above image courtesy of Benjamin Ward
"At the 1980 AES show, [Dave] Rossum and his E-mu compatriots spotted a few novel musical products on display. 'The Fairlight CMI had just come out,' Rossum explains, 'and that was the first time we had a chance to see one of those'.... 'Another product was from a French company called Publison, who had a digital delay line with a voltage controlled clock rate. You could take an audio sample - capture sound in memory - and trigger it monophonically from a keyboard. A gate from the keyboard would turn the voice on and play once through the sample.'
"'Also of note was the LM-1, Roger Linn's drum machine. We knew that all of these products were fairly hot and within an area of interest to many musicians, and - being the sort of people who didn't mind borrowing other people's ideas - we said 'It sounds like this digital sampling idea is ripe. Someone should come in and do it right.'
"Rossum and his co-founding partner, Scott Wedge, actually considered handing the idea over to Sequential [Circuits, who was currently paying E-mu large royalty checks for their polyphonic keyboard patent that Sequential Circuits had been using for their immensely popular Prophet-5]'" Scott Wedge recalls "'...We realized that this could be a really significant product. But the day we got back to the office from AES, we found a letter in the mail from Dave [Smith of Sequential] saying that he had decided to stop paying royalties on the Prophet-5 design. Of course, what ensued was a lawsuit and a whole epic unto itself. But it became clear at that point that we were going to have to do this one ourselves. We couldn't sell the idea, at least not to Sequential.'"
"Although Sequential and E-mu later amicably resolved their differences out of court, the financial reality of the situation prodded E-mu's founders into reevaluating their focus. [They had been working on a very large and expensive analog synth called the Audity] Rossum quickly realized he could design an instrument that offered one of the Fairlight's most useful attributes, digital sampling. 'The trick with the Fairlight,' he explains, 'was that there was a completely different memory subsystem for each sound played. Memory was a large basis for the high cost of instruments like the Fairlight. I realized that the Z-80 microcomputers we could buy were fast enough to handle note-on events and functions such that - as proved by the Prophet-5 - and that if we could get our instruments to play many notes out of one memory, we could tremendously reduce the cost of the system and make it affordable. That was the birth of the Emulator concept, back in May 1980.
"'I immediately started experimenting and found that one of the DMA (Direct Memory Access) chips that was available from the microcomputer people had the basic facilities we needed. If you threw five of them together, you could make a memory subsystem that would be able to play eight notes at once, and would be reasonably economical. Looking back, I wish to heck I'd patented that, because nobody had done it before, and that's the fundamental basis of all samplers these days, memory sharing.'"
About the Name:
"By November 1980, Rossum had the basics of the instrument mounted on plywood, with circuits held down with screws and nails. When the systems finally worked, the E-mu team realized they were riding the leading edge of a new revolution in music. But as with the creation of any new technology, there were bugs to work out. 'At that point' Rossum recalls, 'there was an ADC [analog-to-digital converter] problem that resulted in a lot of noise in samples. All it was was quantization noise. Even with that problem, we realized there was a light at the end of the tunnel.'
"Rossum raced to get a working Emulator prototype ready for the upcoming NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convention. At that point, however, the instrument had a different name. 'Whenever we do a project,' Wedge explains, 'We have an in-house product name for it. Then, as we get closer to the time that it goes to market, we go through a formal process of actually naming the product. The in-house product name for the Emulator I was the 'Sampler.' For us, that was kind of a pun between Nyquest's sampling theorum -- which is an obscure piece of mathematics that underlies the whole genre -- and the Whitman Sampler, a box with a whold bunch of different flavors of chocolates in it, because this was an instrument that could have a whole bunch of different sounds.'
"Still, the E-mu gang wasn't set on the name. 'Scott came in one day,' Rossum recalls, 'and said, 'We've been assuming we're going to call this thing the Sampler, but we really ought to consider what other names there are. So everybody go home, sleep on the thing, comeback tomorrow, and we'll decide what we're going to call it.' Ed Rudnick came in the next day with a big grin on this face and said, 'I've found the name.' He announced that it was the 'Emulator.' It was so obvious. He'd found it by going through a thesaurus. Considering the match with the company, it was just amazing.'
"'For a while,' Wedge adds, 'a lot of people thought the name of our company was 'Emulator' and that we got the name 'E-mu' from that, but it isn't true. It was just a wonderful coincidence and a perfect name, really, of the technology that we were using.'"
The Stevie Story:
"Almost nine months after the aforementioned AES show [the one where they saw the Fairlight and the Linn machines] E-mu brought a plastic-cased Emulator prototype to the February 1981 NAMM convention in Anaheim, California. 'We had a tiny little booth,' Rossum recalls. 'Nobody have ever heard of E-mu at NAMM. It made our day when Stevie Wonder came up with his entourage. He walked up to the instrument, sort of hugged it to get a feel of it, and then started playing it. Across the way was one of the more established companies. They told us, 'What you just got was better publicity than you could ever buy for any amount of money.'
"'Stevie sampled his voice into the Emulator and played it back on the keyboard,' Wedge continues. 'That drove us all crazy because we knew that voice didn't work very well on it. Voices ended up sounding funny. 'Munchkinized' was what we called it. We thought there were much more interesting things to sample. To top it off, when Stevie sang into the microphone for the sample, it really overloaded the inputs and distorted the signal. It was a bad sample and a bad example, but when he played it, I guess it was just enough of a mindblower to turn him on to it.'
"Wonder was so impressed with the Emulator that he ordered and received serial number 001. 'Actually,' Wedge confesses, 'we had promised number 001 to Daryl Dragon of the Captain & Tenille. I'm not sure if Daryl ever really understood why he didn't get number 001. We were tempted to make two -- one for Stevie Wonder and one for Daryl Dragon -- 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, so I guess it got a little political. Apologies to Daryl on that one.'"
A Modification and Sales:
"In spite of Stevie Wonder's unsolicited publicity appearance, Emulator sales were slow in the beginning. 'We sold about 20 of our first units, but sales just hit the wall at the end of 1981,' Rossum explains. 'Part of the reason for that was a problem with the way we originally designed the Emulator: When you played a key, the sound would play out of the sample memory, but it continued to play even after you'd released the key. Short sounds worked okay, because they would loop as long as you held the key and decay when you let go. But for many sounds, it was very annoying because even if you let up during the attack stage of the sound, it would continue to attack and then start to decay. We hadn't designed the instrument with any kind of VCA (Voltage-Controlled Amplifier) in it to handle that problem. Scott Wedge kept after me until I came up with a 50-wire kludge that we could retrofit every unit with. It was fortunate that we had left a couple of open spaces on the edge of the circuit board so we could add this ugly kludge.'
"After Rossum's worldwide tour to retrofit Emulators in the field with both the 'ugly kludge' and the just-completed sequencer, E-mu brought the revised Emulator to the January 1982 NAMM in Chicago. Besides offering the instrument at a reduced price (just under $8,000), E-mu began promoting its sample library of 25 or 30 disks. These strategies paid off. 'In hindsight,' Rossum admits, 'pushing the sound library, more than anything else -- except possibly for getting notes to shut up when you released the keyboard -- made the emulator successful. The original people we sold to were visionary musicians, people who knew what they would do with the instrument as soon as they heard its description. But now, we had enough samples that you could play a couple dozen different instruments, so people with less imagination, who really needed to hear it before they could comprehend what this thing was going to do for them, could relate to the instrument. I think we came back from that trade show with orders for immediate delivery of 25 units, and production stayed around that level per month, from then until the end of the life of the instrument in the spring of 1984.'"
[excerpted with permission from the book Vintage Synthesizers by Mark Vail, copyright Miller Freeman, Inc]