SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
An edited version of this text also appears in
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.12 No.9. July 1997
Review by Chris Carter
EMU CARNIVAL LATIN MIDI SOUND MODULE
RED HOT & DANCE
I was quite excited about getting my hands on the Carnival, partly because I had a very enjoyable but brief encounter with an Emu Orbit last year and funnily enough the Carnival arrived with the new Orbit V2 in tow, so I could make some interesting comparisons between the two. But I'm afraid, dear reader, you will have to wait for one of my esteemed colleagues to review the V2 in full next month. Meanwhile back in Rio...
The Carnival follows a slightly predictable Emu path, repainting and re-launching sound modules with new samples and 'Beat' patterns for specific musical styles, in this case Latin music. What next, the 'Hoe Down' country and western module?
In common with the new Orbit V2 and the Planet Phatt the Carnival is a 32-voice polyphonic, 16-part multi-timbral MIDI synth cum sample player. There are 640 performance pre-sets (384 ROM and 256 RAM), 100 'Beat' loops, 28 user-programmable 'Beat' songs and 400 or so raw samples. In addition to this arsenal of sounds there are all the usual Emu suspects, 32 resonant filters, Z-Plane filtering, X-Factor Beat control, MIDI syncable LFOs, six assignable audio outputs but unfortunately still no effects to speak of. Navigating your way around the Carnival is straightforward enough but a little long winded, there are two cursor buttons that move the blinking cursor across the screen and a stepped data knob to alter parameter values. As with other Emu's the Carnival can be in one of four modes. The default mode is Play but pushing the Master button brings up the global control menu, the Edit button enters the deeper sound Edit mode and pressing both Master and Edit switches the machine to Beats mode. Personally I would like to have seen a couple of +/- incremental buttons for editing and a dedicated Bank button for easier navigating through patches, it is too easy to zoom past the patch you want using the data wheel, which then means dialling your way back to relocate it, using a MIDI keyboard to select patches is another solution.
TURN UP THE HEAT
Emu have given the Carnival a pretty wide remit, considering the different types of Latin styles there are and they've done a pretty good job of it, and then some, by expanding the range well beyond traditional Latin percussion. Some of the styles covered by the Carnival include Latin, Salsa, Songo, Merengue, Cumbia, Banda, Brazilian, Tejano, Afro and Jazz. Quite a list and I haven't listed the more obscure hybrid styles either and there you were thinking that you could just about keep up with techno, house, drum n' bass, rave and electronica. But that's not all, in 'Beats' mode there are patterns and styles for, Techno, Euro, Funk, Bhangra, Brazilian Pop, Latin-Techno, Latin Dance, Latin-Jazz, Mexican Pop and Afro-Cuban, whew! As you can see there is a pretty impressive selection of styles to choose from, so what do they sound like?
GRRR, YEEOW CHACCHUCHA
A lot of the sounds and pre-sets are grouped into similar categories but there isn't room to list all 640 here, however I will cover a few of them to give you an idea of how the Carnival differs from the Orbit V2 and the Planet Phatt.
For a start there are 40 or so very non-Latin synth pre-sets including cheesy Depeche Mode types, warped sweeps, grungy types, raw square wave, sawtooth and sine wave, smooth tones and beefy Mini Moog types. There are 20 to 30 bass samples, ranging from some very convincing acoustic and upright types, lots of good synth basses, digital DX types and even a few gut wrenching sub bass tones. There are countless pads, washes and strings, flutes and various pianos. Guitars are everywhere, acoustic, electric, 12 string, nylon, steel and so on. As to be expected there are an overwhelming number of brass sounds, including samples of individual instruments and some powerful stabs and takes from big bands and brass ensembles. The 20 or so 'synced LFO' pre-sets offer some impressive effects, ranging from quirky rhythmically filtered synths to slowly evolving ambient pads. The SFX section is also splendid and includes random bleeps, eerie portamento'd sweeps, weird reversed sample snippets, strange ethereal loops and ambient washes with embedded sequences. The VOX category is the funniest, whether intentionally or not, with lots of multiple shouts, chants and phrases along the lines of 'ChaChuCha', 'Eh!', 'Rrrrr', 'Salsa' , all with heavy Spanish accents. There is a slightly creepy, looping manic laugh that sounds like something from a horror film when played lower down the keyboard or like a mad scientist at the other end of the scale, great stuff!
CRASH, BANG, WALLOP
So far so good but what about the percussion side of things, well the vast majority of raw samples in the Carnival concentrate on percussion with only about a third covering musical sounds, which is to be expected on a Latin module. However about 75% of the performance pre-sets have been programmed for melodic instruments with the majority of the remaining pre-sets programmed as 'Beat' kits. Also there are about 30 drum kits specifically
programmed for the Emu Kat range of MIDI percussion controllers and even a couple of GM drum kits. The easiest way to start playing around with percussion sounds is to dial up one of the three Master Kits, Salsa, Brazil or the All Traps kit, together, these three kits contain every percussion sound available on the Carnival. Emu say they have tried to include multi-samples of all the important percussion instruments so they can be played as authentically as possible. They realise Latin drumming is a very personal art form and you may have completely different ideas on how you might set up a kit and there are various kits available to try out different permutations with. They have also included a few instruments, such as the Tambora, which are often heard in Latin music but rarely included in drum machines or modules. I found the best way to experiment with the percussion kits was by hooking up my Roland Octapad, not quite a Kat but still more expressive than a keyboard.
I couldn't even begin to review the percussion sounds in depth, there are just too many and my best advice is to pop along to an Emu dealer and dial up the Master Kits: I062/P000/0 (Salsa), I063/P001/1 (Brazil) and I061/P003/0 (All Traps) and have some fun trying out the sounds. Overall, the samples and kits sound pretty good, nice and punchy and bright with quite a few variations and types. Emu haven't skimped on memory either as some of the sounds are quite long and don't suddenly cut off, although a few do begin looping a little too soon.
HAWII FIVE O
I'm not an expert in Latin percussion by any means but, as they say, 'I know what I like' by gum and I have soft spots for Sergio Mendez, Astrud Gilberto, Herb Alpert and even some Trini Lopez stuff, probably because my parents used to play that stuff all the time when I was a kid. In the early seventies I discovered the god of kitsch music, Martin Denny and have been enjoying that quirky Hawaiian hybrid of Latin music called Exotica for more than twenty years. While I may be drifting from the point slightly it's to point out a few gaps I noticed in the Carnivals armoury of Latin sounds. For, although it was quite easy to put together a pretty convincing Latin track, I did miss some of the more exotic 'Dennyesque' sounds, wot! no vibes?, no crazy wild bird noises or cricket chatter and what about the vinyl scratches, as included on the Orbit and Planet Phatt for that authentic 50's, 60's and 70's feel. I suppose my ideal set-up would be an Orbit V2, a Planet Phatt, the Carnival, an Emu Launch Pad for real-time control and a Kat percussion pad, what a combination that would make!
WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' BADGES
Emu have done the Carnival a disservice calling it a Latin sound module because it encompasses a much wider range of sounds and styles than this tag implies. However if your inclination is toward Latin styles then the Carnival is an obvious choice because this is what it does best and there is very little else available quite like it. On sound and MIDI facilities alone I have no problem with it, great filters, plenty of polyphony, Emu have as usual, produced a quality piece of gear but here's the crux, I have some serious misgivings with not just the Carnival but also with the Orbit V2 and the Planet Phatt. For a start why no effects?, a few integrated effects would add such a lot to the overall sound and make these machines awesome, even dinky little GM modules have delays and reverbs. Another gripe I have is the basic two line, 32 character display. This is a real inconvenience and like the saying goes 'It's like trying to decorate a room through a letter box'. Alesis, Roland and Yamaha all use much better and informative displays on their current 1U rack mount modules. Another problem I have is the overall concept of these units, which harks back to the original Proteus, repackage, new badge and new samples in essentially the same machine. This isn't too bad really but when they keep producing such great sounding modules how on earth is a struggling musician supposed to keep up. I think a much better and more cost effective approach is the one Quasimidi and Roland have adopted, using optional plug-in voice boards. But my biggest problem with the Carnival is the price of £900 (less a quid), way too much considering the the facilities on offer, if it were about £150/£175 cheaper I would consider buying one myself. Because of these points I feel I can't whole heartedly recommend the Carnival but try and get a demo of the machine and if you like it and think it justifies the price then I'm sure you will have a lot of fun with it.
ADDITIONAL TEXT / INFO BOXES
EMU CARNIVAL LATIN MIDI SOUND MODULE
Emu Carnival Latin MIDI Sound Module.
16 part multi-timbral.
32 voice polyphony.
32, 6 pole VCFs.
640 pre-sets (384 ROM, 256 RAM).
100 pre-set 'Beat' Patterns.
28 user programmable 'Beat' songs.
3 stereo outputs (6 polyphonic sub mixes)
Price £899 inc. VAT.
A great sounding module for a specialised market but capable of successfully crossing over into many other styles of music. If you can justify the high price then get one to add a bit of spice to your rack .
Hundreds of great sounding pre-sets and samples.
Expressive, versatile filters.
'Beats' mode a nice bonus, particularly with the ability to send patterns to an external MIDI sequencer.
Six configurable audio outputs.
Very specialised, Latin tag may put some off.
No expansion, what you see is what you get.
Basic, sometimes cryptic display results in sometimes tedious and convoluted editing.
Not enough 'exotic' Latin sounds and SFX.
FEEL THE KARAOKE BEAT
I have always had mixed reservations about the Emu 'Beats' mode. I appreciate that it can yield some instantly usable rhythms and I think the X-Factor control for stepping through different 'Beat' kits is a great idea but I find things start to sound a little 'samey' after prolonged use. This is probably due to the patterns not being editable, I'm always hankering to tweak them a little, which of course you can do by recording them into a MIDI sequencer but not internally. I worry that all the other Emu Orbit/Planet Phatt/Carnival users out there might decide to use one of the 'Beats' on a release that I've used and we will all end up sounding the same. Anyway the 'Beats' in the Carnival are subjectively at least as good as the Orbit and the Planet Phatt and are a lot of fun to muck about with for inspiration. Of course the patterns are almost entirely Latin based but some good ones to try if you get the chance, are: B:02, B:32 & B:34 Jolly Rio carnival sounds, you could be standing right there. B:06 A techno groove plus a gut wrenching sub bass. B:07 & B:31 Gloria Estafan without the vocals. B:40 Slow and sexy Latin lurve vibe. B:43 Imagine if Yello were a club band in Blackpool. B:43 At Blackpool without Yello. B:50 & B:54 Good impressions of alpine folk music. B:51 Simply Red without Steve Hucknall. B:71 The Barry Manilow band without Bazza. B:72 Euro disco on heat. B:86 A Bhangra/Techno groove. B:73 An uncannily accurate version of Hey Macarena, without the Los Del Rio vocals, try and stop yourself singing along, impossible.
With the ability to chain some of these very convincing and often instantly recognisable 'Beats' together into songs (28 user definable), the Carnival becomes the first 1U rack mount MIDI module I have come across, from Emu or otherwise, that could pass itself of as a self contained Karaoke machine. Is this a good or bad thing? It's not for me to say but it could be a very useful facility for some cabaret bands or solo singers.
The Emu Orbit and Planet Phatt are functionally identical to the Carnival. For a comprehensive appraisal of their deeper workings check out these issues of SOS.
Emu Planet Phatt-June '97 issue.
Emu Orbit-June '96 issue.
Emu Kat drum controller-July '95 issue.
Emu Launch Pad-Oct '96 issue.
For a taste of Martin Denny check out the wonderful recent double CD 'The Exotic Sounds Of Martin Denny', on import, Capitol/Ultra Lounge, cat no. CDP724383837427.
Copyright © 1997 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.