Hands-On Review:Proteus power at a breakthrough price

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By Wade Richmond

E-MU has incorporated their revolutionary Proteus 2500 synth engine into a trio of affordable keyboards bound to wow even the most jaded gearheads. E-MU has demonstrated yet again that their real genius lies in making heavy-duty synth processing power accessible to the creative side of musicians' brains, not just to the technical side.


E-MU PK-6, XK-6, & MK-6All keyed up

I've been using E-MU's equipment for a lot of years, and I've always been amazed by their imagination. They have an uncanny ability to size up where musicians are going and open new doors to let us go there. Their sound modules have been blowing away standards for years. So I snapped at the chance to get my hands on three new keyboards: the PK-6 Proteus Keys, featuring an updated version of the Composer ROM found in the ubiquitous Proteus 2000; the XK-6 Extreme Keys, which has a hot collection of Euro and techno/electronica-flavored synth sounds; and the MK-6 Mo'Phatt Keys, sporting a hard-hitting selection of E-MU's latest sounds and grooves from the world of hip-hop, R&B, and rap.


Right out of the box, I could tell E-MU had put a lot of thought into their new babies. The bodies were well-designed, sleek, and substantial. And the internal power supply removed the need for a wall wart. That's a feature usually reserved for much more expensive boards. The keyboard action was a real surprise. I've played simple controllers at twice the price that didn't have action as crisp and vibrant. I wound up playing the PK-6 at an all-night gig-turned-jam-session and loved the keys even more when I finished than I had when I started.


Musical muscle
In my studio, I set up all three keyboards together on a three-tier stand and immediately got sucked into an afternoon of discovery and amusement. It's really fun to put such intuitively accessible instruments through their paces. The first thing that struck me was the phenomenal sound quality. The Proteus 2500 engine, around which all three of these keyboards are built, is a true screamin' demon among processors. It is three times faster than any other E-MU machine. All that processing power, combined with 24-bit D/A conversion, provides amazingly full and clean studio-quality sound. And the four assignable audio outs gave me total control over where the sound went.


Sixty-four-voice polyphony proved to be more than I needed for almost any application. And the onboard effects were studio quality. I could control every element of the effects with great precision and I didn't have to spend an hour with the manual to figure out how. That was something that impressed me time and time again as I worked with all of these boards. I thought of the most probable way to do something, tried it, and it always worked. There's obviously a lot of beta testing that goes into making these units friendly to real musicians.



Click to EnlargeSuperBEATs
One of the most fun and useful features of these keyboards was the SuperBEATs mode. This was an interactive groove system that let me fire off preprogrammed drum patterns, bass and synth parts, arpeggiated runs, or pretty much anything else I wanted to specify, with only the touch of a key or button. Specifying a pattern was a simple, intuitive process that really encouraged me to use the BEATs mode to its fullest. The patterns were transmitted via MIDI, synced to MIDI clock, and could be edited and linked into songs. Especially on the XK-6, the BEATs mode was a great catalyst to help me create innovative dance compositions that sounded fresh and didn't get monotonous.




Click to EnlargeExpand your mind
Another thing I really dug about these instruments was their almost limitless expandability. The factory sound modules on each of them were huge and full of eminently usable beats and grooves (I particularly liked the XK-6 in that regard), but there were also slots for three additional 32MB Proteus expansion boards. Each one is like having a whole new machine. There are 11 of these out already and, judging from the five I've used, they're all expansive selections of truly killer sounds. If I loaded up all the ROM slots, I'd have a total of 128 megs of great sounds. I've also created a few of my own ROMs using an E-MU ULTRA sampler; they worked fine in these machines.

There were even coupons in the boxes I could send in for $100 worth of free Steinberg software, including Cubasis VST, Recycle Light, and Wavelab Light. (No longer available.)




Click to EnlargeIntimate touches
Four good-sized assignable knobs on each of these boards controlled up to 16 realtime parameters. "Favorites" buttons let me instantly recall my most-used sounds. I don't have room to lay out everything that's cool about these keyboards, but you get the general idea—they RULE!

If you're already gear-rich, they're great units to add dimension to your existing setup, plus the freedom of an added keyboard. And they're absolutely perfect for players of whatever taste who are just now ready to make the jump to full synth muscle. For the price of a single controller, you get huge synth potential and a great keyboard.




Features & Specs: (both units feature)



  • 61 pro-action keys
  • 64-voice polyphony
  • Proteus 2500-based engine
  • 16 syncable arpeggiators
  • 24-bit D/A converters
  • 24-bit onboard effects processor
  • 4 knobs control 16 realtime parameters
  • 3 additional 32MB ROM slots
  • 4 assignable audio outs
  • "Favorites" buttons
  • SuperBEAT interactive groove system
  • 16 syncable arpeggiators PK-6 Proteus Keys
  • An updated version of the Composer ROM found in the Proteus 2000 XK-6 Extreme Keys
  • A large collection of techno/electronica-flavored synth sounds MK-6 Mo'Phatt Keys
  • Hot selection of E-MU's latest sounds and grooves from hip-hop, R&B, and rap