Back in the day the EM-1 was the best bang for the buck by packing a drum machine, two synthesizers and an XOX style step sequencer into this still sought after box. Even today, with plenty of old school charm, it still has plenty to offer!
The synthesis engine is pretty basic. Each synth part is made up of one oscillator, a basic envelope control and a filter. The EM-1 uses multisampled wave forms as the basis of it’s oscillators; there’s a handful of basic synthesizer waves and well over a hundred more covering everything from bass guitars to house style pianos. The envelope controls are provided in the form of just the attack control (as opposed to the full ADSR) called EG Time, which also comes with your choice of either a square or slope shaped attack, which is indicated by an adjacent button. Glide (portamento), level (volume) and pan are present and round out the rest of the controls. You get the standard cutoff and resonance (highly resonant I should say) controls for the filter which can be further affected by a separate drive control as well as being able to control the attack stage of the filter envelope, called EG Int on the panel. Each part of the EM-1 (2 monophonic synths and 8 drum parts) can have their own filter and envelope settings. However in contrast, the effects are relegated as a master and only one effect is usable at a time.
These days the EM-1 fails to compete in the beat box realm as it can mainly be considered a slightly more advanced DR-202 style machine; or even if that if you take into account the failings of the on board sequencer. With the EM-1’s step sequencer, you’re limited to 4 bar patterns. Of course you can copy, paste and modify them and then swap them in and out on the fly. But if you do and you want to make use of the mutes and solos on the EM-1, they don’t transfer. So that means that every time you start and stop the sequencer or switch patterns, all the parts activate. In my opinion, this is the critical flaw that keeps the EM-1 from being a true groove box with real time performance features and instead makes it a run of the mill drum machine. Of course you have to take that with a grain of salt as back in the day it was an affordable and viable alternative to the larger and more expensive Roland MC style groove boxes. On the other hand, creating complete compositions is pretty easy in song mode. Simply create the basic patterns you want for each part in pattern mode and then in song mode, simply copy and paste them into the order you want. It’s a really fast way to create large songs that you can then call up and use for backing tracks or in combination with your other groove boxes or synths.
So what’s it good for? Mainly it caters to house, drum and bass, R&B and even the old fashioned drum machine with bass line accompaniment. The reason for this is that most, if not all, of the synthesizer waveforms benefit from long attack settings. Allot of the samples are comprised of sampled bass guitars, pianos and quite a few basic synthesizer waveforms; some of which have various pulse width settings, which is a nice addition. To get the most out of the sampled instrument sounds, a longer attack setting works best; having it set anywhere below 12:00 tends to cut the sound off the sound. The EM-1 also tends to be frustrating in that both synth parts (as well as the drums) share the same insert effect: meaning that if you decided to really tweak the distortion or delay, you affect everything. However, each synth gets it’s own filter section, so it’s quite easy and fun to create bass and leads while tweaking each one separately.
So lets go over some of the ways you can incorporate an EM-1 into a modern rig:
The sequencer – The fastest way to get X0X style sequencing on the cheap and it even transmits over MIDI. To do this you’ll need to mute one of your synth parts on the EM-1 and make sure the EM-1 and your target are on the same MIDI channel. This way you can sequence any MIDI capable keyboard (or even VSTi over a MIDI interface!) for some old school SH101 or TB303 style patterns on your VA or ROMpler. If you also happen to have any older analog gear hanging about, you can also sequence it with the addition of a MIDI to CV converter.
The drum parts – Quite possibly the most under utilized and most awesome feature of the EM-1: each of the 8 drum parts can be programmed and sent via MIDI. That may not sound that astounding considering I just said that the sequencer transmits via MIDI, but pay attention: each drum part can be programmed for a specific note. What that means is that if you have a ROMpler connected to the EM1, like say a Motif or Triton, you can sequence the drum kits on it by specifically targeting the particular sample you want for that drum part. That’s a phenomenally easy way to get more mileage out of your keyboard and extend the use of your EM1. Most drum kits on keyboards are going to be superior to the ones on the EM1 in terms of variety and effects processing, unless of course you’re using a Casio or something.
Use it with a sampler – Take advantage of the amazing wonders of the advances in digital technology. Don’t let those awesome sequences go to waste! Record them into the Korg Microsampler, an MPC, software DAWs like Cubase, Ableton Live and Sonar. Almost all studio software is able to work with recorded audio these days so you should use it to your advantage. Just starting out? Use your PCs mic input and Audacity, the free audio editing program. Record it in and from there you can load it into Sony Acid, FL Studio, Reason and the list goes on and on!!
Use it as a MIDI controller – It works. Everything will send CC data, the big knob controls patch changes and the transport controls send transport messages so you can stop and start other sequencers including your DAW. The one thing the EM-1 cannot do is send step sequencer data, meaning that you can’t use the step buttons to turn on and off other step buttons in say Fl Studio or Reason. The only thing they do is send note on and off data when in keyboard mode or when the sequencer is running. I’ve heard of various workarounds using using third party programs, but I think it’s too much effort considering you can just press record in your DAW when you get a sequence you like.
Give some of these tricks a try and you’ll quickly find yourself using the EM-1 for years to come!
Number of Parts: 12 total; 8 drum parts, 2 synthesizer parts, 1 synthesizer accent part, 1 drum accent part
Number of Waveforms: 144 drum waveforms, 50 synthesizer waveforms
Memory: 256 patterns, 16 songs
Motion Sequences: Synthesizer part: 3 parameters, Drum Part: 2 parameters, Accent part: 1 parameter, 64 events
Master Effects: Tempo Delay, Normal/Motion Sequence
Insert Effects: 11 types (Reverb, Flanger/Chorus, Phaser, Ring modulator, Pitch shifter, Compressor, Distortion, Decimator, Resonator, Filter, Modulation delay)
Pattern: 64 steps maximum per part, motion sequence (drum parts = 2 systems, synthesizer parts = 3 systems), accent part = 1 system, 64 events
Song: 256 patterns maximum per song, event recording 35,700 events maximum
Output: L/MONO, R (phone jack-mono*2), Headphones (1/4″ stereo phone jack)
Nominal output level: -10dBu, Output Impedance: 1k-ohms