Review – Digital Sound Factory Ultimate E-mu Ensoniq Rack
The 1990s was the “rise of the rom-plers” era. Ensonic and E-mu were major players. DSF let’s us revisit tht time with Kontakt libraries that sound like the real thing because they are the real thing.
by David Baer, Mar. 2014
Today we’re going to look at a bundle from Digital Sound Factory (hereafter, DSF) of sounds from the first decade of rompler instruments. Ensoniq and E-mu are both represented here. This bundle is absolutely massive in terms of the number of sounds, with over 5000 programs included. The whole bundle has a list price that may scare you away, but be aware of two things: a) DSF has frequent sales offering substantial discounts from list prices, and b) the individual components of the Ultimate bundle can be purchased separately.
I know from personal experience that it would be difficult to find a company with a more customer-friendly attitude than DSF. The following quote from the DSF web site says it all:
We offer a complete Satisfaction Guarantee. If you are not satisfied with a product you may choose a different one of same or similar price, or, ultimately, have a refund. We also offer our customers a Lifetime Replacement Warranty. If for any reason the sounds purchased are deleted, misplaced, become corrupt, or the dog gets a hold of the computer hard drive, we will replace them absolutely free.
All the bundle components require the full version of Kontakt 3.5 or higher (although DSF also sells these sounds in several other formats like Soundfont). The bundle is comprised of three Ensoniq instruments and either two or seven E-mu instruments depending on how you characterize them – six are different models of the Proteus 2000 line. Importantly: all the sounds are first generation data. The content was not created by re-sampling the hardware devices.
Before we get into the instruments in the bundle, let’s look at a little history of where the sounds came from. The 1990s was the “rise of the rom-plers” era. Sample playback had been a possibility before that time, but it was impractical for live performance. Sample players had limited memory and content had to be loaded from diskettes, a process that took far too long for gigging musicians.
With the arrival of relatively inexpensive ROM (read only memory) storage, devices could be manufactured which held sample data in immediately accessible memory, either in on-board ROM or in expansion cards that could quickly be inserted. No more long load times – the market was poised to take off. But even though ROM storage was cheap enough to be viable for “prosumer” instruments, it was still expensive enough that sample data was constrained to 12-bit depth in all but the more expensive devices.
Two companies at the forefront of these developments were Ensoniq and E-mu. Ensoniq was notable for having been one of the first companies to bring an affordable sampler to the marketplace, the EPS in 1988. E-mu went on to be regarded by many as the premier practitioner of sampling craft in its day.
E-mu was acquired by the parent company of Creative Labs (known primarily for their PC sound cards) in 1993. Five years later Creative bought Ensoniq and combined it with E-mu. Musical instrument production continued for a few more years. But eventually Creative Labs turned its full attention to the lucrative PC accessory market and the musical instrument manufacturing ceased.
E-mu’s chief sound designer, Timothy Swartz, had been with E-mu twenty years. He acquired the rights to most of the E-mu/Ensoniq sample data and went on to start DSF. So not only is he responsible for packaging all the content in this bundle, he was the principal engineer of the team that created the majority of the original sounds in the first place.
As to the source instruments, let’s start with the three from Ensoniq, the debut dates of which were 1993, 1996 and 1998 respectively. The Ensoniq ASR-10 was a sampling keyboard that offered sample playback along with synthesis (and sample playback through the synthesis engine). This was still a pre-ROM instrument, loading samples from external media.
The Ensoniq MR came next. It did not directly accept sample data via diskette, but did allow for an expansion card (that could be custom loaded with sample data). Other advances like an on-board sequencer were present.
This was followed by the Ensoniq ZR, which sported an at-the-time stunning 1200 on-board sounds and more available via expansion cards. The Perfect Piano samples in the ZR were highly regarded, but this piano is absent from the Kontakt version because the rights to this were not acquired by DSF (a Kawai grand sample set is substituted as a replacement).
Let’s move on to E-mu. The bulk of the offerings in this bundle are a set of Proteus modules. But before the Proteus line came the E-max. This was initially 12-bit but evolved to be 16-bit, with a correspondingly high price. The Emax II cost from $3,500 on the low end to $8000 for a fully decked out model, and these numbers are not adjusted for inflation. As a result, it was limited to strictly professional use. However, it delivered high quality sound and enjoyed a long life span (that is, long as far as electronic instrument life spans go).
Throughout the 90s, E-mu developed a series of rack-mount ROM-based modules called the Proteus. This line culminated in the Proteus 2000 which debuted in 1999. Priced as around $1200 (in 1999 dollars), it brought E-mu quality to the masses. The Proteus 2000 allowed for expansion cards, of which E-mu provided a number having specific orientations: orchestral, ethnic, etc. But E-mu also saw fit to produce a number of variants with the expansion data pre-loaded as ROM (but using the same base Proteus 2000 technology). The five specialty models included Xtreme-Lead-1 (techno/electronica), Mo’ Phatt (urban hip-hop, if was even called that at the time), Virtuoso (orchestral), Planet Earth (ethnic) and Vintage Pro (electronic pianos, etc.). All six models are represented in the DSF Kontakt incarnation.
The Instruments – So Much to Cover – Where to Begin?
There is so much content here that we won’t be able to do more than scratch the surface. But let’s start with a generality common to all. Each instrument has a main page and an advanced page. The advanced page isn’t particularly intimidating. In all cases you have two envelopes, one for filter and one for amp, and a knob to dictate how much velocity will affect each envelope. Also present are filter cutoff and resonance, and, depending upon the instrument, one or two other controls. Anyone with rudimentary synth programming skills will make short work of program customization (in the event you even want to do that in the first place). Below we see the two panels from the Ensoniq ASR instrument.
The sample content here is 1.4G in size. Let’s just say that the sounds represent extensive diversity, with a bit of everything on hand, from synth sounds to acoustic sounds to animal sounds … you get the idea. A full listing of the sounds, for this and all the other instruments under discussion here, is to be found on the DSF web site. Find the page dedicated to just the Ensoniq ASR to see them. Many are self-explanatory, including the all-important “Cowbell” program. But as is so often the case, you’ll have to intuit names like “Afterthought” and “Ageless” as best you can.
Moving on to the next Ensoniq offering – below is the front panel of the Ensoniq MR. This one comes in at a little more economical size of 57M. We have the same general diversity of sounds (but this time three different cowbell programs!). Seriously though, expect to find quite a few programs that are pretty corny sounding. You won’t be buying a library like this for realistic, modern audio. The MR package, like all its Ensoniq siblings, recreates an era, and it does so with considerable panache.
Rounding out the Ensoniq line is the ZR, this being delivered as 91M of sample data. Again, we find much diversity with an emphasis on various forms of piano and related keyboards on offer. As stated earlier, the ZR’s Perfect Piano is the one element from the original that is not duplicated in the Kontakt version due to licensing issues.
Turning Attention to E-mu
Let’s look next at E-mu’s Emax, weighing in at 81M of sample data. The program list, while diverse, is a bit more businesslike in terms of usable musical programs as opposed to novelty sounds. There are an impressive number of instruments in the Emax. Naturally for this to happen in just 81M, expect the samples to make economic use of space. In other words, you’ll get a vintage sound and you should expect little else.
Finally, let’s look at the Proteus instruments, all pictured below in one big stack. With the Proteus we move into a transitional stage of sampled sound, at least to my ears. Whereas everything else so far sounds like it originated on devices from the 90s, with the Proteus, some of the content is indistinguishable from modern offerings created with state-of-the-art technology. Obviously that won’t be true of every program, since we are coming from ROM-based samples in the first place. But some of it is quite fine. You won’t want to use the Proteus grand piano in preference for the New York Grand that comes with Kontakt (unless you’re producing the “The Disco Concerto” or something equally period-vibe-oriented). But you could easily feature some of these sounds front and center in your mixes and few listeners, if any, would be aware of the dated origins of the sound. Some of them are that good.
The six instruments collectively weigh in at just under 500M. There are some interesting side stories about some of them. Frank Zappa percussionist Frank Mann has his signature all over the Planet Earth sounds. It was he who lobbied E-mu to create an exotic sound collection that he could use on gigs. With Virtuoso, it took some effort for E-mu to find a suitable and willing orchestral organization for the project. They ended up in Seattle for what turned out to be a major recording project. Timothy Swartz (at the time E-mu’s head sound designer) says the Vintage Pro is a favorite of his. He fell in love with the Susnset Sound studio in LA, and had to drive up to San Francisco every few weeks in a truck to pick up two or three synths to carry back to LA for sampling just so he could do it in that studio.
Each of the full program listings can be found on the DSF site, but you need to look on the pages dedicated to the standalone packages, not the combined bundle.
Are These Sounds for You?
Let’s face it, there are simply so many sounds in the Ultimate bundle that it’s a little intimidating just to try to get your arms around everything that’s at your disposal. The list price of the Ultimate bundle is $479, but as I write this, there’s a sale going on with the price considerably discounted to $199. For over 5000 programs, I’d say that could fairly be called a bargain.
Although you can probably get the most bang for your buck by purchasing the Ultimate bundle, I suspect many buyers will prefer a more conservative approach by either picking up individual instruments or opting for a smaller bundle. To me, the sweet spot is the bundle of the six Proteus modules, priced at $99 (as of today) and containing 3500 sounds. The Emax full bundle is priced (not on sale today) at $199, the same as the Ultimate bundle price (on sale today). But prices and sales may vary. The best plan would be to get on DSF’s mailing list, exercise a little patience, and keep your eye out for the right sale.
While this collection offers a vast variety of content, it’s not going to satisfy someone looking for a soup-to-nuts state-of-the-art samples solution. It’s not about that. If you want the full orchestral package of sounds slimmed down to fit into the Proteus Virtuoso, you might instead be interested in DSF’s 2G Studio Orchestra collection. For getting the full collection of original samples taken to create Vintage Pro, they also offer the Classic Keyboards package.
This collection is all about being able to recreate the sounds of cutting-edge bands of the 90s and early 2000s. Marketing maestro Don Draper from the TV series Mad Men might put it this way: when you purchase these libraries, you’re not buying sounds, you’re buying memories.