The E-mu Morpheus Review, 20 Years Later

Introduction

I remember when the Morpheus came out, I read the descriptions and thought it sounded fascinating, though a bit of fiddling with one in a store was completely underwhelming. Since then I’ve occasionally wondered:

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  • How does the Morpheus really sound?
  • Can it do things no other synth can do?
  • Do later “Z-plane” synths carry on its essence?
  • Is it worth having one today?

Luckily, I got to borrow one for a few weeks, enough to get some decent answers, though I don’t claim to be a Morpheus expert. Here are my basic observations, which I’ll go into in more detail below.

  • It may have the worst presets ever created. They are almost uniformly muddy, cheezy, boring, and/or unrepresentative. They provide essentially no information about the sound of the synth.
  • The annoying button-mashing edit UI isn’t really that bad. Sure, it’s not great, but it’s at least linear and the synth is not that complex. If you otherwise like the Morpheus, the UI isn’t really going to hold you back.
  • For such a sophisticated, nerdy synth, it’s surprisingly limited. The set of things you can modulate, particularly in real time, is limited. The handles you have for tweaking the wondrous 14-pole, Z-cube filters are disappointingly few.
  • There are truly some interesting options among the 197 filters, though more than half I don’t see ever using, a number of the rest I’d use only rarely.
  • I honestly don’t think anyone, even E-mu, has really created filters like this before or since. You could try to recreate them in a virtual modular, but it will
    get very complicated.

If you want the spoiler: in my opinion, while the Morpheus has some interesting, unique capabilities, enough to inspire some serious sound design, it’s too frustrating overall due to its limitations. If E-mu had updated the Morpheus (Morpheus-2000!) with more power and flexibility, it could have been an amazing synth, a true classic. I doubt I’ll ever get one of my own (unless I find a real bargain), but I’m already taking inspiration from its filters into virtual modular designs. Now on to the details.

Demo

First, let’s get right to a demo. This is a very basic patch that runs a sawtooth through a sampling of the filter types available. I’m tweaking knobs mapped to the three main filter parameters: morph, frequency tracking, and transform2. On a few of the patches, I’m also modulating the morph position with a short decay envelope and/or a random note-on S&H. Each filter goes for 16 measures (30-35 seconds).

Architecture

The Morpheus has a fairly typical rompler architecture: each patch is composed of two parts (“primary” and “secondary”; most romplers seem to go with four), each consisting of a sample oscillator, a filter, and an amp, modulated by envelopes and LFOs. In most romplers, these parts are almost completely separate, but in the Morpheus they’re a little more integrated, sharing LFOs and aux envelope (independent amp envelopes) and a single modulation matrix. The Morpheus also offers two “function generators” per patch, essentially an 8-stage envelope, with some crazy extras. One caveat: the LFOs seem to always retrigger at note-on, ruling out slow sweeping filters on fast arpeggiated synth lines. Furthermore, they don’t seem to do the “random value at note on” trick properly either. Aside from the standards, there are four MIDI CC sources available, set globally. Many modulation destinations can be for the primary part, the secondary part, or both. There are plenty of modulation slots, but the matrix is somewhat limited in that some destinations (particularly filter params) can’t be modulated in real time, only at note on. I generally like E-mu’s realtime/note-on distinction, because it makes it very easy to do some nice per-note effects, but of course I want more real-time options. The Morpheus is mostly comparable to romplers of the time, though a little less complex simply in number of layers and programmable parameters.

Oscillators

The samples are pretty good. For non-romplery synthesis, there’s a decent collection of basic waveforms and synth waves. Given the existence of the UltraProteus, I think they could have just tossed most of the real instrument samples and put more synth waves in, but it’s fine. The Morpheus does offer a few wave options you don’t often see: you can turn looping on or off, reverse the wave, and offset the sample start (though you can’t modulate it). You can also “double + detune” each part, which I assume plays a second copy of the same wave, detuned (halving the polyphony), which is handy.

Filters

But of course we’re here for the filters. The basic idea is that, with its 14-pole filter dealie, the Morpheus can offer all kind of filters from simple 1/2/4-pole low/high/band-pass filters through flangers, comb filters, and EQs to complex networks of bandpass filters tuned to formant frequencies. Furthermore, the Morpheus can morph seamlessly between these different filter types. The most Morpheusy of the filters involves a “cube” where three dimensions of modulation can morph among the 8 filters at the “corners” of the “cube”. In theory, this is pretty great, but in practice the Morpheus doesn’t give you control over all of this. Each of its 197 filter settings is an assignment of various filter types to the corners of that cube, and all you control is those three morph dimensions (called, confusingly, “morph”, “frequency tracking”, and “transform 2”). That is, if you’re morphing between a low-pass filter and a high-pass filter, you don’t get independent control over the frequency, resonance, or slope of each of those filters, just the morph position between them. Typically, in a setup like this, the second dimension might control cutoff frequency while the third controls resonance; but not necessarily. Many of the 197 don’t use all of these dimensions — some of the 8 corners are identical – and in many more the corners are fairly similar so that one or two of those dimensions don’t change that much.

The final blow is that only one of these dimensions (“morph”) can be modulated in real time; the other two are note-on only. This means that you can’t, say, hold down a note and turn knobs to morph that sustained note all over the place, which pretty much kills the “I’m going to make an ambient track with one finger like on the Wavestation” vibe. In fact, you get the most satisfaction out of sending the thing a rapid arpeggio run, where you can tweak all three filter dimensions at note-on with knobs to get some nicely varying sounds (though you can’t do slow LFO sweeps). My assumption is that by the time they implemented these insane filters they had no processing power left over to compute realtime modulation, which is why a modern revival of the Morpheus could be so great. Too bad E-mu is no longer around.

Sound

Again, don’t even pay attention to the presets. Many of them are kind of weak and muddy-sounding, which does the Morpheus a disservice. Depending on the wave and filter settings, the Morpheus can sound quite strong and full, though of course many of its more distinctive sounds are weird vowel-like or strangely filtered sounds that you wouldn’t use for techno-bass or anything. It should fit nicely in a mix. However beware: some of the filters vary wildly across their parameter range and you can blow a speaker. Many of the especially peaky filters have a sweet spot where just the right combination of settings causes an explosion. It’s fun in practice but can be a pain if you’re trying to do some musical modulation.

Conclusion

To me, the main question about the Morpheus today is: does it do something I want that nothing else can do? Surprisingly, no one in this era of cheap digital processing power seems to have really copied the Morpheus’s raw filter capabilities. The closest hardware is E’mu’s Proteus-2000 synth and Ultra sampler families, which both include a limited set of Z-plane filters and limited or no morphing (the manuals are unclear, and I haven’t had a chance to demo either recently). E-mu’s X3 or other software seems to have advanced filters, but it’s all seemingly obsolete and hard to buy (or authorize). The only other option is really to assemble your own morphing filters using modular or virtual modular synths. While it’s not too hard to build a nice morphing filter in something like MAX, copying the full morphing topology is a pretty big project; I intend to give it a try but don’t know if I’ll succeed (or, if I do, whether it will sound good or be very usable). Granted, just because nothing reproduces the full Z-plane morphing filters of the Morpheus doesn’t mean that you can’t get pretty close; I suspect that the Proteus-2000 (or other modern synths with lots and lots of filter options) can get most of the way there for most people. But still, the Morpheus (and its sibling the Ultraproteus) is apparently still unique.

For me, even having the Morpheus for a short time, I got frustrated with my inability to modulate it the way I wanted. If I owned one, I can imagine it occasionally showing up for some interesting filter effect, but not being something I would turn to most of the time, which doesn’t seem to make it worth the prices they usually command. The concept though is inspiring — aside from wanting to revisit the Proteus-2000 or Ultra, I’ve been working on some Morpheus-inspired filter ideas in MAX and hope to eventually create my own Morpheus homage.

Favorite Filters

With 197 different filter types and several dimensions of variation, just dialing up a good sound can be daunting on the Morpheus. One of the first things I did when I got my hands on one was set up knobs mapped to morph, frequency tracking, and transform2 and work my way through all the filters, noting down the ones that I liked and thought I might use. Here they are, organized loosely by type. This is, obviously, totally subjective.

Standard
F044 BrickWalLP.4
F045 BrickWal LP2
F046 MdQ 2PoleLP
F047 HiQ 2PoleLP
F048 MdQ 4PoleLP
F049 HiQ 4PoleLP
F050 2poleLoQLP4
F051 4 PoleLoQ.4
F052 4PoleMidQ.4
F054 LowPassPlus
F060 HighAccent.4
F061 HiPassSweep.4
F069 VarSlope.4
F077 PZ Notch
F078 Band-aid
F079 LowQHiQ
F098 EZ Rhodez4
F136 V>FcQuad.4
F142 Comb/HP.4
F144 Cavatate.4
F145 GentleRZ4
F161 HiEndQ.4
F167 SynthWow4
F170 MdlySweep4
F186 MellowPeaks
F189 MildQPole

Flanging
F004 CubeFlanger
F006 Flange 4.4
F007 Flange 5
F011 BriteFlnge.4
F012 Flng>Flng1
F013 O>Flng2
F016 Flng>Flng5
F157 Intervallc4

Vocal
F022 AEParaVowel
F025 AUParaVow.4
F029 Vocal Cube
F030 C1-6 Harms4
F035 Ee-Yi.4
F036 Ii-Yi.4
F041 YahYahs.4
F042 YoYo.4
F043 VowelSpace

Peaky
F065 Rev Peaks
F066 Notcher 2.4
F068 Odd>+
F081 WaWa
F090 LoVelTrum
F092 ShakuFilter
F100 MoogVocSwp
F122 1.5/3KNBPR4
F143 Swirly
F148 SKWEEZIT
F149 Lo/High4
F168 CntrySweep4
F171 StrongShimr
F190 Bonk>CO
F193 Separator

EQ
F073 BassDrumEQ
F074 Snare LPEQ2
F075 HiHatLPEQ

Complex
F084 0>Muter
F088 BrassSwell
F155 HighsTwist4
F175 Harmo
F181 0>Odds
F182 Comb Voices
F184 OddHrm+rez
F185 EvnHrm+rez
F187 AHmBnd.4

Strings
F101 StrngThing4
F102 StrSweep.4

Distortion
F196 ApDistB6.4

Nora’s Best of 2014

We listen to a lot of music with Nora, and every year I keep a running playlist of whatever she’s currently listening to and compile and save it at the end of the year. This year, for the first time, Nora actually made her own “best of” list with my help. Here it is! If you see some overlap with my list, well, we listen to a lot of music together. The influence goes both ways; how do you think I ended up with “Happy” and “Everything Is AWESOME!!!” on my list?

– Erasure – Blue Savannah
– Falco – Der Kommissar
– Pharrell Williams – Happy
– Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
– New Order – Love Vigilantes
– A Tribe Called Quest – Ham ‘N’ Eggs
– The Cardigans – Lovefool
– Yaz – Situation
– Del the Funky Homosapien – Mistadobolina
– Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight
– New Order – Ultraviolence
– The Chemical Brothers – Swoon
– Erasure – Brother and Sister
– Eagles – Hotel California
– Tegan and Sara – Everything Is AWESOME!!! (feat. The Lonely Island)

The Sound of 2014

As I did for 2013, I’ve made a top 10 list for 2014. I made one change to my methodology — I’m posting it in January instead of August — but otherwise, same idea: it is music I discovered, rediscovered, or just listened to in 2014 (whenever it was released), and it includes 12 songs.

Again, over the course of the year, I kept a playlist of interesting songs I heard. At the end of the year, I made two more lists: The Sound of 2014, the stuff I listened to and enjoyed enough that they define the sound of the year for me, and The Best of 2014, my absolute favorites.

A strong theme in 2014 was retro (or retro-sounding) dance music: italo disco (Koto & Hipnosis), old club hits (Klein & MBO have been cited by New Order as an influence), and modern retro-sounding stuff (Hercules & Love Affair). In 2013, New Order’s Movement and PC&L were big, as Peter Hook toured on those albums; this year, songs on Low-Life and Brotherhood were big with me, for a similar reason. 2014 didn’t have a dominant album for me (like Jagwar Ma’s “Howlin” in 2013); The Juan Maclean’s “In A Dream” probably came closest, with Hercules & Love Affair and Caribou right behind them. And for some reason, I got absolutely obsessed with “In The Air Tonight” last year.

Here’s the list:
– Klein & MBO – Dirty Talk (Greg Wilson Edit)
– Koto – Japanese War Game
– Husky Rescue – Summertime Cowboy
– The Juan Maclean – A Place Called Space
– Hercules & Love Affair – That’s Not Me (feat. Gustaph)
– Paris – The Devil Made Me Do It
– First Aid Kit – My Silver Lining
– Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight
– New Order – This Time of Night
– Caribou – Our Love
– Liars – Mess On A Mission
– Sugardaddy – Love Honey (Electro Version)

In A Lonely Place

I listen to a lot of New Order, and I’ve noticed certain phrases that pop up in multiple songs: “in a lonely place”, “this time of night”, “you just can’t believe”. So, naturally, I decided to analyze New Order song lyrics to see what else I could find. I included the song title as part of the lyrics (since New Order often doesn’t) and didn’t consider phrases that spanned multiple lines. I found all the phrases of at least four words that appear in at least two songs. I eliminated near-duplicates and the less interesting. Here they are, along with their songs and the lines they appear in. My favorites are at the top.

“THIS TIME OF NIGHT”
As It Is When It Was: The streets are so empty at this time of night
This Time Of Night: This Time Of Night

“IN A LONELY PLACE”
Face Up: It’s dieing in a lonely place
In A Lonely Place: In A Lonely Place

“YOU JUST CAN’T BELIEVE”
Confusion: You just can’t believe me
Love Vigilantes: You just can’t believe

“HOW DOES IT FEEL”
Blue Monday: Tell me how does it feel
Someone Like You: How does it feel

“YOU WERE HERE WITH ME”
In A Lonely Place: How I wish you were here with me now
I’ve Got A Feeling: I’d say it to your face if you were here with me,

“WHERE WE HAVE BEEN”
State Of The Nation: I think about where we have been
Weirdo: I don’t care where we have been

“DOWN ON MY KNEES AND”
Bizarre Love Triangle: I get down on my knees and pray
Denial: To fall down on my knees and resume this charade

“I CAME TO YOU”
Angel Dust: With open arms I came to you
Shellshock: I came to you, I called in vain

“IN THE END YOU”
Face Up: But in the end you lost your friend
Sub-Culture: In the end you will submit
Continue reading “In A Lonely Place”

The Biggest One-Hit Wonder

Overview

It’s much easier to define a one-hit wonder than the king of pop: a song by an artist who never hit the charts with another song in their careers. The biggest would be the one that spent the most time at the top of the charts; for my purposes, I’m counting weeks in the top ten. I analyzed my data to find songs by artists who never appeared for another song. However, since I don’t have full weekly top 40 or top 100 data, I had to take the top candidates and manually check for other hits. Here are the top one-hit wonders. Clearly, we have three definite winners; two of them are exactly what I think of when I think “one-hit wonder”.

Continue reading “The Biggest One-Hit Wonder”

Who is the King of Pop?

Overview

One of the first questions about pop music that occurred to me was: is Michael Jackson truly the king of pop, as he was often called? If not Michael, who is the true king1 of pop? At an intuitive level, it seemed to me that being the king broke down to two main factors: the king should have the most hit songs of all time, and the king should have been a dominant presence on the charts for many years, such that you could barely listen to pop music without hearing one or another of his or her songs.

Continue reading “Who is the King of Pop?”

50 Years of Pop Songs

Like many, I was deeply immersed in pop when I was growing up (for me, the 80s). I then abandoned it for more esoteric stuff for a while, spending the 90s mostly listening to industrial, techno, and electronica. In the last ten years or so, I’ve returned to pop with a new appreciation for the genius of a perfectly crafted pop song.

When I came back to pop, I formed a couple of crotchety-old-man theories about how contemporary pop differs from its forebears. I’m a cautious person though, so before ranting about the kids today, I decided to collect some data and test my theories. The result is an exploration of the last 50 years of pop songs. As it happens, I haven’t yet finished my original driving question about pop song meaning; my explorations of “popularity” are linked below.

Continue reading “50 Years of Pop Songs”

The Sound of 2013

At the end of every year, pretty much every music critic, blogger, or enthusiast makes their list of top 10 songs or albums of the year. I usually don’t, but in 2013 I explored a lot more music than usual and decided to make a list too. There are a few differences between my top 10 list and most people’s though: (1) it is songs I discovered, rediscovered, or just listened to a lot in 2013; (2) it has 12 songs on it; and (3) it comes out in August instead of December.

In 2013, I made an effort to break out of my music habits of the last 20 years and listen to a lot of new music (thank you, KEXP, SoundHound, and Spotify). As I listened, I collected a mostly-unfiltered playlist of stuff I heard and tracked down. Toward the end of the year, I made two more lists: The Sound of 2013, the stuff I listened to and enjoyed enough that they define the sound of the year for me, and The Best of 2013, my absolute favorites.

Honestly, I probably could have just made Jagwar Ma’s “Howlin” the “Best of” list and it would be just as true. Howlin is easily my favorite album of the year and the best new thing I’ve heard in years. An old favorite, New Order’s “Movement”, makes an appearance as well, because I spent much of the year delving deeply into the sound of that album.

Anyway, for those without Spotify, here’s the “Best of” list:
– Jagwar Ma – Uncertainty
– Ana Tijoux – 1977
– The White Stripes – The Hardest Button to Button
– Wax Tailor – Say Yes (feat. ASM)
– Soft Metals – Tell Me
– Jagwar Ma – What Love
– New Order – The Him
– El Perro Del Mar – Hold off the Dawn
– Deltron 3030 – Pay the Price
– Weekend – Oubliette
– Phoenix – Everything is Everything
– Franz Ferdinand – Evil Eye

Peter Hook and The Light Play My Favorite Albums Ever

I didn’t even know where to set my expectations for seeing 1/4 of New Order and his new band (about whom I knew nothing) playing two (actually three, since they got in most of Factus 8) of my all-time favorite albums. It turns out it was great. The Light are terrific — everybody was really good, and it was fun watching them. The only weak link really is Peter Hook’s singing, which is not so much that it’s objectively bad as that it didn’t feel like a good fit for New Order songs. Bernard Sumner always had a sort of light voice and higher range, whereas Hook (particularly 30 years on) is lower and gruffer. Anyway, the band was great.

Part of the pleasure was just hearing all those favorite songs played live and loud, whoever’s playing them. But for me, the greatest part was that I’ve been listening to Movement a lot lately and trying to figure out who was playing what, really listening to New Order as a 4-piece playing band rather than as the mad scientists of sequencers and drum machines and so on. So it was great to watch what The Light was doing and hear how it all went together to create the songs I know so well. Plus, whenever I’ve seen New Order, it’s been in a large venue where I was miles away. Here I was ten feet from the stage and could see everything. I imagine it was a little bit what it would have been like to see them live in 1982-3.

Hearing the songs off Movement was probably my favorite part, since you hardly ever hear those songs and I’ve been really immersing myself in that album lately. “The Him” might have been my favorite, since I just covered it, and I love the breakdown in the middle. Everyone started cheering and I was like “IT’S NOT OVER YET!” Of course, PC&L and Fact8 contain some of my all-time favorite songs as well; hearing the sequenced part of Everything’s Gone Green break out was a high point. All the musicians were great; I really need to go listen to my Monaco albums again (a lot of the same personnel are now in The Light).

Moby showing up (he came on for part of the encore and sang New Dawn Fades, Transmission, and Ceremony) was unexpected. He sounded fine, but his jerky sort-of Ian dance was disturbing. What was really weird though was the large men who appeared and started freaking out as soon as he came on. OMG MOBY!!! Really? You’ve just watched Peter Hook play classic New Order for two hours and you’re freaking out about Moby?

Set List:
In a Lonely Place
Procession
Dreams Never End
Truth
Senses
Chosen Time
ICB
The Him
Doubts Even Here
Denial
Cries and Whispers (Mesh?)
Everything’s Gone Green
Age of Consent
We All Stand
The Village
5 8 6
Your Silent Face
Ultraviolence
Ecstacy
Leave Me Alone
New Dawn Fades
Transmission
Ceremony
Temptation
Blue Monday