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A sampler introduced by E-mu Systems in 1981, the Emulator was the first sampler that was affordable to a broad base of musicians. The Emulator's story started with something completely different: an attempt to build a high-end, computer-controlled, polyphonic analog synthesizer called the Audity. After taking the prototype to a trade show in 1979 and failing to land any orders, E-mu found itself in financial difficulity owing in part to the R&D expended on the Audity. This was compounded when, within weeks of the failed trade show, the company became embroiled in a patent dispute with Sequential Circuits.

One of E-mu's founders, Dave Rossum had observed the Fairlight CMI at the trade show. At that time, the very expensive Fairlight was making its name as the first practical digital sampler. Rossum and Scott Wedge realized that the Fairlight's CPU architecture, although versatile, was very inefficient for sampling; in order to play polyphonically, each voice card in the synth had to be loaded separately, a laborious process. Rossum and Wedge developed an architecture that allowed all voices to access the same bank of sample memory without timing problems. This was far less expensive to manufacture than the Fairlight design, and it became the basis of the original Emulator. At about one-fourth the cost of the Fairlight, the Emulator was an instant market hit.

The original Emulators were quite crude by today's standards; they lacked any facility for anything other than basic sampling, playback, and pitch shifting. They did not even have an equivalent to a VCA capability; when a key was pressed, the sample it triggered played to the end, regardless of when the key was released. The JL Cooper company introduced a modification package for the Emulator which became known as the "gen mod"; it added VCF and VCA capability. This in turn led E-mu to the Emulator II, an improved version with the "gen mod" capabilities built in as well as vastly improved capability for looping samples and setting loop points. A later Emulator III added more processing, more memory and a sequencer capability. All Emulators used 5-1/4" floppy disks for external sample and patch storage.

A line of business that developed for E-mu seredipitiously as a result of the Emulator was the sale of sample libraries. E-mu quickly discovered that many musicians either didn't want to bother with making their own samples, or didn't have access to the sound sources (e.g., orchestras) that they wanted to sample. E-mu began making its own samples and selling them in packages to Emulator owners. This in turn launched the whole sample-library market. Also, E-mu realized that they could package up the playback circuitry, minus the sampling capability and with samples in ROM. This became the Proteus series, the first sample playback synths, and the successors to the Proteus continued up to the point where E-mu exited the hardware synth market in 2004.

Emulators are moderately sought out on the collectors' market today. Much of this is for nostalgia, although some performers prefer the 8-bit word width of the Emulator for lo-fi sounds, and some performers still perfer the work flow of working with the Emulator over more modern samplers.

An Emulator II played a brief but prominent role in the 1980s hit movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off:

Ferris Buellers Day Off with the Emulator II00:50

Ferris Buellers Day Off with the Emulator II

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