- Mr. Mister - an Emulator II is featured prominently on "Broken Wings"*
- Modern Talking - Orchestra Hit on "Cheri Cheri Lady"
- New Order - seen changing an Emulator floppy disk during a live performance of "Blue Monday"(choir sample) on Top of the Pops. The band often used it live and the disk drives would stop working, prompting their keyboard player Gillian Gilbert to hit the sampler stand's leg with a lump hammer which fixed the problem!
- Nitzer Ebb - used an Emulator III
- John Fell - used an Emulator II and III primarily for drum sounds.
- Norman Iceberg
- Talking Heads - Used an Emulator heavily in "Stop Making Sense"
- Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - The "Mexican Radio" sample included with the Emulator I forms the basis for "Junk Culture", and Emulator II live.
- Paul Hardcastle - used an Emulator II to create n-n-nine-nine-nine..."19"
- Paul McCartney
- Paul Young - used an Emulator extensively on his 1982 album No Parlez
- Peter Gabriel - used an Emulator for the shakuhachi sound in Sledgehammer
- Pet Shop Boys - used an Emulator II
- Thompson Twins
- Todd Rundgren - used an Emulator and overdubbing to create most of his 1985 album, A Cappella
- Klaus Schulze
- Ryuichi Sakamoto - used an Emulator while in YMO and later an Emulator II
- Paul Rein - used an Emulator II on his album "Communicate" in 1986
- Tangerine Dream
- Tax-5 - Used an Emulator on "Voyager" and "Love at first Sight"
- Tears For Fears - Used extensively on their classic 1985 release Songs From The Big Chair
- The Residents - purchased the Emulator I with serial number 005
- Simple Minds - used an Emulator II
- Ultravox - played an Emulator II at Live Aid
- Vangelis - used an Emulator on the soundtrack to Blade Runner. The Emulator samples that feature in a bar-room scene in Blade Runner are identical to OMD's instrumental song Junk Culture.
- Roger Waters
- Brian Wilson
- Stevie Wonder - purchased the first production Emulator I
- XTC - Borrowed studio-mates Tears For Fears's Emulator II during the production of their 1984 album Big Express (acknowledged "Curt" and "Roland" in the liner notes).
- Yanni - used Emulators most notably in Yanni Live at Acropolis
- Los Prisioneros - used Emulator II in El Baile de los que sobran
- Carl Goodhines -805- Used live, as well as on several studio recordings, including, "The Hard Way" by Canadian Indie Artist Robbie Cooper.
- Tony Moore -Cutting Crew- Used Several Emulator stock patches including the Shakuhachi opening phrase on "I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight", as well as the Orch Tune patch at the beginning of "I've Been in Love Before".